Traveling to Saint Petersburg. What to see and what to do in St. Petersburg.

by Ale Werner
Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia

Located east of the Baltic Sea, this city has an enormous historical and cultural importance for Europe and the world. Despite not being as visited as the popular Moscow, this gives a vibe of tranquility that many travelers appreciate. There are hundreds of activities to do in the city; like museums, churches, and parks, just to name some of it. In this travel guide to Saint Petersburg, we tell you everything you need to know before and during your trip to this destination. What to see in St. Petersburg, what to eat, where to sleep, how to get there, what to do in St. Petersburg and much more.

A little bit of history before traveling to St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is undoubtedly a place full of history. The city was founded in 1703 by Czar Peter I, who brought hundreds of engineers and artisans from all over Europe to create a modern city and get to be the envy of the rest of the world. The first construction was Saint Peter and Paul fortress, from where the city takes its name.

During the twentieth century, the city was renamed 3 times for political reasons, being still called to date Leningrad for some Russians. The name was given in honor of Lenin.

Saint Petersburg has been home to the greatest revolutions that Russia has seen, including the beginning of the Soviet Union, different labor revolutions, the Decembrists in 1825, etc. Here also hundreds of pogroms occurred (revolts where people of some races and religions were expelled from its homes just because they were different to the socially accepted ones; like Jewish, Muslims, gypsies and many other).

All this history has marked the city not only in its architecture and organization, but also in its culture and traditions.

You can access the map here.

What to see and what to do in Saint Petersburg

St. Petersburg has a lot of places, squares, museums, and churches that may be impossible to visit in a few days in the city. We know that most visitors only stay here for a few days and not for weeks, so we leave you the main places you can not miss on your trips to Saint Petersburg.

Orthodox Churches and Cathedrals

Russia professes an orthodox religion, called “Russian Orthodox Church”. This is a Christian religion, but its head is the patriarch of Moscow and of all Russia. Their beliefs and rituals vary from the one of the Catholicism, as do the interiors of their churches and prayer places.

Naval Cathedral of St. Nicholas

It is not very popular, but it is worth a visit on your trip to St. Petersburg. It has a very particular Russian baroque style. You can only enter when there is an Orthodox Mass, but if you have the opportunity it is one of the things you must visit in St. Petersburg.

Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan

It is the main cathedral of St. Petersburg. Dedicated to the Virgin of Kazan, the most venerated of Russia. It was built to be similar to St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican, so its dome and rounded columns may remind you of this popular place.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral and it’s square with the statue of Alexander I

The St. Isaac’s Cathedral church is the biggest one in St. Petersburg. Apart from seeing its inside, you can go up to the dome where you can enjoy a 360º view of St. Petersburg.

In the square that bears the same name, we can see a statue of Alexander I, Tsar of Russia between 1801 and 1825. If you are traveling to Saint Petersburg, you can not miss this impressive church.

Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood

Despite not being the most important in the city, it is the most visited by tourists due to its beautiful exterior with colorful domes and ornaments everywhere. It was built on the place of murder of Tsar Alexander II, who despite the belief is not actually buried in this place.

The best views of this church are from a nearby bridge if you want to take good pictures. We recommend this church as one of the must-see places in Saint Petersburg.

Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace Square

It is one of the most famous and largest museums in the world. The Hermitage Museum has an art collection of more than 2,500,000 objects of cultural and historical value that will leave everyone that know a little bit of history open-mouthed. No trip to Saint Petersburg is complete without visiting this place.

The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is housed in 5 buildings: The Winter Palace (former residence of the Tsars), the Small Hermitage, the Old Hermitage, the Hermitage Theater and the New Hermitage.

Only as a notion, this museum has been open for more than 250 years. His “installation” began in 1764 when the Tsars received some important paintings and, with Catherine the Great, the Hermitage began to grow rapidly after she decide to have the greatest museum in Europe and the world. She literally started buying all the art objects she could find.

In 1922 the Winter Palace became part of the Hermitage, which despite being the residence of the Tsars, does not show its old furniture. Here you can find different exhibition halls, but none of the charm and magnificence it ones had.

