Exploring St Petersburg: why Russia’s cultural heart will win you over

Kiki Deere

written by
Kiki Deere

updated 21.12.2018

St Petersburg is a sophisticated forward-looking city that feels and looks much more European than Moscow. Its pretty canals are lined with pastel-coloured buildings that house shops, cafés and a plethora of outstanding museums.

This is Russia’s most charming city, its laidback and relaxed pace of life a welcome change from the country’s frenetic capital. Whether you’re visiting during the World Cup or still considering a trip, here’s everything you need to know before you go:

Why should I go?

The imperial capital for two centuries, St Petersburg is cluttered with grand palaces, magnificent squares and mighty fortresses. While the tsars left an invaluable mark, the city is also closely associated with the Communist era. It was here that the Communist Revolution of 1917 was fomented, and chilling memories of old Leningrad and the horrific siege of World War II are very much alive in the city’s collective memory. Fortunately St Petersburg was largely left untouched during the Soviet times, and its historical centre is today home to wonderfully preserved Neoclassical buildings.

Despite its short three-hundred-year-old existence, St Petersburg oozes history and culture: its museums house some of the world’s most important works of art, its tsarist palaces harbour invaluable riches, and its elegant buildings were once home to some of Russia’s greatest writers. Its relatively small size and simple layout makes it easy to navigate too, with most of the city centre easily explorable on foot.

One of the best times to visit is between mid-June and mid-July during the White Nights, the northern midsummer eves when the sun always glows and darkness never falls. During these few weeks, locals fill the streets enjoying the warm weather by day, before partying the night away.

Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia

Baroque facade of St Petersburg's celebrated Hermitage Museum © NaughtyNut / Shutterstock

Which sights shouldn’t I miss?

Standing majestically on the banks of the River Neva, the Winter Palace was the home of the tsars until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Today the vast Baroque building houses the Hermitage, the world’s second largest museum displaying an astounding collection of artistic riches spanning centuries, from antique bronzes and mosaics to modern European art of the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a must for any visitor to St Petersburg – you’ll need to factor in at least half a day to explore its expansive rooms and galleries.

For gorgeous views of the palace, head across the river to the Peter and Paul Fortress, today a tourist complex with museums, galleries and an important cathedral. The highlight of the fortress is the panoramic riverside vista, best enjoyed from the Nevksaya panorama walk that takes you along the rooftops of the fortifications.

Art lovers shouldn’t miss a visit to the State Russian Museum, which displays a fine collection of Russian art spanning over one thousand years. Spare some time for the Fabergé Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Fabergé eggs, along with all manner of handmade items that once belonged to the nobility and the tsars, including jewellery, silverware and porcelain.

Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg, Russia

Aerial view of St Petersburg's Peter and Paul Fortress at sunset © Drozdin Vladimir / Shutterstock

What about the city’s churches and Royal Residences?

St Petersburg’s impressive churches and cathedrals are certainly highlights. One of the city’s most distinctive landmarks, the Church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood is all multicoloured onion domes and gorgeous mosaics, providing a stark contrast to the city’s elegant Baroque and Neoclassical architecture. Nearby is Kazan Cathedral, a grand and elegant building dominated by a grand stone colonnade and modelled on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On Decembrists’ Square is St Isaac’s Cathedral, whose onion dome dominates the city skyline; for panoramic city views, climb up to the outside colonnade.

A trip to St Petersburg wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the imperial palaces of Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo, which both make for wonderful day trips. Located on the outskirts of the city, the Peterhof is renowned for its elaborate fountains and cascades, while at Tsarskoye Selo, the blue and white Russian Baroque Catherine Palace is immersed in a gorgeous landscaped park.

Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia

Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg © FOTOGRIN / Shutterstock

Where should I eat and drink?

St Petersburg has a varied dining scene, with trendy cafés and restaurants serving everything from Russian blini (pancakes) to Japanese sushi and sophisticated Western fare. Dishes worth trying include pirogi, small pies stuffed with cheese, cabbage or potatoes, and borscht, a delicious soup made with beetroot and beef. For creative takes on traditional dishes, head to Taste to Eat, a fashionable restaurant serving new Russian cuisine in warm interiors with leather seating and low lighting.

St Petersburg’s nightlife scene is fun and laidback, and is decidedly more sedate than Moscow’s. Tucked away along its canals are elegant bars and laidback student joints where youngsters gather over a few beers. For top-notch cocktails head to Poltory Komnaty, a small and intimate spot where experienced mixologists shake up creative cocktails served on little wooden boards. If live music is more your thing, The Hat Bar offers lively jazz jam sessions in cosy 1940s-50s American-style surrounds, with dozens of types of whisky and bourbon served until the wee hours.

Russian pirogi

Russian pirogi: small pies stuffed with cheese, cabbage or potatoes © comeirrez / Shutterstock

Where should I stay?

The devaluation of the rouble over the last few years has made accommodation in the city much more affordable. If you’re on a budget, there are a handful of superb hostels offering stylish accommodation bang in the city centre. Soul Kitchen is hands down one of the best hostels you’re likely to come across on your travels, a cool and trendy spot with a spacious modern kitchen and cosy dorms with privacy curtains and reading lamps. Chao, Mama is a stylish hostel with sleek contemporary interiors, with bare brick walls and photographic prints embellishing the walls. As well as dorms, you’ll find attractive apartments sleeping up to four that are a superb solution if you’re here for a few days and want a little privacy.

For a treat, bed down at Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, one of the city’s most luxurious hotels featuring elegant marble interiors with stuccoed ceilings and stained glass windows. Classically styled rooms are adorned with Russian paintings, antiques and plush fabrics, while plenty of cultural activities keep guests busy, from boat and city tours to caviar master classes where you are taught how to pair Russia’s much loved delicacy with vodka.

Soul Kitchen hostel lounge, St Petersburg, Russia

Soul Kitchen hostel lounge © Soul Kitchen

Explore more of St Petersburg with The Rough Guide to Moscow and St Petersburg. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Top image via FOTOGRIN / Shutterstock.

Kiki Deere

written by
Kiki Deere

updated 21.12.2018

Raised bilingually in London and Turin, Kiki Deere is a travel writer specialising in Italy. She has seen her work published in a number of magazines and UK broadsheets, including The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and Lonely Planet online. She has completed numerous guidebook writing assignments for Rough Guides that have taken her to far-flung corners of the globe, from the Brazilian Amazon to the remotest province of the Philippines. Follow her @kikideere on Instagram and Twitter.

Planning your own trip? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Ready to travel and discover

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