I am pretty sure, no other city in Russia gets as many tourists as Saint Petersburg. Just think of its lavish and luxurious palaces, incredibly decorated churches, museums rich in exhibits (the Hermitage has several millions!), the famous politeness of its residents, and spectacular suburb residences and parks that surpass the French ones, and you will understand why tourists choose it over any other city in Russia. I just want to add here that I love Moscow as well, but St. Petersburg will always be on the first place, and I want everyone to feel as good there as I do, so I prepared a full travel guide to St Petersburg, based on my several trips there.
Some of the links below may be affiliate links, meaning that I will get a small commission (it won’t cost you anything!) if you click and book tours or accommodation.
This St Petersburg city guide will cover these aspects:
1. Brief history of St Petersburg
St Petersburg is a young city, it is just a little over 300 years old: its official foundation date is 27 May 1703. Built on the marshes, it is now the most popular city in Russia with millions of tourists.
As Russia was in war with Sweden at that time, the city started with the construction of a fortress known today as Peter and Paul Fortress. As opposed to widely held beliefs, the number of deaths was exaggerated and the builders were paid, but it is true that they were forced to come.
The city was erected really quickly, and Peter I named it the capital of the Russian Empire in 1712. Basically, all main buildings were constructed in the 18th century, and the works continued in the 19th century.
I guess it will not be a mistake to say that St Petersburg is a city of revolutions and rebellions. The most well-known is the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, which was actually organized by the Russian noblemen! And then there were the February and October revolutions: the 20th century changed the history of Russia forever.
During the World War I Emperor Nicholas II renamed St Petersburg (it sounded too German) into Petrograd. After Lenin’s death, Petrograd became Leningrad. During the World War II it went through its hardest years during the siege by the German and Finnish that lasted for 900 days: hundred thousands of people died of starvation. The city was almost destroyed, while its suburbs were levelled to the ground, and it took many years to bring back its former splendor.
2. Best time to visit St Petersburg
As locals say, St Petersburg is beautiful any time, but, in many cases, travelers want warm and sunny weather, not cold rains and sharp winds. Let’s take a look at it by season, so you can choose the one you like.
Winter is good if you like snow and are not afraid of cold, and it can be very cold in St Petersburg with snow, biting wind, and slippery roads. Anyway, the residents of St Petersburg find ways to have fun even in this weather. For example, when the Neva River freezes, and the ice cover is thick enough (I think, usually it is from the second half of January), people just walk on the ice, fishermen make holes in the ice and sit there for several hours. And there are no crowds, so no queues to enter museums or palaces. Just keep in mind that fountains in Peterhof will be closed, as well as some other places, but parks in the suburbs will be free to enter.
Spring is good for travelling to the south of Europe, but not so good for St Petersburg. It is still cold in the early spring, it starts getting warmer in May. This season is rainy, so it might get muddy. We visited St Petersburg in the beginning of May, and the first day was really cold with biting wind, around 5-6 degrees. It got warmer and sunnier in the next days, but our first day was ruined: we did not bring clothes thick enough for this weather. There are two really important days in May: May 9, which is the Victory Day, and grand military parade is held in the city (well, not as grand as in Moscow, to be honest); and May 27, which is the official City Day with many festivities. In addition, usually in May there is a big event happening in Peterhof: the official ceremony of opening of fountains, which is a theatrical and musical show.
Summer is perfect for visiting St Petersburg, especially end of June – beginning of July. My friend was there in July and loved it. Of course, it still rains, but it is warm, trees are green, so you can have amazing time in parks and gardens, flowers are blooming, and you can smell lilacs everywhere. This is the high season, so expect queues: in this case it is better to buy tickets in advance. It is the best time to visit the former royal residences like Peterhof or Catherine’s Palace that are famous for their gardens. There are two very important events happening in summer: a spectacular school graduation ceremony “The Scarlet Sails” in the end of June, which is a ship with scarlet sails sailing (sorry for the tautology) on the Neva River; and the Navy Day in the last Sunday of July, and it includes parades, competitions, and some ships are open to public. Summer is perfect for day trips outside the city, but if you have some more time in St Petersburg, visit Kizhi Island: it is a spectacular and spiritual place.
Autumn is the best period if you want to enjoy the magnificent parks of St Petersburg and its suburbs. I was there in late October, and only got to see a part of this spectacular show, because lots of trees were bare already, but if you come a bit earlier you will get some very colorful memories. It gets colder in autumn, and the trees with yellow, red, and green leaves grab attention. The park in Pavlovsk is perfect for visit, as it was specifically designed for this purpose. Again, the colder it gets, the shorter the queues are 🙂 And another show in Peterhof: the official ceremony of closing of fountains.
