St Petersburg rarely gets the love it deserves among travellers. Whether that’s a function of the difficulty of getting a Russian visa or its location far on the fringes of Europe, is anyone’s guess. Either way, skipping out on St Petersburg is a huge mistake: it could be one of the best Eastern European cities you’ve never thought of visiting.
Most visitors rush into St Petersburg on a cruise from Tallinn or Helsinki, snap some pictures, and set off on their merry way. But I’d never recommend skimping your time in St Petersburg. More is always better.
Stay for one week, or stay for two; it wouldn’t matter: You’ll never run out of things to do in St Petersburg. If you’re a serious wanderer, there are few better ways to spend your first 24 hours in St Petersburg than meandering through the city’s historical centre in search of these suggestions:
History and Architecture. Russian Style. (For Wanderers.)
Most trips to Russia’s former imperial capital start on Nevsky Prospect, the main avenue surging through St Petersburg’s historical core. Bump elbows with well-to-do Russian fashionistas as they skillfully balance on stilettos, zig-zagging among street-side cafés and historical buildings, on their way to work. Stop in and get your morning coffee fix with a canal or river view before continuing along Nevsky Prospect towards St Petersburg’s most famous historical sites.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
No church on earth has a more bad-ass name than St Petersburg’s most iconic site: Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. And no matter how many times I wandered back to this famous Russian Orthodox church, I was mesmerized by all of it, from the studded, spiralled and golden domes to the intricate details on the church’s façade. Check it out from all angles, from close and from far—I guarantee you’ll never tire of the view.
The Romanesque colonnade and patina-covered dome of the Kazan Cathedral are worth the short walk along the Griboyedov Canal from the Church on Spilled Blood. Quirky street performers and musicians grace Kazanskaya Square in front of the cathedral while families frolic in the mist of the central fountain. Grab a seat and enjoy the show.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Make your way further down Nevsky Prospect, turning left at Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa on route to St Isaac’s Cathedral. Lovers of Russian culture should keep their eyes peeled along Malaya Morskaya for the former homes of authors Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. If you learn to read Cyrillic script, you’ll notice that St Petersburg rewards wanderers with surprises like this: anyone who’s anyone in Russian culture seems to have laid their head in Petersburg at one time or another!
While St. Isaac’s Cathedral might not possess the (un)orthodox design of the Church on Spilled Blood, this massive cathedral is no less impressive—inside and out. Don’t skimp on entering St. Isaac’s, even if just to climb up the tower for the 360-degree views of St Petersburg.
New Holland Island
When New Holland Island transforms into one of the hippest attractions in St Petersburg, remember: you heard it here first.
What on the surface resembles a crumbling industrial wasteland is poised for an epic redevelopment project that’s bound to turn heads in Russia and beyond.
Access to New Holland Island is limited now, but come late 2015, expect to find a hub of all things culture—from film and art to fashion and food—that locals and tourists alike will love.
St Nicholas Naval Cathedral
From the canals surrounding New Holland Island, cross over the Moika River sauntering down on ulitsa Glinki past Theatre Square, home of the world-famous Mariinskiy Theatre and the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory.
Pay quick homage to the man who defined Russian nationalist music composition before seeking out St Nicholas Naval Cathedral, a Baroque Orthodox cathedral decked out with golden domes and pastel blue highlights and sheltered from the city in an oasis of greenery.
Wander in the footsteps of Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky’s murderous anti-hero from Crime and Punishment, at Sennaya Ploshchad, a 18th century market square once St Petersburg’s most infamous slum. Of Sennaya Ploshchad Raskolnikov laments:
The heat in the streets was stifling. The stuffiness, the jostling crowds, the bricks and mortar, scaffolding and dust everywhere, and that peculiar summer stench so familiar to everyone who cannot get away from St. Petersburg into the country, all combined to aggravate the disturbance of the young man’s nerves. The intolerable reek from the public houses, so numerous in that part of the city, and the sight of the drunken men encountered at every turn, even though this was not a holiday, completed the mournfully repellent picture.”
—Crime and Punishment
Much has changed since Dostoyevsky’s time, but Sennaya Ploshchad is still a fascinating glimpse into Central St Petersburg’s grittier side. Explore the market stalls and grab a beer at a street-side bar off of Sadovaya to watch Sennaya Ploshchad in action.
Soviet Café Kvartirka
Sure it’s a bit touristy, but what’s 24 hours in St. Petersburg without a meal at a Soviet-style café? And for Russian cuisine with a Soviet twist, few places are more venerable than Soviet Café Kvartirka on Nevsky Prospect.
Feeling as if you’re enjoying an intimate summertime dinner at a Russian dacha isn’t hard in this little basement café. Watch classic Soviet movies as you gulf down traditional Russian dishes like borsch and vareniki, washing it all down with a Russian beer or the deliciously syrupy green Soviet lemonade.