There’s no way to travel to Saint Petersburg, Russia, without falling in love with the city.
If you visit the Russian capital of culture, short after wandering alongside the rivers and wonder at the majestic buildings, you’ll be thinking you need more. If you explore the City of White Nights in summer, you’ll be questioning how it looks like in winter, when it’s covered by snow. The Venice of the North will make you marvel at any time of year. That’s why I didn’t write a St. Petersburg travel guide, but a love letter instead. Because just telling you what to see is not enough for you to book that ticket, telling you how I felt in Piter (as it’s known by the locals) for sure will be. I was so right adding St. Petersburg to my bucket list!
Travel to Saint Petersburg
There’s no better word to define Saint Petersburg than grand. The only place in the world that had ever given me that feeling was Paris. It’s one of my favorite cities in the entire globe. I fell in love with it because of its effortless beauty. It wowed me without even trying. It’s such a magical feeling that I keep going back every chance I get, every time loving it more and more. I never thought that another place could make me feel like that. Until I reached Saint Petersburg. From the moment I entered the city, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
It was built in 1703 by Peter the Great to be the capital of the Russian Empire (and it remained the imperial capital for two centuries). It was meant to be grand, suited for the royal family. And so it was.
Peter traveled extensively around Europe and wanted his city to have the best of what he loved. I don’t know if this is what he had in mind, but what I saw was the charm of the Venice canals, the Parisian broad avenues, the magnificence of British palaces, the details of the architecture of Vienna, and the greenery of Stockholm and Amsterdam.
Every corner is a photo op, one beautiful building after another. No matter where you walk in its massive center, you’ll be amazed.
Everything looks recently renovated, the streets are clean, there’re no stray animals. Regardless of the economic situation of the country, you see no poverty. There are more museum and art exhibitions than you’ll ever have time to visit. Statues all over town serve as reminders of its royal origins. And people in imperial costumes are offering tourists the opportunity to pose with them for a regal memento.
I thought I’d spend a short time in Piter, but I ended up staying for 9 days. I was treated to mostly sunny ones (only a few out of the blue short rains, just to remind me how north I am). It was ideal to wander the photogenic streets and get lost in their beauty. Now I wonder how magical it would be to experience it during winter, the season for when the city was conceived. Regardless of the weather, I dare you to set foot in Saint Petersburg and not fall in love.
Things to see and do in St. Petersburg: a love letter
As I already started falling in love with the city at first sight, I wanted to begin my journey exploring Saint Petersburg from the very best to feed the love. There’s no doubt that the best would be the Hermitage. If for whatever reason you only must choose one sight, let it be this grandiose museum. The collection is great. You get to wander the halls surrounded by the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Degas, El Greco, Canova, Matisse, Monet, Renoir, Kandinsky, and so many others.
But its most amazing feature is the building itself: The Winter Palace. Across the arch of the General Staff Building is the massive Dvortsovaya Ploshchad –the Palace Square, the city’s main meeting point. In the middle there’s the Alexander Column, built to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon. The square is reason enough to visit the city, but there’s one building that, I’m sure, will be one of the most eye-catching edifices you’ve ever seen. Welcome to the Hermitage. Its architecture is exquisite. Intricate golden details above each of the hundreds of white windows and dozens of sculptures guarding the building from the roof. To enter this gorgeous green landmark I passed through a courtyard dotted with trees, as if they were guards greeting me. Once inside, a red carpet took me to a magnificent staircase. As I passed through the rooms, I always kept in mind to look up, since the ceilings are heavily decorated as well. I left the whole morning for this beauty, taking my time to be properly impressed.
The exterior of the New Hermitage is also quite a sight, with granite pillars in the form of Atlantis. My city is flirting with me, even through its art!
Budget tip: the museum entrance is free on the third Thursday of every month. It’ll save you the 700 rubles entry fee, plus an extra fee of 200 rubles to take photos (about 12€ in total), but it’ll take you a while to get in (I waited for about two hours). Don’t be discouraged by this as the museum is huge, so the crowds you see at the entrance rapidly dissipate.
