20 Things You Should Not Miss in St. Petersburg, Russia

by - September 13, 2021

St. Petersburg is a city of opulent palaces, depressing communist buildings and everything in between. It's the place of the longest escalator rides I've ever experienced, which took me to the world's deepest subway system, which took me to visit the most elaborately ornate churches that have been converted into museums of atheism and then sometimes converted back. It is a fascinating city, rich in history and filled with extremes. 

In 2015, I was fortunate enough to work on a cruise ship that docked in St. Petersburg for two out of every nine days and I explored as much of this strange city as I could every opportunity I got.

Throwbacks to past travel experiences are part of what has kept those of us with itchy feet hanging on through almost 18 months of not really being able to travel. The time has also allowed me to go through some of the much footage I collected throughout the years and finally start a YouTube channel. 

My first YouTube video on what to do in St. Petersburg can be found here: 

If you would prefer not to watch the video or you'd like additional information on the attractions included in it, below follows a more detailed guide to 20 of St. Petersburg's best attractions, starting with the palaces:

1. Peterhof

Peterhof and its Grand Cascade

Peterhof is a series of palaces and ornate gardens commissioned by Peter the Great in an attempt to compete with the Palace of Versailles, even making use of the same landscaper.  Construction began in the early 18th century, it was enlarged for Empress Elizabeth and then redecorated for Catherine the Great. As Stalin was determined to ruin Hitler’s plans for a New Year’s Eve party going into 1942, most of the palace was destroyed by the Soviets, and then rebuilt and restored after World War II. 

These days, the museum reserve stretches across 500 hectares. The Grand Palace is open for tours where you can see original paintings, furniture and chandeliers that were removed before it was bombed, as well as a grand staircase, an elaborate Ball Room, and Peter's red velvet throne in the Throne Room. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see that part of it though and instead just toured the grounds. 

The property’s centrepiece is the Grand Cascade which consists of over 140 gravity-powered fountains, ornately decorated in gilding, and partly engineered by Peter himself. Wandering around the Lower Park, you can see beautiful fountains, statue-lined lanes, picturesque canals and even some trick fountains.

Travel mascot in front of the Grand Cascade at Peterhof, St. Petersburg

What I liked about it:

The 'lucky' statue of Neptune with feet polished by the hands of tourists rubbing them for luck. What made him so lucky? I do not know. Why his feet specifically? I'm not sure. But I do wonder if monuments like these will still be considered lucky after COVID? And if so, how long will it be until they start to be corroded by hand-sanitiser?

The shiny feet of the statue of Neptune at Peterhof, St. Petersburg
Neptune's lucky feet

Address: 2, Razvodnaya Ulitsa, Peterhof
Opening hours: 
Upper and Lower Gardens: Monday to Sunday: 9:00am - 8:00pm (Fountains operate from 10:00am to 6:00pm)
Grand Palace: Tuesday to Sunday: 10:30am - 7:00pm

2. The Catherine Palace

The ornate facade of The Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg

The Catherine Palace is a Russian Baroque style palace that was the Summer residence of the Tzars. It was built in the 18th century, initially for Peter the Great’s wife Catherine and then extended under his daughter Elizabeth’s reign to become more like what you see of it today.

When the German forces retreated after the siege of Leningrad in World War II, they blew the roof off and left the residence a shell of what it was. What you see now is a recreation of the palace based on archival documents. 

What I liked about it:

1. This magnificent ballroom:

The ballroom at the Catherine Palace as compared to its depiction in the movie Anastasia
Look familiar?

Of the 58 halls destroyed during the war years, 32 have been recreated, including the great hall, which you may recognize from the animated movie, Anastasia.

2. The Amber room 

One of the other restored rooms is the world-famous Amber Room. It was restored for the Tercentenary (300th anniversary) of St. Petersburg in 2003. The Amber Room was originally located in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin until 1716 when it was given by the Prussian King Frederick William I to Tsar Peter the Great. 

The room was not destroyed with much of the palace in World War II but dismantled before it mysteriously disappeared. 

The Catherine Palace and its gardens, St. Petersburg

3. The mystery that shrouds it.

Some of my favourite conspiracy theories about what happened to the Amber Room include:
  • That it was moved to the Königsberg Castle and then destroyed in either the castle’s bombing by the Royal Air Force or its burning by the Soviets in 1944.
  • It was moved to the Königsberg Castle, survived the bombing and the fire and is now hidden in a storehouse near it. 
  • It sank in the recently rediscovered Nazi vessel the SS Karlsruhe which was sunk by Soviet forces in 1945. 
  • That it sank on another German ship, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, which was also bombed by Soviet forces in 1945 and lies on the ocean floor. 
  • And another theory involves a bunker in Mamerki in northeastern Poland and Stalin ordering the Amber Room replaced with a replica prior to its disappearance. 

