Things to Do in St Petersburg
The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is the largest art and cultural museum in the world, with more than 3 million items in its collection—only a fraction of which are on display in its 360 rooms. The main museum complex comprises six historic buildings on the Palace Embankment and includes exhibitions of works of art from the 13th to 20th centuries, as well as Egyptian and classical antiquities and prehistoric art.
With its gigantic golden dome coated with over 220 pounds of gold and an impressive red granite portico, St. Isaac’s Cathedral (Isaakievskiy Sobor) looks more like a palace than a cathedral, and it’s no surprise that the eye-catching masterpiece is among St. Petersburg’s most visited attractions. Commissioned by Tsar Alexander I in 1818 to mark the defeat of Napoleon, the magnificent cathedral took over 40 years to build and still ranks among the largest domed cathedrals in the world, with a capacity for up to 14,000 worshipers.
Set on the banks of the Neva River, the cathedral’s extravagant design was the work of French architect Auguste de Montferrand, blending Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical elements, and sparing no expenses. The cathedral interiors are equally lavish, featuring painstakingly sculpted reliefs, grand bronze doors and a colonnaded iconostasis adorned with semiprecious gems.
Today, the cathedral is only occasionally used for worship, instead serving as a museum and housing an impressive collection of 19th-century fine art and mosaics. For many visitors, the highlight is climbing the 300 steps to the cathedral's colonnade, from where the views expand over the city.
St. Petersburg’s most iconic site after the Hermitage Museum, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is known for its elaborate façade and brightly colored onion domes. Officially the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, the magnificent church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
Russia’s most famous street—the Champs-Élysées of St. Petersburg—runs for 3 miles (5 kilometers) through the city’s historic center from the Admiralty Building to Alexander Nevsky Lavra. Some of the city’s most impressive buildings line the street, including the Kazan Cathedral, Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, and the Grand Europe Hotel.
Completed in 1811 and standing at an impressive 203 feet tall (62 meters), St Petersburg's Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan exhibits Russian classical architecture, having replaced a wooden church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. The cathedral took 10 years to construct and today encircles a small square with a double row of beautiful columns, while the interior is adorned with the works of some of the country's greatest artists and sculptors, such as I.P. Prokofyev and F.G. Gordeev, with reliefs on the facade by I.P. Martos, S.S. Pimenov and I.P. Martos.
Among some of the cathedral's other beauties are the Tsar's silver-casted gates and a golden frame decorated with precious stones, made specifically for the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan. The site has served as the setting for many of Russia’s historical events, including Tsesarevish Pavel Petrovich’s marriage and the celebration of many Russian military victories. Kazan Cathedral was originally intended to be the main church of the country and the Russian answer to the Basilica of St Peter's in Rome.
Long considered to be the lifeline of St. Petersburg, the Neva River (Reka Neva) flows through the capital city from Lake Ladoga in northwestern Russia, eventually making its way to the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea. Visit this historically important waterway to learn about the region’s history and see the city sites.
Housed in the suitably opulent Shuvalov Palace, the Fabergé Museum is a tribute to legendary Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé. The St. Petersburg highlight showcases Russia’s treasured series of Fabergé eggs alongside a dazzling collection of Russian art, jewelry, and artifacts.
The looming yellow cathedral tower and star-shaped fortifications of the Peter and Paul Fortress dominate St. Petersburg’s riverfront, rising up from the shores of Zayachy Island. Built by Peter the Great in 1703, the fortress boasts a long history, having served as a military base, royal burial site, and political prison.
It’s easy to see why Peterhof Palace, a magnificent complex of palaces and gardens stretching along the St. Petersburg seafront, is called the Russian Versailles. Fronted by the opulent Grand Palace and displaying a rich variety of architectural styles, this UNESCO World Heritage Site—known officially as the Peterhof State Museum-Reserve (Muzeya-Zapovednika Peterhof)—is one of the city’s most visited attractions.
Once the summer residence of the Russian tsars and now a museum, Catherine Palace was named after Catherine I, who had it built in 1717. The structure was later rebuilt into an elaborately decorated Rococo-style palace in 1756 by Bartolomeo Rastrelli under the direction of Empress Elizabeth, meant to rival the Palace of Versailles in France. Today, the palace is famous for its baroque style and neoclassical interior that exemplifies Russian wealth and extravagance. Its main attractions are the Grand Hall, the opulent Amber Room, which is lined with gilded amber wall panels and ornate furniture, and the 1,400-acre (566-hectare) Catherine Park with its masterful landscaping.
More Things to Do in St Petersburg
Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad) is the central square of St. Petersberg, which conjoins some of the city’s major landmarks and monuments, including most famously the Winter Palace. Because it is so spacious it regularly functions as the grounds for national parades, bards, and concerts. In the past, the square has been transformed during the winter months to become a free ice rink.