Also, students of all nationalities have free entrance (remember to bring your card).
Check their official site for opening times and prices.
I heard people complaining about it not being truly Russian, but a copy of the Western European palaces, so not worth a visit. Let me tell you, those people are crazy. This is as Russian as it gets. From Imperial Russia, of course. It resembles the palaces I got to see in the UK, France and Spain, but there’re many features that reminded me of the striking Catherinian era: decoration objects, paintings of emperors and noblemen, furniture, patterns in the fabrics, royal attires, china and silverware, weaponry. It, in fact, looks very Russian.
If you’re “disappointed” by the Westernness of the exhibition, head to the Russian Museum for local art.
Nevsky Prospekt & the Savior on the Spilled Blood
After having the most romantic morning surrounded by handsome paintings and statues, I emerged from the fairytale world where the Hermitage took me. The next logical step was to stroll the city’s main avenue: Nevsky Prospekt. This gorgeous street houses many of the St. Petersburg’s treasures. It starts with the Admiralty, the U-shaped building that houses the Russian Navy, that was originally designed as a fortified shipyard. It has a shiny, pointy and very tall spire that defines the skyline of the city. The avenue ends at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, the monastery that holds the relics of the saint.
Nevsky Prospekt is not only a street to see attractions, but an attraction itself. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment uses it as a setting. Maybe not the most romantic thing to have in mind, but a dream come true for a geek like me. Seems like my city is not only flirting, but trying to get me to completely fall ❤️
With novels and tales on my mind, I’m delighted to stop at Dom Knigi, a gorgeous Art Nouveau building, home to a huge bookstore and a café. I take my time wandering around the literature masters, enjoying the smell of new books.
As every great love story must have an episode of heartbreak, my first sight of the other landmark of the city, the church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, was of scaffoldings. I approached it with fear, thinking the whole thing was going to be hiding from me, so when I turned around Griboyedov channel embankment, I slowly started to look up: from the river, to the majestic buildings in both sides, to one of the most exquisite edifices I’ve ever seen, only concealing its top tower, but showing the full splendor of everything else. The characteristic onion-dome dotted church stands as a breath of fresh air in a sea of Baroque and Neoclassical styles throughout the city. It got its peculiar name because it was built in the place where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
Still in awe, I made my way back to Nevsky Prospekt to encounter the imposing neoclassical Kazan Cathedral. Modelled after Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Basilica, this colossal church is dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, one of the most sacred icons of Russia. I went across its massive bronze doors and wandered around devoted pilgrims pleading to the icons.
A quick detour led me to Mikhaylovskiy Skver, a green park that displays a monument of the beloved poet Alexander Pushkin.
As the magnificent avenue still had a lot in store for me, I rushed back. A cozy building that looks like an art gallery hides a fancy shopping arcade –Passage, just across the street from the big Gostiny Dvor shopping mall.
Aptly located next to the National Library of Russia is the monument to Catherine the Great. Saint Petersburg owes a great deal to the cherished monarch, since it was her who led Russia to a Golden Age of Enlightenment. Catherine was recognized as a patron of the arts, literature and education. The Hermitage began as the empress’ personal collection, and it was during the Catherinian Era when it was ruled that the skyline of the city couldn’t be higher than the Winter Palace and that spacing between buildings was prohibited. Peter the Great gave birth to the city, but it was Catherine who gave it its soul.
Just across the street is the Eliseyev Emporium. After showing me many impressive sights, my city invited me into this gorgeous Art Nouveau building, where I found a delightful store with delicious cakes and a piano concert waiting for me. If that’s not romance, I don’t know what it could be!
Just a few steps ahead I encountered the Anichkov bridge, the oldest one over the Fontanka river. Its main feature is a set of sculptures: The Horse Tamers. It’s said they depict men struggle against the elements and the triumph over the wild, making it a monument to the Russian people.
