Moscow is perhaps the most modern and cosmopolitan city in Russia, but Saint Petersburg is the cultural and historical heart of the country. Home to the Hermitage, one of the largest and most beautiful art museums in the world, surrounded by canals and home to beautiful sleepless nights (when the sun never sets in summer), Saint Petersburg is royal and inspiring .
First-time visitors should start with the Hermitage Museum – such a large museum, it is literally impossible to see everything in one day – and the beautiful Nevsky Avenue, flanked by opulent restaurants, churches and palaces , and a great place for people to watch. The Peterhof Palace Complex requires a day trip out of town, but it’s a must-see and one of the highlights of a trip to St. Petersburg. Whether you already know what to do during your visit or are looking for more ideas on how to spend your time, take a look at our list of the best tourist attractions in Saint Petersburg.
1. State Hermitage Museum
Founded when Empress Catherine the Great began acquiring works of art in the late 1700s, the museum was not officially opened to the public until 1852. Today, the Hermitage is the second most the world’s largest art museum after the Louvre, and houses a collection of over three million items.
The Hermitage technically occupies six buildings, although the main part of the museum (and the building that most people associate with the museum) is housed in the Winter Palace, which served as the residence of the Russian emperors until 1917, and it’s a massive structure with 1500 rooms. In addition to French neoclassical and impressionist art, exhibitions of the Flemish Baroque and the Italian Renaissance, the museum also has an impressive collection of Russian art from the 11th to the 19th century, a large collection of Egyptian antiquities from the 19th century and a room presenting prehistoric art. The Hermitage has the largest collection of paintings in the world, spanning many countries and centuries.
2. Peter and Paul Fortress
The Peter and Paul Fortress was originally a fortified area intended to protect the State from foreign attacks. It was built in 1703, then enlarged and modified for the next four decades. Although the fortress has never seen a real fight, it still has a dark history behind it, as it served as a prison and execution quarter during the Bolshevik Revolution in the early 20th century. Today it is part of the State Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg.
Within the walls of the fortress and surrounded by beautiful gardens and stone paths, there are several buildings. Perhaps the best known is the 18th century Peter and Paul Cathedral, the last resting place of the Russian tsars. Prison cells, a city museum and the Saint Petersburg Mint building (founded in 1724 to make coins and still in operation) are also located inside the walls of the fortress.
3. Palace Square
The main square of the city of Saint Petersburg is a huge open public space just in front of the Winter Palace. The Alexander column, built in the 1830s from a single piece of red granite, is 47 meters high in the center of the square. It was commissioned by Alexander I to commemorate the victory over Napoleon.
Many major events in Soviet / Russian history took place in the square: Tsar Alexander II was shot here in 1879 and Bolshevik troops started the revolution here in 1917 by storming the winter palace, where royalty lived. Since then, the square has also been used for marches and demonstrations, from military parades to celebrate Victory Day (which marks the end of World War II) to New Year celebrations.
4. Peterhof Palace
Located less than 30 kilometers from the center of Saint Petersburg, the 18th-century Peterhof Palace complex consists of a series of buildings, several French gardens and 173 fountains fed by underground sources. Designed in the style of the Palace of Versailles, Peterhof is best known for its “Grande Cascade”, which consists of 64 fountains located on a series of terraces outside the main entrance to the castle.
The opulence of the palace itself can be discovered through a guided tour. It has 30 rooms decorated with truly imposing gold colors, lots of marble and objects brought back from Asia mixed with baroque style fireplaces and giant mirrors. Although it is possible to take a bus to get here, you can also take a boat from St. Petersburg. The trip takes 45 minutes on the Neva River and offers great views of the shore along the way.
5. Eliseyev Emporium
When the Eliseyev Emporium building was inaugurated in 1903, it was one of the most luxurious structures of its time. This may no longer be the case, but the Art Nouveau details, stained glass, crystal and metal candelabras and hand-painted wall patterns are still quite impressive. The main attraction here, however, is the display cases, which display moving puppets depicting characters from The Nutcracker.
