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A city guide to St Petersburg

Venice of the North and Russia's northern capital

Promoted as the pinnacle of art and culture in Russia, St Petersburg is one of the country's most visited destinations. The city, nicknamed 'Venice of the North' due to its elaborate system of canals, lies on the Neva River and at the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, placing it is relatively close proximity to other European countries with well connected train links and Pulkovo airport close by.

The city is home to around five million people and is the place of birth for many well known Russian figures including the likes of Ivan Pavlov, Vladimir Nabokov and Vladimir Putin.

View of St. Petersburg, Russia

History of St Petersburg

Early beginnings: 10th - early 18th century

The site of St Petersburg has a long history, inhabited by non-Russian settlements as early as the the 10th century. However, it was not until 1703 that Peter the Great founded the city of St Petersburg as a strategic location on the Baltic Sea. Legend says that as soon as he saw the swampland he proclaimed that this would be the site of the future Russian capital, a prophecy which came to be from 1713 to 1728 and 1732 to 1918.

Cultural enlightenment: 18th - 19th century

In the 18th and early 19th centuries St Petersburg underwent huge change, emerging as a cultural front-runner in the Western world aside that of Paris and London. The city enjoyed a great deal of prosperity under the reign of Catherine the Great, who brought the enlightenment to the city and founded 25 educational institutions, including Russia’s first state school for girls.

Soviet era and the World Wars: 20th century

In the Soviet era, St Petersburg was renamed Leningrad and the surrounding oblast (federal subdivision) kept the Soviet name. During the Second World War Leningrad was one of the key points at the Eastern front, and the Siege of Leningrad is considered to be the most tragic event in the history of the city, with hundreds of thousands of citizens having died when the Nazis cut off all supplies.

Russia's modern metropolis: 21st century and beyond

Over the course of the 21st century, St Petersburg has re-emerged as the pre-eminent destination for Russian art and learning with a wide range of concert halls, art galleries and museums adorning its many streets. It is also home to Russia's largest, private contemporary art museum opened in 2010, Erarta.

What to do in St Petersburg

There is always plenty to do in St Petersburg, the city centre contains around 2,300 palaces and magnificent Baroque and neo-classical buildings that have been well-preserved, justifying its status as UNESCO World Heritage site. There are also a series of parks to stroll through including one of the largest English gardens in Europe.

Zayachay Island

A visit to Zayachy Island on the bank of the Neva River with the Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral is obligatory. As the site where many members of House Romanov were buried, this island has become a major tourist attraction for all lovers of Russian history.

Museums and art galleries

There are 221 museums, 45 galleries and other exhibition spaces to choose from, with the Hermitage Museum being the most famous, featuring the interiors of an imperial residence and a stunning art collection. However, there is also a wide range of smaller museums featuring more unusual topics such as dolls or the Freudian Interpretation of Dreams. Furthermore, the city hosts 2000 libraries and 80 theatres. The Mariinsky Theatre is especially famous for its ballet.

Stuck for what to do when you are there? See our full range of St Petersburg tours and excursions for tourists.

Places to eat and drink in St Petersburg

St Petersburg is considered one of the best cities in Russia in terms of night life, bars and restaurants. Tourists will have a wide range of locations to choose from ranging from small taverna-like bars frequented by the locals to private clubs and high-end restaurants serving up contemporary cuisine. We have put together our top 3 recommended bars and restaurants in St Petersburg.

Nightlife in St Petersburg

1) Money Honey

Money Honey styles itself on a wild western saloon and has been considered a mainstay on the St Petersburg night scene for many years. This bar is host to a wide variety of events and is particularly well known for it's rockabilly and rock'n'roll bands.

2) JFC Jazz Club

The JFC Jazz Club is a cosy, late-night club directed by Andrei Kondakov, one of Russia's most famous jazz musicians. Jazz-lovers will find that JFC covers a wide scope of musical tastes from blues and rock to more avant-garde elements.

