Our guide to Saint Petersburg gives you everything you need to know about visiting Russia’s second city, from the best time of year to visit to the must-see attractions, as well as all the best places to stay, eat, drink and more
The lovely city of Saint Petersburg lies on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. It was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703; from 1713 to 1728 and 1732 to 1918 it was the capital, and it remains an important centre for culture. Sometimes known as the ‘Venice of the North’, Russia’s second city is a wonderful place to visit, offering a wealth of attractions old and new, from museums and activities to great restaurants and a bustling nightlife.
When to go
Saint Petersburg’s climate means that every month can offer something different, so it’s really a city that rewards repeat visitors: beautiful in summer, it’s completely transformed in the winter months. Summer and autumn are perhaps best for a first visit, though March is a great time for those who want to beat the crowds: it’s not peak winter and it’s not too busy. December and January are very cold but perfect for those who want to get into the festive spirit. In June and July – the White Nights season when the sun never fully sets –the city comes alive with events, but this is also peak tourist time. Saint Petersburg is a great destination any month of the year; it all depends on what you want from your visit.
Where to stay
Relive the glory of imperial Saint Petersburg with a stay at the stunning Trezzini Palace Hotel. This five-star venue is one of the most luxurious in Russia, with 21 suites decorated in a plush, ornate style that reflects the grandeur of Tsarist Russia. Filled with original features and historical art and artefacts, the hotel sees itself as a museum; a stay here is like stepping back in time, though with all the amenities a modern luxury hotel can offer.
Kempinski Hotel Moika 22 is another incredible five-star hotel in the city, and while all its rooms and suites are impeccable, the Hermitage Suite is its most famous and luxurious. It offers views over the Hermitage Museum, which was formerly the Tsars’ Winter Palace, and the two-room apartment is decorated with authentic furniture, antiques and paintings.
If a boutique hotel is more your style, head to the Rossi, which seamlessly blends traditional Russian architecture with modern design. 1852 Boutique Hotel offers a similarly stylish blend of old and new. Named after the year the building was constructed, it has undergone a full renovation and the new design balances original features with contemporary clean lines.
Food and drink
You can’t leave Saint Petersburg without sampling a traditional Russian meal. Russian cuisine is distinguished less by particular dishes or techniques than by the way food is served and consumed; a table should be laden with delicacies and the meal should be enjoyed over several hours and feature multiple toasts. Palkin is perhaps the city’s most famous high-end Russian restaurant, and serves traditional Russian and French cuisine (French-influenced cooking is very typical of Russia) in an authentic and exclusive atmosphere. Russkaya Ryumochnaya No 1 is another elegant traditional restaurant, and is known for its fantastic vodka – another thing you mustn’t leave the city without sampling.
Other amazing eateries in the city include Probka, a restaurant and café offering authentic Italian food – from pizzas to fine dining – and an incredible wine list. Gastronomika is a relaxed and stylish space with a modern European menu. On the sixth floor of the Olympic Plaza mall, guests can enjoy views across the Saint Petersburg rooftops. The bar serves a mean cocktail, so be sure to drop in whether you’re hungry or not. Committed foodies will love EM Restaurant, where everything from the bread to the coffee is prepared in-house in the open kitchen. The concept restaurant’s menu changes weekly, tables are available only by reservation, and you’re not allowed to use your phone while you eat. This is a favourite among the city’s in-the-know residents.
Saint Petersburg has a great nightlife, and bar-hopping is the custom here; head to Rubinshteyna ulitsa to discover an array of bars and clubs, and be sure to sample more than one. A number of speakeasy-style bars have also popped up in recent years, with El Copitas, Kabinet and Apotheke among the best. For views it has to be rooftop bar Makaronniki, which has floor-to-ceiling windows as well as a terrace, making it the perfect spot whatever the weather.
Finally, those with a sweet tooth should be sure to seek out Mickey & Monkeys, a breakfast and brunch spot that serves huge slices of freshly baked cakes and the best milkshakes in the city.
