Almost all trips to Russia will include visits to Moscow and St. Petersburg. If you haven’t already done so, check out The Complete Moscow Four Day Itinerary to discover everything there is to do in Moscow and some basic knowledge about visiting Russia in general. Be sure to forget all the stereotypes fed to us by Hollywood because Russia will surely leave you in awe. This post will cover, St. Petersburg, appropriately nicknamed ‘The Venice of the North’ due to the countless rivers running through its streets like blood vessels supplying life and infinite beauty. The city is also referred to as ‘White Nights’ due to a beautiful phenomenon which occurs during summers there, you’ll have to visit it to know what I’m talking about.
Whether you’re a foodie, a historian, a philosopher, a shopaholic or simply someone who enjoys long walks through picturesque cities, St. Petersburg caters to all. Not sure whether it was my lack of planning though but I did find that both Moscow and St. Petersburg do not exactly attract the adrenaline junkies. Whilst creating my itinerary, I couldn’t find any adventurous activities although I’m sure they do exist in some of the less touristic cities. If you know of anything, please do share below in the comments section. Equally as fun though, a trip to this city will consist of museums, castles, palaces, cathedrals, ballets and even a chance to paint your very own Matryoshka Doll, so let us begin!
Day 1: Fortresses & Cathedrals
There is no better way of starting to get to know a city than to understand the history around its existence. However, learning the history is merely breaking the ice, it’s only the first step of a long journey. Understanding the culture and the ‘soul’ of a place comes from immersing yourself into its streets, markets and restaurants. Speak to the people, not just on a shallow scale but really seek to understand the hardships they face and what keeps them anchored to the city despite the negatives. As usual, this is exactly what I try to achieve during day 1 of any visit.
Quick note regarding your accommodation, we stayed at the Rossi Boutique Hotel & Spa located right by the Fontanka River. The staff were very welcoming, professional and courteous. The location is pretty good too as it’s a mere 3 minute walk from the famous Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s main boulevard, and a 15 minute walk to the Hermitage. Last but not least, their spa was awesome, I definitely recommend you treat yourself to a massage during the end of your stay. All in all, we enjoyed our stay and the hotel lives up to it’s 8.9 rating on booking.com. However, I wouldn’t have minded staying somewhere a little closer to the Hermitage; just because it would mean less walking at the end of a tiring, busy day.
Whether you opt for the Rossi Boutique or anywhere else, begin your day by strolling down Nevsky Prospect towards the Hermitage. On the way, stop at one of the countless bakeries for breakfast as you’ll surely need the energy. As you walk down the bustling boulevard, you should also notice a fairly large, fancy supermarket named Eliseyev Emporium. If you followed my Moscow itinerary, the breathtaking interior of this place will not be unfamiliar to you. It is worth noting that this supermarket is actually owned by the same family as the one you visited in Moscow. Make sure you make a stop here and perhaps pick up some fine, Swiss chocolate or a coffee. When you’re done, continue your walk down towards the Hermitage. We got a bit lucky here as the city was preparing for the Victory Day Parade; therefore, the boulevard was closed off to all vehicles turning it into a huge pedestrian walkway.
Now, I know I told you to walk towards the Hermitage but don’t worry, I’m not about to throw you into the world’s second largest museum after an overnight train ride and only a couple of hours to regain your energy in St. Petersburg. It’s just that the location of the Hermitage is so central to all the sights worth seeing that it acts as the perfect starting point.
Once at the museum’s square, cross over the The Palace Bridge to get to the ‘Spit of Vasilievsky Island’. With the Saint Petersburg State University to your back, enjoy panoramic views of the city along with the famous Rostral Columns acting as frames for that perfect Instagram shot. From where you’re standing, you’ll be able to see the Peter & Paul Fortress across one side of the river and the Hermitage across the other side. This spot is a great introduction to the city as it acts as a mediator between how St. Petersburg first came to be and how it received it’s name; to the way it developed into one of the richest and most artistic cities in the world.
