Things to do in St.Petersburg, Russia – unconventional guide

St.Isaac cathedral at night time.
What to do in Saint Petersburg, Russia. St.Isaac cathedral at night.

Saint Petersburg like any other big European city has a lot to offer and like for any city with great history one will never have enough time to see and do everything here. We tried to group the activities in this post in a way to facilitate your planning and to make it easier to choose the most suitable for you things.

I’m a big art and classical music lover don’t be surprised this guide will contain a lot of information on culture life in St.Petersburg but not only, there are many things to do and places to visit in the city except theaters and museums. For planning a visit to Saint Petersburg our detailed St.Petersburg city guide will be quite useful.

Download our checklist Places to see in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Must do things in St.Petersburg

Dive into art in one of the city museums. The State Hermitage and Russian museum are the main two to visit; the first one to see the masterpieces of the world’s best artists, the second is all about Russian art from early Orthodox icons to the famous squares of Malevich. For more information and tips on visiting museums check the Museum section below.

Admire beautiful cathedrals and churches. We’d recommend to visit at least one or two of them as the interior often is even more impressive than the outside look. Definitely take an inside look at St.Isaac cathedral, the biggest Orthodox cathedral in the world, it’s stunning. Church of Savior on Spilled Blood is tourists’ favorite place, as it looks like some sort of fairy tale building with its colorful cupolas. The interior is as impressive as the outside look and well worth of visit. Kazan cathedral and Trinity cathedral are functional church it might be interesting to see the service in the Russian Orthodox church, entrance here is free. Trinity cathedral has a huge blue with golden stars dome that looks stunning, on a clear sunning day you can see it from far away. Another two interesting cathedrals that look a bit similar to each other are Smolny convent and Nikolsky cathedral.  

Take a boat ride through the city center. There are different routes for a day cruise we’d suggest to take a boat that follows the small rivers; Fontanka, Moika, the Griboedov canal as you see more of the historical center on this trip. For a night boat ride take one of the boats at Neva river embankment to see the opening of the bridges from the water and to go under them. Prices from RUB600/US$10 depending on duration and your negotiation skills.

Watch bridge opening at night. In season, from April to October, the bridges over the Neva river get opened at night for big cargo boats to go through the city. The idea of drawbridges came from Holland, at first all bridges in the city were wooden and draw. Nowadays there are 21 drawbridges in St.Petersburg. You can see the opening from a boat (there are many boat tours at night) or from the embankment, the best bridge to watch is The Palace Bridge, its opening with music and lights. It gets opened every night at 1.10am. Every bridge has its own opening and closing time.

Watching opening of the Palace Bridge,
Opening of the Palace Bridge, Neva River, St.Petersburg

Spend a day in one of the royal suburbs. Two main are Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo both can be visited as a day trip from St.Petersburg, if you do a tour you can even fit both in one day. Peterhof park with its fountains is definitely more entertaining if you have to choose visit this one, though only in summer season, from May to September, the rest of the year the fountains are off. In my opinion the Catherine palace in Tsarskoye Selo is more impressive, here is the famous Amber room and the Grand Hall with hundreds of mirrors and windows.

Walk through the city center. You can do it during a day as a part of sightseeing stopping for photos and visiting museums and cathedrals . The most popular walking route leads you past almost all main city attractions. This you can do in many cities in the world. A night walk is something very special for St.Petersburg. Best time for it is during White Nights, between the end of May and the beginning of July when nights are as short as 2 hours and even then it doesn’t get completely dark. That is the craziest time in St.Petersburg when the city doesn’t sleep. At 2am you’ll see thousands of people; tourists, locals, adults and children along the embankment watching bridge opening, drinking coffee from mobile coffee shops. Most of the restaurants and bars in the center are opened till early morning no worries if you get hungry you’ll find a big variety of place to eat. White nights are definitely the best time to visit Saint Petersburg.  

