Majestic St. Petersburg, which its founder, Peter I called «paradise,» used to be the capital of the Russian Empire. Just a bit over 300 years old, today it’s been relegated to the status of the «northern» or «cultural» capital. With a population of almost five million people it’s also the second largest city in Russia spread along the banks of the Neva river and dozens of channels. In fact, St. Petersburg is comprised of 44 islands, with over 300 bridges linking the city together, so you can imagine that it’s hard to see all of it one day. But we’ve put together an agenda for you that covers all the major sights and is quite doable in just one day.
1. Get some fuel for the day and explore the area where St. Petersburg was born: Peter and Paul fortress and Strelka on Vasilyevsky Island
Before you head off for your day of exploring, fuel with breakfast at Bonch (16 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa), just around the corner from the St. Isaac’s Square. Apart from excellent coffee, Bonch also offers a fantastic breakfast menu, including traditional Russian cottage cheese pancakes (syrniki), eggs Benedict and even croque monsieur. Take a table near the panoramic windows where you can watch the locals and start feeling the vibes of the city.
Start your sightseeing day from where the city actually began — at the Peter and Paul fortress. Here, on the swampy land of Zayachy (Hare) Island near the mouth of the Neva river, Peter the Great founded Saint Petersburg in 1703. The Tsar personally with his own hands helped to build the fortress. Today it hosts a plethora of museums, including a former prison, as well as a beautiful baroque Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul with a spire that you can spot from afar. The cathedral is the site of the crypts of most of the Romanovs, including the last one, Nicholas II.
Next spot is Strelka on Vasilyevsky Island where Peter I continued building his new capital. Strelka («the Spit») is the easternmost tip of the island with the most landmarks. Check out the old Stock Exchange building behind the famous Rostral Columns that used to serve as lighthouses in the 19th century. The name «rostral» comes from the word «rostra,» meaning the «prows» of captured ships that Ancient Greeks and Romans decorated their victory columns with.
Just around the corner from Strelka are other famous sights of Vasilyevsky Island: Kunstkamera museum, Menshikov Palace and Twelve Colleges complex.
2. Take a walk around the Palace Square and St. Isaac’s Square — the very heart of the city. See the Hermitage, the Bronze Horseman, Admiralty and St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
Cross the Palace Bridge, which leads from Strelka to the Palace Square — the very heart of the city. The center of the square is occupied by the fifty meter-high Alexander Column, topped by an angel, symbolizing Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812. The column is supported only by its own weight and for a while people feared it would fall down. To dissuade them, Auguste de Montferrand, the column’s architect, used to take a walk under the column every morning.
Admire the Winter Palace aka Hermitage Museum and try visiting it just an hour, to see the magnificent staircases and opulent halls, where Russian tsars used to hold court. There are 350 exhibition halls at the Hermitage and to see all of them you have to walk 20 kilometers, that’s why you need to make sure you strictly time your visit to the Hermitage if you are determined to see more of Saint Petersburg within your one-day itinerary. Don’t miss the Pavilion Hall with its unbelievable Peacock Clock from the original collection of Catherine the Great. Across from the Winter Palace you will see the old General Staff Headquarters, now also part of the Hermitage Museum.
Exit the square and pass by the Admiralty, which served as a wharf when the city was founded, but later turned into the naval headquarters. The spire of Admiralty ends in a sculpture of a ship — one of the city’s symbols. Then head to St. Isaac’s Cathedral along the Alexander Garden. The cathedral’s enormous dome is visible from many points in the city center.
Between the cathedral and the embankment is a little square, home to another signature attraction — the Bronze Horseman monument, depicting Peter I himself. Interesting fact: the monument’s pedestal is made of so-called «thunder stone,» which means it was broken up by a lightning.
Once you reach the St. Isaac’s Cathedral, check out the impressive classicism interior and make sure to climb to the top for panoramic views of the city. Designed also by Montferrand, it’s considered the largest Orthodox church in St. Petersburg. During the Soviet era the cathedral used to house an anti-religious exhibition and you can still see one of its remnants: enormous Foucault pendulum.
3. Get your lunch around St. Isaac’s! Here’s a couple of good options:
Pass by Astoria, which is probably St. Petersburg most famous hotel, and stop for lunch at ‘Schastye’ restaurant (24 Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa) at the first floor of another historic hotel, Angleterre. Schastye means «happiness» in Russian and it’s one of those establishments where the atmosphere of the city is perfectly captured. Try any of the Russian cuisine «greatest hits» like borscht soup, pelmeni (dumplings), beef stroganoff or choose from the European classics. Cocktails here are worth a taste, too, if you happen to be in the mood for one.
If you are looking for some vegetarian options, go to Obshchestvo Chistikh Tarelok (Clean Plates Society) in the same neighborhood, close to Moyka River embankment. Try vegetable curry, palak paneer or falafel salad and don’t forget to sample some of the excellent house cider.
4. Walk Down Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main street, where you will see the Stroganov Palace, the Kazan Cathedral and the Singer Building
After you’ve had your lunch, walk for a couple blocks to Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main thoroughfare. Famous Russian 19th century writer Nikolai Gogol referred to it as «Petersburg’s universal channel of communication». Nevsky is four and a half kilometers long and it runs from the Admiralty to Saint Alexander Nevsky Monastery.
The first landmark will appear on the right side, right after the bridge over the Moyka River. The pink colored Stroganov Palace was designed by the famous architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli and today it’s a branch of the Russian Museum.
