St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and is usually at the top of the list of Russian tourists. In this post I would like to introduce you to the most beautiful St. Petersburg tourist attractions and show you which places you should definitely see during a visit to the tsar’s city! I lived here for half a year and I am always fascinated by this city, its vastness, its splendor and the people who live here. It’s always fascinating to see what was created from the vision of Peter the Great, who built a city here at the beginning of the 18th century that was almost unparalleled in its splendor. Let’s start with our Saint Petersburg sights.
Hermitage and Winter Palace
The number of sights in Saint Petersburg is so large that we could easily list 100 objects here. Unfortunately, we have to limit ourselves. Definitely the most important object in the former Russian capital is the Hermitage. More than 3 million objects are in its collection. Picasso, Rubens, Rembrandt, Da Vinci & Co. are presented in a uniquely beautiful setting. History was also written here. The Winter Palace, the former main residence of the Tsar, was stormed by the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution, which was later stylized as the “Storming of the Winter Palace” and marked the beginning of communist rule in Russia.
The Brazen Rider
The poem “The Brazen Rider” by Alexander Pushkin is considered one of the most important texts in the history of Russian literature. It is about a poor official whose wife died in a flood of the Neva River. The official then curses an equestrian statue of Peter the Great for having founded Saint Petersburg in the wrong place. The monument then comes to life, haunts the official and thus drives him mad.
Would the monument be so famous even without Pushkin? Hard to say. It was erected as early as 1766 under Catherine the Great, who wanted to thank Peter the Great, the founder of the city. And since her name is also part of the monument, she conveniently commemorated herself right away. The Iron Horseman is certainly impressive, showing a determined Peter, whose rearing horse is crushing a snake, a symbol of the enemies of the empire.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Not far from the monument stands Petersburg’s largest cathedral. It can accommodate 14,000 people and the construction costs are said to have been six times as high as those for the Winter Palace. It was built on the site where Peter the Great once married his second wife and was constructed within 40 years in the mid-19th century under the French architect Auguste Montferrand. Malachite, lapis lazuli, but above all gold and marble determine the interior of the church. The ceiling painting is over 800 square meters in size. After the revolution, the Soviets did not really know what to do with the church and converted it into a museum. St. Isaac’s Cathedral is still owned by the state. Plans to return it to the church are being hotly debated.
Peter the Great was certainly the most dazzling and educated ruler of Russia. He knew shipbuilding, warfare, architecture and was interested in everything. He even worked as a landscape gardener in the Summer Garden. He had become acquainted with baroque parks in the West. And so he had a strictly geometrical landscape park laid out here in the French style and planted some trees himself. He also had marble statues placed here. The fact that these are often naked was a shock for the nobles, who were supposed to learn European manners here, and caused a real scandal at the opening. A few years ago, the summer garden was reconstructed and is now an oasis of calm in the otherwise often hectic SPB, as the city is called for short.
Nevsky Prospekt is something like the Russian Champs-Élysées, the main traffic axis of Saint Petersburg and definitely the most famous street in the country. The “Nevsky” was created in the 18th century and is home to numerous magnificent buildings from the tsarist era. On its sides rise magnificent cathedrals and idyllic canals, beautiful Art Nouveau stores and high-class shopping temples. In short, it will take you hours to walk the 4.5 km long street, because there is so much to discover that you could easily fill a vacation just exploring Nevsky Prospekt and its surroundings.
Church of the Blood Savior
One of the canals crossing Nevsky Prospekt is the Griboyedev Canal. 500 meters away from Nevsky, but clearly visible, stands the most famous church in the country next to St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. With its colorful domes, it looks like something out of a fairy tale and makes tourists’ mouths drop open. This effect is also achieved by the fact that the Nevsky Prospect and its surroundings otherwise strictly follow European building models and the Church of the Blood Savior is out of the ordinary here.
With all the beauty of the church, which today houses a museum of mosaic art, one completely forgets its sad history. It was built on the very spot where Tsar Alexander II died in a bomb attack in 1881. Under a canopy of the church, covered all over with mosaics, there is the blood-soaked cobblestone pavement where the tsar died. Right next to the church begins a garden that extends to the so-called Michael’s Castle. Here in 1801 Tsar Paul I was murdered. Apparently not a good area for crowned heads …
However, adjacent to the Michael Garden is not only the Michael Castle, but also the Russian Museum. Along with the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, it is the most important museum of Russian art in the world. Among other things, Kazimir Malevich’s famous Black Square can be seen here, but also the painting “The Zaporozh Cossacks write a letter to the Turkish Sultan” is world-famous (you should search for the contents of the letter on the net if you want to improve your vocabulary of swear words). But there are also battle paintings, depictions of nature, icons and portraits as well as works by Chagall and Kandinskij to see here, in total the collection contains over 300,000 works of art! I got hopelessly lost on each of my visits, despite the plan, but that’s what makes this museum so appealing to me.
