Like many major cities, 72 hours in St Petersburg will only let you scratch its surface. As you’d expect of a former capital there is an incredible amount to see and an awful lot of history to soak up. Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great and the capital of the Russian Empire until 1918 the city exudes Imperial might. Overflowing with ornate cathedrals, exquisite palaces & gardens and numerous museums there is something for everyone. Built on a series of islands, the many watercourses have also led to it sharing the name ‘the Venice of the North’. By boat, the rivers and canals give you another way to admire its beauty. The buildings are heavily influenced by European architects and this gives the palaces and streets a feel not dissimilar to that of cities like Paris or Vienna, but with a Russian twist.
Getting there and into St Petersburg
Visiting St Petersburg has become an awful lot easier for visitors from 53 countries, including most of the EU. Bad news if you have a UK passport though, you’ve not been included at this time. There is now no need to apply for a visa in person at the Russian embassy. Instead, for visits of up to 8 days, a new e-visa came into force on 1st October 2019. It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s free. For more information on this, see my article here.
Most people arrive in St Petersburg through Pulkovo airport, although cruise ship or ferry are also options. I travelled from the UK with Wizzair from London Luton airport. Whilst it is only a three-hour flight the flight times were not great. Currently, outbound flights leave in the evening and arrive at about 4 am. Return flights are even worse leaving at around 5 am, so you’ll need to be at the airport by 3 am to get through all the security and passport control.
If you have an e-visa, present this and your passport at border control who will give you a migration card. Keep both with your passport as you’ll need them to register at your hotel and have to present them again when you leave the country. There is a 5000* roubles fine for a lost migration card.
*Exchange rate used as at 28/10/19: 1€=71 roubles $1=64 roubles £1=82 roubles
Bus and Metro
Pulkovo airport is about 20km from the centre of St Petersburg. Sadly, there is no direct train/metro link to the airport. The cheapest way to get to and from the airport is on the bus that connects to the metro. You can catch either bus 39 or the 39 Express. They leave from outside arrivals and costs 40 roubles. Pay the conductor. The 39 bus takes seven stops to Moskovskaya metro station from where you can get around the city. The metro costs 45 roubles for one journey and large bags need a ticket too. Unless you plan to use the metro frequently I’d recommend just buying the token from the ticket machine inside the station. The bus and metro start around 5:30 am and finish around midnight. If your arrival or departure is outside these times you’ll either have to wait or get a taxi.
Fun fact – Whilst not having the deepest metro station in the world, St Petersburg’s metro is the deepest based on the average depth of all stations. Admiralteyskaya is the deepest station at 86 metres underground. Expect some long escalator rides!
Airport taxis in St Petersburg have a reputation for trying to fleece tourists. One way to avoid this is to use the taxi booking desk after you pass through immigration and have collected your bags. Alternatively, you may be able to get the Russian equivalent of an Uber. I didn’t try this at the airport but did for my ride back at 3 am. I only had to wait 3 minutes for a taxi and could pay by Google Pay or credit card through the app. This is great as no money needs to change hands and you know the cost when you book. You can download the Yandex.taxi app for android and apple.
Free Walking Tour
St Petersburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has so much to offer. An easy way to get your bearings, see some of the top sights and discover a little of their history is to take a walking tour. I booked my tour with Free Walking Tours Russia through Freetour.com. If you go in summer you need to reserve a place in advance as even in October there was a large group. The 2.5-hour tour was in English and taken by a very knowledgeable local guide. The tour gave me an excellent insight into the city’s past and also some ideas for how best to spend my time.
Palace Square Area
A great central location is Palace Square. It’s the main square of St Petersburg and from here all the places I visited were within 30 minutes walking distance. Most were only 15 minutes away. The square is almost surrounded by the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum, the General Staff Building and in the centre rises the Alexander Column.
Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum
Probably the most famous building in St Petersburg is the Winter Palace. It was the home of the Russian Emperors from 1732 until their fall in 1917. The building is huge, measuring 215 metres long and contains 1500 rooms. This makes it twice the length of Buckingham Palace in London, with almost twice as many rooms. Constructed in an Elizabethan Baroque style, the green and white building is a true reflection of the Russian Empire’s might at the time. Today the palace is part of the Hermitage Museum, which covers several buildings around Palace Square. The museum is one of the biggest in the world with nearly 2 million works of art, antiques and archaeological artefacts. Some of the rooms are so impressive they would be worth a visit even without the displays.
