St. Petersburg, apart from Moscow, is the most popular and believed to be the most beautiful city in Russia. Despite the fact that I liked it a lot, it was not my favorite in the country. St. Petersburg is what Paris is for France or London for the UK. The architecture has the distinctive, grand European style and sometimes you may get the impression that you're in the West (except for some extraordinary cathedrals and other buildings). Located so close to the European border, it's the easiest Russian city to get to. Read on to find out about our impressions on St. Petersburg, what to see there and why, contrary to other travelers' opinion, we actually preferred Moscow.
St. Petersburg - first impressions
At first, right after arrival, St. Petersburg seems to appear as any other huge European city. As I mentioned above, the architecture resembles the typical, grand European architecture. I'm not a very big fan of huge, concrete cities such as London or Paris - I have found them a bit cold and soulless. I prefer smaller, more local and distinctive towns with a cozy atmosphere. I might irritate many of those who love such cities but this is only my subjective opinion - everyone likes something else. In no way I'm trying to say that St Petersburg is no impressive. It really is.
Although the first Russian capital may seem like a European city at first, there are many characteristic exceptions that make it unique. The most common are the original, lavishly decorated orthodox churches (such us Church of Savior on the Spilled Blood with the golden domes and bright, vivid colors), the Winter Palace and of course the Peterhof Palace which is a bit far from the city - but I believe it's a must-see attraction when you're in St Petersburg.
Central St Petersburg, contrary to popular belief, can be visited in one day - quite easily if you skip Peterhof Palace. If you decide to visit the Palace (which you should), the best option would be to stay at least 2 days.
Why we preferred Moscow
You might think that it's strange to say that we preferred Moscow when I'd said before that I was not such a big fan of huge, concrete cities. But Moscow is an exception - as I come from Europe - the European cities are pretty familiar to me. Moscow, on the other hand was different, surprising. Kremlin looks like a fairy tale (especially at night - it seems to be a separate town inside the city) and the Soviet Era monumental skyscrapers are controversially impressive. These are the only reasons why I preferred Moscow - personal ones. An objective opinion would probably be the opposite as most of the tourists do find St. Petersburg more attractive. Take a look at my post with beautiful photos from Moscow here.
How to get around St. Petersburg
In the very center, it is possible to walk in order to see all the attractions. Public transport - buses and metro trains are very efficient and affordable. Also, Uber works well in Russia, so if you travel in a group, it would be a good option to travel around. We took Uber from the airport and saved a lot of money comparing to the official taxis (we only paid around 10 USD for the Uber ride).
What to see in St. Petersburg
On the map below, I marked 10 of the most impressive and must-see things in St. Petersburg, according to our opinion:
We started at the the Winter Palace (number 1 on the map) which is one of the well known landmarks of St. Petersburg (and the city has a few). To see the palace and all other places marked 1-7, just take the metro and get off at Admiralteyskaya station. The Winter Palace - the residence of the Russian monarchs between the 18th and 20th centuries is unbelievably large. You can't comprehend the size wile looking at the photos - you must see it in real life. It looks like a street with a set of buildings rather than one palace. According to Wikipedia, the tsars ruled 1/6 of the territory of the Earth from here! That's impressive! Entry ticket prices range from 300-700 RUB depending on what you want to see. Having said that, I must admit that I prefer the Peterhof Palace which I described below.
The Palace Square (number 2 on the map), located right in front of the Winter Palace is the main and largest plaza in St. Petersburg. Many historical occurrences took place here, such us the Bloody Sunday massacre and parts of the October Revolution of 1917. Nowadays, the Palace Square is a center of way more pleasant events - concerts, performances and celebrations. In the very center stands the world's tallest granite column - the Alexander Monument.
Kunstkamera (number 3 on the map) is Russias's oldest museum - completed in the 18th century by Peter the Great. The museum is located on the opposite side of the Bolshaya Neva river, facing the winter palace. The colors also match the palace - light blue and white. Nowadays, the building houses the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, with a collection of almost 2,000,000 items. Entry fee is 300 EUR (around 4 EUR/4.80 USD).
St. Isaac's Cathedral
St. Isaac's Cathedral (number 4 on the map), dating back to the 19th century, is the largest Orthodox Cathedral in St. Petersburg but the least Russian looking. Its architecture resembles more of the magnificent European Basilicas seen in the West (it was designed with the help of French architects) - with huge domes and columns rather than brightly colored towers and multiple golden domes typical of Eastern Orthodox churches. This is one of the places in St. Petersburg where you actually feel that you're in the Western Europe rather than in Russia. The church is really impressive and beautifully finished, however, my favorite cathedrals of St. Petersburg are those more unique, typical of the local style (see in the points below).
Savior on the Spilled Blood Cathedral
Number 5 on the map - this is yet another typical landmark of St. Petersburg. Remarkably colorful, with multiple towers and domes - it does remind of the Russia's most famous church - St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. The Savior on the Spilled Blood (completed in the early 1900s) is also beautifully located by one of the city canals. This church is very unique - boasting typical Russian architecture - it was probably my favorite landmark of the city. Note that lots of pictures online depicting the cathedral are over-saturated. In real life, although the colors are distinctive, the church is not as pinkish but rather more brown. This, however, does not take away its charm.
Kazan Cathedral (number 6 on the map) is yet another grand building that resembles the classical architecture of Western Europe. The church, completed in 1811 was based on the St. Peter's Basilica in Rome although some protested that an Orthodox church should not resemble a Catholic temple. Indeed - this cathedral could easily be built in Rome. It's especially beautiful at night when all the columns glow with the illumination.
This large avenue (number 7 on the map) is the main street in St. Petersburg. Here is where the modern life is concentrated. I liked Nevsky Prospect at night when it was illuminated and it looked way more elegant than during the day. Walk around and also visit some smaller streets - especially along the canals that cross Nevsky Prospect. Note, however, that St. Petersburg doesn't have an equivalent to an "old town" or Kremlin.
Smolny Cathedral (number 8 on the map) is an optional spot as it's located a bit further from the city center. The closest metro station is Chernyshevskaya and from there, you would have to walk 25 minutes. It is worth the hassle, however, as you can see the real city - not only the very strict city center polished for the tourists. Smolny Cathedral is very different from the other cathedrals in St. Petersburg. It's white-blue, very bright and contrasts with all other temples described here. It's, of course an advantage as it makes the city way more diverse.
The Trinity Cathedral (number 9 on the map) is easy to visit - right beside the Tekhnologicheskiy Institut metro station. Dating back to 1835, it is now beautifully restored after the devastating fire in 2006. It looks like a mix of the Smolny Cathedral (described above) and the St. Isaac's cathedral - it's a white temple with blue domes but the architectural style resembles more of the classical than Russian.
The Peterhof Palace (outside the map) is located quite far from the city center. The best way to get there is to take Uber (approximately 14 EUR/15 USD - around 1 hour ride), although it's also possible to reach it by bus which is considerably cheaper but the journey is longer.
The Peterhof Palace is an amazing place and you shouldn't miss it. It dates back to the early 18th century when Peter the Great decided to erect his summer palace at the shore of the Baltic Sea. Peterhof consists of a huge complex of royal buildings rather than one large palace. The entry fee depends on which section you would like to enter - The Grand Cascade and Samson Fountain are the most beautiful part - it costs around 700 RUB which is around 10 EUR/11 USD.
From the palace you can also easily reach the see - if you wish to get a glimpse of it - however, I must say it's not the most attractive coast I've seen. But Peterhof is one of the most beautiful palaces - it goes without saying.
Author: Tom @ Adventurous Travels
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