Other must see attractions in St. Petersburg
After surrendering to the beauty of Palace Square, exploring the treasures of the Hermitage and strolling through the magnificent Nevsky Prospekt, I was completely in love. There was nothing else St. Petersburg could do to make me fall harder. Or so I thought.
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is another impressive sight, but after climbing the 400 steps to its observation deck, the panorama of the city at my feet made my heart beat even faster. I stop to appreciate the myriad of details this building houses. It’s the biggest cathedral in St. Petersburg and allegedly the fourth biggest in the world. Nowadays it’s back to its heyday glory, so it’s hard to imagine that during the Soviet days it was used as a Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism.
In the garden outside there were people sunbathing, showing their appreciation for the rare sunny days.
Another skyline definer is Peter and Paul Cathedral’s spire with an angel holding a cross at the top. It’s the main sight of the Peter and Paul Fortress and the burial site of the imperial family (most of the tsars are buried here, including Peter and Catherine the Great). Yet another reminder of the royal lineage of my city.
When crossing back to Petrogradsky island I couldn’t help myself and I took a little detour to admire the beautiful Saint Petersburg mosque. The blue titles transported me –only for a few seconds– back to Isfahan in Iran…
There are many many bridges over the rivers and canals. They can be crossed, walked alongside and cruised, but during summer they become magical. Not only they are there to allow us to hop from island to island, but they also live to wow us. From April to November, 22 bridges are drawn, creating a nightly show for all to see.
Pro tip: make sure you’re in the right side of the river when watching the opening of the bridges, otherwise you might get stuck in your viewpoint until they’re closed again –around 5 AM.
My city knew how much I loved the Winter Palace, so it arranged for me to have another viewpoint of the stunning building. I cross over to Vasilevsky island to look up close at three red big pillars ornamented with bows of captured ships – a way to display the Empire’s naval power: The Rostral Columns. The vista of the Hermitage with the Neva running at its feet is breathtaking.
After witnessing this much grandness, I couldn’t picture how the city looked like before Peter the Great, so I headed to his wooden cabin, the first building of St. Petersburg, to get a sight of the humble beginnings. This is where the tsar lived, and even though it’s delicately built, it’s not more than a shed in a park (well, for imperial standards). I should have known how unassuming Peter the Great was judging by the statue in his honor, where he’s working on a boat instead of posing regally.
Across the river the lovely summer garden was calling my name –it’s the perfect spot to wander aimlessly and enjoy silence in the middle of the buzzling metropolis. The summer colors are beautiful, with one shade of green after the next, but I’m sure that the garden thrives in fall, when the greens are met with reds, oranges and yellows. I promised myself I’d be back to see it. Every summer fling ends with a promise of meeting again, and ours –Piter and mine’s– couldn’t be different.
The main thing I didn’t do was to go to a concert, ballet or opera. The buildings of the philharmonics and the theaters look stunning, but I’m sure the interiors, especially when they become alive with music, must be spectacular. This might be the first date of our future encounter…
The city knows its tourists. Seems like they all wander around the same areas, because in the public buses you’ll hear the English version of the names of the stops, but only in the touristy spots. If you venture out of the must-sees, the English stops, and you start seeing a more authentic Russia.
Non touristy things to do in St. Petersburg
Minutes became hours, and hours became days while having this affair, so after spending all sorts of time sightseeing and eating blini and pirogi –at some point– I had to have some work done. I was recommended a Time Café and I’m happy to pass on the knowledge because it’s such a cool concept. They are a sort of coworking space, where you have desks and couches, and a kitchenette with coffee, tea and some sweets. You get a clock when you enter, and you pay a few rubles according to the time you’re there (the whole day will set you back around 10€, much less than a few cups of coffee anywhere else).
