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Top 20 St. Petersburg attractions and experiences

St. Petersburg has a true wealth of attractions and experiences to offer travelers, from spectacular Imperial palaces to quirky and absorbing museums, from boat trips along the city's majestic rivers and canals to walks in the footsteps of St. Petersburg's literary and artistic greats.

In fact, there's more than enough to see and do in St. Petersburg to keep visitors entertained for weeks or even months. One of the biggest challenges for independent travelers is to work out what they will actually have time to fit in to their itinerary, particularly as St. Petersburg is one of Europe's largest cities, with the historical centre alone covering several square kilometers and some of the most famous attractions located far out in the suburbs. To help you get the most out of your time in St. Petersburg, our travel writers have drawn on their own expertise and years of feedback from travelers to compile this Top 20 list of attractions and experiences.

The Hermitage (The Winter Palace) in Saint Petersburg

Undoubtedly St. Petersburg's most famous visitor attraction, and universally acknowledged as one of the world's greatest treasuries of art and antiquities, the Hermitage is a name to be conjured with, and reason enough on its own for many travelers to book a trip to St. Petersburg.

The Hermitage Museum now spans several sites, but for most visitors it is the main collection in the Winter Palace that is an essential component of any St. Petersburg itinerary. Here you'll find not only centuries of European fine art and a rich collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, but also the astonishingly opulent 18th and 19th century state rooms of Russia's imperial family.

Since the summer of 2014, much of the Hermitage's renowned collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art (in terms of artistic quality, undoubtedly the highpoint of the collection) has been transferred across Palace Square to the General Staff Building, so if your main reason for visiting the Hermitage is to see the art, then you have to consider making time for the second location, possibly with a break for refreshments between the two.

Time

Optimal: One day for the Winter Palace and General Staff Building collections.

Minimum: Two hours

Further reading

Explore the Hermitage: An introduction to St. Petersburg's greatest museum.

The Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg

St. Petersburg's other internationally renowned cultural institution, and for some visitors an even greater draw than the Hermitage, the Mariinsky Theatre has profited in recent years from the financial and creative turmoils of Moscow's Bolshoi to become the undisputed preeminent musical theatre in modern Russia.

Renowned for the impeccable discipline and devotion to tradition of its ballet company, and blessed in Valery Gergiev with one of contemporary classical music's most exciting and exacting conductors, as well as international stars of ballet and opera including Ulyana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva and Anna Netrebko, the Mariinsky Theatre is a world-class venue for ballet, opera and orchestral music.

Recent years have seen the Mariinsky spread beyond its historic home, the wedding-cake late-19th century opera house on Teatralnaya Ploshchad ("Theatre Square"), with the addition in 2006 of the Mariinsky Concert Hall, and in 2013 the long-awaited opening of the second opera and ballet stage, Mariinsky II. While most visitors will want to enjoy the rich atmosphere and ornate interiors of the main theatre, both new venues are beautifully designed inside, with state-of-the-art acoustics and stage technology, making them well worth exploring for music enthusiasts.

Time

Optimal: As many performances as time and your budget will allow.

Minimum: At least one evening performance at the Mariinsky should be an essential component of any Petersburg itinerary.

Rivers and canals of St. Petersburg by boat

If you're visiting St. Petersburg from May to October, there are a number of ways to explore the city by boat, from taking the hydrofoil to the suburban palace and park at Peterhof to enjoying dinner and live jazz on an evening cruise along the Neva. When the weather's good, visitors should really take any opportunity to get out on the water, but even the shortest visit to St. Petersburg in summer should include one boat trip along the city's central rivers and canals.

There is a wide range of different offers available at the various quays on or near Nevsky Prospekt, with larger boats offering guided tours (some in English) and on-board refreshments, and smaller boats that you can rent by the hour, choose your own route, and bring your own food and drink. All routes through the centre take in some portion of the Fontanka and Moyka Rivers and the Griboedov and Kryukov Canals. Some also head out onto the River Neva, while around midnight most of the boats in the city offer the chance to watch the opening of the Neva's bascule bridges from the water. Whatever route you end up taking, a boat trip is a fantastic way to see St. Petersburg from a different angle, and perhaps the best possible means of getting an impression of the sheer scope of the city's architectural beauty and romance.