The Hermitage Complex is between the Neva River and the Winter Palace Square, in a dream location and ideal to enjoy a full day in the area. You can visit its different buildings and walk through the streets of Saint Petersburg.

We fully recommend that you visit it with a guide or hire an audio-guide. Otherwise it will be impossible for you to understand what you are seeing, and it really is a spectacle once you enter the museum, with its countless salons and exhibitions.

Schedule:

  • Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday: 10:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
  • Wednesday and Friday: 10:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
  • Closed on Monday.

Price: 700 RUB or approximately 18 dollars.

Where to buy tickets: If you want to avoid long lines, especially in the summer, you can buy tickets in advance here.

ALSO READ:  Traveling to Cyprus and what to see in Cyprus

Some tips for visiting the Hermitage

  • The first Thursday of each month the entrance is free for all visitors.
  • Closed on January 1 and May 9 every year.
  • Bags and coats should be left in lockers available all at entrances, for free.
Peter and Paul Fortress

Saint Peter and Paul Fortress

It is the starting point from where the city of St. Petersburg was built, it is said that here the first stone of what would later become one of the largest cities of Russia was laid.

We did not visit it because of time issues, but inside it is the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, as well as the tombs of several czars including Nicolas II and his family, the last tsars of Russia. If you are traveling to Saint Petersburg, you should not miss Saint Peter and Paul Fortress.

Cape of the Vasilievsky Island

Cape of the Vasilievsky Island. (Also called “The Arrow”)

From here you will have the best views of the Neva River with the Hermitage in the background and the Saint Peter and Paul Fortress. You can also find the naval museum and a pretty beautiful square.

Traditionally, married couples come to break bottles of champagne and take photographs, so do not be surprised if you go over a couple wandering in a white dress and suit.

Pier of the Sphinxes in St. Petersburg

 Pier of the Sphinxes

You will find it while you walk along the boardwalk of the Neva River. Here are two particular sphinxes brought directly from Egypt hundreds of years ago.

The residences of the Tsars

In addition to the Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace, it is possible to enjoy other huge and impressive residences of the Tsars in the city and around it. Some are far away from the city center, so you will have to go by bus or other means of transport. But you will not regret doing the trip, visiting them is one of the best activities to do when traveling to St. Petersburg.

Tickets to these places are sold out weeks in advance, please reserve them before arriving in Russia! Here we tell you why it is good to take tickets in advance.

Peterhof

It is a huge complex of gardens and palaces built by the Tsars and founded by Peter the Great. The parks are full of golden fountains on two levels, opening the way to buildings worthy of a movie. It is also known as the “Russian Versailles” for its beautiful garden and fountains.

Opening hours: There are different schedules for the different complexes and gardens.

  • The gardens open from 09:00 to 20:00; but the fountains only operate between 10:00 and 18:00.
  • The Grand Palace opens at 10:30 and closes at 7:30 p.m. Except on Monday that does not open and on Fridays that closes at 9:00 p.m.

Price: They also differ depending on the place of visit.

  • Lower garden and fountains: 500 RUB general admission.
  • Upper garden: free.
  • Grand Palace: 600 RUB general admission + 500 RUB audio guide.

Palace of Catherine the Great, the summer residence of the Tsars.

It is located in the village of Pushkin about 40 minutes from St. Petersburg. Here you will find the summer residence of the Russian Tsars. Inside the main building, there are huge rooms decorated with awesome luxury, including the “Amber Room”, where everything is made of this stone and you can not take photographs.

In the exterior, huge gardens await you with constructions of different cultures and epochs. Do not forget your explanatory book and your audio guide to understand what you see around you, this gardens are a must-see in St. Petersburg.

Opening Hours: The complex open from Wednesday to Monday (closed on Tuesdays) from 12:00 pm. The closing hours vary between 18:45 and 19:45 depending on the day of the week and the season. And it’s even earlier in the winter months.

Price: 700 RUB in winter and 1000 RUB in summer general admission

** There are different prices and schedules, for more information and to see the detail enter this page.

** During the winter prices are lower or free.

The Neva river and the canals of Saint Petersburg

The Neva river and the canals

Many countries have their own “Venice” and Russia is no exception. In Saint Petersburg, you will find a lot of channels, especially in the center of the city. An excellent way to see St. Petersburg from another perspective is by touring these canals and the Neva River on a boat trip.

