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St. Petersburg, Russia beautifully blends history, culture, and architecture with elaborate palaces, churches, and world-famous museums and galleries. This city with more than 300 bridges, often called “The Venice of the North,” offers perpetual opportunities for history, art, and architecture lovers. Of course, sparkling wine and caviar is a delightful combination in this amazing city, along with vodka samplers. For specific recommendations, keep reading.
This itinerary is designed to help first-time visitors plan a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia while providing resources for travelers to tour many of the top sites from the comfort of their homes until non-essential international travel resumes. The recommendations include virtual tours, videos, books, and docuseries.
Things to Know Before You Go
The daylight hours are long in the summer, and short in the winter. The visa application process is extensive, time-consuming, a little expensive, and often needs to be applied for well in advance. The application form itself is quite lengthy. A visa invitational support document issued by a hotel or tourist agency (a booking reservation is insufficient) is required. Many hotels provide this for free. Others charge a small fee. If you’re entering for a short period on many cruise ships, the visa requirement is often exempted, but always confirm this first before going. You can browse flight deals as they arise here.
Winetraveler Tip: The CDC recommends not drinking tap water.
Where to Stay
The Golden Triangle Hotel is a luxurious boutique hotel located in the heart of St. Petersburg with elegantly decorated rooms. A restaurant and lounge bar are available on-site. It is located near cafes, restaurants, and many top tourist sites, such as the Hermitage Museum and Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Tours can be booked directly through the hotel. For those traveling with little Winetravelers, cribs can be reserved.
This enchanting city has lots to do and see. While the city has changed names several times over the years from St. Petersburg to Petrograd, then Leningrad, and back to St. Petersburg in 1991 at the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has remained Russian since it was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. No conqueror, namely Charles XII, Napoleon, or Hitler, was able to successfully capture the city.
The Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace is acclaimed as being the world’s second-largest art museum after the Louvre. The Winter Palace, the former residence of the Russian Tsars, is included within the museum complex. The exterior is grandiose, but the true marvel is once you enter inside the doors. Each room appears more elegant and lavish than the one before it. The unparalleled opulence displayed throughout every square inch of the palace provides a flavor of the extreme wealth of Imperial Russia.
The museum was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great to store her private art collection. The Winter Palace became a museum after Nicholas II was overthrown during the Russian Revolution of 1917. More than 3 million exhibits, artifacts, and artwork from all over the world are contained within the extravagant walls. The collection of artwork includes works by Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and many others.
Winetraveler Tip: Consider arriving before it opens to start waiting in line at the ticketing machines as the lines get long very quickly. The ticketing machines often move faster than the ticketing counters. Arriving early may enable travelers to enjoy many of the rooms before the tourists flood the halls. At least pre-COVID-19, the rooms got packed making it difficult to shuffle through the crowd without touching shoulders with other visitors.
History lovers should head over to the Bronze Horseman, the equestrian statue of Peter the Great in Senate Square commissioned by Catherine the Great
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (also known as the Resurrection of Christ Church) is sure to WOW you. It is breathtaking inside and out. The church was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by a group of revolutionaries. The church’s name references this murder. The decorated onion-shaped domes resemble St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Mosaics dominate the interior of the church. The walls, columns, and arches are blanketed in over 7,000 square meters of mosaics. The detail in the mosaics are intricate and masterfully matched together. The walls appear to be elaborate paintings until you get closer.
The design of the Peterhof Palace, the summer palace of Peter the Great, was inspired by the Palace of Versailles. The lavish yellow palace perched on a hill is surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens, fountains, and golden statues.
Catherine’s Palace was built for Empress Catherine I, the second wife of Peter the Great. Empress Elizabeth (their daughter), known for satiating in luxury and never wearing the same dress twice, is responsible for the palace’s extravagance. Ornamented rooms feature elaborate furnishings and chandeliers, hundreds of lamps, painted ceilings, and walls covered in gold, mirrors, and exquisite artwork. The Amber Room—a room blanketed in 6 tons of amber mosaics—is the gem that draws most tourists to the palace. This room was initially presented as a gift to Peter the Great from the King of Prussia. During WWII, this palace, along with many others, was looted and ransacked by Nazis. The amber was stolen, never to be found again. In 2003, the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg, a replica of the Amber Room was created.
Winetraveler Tip: Purchase tickets in advance. Anticipate it being extremely crowded. No photography of the Amber Room is permitted. For parents traveling with littles, be prepared that strollers are not allowed inside the palace.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral with dominating columns and a massive brilliantly colored golden dome is magnificent. During WWII, the golden dome was painted gray to blend it in with the surrounding buildings to save it from enemy aircraft. Bullet holes on the columns remain visible.