Palace Square was also the setting for some of Russia’s most significant historical events including the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the 1905 massacre Bloody Sunday, where peaceful protesters were gunned down while trying to present Tsar Nicholas II with a petition .
Although the buildings surrounding the square were built in different eras, they were all built to scale, giving the square a beauty in symmetry.
While the magnificent Winter Palace is now home to the immense State Hermitage Museum, part of the original royal residence—known as the Winter Palace of Peter the Great (Peter I)—has been preserved, allowing visitors a glimpse of the emperor’s grand living quarters and personal items.
The elegant, canary-yellow façade of Yusupov Palace (Yusupovsky Dvorets) is somewhat understated in comparison to St. Petersburg’s typically ostentatious architecture, but don’t be fooled by its demure frontage. Step inside the palace and you’ll find a series of ballrooms, banquet halls and bedrooms richly decorated with colorful frescos, sumptuous furnishings and gilded chandeliers. The exquisitely preserved interiors date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries and provide a fascinating glimpse into the aristocratic life of the era, with highlights including the Rococo style private theatre, the Moorish Drawing Room and the grand Ballroom.
Built by French architect Vallin de la Mothein the 1760s, Yusupov Palace was inhabited by the noble Yusupov family until they were exiled during the 1917 Revolution and became notorious as the location of the December 1916 murder of Rasputin. Today, the cell where Rasputin met his grisly and untimely end is a popular visitor attraction, with an exhibit chronicling the evening’s events as Felix Yusupov and his followers attempted (and finally succeeded) to poison, shoot and drown the “mad monk.”
The Bronze Horseman is a statue of Peter the Great on a horse. Catherine the Great had the statue built in the late 1700s to honor Peter the Great as the founder of the city of St. Petersburg. She commissioned the French sculptor Etienne-Maurice Falconet who had spent a long time studying the movements of horsemen on reared mounts. The horse stands on a rock meant to represent a cliff. This huge block of granite weighs more than 1,600 tons and took more than nine months to transport from the Gulf of Finland.
Visitors can still see an inscription on the stone that says "to Peter the First from Catherine the Second” in Latin on one side and in Russian on the other side. The statue faces west to represent Peter “leading Russia forward” because he drew inspiration from countries in the west. Legend has it that St Petersburg can never be taken by enemy forces as long as the statue remains standing in Senatskaya Square. You will often see newlyweds having their wedding photos taken in front of the statue.
With an imposing Neoclassical façade over 1,900 feet (580 meters) long, the Carlo Rossi–designed General Staff Building is one of St. Petersburg’s architectural highlights. The grand building, which is part of the enormous State Hermitage Museum complex, houses a large collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art works.
St. Petersburg’s preeminent opera and ballet venue, and home to the world-renowned Kirov Ballet, Mariinsky Theatre has long been at the center of the city’s rich arts scene. Built in 1859 by architect Albert Cavos and named after Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the theatre saw a host of prestigious performers grace its stage during its pre-Revolution heyday, including dancers like Vatslav Nizhinsky, Matilda Kshesinskaya and Anna Pavlova, and opera singer Fiodor Shaliapin.
The Mariinsky Theatre’s present-day building was restored in 1944, after being damaged during in the Siege of Leningrad, and features a 1,625-seat auditorium. Today, the historic theatre is accompanied by the Mariinsky Theatre concert hall, or Mariinsky II, an incongruously modern building that opened next door to the original theater in 2007.
Home of the Alexander and Catherine palaces and parks, Pushkin (Tsarskoye Selo) is one of Russia’s most significant and beautiful cultural heritage sites. The imperial family’s former summer residence is a must for first-time visitors to St. Petersburg.
The oldest cathedral in St. Petersburg and among the tallest orthodox cathedrals on the planet, the baroque Peter and Paul Cathedral sits on the grounds of Peter and Paul Fortress. The building is home to the St. Petersburg Men’s Choir and serves as the final resting place for many of Russia’s pre-revolutionary rulers.
The Admiralty building is one of St. Petersburg's oldest structures. It was built by Peter the Great and originally served as a dockyard. It once housed the Admiralty Board, which was in charge of ship building and eventually became part of the ministry of the navy. Some sections were built in the 1700s while other additions were constructed in the 1800s.
Unfortunately visitors today won't be able to see the building in its original state. Many of the statues were destroyed in 1860 when the Orthodox church declared them to be pagan. The building was also damaged during the blockade of Leningrad and was attacked by the Germans in World War II. The Admiralty building does still have lots of sculptures and reliefs to admire. There is also a 240 foot golden spire with its weather vane, a little ship, that sits on top of it and is one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. The original is in the Naval Museum, so the one you see here today is a replica. The building now houses the naval college.