There is a different offer of boat trips for all tastes and budgets. Bear in mind that this tours only take place during the summer, from the end of April to September. You can choose to take them during the day or night (nights are offered only during the “white nights” of the Russian summer).

Important information to plan your trip to Saint Petersburg in Russia

Best time to travel to St. Petersburg.

Being the city very north of the planet and close to the pole; during the winter the days are very cold and short, and during the summer they are warmer and longer.

  • Warm time: It is between May and September. The days are longer and the temperatures oscillate between 15º and 25º Celsius. In this time it is possible to navigate the Neva River and enjoy the parks and exteriors of the city. During May, June and July are also the “white nights” where the day lasts 19 hours and at night there is also light. There is no doubt that, if you do not like the cold, this is the best time to travel to Saint Petersburg.
  • April: A mix between cold days and clear skies. This month the melting of the Neva River usually occurs.
  • September to November: It is low season in the city and temperatures also begin to fall (average of 7º Celsius). During the autumn the trees take reddish colors and the season of the theaters also opens. It is a very good time to travel to St. Petersburg without being full of tourists wandering around, so you can get to enjoy the museums and sightseeings calmly.
  • December to March: The city is covered in snow and the channels and rivers are frozen. If you like cold and snow, this is your time to visit St. Petersburg. You will feel like in a Christmas story.

If you decide to travel in winter or in a frozen month, find here our tips to dress you on a trip to the cold.

How to get to St. Petersburg

Airplane to Saint Petersburg:

Hundreds of planes from Europe and other parts of the world arrive every day at the international airport of St. Petersburg. To get from the airport to the center of the city you must travel approximately 20 kilometers, taking the following alternatives:

  1. Subway: It is the best and fastest alternative. There is a station at the same airport and the ticket price depends on your destination. From 15 to 25 RUB.
  2. Taxi: If you are looking for comfort, you can take a taxi for 600 RUB. Fix the price before getting into the taxi, as a tourist they will always try to charge you more.
  3. Bus: We do not recommend this alternative. It is slower and more expensive than the subway.

Train to Saint Petersburg:

Taking a train to St. Petersburg is the fastest and most efficient way to get to the city from nearby places. It can even be a good alternative from other countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia if you want to save some money; you will have to spend the night on the train.

From Moscow to St. Petersburg there are 650 kilometers that are traveled by night in 9 hours (and you can buy a seat or a bed) or by day between 4 and 5 hours. Day trains are much faster.

Why do we say it is more efficient? If you travel by plane you have to asses the time for getting to the airport, checking in, waiting for the plane, the travel itself and then the time of arrival, get your luggage and take some transportation to your hotel. The train stations are always in the same city centers, you don’t have to check-in hours before the trip and all formalities are far faster.

You can see schedules, prices and classes of wagons for trips from other cities and countries here. Ticket sales start only 45 days before travel.

Bus:

The main bus station is located in the downtown area of the city, very close to the train station. Buses are a much slower way to travel between different cities in Russia and Europe, so we do not recommend them unless your budget is too limited.

Ferry:

During the summer months, it is possible to travel by ferry to some cities such as Tallinn, Stockholm, and Helsinki. But truly, the only one we could recommend because of the long journeys is the one to Helsinki, where in 14 hours you arrive at your destination. The others are trips of more than 20 or 40 hours, which makes this journeys very inconvenient and expensive. On this website, you can find more information.

Cruise:

There are multiple cruises through the Baltic that visit the main coastal cities of this cold sea.

Why travel to Saint Petersburg

Due to the weather, the time you visit the city will depend a lot on what you can do in Saint Petersburg.

During the summer people travel to St. Petersburg to enjoy the parks, navigate the Neva River and the canals, visit museums and more. Take into account the enormous amount of tourists that will be around you, 80% of visitors arrive at this time of the year.

During the winter you can enjoy a white city but very cold, so you will only do activities in enclosed spaces; like visiting museums, restaurants, and shopping centers. The days are also much shorter, so the hours to see the city in daylight are also less. Still, many prefer to visit St. Petersburg at this time of year. The snowy city will make you feel in a Christmas movie.

