Wondering what to do in St Petersburg, Russia? Welcome to a fascinating and big city, full of treasures (literally millions of them) and some architecture masterpieces. And when we say millions we refer, of course, to the millions of pieces of art that the museums in Saint Petersburg hold.
Many buildings remain intact from centuries ago, making this place a living piece of history. It's also the home of many traditional Russian dishes, and the best part is that it is actually not expensive at all for international travelers.
Where is St Petersburg, Russia?
St Petersburg is located all the way on the west side of Russia, making it much different than other cities in the country. It is much more Eastern European in spirit, and is a lively and vibrant coastal city along the Baltic Sea.
How to Get to St Petersburg, Russia
St Petersburg is the second biggest city in Russia, and has its own airport. Pulkovo Airport is located just 20 km south of the city, and can be reached by public bus, metro, or taxi.
Another popular way to visit St Petersburg, Russia, is by cruise. This is actually how we visited, and had the pleasure of going there for an overnight stop every two weeks! Baltic cruises usually stop in St Petersburg for 2-3 days, and run in the summer months.
Whenever traveling there are things that you may forget about, that may be different from the country you are coming from. Here are a few of the local adjustments to put into consideration while traveling to Russia.
The official language in St Petersburg is Russian. Russia has a different alphabet than the Western European countries, so it can be much more difficult to get around when it comes to reading signs and such.
Despite St Petersburg being a big city, there are a lot of people that are quite proud, and don't like to speak English (even if they know some). However, since there are many tourists, it's easy to find restaurants offering menus in multiple languages.
The currency used in Russia is the ruble. This year the Russian ruble is one of the strongest currencies in the world, and has actually jumped 40%! Unfortunately this means Russia isn't quite as cheap as it was when we visited back in 2018. Currently (June 2022) 1 USD is equal to about 57 Rubles.
Russia uses plug types C, and F, which is the same as most European countries. The standard voltage is 220 V and 50 Hz.
The water in St Petersburg comes from a lake that has a lot of metals. Due to this, we don't suggest drinking from the tap. You can still boil water to use it for cooking, but we wouldn't drink it otherwise.
It is typical to leave around 10% extra for a tip in Russian restaurants. Tipping can only be done in cash, and should be given directly to your server.
What to Do in St Petersburg, Russia: Sites to See
Now that you know the basics for traveling to St Petersburg, let's take a look around! Here is a list of what to do in St Petersburg, Russia for site seeing.
1. St. Isaac's Cathedral
This is an architectural masterpiece. Currently the 4th largest cathedral in the world, Saint Isaac's Cathedral is also the largest orthodox basilica in the world. Nowadays it has become a museum for its visitors, but there's still a small area assigned for regular worship.
Don't forget to go all the way to the top, the views of the city are incredible!
2. Winter Palace
This amazing building was once the official residence of the Russian emperors (from the XVIII until the XX century). They built it on a monumental scale to reflect the power of Imperial Russia. From the palace, the Tsar ruled over 22,400,000 sq km (8,600,000 sq mi).
Today, the Winter Palace is part of the Hermitage Museum, and should definitely be on your list of what to do in St Petersburg, Russia.
3. Hermitage Museum
This is the second biggest art museum in the world, and definitely a must if you visit Saint Petersburg. As mentioned above, the old Winter Palace and its precincts form it. There are around 5 million people visiting every year, making it the 8th most visited museum in the whole world.
You can find over 3 million pieces of art in it, as well as a marvelous interior design. Every room will make you want to stay contemplating it for hours. If you're into art, architecture or just enjoy monumental things in general, then this is for you.
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4. Church of the Savior on the Spilled blood
Probably the most popular highlight from Saint Petersburg, this church has some bloody history behind it. The imperial family built it between 1883 and 1907 in the same spot where political nihilists killed emperor Alexander II in 1881. The sufix "spilled blood" refers to his murder.
Nowadays it became a museum, like many other churches. Its interior has an incredible size of over 7,500 square meters of mosaics, with biblical scenes & figures. If you're wondering what to do in St Petersburg, Russia, then this is a must.
4. Peterhof Palace
If the first time you see this place it has a big impact on you, then the goal has been accomplished. Tsar Peter was behind the idea of building Peterhof Palace, and the main goal was to outshine Versailles. Although it is not bigger in size, it definitely shines enough to impress millions of visitors every year.
It has many jaw-dropping buildings and breathtaking gardens that are worth getting lost in them for hours. Peterhof isn't strictly located inside Saint Petersburg; to get there, you will have to hop on a hydrofoil speedboat (which is a fun thing itself) to get here.
5. General Staff Building
Located in front of the Winter Palace, the General Staff Building is a great example of the Empire-style architecture in Russia. It's central triumphal arch may remind you of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, with its horses and carriages.
