St. Petersburg was Russia’s capital for two hundred years, and in that time grew into one of the most powerful cities in Europe. It’s a grand and imposing place, where vast squares and wide boulevards are lined with some of the finest buildings in the country, but it’s also spirited, artistic, feisty and fun
You can now visit St. Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad region quickly and simply, with the recent introduction of a new electronic visa. Tourists arriving in St. Petersburg now only require an e-visa, which also waives the consular fee. Travelers can apply for the visa up to four days before traveling, it’s valid for 30 days from the date of issue, and it allows the holder to stay for up to eight days.
With all that in mind, let’s explore!
I’m using St. Petersburg as a stopover. What shouldn’t I miss?
Get a quick primer
Even if you’re only here for a couple of hours to quickly change planes, the airport itself — Pulkovo — is an interesting one. Fully redesigned and reopened in 2014, it’s a mix of everything you’d expect in terms of shops, bars and restaurants, but also, interestingly, incorporates the old Soviet building into the new departure area, adding a strikingly angular roof.
Dotted around are a number of paintings and sculptures to give passengers who are just briefly passing through a sense of the culture Russian people are very rightly proud of.
A brief dash into the city is easily possible, with bus 39 running every 10–15 minutes. It’ll get you to Moskovskaya Metro station in around 20 minutes depending on the traffic and from there, simply hop on a Metro into the city center. Alternatively, take an even more local option and squeeze into a marshrutka (minibus): route K39 will also drop you at Moskovskaya.
Even if you’ve only got time to get to Moskovskaya and back again for your flight, it’ll give you a very quick overview of the city as a whole. It consists of a huge, tree-lined inner plaza with a fountain in the middle, surrounded by manic traffic and imposing neoclassical buildings. The House of the Soviets is here due to an unfinished plan to make this the centerpiece of the city, but a huge statue of Lenin looking every inch the people’s leader gives some hint of what might have been.
Admire the architecture
Simply walking around the city will give you an overview of some of the most glorious and spectacular buildings St. Petersburg has to offer.
When it comes to cathedrals and churches, start with Kazan Cathedral. This huge, colonnaded building on Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main thoroughfare, is dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, one of the most important and exalted icons in Russia. You can reach it by taking the Metro to Nevsky Prospekt station.
From here, follow the canal north to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, so called because it stands on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. His heir, Alexander III, declared that a church dedicated to his father’s memory would be built on the site, in what he made clear was the “traditional Russian” style — a contrast to what he thought was an unwelcome incursion of Western European styles.
Following the Moyka River embankment around to the left will lead you to the immense plaza in front of the State Hermitage Museum from where you can walk through the gardens at Aleksandrovsky Sad to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a monumental thump of a building that now serves as a museum.
Other than that, cross one of the bridges and head northwest onto Vasilyevsky Island, originally chosen as the center of his new capital by Peter the Great and now home to some of the most beautiful historic buildings in the city.
The Metro systems of Russia are famous for the beauty of their stations, some almost palatial in their size and splendor, but the very fact they’re a public facility means you can tour them for the less-than-princely sum of 55 rubles. You pay to get into the system and your ticket is valid until you leave again, meaning you can just hop on and off trains until you’re done.
Sticking to the red and the purple lines means you’ll be able to see all the most beautiful stations. Starting with the stunning marble, columns and chandeliers of Avtovo towards the southwestern end of the red line, you’ll next head to Kirovsky Zavod for more marble-lined beauty in a slightly more modern style, along with relief sculptures of Soviet industry.
Pushkinskaya has a sculpture dedicated to the poet Alexander Pushkin which is regularly surrounded by flowers laid there by locals, while Ploshchad Vosstaniya is a long, barrel-like structure depicting the events of the revolution (indeed, the name of the station and its location is Revolution Square).
On the purple line, Sportivnaya has murals of Greek Gods and Olympic athletes, as well as lights sculpted in the shape of giant Olympic torches, while for a novel way of keeping fit yourself, head to Admiralteyskaya. It’s one of the newest stations on the network, but the claim here is how deep underground it is: 86 meters! We’ll be impressed if you manage to run up the escalators…
Roam the rooftops
There’s been a history of people clambering on rooftops across the city for many years, from students having parties to lovers admiring the views. And what views they are: a 19th-century building ordinance limited the heights of all structures except churches, so if you could manage to get to a sixth story, you could see for miles.
It wasn’t exactly looked upon sympathetically, though: residents complained, the lack of regulation led to accidents, and it was generally seen as a nuisance. However, rather than try and clamp down on the illegal and dangerous trade in rooftop sightseeing, the city decided to allow it, subject to regulation. This means that today a number of companies can take you across the rooftops along solid walkways, with fences and rails to hold on to.
If you’re arriving in the evening, what better way to see the city in a short time than by booking a tour before you arrive? You can spend around an hour and a half learning about the history and stories of the city from on high while the sun sinks below the horizon.
Different times, different perspectives
As with all cities, the side that you see depends on the time of day, and that’s no less true in St. Petersburg. A bright summer’s day will mean you might want to spend your time in the parks and gardens, away from the rattle and roar of the main roads, and the heat of the Metro.