Traveler tips for your visit to Saint Petersburg

  • During the summer the drawbridges on the Neva river rise between 1:00 and 5:00 in the morning, so you can not travel between both sides of the river during these hours.
  • Registration in Russia: All tourists must go through a registration process that the hotels themselves make and charge separately. It is said that it is necessary if you stay more than a certain amount of days, but hotels will fin the way to make you pay anyway. Better avoid bad times and disburse those bills, you do not know how aggressive the Russians can be when you take a negative position on something they want you to do.
  • Russia is a country that believes mostly in an Orthodox religion, so the churches and cathedrals that you will see here have a design and construction very different from the traditional Christian and Catholic ones. In the churches that are in service, cover your hair if you are a woman as a sign of respect.

Festivities and festivals in Saint Petersburg

May 9: “Victory Day”.

Victory is celebrated against the German troops during the Second World War. A parade is held on Nevsky Avenue and flowers are given to the veterans.

May 27: “Birthday of the city.”

There are parades, concerts, fairs, and various activities in different places of St. Petersburg.

The first week of April:

Paskha (holy week). It is celebrated in the Orthodox churches of the city.

Last week of April: Festival of icebreakers.

Huge boats break the ice of the Baltic Sea and the Neva River.

For more information about the festivals and specific dates, visit this link.

How to move around Saint Petersburg

Some distances are very long and bicycles are not very common, so it is advisable to be informed of means of transport between the city that are safe and faster. These are the means of transportation that you can use to move around Saint Petersburg:

Subway

St. Petersburg has a complex network of underground subways that cover the entire city, including the center of it. Some are more than 120 meters underground and the entrances, in general, are well hidden, so you must go with an eagle’s eye to find them. The stations are pretty nice, especially those on line 1, so they deserve a visit if you’re attracted to these curiosities.

The tickets are quite cheap, only 17 RUB per person. If you travel with luggage, you will be forced to buy a second ticket because it also counts as “passenger”.

If you plan to spend several days in the city, you can buy a “multi-trip” card and this saves you the money through the boxes.

Buses, trolleybus or tram.

They are an excellent way to get to know the city because you can be looking through the window and enjoying the streets all the time. The tickets are paid to collectors who are in the same urban buses. Prices range between 15 and 25 RUB depending on the route. They operate between 06:00 a.m. and 01:00 a.m. every day.

Taxi

Without a doubt, it is the most comfortable way to move through St. Petersburg, but also the more expensive and you must be beware of scammers.

Before going up, negotiate the price and make sure the taxi driver understands your destination. It is good to have it written in Russian (you can ask at someone in your accommodation to do it for you) or show it on a map to the taxi driver. They usually try to cheat tourists by charging exorbitant prices.

For reference, a short journey within the city should never cost more than 200 RUB (about $ 5).

Tours in buses and boats.

You can always choose to facilitate your life and take a tour or one of these red buses with open roof-top that stop in specific places of the city (hop on – hop off). If you do not feel like fighting with the language getting lost in the street, then this will be your best alternative.

There are both buses and boats on the Neva River and the canals, and prices range from 13 to 30 euros depending on the number of days and transport you want.

Where to sleep in Saint Petersburg

St. Petersburg has significantly increased the number of accommodations in recent years, which directly responds to the number of tourists visiting the city.

Bear in mind that during the winter some of these close due to maintenance during the low season, and during the summer everything is reserved with weeks in advance, so it is important to always arrive at the city with a reservation already ready from any platform; we recommend Booking.

During the summer between 70% and 80% of the annual tourists flow visit the city, so the prices are incredibly higher compared to the rest of the months.

It is also important to look for accommodations that are in the center of the city. Otherwise, you will lose a lot of time and money taking the trips to the sightseeing spots.

If you are traveling as a family or in groups of people, search among the many apartments for rent, for example, on the Airbnb platform. They will undoubtedly be the most convenient.

Keep in mind that many hotels are located in old buildings from the Soviet times, so they also have “old-fashioned” facilities and services, do not expect luxurious or modern rooms.