It is now part of the Hermitage Museum, although it is not physically connected to the Winter Palace. You can find the Palace Square between them.
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6. Yusupov Palace (a.k.a. Moika Palace)
Built on the Moika River, it is one of the few aristocratic homes in Saint Petersburg to have retained many of its original interiors. Once the home of the wealthy Yusupov family, it is most famous for being the scene of the assassination of Grigory Rasputin.
7. Catherine Palace
It is no news that Saint Petersburg is full of incredible architecture, and this building isn't left behind at all. Catherine the Great built it to escape the many obligations at court. It's famous for its Amber Room, destroyed in WWII. Despite being destroyed, Russian artists created a perfect replica of it, that you can enjoy inside this palace.
8. Catherine Park
As you may be guessing, every great palace should have its own great set of gardens, right? Behind Catherine Palace you will find this beautiful and well maintained park. It has two main areas: A formal garden and a landscape park.
Unfortunately, its most interesting sculptures (the Upper and Lower Baths and the ruined Hermitage Pavilion) are not currently open for tourism.
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9. State Russian Museum
Although the Hermitage Museum usually gets the focus of attention, this building isn't any less beautiful. Its name was, until 1917, the "Imperial Museum of His Majesty Alexander III", and it's dedicated entirely to Russian artists.
Located in the Mikhailovsky Palace, this museum is, along with the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the most important of its specialty.
10. Peter & Paul Fortress
This is literally the foundational spot of Saint Petersburg. Tsar Peter erected here a wooden hut back in the early XVIII century, where they built the fortress after.
Its tower remains as the highest building in the city, with 122.5 meters (401.9 feet), and its interiors are just fascinating.
11. Nevsly Prospect
Nevski Avenue is the main avenue of Saint Petersburg and one of the streets with the longest history in the world. With a lenght of 4 kilometers, it shows endless contrasts. Great vestiges of the modern world can be found as well as poverty and opulence.
Countless bridges and palaces cross it and frame it. It also has honor of sharing with Paris the first idea of a boulevard-shopping center in the world.
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12. Kazan Cathedral
Kazan (a.k.a. Cathedral of Our Lady Kazan) is a Russian Orthodox Cathedral that shows itself in Nevsly Prospect since 1811. It is a model for the neoclassical style that the Helsinki Cathedral used for its design, in Finland.
13. Kronstadt & Naval Cathedral
This Orthodox Cathedral, built in the early XX century, belonged to be the Russian navy as its main church dedicated to all fallen seamen. It's located on Kronstadt, a port city inside Kotlin Island, one hour away from the city center.
Kronstadt is part of many UNESCO World Heritage sites in Saint Petersburg.
14. Smolny Convent
If you visited (or plan on visiting) Saint Petersburg for its monumental masterpieces, let us welcome you to la crème de la crème.
The designer was the same Italian artist who redesigned the Winter Palace, Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. It was built to house the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth. before she eventually took the throne.
What to Do to St Petersburg, Russia: Activities
Now that you have seen what to do in St Petersburg, Russia, we have some fun things to do! Here are a few of our favorites:
1. Watch Russian Ballet at Mariinsky Theater
Russian opera and ballet productions are world renowned. And out of all well-known places to go enjoy it, Mariinsky Theater has the highest rank. So when you visit Saint Petersburg, make sure you book tickets for any of its performances during your stay.
Its interior designs and the amazing talent of the Russian ballet dancers will fascinate you!
2. Watch the Bridges Open at Night
There are 12 bridges in Saint Petersburg, and 9 of them open on a daily basis. Far from being meant to entertain tourists, the bridges open on a strict timetable to let cargo river ships go through, along the Neva river to the Gulf of Finland and in the opposite direction.
The good thing is that, even though it isn't made for that, it actually is a highlight for tourism. Depending on where you're staying, make sure to check the times of opening and closing for the nearest bridge so you can enjoy.
Note: Be aware that if you go out at and want to go back to your accommodation early at night, you might find yourself trapped because cars won't be able to go through.
3. Take a Canal Tour
If you're visiting in the summer, a boat trip along St Petersburg's canals and rivers is a must. There are private boats and big cruises you can choose from, and it's recommendable to book them in advance. However, for what we saw you can still get tickets pretty much for any time & date.
How to Move Around St Perterburg, Russia
Saint Petersburg is a big urban center (the second most populated city in Russia, after Moscow) so transportation here is quite easy to use. Luckily, nowadays most of tourism information, metro signs and city maps are available both in Russian and English, make it way easier for travelers to find their destination.
Another great thing is that transportation, both public and private, is cheap. You can take a public bus or metro for less than one US dollar, or even take a taxi or uber for just a couple of bucks.
