Russia's second largest city is set around a pretty network of waterways and grand palaces – there are plenty of reasons to visit St Petersburg. St Petersburg (Санкт-Петербург), Petrograd, Leningrad and St Petersburg again – the city’s succession of names mirrors Russia’s turbulent history. Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great as a “window in the West”, three hundred years later St Petersburg, a self-assured and future-focused city, still retains more of a Western European feel than Moscow. A sophisticated capital of the tsarist Empire, the cradle of the Communist Revolution of 1917, and a symbol of Russian stoicism due to the city’s heroic endurance of a three-year Nazi siege during World War II, present-day St Petersburg has eased into modernity without sacrificing any of its old-world magnificence and charm, its shopping malls and nightclubs sitting alongside its opulent palaces. The city is easy to navigate and the pace of life is relaxed. The best time to visit St Petersburg is during the midsummer White Nights (mid-June to mid-July), when darkness never falls. From May to October all bridges across the Neva are raised from 1am to 5am – a beautiful sight, best seen from a boat.
St Petersburg’s centre lies on the south bank of the River Neva, with the curving River Fontanka marking its southern boundary. The area within the Fontanka is riven by a series of avenues fanning out from the golden spire of the Admiralty, on the Neva’s south bank. Many of the city’s top sights are located on and around Nevsky Prospekt, the backbone and heart of the city for the last three centuries, stretching from the Alexander Nevsky Monastery to Palace Square. Across the Neva is Vasilevskiy Island, with the Strelka at its eastern tip, and the Petrograd Side, home to the Peter and Paul Fortress. Beyond the River Fontanka lies Smolniy, where the Bolsheviks fomented revolution in 1917. It is worth bearing in mind the location of these different landmarks when choosing where to stay in St Petersburg.
What to do in St Petersburg
St Petersburg's population is spread across islands and peninsulas delineated by the River Neva and its tributaries. Cruises along the river can be a romantic introduction to the city. The metro covers most parts of the city of interest to visitors, but the historic centre is best explored on foot – easily done with a decent map, given the abundance of landmarks.
St Petersburg's major islands and "mainland" districts are juxtaposed in the magnificent panorama of the Neva Basin. On the south bank of the Neva, the golden dome of St Isaac's Cathedral and the needle-spire of the Admiralty loom above the area within the Fontanka, whose vibrant main axis, Nevskiy prospekt, runs past a slew of sights culminating in the Winter Palace. The seductive vistas along the Moyka and Griboedov waterways entice you to wander off in search of the Mariinsky ballet, the spot where Rasputin was murdered, or the setting for Crime and Punishment.
Two museums here are musts for any visit to St Petersburg. The Hermitage boasts superlative collections of Rembrandt, Spanish masters, French impressionists and Post-Impressionists; treasures from Siberia, Central Asia, India, Persia and China – plus the sumptuous state rooms of the Winter Palace, which forms part of the complex. You can skip the queue on a two-hour tour. If homegrown art is lacking there, that's because it's in the Russian Museum, which runs the gamut from folk art and icons to Futurism and Socialist Realism. Near to both, the Church of the Saviour on the Blood is a standing rebuke to foreign architecture and revolutionary ideas, built on the spot where Alexander II was fatally injured by a nihilist's bomb; its onion domes evoke St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, and its interior is entirely covered in gilded mosaics. If you're in the mood for some quirkier fun, head to the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines.
Opposite the Admiralty, on the spit or Strelka of Vasilevskiy Island, the Rostral Columns and Naval Museum proclaim a maritime heritage bequeathed by Peter the Great. Nearby is the Kunstkammer of anatomical curios founded by Peter as Russia's first museum. Farther along the embankment stand the Academy of Arts and the palace of Prince Menshikov.
Completing the panorama is the Peter and Paul Fortress, its bastions surrounding a soaring cathedral where the Romanov monarchs are buried, and a Prison Museum attesting to the dark side of its history. Beyond its moat, the city's zoo and mosque mark the onset of the residential Petrograd Side, with its Art Nouveau buildings and flat-museums. The Kirov Islands are the city's summer playground, with boating lakes, the Zenit Stadium and Yelagin Palace to explore.
