Saint Petersburg was founded by tsar Peter the Great in 1703, soon becoming the imperial capital of Russia, till the central government bodies were moved to Moscow in 1918. Built from nothing by westward-looking Peter the Great, St Petersburg was from its very beginning meant to be a display of imperial Russia’s growing status in the world. A number of European architects were employed to build its fabulous palaces and cathedrals, which explains why Saint Petersburg is often described as the most Westernised city in Russia, as well as its cultural capital.
Why you should stop there
Tons of reasons!
Reason #1: Well, especially if you’re coming from Europe, St. Petes is the best way for you to sort of “ease into” Russia. It’s like a transitional spot that will somehow soften the meeting with great Mother Russia.
Reason #2: Because, yeah, “Piter”, as the Russians call it, is indeed a stunningly beautiful city. And before you get off hating on it, cause I, too, am one of those people who instantly lower their expectations about places that are constantly praised so highly by everybody, as not to get disappointed, had to step back and say, “okay, I’m sorry Piter, you are actually very cool”. It’s something about its atmosphere, its eclecticism. Its mixture of styles from Neoclassic to Baroque to Art Nouveau to Soviet gets multiplied a thousand times through the waters of its canals and the Neva river that, I mean, how can such a place disappoint?
Reason #3: Not convinced yet? The bridges! Where will you get another chance to see bridges splitting up in the air like in some sort of action movie?! Come on.
Reason #4: St. Petes has a pretty cool underground and music scene, which with its White Nights in the summer makes the perfect Combo. (Also enjoy this type of music scene till you can, you won’t find it as you move eastward in Russia, so prepare yourself to get bombarded with Russian trashy hits. But don’t worry, I know it’s hard to believe it now but you’ll even end up loving them, trust me).
Reason #5: Russians from St. Petes are usually keener on communicating in languages that are not Russian, so it might be a nice spot to practice the few Russian lines that you know without being looked at like you’re an alien.
UTC +3 (= Moscow time)
How to move around
St. Petersburg has an extensive local public transport system, including trams, buses, trolleybuses and the Metro, which with its 5 lines represents a cheap and effective means to get around. The ticket should cost around 35 Rubles and what’s more, Metro stops ate also written in Latin characters (contrary to Moscow’s). Here is the Metro map. Beware that the metro closes around midnight till 5:45 in the morning, depending on the stops.
Still, if you’re not too lazy and the weather’s on your side, the best way to move around St. Petes is to use your feet and enjoy walking (and getting lost) through the canals and across the bridges.
At night the city gets divided in two by the Neva river, as all the main bridges are drawn up to let the boats head back to port, so remember to head back to your part of the city in time, or you may remain stuck till the early morning! Here is the schedule of the drawing up of the bridges.
One last thing, if you’re flying in from Pulkovo airport, no need to take taxis, buses # 39, 39A and Minibus K39 will take you to the city center (Moskovskaya metro station).
Then, there are about 5 train stations in Petersburg, if you’re going to Moscow, go to Moskovsky Station (Московский вокзал) (Metro: Ploshchad Vosstaniya or Mayakovskaya).
What to see
The Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace. Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, it is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. You can buy your ticket online or directly at the counter (remember to bring your ID), the entrance is located in the Winter Palace, accessible from the Courtyard. Remember that the museum is closed on Mondays and that entrance is free on the first Thursday of every month!
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Located between Nevsky Prospekt and the Neva, it is St. Petersburg’s most elaborate church with a classic Russian Orthodox exterior and interior decorated with some 7000 sq m of mosaics. Officially called the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, its far more striking colloquial name references the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II here in 1881.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral (Isaakievskiy Sobor). Located near the Admiralty and built in 1818, It is the largest orthodox basilica and the third highest cupola cathedral in the world. Its golden dome dominates the St Petersburg skyline and its colonnade offers wonderful views of the city to those brave enough to climb some 300 steps. The cathedral was used as a museum of atheism in Soviet times and remains a museum today, with its obscenely lavish interior offering a collection of 19th-century art.
Kazan Cathedral (Kazanskiy Kafedralniy Sobor). Located on Nevsky Prospekt, this massive Russian Orthodox cathedral is especially interesting because it was modelled by Andrey Voronikhin after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Peter and Paul Fortress (Petropavlovskaya Repost). Housing a cathedral where the Romanovs are buried, a former prison and various exhibitions, this large defensive fortress on Zayachy Island is the original citadel founded by Peter the Great in 1703. If the weather is good, don’t miss out on the riverside “beach”.
Nevsky Prospekt. This 3-mile avenue, with its countless bars, cafes and restaurants is the center of the city’s social life.
Mariinsky Theatre. It’s an historic theatre of opera and ballet, opened in 1860, where many of the masterpieces of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov premiered.
Vasilyevsky Island. It is the largest island in St. Petersburg, located in the delta of the Neva River and it offers a wide selection of weird attractions, including a couple of 15th century sphinxes from Egypt and a museum of biological oddities (featuring “among others” the skeleton and heart of Peter the Great’s gigantic personal servant).
Out of the city – Excursions
Half day tour of Peterhof (Petrodvorets). Peterhof is perhaps St Petersburg’s most famous and spectacular Imperial estate, so much that it’s often referred to as the “Russian Versailles”. To get there, you can take the train from Baltiisky train station (metro stop: Baltiiskaya) to Novyi Peterhof.
Half day tour of Tsarskoye Selo (in Pushkin). Tsarskoe Selo literally means “Tsar’s Village”, as it was the town hosting a summer residence of the imperial family, located about 20 kilometres south of Saint Petersburg. Catherine’s Palace is one of the best examples of Russian baroque and is also famous for housing the world famous Amber room, a complete chamber decoration of amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors. Local trains run from St. Petersburg’s Vitebskiy station (not the main hall, but the smaller hall for local trains to the right and around the corner as you face the main hall) to the Detskoe Selo station in Pushkin.
Eat Drink & Sleep
Saint Petersburg has tons of nice and cheap hostels, however, like everywhere in Russia, you should try and be a bit more attentive when choosing your place to stay, as you could easily end up in a Soviet-style dormitory full of babushkas and middle-aged single construction workers. Here are some pretty cool (and cheap = below 15 EUR/night) hostels: ES-Hostel (Ulitsa Kolomenskaya, 25); Hostel Architektor (Nevskyi Prospekt 74-76); Babushka House (Vladimirskiy Prospekt 14A/30N); Art Hostel Kultura (Vosstaniya 24).
Dumskaya Street: best for bar crawling. In particular: Chirt Poberi! (Literally = Damn it) = Cheap cocktails in an ex-Soviet communal apartment ; Fidel = full of hipsters, awesome cheap beer and where you may end up meeting the randomest Russians ever ; Dacha = loud, fun and cheap! Newcomers and honorable frequenters – they are all friends here.
Anywhere, literally, St. Petersburg is full of cafes and restaurants of each type of cuisine. If you wanna have a taste of Russian food, avoid the tourist traps and go to whatever “stolovaya”, you’ll get cheap (really cheap) and original stuff, the kind the Russians actually eat.