“Russia’s Second City” has gone by many names. Founded in 1703, Peter the Great named it for his patron saint, calling it Sankt Peter Burkh, in imitation of Dutch and German naming conventions. Peter intended his new city, raised up out of a northern coastal swamp by the slave-labor of serfs, to be a “Window on the West” for a country which had never undergone the Renaissance. For convenience’s sake, the name was shortened to two words—Sankt-Peterburg, brought into English as Saint Petersburg.
This city of canals was renamed “Petrograd” during World War One to remove the German connotations of the name. Following the establishment of a Communist regime, “Red Petrograd” earned the title “Cradle of the October Revolution.” After Lenin’s death in 1924, the city became “Leningrad.”
As Leningrad, the city faced one of the most vicious and gruesome challenges of World War Two. For nine hundred days, Nazi forces held the city under siege, cutting off all but one food supply route. Despite the turmoil, the city refused to surrender. After the war, Leningrad became the Soviet Union’s first “Hero City.” With the fall of Communism, Leningraders voted to become “Saint Petersburgers” once again.
If the hype around the World Cup has inspired you to travel to Russia, Saint Petersburg should be on your itinerary. With its three centuries of imperial intrigue, revolutionary fervour, and unyielding spirit, “the Venice of the North” has something to offer every traveler. Below are thirty of the best things to do in the beautiful, enduring Saint Petersburg.
30 30. The Hermitage
Occupying a complex of huge buildings that dominate the bank of the Neva River, the State Hermitage Museum was once the Winter Palace of the Romanov tsars. The museum, which began as the private collection of the tsars, has over three million works of art and other artifacts. As a palace, the building itself rivals the art within it. The state rooms of the palace are left intact for display.
While the Hermitage and Palace Square outside it are always crowded, no trip to Saint Petersburg is complete without a visit.
29 29. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral
The bronzed dome of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral (Isakevsky Sobor) rises above the city skyline. Once the largest cathedral in the Russian Empire, the sanctuary was seized by the Soviet government during the Stalinist period and reopened as a museum. Today, only one of the cathedral’s three altars remains consecrated. As it is still a government museum, there is an admission fee, but the dress code is not so strict. In active Orthodox churches, men should wear long pants and women should bring a kerchief or headscarf to at least partially cover their hair.
28 28. Peterhof Palace
Built by Tsar Peter the Great as his first official residence in the new castle, later sovereigns expanded this seaside complex outside Saint Petersburg, particularly the Empress Elizabeth, Peter’s daughter. Peterhof (Petergof) has won the name “the Russian Versailles” because of its extensive gardens, distinguished from other Romanov palaces’ gardens by their insanely ornate fountains. The most famous of these is fittingly called “the Grand Cascade.”
Travelers will need to make arrangements for getting to and from Peterhof, but this should be easily accomplished through a tour bus or public transportation.
27 27. Saint Michael’s Castle
Now a branch of the Russian Museum, St. Michael’s Castle has a history that is more Game of Thrones than Brothers Grimm. Catherine the Great began as a minor German princess married off to the ineffectual Peter III. Catherine overthrew her husband, who then conveniently died in custody, and ruled, allegedly in the name of her young son Paul. Paul would not become tsar until after his mother’s death. A paranoid misogynist, Emperor Paul built the castle as a secure residence. He was murdered in the castle in his own bedroom, at the orders of his son.
26 26. Vyborg Fortress
Built in the thirteenth century, the fortress at Vyborg was part of a Swedish effort to limit the Russian merchant republic of Novgorod. Centuries later, after several bloody assaults, Peter the Great finally took the fortress into Russian hands for good. Getting to Vyborg today is much easier than Peter’s journey. A bus ride or train from Finland Station is all that separates visitors from exploring the remnants of the fortress and the medieval town that still exists around it.