When you’re done basking in the sunlight and enjoying the view (assuming of course you were sensible enough to visit during summer), cross over to the Peter & Paul Fortress. Founded by Peter the Great himself in 1703, this fortress was the original citadel of St. Petersburg. Thus, it is only appropriate to make it your first official destination on this itinerary.
After visiting the fortress, you can either walk back over the bridge towards the Hermitage or take an Uber back if you need to give your feet a little rest. Our next destination was arguable my favorite in the city, St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Besides being the largest Russian Orthodox church in the city, it is the largest orthodox basilica and the forth largest cathedral in the entire world. The exterior is faced with gray and pink stone and features a total of 112 red granite columns while the cathedral’s main dome rises 101.5 meters. The dome is also majestically plated with pure gold. Make sure you climb up to the observation deck too for breathtaking, panoramic views of the city.
There are dozens of reasons to fall in love with this wonder, ranging from its magnificent architecture to the exotic materials used in construction. However, the main reason I fell in love with this spot is so much simpler. Connected directly to the cathedral is a small, yet quaint and cozy park where people enjoy the summer days of St. Petersburg. Here you’ll find children flying kites, adults sketching the wonder in front of them and seniors digging into their picnic baskets. I however, was too busy napping on the green, lush grass to pay much attention to anyone else.
You’re probably starving by now and fortunately, my favorite restaurant, Teplo, is only a 5 minute walk from St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The restaurant does fill up quite often though which is surprising given its size, so it is recommended to call and book a table before heading there. Literally everything on the menu is extremely tasty but I’ll have to urge you to try their Beef Stroganoff… guaranteed to leave you longing for more and more.
With filled tummies and happy hearts, make your back down Nevsky Prospekt until you spot a beautiful, picturesque cathedral on your lefthand side… that ladies and gentlemen, is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Although the name does sound hella cool, it’s not all that creative. The church was in fact built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded by political nihilists in March 1881. Now the name might make more sense to you. The construction of this monument began in 1883 but wasn’t completed until 1907; moreover, it is important to note that the project was funded by the imperial family as a memorial to their father.
With the day coming to an end, it is probably a good time to head back to your hotel room for a little bit. Besides being rich with history, St. Petersburg is a city that loves its food. Discover a wide variety of seafood restaurants, steakhouses, Italian Trattorias and so much more. So change into something a little less comfortable and a little more fashionable before leaving for dinner. I would recommend asking your hotel’s concierge for the best nearby options.
Day 2: May 9th, Victory Day
I am not sure how that’s even possible but throughout my entire planning process, I seemed to miss the fact that the 9th of May is Victory Day in Russia. That meant that almost every museum or publicly owned attraction was shut for the day. It also meant that St. Petersburg would host a military parade that really shows off the Soviet Union’s might, a way to show the world… that they’ve still got it. Almost everyone was talking about the parade, so of course, I got super excited about it. We cancelled our plans to visit the Catherine Palace and instead walked down Nevsky Prospekt towards Hermitage Square.
Just in case you’re ever there on this date, heres a little background on Victory Day. It is a holiday that commemorates the surrender of the Nazis in 1945. It was first inaugurated in 16 republics of the Soviet Union, following the signing of the German Instrument of Surrender late in the evening of 8 May 1945, after midnight though. In East Germany for example, 8th of May (due to the time difference) was observed as “liberation Day” from 1950 to 1966. What I didn’t know though was that every single person in St. Petersburg apparently was also planning on attending this parade. Naturally, we followed crowds and crowds of people thinking it would lead us to an open spot from where we’d be able to see the marching bands, soldiers and heavy artillery; to our despair though, all we saw were the crowds of people. There is an Arabic saying that goes like this: ‘Ask a person who experienced it before asking a doctor’. So here is a piece of advice that surprisingly, none of the locals told me: if you’re hoping to catch the parade, make sure you wake up ridiculously early, head down to the square before anyone else gets there, and set up your spot right by the road.