Tsarist palaces on the one hand, magnificent churches on the other – in view of the opulent buildings, it is easy to forget that beauty can also lie in small things. The best example of this is the likeable Chishik-Pyshik, the smallest of the Saint Petersburg tourist attractions. Only 11 cm tall, the bronze siskin at the confluence of the Fontanka and Moika canals is nevertheless the city’s secret star. It was placed here in 1994 and goes back to a popular poem:
Chishik-pyshik, where have you been?
I drank vodka.
On the bank of the Fontanka.
First a little glass, then a second
And now my head is buzzing.
Chizhik means little siskin in Russian and supposedly the birds were once seen drinking vodka here. Today, many people make fun of throwing a coin at the siskin and its pedestal. If this remains lying, your greatest wishes come true. To strike, however, is unfortunately not so easy …
Of course, supermarkets are a dime a dozen in Petersburg. A store like the Yeliseyev on Nevsky Prospekt, however, only once. At the beginning of the 20th century, this Art Nouveau dream came into being and quickly became the most popular store in the city among the finer St. Petersburg society. And the Yeliseyev still draws on its old charm today. A pianist provides a dignified shopping atmosphere, and in addition to caviar, chocolates and vodka, there are many other (high-priced) souvenirs for loved ones at home.
Only in 2013, this private museum was opened, displaying Russian cultural goods that were sold abroad during the Soviet era. The absolute highlight of the exhibition are nine Fabergé eggs made for the imperial family. The legendary goldsmith Peter Carl Fabergé made over 50 eggs for the Romanovs. They are still lowered in their sophistication and attention to detail to this day, and are perhaps the symbol of debauchery and luxury in general. The coronation egg seen here alone is estimated to be worth around $25 million. In addition to the eggs, however, there are numerous other works of art on display in the beautiful Shuvalov Palace.
On Nevsky Prospekt stands another imposing house of worship, Kazan Cathedral. When Tsar Paul I (that’s right, the one who was assassinated not far from here) visited Rome, he was so enthralled by St. Peter’s Basilica that he commissioned an Orthodox version of this magnificent building.
An icon that works wonders
The church with its colonnades is dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, the most important icon of Russian Orthodoxy. The icon of the Mother of God was visited during the Napoleonic Wars by Field Marshal General Mikhail Kutuzov, who prayed for a victory of Russia. It is clear that after the final victory over Napoleon, the icon was venerated even more. This has not changed to this day, even though the original is now lost and only a copy can be seen.
Alexander Nevsky Monastery
The eastern end of Nevsky Prospekt is formed by the monastery of the same name. Peter the Great commissioned its construction to make Saint Petersburg the spiritual center of the country and had the remains of the national saint Alexander Nevsky transferred here. In addition to the beautiful churches on the grounds, the cemeteries are of particular interest. Dostoevsky, Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Euler and Lomonosov – they all found their last resting place here. You should therefore plan at least three to four hours for a visit.
Peter and Paul Fortress
Time to say goodbye to the Nevsky. We cross the Neva once, the mighty river with its bridges, which are opened at night to allow larger ships to pass and have not only once led to my not being able to reach my apartment and then sleeping next to the cab driver in an old Lada. On the so-called Petersburg side rises the mighty Peter and Paul Fortress. It is the oldest part of the city. The fortress was built during the Great Northern War and was intended to protect the still tiny settlement from Swedish attacks. Later, the complex had not only military functions, but also served representative purposes.
Peter and Paul Cathedral, the most important part of the fortress, cannot be missed with its golden needle reaching to the sky. It is the central burial place of the tsars and almost all Russian emperors were buried here. But there is also a lot to see, for example the numismatic museum on the photo. And you can also relax here, because the green areas in and around the fortress are ideal for this. You can also relax here and look out over the city center.