Art enthusiasts visiting St. Petersburg will already have the State Russian Museum (Russkiy Muzey) at the top of their itinerary and the prestigious gallery doesn’t disappoint, with an incredible 400,000 exhibits dating back as early as the 10th century. This is the world’s largest and finest museum of Russian art, as well as Russia’s first state-owned art museum, and walking its halls is like taking a journey through the country’s art history.
The museum was opened in 1898 inside the grand Mikhailovsky Palace and its collection has steadily grown, amassing a large number of private art collections and religious art confiscated during the Russian Revolution. Today, the extensive exhibitions are housed in a complex of palatial buildings including the Benois Wing, the Stroganov Palace, St Michael's Castle, the Marble Palace and the Mikhailovsky Gardens. Highlights of the permanent collection include iconic paintings like Bruillov's “The Last Day of Pompeii” and Repin's “The Barge Haulers,” as well as works by 20th-century Avant-garde artists like Ravel Filonov, Kazimir Malevich and Vasily Kandinsky.
Also known as Russian State Pushkin Academy Drama Theater, the Alexandrinsky Theater opened in 1832 and is the home of the oldest theater company in Russia. It is one of the most famous theaters in St. Petersburg, second only to the historic Mariinsky Theater. The theater building is also considered to be one of the finest works of architect Carlo Rossi. However, inside the theater, only carvings on the Tsar’s Box and a few other boxes remain from Rossi’s original design.
Named after Empress consort Alexandra Feodorovna, the theater was one of the largest in Europe when it opened, with space for an audience of nearly 1400. It has been the site of the premieres of many of the top Russian dramas, including the works of Alexander Griboedov, Alexander Ostrovsky and Anton Chekhov.
Built in 1777 under commission of Catherine the Great and featuring the works of architects like Charles Cameron, Jacomo Quarengi and Carlo Rossi, the stately Pavlovsk Palace (Pavlovskiy Dvorets) was a gift from the Empress to her son, the future Emperor Paul I, to mark the birth of her first grandson. A magnificent neoclassical complex set in an idyllic 1,500-acre estate, the palace is surrounded by landscaped parks and woodlands, and served as the summer residence for the Emperor and his wife, Maria Feodorovna, until his untimely death in 1801.
Today, the painstakingly restored palace is open to the public and provides an intimate glimpse into the life of one of Russia’s most enigmatic rulers. Visitors can peek into the chambers of Maria Feodorovna, where her personal items are still on display; explore the state rooms, decorated with an impressive collection of furnishings, fine china and paintings; and admire highlights like the lavish Throne Room, the grand Dining Hall and Paul’s Library, home to a series of tapestries gifted to the couple by Louis XVI.
Originally named the Decembrists’ Square, after the December 1825 uprising, Senate Square (Senatskaya Ploshchad) is one of St. Petersburg’s most famous public squares, encircled by some of the city’s top attractions. Linked to the central hub of Palace Square by the 407 meter-long Admiralty building – the one-time Russian Naval Headquarters – Senate Square is also home to the grand Senate Building and the early 19th-century Cavalry Manege, now home to the Central Exhibition Hall, and backs onto the grounds of the gold-domed St Isaac’s Cathedral.
The unforgettable centerpiece of Senate Square is its Bronze Horseman statue, one of the most iconic symbols of St. Petersburg. Commissioned by Catherine the Great in 1778, the statue is the work of French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet and depicts a horseback Peter the Great atop the “Thunder Stone,” an enormous cliff-like pedestal fashioned from a single piece of red granite and weighing in at around 1,500 tons.
Fittingly for a drink that dates right back to the 12th century, the perfect place to sample Russian vodka is located in St Petersburg’s former military stables and is part of the Museum Quarter project to protect the historic buildings of the city center. Exhibitions at the Russian Vodka Museum (Muzey Russkogo Natsional'nogo Napitka) romp through the story of the spirit’s production and its cultural importance, detailing its rise in popularity and refinement from a drink for medieval peasants to the favorite tipple of the Russian aristocracy in the 19th century. Displays include shot glasses, an enormous collection of unusual vodka bottles, posters from previous advertising campaigns and ancient equipment used in distillation. All visits to the museum terminate with a tasting of several different flavored vodkas accompanied by Russian snacks known as zakuski – ‘little bites’ of caviar, salads, pickles, smoked meats or fish normally served with flatbread as hors d’oeuvres before dinner. Conveniently, the museum shares its home with a restaurant serving up specialty vodkas.
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