Following the walking route you’ll see; Nevsky avenue – Kazansky cathedral – Singer house – Stroganov palace – the State Capella – the State Hermitage – Palace Square – Admiralty building – St.Isaac cathedral – Bronze Horseman – Palace bridge – Kunstkamera – Stock Exchange building – Peter and Paul fortress and cathedral – Trinity bridge – the Marble Palace – Summer Garden – Mikhailovsky castle – Mikhailovsky Garden – Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood – Russian museum.

Spend an hour or two wandering around Peter and Paul Fortress. The first building in St.Petersburg, the original citadel where 318 years ago began the city history. Inside the fortress there are several museums from Museum of the history of St.Petersburg to Museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology. The highlight of the fortress is Peter and Paul cathedral, a stunning Baroque building with golden spier, 123m height, crowned with a cross and an angel. The angel of the cathedral is the main symbol of St.Petersburg. In summer at 3pm on Sundays you can listen to carillon concerts sitting at the Cathedral square and enjoying the beauty of the place. Don’t be surprised when walking out to the beach you see many people sunbathing right in the city center, locals love coming here on a nice sunny day. Every day at 12pm a  cannon from the Naryshkin Bastion gives a blank shot announcing midday. 

Peter and Paul fortress at sunrise.
Peter and Paul fortress at sunrise.

Explore one of the most beautiful metros in the world. St.Petersburg metro is a must see when visiting the city, some stations look like underground palaces with marble columns, sculptures, wall paintings and mosaic panels. The most beautiful stations of St.Petersburg metro; Admiralteyskaya, Avtovo, Buharestskaya, Mezhdunarodnaya, Obvodny Kanal, Spasskaya, Zvenigorodskaya, One metro trip costs RUB45/US$0,7 unlimited stations and time.

Watch Russian ballet performance in one of the city theaters. If you’re not a big ballet fan you can choose an opera or a concert. There are several theater in Saint Petersburg two main to watch ballet Mariinsky and Mikhailovsky. For more information and tips on St.Petersburg theaters read the Theater section below. Tickets for ballet performances from RUB2000/US$33.

Enjoy the tranquility of the city gardens. The main garden in the center is The Summer Garden, recently restored according to the original projects of XVIII century. A regular garden with copies of Greek sculptures, fountains and flower beds. Entrance is free. Another garden quite a bit smaller is Mikhailovsky Garden, located next to Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. A beautiful garden with many flowers and a small pond. Entrance is free.

Kazan cathedral, St.Petersburg
Kazan cathedral, St.Petersburg

Off the beaten track places in Saint Petersburg

If you wonder what are off the grid things to do in St.Petersburg here are our suggestions.

Explore city roofs and get a different view on the famous attractions. For romantic souls this is a great way to watch sunset over the city or to see it in thousands of lights. The roofs are located within the historical center and offer a great view on the Hermitage, St.Isaac cathedral, Church on Spilled Blood etc. It’s safe enough the visited roofs have rubber foot paths and metal barriers. No high heels here, only comfortable shoes. Price from RUB700/US$11 pp.

Discover street art in the courtyards of St.Petersburg. The backyards were always a part of the city legends and used to be sort of dark and dodgy place from Dostoevsky’s novels. Nowadays many of them were turned into a showrooms for local street artists and turned from dark and hostile into bright and welcoming. The best yards to visit the Mosaic Courtyard next to The Summer Garden, Fontanka River emb. 2/7, walls, benches and pavement covered in small pieces of mosaic by little students of the Art School. Discover little corner of Italy in a courtyard at Italyanskaya street, 29. If you like Beetles check the yard of Art Center Pushkinskaya at Pushkinskaya st., 10, here you’ll find a non existing street of John Lennon and a Yellow Submarine on the wall.

Eat doughnuts in the oldest pyshechnaya at Bolshaya Konyushennaya st. 25  (doughnut place) in the city. In this place you’ll travel back in time to the Soviet era as everything here stayed exactly the same it was decades ago my mum used to come here when she was at school. Coffee you get from a big aluminium pot in cups without platters, like in Soviet canteens. Doughnuts here are the best in the city, usually on weekends and evenings there is a long queue better to come here in the morning or afternoon. A cup of coffee/tea and four doughnuts will cost you RUB100/US$1,6.  