 4. You also get to wear these very sexy shoe-covers so that your shoes don’t scuff the floors:

Protective feet coverings worn at The Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg

Address: St. Petersburg, Pushkin, ul. Sadovaya, 7
Opening hours:
 Monday: 10:00am - 9:00pm, Wednesday - Sunday: 10:00am - 6:00
Website: www.tzar.ru 

3. The Winter Palace / The Hermitage Museum 

The Winter Palace / The Hermitage Museum facade

The Winter Palace was the official residence of the Russian emperors from 1732 until the Russian Revolution in 1917. Like the other palaces, its construction originated in the early 18th century during the reign of Peter the Great. Several architects were involved in its design in the Elizabethan Baroque style. Some of the interiors were rebuilt after a fire of 1837. 

The Winter Palace is now part of the Hermitage Museum, along with five other buildings. The museum has its origins in Empress Catherine the Great’s art collection and is now the 2nd largest art museum in the world.

The grand staircase of the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

How long would it take to see everything in the Hermitage?

The collection comprises over three million items, so only a small part of it is on permanent display. 

According to JustGoRussia, it has been calculated that, if you spend a minute on each item and eight hours in the Hermitage each day, it will take you almost 15 years to see all the museum’s exhibits. You would also walk about 10 kilometres to visit all 350 exhibition rooms). 

Another website says if you spent a second looking at each piece it would take 11 years! Either way, it’s only the second-largest art museum in the world!

Here you can see a magnificent collection of art by the likes of Monet, Cézanne, Degas, Rubens, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Picasso, Titian, Rembrandt, Rafael, Michaelangelo and Da Vinci.

If your view is obstructed (like mine was in the video) or you don't get to see everything, you can always check out the art on the virtual tour.

People look at art at the Hermitage Museum

What I liked about it:

  • The peacock clock.
The Peacock Clock at the Hermitage Museum
It seems I have a thing for birds

  • Its magnificent collection of art.  

Travel mascot admires the work of Leonardo Da Vinci's at the Hermitage Museum
Rodrigo thinks Da Vinci is overrated.

  • And the Gold Room.

For an extra fee, you can take a guided tour of the Gold Room filled with ancient jewellery and other very precious artefacts. 

You’re not allowed to take photographs in there but there’s nothing stopping you from taking a human remains selfie with the mummy on the way out. 

Selfie with a mummy at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Me making a point

Address: Palace Square, 2, St Petersburg, Russia, 190000
Opening Hours: 
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays: 11.00am - 7.00pm
Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays: 11.00am - 8.00pm

4. The Palace Square

The Palace Square, St. Petersburg, Russia

The Palace Square is located just outside the Winter Palace. It is also bordered by the General Staff Building with its 580-meter semicircular facade, which was built opposite the Winter Palace in the early 19th century. It features an elaborate triumphal arch adorned with statues of six rearing horses and the winged goddess of victory.

In the centre of the square is the Alexander Column built in the square in honour of the victory of the Russian armies over Napoleon. It is crowned with the statue of an angel defeating a snake with a cross which is the symbol of good overcoming evil.

Many significant historical events have taken place here, including the Bloody Sunday massacre and parts of the October Revolution of 1917.

What I liked about it:

In the time I spent in this square, I have seen people on segways, people doing yoga, buskers, those people who insist on photobombing you in historical clothing and then demanding money from you, tourists getting upset with people in historical clothing demanding money from them for photobombing their pics, and many other great people-watching sights.

The Alexander Column in Palace Square, St. Petersburg

5. Peter and Paul Fortress

Plastic flamingo at the entrance to the Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg

The Peter and Paul Fortress is the city’s original citadel founded in 1703 during the Great Northern War which also established the Russian Empire as the greatest power in Eastern Europe. If Peterhof is the Russian Versailles, this the "Russian Bastille.” 

From the 18th century right up until the 1920s it has served as a prison for political criminals. Since 1924 it has been a museum.

Here you can see: 

  • The Trubetskoy Bastion: The main political prison of the Russian Tsars. Famous prisoners of the past include Trotsky, Dostoevsky and Lenin’s brother.
The prison at the Peter and Paul Fortress
  • The Nevskaya Panorama: The fortress’s wall that gives a panoramic view of St Petersburg’s major landmarks. 
  • The Museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology: This is a former Soviet research laboratory where you can see spacecraft equipment and Soviet space footage.

What I liked about it:

These museum exhibits:

Pipe or cane museum exhibit at the Peter and Paul Fortress
Pipes? Walking sticks?

Dollhouse museum exhibit at the Peter and Paul Fortress
A pretty epic dollhouse

Urinal museum exhibit at the Peter and Paul Fortress
An antique urinal?