Before you reach the next body of water, Griboyedov Canal (Kanal Griboyedova), you’ll hit one of the greatest sights of St. Petersburg — the imposing Kazan Cathedral. This church was built to resemble the St. Peter’s in Rome, hence the huge colonnade. The original design actually included two colonnades, but that plan turned out too difficult to implement. If you have time, take a look inside and admire the gilded interior and numerous icons and frescoes. Interesting fact: during the Soviet times, the cathedral was turned into the Museum of Atheism.
On the opposite side of Nevsky Prospekt is another architectural masterpiece — the Singer Building. Built in the Russian art nouveau style it’s topped with a glass globe. Originally intended to house the Singer Sewing Machine Company, it’s been the home of St. Petersburg’s largest bookstore since the 1917 Revolution. On the second floor there’s a coffee shop called Singer revealing fantastic views of the Kazan Cathedral.
Another highlight of the Nevsky Prospekt is Bolshoy Gostiny Dvor literally translated as «large merchant’s court» and it happens to be the oldest shopping arcade in St. Petersburg, built in the latter half of the 18th century. Also designed by Rastrelli, it takes an entire block: its perimeter is more than one kilometer long. Similar to Moscow’s GUM, it contains mostly luxury shops.
Halfway between Griboyedov Canal and Fontanka River is another famous store on Nevsky: Eliseyev Emporium. Its opulent food hall designed in Moderne style in early 20th century has been recently renovated and open to public.
5. Explore the neighborhood between Fontanka and river and Griboyedov Canal and discover the Church on Spilled Blood, the Summer garden and Anichkov Bridge
Turn right and walk down the embankment of Griboyedov Canal towards the multi-colored onion domes of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Built on the site of Emperor Alexander II assassination, the church’s exterior strongly resembles St. Basil’s Cathedral on Moscow’s Red Square. The interior is equally worth taking a look at, it’s completely covered with detailed mosaics.
After enjoying the splendor of the Church on Spilled Blood, you can walk around the two nearby parks: Mikhailovsky and Letny (Summer) gardens. The latter is considered the most famous park in St. Petersburg. It was designed by Peter I himself and contains about 250 marble statues and several fountains. Mikhailovsky garden is located right behind the Russian Museum, nestled between Fontanka, Moyka and Griboyedov Canal. At its Fontanka end there’s the fairytale-like orange-colored Mikhailovsky (Saint Michael’s) Castle, which was built for the Emperor Paul I and is now hosting the Russian Museum. Note that each of the Mikhailovsky castle’s four facades is different, designed to fit its surroundings.
If you still have time, visit, if only briefly, the Russian Museum itself, which has a comprehensive collection of Russian art to rival that of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. An alternative option is the Faberge Museum on Fontanka embankment, just around the corner from Mikhailovsky Castle. Privately owned, it contains the largest collection of the famous Faberge jeweled eggs.
Don’t miss the Anichkov bridge over Fontanka River on Nevsky Prospekt. Designed by Peter Clodt, favourite sculptor of Nicholas I, it features four rearing horses, symbolizing the struggle between humanity and nature.
6. Finish the day with a traditional Russian dinner, a boat ride on the canals or a visit to one of the best Russian theaters
Depending on whether you have had enough of sightseeing yet or not, we have a few suggestions for your perfect evening in St. Peterburg.
Dinner at restaurant Chekhov
Address: 4 Petropavlovskaya Ulitsa)
On your way to «Chekhov,» you’ll catch a glimpse of Petrograd side neighborhood, with its fascinating Style Moderne architecture. Once you arrive, this restaurant immerses you straight into the atmosphere of a Chekhov’s play theatre set-up. All the furniture looks like it has been taken from a turn of the century countryside villa while the waiters are wearing 19th century clothing. Traditional Russian cuisine is on the menu: try borscht or fish soup «ukha» or the traditional Russian dumplings — vareniki and pelmeni. Chase it with a Russian soft drink like «kvas» (fermented drink made from bread) or «mors» (fermented berry juice) or better try some of the house-made beer. Home vodka infusions will definitely catch your eye, especially the horseradish, cedar nuts or dried plums flavours.
Performance at the Mariinsky Theater
Address: 1 Teatralnaya Ploshchad
The Mariinsky Theater is without a doubt one of the major ballet and opera theaters in Russia, probably equalled only by the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. This is where masterpieces by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov premiered back in the day. The main building, designed by the famous Russian Italian architect Alberto Cavos, first opened its doors in 1860. A rather controversial new building was recently added, designed by post-modernist French architect Dominique Perrault. See «Madame Butterfly,» «Swan Lake» or any of the other excellent classical productions or check out some of the more contemporary performances like «The Little Humpbacked Horse.»
There are several boat stations along Nevsky Prospekt, mostly where it intersects with Fontanka and Moika rivers. The boats leave at least every half an hour, depending on the season. Take a seat and enjoy the night view of St. Petersburg while cruising through its many canals and rivers.
Option 4Raising of the Bridges
If you happen to visit during the «white nights» season (June-July) make sure to watch «raising» of the bridges on Neva river «open» for traffic. 21 drawbridges are raised this way every night during the navigation period. Only in St. Petersburg you can often hear the phrase «Sorry, can’t come, the bridges are raised.» The tricky part is that the schedule changes all the time, so you will need to consult the locals to know when exactly to head to Neva River.