Public Transportation in St Petersburg, Russia
Taking the metro would be the fastest and most efficient way to move around. It has a big network and it works pretty well on its daily schedule. Buses are also well organized and their frequency is high.
Private Transportation in St Petersburg, Russia
Private transportation in St Petersburg is rather cheap. To give you a reference of how much you would spend on private transportation, like Uber or a Taxi, here's what to expect. We many times used Uber in 20/25 min rides that costed us US$3 only- dirt cheap! (Note: These prices are from 2018 and may have changed slightly.)
Finally, don't forget that you can use speedboats not only to get to places that are inaccesible from land but also to get faster to certain destinations that are located nearby the water.
What to Do in St Petersburg, Russia for Food
Food is a huge part of visiting somewhere new, and we absolutely loved Russian cuisine! Here are a few things you have to try while visiting St Petersburg, Russia.
It's a red vegetable sour soup. It gets its color from one of the main ingredients, the beetroots. You can have it either hot or cold, and what's interesting is that the process & ingredients may vary depending on which one of the two options you choose!
2. Beef Stroganoff
Beef stroganoff is very tasty and nowadays known worldwide for its many variations. The original recipe consists of sautéed pieces of beef served in a sauce with smetana, a type of sour cream, which is delicious for a cold winter day.
Pelmeni are basically dumplings. They have a filling wrapped in thin, unleavened dough. The filling could be pork, lamb, beef or fish. It is also very popular to mix different meats in it.
A blini is a Russian pancake, originally made from buckwheat flour, although it is more popular to find it done with wheat. It's served with caviar, sour cream and some other garnishes as well.
You might have seen a dish similar to this somewhere else, because the recipe is no secret. Its main ingredient is rice, usually sauteed first and then added to a pot with a vegetable's broth. It contains several spices and, sometimes, meat or fish.
Pirog is a baked case of dough with a sweet or savory filling. Russians say that it is “the most popular and important dish” and “truly national good” of Russian cuisine.
7. Salad Olivier
In many countries, the dish is commonly referred to as Russian salad. Its main ingredients are potatoes, carrots, green peas & eggs. They can also have brined dill pickles (or cucumber), celeriac, onions, diced boiled chicken or bologna sausage, with mayonnaise as a dressing.
Solyanka is a thick, spicy and sour soup that is common in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union. You can find three types of it, and the main ingredient in them is either meat, fish, or mushrooms.
They all contain pickled cucumbers and often cabbage, potatoes, and smetana (sour cream).
A kinsh consists basically of a filling covered with dough that is typically baked, or sometimes deep fried. The traditional filling is made entirely of mashed potato, kasha (buckwheat groats), or cheese. Other varieties of fillings include sweet potatoes, black beans, or spinach.
Syrnikis consist of fried quark pancakes. They are then garnished with sour cream, varenye, jam, honey or apple sauce. The cheese mixture also may contain raisins for extra flavor.
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Other Things to Know About Visiting St Petersburg, Russia
Now you know what to do in St Petersburg, Russia, and how to get around. Here are a few other things to know before traveling there.
The Best Time to Visit St Petersburg, Russia
When we visited St Petersburg, Russia, we believe there couldn't be a better time! We were cruising every two weeks to St Petersburg in the summer of 2018, when the World Cup is happening.
Granted that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, we still think that the summer was the best time to visit St Petersburg.
Due to its location, there are many more hours of sunlight in Russia during the summer than other areas of Europe. June is the optimal time to experience the fewest hours of sunset, sometimes up to 22 hours!
Weather in St Petersburg, Russia
St Petersburg has extremely cold winters, seeing a lot of snow. Summertime has beautiful warm days, with plenty of sunshine. Spring is chillier than other parts of Europe, seeing decently cool nights. This is why we love Russia in the summertime particularly.
Is St Petersburg, Russia Safe?
Overall we felt pretty safe in St Petersburg. Being that it is very touristic though, we do think it is wise to be a little extra cautious. Learning a bit of Russian will definitely help you, especially if a taxi driver is trying to rip you off (which is exactly what happened to us).
Right now Russia is definitely a place that people are avoiding due to the conflict with Ukraine. We would say it is particularly safe from an invasion standpoint. However, we also think it's better to wait a bit before traveling to Russia again.
Now you have a better of idea of what to do in St Petersburg, Russia to have an amazing stay! This city definitely requires time to be seen.
There's so much to do, to see, and to eat that it seems impossible to cover everything in just a few days. If you really want to enjoy this city, we recommend you no less than 4-5 days, because some activities may take longer than you think. Whatever your case, you will find that Saint Petersburg offers a great picture of Russia's traditional values.
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