St.Petersburg like any other big city has a lot to offer to its visitors, in fact, there are so many activities and attractions in the city that it can get quite complicated to make a decision and choose the best and the most suitable for you things to do. In this post we tried to combine the must do things and the funky activities to keep a balance between traditional sightseeing and having fun without being stressed and running around the city trying to tick off all the things from your bucket list.
We have several posts on St.Petersburg that might help you to plan your trip; Complete St.Petersburg city guide + 3-day itinerary, Places to visit in St.Petersburg and Best day trips from St.Petersburg.
If you have any questions or need help with planning your trip leave a comment at the end of the post we’ll be happy to help and to give an insider tip (yes, I’m a local, I’ve spent most of my life in this city).
If you’d like to explore more of Russia and visit some off the beaten track places that are difficult to get on your own you can join one of the small group tours with G-Adventures or Intrepid Travel, reputable companies that offer unique tours around Russia. Here are some options;
- Highlights of Russia & the Baltics (Intrepid Travel)
- Russia Real Food Adventure (Intrepid Travel)
- Russia Explorer (Intrepid Travel)
- Russia Expedition: Footsteps of the Reindeer Herders (Intrepid Travel)
- Backroads of Russia; St.Petersburg – Moscow (G-Adventures)
- Epic Trans-Siberian Journey; Moscow to Vladivostok (G-Adventures)
- Trans-Mongolian Adventure; Moscow to Beijing (G-Adventures)
Accommodation in St.Petersburg
There are plenty of hotels and hostels in the city but in season (June-July) the best places might be fully booked I’d suggest making a booking beforehand.
11 Must do things in St.Petersburg
#1 Dive into art
Visit one of the city art museums. The State Hermitage Museum and the State Russian Museum are two main places 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. The Hermitage is one of the largest museums in the world and it’s a must-visit place even if you have only 2 or 3 hours to basically run around it. If you want to get more out of your short visit I’d recommend doing a skip the line guided tour that first will let you get into the museum quick and second will take you straight through the main highlights. Hermitage admission; RUB700/US$11 – adults; children and students – free. Russian museum admission; RUB450/US$7 – adults, RUB200/US$3 – students.
You can do skip the line tour in the Hermitage museum that includes quick admission and a knowledgeable guide.
#2 Admire beautiful cathedrals and churches
We’d recommend visiting 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 the St.Isaac’s cathedral (buy tickets here), the biggest Orthodox cathedral in the world, it’s simply stunning. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (buy a ticket here) 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 the Trinity cathedral are the 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 one another are the Smolny convent and St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral.
You can combine a visit to the St.Isaac’s, Church on the Spilled Blood and the Naval cathedrals if you join Cathedrals of St. Petersburg Private Half-Day Tour.
#3 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, season and time of the day.
#4 Watch the opening of the bridges
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 the 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 and its opening with music and lights. It gets opened every night at 1.10am. All bridges have different opening and closing times.
#5 Spend a day in a royal suburb
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 to visit this one, though only in the 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.
It’s possible to visit both places in one day with a tour, to do it on your own without a car is very difficult you might spend most of the day commuting between two places.
#6 Explore the city on foot
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 2 am 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 places 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.
#7 Wander around the Peter and Paul Fortress
The first building in St.Petersburg, the original citadel, where 318 years ago the city history began. Inside the fortress, there are several museums from the Museum of the history of St.Petersburg to the Museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Technology. The highlight of the fortress is Peter and Paul Cathedral, a stunning Baroque building with a golden spire, 123m height, crowned with a cross and an angel. The angel of the cathedral is the main symbol of St.Petersburg. In summer at 3 pm 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 12 pm a cannon from the Naryshkin Bastion gives a blank shot announcing midday.
To understand better the city history and the role of the Peter and Paul fortress in it you can join a 2-hour fortress tour with an excellent guide that is both entertaining and informative.
#8 Go underground to one of the deepest 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 number of stations and time.
You can join a 2-hour guided metro tour and get to know some facts and legends about St.Petersburg metro system.
#9 Watch Russian ballet or opera
If you’re not a big ballet fan you can choose an opera or a concert. There are several theaters in Saint Petersburg two main to watch a ballet and an opera are the Mariinsky Theater and the Mikhailovsky Theater. For more information and tips on St.Petersburg theaters read the Theater section below. Tickets for ballet performances from RUB2000/US$33.
#10 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 the XVIII century. A regular garden with copies of Greek sculptures, fountains and flower beds. The entrance is free. Another garden quite a bit smaller is the Mikhailovsky Garden, located next to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. A beautiful garden with many flowers and a small pond. The entrance is free. If you want to go off the beaten track and find a real hidden gem go to Izmailovsky Garden where you’ll find many quirky sculptures spread all over the garden, my favorite one is the Angle with an umbrella on one of the benches in the garden.
#11 Spot the main city symbols
Like any other city, St.Petersburg has several symbols the main four might be found in the very center of the city, not far from each other. Here they are; the Rostral columns at the Split of Vasilyevsky Island, the Angel on the top of the Alexander Column in Palace Square, the Golden Ship on the spire of the Admiralty building and The Bronze Horseman monument in Senate Square.
There are several city tour options to explore St.Petersburg and its highlights;
Note! There are special tours for cruise passengers (3-day visa-free visit to St.Petersburg) with correct paperwork and licensed guides;
18 Awesome and quirky things to do in St.Petersburg
If you wonder what are off the beaten path things to do in St.Petersburg here are our suggestions.
#12 Travel around Russia in an hour
To get a general idea about different regions of Russia and to be able to “travel” around the country in 30 minutes visit the 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.