And these bunnies: 

Travel toy with the bunny statues at Peter and Paul Fortress

Bunny statue at Peter and Paul Fortress

I have no idea what the significance of them is but they do make for some fun pics. 

Opening Hours: Thursday - Tuesday: 10.00am – 4:00pm (Closed Wednesdays)

It is also the location of the first of four churches on this list:

6. Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral

Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, St. Petersburg

This is the oldest church in St. Petersburg, and also the second-tallest building in the city. It was named in honour of the Russian Orthodox feast day of the Saints Peter and Paul. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that it was commissioned by Peter’s namesake, Peter the Great! 

It houses the remains of almost all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Nicholas II, including the Romanov family - even Anastasia! (Not pictured here. If you want to see a corpse scroll up.)

The tombs of the Tsars at Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral

What I liked about it: 
It's opulence. 

Ornate interiors of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, St. Petersburg

Opening Hours: 
Monday - Friday: 10.00am – 7:00pm 
Saturday: 10.00am – 6:45pm
Sunday: 11.00am – 7:00pm

7. St. Isaac's Cathedral

St. Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg

St. Isaac's is said to be one of the biggest cathedral’s in the world and one of the most impressive that I have seen. It was ordered by Tsar Alexander the first, took 40 years to build and was completed in 1858. Under the Soviet government, it became a museum of the history of religion and atheism in 1931 and the dove was removed and replaced by a pendulum. With the fall of communism, worship resumed on the left-hand side of the chapel.  

The cathedral's main dome is 101.5 metres high and is plated with pure gold. It was gilded to the dome with the help of mercury, the vapours of which caused the deaths of nearly 60 people who worked on it. 

Interior view of the dome at St. Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg

What I liked about it: 
As someone who is a big fan of cathedrals and churches, this one was a goodie! 

Address: St Isaac's Square, 4, St Petersburg, Russia, 190000
Opening Hours: Thursday - Tuesday: 10.30am – 6:00pm (Closed Wednesdays)

8. St. Isaac's Rooftop

Panoramic view St. Petersburg from the dome at St. Isaac's Cathedral

For an extra fee, you can climb the stairs to the rooftop where you will be treated to magnificent views of most of the city in every direction (well, somewhat obstructed by Instagrammers and tourists with no concept of personal space).

Tourists compete for a view on the rooftop of St. Isaac's Cathedral

What I liked about it:

Well, apart from the views (and making new friends), a 262 step climb means there's no need to go to the gym.  #legday

Opening Hours: Thursday - Tuesday: 10.30am – 5:30pm (Closed Wednesdays)

9. Other Parks and Squares 

Just outside the Cathedral is St. Isaac’s Square:

St. Isaac’s Square from St. Isaac’s Cathedral

In the days of the Siege of Leningrad, vegetables were grown here. 

On the other side of the cathedral is the Senate Square with its Bronze Horseman monument that honours Peter the Great. 

The Senate Square with its monument that honours Peter the Great

The Alexander Garden can also be found here.

The Alexander Garden, St. Petersburg

What I liked about it:

Who doesn't enjoy a little sunshine and a good frolic? 

10. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood  

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

This onion-domed church was built on the site where Emperor Alexander the second was fatally injured in 1881. His death was a result of the second of two bombs thrown at him in the last of a number of assassination attempts. 

After the Russian revolution, it was ransacked. It was used as a morgue during world war 2, then it became a storehouse for potatoes. Restoration began in the 70s and it was reopened in 1997. It is not a functional place of worship but a museum.

What I liked about it:

The interior of the church is not painted but covered in over 7500 square metres of mosaic.

An interior view of the mosaics that decorate the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Address: Griboyedov channel embankment, 2Б, St Petersburg, Russia, 191186
Opening Hours: Thursday - Tuesday: 10.30am – 6:00pm (Closed Wednesdays)

11. The Mikhailovsky Garden

The Mikhailovsky Garden, St. Petersburg

Just behind the church is The Mikhailovsky Garden. It was laid down in the times of Peter the Great and became part of the imperial estates in the early 1700s. It is now considered a monument of landscape architecture and is part of the Russian Museum.  

One of the palaces I didn't visit, the Mikhailovsky Palace, neighbours the park. The park is also home to the annual International Imperial Gardens of Russia Festival and is a great place to go for a stroll, especially after visiting the church.

"Keep off the grass" sign at the Mikhailovsky Garden

What I liked about it:

Well, it wasn't the frolicking because I'm way too well behaved to break the rules. 

Opening Hours: Monday - Sunday: 10:00am – 10:00pm (Summer) 
Monday - Sunday: 10:00am – 8:00pm (Winter)

12. Kazan Cathedral

Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg

This Russian Orthodox church was originally completed in 1811. It’s modelled after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. After the Russian Revolution, it was also closed. It reopened in 1932 as another museum of the history of religion and atheism and returned to a church in 1992.

