St Petersburg Palaces, islands, cathedrals, bar-hopping areas and bridges — in Russia’s northern capital
With its population of 5 million people, St. Petersburg is the furthest northern million-plus city in the world and a city proud of its cultural and architectural heritage. It's impossible to get to all of the attractions in one mini guide, as they spread far beyond the city centre and stretch across the city's major districts. Here is everything you need to know about St. Petersburg if you’re spending a few days here for the first time.
Must-see Sights and Attractions
It is the most pompous, royal and grand place in St. Petersburg — a magnet for tourists and possibly the main postcard view of the city. In the centre of the square rises the 47-meter-high granite Alexander Column crowned by the statue of an angel. One side of the square is dominated by the Baroque-style Winter palace, the other is framed by the General Staff Building, a monumental structure with a triumphal arch and a chariot of glory on the top. The palace and the left wing of the General Staff Building, which has undergone extensive renovation, has become a new home to one of the most famous museums in the world, the Hermitage.
Peter and Paul Fortress
The first building of St. Petersburg, the fortress is as old as the city itself. The fortress walls with their six bastions embrace the graceful and austere Peter and Paul Cathedral, topped with the statue of an angel holding a cross. The fortress is a former political prison and the burial place of the Russian emperors. The beach in front of the fortress has long been a lively all-year-round public space where the locals go sunbathing in summer as well as in winter (swimming in the Neva river, however, is not allowed). Another important local tradition is firing a cannon every noon from one of the bastions.
Saint Isaac's Cathedral
The city’s secular cathedral and museum has become a reason for intense debate between the urban residents and the Russian Orthodox church. While the later hopes to take St. Petersburg cathedral into its hands, the outcome of the battle is yet unclear. In the meantime, Saint Isaac's Cathedral remains one of the main tourist attractions — you can go on a tour around the huge basilica with granite columns or climb the stairs to explore a 43-meter-high colonnade offering a spectacular panorama of the city. Just a stone’s throw away towards the Neva river waterfront is Senate Square and another iconic symbol of the city — the Bronze Horseman monument.
Spit (Strelka) of Vasilievsky Island
One of the most harmonious and unique city areas, this spot presents a perfect unison of space, water, and architecture. Here one can see the Old Stock Exchange building with Doric columns and wide stairs, walk past the Rostral columns decorated with sculptures of ancient sea gods and enjoy a flawless view of the city — the Peter and Paul Fortress on one side, and the Hermitage museum with the signature embankments and the smooth surface of the wide Neva River, on the other. Don’t miss late night dance parties at Strelka, they are fun!
Church of the Savior on Blood
The local attitude towards this Russian-style church is complicated: its brightly coloured architecture resembling Moscow’s St. Basil's Cathedral contrasts strongly with the city’s orderly and restrained churches. But you will never regret going inside - enjoy the luxurious decor of the cathedral, as well as a splendid view of the Griboyedov canal, the beautiful Mikhailovsky garden, and Konushennaya square (the main fan zone of the championship).
It is the city’s major historical avenue, always busy with traffic and crowds, running from the Admiralty Building to the Alexander Nevsky Lavra. It’s a 4.5-kilometre strip with a versatile program: Anichkov bridge and its monumental horses, Eliseyev Emporium and its lush food hall, Singer House housing the city’s main bookstore and the headquarters of the popular Russian social network VKontakte, Kazan Cathedral and dozens of other attractions. There are dozens of cafes, bars and restaurants here. However, just like with any other touristy spot, avoid eating here. For greater dining options, turn to the neighboring streets (for instance, Rubinshteina st. or Bolshaya Konushennaia).
A rare case of a successful historic district reconstruction. A manmade island and an example of classicism outlined by several channels, it was transformed into a public space. It includes a park, a carefully restored naval prison, known as the Bottle, now filled with restaurants and shops, a green canal, a herb garden, a mini-beach zone, a playground for children and a variety of cultural events like concerts, festivals, lectures and parties.
The city boasts a convenient and straightforward subway system connecting the main neighbourhoods and city attractions (including the new station that opened near the stadium on Krestovsky Island). It’s also easy to explore the city centre by buses and trolley-buses, especially Nevsky prospect and the area around it. Outside the center, the locals go places by mini-buses (“marshrutkas”).