The star-shaped Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island was the first structure built in St. Petersburg. If you plan your visit to be there at noon, you should hear the time-honored tradition of the cannon being fired. The Peter and Paul Cathedral, within the fortress, is the burial place of many Russian rulers from Peter the Great to Nicholas II.
The Kazan Cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, a holy icon within the Russian Orthodox Church, was built to resemble Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Faberge Museum, housed in the Shuvalovsky Palace, hosts a collection of Faberge eggs made by Carl Faberge for the Russian Imperial Family, along with many other fancy items. The eggs were crafted using precious materials, such as silver, gold, diamonds, pearls, rubies, velvet, suede, and rock crystals. The first Faberge egg was made by the order of Tsar Alexander III for his wife. The collection of eggs includes the Imperial Coronation Egg that was made in 1897 to commemorate the coronation of the last Russian emperor, Tsar Nicholas II.
Conclude one or more of your days by going to a world-known ballet and opera theatre at Mikhailovsky and/or Mariinsky Theatre.
Where To Eat & Drink in St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg is a host to numerous diverse restaurants. Here are a few options to get you started:
Katyusha is a charming restaurant providing a homey atmosphere along with tasty traditional Russian meals. Stacked suitcases create the welcome desk with an antique cash register resting on top. Antique dolls, old books, and Russian dolls line the shelves built into a rustic brick wall. Flowery wallpaper/paintings, chintz lampshades, carved mirrors, printed sofas, and fabric curtains give a warm feeling. Their extensive menu includes a selection of caviar, homemade pickles, pickle soup, kebabs, dumplings, beef stroganoff, Russian meatballs, porridge, pancakes, an immense wine, and liquor list. If you’re unsure which vodka to try, order a tasting set and pick 5 vodkas to sample. Learn about and taste drinking traditions from the Soviet Union in the Katyusha Tasting Room.
L’Europe Restaurant, located in Grand Hotel Europe, is a luxurious restaurant featuring old world charm while elegantly blending European and Russian cuisine.
Indulge in gourmet caviar and sip sparkling wine at Art-Caviar. The menu features a variety of caviar, along with many other dishes such as artichoke soup, crab ravioli, duck breast, and filet mignon tataki. As described on their website, the interior is “inspired by the salons of the mid-twentieth century, parties with champagne and jazz music.”
Before traveling to St. Petersburg in person and soaking in all of its glory, there are many tours and videos available for free online enabling virtual travel to all the main sights from home. Take a virtual tour of the Hermitage Museum and Faberge Museum. Watch short videos taking you to the Hermitage Museum and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Kazan Cathedral, Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Peterhof Palace, Catherine’s Palace, and the Amber Room. If you have 5 hours to spare, take an unhurried journey through the Hermitage Museum.
Dive deep into St. Petersburg’s history through Robert K. Massie’s masterfully written extensive biographies. His books are exhaustively researched and brilliantly written to read like novels. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman densely document all facets of these two immensely powerful figures. From the founding of St. Petersburg, a new capital city, during the time of war on land still belonging to Russia’s undefeated enemy, to battles, the establishment of Russia’s navy, territorial expansions, reforms, and increased Westernization along with Catherine II’s indelicate personal life, the reader is kept engaged throughout both of these books. Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty covers the events leading to the fall of Imperial Russia and the end of the royal family.
City of Thieves is a captivating novel by David Benioff (co-creator of Game of Thrones) that takes place during the Nazis’ brutal and lengthy siege of Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). Leningrad was encircled and the city’s vital utilities and food supply lines were cut off. In a place where everyone is near starvation, two young men are forced on a nearly impossible mission of acquiring a dozen eggs for a powerful NKVD colonel.
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith is an eloquently written suspenseful historical fiction novel. This page-turner follows a detective under Stalin’s rule investigating a serial killer of children. It’s a binge-worthy read nearly impossible to put down evoking an array of emotions from disgust, fear, anger, horror, and sadness to craving and romance.
Still looking for more? Immerse yourself in history through docuseries. It’s no surprise the world has been fascinated by Catherine the Great. Catherine II, even though not born in Russia became one of the most powerful women in history after seizing the throne from her husband. In many ways, she continued what Peter the Great had started. Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great (2014-19), presently available on Prime Video, is a sensational Russian language historical drama series with English subtitles tracing her accession to power. HBO has a 4-episode series with Helen Mirren playing Catherine the Great (2019) following the end of Catherine II’s reign.
The Last Czars (2019) is an excellent Netflix docudrama series centered on Russia’s last royal family and their demise.
Empire of the Tsars: Romanov Russia with Lucy Worsley (2016) (available on Prime Video) is a documentary perusing through the reign of the Romanov dynasty focusing on Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and the downfall of the final Tsars.