When a city is designed from scratch according to the will and capricious desires of one of the most powerful emperors on earth, then you know it has to be good! Established in the early 18th century, Saint Petersburg might sound like a fairly recent city by European standards, but spend a couple of days admiring its mind-blowingly beautiful architecture and touring its countless palaces, and you’ll soon realize why over 7 million tourists visited it in 2017 alone.
If you’re about to give your contribution to these stats and pay this wonderful city a visit, then I recommend that you start working on your Saint Petersburg itinerary. Much like any big city in Russia, good old Saint Pete is massive and quite spread out. Even if most important attractions are located within the city centre limits, spending 3 days in the city of Czars will still require a lot of walking.
With that being said, make sure to pack up comfortable sneakers, a Russian dictionary and some extra memory cards for your camera – you’ll want to capture every single place in this city!
Without any further ado, here is our sample of a Saint Petersburg itinerary:
SAINT PETERSBURG ITINERARY – 3 DAYS IN THE IMPERIAL CAPITAL OF RUSSIA
DAY 1 – HERMITAGE AND THE WINTER PALACE
For the first day on your Saint Petersburg itinerary, you’ll want to cut straight to the chase and cross the Hermitage right off your list. Even if museums aren’t really your cup of tea, standing on the historic Palace Square soaking in all the imperial atmosphere and breathtaking beauty around you is one of those 3 or 4 must-do’s in this amazing city.
THE PALACE SQUARE
As the pumping heart of St. Petersburg and arguably the city’s most beautiful sight, the Palace Square is the place you’ll want to run to as soon as you arrive in the former capital of Russia. It’s really no wonder that masses flock to this square, as seldom will you find more majestic architecture. In fact, experts and frequent travellers seem to agree on how incredible this area is, as the Palace Square is constantly regarded as one of the most beautiful squares in the world. Besides, if you’re a history buff or have a particular interest in the former Soviet Union or the Cold War era, it is quite mind-boggling to think you’re standing on the exact spot where one of mankind’s greatest revolutions took place.
Standing as the square’s main attraction is the world-famous Hermitage Museum, the second biggest museum on earth and one of the most renowned cultural institutions you’ll ever find. Occupying 6 different buildings along the river banks (I wasn’t kidding about how big it is!), the State Hermitage Museum is a metaphorical paradise for every art lover out there. As its director Mikhail Piotrovsky once put it: “I can’t say that the Hermitage is the number one museum in the world, but it’s certainly not number two”. Tickets for the Main Museum Complex and all of its branches cost 700 rubles, though you may also choose to visit just one of the museum’s branches for 300 rubles.
Since we were running on a pretty tight schedule, we chose to visit the Winter Palace of Peter the Great branch, but to be honest, it felt like a major rip-off as there wasn’t much to look at so we recommend getting the general ticket to visit the main complex. Just keep in mind lines tend to get upsettingly huge at the Hermitage, so if you want to save some time you might want to consider getting a Skip-the-Line Tour of the museum!
As for the buildings surrounding the square, none is more striking than the fabulous Winter Palace. Actually, the square is named like that because of this beautiful building, which may help giving you a pretty accurate idea of how magnificent it truly is. Besides, the Winter Palace is also a place of great historical significance, having served as the official residence for Russian tsars and played a pivotal role in the Russian Revolution. After all, its invasion by the Bolsheviks in 1917 marked the definitive end of Imperial Russia and became one of the most relevant chapters in 20th century history.
Located opposite the Winter Palace, the huge General Staff Building is yet another structure that will surely catch your eye while visiting the Palace Square. Shaped like a bow, the vibrant yellow building is split in two wings by an impressive triumphal arch, built to honour the Russian victory over Napoleon Bonaparte during the French invasion in 1812 (tyrannical empires/nations always seem to fall while invading Russia – just ask Adolf).
THE PALACE BRIDGE
Although it’s constantly featured in almost every single Saint Petersburg itinerary, the Palace Bridge is actually a pretty normal and lacklustre structure when compared to all the over-the-top imperial buildings around it. That has an explanation though! As it turns out, the main concern when building this bridge was to make sure that it wouldn’t obstruct the views of all the palaces and buildings along the embankments, while making transportation between Palace Square and Vasilyevsky Island much easier for locals. If you’re a night crawler, make sure not to miss the bridge’s opening times to get one of the city’s most iconic views. However, if you enjoy your sleeping time like we do, see the bridge during the day and make your way to the Spit of Vasilyevsky Island for an alternative iconic view of Saint Petersburg’s Neva River and its banks.