Time

Optimal: If you're in the city for more than a few days, it's definitely worth taking two trips - one sightseeing tour through the centre and one to watch the bridges opening.

Minimum: A basic sightseeing tour along the rivers and canals of the centre will take just over an hour.

Peterhof near Saint Petersburg

When it comes to visitor attractions, St. Petersburg is as famous for the Imperial palaces and parks in the suburbs as for the museums and palaces in the city centre. Among the former, Peterhof is the one we would class as absolutely unmissbale, especially in summer when the park's incredible collection of fountains is in operation.

It took Peter the Great over a decade and a few false starts before he found the right site for his summer residence. Modelled partly on Versailles, but with many features that reflected Peter's specific tastes and interests, the park was expanded under Peter's daughter, Empress Elizabeth, to greatly surpass its French antecedent in scope and grandeur. While the Grand Palace at Peterhof is less spectacular than the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, Peterhof excels in the diversity and range of its attractions, from the charming baroque buildings of the Petrine era to the extraordinary gilded extravagance of the Grand Cascade to the catalog of gardening styles encompassed in the Upper and Lower Parks to the ever-growing number of museums housed in the various buildings on the estate.

Time

Optimal: There is plenty at Peterhof to keep you occupied for a whole day, and the Lower Park is a great place to picnic in the summer.

Minimum: As the journey from the city centre takes at least 45 minutes, half a day is the minimum time necessary to visit Peterhof even for the briefest overview.

St. Isaac's Cathedral & Colonnade in Saint Petersburg

The low-rise skyline of St. Petersburg's historic centre is dominated by the grand gold dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral, the life's work of French architect Auguste de Montferrand and the city's largest and most spectacular religious building.

Completed in 1858, St. Isaac's took over forty years to build and decorate. Its strictly European Empire-style facades and colonnades are made unique by the employment of red Karelian granite, while the interiors also meld Orthodox tradition with Catholic influence and extraordinary extravagance in the choice of materials. Different types of semiprecious stone from all over Russia form the interior walls and columns, while an abundance of original art and sculpture goes only a little way to filling the vast hall of the cathedral, designed to accommodate 14 000 standing worshipers. As well as visiting the Cathedral interiors, travelers can buy an extra ticket to climb the 300 steps up to the colonnade. From here, you can enjoy some of the best views of St. Petersburg available.

Time

Optimal: A tour of the cathedral and colonnade should take around two hours. It's certainly worth getting an audio guide for the cathedral, and possibly for the colonnade if you are entirely unfamiliar with the lay-out of the city.

Minimum: While visiting the cathedral interiors is hardly essential if you have limited time to explore the city, the colonnade is just about the only accessible place in St. Petersburg where you can enjoy something like aerial views of the downtown, so it's well worth taking half an hour to visit.

The Peter & Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg

The place where the city of St. Petersburg began, the Peter and Paul Fortress never actually saw military action, but has fulfilled a variety of functions over its three-century history, from burial place for nearly all of the Romanov Emperors and Empresses to notorious political prison to the site of key experiments in the development of Soviet rocket technology. All of these aspects of the fortresses history are celebrated in diverse exhibitions across various buildings, and it is the ramshackle charms of these various museums and collections as much as the grandeur of the spectacular Ss. Petersburg and Paul Cathedral that make the fortress an essential visitor attraction.

Time

Optimal: It's possible to spend the best part of a full day at the Peter and Paul Fortress, and if possible you should definitely take the time (around five hours) to visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral, explore the displays on the History of St. Petersburg in the Commandant's House and at the Museum of Cosmonautics and Rocket Techonolgy, and walk along the top of the curtain wall.

Minimum: If you're short of time, it's probably enough to pop inside the Cathedral and walk the ramparts (just over an hour).

Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg

While it lacks the authentic medieval charm of St. Basil's in Moscow, the Church on Spilled Blood is nonetheless one of St. Petersburg's most instantly recognizable landmarks, its riotously colorful Russian Revival architecture making a stark contrast to the elegant neoclassicism of the State Russian Museum next door. This is part of the church's charm, in that it serves to constantly remind the visitor to St. Petersburg that, despite the Italianate elegance of most of the "Golden Triangle", you are still definitely in Russia. It's extraordinary also that a monument to mark such a tragic event (the assassination of Alexander II) should be so exuberantly colorful.

Time

Optimal: As gaudy and colorful on the inside as on the outside, the Church on Spilled Blood is worth going inside if you have time to listen through an audio guide with the story of the church's construction (just over an hour in total).

Minimum: If you're on a whistlestop tour, there's no need to set aside time for the Church on Spilled Blood, as you're bound to pass it more than once in even the shortest exploration of St. Petersburg.

Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin) near Saint Petersburg

Home to not one but two vast 18th century palaces, surrounded by beautifully landscaped parkland with a rich variety of follies and monuments, Tsarskoye Selo is a testament to the immense wealth and lavishness of the Romanov Imperial family. The rococo Catherine Palace by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, a sister building to his Winter Palace in the city centre, is the most famous attraction, particularly thanks to the extraordinary Amber Room, but there are many other highlights to see, with almost every great St. Petersburg architect of the 18th and early-19th centuries contributing something to the ensemble.

Time

Optimal: Like Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace over a full day, with a break for a picnic in the park or lunch at one of Pushkin's restaurants.

Minimum: There's no point in visiting Tsarskoye Selo unless have a full morning or afternoon free. It's all worth considering combining Tsarskoye Selo with the palace and park at Pavlovsk a few kilometers east. This also gives you the opportunity to dine at the excellent Podvorye restaurant.

Opening bridges in Saint Petersburg

The Neva River connects Lake Ladoga to the Baltic Sea, and during the summer navigation season tens of cargo ships per day follow this important route, making it necessary to open the bascule bridges across the Neva in central St. Petersburg. This is done after midnight, and during the White Nights especially it has long been a tradition for crowds to gather along the embankments to watch the raising of the bridges. The raised arches of Palace Bridge make for one of St. Petersburg's most famous views, but its as much the atmosphere of lazy revelry and contentment inspired by the eternal twilight that makes this such an unmissable St. Petersburg experience.

Time

Optimal: If you have the opportunity, then it's worth taking a midnight boat trip out to watch each bridge rise from the water.

Minimum: It is only really Palace Bridge and Trinity Bridge that gather big crowds, and they are undoubtedly the most beautiful. To watch the two adjacent bridges rising and walk the kilometer along the river between the two is a pleasant way to spend an hour before bed.

Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg

"There's nothing finer than Nevsky Prospekt, at least not in St. Petersburg." So begins Nikolay Gogol's famous tale of St. Petersburg's central avenue. While that story may end in disillusion and despair, there's little doubt that Nevsky is one of the world's greatest streets. Running 4.5 kilometers from the Admiralty in the west to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in the east, Nevsky Prospekt has a hardly single building dating from after 1917. Highlights include the magnificent Art Nouveau Singer Building, the baroque Stroganov Palace, Kazan Cathedral with its curved neoclassical colonnade, the Horse Tamers statues on Anichkov Bridge, and the 18th century shopping arcade Gostiny Dvor.

Nowadays, St. Petersburg's most exclusive shopping area is actually the eastern end of Nevsky, beyond Ploshchad Vosstaniya. As well as landmark buildings and up-market boutiques, however, Nevsky Prospekt also offers an electric atmosphere and energy. Especially in summer, Nevsky is bustling no what the hour, and an increasing number of bars and cafes without outdoor seating give you a better opportunity to enjoy the avenue's living theatre.

Time

Optimal: It will take at least two hours to walk the full length of Nevsky Prospekt, allowing for brief contemplation of the major sights and attractions.

Minimum: The most famous landmarks on Nevsky are nearly all in the stretch that runs through St. Petersburg's "Golden Triangle" from the Fontanka River to the Admiralty. This section of the avenue can be explored in around 30 minutes.