Back on the "mainland", the area beyond Fontanka is designated Liteyniy, Smolniy and Vladimirskaya, after the three localities that define its character. Its finest sights are the Smolniy Cathedral, near the Institute from where the Bolsheviks orchestrated the October Revolution, and the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in whose cemeteries many of the city's most famous personages are buried. However, don't neglect the atmospheric Vladimirskaya district, where Dostoyevsky's apartment and the Pushkinskaya 10 artists' colony are located, along with an assortment of odd museums.
Further out, the industrial Southern suburbs are dignified by grandiose Soviet architecture such as the House of Soviets and the Victory Monument, and Tsarist triumphal arches that were re-erected in the euphoria of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany. Aside from these, there's the lovely Art Nouveau Vitebsk Station, an Outdoor Railway Museum and an atmospheric cemetery, the Literatorskie mostki.
The Vyborg Side of the Neva is similarly industrial but noteworthy in other ways. Anyone interested in the city's revolutionary past should visit Finland Station, where the first ever Lenin statue still stands, and the cruiser Aurora, preserved as a relic of 1917, is moored. Kresty Prison and the Piskarov Cemetery are sombre reminders of the victims of Stalin's purges and the hundreds of thousands who died during the Blockade. Only the Buddhist temple strikes a lighter note.
Just outside the city, the Imperial palaces are among Russia's premier attractions, particularly Peterhof with its magnificent fountains, and the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo with its fabled Amber Room. A guided tour of the latter allows visitors to skip the queue. Though both deserve a full day each, it's possible to combine Catherine Palace with another palace, Pavlovsk, a tour that can be arranged for you. Another stunner is Yusupov Palace.
The island naval base of Kronstadt is alive with naval history. While the Gulf coast has several beach resorts that come alive in summer, the real draw for the city dwellers are the forests, lakes and weekend dachas (cottages) of the Karelian Isthmus. This region once belonged to Finland and was previously contested by Russia and Sweden, as is evident at Vyborg, near the Finnish border.
On Lake Ladoga, the prison-fortress of Shlisselburg is a poignant reminder of those who suffered there in Tsarist times and its resistance to the Nazi Blockade, while the Valaam archipelago attests to the centuries-old monastic tradition in Russia's northern lakes, whose isolation gave rise to the amazing wooden churches of Kizhi island in Lake Onega.
Ladoga is linked to the great inland waterways of Russia, which once enriched Novgorod. Its medieval Kremlin, parish churches and outlying monasteries merit a full day's exploration, while local hotels are cheap enough to make an overnight excursion from St Petersburg quite feasible.
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St Petersburg now has a huge array of hotels, from multinational chains to chic mini-hotels or guesthouses with real character. Accommodation is likely to be by far the largest chunk of your daily expenditure. Accommodation agencies and the Internet allow tourists to shop around for discounts at hotels. This applies equally to deluxe hotels, old Soviet behemoths, and the many new mini-hotels that market themselves online while staying invisible at street level. While the supply of accommodation has improved enormously, it still falls short of demand in June, July and August, making reservations essential at this time.
The Admiralty and Decembrists’ Square
The Admiralty, perched at the western end of Nevsky Prospekt, was founded in 1704 as a fortified shipyard. It extends 407m along the waterfront from Palace Square to Decembrists’ Square, named after a group of reformist officers who, in December 1825, marched three thousand soldiers into the square in a doomed attempt to proclaim a constitutional monarchy. Today, Decembrists’ Square is dominated by the Bronze Horseman, Falconet’s 1778 statue of Peter the Great and the city’s unofficial symbol.
