St. Petersburg was my very first city in Russia, and it was one of those places that I had wanted to visit for years.
I've always been fascinated by the Russian Empire and having been the residence of the tsars for over 300 years, I couldn't wait to discover what St. Petersburg had to offer. I dedicated a total of 5 days to St. Petersburg, which was the perfect time to explore not only the city but also the former residences of the tsars in Peterhof and Pushkin.
Follow my adventures discovering all the main highlights of St. Petersburg during my first day in the city!
I got up early in the morning to make the most out of my first day in the former Russian capital. My apartment was quite central in the Admiralteysky district, just next to the Moika river. On my way to the Winter Palace, I walked along the canal to enjoy the beautiful buildings on both banks of the river.
My first stop was the Admiralty building, standing out with its shiny golden spire. It is the remains of the original building built by Peter the Great as a dockyard and headquarters of the Imperial Russian Navy.
The building that we saw today was rebuilt only in the 19th century, maintaining the original plans, but the exterior was decorated following the impressive Russian Empire style. It is said that the building is within the range of the cannon of Peter and Paul Fortress so that it could be destroyed if the building was ever taken by the invaders.
Just next to the Admiralty is the most beautiful ensemble in St. Petersburg: the famous Palace Square and the Winter Palace.
The palace was designed in the middle of the 18th century by the Italian architect Rastrelli, and it became the residence of the Russian Emperors until the 1917 Revolution. Today, it houses the Hermitage Museum, that I would visit during my third day.
In the middle of the square stands the Alexander Column, a 48m tall monument topped with a statue of an angel holding a cross. Just behind is the yellow building of the former Imperial Army General Staff, encircling the southern end of the square and with a Triumphal Arch right in the middle that leads to Nevsky Prospekt, one of the main avenues in St. Petersburg.
The surroundings were outstanding, and I was happy to be there early in the morning before it got crowded with visitors and street artists dressed in period costumes trying to charge tourists for a photo. Definitely, a much better experience to enjoy the beautiful architecture!
For my visit to St. Petersburg, I decided to purchase the St. Petersburg's CityPass, which was a great choice.
It gives you access to over 25 museums, galleries, and excursions, as well as multiple discounts in restaurants across the city.
I'd highly recommend it if you're thinking of getting inside the main monuments during your visit, it will help you save quite a bit of money! It also comes with a booklet that gives a brief presentation of all the different monuments of the city, and even an option to download free audioguides scanning a QR code.
I stopped for a few minutes at the Museum of Soviet Slot Machines to pick up my pass (you can also get it sent to your hotel for an additional fee), and I headed straight to the first monument that was included with the pass, the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood.
This orthodox church is probably one of the most recognisable symbols of St. Petersburg, and definitely one of the most beautiful churches that I visited on my trip to Russia.
The church was erected on the same spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by a group of revolutionaries who threw a bomb at his royal carriage. Nowadays, the church has been transformed into a museum and doesn't work as a place of cult anymore.
The interior is just astonishing, standing out the incredible collection of mosaic icons as well as the vivid colours used for the decoration. In the interior, you can also find the shrine constructed on the exact spot where Alexander II was fatally wounded.
Just behind the church, we found the Arts Square. This beautiful ensemble, designed by the Italian architect Carlo Rossi in a classical style, is surrounded by the Mihaylovsky Theatre to his left, and Mikhailovsky Palace on the north end.
The palace, today converted into the State Russian Museum, houses one of the largest collections of Russian art. Right next to it is the Russian Museum of Ethnography, housing a collection of over half a million items relating to the ethnography and culture of the peoples of the former Russian empire.
The entrance was included with our CityPass, but both collections are just massive and we didn't really have the time or interest to visit, but it's definitely something to consider if you want to explore some of the multiple museums in St. Petersburg. In any case, even if you're not interested in visiting the museums, the square is worth the detour.
My next stop was the impressive Kazan Cathedral, constructed at the beginning of the 19th century. The cathedral was inspired by St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and it's easy to find the resemblance thanks to the stone colonnade, encircling a beautiful garden with a central fountain. Even though it was closed by the Soviets and transformed into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, today it is a place of cult once again. For this reason, photography is not allowed inside.
The interior is not as colourful as the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. In fact, it is quite dark, following the tradition of Orthodox churches, but the beautiful colonnades and 80 meter high dome make it a very special place. The cathedral was filled with believers queuing to kiss the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, one of the most important and devoted icons in Russia.
While walking through Nevsky Prospect, one of the main avenues in St. Petersburg, I came across Stroganov Palace. Even though it wasn't really in my plans, the entrance was also included with my CityPass, so I decided to go inside just to see what this huge building with an ornate pink facade had to offer.
The building used to be the residence of the Stroganov family, one of the most renowned aristocratic families in St. Petersburg. The palace was actually a great surprise; designed by Rastrelli, just like the Winter Palace of the tsars, the interior was very impressive. You shouldn't miss this hidden gem!
After a long morning of sightseeing, I stopped for lunch at the Stroganoff Steak House, which apparently is the biggest restaurant in the entire city. If you like meat, this is definitely your place!
The menu has endless options to choose from, and even though it is a bit pricey for Russian standards, I really enjoyed lunch here and even got a complimentary glass of prosecco thanks to my CityPass. We tried one of the burgers and the Russian stroganoff and LOVED it, a highly recommended place for lunch!
I continued exploring St. Petersburg by visiting St. Isaac's Cathedral, the largest in St. Petersburg. Our CityPass included both the Cathedral and the climb to the colonnade, which offers incredible views over St. Petersburg.
Finished in 1858, it used to be the biggest cathedral in Russia until Christ the Saviour was rebuilt in Moscow. The dome, made of pure gold, can be seen shining from pretty much everywhere in the city. However, just by looking at the exterior, designed in a neoclassical style, you would never guess the rich decoration waiting for you on the inside.
I really liked this cathedral, and even though the interior was a bit more similar to the Western style if compare it to other Orthodox churches in Russia, it still had some small touches that made it very special. What I enjoyed the most was the contrast of green malachite and blue lapis lazuli used for the columns that I haven't seen anywhere else in a church. An incredible masterpiece that can't be missed.
If you feel with some energy, you can also climb the 43 meters high colonnades, which I did and was a great decision. The climb is not that hard, and the top offers great panoramic views of St. Petersburg.
I finished my first day in St. Petersburg with a river cruise to enjoy the wonderful architecture and palaces along the canals. The cruise that I chose was Gala Petersburg and the Gulf of Finland, which was included with my CitPass. It lasted 1 hour 30 minutes, and it travelled the same old way used by ships entering St. Petersburg from the sea through the Gulf of Finland.
It leaves every couple of hours from the Admiralteyskaya Embankment, located just behind St. Isaac's cathedral and very close to the Winter Palace.
Unfortunately, that day my cruise only offered the commentary in Russian, so I couldn't understand a word of the information they provided while cruising. In any case, the views from the boat were fantastic and a perfect way to relax after walking for hours.
On the way back to my hotel, I also stopped for a few moments to see the statue of Peter the Great, one of the symbols of St. Petersburg. The monument was commanded by the Empress Catherine the Great as a tribute to one of the most beloved tsars in St. Petersburg, as it was Peter the Great who moved the capital from Moscow over to St. Petersburg in 1712. It remained the capital of the Russian Empire until 1918 when the Soviets moved it back to Moscow.
My first day in St. Petersburg was over, but the best was yet to come. Next day, I would be embarking the hydrofoil to visit the former summer palace of the tsars in Peterhof, as well as Alexander Nevsky Monastery and the Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg still had so much to offer in the remaining 4 days!
All opinions are my own.