If you plan using public transportation regularly, get a Podorozhnik travel card. It costs 60 rubles and is available for purchase at every station. Use it as a digital wallet (you can use it to pay in mini-buses as well) or choose a transport pass — you can read more about it here.
St. Petersburg has a simple metro system with only five lines. The fare is considerably lower than in most European cities, there is no zone system like in Berlin or Paris and it takes only 3-4 minutes to get from one station to another. A single ticket costs 45 rubles — you have to buy a metro token (zheton). You can also pay directly with a contactless MasterCard or a Visa PayWave card — all the stations have a special ticket gate marked with an info sticker that will accept the card.
St. Petersburg has an well-developed bus and trolleybus network (tram lines - to a lesser extent). There are lots of apps for choosing the best route. You can consult Google Maps, Yandex.Maps, 2GIS, Yandex.Transport. To follow the ground public transport download the Spb Transport Online app (Android, iOS). It processes data from the city’s public transport portal, which gets the information from the GLONASS system. Unfortunately, the app doesn’t include minibuses.
How to get to the Krestovsky Stadium
The World Cup games will take place at Krestovsky Stadium located at the far end of Krestovsky Island — one of the city’s most picturesque islands, place of luxury real estate. There are a few ways to get there:
— take the metro to Novokrestovskaya station, close to Krestovsky Stadium;
— take the metro to station Krestovsky Ostrov and walk 2 kilometers along Primorskiy Victory Park;
— use the free shuttle bus service (you can check the routes and schedules here LINK!!);
— walk across Yachtenny bridge from mall “Peterland” (the closest metro station is Begovaya).
St. Petersburg has a bike-sharing system called Velogorod. Unfortunately, it is its launching stage and only offers 159 bikes at 44 stations in several neighborhoods. To use the service you need to register on their website or app, choose a membership and make an upfront payment. While your membership is valid, you can use your bike as much as you want.
Depending on your rate, the first 30 or 45 minutes of the ride always come free. A single rate is 49 rubles, a day ticket is 129 rubles, and a week pass will cost 299 rubles.
St. Petersburg is known for its drawbridges. Consider this while planning trips around the city between 1 a.m and 5 a.m. Some of the bridges (Tuchkov, Blagoveschensky, Dvortsoviy and others) draw back together for some time during the night, while others stay drawn all night (Troitskiy, Liteyny, Bolsheokhtinsky and others). The drawing of the bridges usually follows a regular schedule but it may also change without notice. You can get updates at https://mostotrest-spb.ru/, but unfortunately, there’s still no good app with alert notifications.
Main taxi services in St. Petersburg include Uber, Yandex.Taxi, Vezet and Gett. Fares depend on when and where you want to travel. Getting around the city centre can range from 150 to 300 rubles.
Stores and markets
In St. Petersburg you can find the largest Russian and foreign supermarket chains, as well as regular markets and 24 hour grocery stores.
Stores: On the Budget
The most popular supermarket chains in Russia are budget-oriented. You can find Pyatorochka, Dixie, Polushka, 7ya Semya in most neighborhoods, including downtown. The variety of groceries depends on the size of each particular store, but you can count on buying food, alcohol and household goods of standard quality in any of them. Also, there are still lots of local 24 hour grocery stores with a basic variety of goods.
Stores: Average and Expensive
The touristic centre of the city lacks affordable supermarkets with produce of good quality. Perekrestok and Spar are your best options. There is a popular supermarket “Land” on Nevsky prospect, rather expensive, but offering a good grocery selection. Premium chains such as Azbuka Vkusa and Super Babylon both boast of a selection of quality products, but the prices are too much even for tourists. Eliseevsky store on Nevsky, famous for its luxurious interior and a gigantic pineapple-palm-tree, is no good for routine shopping, but you can check out it’s sweets department.
The renovation of city marketplaces, which is so popular in Moscow, is yet to hit St. Petersburg. They are lacking proper food courts and some of them still have Soviet interiors. In fact, the prices on daily produce are frequently higher than in the chain stores. But you should visit one of the central city’s marketplaces — Kuznechny, Sennoy or Sytny — just to experience their authentic atmosphere with touting customers and bargaining like in the old days.
