Top 8 Sights to See in St. Petersburg

Katie Aune April 15, 2013 14

While most visitors have just a few days to explore St. Petersburg, I had the luxury of spending five weeks in the city designed by Peter the Great to become Russia’s window to the West. Built on a swampland at the mouth of the Neva River, St. Petersburg eventually grew to become one of the grandest capitals in all of Europe.  While the capital returned to Moscow during the Russian Revolution, St. Petersburg retains a distinctly regal feeling and its imperial history is evident throughout the city center.

Over the course of five weeks, I took in many of the “must-see” sights in St. Petersburg while discovering a few hidden gems as well.  Here are my top recommendations:

The State Hermitage

Exterior of the State Hermitage.

Founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, the State Hermitage houses nearly three million pieces of art in several buildings across St. Petersburg. The main museum complex on Palace Square consists of 365 rooms in the Winter Palace, plus the Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and New Hermitage, all constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries.  While you could spend hours taking in all of the Italian, Spanish and Dutch masterpieces, my personal favorites were the imperial state rooms and apartments, the Raphael Loggias (a copy of the gallery in the Vatican Museums) and the War Gallery of 1812, a collection of portraits of the Russian military leaders who defeated Napoleon in the Patriotic War of 1812.

If you can, splurge on a visit to one of the Treasury Gallery rooms – the Gold and Diamond Rooms contain an impressive collection of gold and silver dating back to the 2nd century B.C. and can be visited only by guided tour.

Peterhof

The imperial estate of Peterhof is one of the most popular day trips from the city.

Located 29 kilometers west of St. Petersburg, the imperial estate of Peterhof is one of the most popular day trips from the city. The Grand Palace is extravagant and lavish in its own right, but the real highlight of Peterhof is the Grand Cascade – a series of more than 140 fountains and canals cascading down a hill behind the Grand Palace. Beyond the Grand Cascade, the impeccably maintained grounds include acres of forests, gazebos, fountains and several smaller palaces.  You can easily spend an entire day exploring it all.

Peter and Paul Fortress

The oldest structure in St. Petersburg, the Peter and Paul Fortress was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 on an island in the Neva River. Within the fortress, visit the Trubetskoy Bastion Prison, an uncomfortable home for political prisoners through 1917, including Maxim Gorky, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leon Trotsky.  The Peter and Paul Cathedral is the burial place of most of the Russian tsars since Peter the Great and the bell tower is the highest structure in St. Petersburg, providing superb 360 degree views around the city. If you’re not up to climbing the tower, instead take some time to stroll along the top of the fortress walls for panoramic views across the Neva River.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Interior of St. Isaacs

With a gold-plated dome that rises over 300 feet, St. Isaac’s Cathedral is one of the tallest Orthodox churches in the world. While I visited with the expectation of simply climbing the colonnade to enjoy sweeping views of the city, I was more than a little distracted by the enormity of the structure and its richly decorated interior.  After passing through the massive bronze doors that form the entrance, my jaw dropped at the sight of the colorful frescoes, the iconostasis flanked by malachite and lazulite columns and the abundance of gold – gold trim, gold lettering and gold statues!

Yusupov Palace

Once the residence of Prince Felix Yusupov, one of the richest men in Russia, this spectacular mansion has a more practical feel than some of the royal palaces, but manages to dazzle visitors nonetheless. It is probably best known as the site of mystic Grigori Rasputin’s murder in 1916; unhappy with the peasant’s strong influence over Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, Yusupov and other members of the imperial family killed Rasputin in the building’s cellar.  If you are interested in Russian history or the legacy of the Romanov family as much as I am, you should enjoy the Murder of Rasputin Tour, offered several times a day.

Tikhvin Cemetery

Tikhvin Cemetery

Adjacent to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, the Tikhvin Cemetery was established in 1823 and is the burial place for some of the most famous names in Russian history, including composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, author Fyodor Dostoyevsky and scientist Mikhail Lomonsov.  A peaceful escape from the bustle of the city, the cemetery also provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of the Russian nobility. Mausoleums and grave markers are packed close together, often adorned with intricately sculpted angels, crosses or family coats of arms.

Nevsky Prospekt

Russia’s most famous boulevard, Nevsky Prospekt is also the heart of St. Petersburg. Stretching for 4 kilometers from the Alexander Nevsky Monastery to the Admiralty near the Neva River, it buzzes with energy day and night. A stroll along what was once the grandest boulevard in all of Europe will take you past some of the best that St. Petersburg has to offer. Don’t miss the Kazan Cathedral (modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome), Gostiny Dvor (one of the world’s first indoor shopping malls) or Dom Knigi, arguably the largest and best bookstore in the city.

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

Church of Saviour on Spilled Blood Exterior

Modeled after the unique St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, this rainbow-colored church with onion domes is one of the most iconic sites in St. Petersburg.  Built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was killed in 1881, it features 7000 square meters of mosaics on the interior.  When trying to decide which interior was more impressive – St. Isaac’s Cathedral or the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood – I decided it was too close to call.

What are you most looking forward to seeing in St. Petersburg?

14 Comments »

  1. Alice Gugelev April 15, 2013 at 10:37 am - Reply

    Hi Katie,

    Great Article! Thank you for writing about my home town – these are definitely my favorite places!!!

    One thing I would add that most locals love to do is to watch the bridges lift up during the middle of the night. This happens in order as cargo moves along the river, so you can either race your car along right before the bridge opens or even better, sit under a couple of the bridges while they open…drinking some vodka of course! (the young kids drink beer though).

    Cheers,
    Alice

    • Katie April 26, 2013 at 1:47 pm - Reply

      You’re welcome Alice! I did have a chance to see the bridges go up too – it was very cool! Unfortunately, my camera had some issues that night and I didn’t get any good pictures; otherwise, I probably would’ve included that on the list too!

  2. Harvey (H-Bomb's Worldwide Karaoke) April 15, 2013 at 10:57 am - Reply

    I’ll be in St. Petersburg next month, so this is very helpful! Some of these things, like the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, I hadn’t heard of, so it’s great to be getting some additional ideas.

    • Katie April 26, 2013 at 1:48 pm - Reply

      Glad to be of help Harvey! It’s a really beautiful city – you’ll have an amazing time!

  3. Miranda @ Endlesslychanginghorizon April 15, 2013 at 5:46 pm - Reply

    Love the photos, especially of the church. I’m hoping to visit St.Petersburg this year.

    • Katie April 26, 2013 at 1:48 pm - Reply

      Thanks Miranda! I hope you’re able to make it there for a visit!

  4. Lily Minas April 15, 2013 at 7:37 pm - Reply

    Hi Katie, I was lucky enough to visit St. Petersburg a year ago. I got to see all but one of the places on your list and couldn’t agree more with your conclusions. I only had 2 days to explore, so hope to go back someday and do it all over again at a more leisurely pace. 5 weeks sounds good :)

    • Katie April 26, 2013 at 1:49 pm - Reply

      Thanks Lily! Even though I had 5 weeks there, I’d still love to go back and see more. It’s great to be able to explore at a leisurely pace and just take in the atmosphere of the city.

  5. Mike Burrows May 17, 2013 at 7:03 am - Reply

    Lovely article Katie, I shall be in St Petersburg towards the end of June for 2 day on our second visit to this beautiful city. This time we have hired a local guide to give us a better appreciation of the city.

  6. Chris September 19, 2013 at 10:34 pm - Reply

    Hi Katie, these are good starting points. My wife and I will be in St. Petersburg this week. We will definitely explore these incredible sites you have recommend on the blog.
    I have been to St Petersburg few times but really never explored. I will get chance this time since m y wife will be joining me. It was our wedding anniversary surprise so it should be special one.

  7. Ruanne Diederichs October 11, 2013 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    We visited St.Petersburg in June as part of a tour to Russia. It was absolutely with out a doubt, one of the best trips we have taken.

  8. Doris M. Manlapaz November 16, 2013 at 8:27 am - Reply

    Russia is a place I was dreaming to see. I enjoyed my subject History of Russia and the life of the monarchs. Can you show the burial place of Tsar Nicolas II and his family?

  9. Irene January 24, 2014 at 6:17 am - Reply

    St. Petersburg should be considered the second most beautiful city of Russia. Moscow is a concentration of all the historical and political problems, but St. Petersburg seems to be facing West a lot more.

  10. Nina February 1, 2014 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    We will be going in August. We have been recommended to take a river tour past the Palaces one day and a trip to the Hermitage the second day. However reading above, there is more we should see. Should we book tours from the cruise line or book with some other organisation? We would like to see more on land than just the Hermitage. However it seems that is the most important place at least. Maybe there is a tour which takes us past all of the above with the possibility of getting out and seeing some. Does anyone have any recommendations as to how we book the best tours as we have been told we have to book tours as we will not have a visa.

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