Alexander Nevsky Monastery
At the eastern end of Nevsky Prospekt lies the Alexander Nevsky Monastery (daily June–Aug 6am–9pm; rest of the year till 8pm; free; Ploshchad’ Aleksandra Nevskogo), founded in 1713 by Peter the Great and one of only four monasteries in the Russian Empire with the rank of lavra, the highest in Orthodox monasticism. Two famous cemeteries lie in the monastery grounds: the Necropolis for Masters of the Arts, where Dostoyevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Glinka lie, and, directly opposite, the Lazarus Cemetery, the oldest in the city with elaborately decorated tombs. Tickets are required for entry to both (April–Oct 9.30am–6pm; Nov–March 9.30am–5.30pm, closed Thurs; R200).
The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood
The multicoloured, onion-domed Church on Spilled Blood at 26 Kanala Groboedova embankment (daily except Wed 11am–7pm, last entry 6pm;, R200, student R120) was built in 1882 on the very spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by student radicals a year earlier. With an interior covered with stunning mosaics, the church is one of St Petersburg’s most striking landmarks, quite unlike the dominant Neoclassical architecture.
Drinking and Nightlife
St Petersburg isn’t a city that goes to bed early. Whether it’s jazz-fusion, trance, grunge, S&M or gender bending, there are clubs for all tastes. Local DJs and foreign guests perform at most of these, and there are lots of one-off theme parties. Many double as live music venues for acts spanning the range of tastes from home-grown ska to thrash, plus alternative and world music bands from abroad – big-name acts are likely to stage concerts in one of the city’s sports palaces or stadiums.
Admission charges and prices of drinks are modest in most places, but a few clubs are pricey on both counts.
St Petersburg’s restaurants are as diverse as the food they serve. From noon to 4pm on weekdays, many places offer a set business lunch of three or four courses at lower prices than you’d pay dining à la carte, though the quality and quantity may not be as good.
Cafés and bars in St Petersburg run the gamut from humble eateries to trendy watering holes, and since most places serve alcohol the distinction between them is often a fine one.
Another phenomenon is street cafés (usually open from May to late Sept) where you can have a coffee, beer or hamburger, while watching the world go by.
Theatres tend to close for the summer until mid-September. For listings and events pick up the quarterly freebie Where St Petersburg, In your Pocket or the Friday St Petersburg Times.
St Petersburg was home to some of the greatest writers of Russian literature, including Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Nabokov. The Pushkin House Museum at Moyki Reki nab. 12 (daily except Tues 10.30am–5pm; closed every last Fri of the month; R200; Nevsky Prospekt) was where the poet wrote his last poem and letter before the duel that killed him two days later – you can see the pair of duelling pistols and the waistcoat he wore on that tragic day. Dostoevksy enthusiasts should head to the Dostoevsky Memorial Museum at Kuznechny per. 5/2, (Tues–Sun 11am–6pm; R160, student R80; Vladimirskaya), where the novelist lived briefly in 1846 and then again from 1878 until his death three years later. Here he initially worked on his first story The Double, and later on his last novel The Brothers Karamazov. The former home of the prose master behind Lolita is the Vladimir Nabokov House Museum at ul. Bolshaya Morskaya 47 (Tues–Fri 11am–6pm, Sat noon–5pm; Admiralteskaya), where the novelist lived until 1917. You can watch a video interview with Nabokov as well as peruse curious memorabilia including part of his butterfly collection that was the inspiration behind many of his novels.
Curving Kazan Cathedral (daily 8.30am–6pm Nevsky Prospekt), built between 1801 and 1811, was modelled on St Peter’s in the Vatican and is unique in die-straight St Petersburg. The cathedral was built to house a venerated icon, Our Lady of Kazan, reputed to have appeared miraculously overnight in Kazan in 1579, and later transferred to St Petersburg, where it resided until its disappearance in 1904. In Soviet times the cathedral housed the Museum of Atheism, dedicated to proving that “religion is the opium of the people”, but today it offers a refreshing contrast to many other St Petersburg churches, teeming with worshippers, not tourists.