It is dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, which is an icon that depicts the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus and one of the most venerated icons in Russia. The original is believed to have originated in the 13th century from Constantinople and is famous for being rescued from the ruins of the town of Kazan after it was burnt down in the 16th century. While it is uncertain what became of the original, many people are said to blame the rise of communism on its disappearance in the early 20th century. 

The copy on display at this church is also considered to be miraculous and is very much a central focus for the worship of many who line up to pray to it. 

What I liked about it:

While many of St. Petersburg’s churches were converted into museums in the Soviet era and are still considered museums, this church's primary function is as a place of worship. 

Address: Kazan Square, 2, St Petersburg, Russia, 191186
Opening Hours: Monday - Saturday: 9:00am - 7:45pm
Sunday: 6:30am - 7:45pm

13. The Neva River, Canals and Bridges

One of St. Petersburg's canals by the Church on Spilled Blood

St. Petersburg was once known as The Venice of the North with its rivers and canals. It’s home to about 300km of artificial canals and it was once Peter the Great's intention that those who lived here would navigate the city by boat not road. It is also the location of some really pretty bridges.

Many of the city’s sights are positioned along its waterways so boat tours are a great way to see the city. 

What I liked about it:

I enjoyed taking a stroll along the pretty Troitskiy Bridge with its ornate street lights. 

The ornate street lights that line the Troitskiy Bridge

I also really enjoyed my sight-seeing boat tour even though it was in Russian and I understood absolutely nothing. 

Tourist on boat tour in St. Petersburg

14. The White Nights

Because St. Petersburg is located quite far north, in mid-summer, the sky doesn’t reach complete darkness at night but only twilight. At this time of year, the city celebrates its White Nights Festival.

I only managed to get one night off during my contract and so I didn’t get to experience this at its peak. From the White Nights I experienced on the ship, and the one outdoor crew party that we had, I remember thinking that it felt less like twilight and more like being in a place where there was just a lot of light pollution. 

What I liked about it:

The vibe.

15. The Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre

Ballet dancers perform Swan Lake
Photo by: Niki Dinov (Pixabay)

Originally known as the Imperial Russian Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet was founded in the 18th century and has a reputation as one of the world's leading ballet companies.  It is the resident ballet company of the Mariinsky Theatre, an impressive theatre building from the mid-19th century.  Anna Pavlova was the company's prima ballerina between 1906 and 1913. The theatre is also associated with Chaikovsky who composed the music for The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker which both originated in this theatre. 

What I liked about it:

This is the one thing on the list that I didn't get to experience, but one day I will be back!

Address: Theatre Square, 1, St Petersburg, Russia, 190000

16. The Rising of the Bridges  

A bridge rises in St. Petersburg
Dvortsovyy Most / Palace Bridge

A number of draw bridges cross the Neva River. At night they open to allow access to cargo river ships. Tourists often gather to watch.  

What I liked about it:

The celebratory fireworks (and the realisation that my job on the ship was on the other side and I was free for the night).

Bridge raising schedule: https://en.mostotrest-spb.ru/

17. The Nightlife  

If you are staying (or docked) on one of the islands or on the other side of the river, there’s no way back until the bridges close again or the metro reopens at 6am, so you basically have to party until the sun comes up. (And if you're not, you can still pretend that you are.) 

There are buskers all over the place so you don’t have to go very far for live music and there are a number of clubs that will entertain you until the sun rises. 

I can't remember the names of the places we went to but one was rock-themed. 

What I liked about it: 

  • The people I went with.

Cruise ship crew pose for a group photo on their night off

  • And the new friend I made:

The exterior of a Rock club in St. Petersburg

What I didn't like about it: 

Rodrigo got quite out of hand and had to be carried back to the ship.

Travel toy drinks Vodka in Russia
Can't take him anywhere!

18. The Public Toilets

This was the best picture I managed to get. And no, that's not the reflection of the same toilet in a mirror. 

Two toilets in the same cubicle in St. Petersburg

19. The Escalators to the Subway 

The Escalators to the Subway in St. Petersburg

The St. Petersburg subway is the deepest in the world. The Admiralteyskaya Station is 26 storeys or 86 metres underground, but they average 187 feet or 57 metres. At a distance like that, the escalator to get to the subway is practically a mode of transport on its own. 

What I liked about it:

The quality time I got to spend with my friends and boyfriend on these long escalator rides. It was also very convenient that he was one escalator step taller than me. 
And obviously the people-watching.

The 20th reason:

This one can't be explained. You'll have to check out the video to see what I 'saw'

As promised in the video, here is a map of where to find everything: 

20 things to do in St. Petersburg - Pinterest

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