Visit Museum of Torture Instruments of the Middle Ages inside Peter and Paul’s fortress. This one I skipped but my husband went there and was quite “impressed” with all the equipment. It’s not for faint hearted and definitely not for children there is an age limit anyway. There are about 60 different instruments here; Iron Maiden, Spanish Boot, Inquisition Chair etc. Entrance fee RUB200/US$3.

Join a SUP excursion on the rivers and canals in the city center. This is exclusively summer option. Imagin to paddle on a SUP on a nice summer morning enjoy the beauty of the city while exercising. There are different routes the best for sightseeing is on Griboedov canal and Moika river, this one is suitable for the beginners. Price from RUB2500/US$40, duration 2,5-3 hours, SUP board, wetsuit, life jacket and a guide are included in the price.

Try your luck throwing coins. There are several animal monuments in the city center; Chizhik Pyzhik (a tiny bird) at Fontanka emb. In front of The Mikhailovsky Castle, The Hare escaping the flood at Peter and Paul’s Fortress (next to the wooden bridge) and Cat Vasilisa at Malaya Sadovaya street. It became a tradition to make a wish and through a coin to a sculpture if the coin stays there your wish will come true if it falls try again.

See miniature Russia. To get a general idea about different regions of Russia and to be able to “travel” around the country in 30 minutes visit Grand Maket Rossiya (Grand Model Layout of Russia), an interactive museum with a layout of Russia, made on a scale of 1:87. It will be interesting for adults and children; moving trains and cars, opening bridges, big cities and small towns, industrial complexes and natural wonders all these downsized to the scale of a toy. Very interesting, educational and entertaining museum. Entrance fee RUB480/US$8 – adults, RUB280/US$4 – children, audio guides in English and German are available.

Discover Art Nouveau architecture in St.Petersburg. The historical center is more about Baroque and Classical architecture styles but if you cross Troitsky bridge and continue along Kamennoostrovsky avenue towards Petrogradskaya metro you’ll find a totally different city, with Art Nouveau or Northern Modern (how it’s called here) style buildings dominating the narrow streets and avenues. If you have time and enjoy walking we’d suggest an Art Nouveau route following which you’ll be able to see the most interesting and beautiful buildings. If you don’t have much time go to Rosenstein House or House with Towers at Leo Tolstoy square (metro Petrogradskaya), it’s the most impressive Art Nouveau building in the city.

Find old Egyptian sphinxes. Not many know that the Egyptian collection in the Hermitage is not the only place you can find artifacts of that old civilization. Right in the city center at the Universitetskaya embankment (in front of the Academy of Arts) you can find two syenite sculptures of sphinxes made in Egypt about 3500 years ago. Originally they were installed in front of an impressive temple in Thebes, Egypt. The sphinxes were bought in Alexandria in 1830 and brought to St.Petersburg in 1832.

Take a helicopter flight over the city center. Due to height restriction there are no skyscrapers or very high building in the center of Saint Petersburg the only way to observe the city from  a bird’s eye view is to get on helicopter. The helicopter leaves and lands at Peter and Paul fortress, it operates from May till October, flight duration 15 minutes, price RUB3000/US$50 pp.

Visit one of the modern art museums. There are several in the city some are more street art orientated some more about sculpture/painting or performance. If you like contemporary art it will be interesting to see how it develops in Russia. Street Art Museum on the territory of the operating Plastic Factory, excursion – RUB350/US$5. Erarta – the largest private contemporary art museum in Russia, they often have interesting exhibitions and lectures, entrance fee – RUB500/US$8.

Chill on the grass in New Holland. New Holland is an open-air creative space that started functioning in 2016 after several years of renovation. The artificial triangle island between Kryukov canal and Admiralty canal in the city center was built in XVIII century as a shipyard for rowing boats. For many years access to the island was restricted the complex belonged to the Ministry of Defense. Nowadays the island became a new hipster place in the city with many galleries, trendy coffee shops and restaurants, open air platforms where you can join yoga classes or lectures.

