St Petersburg is a very diverse city, and a typical tourist guidebook will provide comprehensive lists of museums and palaces that must be visited on a trip to the cultural capital of Russia. While they are all worth exploring, there’s also the option to go off the beaten track to discover a different, more authentic side of town. With that in mind, here’s a list of the best things to do in St Petersburg to help you make the most of your time in the beautiful city.
Take a cruise down the canals
A river cruise is an ideal way to spend a beautiful summer’s day and one of the best ways to discover the city’s landmarks and architecture. St Petersburg has rightfully earned its name of ‘Venice of the North’. In fact, it was originally intended that boats would be the only way to move between the islands; the city’s bridges were built much later. Cruises don’t run during the winter time, as the river is completely covered in ice, so it’s definitely worth a visit during the warmer months of the year.
Watch the drawbridges at night
When St Petersburg was first built, it was designed to be a port city and naval base, which it was for many years. The Neva River remains the city’s main artery, with a multitude of ships sailing down it every day. To allow larger ships to dock, all the bridges over the river are lit up and drawn at night, making for a beautiful view.
Climb to the top of St. Isaac’s Cathedral’s colonnade
When constructed in the 19th century, St. Isaac’s Cathedral was one of the tallest buildings in St Petersburg. Even today it remains one of the largest orthodox basilicas in the world. Make use of its majestic height and climb straight to the top of the colonnade. Tackling the 262-step climb is well worth it for the panoramic views of the city. In the summer (May 1 – October 31) the colonnade is open until 10.30pm, so avoid the morning crowds and take in the evening view instead.
Visit the Mariinsky Theatre
The Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg is the main competitor of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, except the prices are much lower here than in the capital!
This theater was always famous for its fantastic opera and ballet performances – needless to say, it is also one of the top best things to do in St Petersburg, right? And before you tell me that you don’t understand Russian – you don’t have to, as there are English subtitles!
Visit Palace Square: Best things to do in St Petersburg
St. Petersburg’s main city square is a massive open public space right in front of the Winter Palace. The Alexander Column, built in the 1830s of a single piece of red granite, stands 47 meters tall at the center of the square. It was commissioned by Alexander I to commemorate the victory against Napoleon.
Many major events in Soviet/Russian history have taken place right on the square—Tsar Alexander II was shot here in 1879, and Bolshevik troops started the Revolution here in 1917 by storming the Winter Palace, where the royalty lived. Since then, the square has also been used for marches and demonstrations, from military parades to celebrate Victory Day (which marks the end of WWII) to New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Explore Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
One of the most beautiful sights in St. Petersburg is this multicolored church designed in traditional medieval Russian style. Alexander III ordered its construction in 1883 on the site where his father had been assassinated two years prior.
It took over 20 years for the church to be finally completed, partly because of budget and partly because the materials needed for its interior décor (which included 7,500 square meters of mosaics to cover the walls and ceilings) weren’t that easy to come by. So visiting Spilled Blood is always the best things to do in St Petersburg.
The church was seriously damaged during the Russian Revolution in 1917, then used as a morgue during WWII and as a potato warehouse right after. It took almost 30 years of restoration to get the building to its original splendor—but rather than reopening as a church, the structure is now a museum of mosaics.
Spend the night on Dumskaya
You’d never think so during the day, but Dumskaya is a notorious street come nighttime, renowned for wild parties and cheap drinks. The street is filled with a vast array of bars; try and catch them all if you dare! A must-try while you are bar-hopping is the ‘Boyarsky’ shot, a spicy mixture of vodka, grenadine and Tabasco.