3. Where to stay in St Petersburg
The top attractions in St Petersburg are quite compactly situated in the city center, so I advise to stay in this area. Have a look at the map below, I highlighted the area where it is best to stay. My personal choice and advice is to stay as close to the Nevsky avenue as possible: many places of interest are situated along the avenue.
On my first visit I and my friend stayed in an Airbnb flat in the middle of the residential area of the Vasilievsky Island. While the city center was still accessible on foot, it usually took us about half an hour to get there, and getting back late in the evening was a bit scary 🙂 On my next trip I booked an Airbnb flat on the Moyka River just behind the General Staff, so the Hermitage was literally round the corner! The thing with Airbnb flats is that they are quite cheap in St Petersburg, so it is always my first choice. If you are new to AirBnB, click here for a discount on your first booking.
The recommendation below is based on my experience solely, I am not remunerated by the hotel to mention it!
When it comes to hotels, I stayed at Solo Sokos Hotel Palace Bridge. It is a 5-star hotel, and I loved every minute spent there: the rooms are spacious, ours had a bathtub and a walk-in shower, great Wi-Fi, and delicious breakfast. It is not far from the Vasilievsky Island Spit, so you can easily get to the Nevsky Avenue on foot. The thing is that the hotel is expensive, but it was a business trip, and I didn’t pay for it. But, if you are willing to shed some extra bucks, I can wholeheartedly recommend this place. But, again, depending on the period, the cost might be less than 100 EUR per night for two people.
If you prefer something else, you can use Booking.com (I use it when I don’t book Airbnb apartments). And there are always deals available on Booking.com
4. How to get to St Petersburg from the airport
There is one airport in St Petersburg – Pulkovo, it is about 25 km away from the city center. While the subway system is quite extensive, there are no lines running directly to the airport, so you will have to use other means of transportation. I am not going to talk here about rented cars, as, in my personal opinion, it is absolutely unnecessary for several days in St Petersburg.
There are two ways to get to St Petersburg from the airport.
1) Local buses that run to Moskovskaya subway station and collect people right at the exit from the Arrivals area. The cost is 40 RUB, you will have to buy another ticket to use the subway.
Bus #39 is a regular bus with many stops along the road: the service starts at 05:25 AM and ends 00:20 AM. Runs every 25-30 minutes, takes about 30-35 minutes.
Bus #39э is an express bus without any stops, and takes you directly to the subway station: the service starts at 05:30 AM and ends at 01:30 AM. Runs every 12-20 minutes, takes about 20 minutes.
Maxi-taxi or marshrutka K39 that collects people who flag it down: the service starts at 07:00 AM and ends at 11:00 PM. Runs every 5 minutes, takes about 15-20 minutes.
2) Taxi. If you choose taxi, the recommended service is Taxi Pulkovo, you can see its desks at the baggage claim area, in the Arrivals area and in the street after exiting the Arrivals area. You can choose to pay by either card or cash. I paid at the desk, and my taxi to the Spit of Vasilievsky Island cost 1.000 RUB. In general, if you need to go to the city center, it is around 1.000 RUB, or, roughly, 15 EUR.
5. How to move around St Petersburg
Think of any means of public transportation, and you will find it in St Petersburg. Subway, buses, maxi-taxis, trams, trolley-buses are used by everyone in the city, and their cost is extremely low when compared to European prices. But, keep in mind, that if you stay in the area, I highlighted above, you will hardly need any of them for moving around the city, but you will definitely use them to get to the suburbs.
Subway is the most popular way of getting around, a token costs 45 RUB. If you have lots of baggage, you will need to buy another token for 45 RUB. You can buy a travel card for 10 journeys for 355 RUB, and the card is valid 7 days. Check for more info here. You won’t see it in this link, but there is a way to buy combined tickets (valid in subway, buses, trams and trolley-buses) for 1 day for 180 RUB, 2 days for 255 RUB, 3 days for 340 RUB, 4 days for 425 RUB, 5 days for 510 RUB, 6 days for 595 RUB, 7 days for 680 RUB.
The price of a trip on buses, trams and trolley-buses is 40 RUB. You pay either to conductors or drivers.
When it comes to maxi-taxis, the price varies starting with 29 RUB and ending with 131 RUB depending on the route and you pay directly to the driver. I used maxi-taxis only to get to the suburbs.
You can use this interactive map to find out how to get from one place to another. I would choose this site over Google Maps, because Google does not show if it is a bus or a trolley-bus, at least I could not find this info when I checked how to get from the St Isaac’s Cathedral to the Smolny Cathedral. It looked like a bus to me, and just when I was waiting for it, I realized it was a trolley-bus.
The local transportation system covers the whole city, so you won’t need taxis, but in case you are late and just have to take a ride, download Uber, Gett, or Yandex Taxi apps. These are two other services: Taxovichkof and Taxi 777.