St. Petersburg is the bar capital of Russia — there is plenty of bars for any taste and budget, scattered all over the city. It’s better not to focus on one particular place, but rather explore bar-hopping areas, as places form a network, creating proper drinking routes.
The main restaurant street in St. Petersburg (and possibly, in Russia: it has more than 60 cafes, bars and restaurants) fills with outdoor terraces and blossom during spring and summer. Here the dining options are endless. Have a drink and try some shawarma at the famous Israeli-themed Bekitzer, stop by at the Black Books Bar just across the street, try cocktail Dovlatov at the bar Cvetochki, taste some samogon (Russian moonshine) at the Anonymous Society of Meticulous Tasters or at the Orthodox Russian Bar, hit the friendly pub Fiddler's Green and try to find the secret bar Mitya in the yard of cafe Rubinstein. And while you’re at it, drop into a dozen other places.
A small street next to the Fontanka embankment has had a reputation of a restaurant street historically and is not ready to give in. This puzzle is easy: for authentic St. Petersburg atmosphere visit the Terminal, for a good beer go to the Farsh & Bochka, for wine stop at the Pinch!, for cocktails and jazz - at The Hat, for football and a company of friendly local fans go to the Oliver.
Zhukovsky, Nekrasov and Mayakovsky streets
This fairly new bar cluster that has formed around the streets named after famous Russian poets is perfect for relaxed bar-hopping. On weekdays, it’s less crowded with tourists than Rubinstein street, and the alcohol craze is generally lower when the night is young. Visit the Dead Poets on Zhukovsky street, don’t miss the legendary cafe-bar Mayak on Mayakovsky street known for strictly preserving Soviet bar rules, then turn to Nekrasov street where you’ll find the bars Bazin, Zaliv, Chroniki and Redrum practically next to each other. Down the street, check out the Cider and Nancy to try local ciders as this market has been recently growing.
St. Petersburg’s bar scene has been flourishing in less central areas too. If you have time, don’t miss the chance to take a walk along the beautiful Petrogradsky Side (the Krestovsky Island area, home to the main stadium during the championship) and get to know local bar attractions. It is famous for its pubs, so try a selection of local beer. Stop by the Petrogradsky big three — the bars Every dog, 76 and Yasli, all, obviously, broadcasting football live. For a different kind of football-watching experience visit the O, Sport! located in a two-storey mansion.
This street is the most exotic one: dozens of micro-bars and night spots with its signature dive-bar atmosphere might either frighten or mesmerize, but definitely won’t leave you indifferent. Don’t try to get everywhere, limit yourself to the old time favourites. Don’t miss the Fidel that has been out there for more than 10 years, the karaoke bar Poison (low-key, and English-language songs only) and the cocktail bar Apteka just around the corner from Lomonosov street.
There are more than 200 different museums and galleries in St. Petersburg. Two giants stand out — the Hermitage and the Russian Museum, with several buildings around the city centre. Focus on these treasure-houses of Russian and world art if you’ve only got time for the essentials.
This is Russia’s largest museum, with a huge collection of art. The Hermitage complex consists of five adjacent buildings — the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage, and Hermitage Theatre. All together, they contain more than 350 halls and house over one million pieces of fine and applied art, from petroglyphs and Scythian gold to two Madonnas by Leonardo da Vinci and a unique collection of Rembrandt. Mind that it’s impossible to see it all in one day. Avoid Thursdays when the entrance is free, as it’s likely to be extremely crowded. It’s easiest to buy your ticket online. It’s more expensive but you’re guaranteed avoiding the long queues.
Exhibitions worth seeing:
“Arte Povera. A Creative Revolution” (17 May — 16 August)
“The Lombards. A People who Changed History” (4 May — 15 June)
General Staff Building
Across from the Winter Palace in the renovated eastern wing of the General Staff Building there is another part of the Hermitage that deserves special attention and at least one day of exploring. The fourth floor should be the priority, as it holds a famous collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art from the Shchukin and Morozov collections. Plus, there are separate rooms devoted exclusively to Matisse and Picasso. The General Staff building also holds modern art exhibitions. Right now you can see a big retrospective of the legend of Moscow Conceptualism, Ilya Kabakov.
