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The 10 Best Things to See & Do in St Petersburg

The 10 Best Things to See & Do in St Petersburg

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Updated: 23 August 2017

St Petersburg is a very diverse city with much on offer for visitors. A typical tourist guidebook will provide comprehensive lists of museums and palaces that must be visited on a trip to the cultural capital of Russia and while they are all worth a traveller’s time, there’s also the option to get off the beaten track to explore a different, more authentic side of town.

Take a cruise down the canals

A river cruise is an ideal way to spend a beautiful summer’s day and one of the best ways to enjoy the city landmarks and architecture. St Petersburg has rightfully earned its name of ‘Venice of the North’. In fact, it was originally intended that boats would be the only way to move between the islands, the city’s bridges were built much later. Cruises don’t run during the winter time, as the river is completely covered in ice, so it’s definitely worth a visit during the warmer months of the year.

Watch the drawbridges at night

When St Petersburg was first built, it was designed to become a port city and naval base, which it was for many years. The Neva River remains the city’s main arteries, with a multitude of ships sailing down it every day. To allow larger ships to dock, all the bridges over the river are lit up and drawn at night, making for a beautiful view. You can find the schedule for all bridges here.


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Eat pyshkas, a sugar-coated Russian doughnut

This sugary snack remains an all-time favourite in St Petersburg. Establishments started appearing after the Revolution in 1917, serving quick and cheap snacks of pastry and coffee. As these old school eateries continue to be replaced by fashionable coffee joints, some do still exist and have attracted quite an audience. One shop in particular,  Pyshechnaya, has a good reputation, worth a visit if you are strolling through the center of town.

Climb to the top of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral colonnade

When constructed in the 19th century, St. Isaac’s Cathedral was one of the tallest buildings in St Petersburg. Even today it is one of the largest orthodox basilicas in the world. Make use of its majestic height and climb straight to the top of the colonnade. Tackling the 262 steps hike is well worth it for the panoramic view of the city. In the summer time (1st May -31st October) the colonnade is open until 22:30, so avoid the morning crowds and take in the evening view instead.

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Visit a local banya (bathing house)

Long before showers became commonplace in every household, banya (a type of public bathing house) were frequented by families on a weekly basis. Now it’s more of a pastime rather than a necessity, but aims to preserve the long-standing tradition. For an authentic experience try massaging (think firm tapping in quick succession all over the body) with birch tree or eucalyptus leaves in the steam room. This treatment is great for improving blood circulation and for cleansing your whole body. For foreigner-friendly service in true Russian style, try the Degtyarnye bani.

Take a shot of vodka at a ‘rumochnaya’

The word ‘rumochnaya’ has no direct translation in the English language. Perhaps the closest is a bar, but it refers to a specific type of bar with very soviet characteristics. Drinks come in either shots (for strong liquors) or bottles (for beer). There are some snacks available, but nothing fancy. In fact, no luxury is to be expected of such an establishment, but they are priced accordingly. There are various options scattered around town, but one in particular has preserved its look since before the fall of the Soviet Union. The Pinta rumochnaya has no seating, white panel walls and many regulars queuing up at the bar. Blend in with the local crowd and enjoy a drink together.

Explore by subway

Taking the subway is one of the most convenient ways to get around: the trains are regular, go everywhere and are easy to navigate. However, the subway stations are worth visiting alone just to admire their designs. No two stations are alike and are decorated in different coloured stones, with large installations inside and sometimes even statues. A few of the best stations to check out are Avtovo, Zvenigorodskaya, Pushkinskaya, Bucharestskaya and Sportivnaya.

Spend the night on Dumskaya

You’d never think so in the daytime, but Dumskaya is a notorious street, renowned for late nights and cheap drinks. The street is filled with a vast array of bars – try and catch them all if you dare! A must-try while you are bar-hopping is the ‘Boyarsky’ shot, a spicy mixture of vodka, grenadine and tabasco.

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Have your portrait drawn by a local street artist

Walking down Nevsky Avenue you will see many street artists, some at work drawing famous landmarks and views of the river and others waiting for a passer-by to sit down for a portrait. They are scattered around the city, but one of their famous gathering places is in front of Ekaterininsky garden, right on Nevsky Avenue. For a reasonable price you can support the local artists and also have a souvenir to take home.

Take a tour of the St Petersburg roofs

The city center has no skyscrapers or high-rise modern buildings. The local community and the government have made a joint effort to preserve the old buildings and carefully renovate them. Thus many of the residential buildings still have access to their roofs and since they are built so close to each other, you can literally walk along the rooftops. It’s a unique and adventurous way to see St Petersburg, although not recommended during wet weather as the roofs are old and can get slippery. Locals are seasoned in which roofs are accessible and have started mini-businesses running tours. Take the opportunity to learn from a knowledgeable local and admire the city from a totally different perspective.