Climb on board of Cruiser Aurora. A protected cruiser Aurora built in 1900 in Saint Petersburg had a long and tough journey around the world before returning back to the city. During Russian-Japanese war it took part in several battles in the South Pacific, than was relocated to the Baltic sea till 1916 when it came back to St.Petersburg (Petrograd that time) was repairing where half of the crew decided to join February Revolution of 1917. On 7th November a blank shot from the cruiser announced the start of the assault of the Winter Palace. In 1957 Aurora became a museum-ship and till nowadays is anchored at Petrogradskaya embankment. Entrance fee RUB600/US$10 – adults, RUB400/US$6 – children.

If you’re heading from St.Petersburg to Moscow check out this Things to do in Moscow post it’ll help to plan your visit to the Russian capital.

Griboedov canal with Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Things to do in St.Petersburg
Griboedov canal with Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St.Petersburg

Interesting facts about St.Petersburg

  • The city changed its name three times from the original Saint Petersburg it was changed to Petrograd in 1914 due to the First World War, it sounded too German. Then Petrograd was swapped for Leningrad in 1924 after Lenin’s death and back to Saint Petersburg in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. People that were born in the city before 1991 have a non-exciting place of birth in their documents, Leningrad.  
  • During its 315 years of history St.Petersburg had more than 50 floods.
  • During WWII Saint Petersburg (Leningrad at that time) was under siege for 872 days by German troops. Due to lack of food, water, medicaments and other supplies during the siege 1,5 million people, soldiers and civilians died in the city. During 1941 and 1942 daily ration of food was 125 grams of bread per person but even it was 50% sawdust.   
  • St.Petersburg metro is the deepest metro system in the world by the average depth of the stations. Admiralteyskaya station is the third deepest metro station in the world, 86m below the surface.
  • The State Hermitage “employs” cats for catching mice and rats in the museum buildings. The Hermitage cats divided into two categories; courtyard cats and room cats according to their working place. There is even annual Day of the Hermitage Cat in May.
  • Nevsky Prospect (avenue) is the warmest place in the city, in winter temperature here is 10-12°C higher than in outskirts of the city.
  • There are 15 cities and towns in US with the same name – St.Petersburg.
Night walk in St.Petersburg, Russia
Night is the only time in summer when Saint Petersburg looks that quite.

Saint Petersburg museums

St.Petersburg is a real paradise for art and culture lovers here you can visit the Hermitage, second largest art museum in the world and watch a performance of one of the world’s best ballet companies in Mariinsky theater. I’m a frequent visitor to both of them and it is always a great experience. There are many other museums and theaters in the city that are well worth of visiting but these two are not to miss if you have limited time in the city and want to see the best.

The State Hermitage 

Includes Winter Palace, New Hermitage, Old Hermitage, Small Hermitage, the Hermitage theater and the General Staff building on the opposite side of the Palace Square. Its total gallery space is 66 862m2. The museum collection includes about 3 million art pieces, if you stop at everyone for 1 minute you’ll need 8 years to see all of them. These are just impressive numbers but Hermitage is a real treasure box, moving to every next room you think it can’t be more impressive but it can. Besides thousands of masterpieces in the halls the interior itself is absolutely stunning, if you start looking around and paying attention to the details like doors, lamps, floor etc.

Working hours; Tue, Thu, Sat, Sun from 10.30am to 8pm. Wed and Fri from 10.30am to 9pm. Monday closed. Entrance fee; RUB700/US$11 – adults; children and students from any country – free. To skip the crowds in summer the best time to visit Hermitage is on Wednesdays and Fridays after 6pm, the museum is open till 9pm on these days. Tuesday is the worst day to come, there are too many people because the museum is closed on Mondays. You can buy tickets online or at the ticket vending machines in the courtyard,this is  more expensive. If you want to buy a ticket at the ticket office the best way is to buy it in the General Staff building as the queue there is usually shorter, ticket valid for a day for all buildings of the Hermitage complex.