Exhibitions worth seeing:
“Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone will be Taken into the Future” (21 April — 29 June)
It holds the largest collection of Russian art, spread around several museum buildings right in the centre of St. Petersburg. Today, the museum houses 400,000 works spanning the 10th-21st centuries. The main building of the Russian Museum, The Mikhailovsky Palace, holds the canonical collection — Russian icon paintings, works by Aivazovsky, Repin, Surikov, and Vasnetsov. The Benua building contains art from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st century. Here you’ll find Malevich and Filonov among other avant-garde artists as well as socialist-realist painters and members of the art-group “Mir Iskusstva.”
Exhibitions worth seeing:
"Sport in the Soviet porcelain, drawing, and sculpture” (25 April — 30 June)
St. Petersburg’s suburbs have a lot to offer but you’ll need at least a week to visit all of the historic sites, palaces, imperial estates, mansions, and small towns. Here are the top spots.
The highlight of this exquisite palace and park ensemble is a magnificent water fountain attraction. It is the view that comes up when you think about the imperial St. Petersburg — an abundance of gold and water of the Grand Cascade, the fountain Samson, Tearing the Lion’s Jaws and another 140 fountains, both large and small. The Petergof Palace was completely restored after World War II according to the original plan by Italian architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli. It’s better to use water routes to get here: take a special Meteor boats leaving from the Hermitage or the Admiralteyskaya embankment.
Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin)
A former residence of the imperial family and a place where’s Russia’s most revered poet, Alexander Pushkin, lived and studied. The main point of interest is another masterpiece by Rastrelli, the Catherine Palace, famous for its dazzling Golden Enfilade, the iconic Amber Room and the Great Hall. But the most enjoyable part of the trip is probably walking around the parks. Don’t miss the Cameron Gallery and the small Hermitage Pavilion. Use the suburban train that leaves from the beautiful Vitebsky railway station to get here.
A seaport town, located on Kotlin Island. You can get there by car from the city centre along the levee road in 50 minutes. The newly restored Naval Cathedral is impossible to miss: you can spot this Neo-Byzantine giant from the shore. With its huge dome and design featuring sea motifs (anchors on the dome, round stained-glass windows looking like portholes and mosaics with crabs and fish) the cathedral dominates the scene. Enjoy a walk along the Petrovsky embankment and explore the military ships stationed here, and don’t forget to stop by at Fort Konstantin with its yacht club.
This medieval town acquired from Finland remains a victim of poor Soviet and post-Soviet management. Nonetheless, its burgher architecture and as well as well-preserved modernism and art nouveau style are worth checking out. Take a walk along the Esplanade Park to the fair at Market square, climb the Vyborg castle tower, visit the famous Alvar Aalto Library and take a walk in the romantic Monrepos park. You can get there by taking the express train Lastochka from St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg Tourist Information Bureau
Main Office: Sadovaya street, 14/52 (metro station Gostiny Dvor, metro station Nevsky prospekt )
Telephone: +7 (812) 242-39-09
Office hours: Mon – Sat: 10:00am – 7:30pm, Sun: closed
Telephone: +7 (812) 242-39-06
Rastrelli square (8.30-16.00, Mon.-Fr.) from May to September;
Palace square (10.00-19.00, daily);
Pulkovo Airport (9.00-20.00, daily);
Kronverkskaya embankement, close to Peter and Paul Fortress (10.00-19.00, daily);
St. Isaac’s square (10.00-19.00, daily);
Vosstaniya square (10.00-19.00, daily);
City port "Morskoy fasad"(9.00-18.00, daily, from May to September).
download offline route around St.Petersburg for MAPS.ME
Images: cover - Ivan Annenkov, 3- St Petersburg State Enterprise "Mostotrest", 1, 5 - Dima Tsyrenschikov, 2, 7 - Florstein/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0), 4 - Viktoria Mak, 6 - State Museum-park "Petergof"