A few days before I left for Saint Petersburg, I stayed at my nan’s in Paris, and she told me that Leningrad (or Saint Petersburg, as it is now called) was, according to her, the second most beautiful city in the world, the first being Paris.
I was a bit dubious at first, but after a month there, even though I don’t entirely agree on the ranking of cities, it is indeed one of the most gorgeous places I’ve been to.
I had the chance to stay there for a month to study Russian (more on that here), and this gave me plenty of time to enjoy the city in all its aspects.
Even though I still feel like I have so much left to see, I think I can safely say that I have visited a big part of the city. This is why I wanted to list in this blog post my personal top 5 things to see and do in Saint Petersburg.
1. State Hermitage Museum
This is the second largest art museum in the world, and it is definitely a must-see, but select the things you want to see the most as you won’t be able to see everything: I was told that if you spend just 1 minute on every piece of art of the museum, it would take you 11 years to see all of them!
The Hermitage is actually comprised of different buildings on the banks of the Neva River and the most important of them is the Winter Palace, which was the official residence of the Tsars. There, you can find paintings of very famous artists like Leonardo da Vinci or Rembrandt, but also the State Rooms. They represent the opulent taste of the Tsars and if you’re like me and you like picturing yourself in a royal family, they’re perfect for daydreaming!
Don’t miss the Peacock Clock in the Peacock Salon (State Rooms). It is an amazing work of art and rings every Wednesday at 8pm. The room it is in is also gorgeous!
2. Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
After the Hermitage, this is one of the main attractions of the city, and you can easily understand why. Its façade is very similar to the famous St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and it is very different from the other buildings you can see in Saint Petersburg. Its name comes from the fact that it was build in memory of Alexander II by his son, on the exact place where he was assassinated.
During the years and revolutions, it was damaged a lot and served different purposes, being used as a morgue or as a warehouse. It is now a museum so girls don’t have to cover their head with a scarf when they go inside (this is what you should do when you go inside a church in Russia)!
This church is amazing from the outside (even though they sometimes cover the domes for restoration), but I really recommend going inside as well. The walls are covered in mosaics, and it is the biggest surface in the world. It is absolutely breathtaking, and I’m not the biggest fan of mosaics to begin with, so trust me!
3. Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre
This might actually be the best thing that I did in Saint Petersburg during the whole month I was there. Yes, the museums and churches are awesome, but this is definitely a unique experience that I didn’t even think I would love that much: I went to see two ballets at the Mariinsky Theatre. The first one was The Swan Lake, and the second one was Anna Karenina.
This spectacular opera and ballet theatre is divided into two buildings: the “old” one with its green-and-white-cake look and magnificent interior, and the conveniently named “Mariinsky II”, with a more modern architecture. I was lucky enough to be able to see both, as The Swan Lake was in the first one and Anna Karenina the second one. This offered two very different and unique experiences that I would recommend to everyone.
As I had never seen a ballet before (except on tv), I thought that it might get a bit boring after a few hours… and I was so wrong! For The Swan Lake, the amazing interior, along with the old-fashioned binoculars you can get, made me go back in time and fascinated me, as well as the amazing performance of the dancers and musicians. It was a very “classical” show, with white tutus and a very well-known soundtrack. Anna Karenina was very different: the modern look of the building (along with much more comfortable seats) made me feel like a very fancy and important person, and just like its building, the show was a bit more modern, keeping you on the edge of your seat thanks to the talented dancers and the thrilling soundtrack.
4. St Isaac’s Cathedral’s colonnade
The St Isaac’s Cathedral is another very famous landmark of the city that is perfectly located in the city centre. You will find it in every guidebook and there is a reason why. First of all, I have to admit that I didn’t go inside and only went up the stairs to the colonnade to admire the gorgeous view of the city. However, visiting the cathedral (that was actually turned into a museum by the Soviet government) is on the very top of my list of the things to see when I go back.
Even though I didn’t see all of it, it is still on this list because of the magnificent 360° view you get from the colonnade. From up there you can see the city’s most famous sights, from the Hermitage to the Peter and Paul Fortress.
5. Walking around
Even though the metro in Saint Petersburg is quite efficient (and incredible, so you should also take it al least once), if you want to go from one place to another, taking it is not always worth it, as the stations are not located everywhere in the centre. On top of that, I was blessed with such a great weather during the month, that going 80 metres deep into the ground felt like a waste of sunlight. As a consequence, I walked a lot, and really enjoyed it.
There is something I like in cities that have a river running through them, maybe it’s the water flowing, the bridges, or the romantic vibe they give out. I don’t know, but Saint Petersburg is no exception to that rule. Therefore, my favourite walks very often involved the canals, rivers and the cute colourful bridges scattered around the city. The area around the shop “Au Pont Rouge” is one of the nicest, and I really liked the Lions Bridge.
One of the main attractions in Saint Petersburg in the summer also involves watching the opening of the bridges. I didn’t get the chance to do that, but it is definitely on my to-do list for next time!
Another must-do in Saint Petersburg is a walk up (or down) Nevsky Prospect, the main avenue of the city, for its shops (especially the library Dom Knigi), restaurants, cafes, bars, sights and attractions. If you’re looking for a quieter place to wander around, I would suggest the Vasilievsky Island, on the other side of the Neva river from the Hermitage. The view is amazing, the streets less packed with tourists and you can also visit the Peter and Paul Fortress or the Kunstkamera.
Obviously there are plenty of other things to see in Saint Petersburg that did not make it to this list for different reasons: either I didn’t get the chance to see them, or, even though their history makes them one of the most important landmarks of the city, the experience I had visiting them wasn’t as good as these five. The Peter and Paul Fortress doesn’t appear in this list for this exact reason, but I still really suggest a visit there. Also, I haven’t talked about the palaces that are located outside of the city, as I will talk about them in another blog post!
I still have a long list of places I want to see and things I want to do in Saint Petersburg, and I am sure I will get the chance to go back there one day.
If you have been there, I am curious to know if you agree with me or if you would suggest some other places. If you haven’t, I strongly encourage you to go!!
Other posts about Russia:– My experience studying Russian in Russia
– Daydreaming at the Tsars’ residences – Peterhof & Catherine Palace