As you make your way through the embankments and the Moika River canals, you will eventually reach one of the quaintest and most peaceful stops along your Saint Petersburg itinerary. A green oasis filled with sculptures, dancing fountains and well-marked paths, the Summer Garden is the perfect place to relax, stretch your legs and take a break before getting back to all the sightseeing. Make sure not to miss the adjacent Summer Palace, after which the garden was named!
PETER AND PAUL FORTRESS
Time to cap off your first day in St. Petersburg with a visit to the place where it all started. The Peter & Paul Fortress is an historic star-shaped citadel filled to the brim with interesting exhibitions, quirky sights (bunny statues everywhere!) and historic monuments, among which you will find some of the oldest buildings in all of Saint Petersburg. The jewel in the crown is the massive Peter & Paul’s Cathedral, a beautiful golden-domed church that stands to this day as the highest structure in the city centre, and the place where you’ll find the tombs of pretty much every Russian Emperor from Peter the Great onwards. Admission to the fortress is free, but if you want to see the cathedral’s interiors, tickets cost 350 rubles.
DAY 2 – WALKING ALONG NEVSKY PROSPEKT
Your second day in the city – and the last one visiting its historic centre – will be spent exploring one of the most magnificent boulevards/streets in the world. Lined with majestic architecture and more monuments than you can count, it’s the walk that will have you falling head over heels for Saint Petersburg. Oh, and the fact that you’ll be visiting one of the most beautiful and iconic churches in Europe can’t hurt either!
If you want to make the most of your day in the historic centre, there are several Walking Tours up for grabs!
CHURCH OF THE SAVIOUR ON SPILLED BLOOD
Everything about this church is just spectacular! Its massive exterior has all the bling and colourful onion domes one would expect from a proper Russian church, its surroundings are just gorgeous – with a picturesque canal filled with souvenir stands, bars and restaurants linking the Cathedral to Nevsky Prospekt – and even its backstory is pretty cool, as the church was built on the spot where emperor Alexander II was murdered (hence its name). However, save all the goose bumps and the jaw-dropping for its interiors. I was expecting lots and lots of gold, as I had seen in many other Orthodox Churches, but what I found was probably the most spectacular church interior I have ever seen. Words and pictures don’t do it justice, so pay those 250RUB for the ticket and go see it for yourself!
STATE RUSSIAN MUSEUM
If you somehow still find yourself jonesing over some art after a visit to the Hermitage, then you might as well stop at the State Russian Museum. Housed in a grand beautiful building (it couldn’t be any other way in St. Petersburg) called Mikhailovsky Palace, this museum spans almost a millennia worth of Russian art, from the most classical painting styles down to the brutal socialist realism of the Soviet Union. Admission costs 450RUB.
NEVSKY PROSPEKT AVENUE
From this moment on, the rest of your entire day will be spent walking along the Nevsky Prospekt. As mentioned above, this is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and majestic streets in the world, filled with magnificent palaces, amazing cathedrals, scenic bridges and historical monuments. A street that can even rival the likes of the Ringstrasse in Vienna! Pretty much all the other stops for the 2nd day in this Saint Petersburg itinerary are located along this boulevard, so get started at the Anichkov Bridge and make your way through the city’s main street.
For the first stop along the celebrated boulevard, you’ll visit a cathedral with great historical significance for the Russian society. Under the command of General Mikhail Kutuzov, local troops managed to defeat Napoleon’s forces during the French invasion in 1812, and as the general was a devout follower of Our Lady of Kazan, this cathedral came to be known as a tribute to this huge Russian victory. In fact, the general’s belief was so strong that he asked to be buried inside this cathedral, and a statue of him was later erected right in front of his beloved church – where it stands to this day!
Peter the Great had this weird fixation about navy forces (he would have liked the Village People), so the Admiralty Building is yet another example of his megalomaniac fantasies for Saint Petersburg, as the country didn’t really have a sea tradition and only possessed one seaport. Be that as it may, the building’s towering gilded spire is still pretty damn impressive to see, and the Admiralty Garden right in front of it is a great place to sit down in the shade and do some people-watching while recovering some energy for the remainder of your day.
SAINT ISAAC’S CATHEDRAL
Follow up your visit to the Admiralty Building with a tour of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Located just across the street, this huge building is actually the largest eastern orthodox cathedral in the world and an absolute marvel of architecture! Much like the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, its interiors are also among the most beautiful you will ever find – albeit very different from one another. Admission costs 250RUB, and even if you think you’ve seen enough churches for the day, skipping this one is a mistake almost as big as the cathedral itself.
