City Guide: Saint Petersburg – Russia’s Cultural Enigma

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A city of unique colours and lights, Saint Petersburg is unlike anywhere else on Earth. From its very inception, Saint Petersburg was built to impress and delight – facing the west, the city was a symbol of imperial Russia’s growing strength. The former capital of Russia, Saint Petersburg has always been the visitor’s choice ahead of Moscow, thanks to the radical architecture, enigmatic art scene and amazing White Nights.

The city’s legendary White Nights lead to months of revelry and excitement. From May onwards, the sun barely dips below the horizon, leading to amazing, long nights full of concerts and festivals. Peaking in June, the entire city seems to come together to celebrate the lengthy spectacle in a truly unique and unforgettable manner.

This endless light reflects around the city, mirrored from the dazzling, colourful architecture of Saint Petersburg. The vibrant greens, oranges, blues and golds of the palatial buildings dotted across the city, along with the rich reds of Saint Petersburg townhouses, are all captured in the eternal light – providing endless photograph opportunities and spectacular views.

As the third largest city in Europe, Saint Petersburg may seem a little overwhelming for the first-time visitor. So, if you’re planning on exploring Russia’s second city as part of an upcoming cruise, we’ve put together this city guide to help you navigate beautiful, unique Saint Petersburg.

Getting Around Saint Petersburg

Just a few years ago, navigating the streets of Saint Petersburg was incredibly difficult, unless you had in-depth knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet and a healthy understanding of the Russian language. But today, almost all tourist info, city maps and metro signs are printed in both Russian and English.

A big old city, we’d definitely recommend hitting the public transport to help navigate Saint Petersburg. With the metro, bus, trolleybus and tram all inexpensive and efficient, getting around Saint Petersburg needn’t be a bother. If you’ve got a long list of places to go and things to see during a short stop in the city, the metro may be the best choice of public transport as the fastest and most convenient form of public transport in the city.

st petersburg city guide

Alternatively, if you’d like to make the journey a part of the experience, the tram may be the best bet. More than a little old fashioned, the tram is a wonderfully charming slice of old Soviet-era life in the city. You’ll amble through the streets in relative comfort aboard these ancient vehicles on lines which date back to 1863.

What to See and What to Do

Art lovers and history buffs, head straight to the Hermitage Museum. One of the largest and oldest museums in the world, the 250-year-old museum is home to three million items, including the world’s largest collection of paintings. Founded by Catherine the Great, the museum boasts vast collections from Egyptian antiquities and prehistoric art to the Italian Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age. Providing a small journey through the world’s art history, this unparalleled collection is housed in a setting which is as spectacular as the works within.

Head back to the early days of Saint Petersburg with a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress, the original citadel and root of the city. Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, the striking citadel was designed by Domenico Trezzini, the Swiss-Italian architect who shaped much of Saint Petersburg. Now the centrepiece of the State Museum of Saint Petersburg History, the Peter and Paul Fortress occupies a small island just off the Neva River and was originally designed to provide an instant fortification for the planned city. Beautifully ornate, the Peter and Paul Fortress now welcomes guests inside to explore the wonderful cathedral, and the burial place of several tsars.

Imposingly impressive and strikingly Russian, the Winter Palace and Palace Square have to be seen to be believed. The former home of the Russian monarchy, the Winter Palace absolutely projects power and influence with the large symmetrical façade gazing over the spacious Palace Square and backing onto the beautiful River Neva. Today, the palace serves as part of the Hermitage Museum providing an insight into Russian history and culture from the old kings to the modern governments.

Built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood has a morbid past to match its morbid name. However, neither prepare you for the absolute beauty of the church, a medieval Russian piece of sublime architectural prowess with the spirit of romantic nationalism sewn in throughout. With more than 7,500 square metres of mosaics adorning the interior and exterior of the church, a visit to this postcard favourite is an absolute feast for the eyes. Although no longer a full-time place of worship, the church is absolutely worth a visit when in Saint Petersburg.

st petersburg city guide

The home of masterpieces by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, the Mariinsky Theatre occupies a unique position in the theatrical and operatic world. When the Russians were at the very forefront of global culture, this theatre in the centre of Saint Petersburg was the very heart. Still hosting performances to this day, the Mariinsky Theatre is an absolute must-visit for anyone interested in the arts.

Two Decades of Culinary Evolution

Soviet-era Saint Petersburg was low on the list of destinations to visit for the in-the-know gourmet, with the city better known for food shortages than foodie festivals. However, in the 15 years since the Soviet Union fell, the city has developed a seriously trendy underbelly — and where the trendy go, the innovative chefs soon follow. This has led to an eclectic food scene in the Russian city, which combines the traditional, local and ultra-affordable with the authentic cuisines from every corner of the planet.

So, whether you’re looking for an authentic taste of Russia, or a Baltic twist on your favourite culinary treat, Saint Petersburg has got you covered.

If you’re after the former, we’d suggest sampling the popular Russian snack, pelmeni. These small dumplings, consisting of minced meat or fish wrapped in thin unleavened dough, are a wonderfully warming snack or meal. Quite similar to Chinese wontons, these wonderful little dumplings are flavoured with black pepper, garlic and spices, so no two pelmeni are quite the same. Perhaps the finest place to find pelmeni is the restaurant Pelmenya, located close to the Anichkov Bridge on the Fontanka River.

For something a little more familiar, and great if you’re travelling with children in tow, cross to the opposite bank of the Fontanka River, and head towards LaCelletta Caffè. An authentic Italian café and pizzeria, this charming little eatery boasts a wide selection of delicious pizzas, soups and salads. With English-speaking staff, LaCelletta Caffè is the perfect place to pop in for a simple yet delicious meal during a short stay in Saint Petersburg.

russian cuisine st petersburg

For an authentic Russian watering hole, we’d recommend heading over to Khroniki Bar, styled after the traditional wine bars of early-20th-century Leningrad (Saint Petersburg’s former name). Bartenders free pour glasses of the strong stuff, mostly the quintessentially Russian vodka, in this atmospheric bar. If you like to try new spirits, Bar Khroniki has a bottle selection to rival anywhere in Saint Petersburg.

Local Knowledge

History buffs looking to explore the Soviet-era remnants of Saint Petersburg will undoubtedly flock to the museums and galleries of the city, including the mesmerising Museum of Political History of Russia. However, for a real taste of the Soviet-ruled Saint Petersburg, we’d recommend heading out of the city and towards the Krushchyovkas. The Krushchyovkas are dilapidated Soviet block-style housing which were home to millions of people during the Soviet period.

Great for passionate photographers and urban explorers, the very best Krushchyovkas can often be found at the end of metro lines heading out of the city centre. Head to Komandantskiy Prospekt or Prospekt Veteranov for the very best example of authentic Soviet living – providing an insight into how the ordinary folk lived during this unique period in global history.

After this, the bright lights and cosmopolitan feel of modern-day central Saint Petersburg will seem like a completely different city.

Saint Petersburg is always one of the most enthralling stops during a cruise around the Baltic. At Cruise1st, we have a range of deals which combine visits to the beautiful nations of Scandinavia and the Baltic. Click here for a huge selection of cruise deals to this wonderful part of the world, or give us a call on 0808 231 3669.

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City Guide: Saint Petersburg – Russia’s Cultural Enigma
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City Guide: Saint Petersburg – Russia’s Cultural Enigma
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We’ve put together this city guide to help you navigate beautiful, unique Saint Petersburg with the most relevant places to visit and things to do.
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Cruise1st UK
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Claire Wilde

Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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