Today, this retail complex focuses mainly on food, with the most famous stop inside being Eliseevy Merchants’ Shop, Russia’s oldest confectionery, which also sells meats, spices and high-end dressings. The Eliseyev Emporium also houses a unique artisanal ice cream shop selling flavors such as spicy basic and strawberry, jasmine green tea and “tender violet”. Beautiful hand-carved wooden souvenirs of traditional characters from Russian folk tales are also available here.
6. Vasilyevsky Island
Located just opposite the downtown river and the Winter Palace and connected to the mainland by two bridges and a metro line, this small island is home to a number of monuments and beautiful parks, including a museum of electric transport; the Pierre le Grand Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography; the old St. Petersburg Stock Exchange; and the Baroque palace of Menshikov, which serves as a branch of the heritage museum and houses mainly Russian art from the 17th century.
The Russian Academy of Sciences also has several branches on the island, and visitors might particularly enjoy visiting the Institute of Russian Literature, which holds original manuscripts from some of the most famous Russian writers, including the well-known poet loved Alexander Pushkin.
7. Nevsky Avenue
Named after the Alexander Nevsky Lavra Monastery on this same street, the 4.5-kilometer-long Nevsky Prospect (or Avenue) is the heart of Saint Petersburg. Home to the 18th century Great Gostiny Dvor, one of the oldest shopping malls in the world, Nevsky Avenue is also home to many high-end stores, chic restaurants and luxury hotels.
Nevsky Prospect focuses on opulent architecture: palaces and churches rub shoulders here, including the late Baroque Stroganov Palace; Kazan Cathedral from the early 19th century; and the National Library of Russia, housed in a building dating from the 1700s. Even if you don’t plan on shopping here, the lights and atmosphere of this avenue are still worth a visit. Along the way, you will find street artists; an original cinema hall dating from 1913; and the Anichkov Bridge, which was badly damaged in World War II and restored without removing traces of shell damage from Nazi guns to remind us of what happened here.
8. Mariinsky Theater
Catherine the Great ordered the formation of the imperial opera and ballet troupe at the end of the 18th century, but it was not until 1860, almost 80 years later, that the company obtained its own theater. Once opened, the Mariinsky Theater was the most prominent music hall in Russia – the place where the major masterpieces of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky were first presented.
A masterpiece of neoclassical architecture with neo-Byzantine design elements, the Mariinsky theater looks opulent from all angles – from the U-shaped auditorium to the ceiling fresco and chandelier in solid crystal. Today, the theater is one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in Saint Petersburg. If you plan to attend a premiere or popular performance (such as The Nutcracker in December or January), you will need to purchase tickets well in advance.
9. Rivers and Canals
The Saint Petersburg canals once played an important role in preventing flooding – and although they still keep the waters at bay, they are now mainly used for transportation and to enjoy beautiful cruises on the Neva.
The canal system spans over 300 kilometers, with hundreds of bridges (pedestrian and for traffic) crossing them. The two most popular waterways are the Griboyedov Canal and the Winter Canal. The Griboedov Canal flows under 21 bridges and along some of the city’s most famous monuments, including the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. The city’s shortest canal, the Winter Canal, passes through the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Theater. Small and large boats are available to travel across the canals – some offering food, live music, or special tours in English – including special rides to watch the weighbridges open at midnight
10. Cruiser Aurora
Protected cruiser Aurora is a retired Russian naval ship with an armored bridge. Built in the early 1900s, it served during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905 and survived the Battle of Tsushima, where Russia suffered massive losses in both human life and the number of ships sunk or destroyed. It was also a shot from an Aurora cannon that marked the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917.
The Aurora is now anchored on the Neva River and is the most visited branch of the Central Naval Museum. Visitors can visit six different rooms on board the ship, where they can see recreated excerpts from everyday life (including how people ate and slept), photographs and paintings, and models of ships. Although access to the Aurora is free, the engine room is only accessible at an additional cost. The view from the Aurora Bridge is magnificent, with imperial buildings and stormy waters all around.
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