#13 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.
#14 Explore the city roofs
get a different view of the famous attractions. For romantic souls, this is a great way to watch the 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 of the Hermitage, St.Isaac cathedral, Church on Spilled Blood, etc. It’s safe enough the visited roofs have rubber footpaths and metal barriers. No high heels here, only comfortable shoes. Price from RUB700/US$11 pp.
#15 Discover Art Nouveau architecture
The historical center is more about Baroque and Classical architecture styles but if you cross the 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.
#16 Stumble on weird stuff in Kunstkamera
Kunstkamera or the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography was the first Russian museum opened by Peter the Great it contains a collection of biological rarities, historical artifacts from different countries and many other interesting and quirky things including a huge globe with a study room inside. Some of the items here are not for faint-hearted. Admission fee RUB300/US$5 – adults, RUB100/US$1,5 – students and children.
#17 Visit a modern art museum
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.
#18 Go back in time to St.Petersburg of the 18th century
Petrovskaya Akvatoria Scale model museum is another interesting layout to visit. Unlike the previous one where you don’t travel around Russia but you get a chance to travel back in time to see St.Petersburg and its suburbs at different historical periods and different seasons. The model occupies the area of 500m², the scale is 1:87. The layout is interactive; day changes to night, carriages pulled by horses running around, lights in the palaces and houses go on and off, people dance, water runs from the park fountains, etc. This museum will be interesting for both adults and children. Admission; RUB450/US$6,5 – adults, RUB250/US$3,5 – children.
#19 Check your watch with a cannon shot
According to the tradition, every day at 12 pm a cannon at the Peter and Paul fortress makes a blank shot. The tradition goes back to the 18th century when a blank shot was used to announce the beginning and the end of the working day in the city. You can hear the shot in the center but the best is to go to the Naryshkin Bastion of the Peter and Paul fortress where you can actually see the cannon.
#20 Eat a doughnut
The oldest pyshechnaya (doughnut place) at Bolshaya Konyushennaya st. 25 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. The coffee you get from a big aluminum 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.
#21 Visit the 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.
#22 Paddle around the city on a SUP
Spend a couple of hours paddling around on the rivers and canals in the city center. This is exclusively a summer option. Imagine paddling 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 the Griboedov canal and the Moika river, this one is suitable for beginners. Price from RUB2500/US$40, duration 2,5-3 hours, SUP board, wetsuit, life jacket, and a guide are included in the price.
#23 Go out in Rubinsteina Street
The most popular bar/restaurant street in the city, the main drinking street of St.Petersburg how it’s called sometimes. Here you can find Irish pubs, Spanish tapas, Italian pizza. Mexican burritos and a lot of different drinks and cocktails. The most recommended bars and restaurants here are; restaurant Duo Asia, Fiddler’s Green, Jazz Bar 48 Chairs, Vinostudia, Pub Mollie’s, restaurant-bar Geography and Beergeek, it’s just a short list of possible options to spend a night on Rubinsteina.
#24 Try your luck
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 the Peter and Paul’s Fortress (next to the wooden bridge) and Cat Elisey at Malaya Sadovaya street. It became a tradition to make a wish and throw a coin to a sculpture if the coin stays there your wish will come true if it fails, try again.
#25 Take a helicopter ride
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 a 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.
#26 Chill on the grass on New Holland Island
New Holland is an open-air creative space that started functioning in 2016 after several years of renovation. The artificial triangle island between the Kryukov canal and the Admiralty canal in the city center was built in the 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.
#27 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 the Russian-Japanese war, it took part in several battles in the South Pacific, then 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.
#28 Have lunch with the view
Panorama restaurants became very popular in the last couple of years, now it’s the place to go for lunch or dinner in summer. There are several rooftop restaurants in the city center, the best view you’ll get at Belvieu Brasserie a French restaurant with the great view of the Winter Palace, Alexander Column and the Moika river. Terrassa restaurant one of the top-rated city restaurants for both food and view, from here you can see Kazan cathedral. Restaurant Mansarda and the exclusive view of the St.Isaac cathedral.
#29 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 places from Dostoevsky’s novels. Nowadays many of them were turned into a showroom 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 the mosaic by little students of the Art School. Discover a 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.
If you’re heading from St.Petersburg to Moscow check out Things to do in Moscow post it’ll help to plan your visit to the Russian capital.
Interesting facts about Saint Petersburg
In the last 100 years 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, medicine, 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 the 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 on the outskirts of the city.
There are 15 cities and towns in the US with the same name – St.Petersburg.
Travel insurance for St.Petersburg
Traveling includes different kinds of risks from a flight delay or cancellation to medical emergencies and baggage loss. It’s always advisable to have travel insurance that will cover you in case if something goes wrong especially if you venture to a far away country like Russia.
Handy items to bring with on a trip
Weather in St.Petersburg is unpredictable, it can change from warm and sunny to cold in windy in a day my advice, bring some warmish clothes (hoodie, jeans, trainers) as well as summer clothing.
- Travel backpack – to use as a day pack in the city.
- Sunglasses – yes, it can be sunny in the city and if you do any water excursion sunglasses will be quite handy.
- LifeStraw – tap water is not good for drinking (at least nobody I know drinks it unless there is a filter) bringing a LifeStraw bottle of just a filter is a good idea.
Recommended books and guidebooks
- Lonely Planet St Petersburg. Kindle & Paperback, 2018
- Lonely Planet Russia. Kindle & Paperback, 2018
- Lonely Planet Russian Phrasebook & Dictionary. Paperback, 6th edition.
- St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva by Jonathan Miles. Kindle & Paperback