The streets cleared up at around noon and it was time to plan out our next move. Fortunately, we found out that the Peterhof Palace was open today. We rushed down to the Peterhof Express harbor on the Reka Neva right by the Hermitage (I told you it’s a great reference spot for everything you need to do). From there, we took a hydrofoil to the palace. If you’ve never been on one, you’ll definitely find this ride to be quite interesting. A hydrofoil is a lifting surface that operates in water, they are similar in appearance and purpose to aerofoils used by airplanes but installed on a boat instead. As the craft gains speed, the hydrofoils lift the boat’s hull out of the water, decreasing drag and allowing greater speeds. That being said, do not expect to be flying across the river at rapid speeds but the sense of levitating right above the water along with the lack of that usual rocking sensation is pretty cool.
The Peterhof Palace is probably the most photogenic spot we visited in St. Petersburg so get your cameras ready for this one. Besides being a backdrop for our pictures though, the Peterhof Palace actually plays an important role in Russia’s history and tourism. Matter of fact, the grounds of this place are so great that it is often nicknamed the ‘Versailles of Russia’. The dominant natural feature of the palace is a 16 meter high bluff lying less than 100 meters from the shore. Moreover, the so-called Lower Gardens take over an area larger than 1 km2 and are confined between this bluff and the shore, they stretch east and west for roughly 200m in each direction. East of the Lower Gardens lies the Alexandria Park which boats its 19th-century Gothic Revivial structures such as the Kapella. The main highlight of the palace though is the Sea Channel (Morskoi Kanal), one of the most extensive waterworks of the Baroque period, this channel bisects the Lower Gardens. You’re guaranteed to stand in awe over the gold sculptures as sunlight crosses through the fountains splitting into a thousand different rays. You wanna spend around three hours here before catching the next hydrofoil back.
Before retiring to our hotel, we decided to head back to the Church on Spilled Blood. There, you’ll find dozens of souvenir booths that offer slightly better prices than the shops down Nevsky Prospekt. However, there was nothing really there that grabbed our attention; moreover, you’re better off waiting and doing your final souvenir shopping at the Catherine Palace.
Day 3: The Hermitage & Canal Rides
You simply cannot go to St. Petersburg without visiting The State Hermitage Museum; after all, it is the second largest art museum in the entire world. If you’re an art aficionado, you can easily spend an entire week touring this place without merely scratching the surface of what it has to offer. The Hermitage was founded in 1764 when Empress Catherine the Great acquired an impressive collection of paintings from the Berlin merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky… yes, the museum was basically her personal collection, which she didn’t allow anyone to see by the way. Its collections, of which only a small segment is on permanent display, comprise over three million items including the largest collection of paintings in the world.
It is worth noting that the museum isn’t just one building, its more of a complex comprising of six buildings although only five are open to the public. The five buildings are Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage, Hermitage Theatre and Winter Palace. The latter is the most famous of the five and the one I recommend you visit. The entrance tickets for foreign tourists are quite pricy so if you’re traveling on budget, here are a couple of tricks: firstly, entrance is free of charge on the first Thursday of every month. If that does not suit your schedule, students and children can always enter free, although you will need a student ID for that. Besides the entrance fee, I strongly urge you to book a guided tour. The tour guides are extremely passionate about the art and will surely give you a better feel for the museum over the self-guided audio tour.
For an average Joe, a trip to the Hermitage will take something between 3 to 5 hours; which means you’ll probably be pretty hungry by the time you’re done. My recommendation is to pick up a sandwich or snack from Nevsky Prospekt; you can spend time having a proper meal later before the Ballet. When you’re done eating, or if you weren’t that hungry to begin with, catch any of the canal tour providers. You will find loads of these chilling around the Hermitage, or any of the other cathedrals. You can also walk down the Reka Neva where several different companies are available. They all pretty much offer the same prices and tour so try choose the one with a boat that’s already almost full. The reason is that they always wait for the boat to fill up before they commence the tour, so the earlier you are, the longer you wait. Not gonna lie, the canal tour wasn’t amongst my favorite activities in St. Petersburg, although it’s still heaps better than the one in Moscow. It is a pretty chilled out hour or two so get it done since you’re there.
