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28 Best things to see & do in St Petersburg

  • St. Petersburg, Northwestern Region, Russia

Last updated: 15 June, 2024
Expert travel writer: Jennifer Eremeeva
  • St. Petersburg , Northwestern Region, Russia

Green and white museum with horse and carriage outside

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State Hermitage Museum

The second-largest art museum in the world, a visit to the State Hermitage is the ultimate must-do in St. Petersburg – a jaw-dropping, overwhelming exploration of human history, spread across six historic buildings on the shores of the Neva river.

Whatever your interest – Egyptian antiquities, French Renaissance Art, Russian military history – it is represented here, on a scale few other museums in the world can match.

Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great as a court museum, the original Hermitage was built as a private gallery for the Empress’ vast art collection, adjoining the Winter Palace. Eighty years later, the Hermitage was reconstructed under Nicolas I and opened to the public in 1852. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the imperial collections became public property.

Locals (misleadingly) refer to the Hermitage as the ‘Winter Palace’, but this is just one in the complex of five buildings, which display more than three million items – still a fraction of the Hermitage’s full collection. One ticket gives you access to all five buildings, each of which houses very different parts of the collection.

Adult price: £5

Good for age: 18+

  • St. Petersburg, Northwestern Region, Russia

Grand exterior of palace in daytime

Bucket List Experience

Catherine Palace

Built originally for Peter the Great’s wife, Empress Catherine I in 1723, this extraordinary Baroque summer palace was later expanded upon by their daughter, Empress Elizabeth using the services of her favorite Italian architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli.

Rastrelli designed the palace’s showpieces, including the magnificent Marble Staircase, the Grand Ballroom, and the interior of the incomparable Amber Room, which houses the priceless amber panels gifted to Peter by Frederick William I of Prussia. The stunning, turquoise 1,200-foot palace facade features Rastrelli’s life-sized caryatids (stone carvings of female figures, used as pillars) and glittering domes of the Imperial chapel.

A showcase for the grandeur of Imperial Russia, and a fascinating insight into the gilded lives of the Tsars.

Adult price: £10

Good for age: 13+

  • St Petersburg, Northwestern Region, Russia

Statue of tsar in boulevard

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Russia’s Tsars & their legacy

St. Petersburg’s history is also that of the Romanovs, the dynasty that ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. For two centuries these lavish and colourful rulers left their indelible imprint on the city and its environs, beginning in 1613 with Peter the Great. His yearning for access to the Baltic Sea determined the city’s strategic location at the mouth of the Neva River, and it was his fascination with Western Europe which gave the city its look and feel.

Peter’s daughter Elizabeth took a city made of stone and gilded it with gold. This expansive empress, famous for her 5,000 dresses, many lovers, and frequent bouts of religious guilt, commissioned Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli to design some city’s most iconic Baroque buildings, including the Hermitage, Smolny Cathedral, Peterhof, and the Catherine Palace.

Catherine, Elizabeth’s successor, and those that came after her, maintained the city’s place at the forefront of trade, creating a glittering social scene and cultural hub, until the downfall of Nicolas II at the hands of the Russian revolution in 1917.

Good for age: 18+

  • St. Petersburg, Northwestern Region, Russia

Blue pavilion building in woods

Bucket List Experience

Tsar’s Village

Built in the 18th century as a summer retreat for the Tsars, Tsarskoye Selo, the Tsars’ Village, is the ultimate display of the extraordinary extravagance of Russia’s imperial rulers. Today, this extraordinary mix of palaces, landscaped gardens and glittering architecture outstrips even Versailles.

Highlights include the extravagant Baroque Catherine Palace, built by Empress Elizabeth with its famous Amber Room. The more restrained Alexander Palace was the primary residence of the last tsar, Nicholas II and his family, and their place of house arrest after the revolution. Recent restoration has updated the rooms inhabited by the last Imperial Family with their own furniture and possessions

Between them, amid the pristine sprawling gardens of Catherine Park and Alexander Park, Palladian buildings rise up between the trees and dozens of follies giving a glimpse of British, Italian and French architectural styles of the time.

Adult price: £6

Good for age: 18+

  • St. Petersburg, Northwestern Region, Russia

Palace seen from fountain in gardens

Bucket List Experience

Peterhof Palace

The most spectacular of St. Petersburg’s suburban estates, Peterhof was founded by Peter I in 1701, who was determined to create a network of palaces and gardens to rival Versailles.

Lining the shores of the Gulf of Finland, the estate remained a favourite summer residence of the Tsars for centuries and offers an almost bewildering array of exhibitions, private rooms and historic collections dotted throughout the buildings.

The highlight of any visit here is, of course, the Grand Palace – the largest and most impressive building of 30 rooms. In front of the palace is the Grand Cascade, a series of 64 fountains, flowing into a semicircular pool containing the largest fountain called ‘Samson’. The Samson Fountain depicts the moment when Samson tears open the jaws of a lion, and represents Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War.

The beautifully landscaped gardens also contain other historic buildings if you have the time to explore – including the palaces of Monplaisir and Marli, as a pavilion known as the ‘Hermitage’.

Peterhof attracts millions of visitors each year, particularly from May to September when the famous fountains and Grand Cascade are in full operation. Visiting the gardens is free, but undertaking a guided tour of the palace buildings gives a fascinating insight into the lives of Russia’s gilded emperors.

Adult price: £6

Good for age: 13+

  • St Petersburg , Northwestern Region, Russia

When Peter the Great inaugurated St Petersburg in 1703, it was the beginning of two centuries of building, which saw some of Europe’s most impressive churches and cathedrals rise up alongside the ornate palaces created for the Romanov dynasty.

Building churches and cathedrals had long been a way of gaining prestige since Russia was converted to Orthodoxy in 988 AD. Dukes from different areas competed with each other to see who could create the most extraordinary and beautiful church.

For Peter the Great, the challenge was even greater; to build churches and cathedrals that would become the most impressive in the world. Many were a product of the Baroque era, and have ornate frontages with onion bulb domes and facades in vivid colours; powder blue, rose-pink and yellow.

Throughout the Romanov era, increasingly ambitious churches were built, leaving the city with the legacy Peter the Great had wished for – a city with some the most extraordinary religious architecture in the world.

Good for age: 18+

  • St. Petersburg , Northwestern Region, Russia

Faberge Museum

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Faberge Museum

First commissioned by Alexander III as an Easter present for his wife, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, Faberge’s fabled Easter Eggs are synonymous with the grandeur of Imperial Russia. Each exquisite, bejewelled egg is created from gold, silver and precious stones, each opening to reveal a surprise – often gem-studded jewellery.

Peter Carl Fabergé famously kept a large mallet on his work table and had no qualms about smashing anything that was not absolutely perfect. This assiduous attention to detail makes the 52 surviving eggs almost priceless, fetching colossal sums when they come to auction.

The Museum brings together several of the more famous eggs – the Hen Egg, the Lilies-of-the-Valley Egg, the Fifteenth Anniversary Egg, and the Order of St. George Egg – together with other items from the legendary House of Faberge, which represent the zenith of the decorative arts in fin de siècle Imperial Russia.

Adult price: £5

Good for age: 8+

  • St. Petersburg , Northwestern Region, Russia

Blue and white painted cathedral rises between city buildings in square

Bucket List Experience

Smolny Cathedral

The dazzling cupolas and sky-blue facade of Smolny Cathedral, rising up from its waterside location on the River Neva, are one of St. Petersburg’s most arresting sights. Commissioned by Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth, to assuage her frequent pangs of Catholic guilt, Smolny was designed by her favourite architect, the Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli.

Arguably his most magnificent creation, Rastrelli designed a traditional, five-domed Russian cathedral, but embellished it with exquisite interiors, and a baroque facade in her favourite shade of turquoise.

Climb the 277 steps to take in the spectacular views from the cathedral’s bell tower, and if you’re visiting independently, time it when a service is taking place, to witness the full drama of a Russian orthodox service.

Adult price: £3

Good for age: 18+

  • St. Petersburg, Northwestern Region, Russia

Famous for its ornate, onion-bulb domes and the extraordinary gold mosaics housed within the spectacular façade, the Church of the Resurrection (more commonly known as the Church of the the Spilled Blood) is one of St Petersburg’s finest religious sites – a must-see, even for those who wouldn’t normally visit a church.

Built in 1881 in memory of Alexander II, the church stands on the spot where he was assassinated, when a bomb was thrown into his carriage. Outside, the domes are exuberantly decorated in bold golds and teal, and covered with jeweller’s enamel.

Inside, the scale of the mosaics is jaw-dropping; floor-to-ceiling gold-leaf depictions of different scenes from the bible, set against a vivid, deep blue backdrop.

Adult price: £5

Good for age: 13+

  • St. Petersburg , Northwestern Region, Russia

No visit to Russia’s cultural capital is complete without a performance of classical ballet or opera.

The Mariinsky Theatre (known as the Kirov Theatre in the Soviet era) is the city’s premier opera and ballet theater, and it was here that Tchaikovsky’s famous ballets, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake were first performed. The stage of the Mariinsky was home to Fyodor Chaliapin, Anna Pavlova, Anna Netrebko, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Visiting one of St. Petersburg’s theaters is an elegant experience, so dress up for an unforgettable evening.

Adult price: £40

Good for age: 18+

Duration: 2+ hours