25 25. Russian State Museum
Housed inside the Michael Palace (Mikhailovsky Dvorets), not to be confused with St. Michael’s Castle, the Russian State Museum is another enormous art museum. Whereas the better-known Hermitage features works from around the world, the Russian Museum focuses on art and artifacts from Russia throughout the ages. Featured items include huge portions of a traditional Slavic wooden house with intricately carved beams and doorposts, numerous icons from Medieval Muscovy and the more modern Russian Empire, and (my personal favorite) Soviet-era lacquer boxes that adapt revolutionary propaganda to a fairy-style setting.
24 24. Grand Maket Rossiya
Saint Petersburg’s weather, even in summer, tends to be wet. If the rain has you stuck inside, or if your pint-sized traveling companions are bored of looking at art, Grand Maket Rossiya may be the answer to your problems. A warehouse-sized scale model featuring day-to-night transitions, model trains, and other special effects, the Grand Maket gives a taste of the rest of Russia, along with a good deal of whimsy. Particularly charming, when I visited in 2015, was a miniature protest with banners that read “Stop touching the model!”
23 23. Trinity Cathedral
Trinity Cathedral (Troitsky Sobor) shares much with the larger St. Isaac’s Cathedral in both architecture and history. Built in the classical style, rather than the older onion-dome fashion, a large central dome rises over the nave of the church. The exterior of this dome and its smaller companions are painted a brilliant blue and adorned with stars, making it a distinctive part of the skyline. Looted during the Russian Civil War, Trinity has only recently begun renovations. The extant icons and liturgical objects are a shadow of its former self, but still incredible.
22 22. Kazan Cathedral
The Orthodox churches use icons—stylized images of religious figures and events—as a visual aid to prayer and “windows to heaven.” Kazan Cathedral houses a copy of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, a title under which the Virgin Mary is particularly revered in Russia. On any day, a long line of the faithful stand inside the incense-filled cathedral, waiting for a chance to venerate the Virgin of Kazan with a kiss and ask her to speed their prayers along to God. It is truly moving to behold.
21 21. The Catherine Palace
The Catherine Palace is one part—an enormous part—of a royal complex at Tsarskoye Selo (“The Village of the Tsars”) that was the summer residence of the Romanov emperors. Begun by Peter the Great and named for his wife, Peter’s daughter Elizabeth expanded the palace. Her instructions to the architect were along the lines of “Versailles. But make it better.” Particularly incredible is the Amber Room. Guards are on hand to make sure you cannot take photos and have to buy a card at the gift shop.
20 20. The Gardens At The Summer Palace
Outside the Catherine Palace are the seemingly endless grounds of the tsars’ summer home. While a tour through the crowded Catherine Palace might take up an afternoon, a thorough exploration of the gardens will take at least a day. Featuring lakes, hedgerows, elaborate flower plantings, and numerous palatial outbuildings, the gardens are straight from a dream.
With food available for purchase onsite, plan a picnic lunch under the shade of the ancient trees. The Catherine Palace and its gardens are accessible from Saint Petersburg by public transportation and, of course, tour buses.
19 19. Nevsky Prospect
Nevsky Prospekt is Saint Petersburg’s main thoroughfare. Many of the entries on this list, including Kazan Cathedral, Dom Knigi, and the Hermitage, among others, have this street as their address. Aleksandr Nevsky was a Medieval Russian military leader who drove back invading Teutonic knights. A national hero and touchstone for Russian nationalists, Nevsky is also a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. The street that bears his name is not only the site for many of the city’s great attractions, but also the center of its shopping and nightlife.
18 18. Dom Knigi
This huge bookstore, whose name translates literally to “House of the Book,” stands along Nevsky Prospect, opposite from the Romanesque colonnade of Kazan Cathedral. In the early twentieth century, the building was the site of a Singer sewing machine factory. The bookstore opened for (Soviet) business in 1938 and operated through the Siege of Leningrad, despite bombs falling all around it. With the bronze sculptures that adorn the façade and its eighty-year-history, Dom Knigi stands as a monument to Russian culture’s love of the printed word.