Things not to miss in the Hermitage

  • The Pavilion Hall is simply gorgeous, a small white hall with golden decorations, a small copy of an old Roman mosaic floor and an incredible Peacock clock. The clock gets started every Wednesday at 7pm but if you want to be able to see it come here at least 30 minutes before to get a spot.
  • The Grand Church of the Winter Palace, it’s an incredible and stunning place, when you enter the shine of gold and mirrors almost blinds you. Definitely not to miss place in the Hermitage.  
  • Lodges of Raphael, the exact copy of the Raphael Loggia in the Papal Palace, Vatican.  
  • Treasure Gallery, it has two rooms Diamond and Gold, an impressive collection of Ancient works e.g. Greek, Indian, Chinese and jewelries of later periods most of them belonged to the Imperial Romanov family. Both rooms can be visited only with a tour, in summer it’s better to book it in advance as it can be fully booked.
  • St.George’s Hall, one of the biggest rooms in the Hermitage crowned with a red throne.
  • The Armorial Hall, a stunning room painted white with golden columns and lamps.
  • The Principal or Jordan Staircase, a stunning marble staircase with red carpet, grey granite columns, decorations covered in gold, big windows and mirrors. Be here very early or late to get a chance for photos without hundreds of people.
  • The Malachite Room, a beautiful combination of green malachite and gold used in its decoration.
  • The Madonna Lita and the Benois Madonna by Da Vinci in Leonardo Da Vinci Room. The doors in this room are quite remarkable as well if you’re with a guide ask to tell you how they were made.
  • Crouching Boy by Michelangelo
  • Madonna and Child by Raphael
  • The Rembrandt Room where you can see his famous Return of the Prodigal Son and Danae.
  • The Hermitage collection of European art of XIX-XX centuries; Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Picasso etc. My favorite part of the collection.

The modern art collection from late XIX till now was moved to the General Staff Building on the opposite side of the Palace Square. Here you’ll find paintings of Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso and many others. A ticket is valid for both the Hermitage and the General Staff Building.

The State Hermitage in St.Petersburg is the second largest art museum in the world.
The State Hermitage in St.Petersburg is the second largest art museum in the world.

The State Russian museum

Another not to miss place in St.Petersburg unlike the Hermitage the Russian museum focused exclusively on Russian art, don’t expect to see here Rembrandt, Da Vinci or Monet. The museum collection represents Russian art from early icons to modern art, after a visit you’ll get a good idea of the way it developed in the country. Working hours; Mon from 10am to 8pm; Wed, Fri, Sat, Sun from 10am to 6pm; Thu from 1pm to 9pm. Tuesday closed. Entrance fee; RUB450/US$7 – adults, RUB200/US$3 – students.

The highlights of the Russian museum

  • Moonlight Night on the Dnieper by Arkhip Kuindzhi
  • The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Bryullov
  • Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks by Ilya Repin
  • Knight at the Crossroads by Viktor Vasnetsov
  • The Ninth Wave by Ivan Aivazovsky
  • Portrait of Chaliapin by Boris Kustodiev
  • Black Circle by Malevich
  • Old Russian icons

Kunstkamera, Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography

The first museum in Russia established by Peter the Great and opened in 1727. It was my favorite museum when I was a child though some rooms contain quite shocking things like Siamese twin skeleton or unborn babies with deformities floating in formaldehyde. Kunstkamera collection includes ethnographic, anthropological and archaeological artefacts, basically anything from minerals to stuffed animals, from traditional dresses to biological rarities. Working hours; Tue – Sun from 11am to 6pm. Entrance fee RUB300/US$5 – adults, RUB100/US$1,5 – students.

Faberge museum

One of the newest city museums, it was opened in 2013 in the beautiful Shuvalov palace Faberge museum has the largest collection of Faberge’s works in the world. Among 4000 objects here you can find 15 of the famous Faberge Eggs, 9 of them were made for the Romanov Family. Beautiful masterpieces in stunning interior of the palace, a must visit place if you like works from treasury metals and gems. Working hours; every day from 9am to 9pm, entrance fee – RUB450/US$7.  