Don’t miss the Kunstkamera at Universitetskaya nab. 3, Vasilevsky Island (11am–6pm, closed Mon & last Tues of the month; R200; Vasileostrovskaya), Russia’s oldest public museum, founded by Peter the Great in 1714 in order to promote scientific research and educate the general public in the sphere of medical research. All sorts of monstrosities are on display, from malformed fetuses to infants’ hearts, carefully preserved in vinegar or vodka.
Museum of Russian Political History
The Museum of Political History at Kuibysheva ul. 2/4 (daily except Thurs 10am–6pm; R200; closed last Mon of the month; free entry on public holidays; Gorkovskaya) gives an insight into Soviet-era political and social life, displaying children’s textbooks reworked to demonize the kulaks (moneyed peasants), appalling photographic evidence of Stalin’s purges, and film footage recalling how Western culture enthralled Soviet youngsters in the 1960s and 1970s. Helpful attendants can provide English-language booklets.
Along the Neva embankment to the west of the Admiralty, the focal point of the Rumyantsev Mansion (Angliyskaya nab. 44; daily except Wed 11am–6pm, Tues until 5pm; R110, student R70; Sadovaya) is the exhibition on Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War, which details the horrors of life in a desperate city, besieged by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944. The most harrowing exhibit is the diary of 11-year-old Tanya Savicheva, who continued going to school as, one by one, her entire family died of starvation.
The Russian Museum
The Mikhailovsky Palace, worth a visit for its beautifully decorated rooms alone, houses the main part of the Russian Museum (4 Inzhenernaya ul.; Mon 10am–5pm, Wed–Sun 10am–6pm; R300, student R150). Its collection of Russian art, the world’s finest, ranges from fourteenth-century icons to the particularly impressive avant-garde collection from the early twentieth century in the Benois Wing.
Smolniy Convent and Institute
Smolniy Convent (3/1 Rastrelli Square, daily except Wed 11am–7pm, R150, student R90; Chernyshevskaya), a peerless ice-blue Rastrelli Baroque creation that’s now a concert and exhibition hall (concerts R100–600; exhibitions R70–200), is the focal point of the Smolniy district. The neighbouring Smolniy Institute (pl. Proletarskoy diktaturi 3) is the headquarters of St Petersburg’s Governor, but was built between 1806 and 1808 to house the Institute for Young Noblewomen; Lenin orchestrated the October Revolution of 1917 from here. A statue of the man himself still stands in front of the building, and as you enter the Institute’s grounds look out for the now familiar Communist slogan: “Workers of the World, Unite!” (Пролетарии всех стран, соединяйтесь!).
St Isaac’s Cathedral
Looming above Decembrists’ Square, St Isaac’s Cathedral (daily except Wed 11am–7pm, colonnade till 6pm; R200, student R120, colonnade R100; Nevsky Prospekt) is one of the glories of St Petersburg’s skyline, its gilded dome the third largest in Europe. The opulent interior is equally impressive, decorated with fourteen kinds of marble. Climb the 262 steps to the outside colonnade to appreciate the cathedral’s height (101.5m) and for an expansive view of the city.
The Summer Garden
Most popular of all St Petersburg’s public gardens is the Summer Garden on Kutuzov Embankment, commissioned by Peter the Great in 1704 and rebuilt by Catherine the Great in the informal English style that survives today (daily May–Sept only, 10am–9pm). Also charming is the Mikhailovsky Garden behind the Russian Museum (daily 10am–8pm) and Marsovo Pole (the Field of Mars) on the other side of the River Moyka where a flame burns for the fallen of the Revolution and civil war (1917–21).
Purchased by the aristocratic Yusupov family in 1830, the elaborately decorated Yusupov Palace on the Nab. Reki Moiky 94 (daily 10.45am–5pm; R500, student R380, including audioguide; Nevsky Prospekt) was the scene of the murder of the sinister monk, Rasputin, deemed to have had undue influence over the royal family. In 1916, Felix Yusupov and his associates poisoned Rasputin in the cellar (where you can see a wax likeness of the man). When the poison failed to take effect, they shot him, rolled him up in a carpet and threw him in the river; he finally died from drowning, having clawed his way through much of the ice.