Bronze Horseman in Saint Petersburg

St. Petersburg's most famous public monument, this equestrian statue to Peter the Great is not only one of the most instantly recognizable symbols of St. Petersburg - like the Statue of Liberty for New York or the Eiffel Tower for Paris - it is also the subject of one of the greatest poems in the Russian language, Alexander Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman: A Petersburg Tale. Completed in 1782, the statue took 12 years of work by the French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet, recommended to Catherine the Great by Denis Diderot himself. The pedestal of the monument, the "Thunder Stone", is purportedly the largest ever moved by man.

Time

The Bronze Horseman is easily combined with a visit to St. Isaac's Cathedral, so does not require a specific time on your itinerary.

State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg

While the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is undoubtedly the finest collection of Russian art in the world thanks to its beautiful premises and rich collection of 20th century work, it is matched up to the October Revolution almost painting for painting by the State Russian Museum. Occupying the magnificent Mikhailovsky Palace, the Russian Museum's main collection is a treasury of Russian visual from throughout the ages, with highlights including medieval icons, atmospheric late-19th century genre paintings, and several modernist masterpieces.

Time

Optimal: The main collection in the Mikhailovsky Palace will take 2-3 hours to do justice to, and it's also worth visiting the collections in the Marble Palace both to see this beautiful building and for the Peter Ludwig collection of international Pop Art.

Minimum: While the Russian Museum is definitely one of St. Petersburg's top visitor attractions, if you are on a first-time trip to Russia and visiting Moscow as well, it makes sense to choose either the Russian Museum or the Tretyakov Gallery, as the two have very similar content right down to different variations of the same work in some cases.

Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg

While nearly every great figure of Russian literature spent some time in St. Petersburg, and many wrote works with St. Petersburg as their setting, none is so inextricably linked with the geography and atmosphere of the city as Fyodor Dostoevsky. For many travelers, it is reading his works that sparks an initial desire to visit St. Petersburg, even though his descriptions often make the city monstrous and forbidding. As St. Petersburg's historic centre has been comparatively untouched by change in the 20th century, much of Dostoevsky's Petersburg is still there to explore, and the areas around Sennaya Ploshchad and Vladimirskaya Ploshchad are rich in sights connected to his life and works.

Time

Optimal: Our Dostoevsky walking tour takes 3.5 hours, including a visit to the Dostoevsky Memorial Museum.

Minimum: To get an idea of where Dostoevsky lived, you can just visit the museum and the adjacent Church of the Vladimir Icon, as well as the Monument to Fyodor Dostoevsky, in about an hour.

Strelka in Saint Petersburg

A small promontory of land at the eastern end of Vasilevskiy Island, the Strelka ("Spit") is right in the middle of the Neva River Delta, with magnificent views on all sides, including the Winter Palace, Palace and Trinity Bridges, the Peter and Paul Fortress and St. Isaac's Cathedral. A perennially popular site for wedding parties and bus tours to stop and take photos, the Strelka also has landmarks of its own, specifically the magnificent Rostral Columns, with their gas beacons lit for public holidays and maritime anniversaries, and the elegant classical temple of the St. Petersburg Stock Exchange, all works of the French-born architect Thomas de Thomon.

Time

The Strelka is an integral part of any exploration of Vasilevskiy Island, and does not require separate time on your itinerary.

Pushkinskaya 10 in Saint Petersburg

Established in 1989 as a squat for independent artists, alternative musicians, and other "underground" types, Pushkinskaya 10 is an arts and performance centre in an old apartment building a short walk from Nevsky Prospekt. A warren of studios and exhibition space haphazardly linked together as the Museum of Non-Comformist Art, Pushkinskaya 10 can be somewhat bewildering for visitors, and much of the space is often inexplicably closed (the two bars, both of which are also concert venues, are by far the most accessible parts of the complex), but it's well worth visiting for the increasingly rare chance to get a glimpse of the old Leningrad bohemia and its once revered dissident art scene.

Time

Optimal: The best way to visit Pushkinskaya 10 is to come in the early evening and hope that the galleries are open, before heading to one of the two music venues for a concert.

