Two Days in St Petersburg: The 10 Best Places to Go

The centuries have been kind to the former capital of the Russian Empire – St Petersburg looks as grand today as when Peter the Great laid the foundation stones in 1703. From his cabin on Petrogradskaya Storona, the Russian emperor invited Europe’s leading architects to fill the streets with extravagant palaces and elegant Baroque cathedrals. Today, the historic centre is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with the grand palaces of the Romanovs at Peterhof, Pushkin and Pavlovsk.

Often described as the Venice of the North, St Petersburg is a city defined by water. The mighty Neva River empties into the Gulf of Finland near the Fortress of Peter & Paul – the final resting place of the tsars – and canals snake through the backstreets, passing stately townhouses that once housed such great Russians as Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Tchaikovsky. The Neva is still a vital conduit for the ships of the Russian Navy, and patriotic Russians queue to board the Cruiser Aurora, whose rebellious crew fired the shot that ushered in Bolshevik rule.

If Moscow is Russia’s head, St Petersburg is its heart. For 300 years, this has been Russia’s cultural capital, home to authors and poets, painters and playwrights. The city is still a bustling hub for the arts, from Russian music, painting and literature to street theatre and rebel rock. Culture reaches its zenith at the Mariinsky Theatre, home to the famous Kirov ballet company, and the Hermitage, the world’s largest art museum, founded by Catherine the Great in 1764.

While the Soviet era transformed Moscow into a monument to Communist Russia, St Petersburg was allowed to endure as relic of the tsars. Even the tumult of the Seige of Leningrad and the economic stagnation of the 1980s failed to destroy the grand boulevards laid by Peter the Great. With support from the United Nations, the historic centre has been restored to its former glory, evoking the golden age of the tsars and tsarinas.

Superimposed over the old city is a modern metropolis, complete with wireless internet, metro stations, bohemian cafés and techno clubs but notably, no skyscrapers – though all that is set to change with the construction of the controversial Okhta Centre in the northern suburbs.  In addition, a new football stadium is planned in the city as it limbers up to help host the 2018 World Cup. Fans are in for a memorable time, particularly as it will coincide with the city’s famed White Nights, when the sun barely sets from mid June to early July.

The historic heart of this timeless, romantic city is focused on the crescent of land bound by the Neva and Fontanki Rivers. Here you’ll find the Admiralty, the Hermitage and Dvortsovaya ploshchad (Palace Square), and Nevsky prospekt, St Petersburg‘s most elegant avenue. West of the Admiralty is Mariinsky, home to the famous theatre, and north across the river are Vasilyevsky Island, with its universities and museums, and Petrogradskaya Storona, home to the Peter & Paul Fortress and more famous museums.

With just two days in St Petersburg, you can’t do justice to all of these wonderful places. Indeed you could spend the whole of the two days in the Hermitage without seeing everything, but what follows is a personal view of the top ten places to go.

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Hermitazh (Hermitage)

Designed by the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the glorious baroque Winter Palace of Empress Elizabeth is famous as the setting for Russia’s finest collection of art and antiquities. Founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, the collection has expanded to cover three million works, which are lavishly displayed in the galleries of the Winter Palace and the linked Small Hermitage and Large Hermitage. Despite the name, no hermits ever lived here – the buildings were purpose-built to house Catherine’s private art collection, and the doors were only opened to the public in 1852.

Highlights include works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gaugin, Rodin and many of the French Impressionists. The interior of the museum is extravagantly decorated with gilded ceilings, marble colonnades, elegant statuary, crystal chandeliers and intricate mosaic floors – the flamboyant styling reaches its zenith in the famous Jordan Staircase. It would take around 10 years to tour the Hermitage, spending just one minute at each exhibit, but the 90-minute guided tour of the highlights provides a convenient overview. Note that parts of the collection are being displayed around Europe as part of the Greater Hermitage Project, which also includes new galleries and performance spaces around the St Petersburg museum. Entry is free on the first Thursday of each month.