By contrast, a bleak, gray day in midwinter is the perfect excuse to visit one of the many outstanding galleries (of which more later), or to hunker down inside a cozy cafe with a cup of delicious Russian tea.
At night time, the city looks especially alluring. Walking along Nevsky Prospekt means you’ll cross Anichkov Bridge with its horse statues, the Eliseyev Emporium (an enormous, 19th-century department store), the red tower of the City Duma, and much, much more. Everything is illuminated, and the reflections of the lights dancing in the rivers and canals make exploring the darkness extra beautiful.
Otherwise, take advantage of the nightlife: it’s a city for all tastes, from tiny jazz venues to multi-level superclubs, craft brewery pubs to chic cocktail bars. Spend a couple of hours bar-hopping and talking to the locals — after all, you can sleep on the plane!
What if I want to stay longer? Any tips?
Explore by water
St. Petersburg is one of the many cities that lays claim to being the Venice of the North, built as it is on a series of islands, rivers and canals. This also means that, like Venice, one of the best ways to see the city is from the water.
There are a lot of routes, durations and prices to choose from, with routes that wind between the islands in various combinations. Joining a scheduled tour of the inner city waterways is the easiest option, and prices start from around 400 rubles.
The most popular routes are following what’s known as the Golden Ring, a 90-minute tour following the Fontanka River, the Kryukov Canal, the Moika River, the Winter Channel, and heading out briefly into the River Neva. This will give you the best general overview of the city, but for further exploration there are tours that stick solely to the Neva, or even some that head out to explore the parks and gardens of the islands in the Neva delta.
Both day and night tours are available, but for something extra special, jump on a tour after midnight to watch the bridges opening. This procedure in itself is particular to St. Petersburg: the city has 12 drawbridges, of which nine are raised to a specific schedule during the night to allow cargo ships to pass along the Neva and into the Gulf of Finland (and vice versa, obviously).
The bridges are among the biggest in the world, and regularly draw crowds on both land and water to watch their regal progress as they open and close.
It’s incredible that we’ve gotten this far without really mentioning the museums. This city is one of the greatest repositories of cultural treasures in the world, and we can tell you now: there’s no way you’ll have time to see everything. But, with a bit of smart planning, you’ll be able to get your artistic fix no matter what type of thing you’re after.
The obvious place to start is the State Hermitage Museum. It’s one of the largest museums in the world: it’s estimated that visiting all 350 or so exhibition rooms entails walking 10 kilometers, and if you were to spend one minute gazing at each item in the collection for eight hours a day, it would take you fifteen years to see everything!
There are works by Caravaggio and Titian; Rembrandt and Rafael; Monet, Matisse, and many, many more. There’s Alexander Nevsky’s massive silver sarcophagus, mighty sculptures and carvings, archeological finds, suits of armor, photos, rare books… with that in mind, grab a map and decide what you’d like to see most, but give yourself at least a couple of hours.
Otherwise, the Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art, opened in 2010, has over 2,800 works in its permanent collection and puts on its own creative projects all year round. The surreal Museum of Illusions is a series of installations to make you feel like a giant, or lost in a maze, like you’re being chased by zombies, or any number of other quirky things.
Finally, the Grand Maket Russia is a massive scale model of Russia in all its glory. Covering 800 square meters, you can see miniature versions of the Kremlin in Moscow, St. Petersburg in all its finery, the Don and Volga rivers, Siberia, the Urals and the Black Sea coast, as well as moving cars, trains — even a Metro system!
Being so far north, coming to the Leningrad region in summer means you can experience something St. Petersburg and the surrounding area is famous for: White Nights.
For around 80 evenings from May to the end of July, the city emerges from the icy embrace of winter and enjoys almost 24-hour daylight. It’s become more than a meteorological phenomenon, working its way into the very heart and soul of the city and its inhabitants.
In a country for whom the idea of the Russian Soul is tied to its very existence, this symbol of light and rebirth after months of short, crisp, cold days, is deeply and collectively felt. Dostoyevsky’s idea of the Russian Soul being “unexpressed, unconscious ideas which are merely strongly felt” is apt indeed.
Anyway, moving away from poetry corner, what does this mean for the visitor? Well, it means being outside, mainly. The city pulses with life: the trees blossom in the parks and gardens, families rush to the lakes and cycle trails, the pubs and bars of Dumskaya ulitsa stay open all night (as do many others!), and outdoor events take place across the city, from yoga to classical concerts, art installations to student parties.
Finally, get out of the city and give yourself one final shock. Around an hour by train from the city center is Lake Ladoga, the largest freshwater lake entirely in Europe. You know what’s coming next, don’t you? Yep, in you go. How cold can it possibly be…?
Get away from the rush
As busy and intoxicating as this city is, there are still a good number of places you can escape to when you feel like it.