3) Poltavskaya 7

Poltavskaya 7 has been voted the best lounge bar in St Petersburg for the last two years (2017/2018 and 2018/2019 seasons). This club caters to all interests and includes a karaoke, hookah bar, restaurant and prestigious cocktail bar.

Restaurants in St Petersburg

1) Kokoko

Kokoko opened in 2012 with the aim of providing world-class Russian cuisine with a contemporary twist. The restaurant serves up a great blend of seafood, meat and vegetarian dishes sourced from local produce.

2) Mamalyga

Mamalyga is a must visit for anybody interested in Caucasian cuisine. The restaurant places comfort at the center of its concept, giving a much more homely feel. Perfect for lovers of barbecue and tandoor dishes.

3) Tayaki Cafe

The Tayaki Cafe is the perfect destination for lovers of Japan, and offers a quintessentially Japanese experience away from home. The restaurant is known for its Japanese street food, however you will often find events taking place in the cafe including tea ceremonies and lectures on Japanese culture.

Climate in St Petersburg

The weather is fickle and changeable, as it is common in coastal cities. Summers are mild, with temperatures averaging around 20° C and the winters are cold with average temperatures down to -8°C. St. Petersburg experiences the midsummer, with the sun never really setting in late June. This is celebrated by the White Nights Festival during the last ten days of June, which features all-day performances and make June the most popular month for tourists. A visit in late autumn can also be recommended, because the heat begins to drop in September and so does the number of tourists.

Weather in Saint Petersburg

 

Getting to St Petersburg

By aeroplane

Pulkovo Airport is located 17 kilometers south of the city centre and is the busiest Russian airport outside of Moscow, serving many international and domestic airlines. However, there is also the option of flying into Lappeenranta Airport which is located across the border in Finland.

By train

 The railway system is extremely well-connected. Moscow can be reached in only four hours via a high-speed rail system, and there are also international connections to Helsinki, Berlin and Eastern Europe. 

By sea

St Petersburg can also be reached directly via ferry from Helsinki and Stockholm.

Why you should visit St Petersburg

Its closeness to Europe makes St Petersburg a perfect destination for a short city-break, whilst still being able to offer a more exotic and distinctively Russian experience. The city has an extensive cultural repertoire and boasts a number of World Heritage Sites. 

The tourist industry in St Petersburg has developed rapidly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and is now one of the best in Russia. Moreover, the city has plenty to offer to those not as interested in art including a bustling night life and excellent variety of restaurants, making it one of the most diverse tourist experiences in Europe.

St Petersburg commonly asked questions

When visiting a new city, you are bound to have loads of questions. Here, we have included some of the questions we get asked most about St Petersburg:

Is St Petersburg safe?

Yes, as a city St Peterburg is relatively safe when compared with many major cities including London, Paris and Naples regardless of whether you are a UK / US citizen or other foreign national. However as with any major city, it is important to take the usual precautions particularly around busy areas such as Pulkovo airport or the train station.

Is St Petersburg expensive?

As a tourist, St Petersburg can be still be quite expensive although with the devaluation of the Ruble against other currencies in recent years the city has become much more affordable than it once was. Museums can cost anything between £5-20 in UK sterling depending on the Museum, the Hermitage is currently 700 rubles which works out to around £9. Eating out can prove expensive, but again this depends on where you are looking to eat. A good quality restaurant such as Kokoko costs around 800-1200 Rubles for a main course which works out to around £10-15.

How far is St Petersburg from Moscow?

St Petersburg is approximately 650-700km away from Moscow and will take anything between 4 to 8 hours by train depending on the type of train you take, or around 1.5 - 2 hours if travelling by plane.

To learn more about prices, timetables and bookings see our Moscow - St Petersburg trains page.

When is the best time to visit St Petersburg?

The best time to visit St Petersburg is usually between May and October since it is extremely cold between the months of December and March.

For a full list of things to do in St Petersburg at any time of year, please see our St Petersburg city-breaks blog post.