Saint Petersburg is no doubt Russia’s cultural capital. The second largest city in the country is full of mindblowing colorful palaces and buildings dating from the Russian Empire, canals, onion domes churches, buddhist temple, synagogue, blue mosaics mosque and home to one of the world’s largest museum.
There is more than enough sights to visit in Peter (Saint Petersburg’s local nickname) to keep you busy for weeks. However you may only have a few days to spend and wonder what are the best places to visit?
I have been to the city multiple times since 2015 and here is a list of the 19 essential places you must see in Saint Petersburg.
Unless you get lost in the Hermitage for days, all the following places can be visited in 3 to 5 days. Listed in no particular order.
Saint Isaac cathedral
Исаакиевский собор – Saint Issac cathedral is one of the most iconic religious building in Saint Petersburg. Built over decades by the french architect Auguste de Montferrand, Saint Isaac was completed in 1858. It’s one of the largest orthodox cathedral in the world !
The best part of the cathedral is the colonnade accessible after a climb of almost 300 steps, however it’s well worth the effort as you will get spectacular paranomic views of the city from up there. Definitely do not miss it out the colonnade !
Зимняя Канавка – Created in 1719, the Winter canal is located nearby the Winter palace and connects the Neva and Moyka rivers. The two side of the canal streets are connected by 3 bridges including the famous Hermitage Bridge.
The Winter canal is one of those romantic spot in the city you must take your beloved one!
Hermitage & its square
Эрмитаж – The Hermitage is no doubt Saint Petersburg’s #1 attraction and the main reason tourists come to visit the city. It’s beautfiful in and out, the museum and it’s square are located at the end of Nevsky Proskpekt next to the Neva river
The Hermitage is one of the largest museums in the world, it spreads across 6 differents buildings so let’s face it, you won’t have enough of a day to visit it all. Many people stick to visiting the Winter Palace, which is the most popular part of the museum .
I’d recommend you to check on the official website in advance and plan ahead if you want to see specific exhibitions and not get lost in the giant museum (I did). If you own a russian bank card, your can buy your ticket online (only on the russian version of the website) and avoid the queue at the ticket office. Note that it may be crowded during the high season (spring to late summer), and you might have to queue for a while.
Дацан Гунзэчойнэй – A little visited sight in Saint Petersburg that deserves more attention in my opinion is the Datsan Gunzechoinei. Get a little previous of what Buddhist Siberia has to offer by visiting the Northern most buddhist temple in Russia.
Completed in 1915 in Tibetan style but with expensive materials, the Datsan was spared during the Leningrad Siege.
Смольный – Smolny is a religious complex with a church and various buildings completed in 1835. Initially it was supposed to be a convent for Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great who wanted to become a nun (she quite changed her mind in the end). The construction began in 1748 but was only finished 87 years later under three different architects : Rastrelli, then Felte and finally Stasov.
Elizabeth wanted the tower belfry to be the tallest in Saint Petersburg but unfortenetely funds were used for other projetcs and now the cathedral at Peter and Paul Fortress is the highest in the city.
Nevertheless, even if the final result isn’t what was planned at first, the Smolny cathedral and it’s surrounding complex is still one of the most beautiful in the city .
Невский проспект – Nevsky prospekt is Saint Petersburg’s main and most famous avenue. Nevsky is about 4.5 kilometers long, crosses the very heart of city center from east to west, from Palace Square to Alexander Nevsky Square.
Many of Saint Petersburg most famous landmarks are located on the avenue or right next to it : Kazan cathedral, the Hermitage, Singer building, Stroganov palace etc.
All buildings along the avenue date from the Russian Empire, it’s very pleasant to walk along it and a perfect place to find a nice café or restaurant to seat down and have local food.
Дворцовый мост – The opening arches of Palace bridge is one of Saint Petersburg’s most famous views. The 267 meters long bridge built in 1916 connects the city center next to Palace Square with Vasilievsky island over the Neva river.
Palace Bridge opens daily in the middle of the night to let large ships pass. Check the timetable on the official website.
Елисеевский магазин – Located at the corner of Nevsky Prospet and Malaya Sadovaya street, the Eliseevsky store is a historical shop opened in 1903 by the Eliseev brothers, a rich merchant family.
The interior is as impressive as the exterior. You must step inside, it’s simply stunning ! There is a café in the store on the ground floor and a couple of restaurants on the first floor. They sell slightly overpriced russian delicacies but it’s a great place to taste local products and bring some home as souvenirs.
Note : there was a Eliseevsky store in Moscow too, unfortunately (actually no, most products were expired in there) closed in 2021.
Петергоф – Peterhof palace and its fountains park was built in early 1700 to rival Versailles in France. Richly decorated inside out, it was the first imperial palace built outside the capital and has dozens of golden fountains in its front.