The largest park by area is the Maritime Victory Park (Primorsky Park Pobedy), located on Krestovsky Island, and ever since its opening in 1945, it has become one of the most popular spots for locals to hang out. It contains an amusement park, boating lakes, paths for walking, cycling or rollerblading, even a small stretch of beach! It’s also home to the giant UFO-like structure that’s the proud home of the city’s football club, Zenit.
Near the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Letniy Sad — the Summer Garden — is a romantic, 18th-century construction. Refined and serene, it’s the perfect place to stroll hand in hand with a lover, or to treat yourself to a cup of tea and a sit down in the quaint cafe. The nearby Mikhailovsky Gardens are beautiful in the autumn when the trees turn a vibrant reddish-brown, and remembrance is served in the Field of Mars, a former army parade ground and now home to the torch of the Eternal Flame.
If you need a side-dish of cool with your day spent outdoors, New Holland Island is the place to be. For three centuries it was closed to the public and was the center of the city’s huge shipbuilding industry, but it’s now home to public art spaces, summertime concerts, film screenings and DJ sets, as well as cafes, bars and shops, a regular vinyl market, and everything else the painfully hip Petersburger needs.
Old favorites, new flavors
Russian cuisine, for so long dismissed as a combination of potatoes, borscht, vodka and misery, has spent the last few years undergoing a massive transformation.
For food in St. Petersburg, head immediately to Rubinshteyna ulitsa, the longest street of restaurants in the country. No matter what you’re after, from traditional favorites done with a modern twist, to the best the city has to offer in terms of international cuisine, you’ll find it here.
Nevsky Prospekt also offers up a multitude of gastronomic pleasures, even on a budget. Marketplace is a kind of old Russian style canteen, while Obed is a cafe. Both do good, solid Russian classics such as herring and cranberries on heavy bread, or a large, warming bowl of borscht. You can also get meals to go, so either are a perfect lunchtime stop.
There are a number of great restaurants that have opened up over the last few years that are worth exploring: the three Duo restaurants (one’s a gastrobar, one’s an Asian restaurant, and the third is a wine bar) are perfect examples of smart city chic; Tre Bicchieri has no sign outside indicating its existence — and only four tables inside — so booking is required and excellence guaranteed; ARKA is a Scandinavian-style bar and grill with DJs at weekends; or for something cheaper, there are plenty of restaurants doing good, generously portioned Georgian food at reasonable prices.
I’m feeling adventurous. What is there to do in the surrounding region?
Your e-visa allows you to travel in the Leningrad oblast, the region surrounding the city, and there’s an awful lot to see and do. Whether it’s history, nature, traditional culture or something more active, there’s more to talk about than space here allows! However, here’s a brief rundown of a few of the places you might like to explore.
Right on the Finnish border to the very northwest of St. Petersburg is Monrepos Park, an area of parkland, lakes and islands that was established in 1788. It’s now a prized natural and historical reserve, and walking around you’ll come across scenic clifftop views, wooden pavilions, a restored temple, a 19th-century manor house and library, and an obelisk to the Napoleonic Wars.
To live like a royal for a day, consider visiting one — or both! — of the magnificent palaces of Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo. Peterhof was inspired by the Palace of Versailles after Peter the Great visited the French royal family in 1717. It’s the same combination of grandiose buildings and gardens, walkways and fountains, and the interior of the palace is lavishly colorful.
Tsarskoe Selo is less about the gardens and more about the palace, but what a palace! It’s simply enormous, a Baroque masterpiece with some of the most extravagant interiors anywhere in Europe. Visitors can spend a full day at each, but there are companies that will take you to both on the same day.
At the other end of the spectrum, get bus 575 at Ul. Dybenko to Shlisselburg, or a suburban train from Finlyandsky station to Petrokrepost, and take a ferry for the short journey to Oreshek island at the head of the Neva river.
The island is home to a huge fortress and former prison that dates from as early as 1323. It’s a series of imposing walls, towers, dungeons and an inner bastion, and was a key site of military conflict all the way up to the Second World War, during which it was damaged. It’s being restored and now serves as a memorial, and the prison, as a museum.
For thrillseekers, head to the tiny settlement of Losevo. This is where the Vuoksi River meets Lake Sukhodolskoye, and in the middle of the 19th century geological shifts meant that water levels in the lake started to decrease. To combat this a new channel was dug to refill the lake, but mistakes were made, reversing the direction of the water flow, and turning this part of the Vuoksi into a raging torrent.
What was bad for navigation is now a blessing for water sports fans, with whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking all on offer. If you’d rather stay on dry land, the town of Melnikovo is around 30 minutes away and is home to traditional wooden churches and a thought-provoking monument to around 300 Soviet soldiers killed in World War II.
So join the locals in “Piter”!
There’s no way we could describe everything that St. Petersburg and the surrounding region have to offer, but hopefully, this summary of some of the things to see and do has made you curious enough to visit. As we mentioned at the very top of the article, with your e-visa it’s now easier than ever to see this amazing city, so check Kiwi.com for deals to Pulkovo airport.
Indeed, as Nikolai Gogol once wrote of his homeland, “what is this inscrutable, mysterious force that draws me to you?” Well, now would be the perfect time to find out.