Opening Times Tues-Sat 1030-1800, Sun 1030-1700.
Admission Fees Yes
Telephone (812) 571 3420.
Website http://www.hermitagemuseum.org
Disabled Access Yes
Unesco World Heritage Site Yes
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Isaakievsky sobor (St Isaac’s Cathedral)

Commissioned by Tsar Alexander I to build a spectacular imperial cathedral, French-born architect Auguste de Montferrand executed a masterpiece of engineering on the marshy ground west of Nevsky Prospekt. Completed in 1858, the gilded dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral still dominates the skyline of St Petersburg, though the tsar never saw the finished cathedral and Montferrand died within months of signing off his masterwork.

The interiors are dazzling, with malachite and lapis lazuli columns, mosaic icons, painted ceilings and, in the sanctuary, the large stained-glass Resurrected Christ. The climb to the colonnade of the dome (accessible on a separate ticket) is rewarded by marvellous panoramic views over the city. The church became a museum of atheism during the Communist years, but church services are now held here on special occasions.

Opening Times Cathedral: Thurs-Tues 1100-1900 (Oct-April); Thurs-Tues 1100-2230 (May-Sept). Colonnade: Thurs-Tues 1100-1800 (Oct-April), Thurs-Tues 1000-1800 (May-Sept).
Admission Fees Yes
Telephone (812) 315 9732.
Website http://www.cathedral.ru

Khram Spas-na-Krovi (Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood)

Modelled after the famous St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the Church on Spilled Blood was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated by socialist radicals on 1 March 1881. The richly ornamented exterior of colourful enamelled domes, gilded mosaic panels, ceramic tiles, and stained-glass windows with intricately carved arches is matched by the gleaming marble and glittering mosaics of the interior, which has been stunningly restored to repair the neglect of the Soviet years. The best views of the exterior are from across the canal, on naberezhnaya Kanala Griboedova.

Opening Times Tues-Mon 1100-1900 (Oct-Apr); Tues-Mon 1100-2000 (May-Sept).
Admission Fees Yes
Telephone (812) 315 1636.
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 Kreyser Avrora (Cruiser Aurora)

Launched in St Petersburg in 1900, the Cruiser Aurora played a significant role in the major events of Russian history in the first half of the 20th century. After serving in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, the cruiser fired the shot that signalled the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 and the beginning of Bolshevik rule. The Aurora was sunk during the Siege of Leningrad in 1941 but raised again 1944, and refitted as a museum in the 1950s. Inside you can see the crew’s quarters and the gun that fired the historic shot.

Opening Times Tues-Thurs, Sat and Sun 1030-1600.
Admission Fees No
Telephone (812) 230 8440.

Muzyei Antropologiy i Etnografii imena Petra Velikovo (Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology)

The oldest state museum in all of Russia, the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology is centred on the cabinet of curiosities assembled by Peter the Great during his grand tour of Europe. Although the museum has numerous exhibits on people and cultures from around the world, the collection of physically abnormal foetuses preserved in alcohol is what draws in the crowds. The collection is best for visitors with an intense scientific curiosity, as well as a strong stomach.

Opening Times Tues-Sun 1100-1800 (Oct-Apr); Tues-Sun 1100-1900 (May-Sept); closed last Tues of the month.
Admission Fees Yes
Telephone (812) 328 1412.
Website http://www.kunstkamera.ru

Muzyei-domik Petra I (Cabin of Peter the Great)

The first house built in the newly founded St Petersburg in 1703 was not a grand palace but a humble wooden cabin, from where Peter the Great supervised the construction of his grand imperial city. Now encased in a protective brick enclosure and furnished with period furniture, its spartan simplicity is a strange contrast to the grand cathedrals and palaces all around. Peter lived here between 1703 and 1708 and some of his belongings remain, including his rowing boat, his compass and his icon of the Redeemer.

