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Best things to do in St Petersburg

By Martha Hales

Russia’s imperial city is a shining light of culture on the global stage. St Petersburg is home to around five million people, making it Russia’s second largest city, and sprawls across the Neva River where it meets the Baltic Sea. It was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and has been a beautiful tsarist melange of palaces, theatres, bridges, waterways and parks ever since.

Saint Isaac Cathedral in St Petersburg

St Petersburg is certainly an attractive city to look at, but it is much more than just a pretty face. The history and culture here is palpable and accessible, and a stroll around the city centre will bring you a sense of the grandeur and imperial wealth that created this fairytale place of canals, immense palaces and splendid gardens.

Tsarskoye Selo in St Petersburg

St Petersburg was conceived as a ‘Window on the West,’ and it certainly feels like it has a lot more in common with comparable European cities than its Russian counterparts such as Moscow. There is a sense of easy living in St Petersburg - it feels approachable and straightforward, with the convivial bonus of great dining and nightlife options.

St Petersburg at night

Here are some of our favourite things to do in St Petersburg.

Wander the Nevsky Prospekt  

Central to the social life of the city, this four kilometre long avenue is the place to come for shopping, cafe culture, promenading, and to admire some of the city’s finest architecture. It links the vast Palace Square via numerous monuments to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, after whom the avenue was named. Stroll the length of Nevsky Prospekt to get right to the heart of modern St Petersburg, with all city life on view from street artists to statues of the city’s great and good.

Catherine the Great Statue in Nevsky Prospekt

Visit the Winter Palace

Located between the great city plaza of Palace Square and the embankment of the Neva River, the Winter Palace is a showcase for the grandiose style that St Petersburg is famous for. The mint green, white and gold facade of the Winter Palace extends along the flank of the square, its ornate stucco making a stunning impression and giving a clue to the opulence within. It is a legacy of Catherine the Great, who intended the palace to reflect the power of imperial Russia and today houses the State Hermitage Museum, home to some of the world’s finest works of art.

Horses outside the Winter Palace

Take a boat trip on the Neva River

To enjoy St Petersburg from a fresh perspective, it’s well worth organising a boat tour on the many waterways in the city. The city is built on marshy ground, and the canals were constructed to drain the land for building and transportation. Today there are around 300 kilometres of canals and approximately 800 bridges, so there is plenty of scope to explore the waterways. There are also night-time river cruises, which can be an immensely romantic way to explore the city.

River Neva at night

Count the domes on the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

In contrast to some of St Petersburg’s more austere and unadorned neoclassical monuments, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is a riot of colour and excess, sprouting multi-coloured domes and extravagant patterns all over its exterior. It is well known for its lavish mosaics which feature on the exterior, but really come into their own on the interior. The church was built on the exact location that the Russian Emperor Alexander the Second met his end when he was assassinated by young radicals.

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

Visit the White Nights

During the height of summer St Petersburg experiences long hours of daylight when the sun never fully sets and the city shrugs off the darkness of winter with a huge, month long party. The White Nights is a fabulous time to see St Petersburg in its summer glory, when what seems like the whole city is out on the streets all night enjoying the warm weather and letting their hair down. Head for the banks of the River Neva to see the boats passing, people dancing, singing, drinking, relaxing and generally making the most of the summer vibe.

White Nights celebration in St Petersburg Russia

Admire the Peterhof Palace

Known as the Russian Versailles, the imperial palace of Peterhof is a short trip out of the city, but nevertheless remains one of the most captivating sights in the area. It is famous not just for the palace buildings themselves, but also for its sumptuous grounds filled with elaborate cascades, more than 150 fountains and elegant formal gardens. Many visitors opt to skip the palace museums and just visit the grounds but if you can spare the time, the interior of the palace with over 300,000 items, is also fascinating.

Peterhof Palace grounds in St Petersburg

Make it happen

St Petersburg is a delight in all seasons, and makes a great destination in its own right or a wonderful stop on a wider tour of Russia. Why not allow the expertise of our local partners help make your trip into an unforgettable adventure, as they get you under the skin of this fabulous destination? Get in touch with them via our enquiry form, or to speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.