City on the Neva, Venice of the North, North Palmyra. All these names are already preparing you for the fact that Saint Petersburg is a city of incredible beauty. Built on a swamp in 1703 by the first Emperor of the Russian Empire, Peter the Great, this city was supposed to become the gateway to Europe for the whole country. Thanks to the founder, outstanding minds from all over Europe came to work on the looks of this new city, so whether you are from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy or France, you will find here something easily recognizable from your home country.
For those visiting this majestic city for the first time, and who have only little time to explore it, we want to share a small route that will help you getting acquainted with the most colorful, gorgeous and unforgettable places in the heart of the city. Get Streetwise in Saint Petersburg and follow Olga's unique walking tour that introduces you to this great city in about 3 hours (the estimated time without entering museums).
Start your day in the cultural capital of Russia by getting off at Nevsky Prospect metro station, aside the posh Singer House building. Inside you can drink fresh coffee and have a look around in the 'House of Books', with books in nearly all the languages of the world!
Returning to the street, your eyes cannot get around a colossal building, with a majestic green dome and an amazing colonnade. Does it remind you of anything? Right. The main cathedral of the city was inspired by the Cathedral of St Peter in Rome. How would this one look from the inside? You will find signs of architectural mastery in here as well, where rays of sunlight visually seem to increase the height of the dome. We hope that you will be lucky enough to visit Saint Petersburg with sunshine, so that you can verify this yourself!
Turning backwards to pass the Singer House along one of the many canals of Saint Petersburg, you'll see a stunning cathedral that goes by the name Cathedral of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. The multicolored domes and golden crosses make it an excellent example of pseudo-Russian style architecture. It is located on the place where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated. The church is not only stunning from the outside, but you can also find a breathtaking 7,000 m2 of mosaics inside. Pay attention that the entrance here is paid. For visitor information, see the official website. The church is closed on Wednesdays.
Turn right at the Saviour on Blood, and enter one of the finest green areas of the city, Mikhailovsky Garden. This is a shaded and well-groomed oasis of rest in the heart of the city, surrounded by museums, temples and monuments. Here you can also find the small temple-shaped 'Rossi's Pavilion', dedicated to Rossi, a 19th century architect from Saint Petersburg. Inside there is a nice café to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee.
Leaving this island of peace and crossing the small bridge on your left, you will find yourself in the Field of Mars, the place where military parades and all kinds of demonstrations were held in the very beginning of the history of the city. Nowadays it is a quiet place to sit on the grass in warm weather, or on one of the benches.
After crossing the Field of Mars, you'll find yourself on the Neva riverside with a stunning view over the historical heart of the city - the Peter and Paul Fortress.
It was here where the first foundations of the capital of the Russian Empire were laid. To get there, you will have to cross the bridge across the mighty Neva River. Its base may remind the sharp-sighted of the metal patterns of the Eiffel Tower. And, indeed, it was the Eiffel Company that won the tender for its construction.
Coming closer to the fortress, you will see an old wooden bridge, and to its left a small statue of a hare. Be sure to throw a coin to his paws and make a wish! It will surely be fulfilled. This hare is not here purely by chance. Historically the island was the territory where Swedish noble families liked to hunt rabbits and hares, hence the name 'Hare Island'.
The territory of the Peter and Paul Fortress has retained the old paving stones, which unfortunately got very rare in the city of Saint Petersburg. The yellowish cathedral that can be seen from far is the Saints Peter and Paul, the main sight of the island, with under its roof the remains of the imperial Romanov family.
Right behind the strong walls of the fortress, there's a sandy beach, with locals sunbathing in warm weather. Interesting note is that some of them bathe even in the cold waters of the Neva when the ice comes off. Such extreme locals are called "walruses".
Having explored the fortress, move in the direction of a huge ship. This ship is a copy of the Dutch flute of 1748. Inside you will find the restaurant "The Flying Dutchman", a favorite place of secular personalities of Saint Petersburg. Left of this ship, you can see two rostral columns, erected in honor of Russian naval victories. The little green space in between those two columns, is known as the "strelka" (“arrow” in Russian). From here a fascinating panorama over the city opens up, with the Peter and Paul Fortress, the mighty Neva River, and the Hermitage on the right riverbank. If you want to be sure that you're still on track, locate yourself on our Streetwise map of Saint Petersburg.
Now the time has come for the most important place of the city - the Hermitage Museum, or as it is also known, the Winter Palace. Passing the Palace Bridge, you will find yourself on the huge central square of Saint Petersburg, the Palace Square. In its centre, it is decorated with the Alexander Column, which, by the way, has no attachment to the base and stays in position due to its weight alone. We hope that the strong winds of Saint Petersburg will not drop it.
The Hermitage is a complex of 6 buildings with one of the largest art collections in the world. It is not only the art collection that is big, but also the palace itself, so don't get lost there. Magnificently decorated halls, some entirely dedicated to ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian art, are filled with statues, expensive tapestries and paintings. Find here works by Da Vinci, El Greco, Velasquez, Rembrandt and many other world-famous artists.
The Hermitage’s building complex also includes the General Staff building, opposite the palace. Before telling what you can see there, we share a small life hack. In order not to stand in the long queues in front of the main building of the Hermitage, which in high season can reach several hours, move to the ticket office of the General Staff building and buy your tickets there. As a rule, the queue is much smaller there. In addition, it can be worthwhile to buy a ticket for two days, as in this case you won't have a queue at all the next day.
The General Staff building is a real treasure for connoisseurs of painting. Amidst its modern interiors, it houses one of the richest collections of impressionism, numbering about 3,000 paintings. Find here works by Claude Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Sisley or Van Gogh.
Make sure you won't get overwhelmed by the greatness of the Hermitage and prepare yourself before going there. Make the most of your visit and discover all ins and outs by reading our Guide to the Hermitage.
Another picturesque decoration that catches the eye on Palace Square, is a huge arch decorated with the Chariot of Glory in honor of Russia's victory over Napoleon.
Pass through this arch, and you will find yourself on Bolshaya Morskaya Street, in the evenings packed with street musicians. Move on forward, cross Nevsky Prospect, until you reach St Isaac's Square, which is one of the most beautiful architectural ensembles of Saint Petersburg.
Not to miss on this square, is one of the highest cathedrals in the world, decorated with lots of multi-colored stones, the St Isaac's Cathedral. From the inside and the outside, the magnificent cathedral impresses with both size and decor. Climb its steps and walk around its dome for a breathtaking panoramic view of Saint Petersburg.
Right behind the cathedral is the Alexander Garden, where you can find a legendary monument to Peter the Great, the 'Bronze Horseman'. In fact, it was the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin who first named it the Bronze Horseman in one of his poems. As you can see, the horseman was granted a pretty view over Vasilievsky Island, with its impressive and colorful buildings. Once that part of the city was due to become the very centre of Saint Petersburg.
If you are planning to visit Saint Petersburg in the warm season, from May to September, the climax of your day remains yet to come, standing there on the riverside. Around 1:00h every night, you will see a phenomenon typical for Saint Petersburg: the drawing of all its bridges. It is not only spectacular but also very romantic, especially if you visit the city during the so-called “white nights”, when it remains so amazingly light that it almost feels like day.
Our little route has ended here on this beautiful riverside. The good news is that the city on the Neva has much more to offer. Have a look in its great museums, gorgeous palaces with decorations that will drive you crazy, or in the many places with good food! Be sure to check our Streetwise map of Saint Petersburg before making your travel plan, to learn more about the trendy shopping areas, the nicest bar streets, areas that might be dangerous, or the prettiest metro stations!