Where to eat in St. Petersburg

What to eat

In Russia, the side dishes are very popular, like small dishes or salads. The most popular and you can not stop trying is the Russian salad, prepared with potatoes, peas, carrots, and peas, with a special sauce.

The stroganoff is something you can not stop trying, one of the most popular dishes in this area. Pieces of meat prepared in cream.

The pierogis are very typical and you can find them everywhere, even in street stalls. They are like pastries stuffed with cabbage, meat, potatoes, jam or whatever you can think of.

Vodka is taken in small glasses without ice between meals, you would never see it mixed with other drinks in a glass with ice like in other occidental countries.

Where to eat:

Nevsky Avenue or Nevsky Prospect: It is the longest and most historic street in St. Petersburg and home to the best and most varied restaurants in the city. Here you will find everything, it is impossible to get lost. In Russian, “restaurant” is written “pectopah”, but it is still pronounced “restaurant”. The lyrics are similar to ours, but the pronunciation is completely different.

Nightlife in St. Petersburg

Russia has an excellent nightlife, but we’re not going to lie to you … unless you’re accompanied by a Russian, enjoying local party places is practically impossible.

Nobody has an interest in speaking English or interacting with people who are not from Russia. If you still want to try your luck, remember to go out with formal attire. High shoes for women and semi-formal clothing for men. You can’t enter a discotheque with shorts and flip-flops.

The nightlife on a trip to St. Petersburg that you can not miss is in theaters and classical ballets. The most popular ones only open during the summer on white nights (June to August), so if you want to go keep that in mind. There are more than 70 theaters in St. Petersburg, but the most popular is the Mariinsky. If you are interested, buy the tickets months in advance. They sold out incredibly fast.

Shopping in St. Petersburg

Gift and other stores are usually open every day between 10:00 and 20:00, without interruption. There are supermarkets and convenience stores open 24 hours a day in the center of the city, you can ask in your accommodation which is the closest one if you want to grab something to drink or eat.

In general St. Petersburg is a very expensive place if you want to go shopping. But if it’s what you’re looking for, you can go to:

  • From the Hermitage Museum, there is Nevsky Avenue, the main street of the city where there are also many shops, banks, restaurants, and commercial life. In this street, there are also two old galleries that are worth visiting, although not for shopping: Gostiny Dvor (founded in 1748, with a subway station inside) and Passage (built in 1850, French style).
  • Gallery: A modern shopping center with hundreds of international stores, cinema, bowling lanes and much more.
  • PIK: Modern shopping center with cinema, bowling and more. There is also a supermarket open 24 hours inside.

The Souvenirs

Gostiny Dvor is the best alternative to buy souvenirs such as porcelain, matryoshka dolls, shawls, and traditionally painted woods. If you are looking for World War II items, then you should go to stores specializing in this type of item. There are hundreds, search for a recommendation in any city guide.

About antiques

Keep in mind that the purchase of antiques and art pieces needs a special permit to be taken out of the country. It is common for customs to retain these types of items. The permit can be obtained at the culture ministry. (Malaya Morskaya Street 1)

Nowadays the purchase of Russian antiques is no longer economic as it was years ago. Today it is even more expensive to buy them in Russia than in other countries because they sold almost everything during their times of need. Beware also of the imitations, which are everywhere.

Scams and dangers in San Petersbugo

More than scams, here you will find pickpockets and thieves. Leave your accommodation only with what is justly necessary and keep your belongings always close to you.

You do not need to carry around your passport, having a photocopy with you is enough. Your passport will be much safer in the safe of your room or inside your suitcase closed with a padlock.

Beware of walking alone at night … thieves can smell tourists! And to be honest, if something happens to you it will not be easy to find a Russian willing to try to understand you and help you.

The police in Russia have never been very fond of foreigners, the majority is reluctant to speak English. (We do not speak for everyone, obviously, there are policemen willing to help you, but being honest they are the minority)

A story? Once Ale got lost in the streets of Moscow and, crying, she asked for help around her to find her hotel. They just ignored her or laughed at her in the face. To crown the story, it was snowing, it was night and the temperature was -15ºC.

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