More museums in  St.Petersburg

  • Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad
  • Zoological museum
  • State Museum of the History of St.Petersburg
  • Military Historical museum
  • Central Naval museum
  • Museum of Russian Vodka
  • Dostoevsky museum
Kunstakmera in Saint Petersburg is the oldest Russian museum
Kunstkamera, the oldest museum in Russia.

St.Petersburg theaters and concert halls

Mariinsky Theater

The main opera and ballet theater of St.Petersburg and definitely my favorite one. Mariinsky theater has three main stages located walking distance from each other. The historical stage a traditional old theater with huge crystal lamp in the middle, richly decorated interior, heavy curtains etc. all you imagine when you think of an opera theater. The Second Stage was opened recently in 2013 right next to the old one. This one is my favorite the acoustic here is great and even from cheap top seats you can see almost the whole stage and perfectly hear everything, plus the seats are very comfortable. My favorite cheap seats in the Second Stage are; balcony, left or right side, row 2, places 18-15 (single seats). The Concert Hall is another modern stage opened in 2007 and located 500m away from the previous two, this one is mainly used for concerts rarely for operas and ballets though with limited or no sets the stage is too small for that. Acoustic here is good as well but some say after the installation of an organ it got worse.

Usually the cheapest tickets to the balcony are not available online long time beforehand (more than a month) I guess they wait for more expensive tickets to be sold. The cheapest tickets unlike the more expensive ones don’t have different prices for locals and tourists. Tickets for normal opera and orchestra performances, without superstars, cost; The Second Stage from RUB500/US$8 (balcony seats) to RUB3400/US$55 (first rows, stalls). The Concert Hall from RUB600/US$10 (balcony) to RUB2500/US$40 (stalls). The Historical Stage from RUB300/US$5 (3rd tier, left or right side, won’t be able to see much from up here) to RUB3600/US$60 (first row, stalls). Remember! Tickets to some ballet performances can be more than double the price. I always buy tickets online it’s very quick and easy, you can get all the info, choose seats etc.

Mariinsky theater, Old Stage. St.Petersburg city guide.
Mariinsky theater, Old Stage. St.Petersburg city guide.

Mikhailovsky theater

Another place to go for a good ballet or opera performance. For opera I still prefer Mariinsky, but ballet is equally good in both, though some performances and dancers are better in one some in another. Mikhailovsky theater has some interesting modern ballet productions and dancing performances are more often in the playbill than operas. The interior reminds the Historical Stage of the Mariinsky, a traditional opera theater. Tickets for ballet are quite pricey here, start at RUB1500/US$25 (third circle, last row, you won’t see anything from up here), av.price RUB4000/US$65.

The Hermitage theater

If you want to see Russian ballet I’d suggest to go rather to the Mariinsky or Mikhailovsky in the Hermitage theater they show only Swan Lake all the time in summer and the tickets are two times more expensive because it’s exclusively for tourists. The performance is good, the hall is small you see the stage good from any seat. For me it has a little bit of artificial feeling as most people come here in big groups with guides, it doesn’t have the vibe of a big theater. I know some tourists want to see Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and sometimes it’s the only place showing it so it’s up to you to decide. Tickets from RUB11000/US$185.

The Philharmonic Hall

For a good and affordable classical music concert the Philharmonic is a perfect place. The repertoire is very divers from solo piano concerts to Beethoven and Bruckner’s symphonies. The Hall might be not as impressive as the one in Mariinsky theater though it’s beautiful and performances here are always good. The location is great as well right in the city center, close to the metro stations and many hotels. Tickets from RUB500/US$8.

St.Petersburg Court Chapel

A beautiful building next to the Palace Square it’s the place to come if you’d like to listen to masterpieces of Russian composers including operas of Glinka or Mussorgsky with a traditional Russian choir. The local choir is the oldest professional choir in Russia. The repertoire includes music of international composers from Mendelssohn to Schoenberg. The Concert Hall is stunning, you can spend the whole concert just looking around studying the details of its decor. Tickets from RUB350/US$6.

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