Minimum: A 15-minute visit should suffice to get an overall impression of the center's atmosphere.

Carlo Rossi's Petersburg

Practically unknown outside Russia, this Italian-born architect was the major creative force behind great swathes of central St. Petersburg, particularly the city's grand formal squares, with their Empire-style columned facades and trademark yellow-and-white plasterwork. His most famous buildings include the General Staff Building on Palace Square, the Alexandrinsky Theatre, the Senate and Synod Building, and the Mikhailovsky Palace (the State Russian Museum). In the "Golden Triangle" of St. Petersburg's historic centre, moreover, it's hard to take more than a few steps without finding more of Rossi's work.

Time

Optimal: Our walking tour of Rossi's most famous buildings takes around 2.5 hours.

Minimum: You'll see Rossi's work when you visit the Hermitage, the State Russian Museum, the Bronze Horseman, and just about anywhere you walk in central St. Petersburg.

Kunstkammer (Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology) in Saint Petersburg

The city's oldest museum, the Kunstkammer was founded in 1718 by Peter the Great himself, and is primarily of interest as a monument to the remarkable endeavours and enthusiasms of St. Petersburg's extraordinary founder. Housed in an elegant baroque building on Vasilevskiy Island, the museum has a rather pedestrian collection of ethnographic exhibits, and most visitors are drawn rather to Peter's own fascination, the huge number of deformed fetuses preserved in jars and other freaks of nature. Slightly less sensational but also of interest are the displays devoted to the great Russian polymath Mikhail Lomonosov.

Time

A visit to the Kunstkammer will take around 1.5 hours.

Ploshchad Pobedy and Moskovsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg

St. Petersburg's historic centre is renowned for having undergone little architectural change during the 20th century. In fact, the Soviet authorities were inclined to abandon the centre, redolent of the imperial past, and develop a new city to the south, along Moskovsky Prospekt. Most visitors only see this part of town on their way to and from Pulkovo Airport, but its worth exploring for several fantastic examples of Stalin-era architecture, including the monumental House of Soviets, as well as the memorials to the Great Patriotic War in Park Pobedy ("Victory Park") and on Ploshchad Pobedy ("Victory Square"). The latter is home to a magnificent panoramic monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, which has a museum detailing the defense of the city beneath it.

Time

Optimal: It is worth spending a couple of hours exploring Moskovsky Prospekt southwards from Park Pobedy Metro Station, as well as taking a tour of the museum beneath the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad.

Minimum: If you're short of time, there's not reason to make an extra trip out to Moskovsky Prospekt as you'll be able to see the highlights on the way to/from the airport.

Mikhailovsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg

While there's no questioning the Mariinsky Theatre's position as St. Petersburg's leading venue for opera and ballet performances, it is worth paying attention to this second historic theatre on Ploshchad Iskusstv, not only because of the last decade's largely successful financial and artistic renaissance, which has seen the Mikhailovsky engage top foreign talent and gain an international reputation, but also because it can often be a more affordable and accessible way to see ballet in St. Petersburg. This is especially true when tickets at the Mariinsky are scarce during the White Nights Festival.

Time

Ballet enthusiasts should definitely consider taking in a show at the Mikhailovsky as an addition to, rather than a replacement for, performances at the Mariinsky.

Yelagin Island in Saint Petersburg

Accessible from the city centre in around 20 minutes by metro, Yelagin Island (also known by its Soviet-era name as the "Kirov Central Park of Culture and Leisure") rarely finds a place on tourist itineraries. It really should be more popular, however, offering not only a (comparatively) small but very elegant Imperial palace by Carlo Rossi, but also attractive parkland, a boating lake in summer and outdoor skating in winter, and the surprisingly avant-garde wonders of the Museum of Glass Art. The lack of cars on the island and the small entrance fee make it a secluded a tranquil spot, and its probably the best of the green spaces within the city if you're looking for somewhere to enjoy a relaxing walk.

Time

Yelagin is a great place to while away a summer afternoon, and also has a fairly active calendar of cultural events in the warmer months, including a couple of music festivals.

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