Churches, palaces, and museums: an inspiring list of the top tourist attractions in St. Petersburg, Russia
St. Petersburg in Russia is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Culture, art, shopping, architecture, and the excellent Russian food – it’s quite easy to spend a whole week in Russia’s former capital. There are just so many things to do in St. Petersburg! It would be a mistake to just visit Moscow.
Yet, Russia isn’t very popular among western tourist. Old and new prejudices are probably the reason. But I tell you, they are wrong. The Russian people are among the friendliest I have ever met and the ancient Russian culture will sweep you away. And if you are worried about your safety, then you should know that Russia has a very, very low rate of petty crimes. So really, throw these prejudices away and do visit St. Petersburg. Here are 20 reasons:
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1. Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
St. Petersburg’s most iconic sight is probably the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. But looks can be deceiving. Unlike the fabled St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the Church of the Savior is barely 100 years old. It marks, however, the very spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
Alexander III started the construction as a memorial to his late father. Like many churches in Russia, the Church of the Savior is now a museum and was never reconsecrated after the Soviets government closed it. Still, you absolutely have to go inside. The colorful mosaics are unbelievably beautiful! Get your tickets here, to skip the lines
2. Hermitage Museum
The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is not only one of the oldest (if not THE oldest) museums in the world, it is also one of the best. It is located inside the Winter Palace of Empress Catherine the great and spans more than 1,500 rooms. Leonardo da Vinci, Monet, Van Gogh, but also ancient Scythian Gold and artwork from the dawn of time – this museum will quite literally take your breath away.
Plan at least one full day and don’t forget to read my extensive guide to plan your stay ahead, as you won’t be able to see everything in one day (yes, I know it sounds crazy!). In fact, the Russian Tsars managed to build such a large collection of priceless artwork that it won’t even fit into the huge Winter Palace. There are many, many outbuildings and even an archive you can visit.
Note: There can be long queues in front of the museum. I recommend you to book a guided skip-the-line tour.
3. Peterhof Palace
Peterhof Palace was built by Tsar Peter to outshine Versailles. He might not have managed to build a bigger palace, but the opulent water gardens his architects created beggar comprehension. Especially the grand cascade draws millions of tourists to Peterhof each year. I wrote a comprehensive guide with tons of pictures here.
Peterhof Palace is, strictly speaking, not located in St. Petersburg anymore, but a couple of miles away to the west. You will have to take one of the crazy hydrofoil speedboats to get there (which is an adventure in itself). Oh, and once you are there, don’t forget to visit the unbelievable Bath House-Palace of the tsars!
Note: If you don’t want to deal with the logistics of getting to Peterhof, I do recommend you to book a guided tour from the city center. The cheaper tours will get there by bus. Here is Peterhof by Hydrofoil tour.
4. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is an architectonic marvel. It is not only the largest orthodox basilica in the world but also the fourth largest cathedral in the world. Strictly speaking, it is not a proper church anymore either. Like the Cathedral of the Savior on Spilled Blood, it is now a museum. Only on the highest feast days service are held here. A small portion of the huge Cathedral is devoted to regular worship activity these days, though.
Pro tip: Absolutely go all the way to the top, as this is by far the best view of St. Petersburg!
5. Peter and Paul Fortress
Peter and Paul Fortress marks the very spot St. Petersburg was founded. It was here, Tsar Peter erected a small wooden hut in 1703 AD and oversaw the construction of the mighty fortress. The bell tower of the Peter and Paul Cathedral (122.5 meters) is still the highest building in St. Petersburg. Below lie the many sarcophagi of the Russian Tsars.
Peter and Paul Fortress also played the most crucial role during the Russian revolution and was later used as a prison. Make sure to tour the walls (you will have to pay a little extra fee) and enjoy the beautiful view of the river Newa and the Winter Palace on the other side. Read my full guide to Peter and Paul Fortress here.
6. Mariinsky Theater
Russian opera and ballet production are world renowned. And of all the grand operas in Russia, the Mariinsky Theater is the finest. Absolutely make sure to book tickets for a performance during your stay. The ancient interiors are beyond marvelous as is the incredible skill of the Russian ballet dancers! Buy your tickets here.
7. Fabergé Museum
The Fabergé Museum opened in 2013. But despite that short history, the privately owned museum is already one of the highlights. Here you will see 9 (!!) of the fabled Imperial Easter Eggs and some 4.000 other exhibits from Farbergé and the golden age of jewelry! You will need to get tickets in advance. Here’s the official website.
8. Canal tour
St. Petersburg is a city of many water canals. In fact, there are over 800 bridges crossing a total length of 300 kilometers of artificial canals. They served as important transport ways and kept the city built on marshland dry. These days, most traffic sticks to the roads. But as a tourist, you absolutely should go on a canal tour and see St. Petersburg from a different side. Book one here.
9. Catherine Palace
Even a quick taxi ride through St. Petersburg will impress the sheer quantity of palaces in the city onto you. There are quite literally thousands! Perhaps the grandest of them all lies in Pushkin, some 25 kilometers outside. Catherine the Great built it to escape the many obligations at court.
The palace and the wide gardens are more than worth a visit (even in winter!). The highlight, however, will be the world famous amber room. The original was lost during World War II, but Russian artisans created a perfect replica you can now see the Catherine Palace. Truly outstanding! Read my full guide to the Catherine Palace here.
