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 Eastern 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 on your time in St Petersburg. More is always better.
Stay for one week, or stay for two; it doesn’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…
What to do in St. Petersburg in 24 hours: A complete 1-day itinerary
Stroll along Nevsky Prospect
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 your St. Petersburg itinerary along Nevsky Prospect towards some of St Petersburg’s most famous historical sites.
Savour the 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. No matter how many times I wandered back to this famous Russian Orthodox church—from the studded, spiralled and golden domes to the intricate details on the church’s façade—I was mesmerized.
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is, undoubtedly, one of the best places to visit in Russia. It dates back to the late 19th century when Alexander III commissioned a classical church to be built in medieval Russian romantic style in honour of his assassinated father, Alexander II.
Inside, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (admission 250 rubles) hosts over 7,500 square meters of mosaics, making it one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. Check out the church from all angles—inside & out and from close & far. I guarantee you’ll never tire of the view.
Marvel at the Kazan Cathedral
Once you’ve fully exhausted your shutter at the Church on Spilled Blood, embark on the short walk along the Griboyedov Canal back across Nevsky Prospekt to the stunning Kazan Cathedral. Built in the dawn of the 19th century, Kazan Cathedral sports a spectacular Romanesque colonnade and patina-covered Baroque dome that’s a far cry from the medieval Russian revival of its more famous Orthodox brethren.
The palatial entrance leads into an equally monumental interior (free admission) with towering columns holding up its cavernous domed ceilings. Unlike the Church on Spilled Blood, Kazan Cathedral is an active place of worship, so you’ll have to keep the noise levels to a minimum out of respect.
Besides visiting the church itself, step outside where the 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 before moving on.
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 incredible 360-degree views of St Petersburg.
See St. Petersburg at its hippest at 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 once resembled a crumbling industrial wasteland, is now home to an epic redevelopment project that’s turning heads in Russia and beyond.
Access to New Holland Island, limited just a few short years ago, is now public with the project gaining ground. It’s quickly becoming a burgeoning hub of all things Russian culture—from film and art to fashion and food—and a recreational space that locals and tourists alike love.
Beat your blues at 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.
If you’re all churched out by this time, skip the interior and relax a bit in the park in front of St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral before plotting forward with your one day in St. Petersburg.
Get your literary fix at Sennaya Ploshchad
Wander in the footsteps of Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky’s murderous anti-hero from Crime and Punishment, at Sennaya Ploshchad, a 18th century market square that was 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 the grittier side of central St. Petersburg.
Explore the market stalls near the metro station and grab a beer at one of the street-side bars off of Sadovaya to watch Sennaya Ploshchad in action.
Eat Cold War style at 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.
If Russian cuisine isn’t your thing, I’d highly recommend searching out some Central Asian food in St. Petersburg. The nearby Kavkaz Bar (18 Karavannaya Ulitsa) serves absolutely mouth-watering Georgian, Uzbek and Azeri cuisine that’ll inspire you to return for seconds.
Where to stay: The best hotels for a St. Petersburg layover
Even when you’re just passing through, choosing where to stay in St. Petersburg can be a wee challenge thanks to the massive accommodations inventory.
If at all possible, I’d recommend getting as close as possible to the historic centre. Many of the top sites in St. Petersburg are located in the centre of town within walking distance of the main drag, Nevsky Prospekt. To take full advantage of this 1-day St. Petersburg itinerary, here are a couple of the best places to stay:
- Metropolis Hotel: A sleek 3-star hotel that’s steps away from major tourist sites like The Hermitage and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. Rooms are unique & fashioned on early-20th-century Russian designs.
- Hotel Indigo St.Petersburg- Tchaikovskogo: A hip design hotel located in a quieter part of Tsentralny that’s a pleasant 20-minute mostly riverside walk to the Church on Spilled Blood. Enjoy a free welcome drink on arrival at the rooftop terrace bar with superb views over the city.
- WYNWOOD Hotel: A brilliant boutique hotel doused in trendy styles and featuring bright rooms with excellent views. Hotel is centrally located next to Kazan Cathedral.
Recommended tours for one day in St. Petersburg
Looking to squeeze more out of your St. Petersburg itinerary? Here are a few of the best day tours in St. Petersburg:
- Grand Tour of St. Petersburg: A quick 3-hour guided tour that absorbs the highlights of St. Petersburg including the Winter Palace, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, and the Peter and Paul Fortress.
- Small-Group St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum Tour: A 3-hour guided tour of the Hermitage that’ll allow you to skip the museum’s insane line-ups for quick entry.
- St. Petersburg Walking City Tour: Explore the best of Russia’s cultural capital on this 3-hour small-group walking tour. Stops include St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Palace Square, and a traditional Russian café for beef stroganoff or borscht.
Getting to St. Petersburg
By air: St. Petersburg is served by Pulkovo International Airport (LED). Several major airlines operate flights to LED from international destinations including British Airways, Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, and LOT Polish Airlines.
Looking for cheap flights to St. Petersburg? I’d recommend checking out airfare deals on Cheapoair!
By train: One of the best way of getting to St. Petersburg is by train from Helsinki. The high-speed Allegro train does the trip in just 4 hours and 36 minutes. Find the best deals on your Helsinki-St. Petersburg train journey by booking in advance on RailEurope.
How to maximize your 1-day St. Petersburg itinerary: Tips & tweaks
- Fan of Russian literature? Drop by the Dostoyevsky Museum or the Alexander Pushkin Museum and Memorial Apartment. Nearly anywhere your walk in St. Petersburg you’re in the footsteps of Russian literature. Visit these two literary museums to pay respect to two of the most influential Russian authors of all time.
- Love retro video games? The quirky Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines around the corner from the Saviour on the Spilled Blood offers perhaps the most fun you’ll ever have in a museum—anywhere!
- Have some extra time? Trek out to the Peter and Paul Fortress on the other side of the Neva River. Scope out the beautiful views of Central St. Petersburg while exploring the city’s original site founded by none other than Peter the Great.