Ladies and Gentleman: you’ve finally reached your last stop of the day! A short detour away from Nevsky Prospekt, the Mariinsky Theatre is one of the most prestigious Russian institutions and a cultural organization of the highest calibre. Its green-and-white building is a thing of beauty, which is why you should definitely go and have a look, even if classical music isn’t really your cup of tea.
DAY 3 – DAY TRIPS TO THE IMPERIAL PALACES
In case you’ve done your research, I am pretty sure visiting Saint Petersburg’s imperial palaces is one of the most anticipated activities for your upcoming visit. I can’t stress enough just how big and spread out this city is, as you could easily spend a whole week feeding your curiosity on day trips or exploring the outskirts. Although I’ll be focusing on the more popular Peterhof and Catherine Palaces, if you’re staying in Saint Petersburg for more than 3 days, then you should definitely consider visiting other city areas and lesser-known landmarks, such as Lomonosov, Kronstadt, the Yelagin Island, Pavlovsk or the Gatchina Palace.
SAINT PETERSBURG METRO
But first things first! Unless you’re planning on reaching any of the palaces by taxi (which is a waste of money btw), you’ll eventually end up using the city’s metro system at some point on your Saint Petersburg itinerary. Although quite not on Moscow level, Saint Petersburg still boasts some seriously awesome metro stations along its system (surely way more impressive than the ones you’ll find back at home). Luckily, one of the city’s most acclaimed stations – Avtovo (А́втово) – is located right next to a stop which serves several buses and marshrutkas (mini-vans) going to Peterhof. This means that if you’re staying in the city centre you’ll have to get on the metro and commute in Avtovo anyway, so make sure to get some snaps before boarding the bus to the palace.
It’s common to find some beautiful palaces in Eastern Europe which get nicknamed “The Versailles of the East”, but I dare to say this one is the real deal! In fact, Peterhof Palace is so outrageously lavishing it should be Versailles the one to be labeled “The Peterhof of the West”! Just stand in front of the Grand Cascade on a sunny day and you’ll see what I mean. The bronze statues can shine so bright they almost dazzle you, and the 64 (!) different fountains with the palace’s façade standing majestically behind them make up for a picture-perfect postcard of Saint Petersburg. We will have to eventually write a single post about it, as Peterhof is definitely one of the greatest and most beautiful palaces in the world.
LENIN STATUE AT MOSKOVSKAYA SQUARE
As the birthplace of the revolution, Saint Petersburg held huge meaning for the Bolsheviks. So much so that after Lenin’s death, the city’s name was officially changed to Leningrad! Unsurprisingly, the city has over 200 places related to the life and activities of the iconic leader, and if you want to get acquainted with some of them, I recommend checking the Lenin Statue at Moskovskaya. You won’t even need to go out of your way to see it, as you can board the bus going to Catherine Palace on the stop located right behind the massive statue.
CATHERINE PALACE – TSARSKOE SELO
Funny enough, and although the Peterhof grabs all the spotlight, I actually found the grounds of the Catherine Palace to be my favourite! Don’t get me wrong – the Peterhof Palace is quite something – but maybe the insane crowds ended up hurting the experience, whereas at Catherine Palace we felt we had the whole place to ourselves. Besides, this palace’s surroundings are even more scenic and, in my opinion, offer plenty more places to see and experience, such as the Alexander Palace, the Cameron Gallery, the Grotto pavilion or the Dutch Admiralty. If you choose to take a tour of the Catherine Palace, you’ll be amazed at the sight of the popular Amber Room.
In order to pull off this final day and do both palaces, you need to be extra careful about the buses and metro stations you’ll need to use. However, if you want to take things calmly and need that extra reassurance that everything is taken care of, you might want to consider the following tours of these palaces, which already include transportation from Saint Petersburg:
- Peterhof Private Tour by Boat
- Peterhof Group Tour by Bus
- Catherine Palace Tour by Private Van
- Catherine Palace Tour by Bus
Don’t be scared though – If you need further info on directions and transportation, don’t forget to leave a comment and we’ll be happy to answer all your questions!
And that’s our Saint Petersburg itinerary! If you want to enjoy 3 days in the city of czars, I believe this guide ticks all the boxes. Have you ever been to Russia? Which other places do you believe should have been featured in this itinerary? Let us know on the comments below!