Saint Petersburg is filled with photo opportunities, from striking classical architecture to the central Neva River and the city’s picturesque canals. Keep your eyes open as you walk around, or even take a boat tour along the canals, and you’ll be rewarded with view after view just begging to be captured.
The Winter Palace of the Tsars, now home to the Hermitage Museum, is a green-and-white marvel of baroque architecture. But it’s not the only impressive building in the city. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is stunning inside and out. Many of Saint Petersburg’s famous structures are baroque or neoclassical, but this church was built in the spirit of romantic nationalism, harking back to medieval Russian architecture. Inside you’ll find breathtaking mosaics.
In the warmer months, be sure to pay a visit to some of the city’s beautiful gardens, which come alive with flowers. The Summer Garden is the oldest park in Saint Petersburg. It is filled with fountains, statues and all manner of rare plants and flowers. The gardens of the Peterhof Palace (which is also home to a fantastic museum) were inspired by those of the Palace of Versailles and are simply breathtaking. At Catherine Palace, a little outside the city, you can’t take photos inside the stunning rococo building, but there are no restrictions on cameras when it comes to the amazing grounds.
The Alexander Garden, though small in comparison, is one of the best places to get a photo of St Isaac’s Cathedral. The golden dome of this impressive church is visible almost everywhere in the city, and inside you’ll find detailed mosaics, classic paintings and impressive stained-glass windows. You can also brave the 300 steps to the roof if you want seriously good views across the city.
Arts and culture
Saint Petersburg is known as the cultural capital of Russia, and with good reason. The centre of court life for much of its existence, it remains an important centre for the arts and is home to a wealth of galleries, museums and more.
The Hermitage Museum is the second largest art museum in the world, after the Louvre in Paris; it has around three million items and includes the largest collection of paintings in the world. Here you’ll discover everything from Egyptian antiquities to modern art, with pieces from all over the world. The Russian Museum is another state museum in the city, again housed in a former palace, and though smaller than the Hermitage it is still one of the largest in the country. Here you’ll find the widest collection of Russian fine art in the city.
Mix food and culture at the Literary Café, an elegant restaurant serving gourmet food. This is the place where beloved Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin loved to dine, and a waxwork figure of him sits at one of the tables. For something more contemporary, explore one of the city’s leading modern art galleries; Marina Gisich and Erarta are two of the best.
Don’t visit Saint Petersburg without booking tickets to see a Russian ballet at the iconic Mariinsky Theatre, which has hosted the world’s greatest ballerinas, opera singers and musicians for over two centuries. If you’re new to ballet, look out for a classic show such as Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, though it doesn’t matter what you choose: every performance here is spectacular. Book a box for the VIP experience.
No trip to Saint Petersburg would be complete without seeking out a few choice souvenirs. Russian dolls, furry hats and Soviet memorabilia (don’t expect it to be genuine) can be found on practically every street corner, and of course these trinkets are not without their charm. But for something more genuinely antique head to Larusse at Stremyannaya ulitsa 3, a treasure trove of historical pieces.
Dom Knigi bookshop would be worth a visit for its striking art nouveau architecture alone, but it also offers an amazing array of literature on all manner of subjects. Pick up stunning homeware and decorative pieces at the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory, which was established in 1744 as the first porcelain maker in all of Russia.
For general retail therapy, go to Galeria, which is home to around 300 different brands, meaning there’s something here for every taste. Bolshoy Gostiny Dvor is another impressive mall, and among the oldest in Russia. Head here to sample red caviar – a lesser-known delicacy – and perhaps even take some home with you. For a more exclusively high-end experience, DLT is a must-visit. Saint Petersburg’s oldest department store (established in 1908) offers the leading brands from across the world including Burberry, Céline, Balenciaga and Hugo Boss.
Russia is not known for its fashion labels, but if you really want to pick up something by a local designer, we recommend the boutique of Tatyana Parfionova. As well as women’s clothing (including custom bridalwear), Parfionova is known for her exquisitely embroidered cotton, velvet or silk scarves which are so gorgeous that some have found their way into the State Russian Museum.