I has to start saying goodbye to Piter, but there was one more sight I wanted to see: Annekirche –St. Anne’s church. It was built as a Lutheran church in the late 18th century, and closed in 1935, when it was transformed into a cinema and then a nightclub. After being badly damaged by fire, it became an art gallery. Today part of the building went back to its original purpose, the rest is an exhibition hall topped with a café. Regardless of its use, the burnt building is hauntingly beautiful, and amazing for photographers looking for something special.
I continued on to the Tavricheskiy Sad. A green king in the middle of the city, this park only sees locals. With no other tourist in sight, I spend the day people watching while trying to be strong enough to leave Piter behind.
Don’t worry, dear, you’ll see me again 😊
Where is St. Petersburg?
The most cosmopolitan and Western (geographically and culturally) of Russia’s cities sits in the Baltic Sea, at the head of the Gulf of Finland. Saint Petersburg raises around the many arms of the Neva River. It’s the second biggest metropolis of the country, with a population of more than 6 million people (which makes it the northernmost metropolis in the world). It’s known as the Russia’s cultural capital, and its city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Due to the Neva river and the many canals that bath the city, it’s known as “The Venice of the North”; and because of the long summer days, when the city doesn’t go completely dark for about a month, it’s also nicknamed “The City of White Nights”. It was founded as Saint Petersburg (Санкт-Петерб́ург: Sankt Peterburg in Russian) but it has been renamed due to historical events: first Petrograd during World War I, then Leningrad in 1924. It went back to its original name after the fall of the USSR.
The summers are mild, with and average maximum in July of 23°C (73°F), and the winters are cold, with an average minimum in February of −8.5°C (16.7°F).
Is St. Petersburg safe?
I felt completely safe in the city as a solo female traveler. I’ve been to Moscow a few years ago, and the sense of safety is quite different. In the capital I felt more foreigner, as people were staring at me, with a look that said “what the hell are you doing here?”. In Moscow’s defense, it might have been because I visited in winter, and I was probably the only foreigner in town. Actually, I don’t think I wouldn’t have survived without a phrasebook. St. Petersburg was the opposite. I visited in summer, and I was one of the many tourists. I walked around everywhere I wanted to go, even at night, and I never felt at risk.
With that being said, if you’re a LGBTI+ traveler, avoid public displays of affection. Shame you have to worry about this, but no matter how western the city is, it’s still in Russia.
In any case, following common sense and basic travel tips will keep you out of trouble.
Is St. Petersburg expensive?
Absolutely not. How much you spend will obviously depend on the level of luxury of your trip, but if you’re in a tight budget, you’ll thrive in Saint Petersburg. From inexpensive food to almost free accommodation, you’ll easily make your money last. There’re plenty of decent hostels for less than 5€, and a filling meal in a local fast food chain (like Теремок) will only set you back another 5€.
How to reach St. Petersburg?
The city is well connected to other Russian cities, and to its neighbors’ capitals via train, bus and ferry. You can easily reach St. Petersburg from Helsinki and Tallinn, and with a bit of patience from Riga, Vilnius, Minsk and Stockholm.
It also has an international airport (Pulkovo airport – LED), only 20 km from the city, with frequent flights from other Russian cities, and from all over Europe and Asia.
Some of us are lucky because we don’t need a visa to travel to Saint Petersburg, Russia. In this link you’ll find a list of the nationalities that can travel to Putinland only with their passports.
If you’re not there, do not fear. Because of the close ties of St. Petersburg with the west, and the general complication of obtaining a Russian visa, the government created a special e-visa for Saint Petersburg. You can apply in this link.
Now, if you arrive by ferry or cruise and your stay will be for less than 72 hours, you can get a blanket visa by booking an excursion with a local travel agency. The downside of this arrangement is that you have no freedom whatsoever to explore on your own. You need to sleep in your ship, and you can only go ashore accompanied by a licensed guide. Unless your visit is very short and you were thinking of booking a tour anyways, I’d suggest going for the aforementioned hassle-free e-visa.
Day trips from St. Petersburg
If you have a bit of extra time and feel like discovering what’s around St. Petersburg, here are the best excursions from the city: