St Petersburg is the most Western and incredibly beautiful city in Russia. It bears the unofficial status of the “Country’s cultural capital” – and although Muscovites (residents of Moscow) won’t always agree with this nomination, St Petersburg does have a record-breaking number of museums, monuments & historical buildings per kilometer.
This city can offer an itinerary for every type of traveler and any budget: classic art lovers can spend many days or even weeks wandering around Hermitage & Russian museum, architecture lovers would be in heaven doing city walks, anyone interested in music would be presented with endless opportunities for all kinds of performances starting from free street concerts up to and getting a ticket to the Mariinsky Theater.
WHEN TO VISIT ST. PETERSBURG
The most popular & crowded time to visit St Petersburg is mid-June through the beginning of July when daylight extends to nearly 19 hours. It is a White Nights peak time, such an anticipated & special moment of Northern summer when everyone stays up late, parties hard and get trapped in the city center because all the bridges are raised for navigation.
If you are planning your visit during this period– make all your bookings well in advance. Or consider coming a little earlier as White Nights start to roll somewhere end of May and you will get all the atmosphere and feel for it without huge crowds.
THINGS TO DO IN ST PETERSBURG
Regardless of when you are visiting, St Petersburg will have a lot to do. There is certainly a “First Time Visitor Must See” list with such landmarks as Winter Palace, Kazan Cathedral, Cruiser Aurora, and Hermitage.
This little guide will help you to fit some funky spots in as you trek antique parquet of imperial palaces and stare at world-renowned architecture, pictures & monuments. All of them are located in a city center, in close proximity to “standard” tourist attractions.
SEE THE CITY FROM A BIRD’S EYE VIEW
The most famous viewing point is the Colonnade of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. If you are up to being more adventurous and ready to take a bit of risk, look into the rooftop tour. The risky part of the rooftop tour is that these kind of activities are usually organized by small local companies and not all the guides speak English well enough.
There are other factors which vary depends on locations, roof conditions, time a day, weather, etc. TripAdvisor reviews for this activity range from “brilliant” to “terrible”. No matter if you will choose a “conventional” way of St. Isaac Colonnade or decide to embark into the unknown with rooftop tour – prepare to climb long spiral staircases.
VISIT NEW HOLLAND
New Holland is a microcosm of St. Petersburg, a city within the city where the former naval prison had been turned into an art object and became home to numerous gastronomy spots, galleries, installations, recreation areas. If you happen to visit in winter New Holland’s Ice-skating ring will be the best people-watching spot.
Unlike in a normal café, in “anti-cafes” you don’t pay for what you drink and eat, but for the time you spend in the space. Paying for your time will give you access to bottomless cups of coffee or tea, snacks, desserts, board games, art activities. Here are few awesome Anti-Café’s:
Mansarda – In case you did not do the rooftop tour, you can still get a taste of it by visiting Mansarda and relaxing on their patio. The view is spectacular, everything else is adorable, snacks, artisan coffee and a big selection of tea.
“ForAll” – Would you consider dancing or learning how to dance Brazilian Forro with Russians? Or taking a quick cat nap in a hammock? Then this cheerful “Brazil inspired” cafe is for you! The cookies are great too.
Cat Café “Soulmate” – Honestly, this one should make it on the aforementioned “First Time Visitor Must See List”. Crazy Cat Lady or not – pay a visit to the house of Russian cats. Enjoy snacks & fluffy snuggles. Piano to play as a bonus.
Communal apartment living is a unique Soviet phenomenon. A product of the Russian imperial past and the realities of the 1917 Revolution, when residential real estate became public property. The authorities began to divide up the apartments of wealthy citizens into smaller units (10 meters of living space for adult, 5 meters for the child) in order to solve the chronic housing shortage brought on by the country’s rapid industrialization, which attracted many people to big cities.
“Kommunalka” (as it called in Russian) still exists in St. Petersburg. The interiors are a unique blend of the pre-revolutionary palace and hum-drum existence and are preserved because residents are awaiting resettlement and do not renovate it.
There are a few ways to explore Russian Kommunalka
- Get on an organized tour – like this one (scroll the page down till you see the headline “Back in USSR. Soviet Times”).
- If you are exploring Russia with Viking River Cruise – they might have an option to visit Kommunalka on their “menu”.
- Stay a night or two at Kommunalka Guest House which is located right by Mariinsky Theater and has old palace parquet flooring.
THE MUSEUM OF DEFENSE AND SIEGE OF LENINGRAD
The Museum of Defense and Siege of Leningrad is a very sad page of our history. The Museum depicts 900 days of “Blockade of Leningrad” which lasted from 8 September 1941 to 17 January 1944. Some statistical data sources suggest 1.5 million of Leningrad (Soviet name of St. Petersburg) citizens died during this period. As most of the men were gone to fight, the city had been “held’ & protected mainly by the women & teenage kids through the whole Siege.
THE PREGNANT SPY BAR
“The Pregnant Spy Bar“ is a fun place for those who have a spirit of adventures, sense of humor and likes spy movies. This place has peculiar interiors, interactive host – a Pregnant Spy – who will be leaving notes on your table and extensive craft cocktails menu. Food is good too and Instagram-worthy pic possibilities are endless.
CELEBRATE RUSSIAN NEW YEAR OR GET MARRIED AT PURGA
Even if you travel to St. Petersburg in summer for White Nights & rising bridges, you can still celebrate traditional Russian New Year with champagne, tangerines, sparkles, the countdown to midnight, national anthem and some bunny ears which will be given to you at the Purga I entrance. The celebration goes on 7 days a week.
Bar Purga has two buildings. Instead of New Year, Purga II celebrates a wedding every night. It is not a real wedding (so isn’t the New Year at Purga I) of course but that does not make it less awesome.
Kamchatka is the holy place & Mecca of Russian Rock. The place is a memorial to a famous band Kino. To explain what Kino is – think Grateful Dead culture in the States. Although the band does not exist anymore, there are many faithful devotees, and a lot of creative performances, evening poetry readings & tribute meetings.
TAKE A METROPOLITAN RIDE
Due to unique geology, the St. Petersburg metro is one of the deepest systems in the world and number one deepest by the average depth of all the station. Admiralteiskaya station holds depth record – 86 meters below the ground.
The station Avtovo is also one of the 10 world’s most beautiful metro stations according to The Guardian. Take a quick ride from Admiralteyskaya to Avtovo making a line switch at the Pushkinskaya Station which is a tribute to the world’s famous poet Alexander Pushkin. Of course, there will be a little underground monument dedicated to him.
If you like partying and are visiting sometime in September or October, check the dates and location for the Loshadka Party. It is a like mini Burning Man happening in a single night.
EAT RUSSIAN STREET FOOD
Regardless of your itinerary, its duration and intensity, make sure you eat Pyshky which is the Russian donuts. Go to Pyshechnaya to do it in the most authentic way as this institution was doing Pyshky for the last 50 years and they still taste the same as in Soviet Union time.
Another must-try thing is Chebureki which is a traditional Tatar food. Same as Pyshky, Chebureki is a cult-like street food. The best way to describe it will be “deep-fried meat & cheese pies” and the best place to have them will be Cheburechnaya.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN ST PETERSBURG
There are many day trips to take from St. Petersburg. You can rent a car near the fountains of Peterhof and drive to Komarovo, Repino or Zelenogorsk, which are the “Hamptons” of St. Petersburg residents. Here you can enjoy Finland bay and its beaches in summer, incredible foliage & colors in autumn, beautiful views of breaking the ice in spring, ice-skating & maybe even some banya (Russian sauna) in winter.
You should certainly spend at least a week (better two) in St. Petersburg although it is possible to see all the central landmarks and pop in a few museums in just 3 days. I hope this guide helped you find some St Petersburg activities off the beaten track!
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to visit St Petersburg, Russia. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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- Domina St. Petersburg
- Lotte Hotel St. Petersburg
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Photographs by Anna Kalashnikova @anyutazen
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