Residence of Peter the Great
“Piter”, as the city is also called, is not exactly known for its modesty. However, Peter the Great was a man who did not claim great luxury for himself. And so his first residence is not a palace, but rather a feudal hut. The oldest house in St. Petersburg was built within only three days in 1703 and of course the tsar personally helped with the construction. Among other things, you can see a boat that the tsar built himself. Fortunately, Catherine the Great had the idea to build a stone superstructure for the wooden house and thus saved the building for posterity.
Strelka and Kunstkamera
We jump once from the Petersburg side to Vasily Island, which is adjacent to the west. Like an arrowhead (Russian “strelka”), it juts into the water on its eastern side. Here stands a magnificent stock exchange building, but above all the place is known for its red granite columns, which once served as lighthouses. But it is also home to one of the craziest museums in Eastern Europe, the Kunstkamera. It dates back to Peter the Great. He had a weakness for the “extraordinary.” And so here you can find baby fetuses in glass from the 18th century, the skeleton of Peter’s favorite servant (a Dutch “giant”) and all sorts of other abominations that make many stomachs turn at the sight of them. We therefore better refrain from a picture here as well.
Gogol, Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich – the list of famous artists and literary figures associated with Petersburg could be continued almost indefinitely. My favorite Russian writer is Dostoevsky. He lived in a small apartment on the east side of the city center during the last years of his life and wrote “The Brothers Karamazov” here, the last of his great five novels. Today it looks as if the great literary figure had just taken his walking stick and set off for a stroll along Nevsky Prospekt. In addition to the artist’s apartment, you can also visit an excellent exhibition where, thanks to a English audio guide, you can learn all about Dostoevsky, his life and work, and his travels in Europe.
Arctic and Antarctic Museum
Just a stone’s throw away from the Dostoevsky Museum is another on of the unusual Saint Petersburg tourist attractions. In a former church, a museum for the Arctic and Antarctic has been set up, which not only inspires children and shows the great importance of these regions for Soviet and Russian society. Stuffed polar animals, lovingly designed dioramas and great wall paintings create a very special atmosphere. By the way, if you are hungry after the visit: Nearby is the quaint Kuznetschnyj market, where you can still shop as in Soviet times.
One of the most important architects in the history of the city was the Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli. He created not only the Winter Palace and the palaces of Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo, but also the sky-blue Smolny Monastery. In 1917 the Bolsheviks set up their headquarters here and Lenin and his wife moved into the monastery. Today you can visit the church and listen to one of the concerts, the former living quarters of the nuns and noble girls now house part of Saint Petersburg State University.
Travel tips Saint Petersburg
To look at the many St. Petersburg sights is one thing. But surely you are hungry and you have to spend the night somewhere, which is why I have added a few restaurant and hotel tips to the list of St. Petersburg sights here.
Food and Drink
- Yeliseyev. In the delicatessen you can have lunch relatively cheap, the pancakes are great and the kvass (bread drink) homemade.
- Cherdak. A cozy place that looks a bit like an attic. Here you get Russian classics served for little money.
- Mekhta Molokhovets. The restaurant commemorates the cookbook author Yelena Molokhovets, whose cookbooks were a must in every household before the October Revolution. All dishes are cooked according to the original recipes, so you will hardly find more authentic old Russian cuisine anywhere else.
- Rustaveli. You want to try Georgian food? At Rustaveli you will find perhaps the best hachapurri in town, but other classics of Georgian cuisine are also delicious here!
- Rocco Forte Astoria*. The historic Art Nouveau hotel near St. Isaac’s Cathedral is one of the most beautiful hotels in the city. The accommodation has its price, of course, but in return you can sleep in a uniquely beautiful ambience that has been appreciated by many rulers and celebrities.
- Art-Mokhovaya*. You can sleep much cheaper in this well-kept mini-hotel not far from the Smolny Monastery. Especially the service here is very convincing.
- Soul Kitchen*. The hostel on the Moyka Canal has already won several awards and offers a great design at a small price. Even the shared rooms are furnished with great attention to detail. It’s best to book early, as the accommodation is often fully booked.
Book recommendations about the Saint Petersburg tourist attractions
- Morel, Thierry (Author)
This book presents the city in all of its splendor and is a great preparation for your trip.
In this classic tour guide you will find all the information about the Saint Petersburg tourist attractions, but also many practical information.
What are the most beautiful Saint Petersburg tourist attractions for you? Feel free to leave us a comment and let us know! Feel free to follow us on Facebook or Pinterest to stay up to date with even more articles about Russia.