Despite its relatively young age (by European standards), Saint-Petersburg has enjoyed a fascinating history. With its incredible architecture and unique terrain, it is also one the most beautiful cities in the world. I’m, of course, biased, as I was fortunate to grow up there. So, don’t take my word for it. Check out this guide to the best things to do in Saint-Petersburg and start planning your trip.
Russia’s second city and former capital will delight history buffs and art lovers. There you will find vast art collections, world-class theatre and opulent imperial residences. However, Saint-Petersburg is not stuck in the past. It keeps reinventing itself with new public spaces, contemporary art and unique experiences for both locals and visitors.
Saint-Petersburg has seen the rise and fall of the Russian Imperial family, bloody revolutions and a Nazi invasion. Sadly, the post-Soviet Russia has not been kind to it. If you step out outside the touristy spots you will instantly notice signs of neglect and disastrous city planning. Unfortunately, those are the results of widespread corruption in the government bodies.
Like many great cities, it is complex and absolutely worth discovering for yourself. I hope this list of top things to do in Saint-Petersburg will just be starting point for your own adventures.
How To Get Around Saint-Peterburg
Saint-Petersburg is a big city with a population of over 5 million people spread around a large geographic area. As a result, there are many public transport options to help you get around, including underground trains (metro), buses, trams and trolley buses. Out of these, the metro is probably the most efficient and easiest to navigate. You can find detailed information about routes and tickets on the official Saint-Peterburg Metro website.
If you are mainly staying in the city centre, you will be able to get around on foot. Many famous sites are walking distance from each other. However, some of the attractions on this list are not in the city centre. The metro should normally get you there though. If you would like to visit the royal residences on the outskirts of Saint-Petersburg, you will either need to take public transport (boat, bus or train) or join a guided tour.
Iconic Things to Do in Saint-Petersburg
Visit Peter and Paul Fortress
Peter and Paul Fortress is one of Saint-Petersburg’s iconic attractions. It is actually where the city began. Like many other iconic institutions of the city, the fortress was founded by Peter the Great in 1703. Originally, it was supposed to protect the area from a Swedish invasion. However, those fears never came to be. Instead, the fortress has served as a military base, a prison, museum and the burial place of the Russian Imperial family.
Today, history buffs can enjoy visiting the many museums and attractions located within the fortress. They include the spectacular Peter and Paul Cathedral, a former prison and even a space exploration museum. Alternatively, you can simply enjoy panoramic views of the city centre from the top of the fortress’ walls. There is also a sandy beach there where you can enjoy sunbathing in the summer. I wouldn’t recommend swimming in the Neva river though.
You have to buy individual tickets to each attraction at the Fortress. You can also join a Peter and Paul Fortress guided tour where you will learn about the colourful history of this fascinating landmark.
Go to The Hermitage
Of all the incredible things to do in Saint-Petersburg, visiting the Hermitage Museum is one of the most popular ones. It is not surprising considering the Hermitage is one of the largest art museums in the world.
The Hermitage collections are so vast you wouldn’t be able to see them all in your lifetime. A single visit will only give you a very small taste of its treasures. From Renaissance masters and impressionist masterpieces to ancient Greek and Roman treasures, the Hermitage has it all.
The collection is spread over six buildings including the beautiful Winter Palace, a former residence of the Imperial family. Its interiors are as stunning as the works of art it contains.
The museum is definitely worth a visit while you’re in Saint-Petersburg. However, be mindful that it can get incredibly busy. You might even have to wait in a queue to get in. General admission is 500 roubles (6.70 USD). You can purchase entry tickets on the Hermitage website.
To be fair, there are plenty of quiet spots at the Hermitage. They’re often away from the most famous exhibits as large tourist groups don’t make it there. For instance, you can always find some peace and quiet in the Ancient Greek section.
Watch Ballet or Opera at a Renowned Theatre
This might sound like a cliche, but no trip to Saint-Petersburg would be complete without experiencing its illustrious ballet and opera scene.
