Saint Petersburg, the former capital of Russia, is often referred to as the Russian Versailles or the Venice of the North. Its beautiful old buildings -- including some of the most incredible palaces you’ve ever seen -- many rivers, and quaint atmosphere make for an unforgettable visit. The palaces, gardens, and churches of Saint Petersburg give the home of Peter the Great and the magnificent Romanovs such a romantic feel that you’ll long to return again and again.
Here’s how to spend an amazing day in Saint Petersburg.
Marvel At The Peterhof Palace
The beautiful Peterhof Palace, with its rich yellow exterior walls, bright white trim, and shining golden accents, is one of the most spectacular sights in Saint Petersburg. The arched entryways to the grounds of the palace welcome you with a royal air of an era long past.
You could spend an entire day or just a few hours here, depending on your schedule. During your visit, eat a picnic lunch on the grounds, splash around in the pools and fountains (only some, of course, welcome visitors into their sparkling waters), read a book by the Baltic Sea, meander through the Japanese gardens, or explore the belongings of Peter the Great. There are more than 200 gilded and marble statues and 64 fountains on the grounds. You probably won’t see them all, but everything you see will be spectacular.
Visit The Church Of The Savior On The Spilled Blood
The most famous of the onion-shaped, brilliantly colored cathedrals of Russia is located in Moscow’s Red Square. But Saint Petersburg offers an equally beautiful architectural marvel: the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, also known as the Church of the Resurrection. The exterior alone, with its gilded domes and colorful spires, might just be the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen. But the interior, with its vibrant ceiling art, elaborate archways, and iconic murals, will leave you speechless.
The church was constructed in 1883 to honor the memory of Tsar Alexander II, who had emancipated the serfs of Russia two decades earlier. It stands on the site where the Tsar was mortally injured in an assissination attempt. A temporary shrine was erected at the site while plans for the permanent memorial were drawn up.
During the Russian Revolution of 1917, the church was damaged. It was closed by the Soviets in the 1930s and then damaged again during World War II. During the war, the church functioned as a rations storage facility and then as storage for a local opera company.
Eventually, reconstruction began to restore the cathedral’s former glory; the process took 25 years. The structure was reopened in 1997 and has been welcoming visitors ever since.
You’ll likely need an hour or two to explore this magnificent structure.
Enjoy A Russian Ballet
There is no better way to end your day in Saint Petersburg than by taking in a Russian ballet at either the beautiful Mariinsky Theatre -- home of the famous Mariinsky Ballet Company -- or the Mikhailovsky Theatre -- the oldest ballet theater in Russia.
Both historic buildings are worth a visit, even if you’re not able to attend one of the magnificent operas or ballets they host. The elaborate interiors with their multiple balconies, vast stages, and beautiful atmospheric lighting are nearly as pleasurable to observe as the live art taking place onstage.
Be sure to check the theaters’ calendars before deciding which to visit -- or take a private tour to get an in-depth understanding of the history of the theater and catch glimpses of spaces you wouldn’t normally see during a show. Most performances last between 2 and 3 hours, and you’ll want to spend some time beforehand simply admiring the beautiful architecture.
Explore The Cathedral Of Saints Peter And Paul
As you walk the streets of Saint Petersburg, you’ll see multiple churches, fortresses, and other buildings that date to the time when Tsars ruled the country and ballets by Tchaikovsky were all the rage. Among the many towering domes are those of the culturally significant Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul within the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Work began on the original structure just one month after Saint Petersburg was officially founded on May 27, 1703. The original church was consecrated nearly a year later on April 1. Less than a decade later, construction on the current stone Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul began; the work took 20 years to complete. The building was consecrated in June of 1733 and was radically different in style from traditional Russian Orthodox churches like the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. Instead of having rounded, gilded, colorful domes like the traditional churches, the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul features a bell tower and rectangular spire. Both the interior and exterior of the cathedral are ornate and worth seeing.
If you’re a fan of the Romanovs, this site will have more significance for you than many of the other attractions in Saint Petersburg, since this is where the Romanovs themselves are buried. Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Elizabeth of Russia, and the three Alexanders, along with Nicholas II and his family, are all interred in the small Chapel of Saint Catherine.
The fortress is a splendid place to walk and discover the past, so be sure to leave at least 2 hours for the whole experience.
Appreciate Art At The State Hermitage Museum
If you have extra time, try to stop by the State Hermitage Museum. The museum is housed within the former Winter Palace of the Tsars, situated on the River Neva -- where all the lovely lighted bridges open at night to let the boats pass through -- on Palace Square. Inside the Hermitage Museum are more than three million items, from Impressionist masterpieces to Oriental treasures. Taking the guided tour is the best way to see the most important pieces, due to the sheer size of the collection.
Participate In The Saint Petersburg Day Festivities
If you are able to visit on Saint Petersburg Day, May 27, you must. The city celebrates its founding like nothing else. Uniformed soldiers line the streets, parades pass by, flags fly everywhere, and fireworks light up the sky. You’ll see the somewhat somber Russian city glorying in its own beauty and history -- as it should.
Eating In Saint Petersburg
There are a variety of traditional dishes that you’ll want to consider trying when you’re visiting the old capital of Russia. Probably the most famous is the red soup called borscht, which originated in Ukraine but has become synonymous with Russian cuisine. The soup is made from beetroot, which gives the dish its unique red shade, and it is usually served with savory buns known as pampuski. You’ll find the best borscht at Teplo near Saint Isaac’s Square and the cathedral.
You’ll also want to hunt down some chicken Kiev, or stuffed chicken breast that is rolled in breadcrumbs and eggs and then fried or baked with loads of butter and herbs. You’ll find some tasty chicken Kiev at Metropole and Gogol.
Two other traditional dishes in Saint Petersburg are pelmeni and vareniki. Pelmeni are savory Russian dumplings similar to wontons. Vareniki are sweet dumplings stuffed with berries and cottage cheese. You’ll find these delicious dishes at Pelmenya near the Fabergé Museum. If you’re renting an apartment, you can pick up a package of these delights in the frozen food section of any grocery store and whip some up for yourself.
Shopping In Saint Petersburg
The street markets lining the walkways of Saint Petersburg are the best place to start your souvenir shopping. You’ll find a wide range of interesting goods here, plus friendly folks offering tourists a little piece of Russian history. You could take home a military hat from days gone by or a handcarved wooden lacquer box depicting scenes from Russian folklore and history.
Other souvenirs to look out for include the famous Russian nesting dolls, amber jewelry, and decorated birch bark goods. You’ll also want to consider bringing home some Khokhloma goods, or traditional painted wooden items featuring red and gold flower patterns on dark backgrounds. Gzhel, or blue-on-white ceramic pieces, are worth a look, as are valenki, or beautiful felt boots. Some souvenirs as famous as the nesting dolls are the replica Fabergé eggs, which can be found in a range of shops and boutiques near the State Hermitage Museum and Palace Square.
The best places to find these handicrafts are the little markets and carts along the streets surrounding the tourist hot spots, such as the pier near the Russian Cruiser Aurora. Most of the handicrafts and other trinkets and treasures mentioned here can be found at bargain prices.