If you weren’t hungry earlier, I bet you’re starving now! Go back to your hotel and change into something fancy because you will be heading to the Ballet after food. I’m not gonna lie to you, we ate at Teplo again, could not resist more of their Stroganoff, so I can’t recommend any other restaurants for dinner. However, I’m sure your hotel will have countless options for you. Now it is finally time to experience the true Russian Ballet. We attended the Sleeping Beauty at the Marinsky Theatre and it was honestly an extraordinary piece. Everything from the decor, the dancing, the live orchestra to the story line was absolutely perfect. I think it’s a good idea to look for a story you’re familiar with too because it just makes it that much easier to keep up with the plot.
Day 4: Painting your own Matryoshka Dolla
Like I said before, we were meant to visit the Catherine Palace on day 2 but that didn’t happen due to Victory day and the parade. No biggie though since we got Peterhof palace done then, we’ve freed up today. Catherine Palace lies a little outside the city, in the Pushkinsky District; walking there will not be an option unless you’re down to spend 6 hours on the road :p You can either take an Uber there, it was surprisingly cheap, or take a bus if you’re traveling on a tight budget.
There are three main things to do at the palace, firstly, the palace itself obviously. Make sure to at least buy a ticket that includes the Amber Room, it is exquisite to say the least, although you will not be allowed to take any pictures in there… time to crack out your sneaky skills!
This place acted as the summer residence for the Russian czars, it was originated in 1717 when Catherine I hired German architect Johann-Friedrich Braunstein to contract a summer palace for her pleasure, chilling like that you know. In 1733, Empress Elizabeth commissioned Mikhail Zemtsov and Andrei Kvasov to expand the palace for her… simply because she can. However, she then found her mother’s place to be outdated and incommodious so in 1752, she asked her court architect to demolish the entire structure and replace it with a much grander edifice in a flamboyant Rococo style, which it still has until this day. That ladies and gentlemen, is how the finer 1% spend their time and money. More than 100 kilograms of gold were used to guild the sophisticated stucco facade and numerous statues erected on the roof. The Amber Room is another story on it’w own. This priceless piece of art boasts extraordinary architectural features such as gildings, carvings, 450 kg amber panels, gold leaf, gemstones and mirrors… all highlighted with candle light. The room is sometimes dubbed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ and has it’s value estimated at over $500 million.
The second attraction of the palace is it’s marvelous park where you can easily spend a couple of hours walking around it, admiring the sculptures, flowers and elegant layout. Why don’t you try to pack a couple of sandwiches and have a little picnic by the park’s quaint, little lake?
It is only right to complete such a trip with a cultural and traditional ‘bang’. So, for your final activity in this beautiful city, you will be painting your very own Matryoshka doll! For this, ask your hotel to contact a painter to arrange a Masterclass for you. You’ll have the option of painting a single doll, or three; your choice will depend on how much time you have because the process does take a while. Don’t be intimidated if you’re not quite the artist either because the Master painter will be there the entire time to help you out. Keep in mind that this is a private session to although it is a little pricey, you’ll be getting the support required to produce a stunning Matryoshka. Truth is, I can’t paint to save my life, I’m 27 and can barely draw a couple of stick figures; but I’m still really proud of the doll I produced. Let me know what you think of it in the comments section below…. don’t be too harsh on me though 😛
That’s it for your four days in St. Petersburg 😦 What did you think of the city though, did you fall in love with it like I did? Will you be planning a second visit?
Do me a huge favor guys, if you followed this itinerary, please comment on what you liked, what you didn’t like, anything you did differently or anything you’d change. Most importantly though, rate this trip out of 10 so that other travelers, explorers and adventurers can also benefit from your experience 🙂