Arguably the most famous ballet and opera venue is Mariinsky Theatre, Saint-Petersburg’s answer to Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Its programme includes classics like Swan lake and Romeo and Juliet as well as more experimental, contemporary productions and festivals. It oftens hosts international stars of the ballet, opera and classical music world, so tickets sell out fast. Mariinsky actually comprises two theatres: the traditional Mariinsky theatre and Mariinsky II, an impressive contemporary venue with excellent acoustics. No matter which one you choose, it’s going to be a night to remember. Make sure you book the tickets in advance to avoid disappointment. If you’re on a strict budget, check out the matinee performances. They are often cheaper than the evening ones.
You can also see excellent opera and ballet productions in beautiful Alexandrinsky and Mikhailovsky Theatres. You can book tickets through the Russian Broadway website. It’s available in English and covers opera, ballet and folk shows.
Visit The State Russian Museum
The State Russian Museum is another iconic Saint-Petersburg cultural institution. It is home to the largest collection of Russian fine art in the world. The museum exhibitions are spread over 30 hectares and multiple buildings of architectural significance.
The collection covers all major trends and styles in the history of Russian art, from the X to the XXI century. So there really is a lot to get through while you’re there. I especially love the Museum’s permanent late ХIХ — early ХХI century exhibition. It features famous masterpieces that brilliantly capture the challenges and triumphs of those turbulent times. You can even spot the infamous “Black Square” by Kazimir Malevich during your visit.
To gain a deeper understanding of Russian art, I would recommend joining a tour with a knowledgeable guide. This 2-hour State Russian Museum Skip-the-Line Tour will show you the iconic works from different eras, so you don’t miss anything.
Tour the Rivers and Canals of Saint-Petersburg
During the summer months, a boat trip along rivers and canals allows you to experience Saint-Petersburg from a different perspective. Waterways are an integral part of the city’s history and life. With about a hundred rivers and canals, it’s not surprising that its nickname is the “Venice of the North”.
There are lots of different boat tours on offer, so it is easy to find something to suit your schedule and budget. Some tours will take you along the classic historic city centre routes. Others might take you out to attractions that are slightly further out.
Many tour operators are scattered across the city centre, so you can join a tour by simply rocking up at their docking station. However, during the high season I would recommend booking your preferred tour in advance. Booking in advance will also ensure you get an English-speaking guide.
Here is a range of boat and canal tours that you can book in advance:
- “Northern Venice” Day Boat Tour (US$ 9.76 per person) covers the classic inner-city route and follows five canals
- Rivers and Canals Boat Excursion (US$ 18.11 per person) is another affordable one-hour tour that covers the main city centre highlights
- Private Canals Speedboat Rental (US$ 301.80 per person) is the luxury option. This sailing experience will allow you to focus on the attractions that you want to see the most
See Saint-Petersburg’s Famous Cathedrals
Orthodox Christianity is an important part of the Russian cultural fabric. Saint-Petersburg is home to a number of incredible churches and cathedrals. They were built during the times of the Russian Empire to not only honour the divine but also celebrate the country’s wealth and prestige.
Many of Saint-Petersburg’s cathedrals were designed by star architects of the past. Those buildings are so impressive that you don’t need to be religious to be in awe of them. One of the most famous cathedrals in the city is Saint Isaac’s Cathedral (Isaakievskiy Sobor). It is one of the largest cathedrals in the world and took 40 years to build. It boasts stunning interiors with intricate mosaics and decorative elements. You can also go up to the cathedral’s colonnade to enjoy fantastic views over the city.
Another iconic cathedral found in Saint-Petersburg is the Church of the Saviour on Blood. It marks the site where political nihilists assassinated Emperor Alexander II in 1881. Today it is a secular museum where you can see a large collection of mosaic icons. It is also an architectural masterpiece both inside and outside.
Just a short walk from the Church of the Saviour on Blood stands another mighty cathedral, Kazan Cathedral. It was modelled on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and has a distinctive stone colonnade. Kazan Cathedral is also a monument to Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812.
You can visit all three cathedrals in one day and learn about their history on this walking tour.
Go To Fabergé Museum
This small but perfectly formed museum is home to the largest collection of works by the famous House of Fabergé. The highlight of the Fabergé Museum collection is nine Imperial Easter eggs made by the Fabergé artisans for the last two Russian emperors.