The museum is incredibly popular and long queues can form for the ticket office. I would suggest getting a ticket from one of the ticket machines instead. You can find these inside the great courtyard and at a few other locations around the Hermitage. It costs 700 roubles for a day ticket that gives you access to 5 different museums – the Main Museum Complex, General Staff Building, Winter Palace of Peter the Great, Menshikov Palace and the Museum of the Imperial Porcelain Factory. In my opinion, this is FAR too much to see in just one day and your feet would never forgive you for trying. The 5 buildings that make up the main complex are more than enough for one day. You can book tickets online but at US$17.95 this works out at over 1000 roubles so is considerably more expensive. For more information on tickets see here.
When to go
The best days to visit are Wednesday and Friday as the museum is open 10:30 am – 9 pm and if you go later (after 4 pm) you can avoid many of the tour groups and still have plenty of time to explore. On other days the museum closes at 6 pm. If you turn up on Monday you won’t get in – the museum is closed.
What should I see?
My advice is to be selective in what you see and be prepared for your senses to be overwhelmed from the very start. The Jordan staircase leading up from the ground floor is a marvel of marble and gold. From here you can see the main rooms that best showcase the palace interiors and Russian culture. Each room is an individual masterpiece. Some of my favourites include the Pavilion Hall with the Peacock Clock, the gallery of the History of Ancient Painting and the Malachite Room used by the provisional government in 1917.
St Isaac’s Cathedral
From Palace Square, you can walk past the Admiralty building and arrive at St Isaac’s Cathedral. Although it hasn’t been used as a church for many years the building is the largest Russian Orthodox church in the world. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917 a policy of state atheism was enforced that saw churches, cathedrals and their land confiscated by the state and buildings either destroyed or turned over to other uses. Luckier than many, St Isaac’s was converted to a museum in the 1930s.
For tourists looking for a great view of the city, it incorporates an excellent feature in its construction. Below the dome of the cathedral, there is a colonnade that offers a superb 360-degree view of St Petersburg. This is particularly true in the old city where, for nearly 200 years, no public building was allowed to be taller than the Winter Palace. I can’t vouch for the view as when I visited the skies were low and grey so I didn’t go and look. If you want to tickets for the colonnade are 200 roubles. If you want to see the church it costs 350 roubles and there is no saving on a combined ticket.
The Bronze Horseman
Between St Isaac’s and the Neva River is the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great. Commissioned by Catherine the Great and completed in 1782, it took 12 years to complete. Whilst the horseman is a famous statue I find the history of the granite pedestal, the Thunder Stone, to be truly amazing. It is estimated to have originally weighed 1500 tonnes and was moved by hand, over frozen ground, with no animals to help. On a good day, they were able to move it 150 metres. It took 9 months to move it to the coast and overall 2 years from discovery to getting it on site. It was trimmed down on its journey and over half of what was left is below ground level.
I recommend taking the time to look at the Admiralty building as you walk past. With its 72m golden spire, it would be hard to miss anyway. The sculptures, statues and bas-reliefs all have a weather and nautical theme in keeping with the buildings historical role as a shipyard and now a naval academy.
Along Nevsky Prospekt
Nevsky Prospekt is the main street in St Petersburg and runs from the Admiralty in the west eastwards towards the Alexander Nevsky monastery. Much of the shopping and nightlife is centred on the street and several important museums, buildings and churches are on it or nearby.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is a beautiful building and, like St Isaac’s, is used as a museum (entrance fee: 350 roubles). It was built in the style of St Basil’s in Moscow with brightly coloured onion domes but is also decorated inside and out with thousands of square metres of murals. It was completed in 1907 but never used for public worship. Tsar Alexander III built it on the site where his father Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 and it only ever held memorial services before the revolution. During World War 2 it was used as a morgue and at other times was used to store vegetables, acquiring the name Church of the Saviour on Potatoes.
If you know your churches, you might notice the cathedral resembles a more famous one in Rome, and this isn’t an accident. At the time the Russian Orthodox Church was very unhappy with the idea of creating a replica of such a famous Catholic building. It was built that way regardless. Like the other grand cathedrals in the city, Kazan Cathedral served as a museum during Soviet times. It housed the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism which sounds like it would have been a great museum to visit. According to Wikipedia, that world-renowned source of reliable information, it is said to have been “Leningrad’s largest antireligious museum” and even contained a waxworks of the Spanish Inquisition. Church services resumed in 1992 and it is now the main cathedral in St Petersburg. It is free to enter and a beautiful building to spend time in.
Perhaps surprisingly the semicircular colonnade, facing onto Nevsky Prospekt, is actually on the side of the cathedral and not the front. This is because whilst the building faces north onto the road the altar in the church had to face east and the main entrance west.
Across the street from the cathedral is Singer House. This Art Nouveau building was originally designed as the Russian base of the Singer sewing company. After the revolution, it was taken over by the state and turned into a bookshop which it continues to be today. Like all good bookshops it now also has a coffee shop inside. The outside of the building is wonderfully decorated and topped with a beautiful glass tower and globe. For some annoying reason the doorway is also a popular spot for a selfie so tends to get crowded.
Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines
If you’re looking for something a bit left field, then make sure you visit the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines in Konyushennaya Ploshchad. It’s an interactive museum that has collected together and renovated arcade machines from the 1970-90s. The admission price (450 roubles) includes a box of 15 old-fashioned 15-kopeck coins to try out the games. They include racing, shooting, strength and sports games. Be warned – the graphics are very basic. You can try out one of the games, Morskoi Boi (Sea Battle) online here. It isn’t just the electronic games either, there are other non-electronic games see as well. Overall the museum offers a great insight into the type of entertainment available in the Soviet Union and is a good way to while away an hour or so.
You can find the Chocolate Museum at 17 Nevsky Prospekt. OK, it’s not really a museum, just a chocolate shop but they have some impressive displays and delicious chocolate.
Peter & Paul Fortress
The fortress on Zayachy Island was the original citadel built when Peter the Great established St Petersburg in 1703. Built to protect the city from the Swedish Empire, whom the Russians were then fighting, it is an imposing structure. The fortress is free to enter and you can walk both inside and outside the walls but to visit any of the museums inside or walk along the walls you have to pay separately for this. These include the Cathedral, the History of St Petersburg, the History of the Fortress, the Museum of Space Exploration, the Museum of Science and Technology and the Museum of Ceramics. For 750 roubles you can get entry into all of these with a 2-day ticket. Depending on what you want to see this could be good value. See here for the individual prices.
When you visit Zayachy Island you might wonder why there are so many statues and sculptures of hares around. The island’s name translates as Hare Island, possibly due to the number of hares that used to live there. There is a legend, which I love, that says during a flood a hare jumped into Peter the Great’s boot to escape the rising water and the island was named to commemorate this.
The Midday Shot
If you are visiting at midday be sure to listen out for the gun being fired from the Naryshkin Bastion, or better yet wander along to take a look. According to the guide on my walking tour, the gun was used as a way of making sure everyone was keeping to the same time. Very handy in the days when you didn’t have a mobile phone that synced the clock with your network provider.
St Peter and St Paul Cathedral
Inside the fortress is the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. It is the oldest landmark in St Petersburg having been started in 1712 when Peter the Great founded the city. The bell tower, with the immense golden spire, makes it the tallest Russian Orthodox church in the world. It was closed by the Communists in 1919 and turned into a museum in 1924.
The inside of the church is stunning but the main reason to visit is to see the Royal Tombs. The cathedral is the final resting place of nearly all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great onwards. Only two are missing, Peter II and Ivan VI. The entrance fee is 550 roubles.
A 15-minute walk from Hare Island is the cruiser Aurora, moored on Petrogradskaya Embankment. Launched in 1903, the cruiser is probably most famous for its role in the starting of the October Revolution. The ship is said to have fired the first shot to signal the storming of the Winter Palace. This led to the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the Bolsheviks taking control. The cruiser now serves as a museum ship. There is a fair amount of history onboard but much of the information is only available in Russian. With this in mind, the 700 roubles to explore the ship feels a little overpriced. For someone with an interest in naval history and the Bolshevik Revolution though it would certainly be worth a trip.
Rivers and canals by boat
When you’ve worn your legs out from too much walking a great way to get a different perspective on the city is to take to the water. I took a tour with Neva Travel, but there are many tour operators offering similar trips that take you along the Fontanka, Moyka and Neva Rivers and through some of the connecting canals. They are around 1-1½ hours long and offer a relaxing way to find out more about the city. Some offer commentary in just one language, whilst others provide audio guides so check before you book. Boats run from late April to late October, although the range of trips is more limited outside of the main summer season. For a boat, head down to the moorings near the Fontanka or Moyka River bridges on Nevsky Prospekt or the embankment by the Admiralty on the Neva River. Prices are around 600-800 roubles.
Nighttime Boat Tours
If you have the time and stamina there are also night-time tours available. The bridges over the Neva are opened at night to allow larger ships through. The tours start after midnight and are hugely popular as the bridges are also brightly lit up. These trips are more expensive than the daytime ones at around 1100-1400 roubles. I can’t make any recommendations as I was tucked up in bed by then.
Like any major city, there are plenty of ways to entertain yourself in the evening. I didn’t get a chance to visit the theatres but they offer a wide range of opera, ballet and drama. Check out here for a rundown on the theatres available.
If you fancy some free entertainment then head down Nevsky Prospekt in the evening. You might find some great local bands playing along the road and I even saw some amazing fire dancers performing. They all seem to attract a big audience.