10. Nevsky Prospect
The Nevsky Prospect is a 4.5-kilometer-long royal avenue at the very heart of St. Petersburg. Uncounted shops, palaces, churches, and luxury hotels line the fabulous street and there really is no way around visiting the Nevsky Prospect.
Even if you don’t plan to do any shopping, you really should walk along the street to breathe in the atmosphere. And truth be told, some of the most beautiful buildings in St. Petersburg can be found on Nevsky Prospect. You don’t want to miss it.
11. Admiralty Buildings
One of the many fabulous buildings you definitely should not miss on your tour through St. Petersburg is the Admiralty. The sprawling complex is, to this date, the headquarters of the Russian Navy.
Pro tip: Be here on Navy day (last Sunday in July) to see thousands of Russian sailors walking along the parks and big battleships mooring at the banks of the Newa.
12. Kronstadt & Naval Cathedral
Kronstadt is a small island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland and part of the many UNESCO World Heritage sites of Saint Petersburg. The Naval Cathedral is certainly the highlight, but the historical part of the town and the fortress are just as impressive. It’s a beautiful idea for a half-day trip.
13. Russian cruiser Aurora
The Aurora is a majestic museum ship that played an important role during the February and October Revolution. The Aurora is now permanently moored in St. Petersburg (about a kilometer away from Peter and Paul Fortress). After extensive renovation works, it is now open to visitors again.
14. The cabin of Tsar Peter the Great
Another historic place you might want to visit is the ancient cabin of Tsar Peter the Great. The small wooden house was the first “palace” in St. Petersburg and in fact the very first building. It is now enshrined in red bricks and was used by the Tsar between 1703 and 1708 while he supervised the construction of the new imperial city.
15. Yeliseev Emporium
Food lovers listen: You have to put the Yeliseev Emporium on your list of things to do in St. Petersburg. This huge shop on Nevsky prospect will be the ideal place to buy an authentic souvenir or just treat yourself to some Russian candy! There is a little café inside, so it’s also an ideal spot to take a little break from shopping. Either way, you will never have visited a more opulent food store!
16. Smolny Convent
The Smolny Convent is one of the most beautiful monastic buildings in the world. The architectural masterpiece was designed by the famous Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli (the same who designed the Winter Palace or Peterhof).
17. House of Soviets & communist architecture
The House of Soviets is a huge Stalinist style building on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. If you decide to take a taxi out to the Catherine Palace, you will pass by. The building is, however, just one of many such buildings in St. Petersburg. Lining the banks of the River News, just a little east of Peter and Paul Fortress, you will see similarly sized and styled colossi.
St. Petersburg might be the most European city in Russia, but you should definitely take your time and explore a bit of its communist past!
18. State Russian Museum
Most visitors to St. Petersburg will stick to the Hermitage. And truly, the gigantic museum in the Winter Palace should be your top priority. If you want to get intimate with ancient and contemporary Russian art, you should consider visiting the State Russian Museum, though. I really loved it and the Mikhailovsky Palace itself is quite beautiful as well.
19. Museum of Political History
Lovers of all things Art Nouveau list: You really have to keep your eyes open on your tour through St. Petersburg. There is an abundance of beautiful houses from this area to be found! One of the most beautiful (and probably most significant) is the Kschessinska Mansion, which now houses the Museum of Political History. Right after the October Revolution in served as the headquarters of the Bolshevik.
20. Moika Palace
St. Petersburg is best described as the city of thousand palaces. A simple taxi ride through the city will actually make you believe there is little else but a sheer endless mass of the most beautiful palaces. If you have to take your pick, then I’d recommend you to visit the Moika Palace (also called Yusupov Palace).
It was here, famous Grigori Rasputin was murdered on December 17th, 1916. But more to the point, the palace is just simply gorgeous. There is even an authentic palatial theater inside and it will give you a good impression of the aristocratic life in imperial St. Petersburg.
Other things to do in St. Petersburg
I know, this list of 20 things to do in St. Petersburg is already quite massive. Still, there are just so many other tourist attractions in St. Petersburg. I haven’t mentioned the fabulous nightlife, the many amazing restaurants (there is even a Caviar bar, can you believe it?) and the beautiful gardens. There is also a sheer endless mass of beautiful orthodox churches, theaters, and smaller museums.
It all boils down to personal preferences, but I am beyond positive St. Petersburg will take your breath away. The best time to visit might be in July, during the white nights. Personally speaking, I recommend visiting during winter. The city is virtually empty then and you will not have to fight through the crowds. I loved spending New Years in St. Petersburg (read my guide here), but be prepared for very cold weather.
Where to stay in St. Petersburg
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For me, there is only one hotel in St. Petersburg where I want to stay: The Four Seasons Lion Palace. It is, by far, the best hotel in St. Petersburg, but also the most central one. It is located only a short walk away from the Hermitage and the Nevsky Prospect, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral is literally next door.
It will also give you the unique opportunity to sleep inside an authentic Russian palace and thus adding tremendously to your whole experience. Needless to say that the staff is beyond friendly, well-spoken (fluent English, no worries) and extremely attentive. I stayed multiple times here and recommend you to take one of the balcony suites. In summer, you can have breakfast while overlooking St. Isaac’s Cathedral, so how cool is that?
As an alternative, I can recommend the Belmond Hotel Grand Europe. It’s the second best hotel in St. Petersburg and has quite a long history. The restaurants inside are quite noteworthy, especially the caviar bar!
So, that was my list of 20 amazing things to do in St. Petersburg. Got any question? Don’t be shy and ask them in the comments below. Oh, and don’t forget to pin this for later.