Altogether, House of Fabegré created 50 Easter Eggs for the Imperial family between 1885 to 1916. They are considered the Russian jewellery house’s greatest achievement. After the Russian revolution, the Imperial palaces were raided, and some eggs were moved to the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow. Joseph Stalin sold many of the eggs to wealthy overseas clients in 1927 when the Bolshevik government needed more money. Unfortunately, not all eggs survived to this day.
Fabergé Museum’s collection was purchased by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg from the family of Malcolm Forbes in 2004. Forbes spent 25 years amassing various Fabergé works. However, his heirs decided to part with the collection.
This was an unprecedented purchase but it helped maintain the integrity of the collection. Today, visitors to the museum can see not only the famous Imperial eggs but also other masterpieces by the House of Fabergé.
You can purchase tickets on the museum’s website. General admission is 500 roubles (7 USD). You can also join a guided tour (1,000 roubles or 14 USD) or rent an audio guide (240 roubles or 3.5 USD).
Arty Things to Do in Saint-Petersburg
Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art
Although Erarta is a recent addition to the Saint-Petersburg art scene, it has already become a firm visitor favourite. It is probably one of my favourite contemporary art museums in the world.
With its 2,800-strong collection of art works, Erarta is the largest private contemporary art museum in Russia. It contains paintings, sculpture, installations and everything in-between by hundreds of contemporary Russian artists. On top of this, the museum oftens plays host to touring exhibitions, gigs and education programmes. The permanent collection has a real range of pieces, from witty and edgy to contemplative and dreamy. Many art works also offer original perspectives on the modern state of Russia. These can sometimes be hard to come by in more traditional museums.
Personally, I love Erarta because it helps make contemporary art more accessible to the wider audience. Contemporary works can be challenging but with the right guidance it is possible to learn to appreciate it. During your visit, you can get an audio guide or join a guided tour to immerse yourself in Erarta’s treasures.
The price of general admission is 1,000 roubles per person (13.58 USD). Entry tickets and guided tours (2,000 roubles or 27.16 USD) can be booked directly on the museum’s website.
Street Art Museum
Another alternative cultural spot worth checking out is Saint-Petersburg’s Street Art Museum. It is located on an 11-hectare industrial site housing a laminated plastics factory east of the city centre. Although it’s away from other historic attractions, it is definitely worth a trip.
The museum consists of two zones. One is home to a permanent exhibit of murals and installations by Russia’s famous street artists in an abandoned factory building. The other zone is an open public space that hosts temporary exhibitions and events. Temporary exhibitions change every year and often feature works by top international street artists.
Ticket pricing and guided tour information are available on the museum’s contact details page. English-speaking guides are available, just make sure you book them in advance.
Quirky Things to Do in Saint-Petersburg
Marvel at Grand Maket Rossiya
Travel across the whole of Russia at this quirky museum located just outside the city centre. Grand Maket Rossiya (Grand Maket Russia) is a scale model of Russia that covers an area of 800 square meters. It is the second largest model layout in the world.
Putting this model together was no mean feat. Over the course of five years, more than a hundred people worked on bringing this project to life. The level of detail achieved by those craftsmen is incredible. Every major region of Russia is represented in the model. From Moscow and Saint-Petersburg through to the Far East, you can experience the vastness of Russia in just a day.
The thing that I love the most about Grand Maket is that it feels alive.The lighting changes to represent day and night, while different regions experience varying weather conditions. Trains, cars and trucks move, change speeds and stop at the traffic lights. You can rent a pair of binoculars to explore all the scenes taking place within the model. You might even spot a UFO or a very famous Russian person riding a bear.
Although it opened in 2012, Grand Maket has become one of the most popular things to do in Saint-Petersburg, especially for families. You can book your tickets and get directions on the museum’s website. General admission is 690 roubles (around 12 USD).
Explore Saint-Petersburg’s Metro
The Saint-Petersburg metro is an underground transit system that is perfect for getting around the city. It is also a destination in its own right.
The first stations opened in 1955 and today the network has an extensive coverage of the city. The most up-to-date metro map is available on the official Saint-Petersburg Metro site. It is one of the deepest metros in the world with its deepest station, Admiralteyskaya, sitting 86 metres below ground. Many stations boast beautiful designs and fascinating decorative elements that are fun to spot while you’re travelling.