6. What to see in St Petersburg
With so many places to visit in St Petersburg, you might need more than a week for that. A visit to the Hermitage alone would take the whole day! There are lots of museums, palaces, canals, cathedrals, ships, parks ready to be discovered. I have already written some posts on places to see in St Petersburg, so just click the links below.
Make sure you take a look at the days off and opening hours and be extra careful with opening and closing time. For example, usually the Hermitage closes at 6 PM, but on Wednesdays and Fridays works till 9 PM, and this is a great opportunity to watch how they start the famous Peacock Clock. Or the Russian Museum which opens at 10 AM every day, but on Thursdays they start at 1 PM.
7. Day trips from St Petersburg
You just can’t leave St Petersburg without visiting its famous suburbs! You will need a day for each one of them, so, if you are short of time, visit Peterhof with its spectacular fountains. If you have more time in the city, go to Pavlovsk for its park and to Pushkin to visit Catherine’s Palace and see the famous Amber Chamber. Some more info about these three 1-day trips can be found here.
If you want to really explore the suburbs, keep in mind that you might as well visit Gatchina, Kronstadt, Oranienbaum and Oreshek (or Shlisselburg) Fortress.
8. Where to eat in St Petersburg
The Nevsky Avenue is full of restaurants with different cuisine and with different price ranges. In many cases, a meal in St Petersburg will cost much less than in Europe, and if you take advantage of the fixed meals or business lunches, you will save considerably.
I really liked 3 places to eat in St Petersburg: 12th of April, a really cheap cafe in the basement offering donuts (15 RUB each) and tea for 40 RUB, Café Singer with exquisite view over the Kazan Cathedral, and the Literary Café with its delicious food and amazing live music.
I will not expand on the restaurants here, the post will be endless, so, please, check my previous post on places to eat in St Petersburg.
9. Some other essentials
Well, it is not only tourist attractions and places to eat that travelers should know about, so here is some additional information you might need.
• Currency. The currency is Russian ruble. The rates fluctuate, so 1 euro is roughly 68 RUB, and 1 dollar is 57 RUB. You will have to pay for everything in rubles, so go to exchange bureaus or banks. I know many people are afraid to use exchange bureaus, but I personally have never had any problems. Just choose the best rate and make sure you know if they ask for commission. I have not heard of any place accepting euro or dollars (probably, some really high-end stores do that).
• Emergency numbers.
Common emergency number: 112
Fire department: 101
Gas department: 104
• Access to Internet. Usually, all restaurants and cafes offer free Wi-Fi, you will just have to ask for password. There is a network SPb Free Wi-Fi which can be accessed in some parts of the city: you will have to enter your phone number and the password sent to you by text. Not sure if it works with foreign numbers, did not try it myself, they started to provide it after my visit to St Petersburg. You can see here the map of the access points: it is in Russian, but you can still check the map. Another way to get access to the Internet is to visit the so-called Internet cafes. On Nevsky Avenue 11 you can find Internet Games (Интернет Игры), and Internet Center of the Russian Museum is on Nevsky Avenue 17.
• Opening hours. You can check the opening hours of touristic sights on specific websites. When it comes to restaurants, you can again check it on websites, but you should know that they don’t have siesta time during midday like many European places. Generally, they are open from 10:00 AM till 10:00 PM. Some open earlier to serve breakfast, and some close at midnight. Pirogi restaurant on Fontanka is open 24/7.
• Pharmacies. There are several pharmacies on the Nevsky Avenue, but I am going to mention Petrofarm (Nevsky Avenue 22), as it is open 24/7.
• Dress code. Luckily, there is no dress code in St Petersburg, so you can wear whatever you want. But, if you want to visit any of its functioning cathedrals, it is advised to cover your legs, shoulders and head (for women. Men enter with uncovered head).
• Saint Petersburg Card. As many popular cities, St Petersburg has its own tourist card. It offers free access to over 60 places of interest and discounts for some other places like the café Republic of Cats or classical museum concerts. Just have a look at prices, compare with your plan and decide if it is worth to buy it. Keep in mind that, while you can use this card to pay in transport, you will have to top it up separately: basically, transportation costs are not included in the price.
• English. Usually, waiters in many restaurants and hotel staff speak English, but don’t expect everyone you see passing by to do the same. If you need help, it is a better idea to go in the nearby café and ask. Signs in the touristic areas, including subway stations, are mainly in Russian and English, so you won’t get lost 🙂
• Travel tips. I have here some travel tips for those who plan to visit St Petersburg.
Ugh, that was a long post, I hope you made it till the end 🙂 Do you have any other questions that I did not cover in my guide to St Petersburg?
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