Note : it takes about 45 minutes drive by bus to reach it, check the itinerary on Yandex maps. There are different tickets for different parts of the palace. A separate ticket can be bought to visit only the park and its fountains. Make sure to check if everything is open depending on the time you visit. I’ve been there twice and never managed to get inside the palace, only visited the park. It was either closed due to the off season or the wrong day and only tour groups were allowed inside …
Peter and Paul fortress
Петропавловская крепость – Located on Zayachy island, the Peter and Paul fortress built in 1703 is the historical beginning of Saint Petersburg city funded by Peter the Great.
Over it’s 3 centuries of existence it served as a cemetery for the Romanov emperors, a prison (Dostoyevsky was imprisoned there for a few months), and even a place of Soviet experiments. It never actually saw any fighting despite being surrounded by fortifications.
There are plenty of museums and small exbitions around the fortress, yet many tourists come mostly for the Peter and Paul’s Cathedral which is one of the most famous landmark in the city.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Храм Воскресения Христова Спас на Крови – The church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood is to Saint Petersburg what Saint Basil Cathedral is to Moscow. By far the most iconic onion dome church in the city.
It was built as a memorial for Tsar Alexander II under his son’s rule. The church is located where he was murdered in 1881, however it was only completed in 1907.
The inside of the church is as impressive as the outside, entirely covered of mosaics and golden figures, so make sure to step inside.
Masters of Art Necropolis
Тихвинское кладбище – The Tikhvin cemetery also known as the “Masters of art necopolis” was opened in 1823 and is the final resting place of many famous russian artists.
The necropolis is filled with mini mausoleums and fancy carved gravestones of reknown writers and composers such as Tchaikovsky, Dostovievsky and Borodin. There are more than 180 graves in it.
Located at the very end of Nevsky Prospekt, behind Nevsky Square, there are two distinct cemeteries, Lazarevski (18th century burrial ground) on the left and Tikhvin on the right side.
Alexander Nevsky monastery
Свято-Троицкая Александро-Невская лавра – Also known as Alexander Nevsky Lavra, the monastery was built on the order of Peter the Great in 1710 and dedicated to the man who’s name is everywhere in Saint Petersburg : Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev in the 13th century.
Located in the very city center of Saint Petersburg, the relics of Alexander Nevsky were moved from Vladimir to the monastery.
Catherine’s palace in Tsarskoye selo
Екатерининский дворец – Catherine’s Grand Palace is located outside of Saint Petersburg, in Pushin village back then called Tsarskoye selo, the ‘Tsar’s village’. Built in the mid 1700’s by Rastrelli in a russian Baroque style, there are different parts on the palace’s territory : Catherine’s palace, Catherine’s park, and Alexander’s palace built for the Empress’s grand son Alexander I.
The most famous part of the palace is no doubt the Amber room, a room covered from floor to ceilling of amber and gold. Shiny and breathtking.
Note : Catherine’s Palace, Catherine’s Grand Palace, Starskoye selo or the State Museum Tsarskoye selo are all refering to the same place.
Grand Choral Synagogue
Большая хоральная синагога – The Grand Choral Synagogue is one of the largest synagogue in Russia but also in Europe. Completed in 1893, it was bombed during the Second World War Siege of Leningrad and restaured to its former glory in the mid 2000’s. It has an almost 50 meters high copula and great accoustics.
The synagogue is a rather off the beaten track sight in Saint Petersburg, but it’s located only 5 minutes walk from the Mariinsky theater, so don’t miss it out. There’s a kosher restaurant on site if you’re tired of pelminis and borsch.
Peter the Great Bridge
Большеохтинский мост – Officially named Bolsheokhtinsky Bridge, Peter the Great Bridge is a 334 meters long drawbridge over the Neva river built in 1909.
The bridge ressembles the London’s Tower bridge built in the 19th century and is linking Saint Petersburg’s center to the Okhta (a small river) side of the city. There’s a pedestrain sidewalk on it.
Казанский кафедральный собор – Located right on Nevsky Prospket, the Kazan Cathedral is one of Saint Petersburg main churches. Built in 1811 on the order of Tsar Paul I, it was inspired by Saint Peter basilica in Rome. The cathedral is surrounded by 96 spectacular columns.
This is a fully working church so the entrance is free. You might see a queue of people heading to the altar to pray at the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, a highly holy icon for the Russian Orthodox Church.
Saint Petersburg Cathedral Mosque
Санкт Петербургская соборная мечеть – Get a preview of Uzbekistan with Saint Petersburg’s mosque that was built in 1913 based on the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum of Tamerlane in Samarkand. It can host up to 5000 worshippers but it’s not the largest mosque in Russia as some sources claim it online, Shali’s mosque in Chechnya is.
However, it’s definitely an impressive, unsual and exotic mosque in Saint Petersburg. The 48 meters minarets and mosaics blue tiles will make you want to board the first train to Samarkand.
The mosque is located within walking distance to the Peter and Paul fortress.
Мариинский театр – With the Bolshoi in Moscow, the Mariinsky theater ballet compagny is one of the most prestigious ballet and opera compagnies in the world.
Founded in the 18th century, it was known back then as the Imperial Russian Ballet. There’s no better place in Saint Petersburg to see, or should I say, experience a russian ballet.
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