17 17. The Church of the Savior-On-Spilled-Blood
The Church of the Savior-on-Spilled-Blood (Khram Cpasa na Krovi) stands off of Nevsky Prospect along the Griboyedov Canal. Actually called “The Church of the Resurrection,” the spilled blood referred to in the nickname is that of Tsar Alexander II, who was killed in a terrorist bombing on the site in 1881. His son, Alexander III, built the church as a memorial to his father, while undoing many of his father’s liberalizing reforms. The last tsar, Nicholas II, was the son of the reactionary Alexander III.
Murderous backstory aside, the church is in the traditional Muscovite style, and is incredibly beautiful inside and out.
16 16. The Tauride Palace And Gardens
Built by Catherine the Great, this palace takes its title from the Greek name for Crimea, which Catherine had conquered. Between the failed Revolution of 1905 and the October Revolution of 1917, the Tauride Palace housed Russia’s newborn, competing democratic institutions: the Bolshevik-friendly Petrograd Soviet (“Worker’s Council”) and the Provisional Government. Talk about an awkward roommate situation.
While the palace, now the headquarters for the Commonwealth of Independent States, an association of former Soviet Republics, is closed to the public, the grounds are open as a park.
15 15. Smolny Convent and Institute
The blue-and-white spires of the former Smolny Convent anchor a complex of historically significant buildings. Next door to the convent is the Smolny Institute, once a boarding school for the daughters of nobility. The Bolsheviks commandeered the Institute as their headquarters for the October Revolution. The nuns and the alumnae, no doubt, would have been horrified.
The Institute is now the center of Saint Petersburg city government. The Convent, though it has been returned to church ownership, still serves as a concert hall. Climbing up the bell tower allows panoramic views of the city, if you aren’t afraid of heights.
14 14. Finland Station
Saint Petersburg’s Finland Station is the terminus for lines to and from Finland and other points north of the city. The Finlandsky Vokzal is also your departure point to the past. Vladimir Lenin returned from exile in 1917, arriving at this station. The locomotive of his train is still on display along one of the station’s platforms.
The station itself is a blast from the Soviet past, with boxy architecture, heavy bas-reliefs, and a statue of Lenin out front. It is located off of Lenin Square, which has a subway stop of its own, also named for Lenin.
13 13. Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad
Of three million people living in Leningrad when Nazi forces surrounded the city in 1941, one third would die before the invaders were driven back nine-hundred days later. This museum bears witness to the horrors of disease, starvation, and cold that claimed those lives, as well as communal and individual acts of heroism and endurance that sustained the city.
Be warned: all the exhibits are in Russian, but the volunteers, some of them senior citizens who lived through the siege, are supposed to offer loose, but friendly, translations.
12 12. The Mariinsky Theater
Opened in 1862, the old Mariinsky Theater is internationally recognized for its opera and ballet performances, put on for audiences seated in its massive, ornate hall. In fact, the Mariinsky’s main rival is the famous Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow. A modern expansion to the Mariinsky, called the New Stage, is located next door. The New Stage hosts more avant-garde productions.
While you may be satisfied with photographing the Mariinsky Theaters from the outside, keep in mind that tickets begin at about twenty U.S. dollars.
11 11. The Peter And Paul Fortress
Located across the Neva River from the Winter Palace, the Peter and Paul Fortress (Petropavlovskaya Krepost’) was a tool of imperial control. Nicknamed “the Russian Bastille,” the military fortress was converted to house political prisoners. Lenin’s older brother, who had planned to kill the tsar, spent time here before his execution. Lenin’s future comrade Lev (Leon) Trotsky also landed in the fortress after the failed Revolution of 1905 for his role as leader of the city’s soviet.
Today, plaques mark which cells held famous residents. Exhibits, including a vintage straitjacket, discuss the history of Russian prisons and imperial repression.