During your trip to Saint-Petersburg you’re likely to visit at least a couple of metro stations and discover why the local metro is considered to be one of the most elegant in the world. However, if you’d like to learn more about its history and design, you can join a metro tour. For example, this extensive 3-Hour Private Metro Tour will give you a good overview of this unique public transit system.
The Kunstkamera (Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography)
The Kunstkamera is Russia’s oldest and possibly strangest public museum. It was founded in 1724 by Peter the Great.
The museum is home to many fascinating exhibits displaying cultural artefacts from around the world. However, the Kunstkamera is most famous for Peter the Great’s collection of medical curiosities. From preserved Siamese foetuses and deformed animals to body parts and various tumours, this display is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Interestingly, it wasn’t a fascination with morbidity that motivated Peter to create this odd display. He wanted the museum to show regular Russians that physical anomalies are a natural occurrence. Back then, many people still believed that deformities were the result of a curse and demons’ work.
General admissions tickets cost 300 roubles (4 USD). Guided tours are available, but you will need to check times and dates in advance. You can find the museum’s contact details on their Admissions page.
New Holland Island
New Holland is a popular cultural and dining hub in Saint-Petersburg’s city centre. It was created in 1719 and served as a shipbuilding yard and later a prison. The architecture of the island buildings is reminiscent of the one found in Amsterdam, hence the name. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 New Holland was abandoned and slowly fell into decay.
Thankfully, in 2010, the team behind Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art decided to transform it. Since then regeneration works have been ongoing. Today, New Holland is home to a public park, restaurants, street food stalls, independent shops and art exhibitions. In winter, you can enjoy a skating session at an outdoor ice rink.
New Holland is a great place to spend an afternoon away from the tourist trail. The island is popular with locals, so it has a different feel to other attractions. For example, the restaurants and shops cater to local tastes rather than flog souvenirs or serve ‘typical’ Russian food. Don’t worry though, you can still have a borscht there!
You can find info on opening hours and upcoming events on New Holland’s website.
Enjoy A Day Trip From Saint-Petersburg
There’s no doubt Saint-Petersburg boasts a wide choice of incredible things to see and do. However, its suburbs also offer some amazing opportunities for exploring.
The most famous attractions located in Saint-Petersburg’s surroundings are the Imperial Estates. Built by the Romanoffs, those estates were a spectacular show of wealth of the Imperial family. They comprise opulent palaces, fine gardens and vast art collections. The most famous estates are Peterhof (Petrodvorets) and Tsarskoe Selo (Pushkin).
Peterhof was founded by Peter the Great and substantially expanded by his descendants. It sits in extensive parkland that features different historic garden styles. It is also home to several palaces and mansions. However, Peterhof is most famous for its impressive decorative fountains. They range from the spectacular Grand Cascade fountains group to the small joke mountains that spray unassuming passers-by with water if they step on the wrong paving stone.
Tsarskoe Selo (Pushkin)
When it comes to imperial opulence, Tsarskoe Selo is a worthy rival to Versaille. Located in the south of the city, this former imperial residence features not one, but two regal palaces. They are surrounded by extensive gardens where you can find beautiful pavilions, sculptures and monuments. The spectacular Catherine Palace is the estate’s key attraction. A fine example of Rococo architecture, it is especially famous for its incredible Amber Room.
I highly recommend visiting both Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo during your trip. You would struggle to visit both in one day because of their size and distance from each other. You can get to both of them by public transport, which can be an adventure in itself. Peterhof is a more convenient option because you can get there by a high speed boat (called Meteor) that departs from the city centre. The journey only takes 40 minutes.
In the summer months, prepare for large crowds and queues at both Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo. Try heading there for the opening time for a slightly calmer experience.
If you prefer to visit those places with a group tour, there are many options out there to choose from. These are the ones I would recommend:
- 5-Hour Private Peterhof Palace & Parks Tour
- Catherine Palace in Pushkin Small Group Tour
- Peterhof and Pushkin Full-Day Tour (in case you are short on time but want to visit both)
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