Opening Times Wed-Mon 1000-1700; closed last Mon of month.
Admission Fees Yes
Telephone (812) 314 0374.
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Petropavlovskaya krepost (Peter and Paul Fortress)

Peter the Great laid out the plans for the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachy Island in 1703 to defend the area from the Swedes, but it soon became a political prison. Among the famous prisoners to be held here were Dostoevsky, Gorky and Trotsky, as well as Peter’s own son, Alexei. The bleak cells have been converted into a museum, along with the Commandant’s House where prisoners were tried. The highlight of the fort is the imposing Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, whose soaring gold spire is visible from all over St Petersburg. For an additional fee, you can enter the cathedral to see the gorgeous baroque interior and the surprisingly modest tombs of Russia’s pre-revolutionary leaders, from Peter the Great to Nicholas II. The bell tower can only be visited on an organised tour. You can also buy a ticket to walk along the fortress walls for stunning views over the Neva River towards the Admiralty and Hermitage.

Opening Times Tues 1000-1800, Thurs-Mon 1000-1900
Admission Fees No (admission fee for the cathedral, bell tower, museum and wall walk)
Telephone (812) 238 4550.
Website http://www.spbmuseum.ru

Piskariovskoye Memorialnoe Kladbishche (Piskarivskoye Memorial Cemetery)

Far from being a mainstream tourist attraction, Piskarivskoye Memorial Cemetery is a place of pilgrimage for the dwindling survivors of the 1941-44 siege of Leningrad. A visit here is all the more poignant for this reason. Below large grassy mounds, under the gaze of a massive bronze of Mother Russia, lie the mass graves of 500,000 St Petersburg citizens who starved to death in the Nazi blockade. The story of the suffering and endurance of the city is powerfully told in the Memorial Halls. Every year on Victory Day (9 May), survivors and descendants of those who perished gather to pay their respects.

Opening Times Daily 1000-1700.
Admission Fees No
Telephone (812) 247 5716.

Russkiy Muzyei (Russian Museum)

The State Russian Museum is often overshadowed by the grand Hermitage, but the sprawling galleries contain the world’s finest collection of Russian painting, from thousand-year-old icons to old masters and modern legends like Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall. The museum was established in 1895 in the Mikhailovsky Palace (another exquisite Carlo Rossi creation) but it has since expanded to cover the Benois Wing and the beautifully restored Marble Palace, Stroganov Palace and St Michael’s Castle. Russian Impressionists are particularly well represented, as are the artists of the Revolution and the great propaganda artists of the Soviet era. There is an additional charge for the galleries outside the Mikhailovsky Palace and Benois Wing.

Opening Times Wed-Sun 1000-1800, Mon 1000-1700, closed Tues.
Admission Fees Yes
Telephone (812) 595 4248.
Website http://www.rusmuseum.ru/eng

Marriinsky Ballet

The Mariinsky Ballet is a classical ballet company based at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Founded in the 1740s  and originally known as the Imperial Russian Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet is one of the world’s leading ballet companies. Internationally, it is most commonly known by its former Soviet name the Kirov Ballet.

The theatre opened in 1860 and it became the preeminent music theatre of late 19th century Russia, where many of the stage masterpieces of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov received their premieres

Tickets, which can range from 500 – 5000 roubles ($8-$80) should be purchased in advance and can be bought online at  http://www.mariinsky.ru/en/playbill/playbill/   or by emailing tickets@mariinsky.ru

Mariinsky Theatre: 1 Theatre Square

2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    peter mills May 28, 2015

    St. Petersburg, is just beyond words, what a magnificent City. I have not been there, I have read so much and spoken with Russians who have lived there. It should be one of the very first places in the world that a traveller should visit.!!!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Editorial June 17, 2015

      It’s an amazing, magical place, that a couple of days doesn’t do justice. You could spend the whole of that, and more, just in the Hermitage

      Reply

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