Before I visited St Petersburg, all I knew about it was what I had seen in the animated film ‘Anastasia’. I’m not sure what that says about me but I grew up singing ‘Journey to the Past’, feeling terrified of Rasputin’s character and in complete awe of how aristocratic the city looked. In the summer of 2019 when I visited it for the first time, I got to explore all its grandiose corners and majestic buildings and let me tell you, it’s a city worth discovering.

Massive, was my initial impression, as is the rest of Russia yet surprisingly enough the centre is easily walkable. The city doesn’t need a specific plan in mind, simply let the streets to the wonder and let them take you places.

Of the first places they took me, was the grand State Hermitage museum, a building you can’t miss, for its bright colours and sheer size. With 3 million artworks and cultural artefacts spreading over 233 345 square metres, it’s no wonder it is the second-largest art museum in the world, right after the Louvre. There are hundreds of rooms to visit, each one in unique décor and era. The interior itself is so stunning that concentrating on art can be challenging.

state heritage museum russia You’ll need almost an entire day at the Hermitage, whether you’re browsing through art, struck by the architecture or devouring one of those delicious salmon sandwiches at the café. Six buildings make up the museum, one of them is the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors built in the 17th century, oozing aristocracy as walking through the Grand Hall brings to mind pictures of magnificent ballroom dances. Just think of the party scene in Anastasia!

state heritage museum russia

state heritage museum russia

Visiting the Hermitage is a must when in St Petersburg, even if you are there just for a day. To make life easier here are some useful tips:

  • The entrance ticket for foreign tourists is more expensive than for citizens of Russia and Belarus. However, entrance is free on the third Thursday of every month for all visitors and free daily for students and children.
  • Keep in mind that the museum is closed on Mondays.
  • You might have to queue for a while so bring an umbrella because the weather is unpredictable.

state heritage museum russia

Leaving the museum, you’ll find yourself on Palace Square staring up at the 47.5-metre red marble Alexander Column. It’s an iconic part of the city and is actually set so well that it requires no base attachment. The square is so huge that even with hundreds of people walking past, it can still look nearly empty. Opposite it sits the General Staff Building, a 580-metre-long bow-shaped façade with even more art to explore.

The square leads to Nevsky Prospekt, a long avenue with a myriad of cafes, bars and shops for all tastes. While there, don’t forget to look at its side streets as they hide some picturesque corners too with hipster coffee shops and window bars.

On the avenue and just off the canal, sits Dom Knigi, St Petersburg’s largest and most famous bookshop. The entrance tends to be crowded as it’s filled with kitsch travel memoirs; magnets, postcards and mugs. Head further in to look at its stationery and books yet the real treat at Dom Knigi is the stunning, elevated view of Kazan Cathedral across the street. Go to the first floor, where it will most likely be quieter and fewer people venture upstairs, and head to the large corner window.

photo via unsplash

If the topic of enchanting stores thrills you, then Magazine Kuptsov Yeliseyevykh has to be at the top of your list. Stepping in feels like you are leaving modern-day behind and are travelling back to another era. An era full of magic, candies and potions. Wooden toys hang around the store, a piano plays itself, dessert bars surround its circumference and an enormous, pineapple-looking chubby palm tree sits in the centre.

Magazine Kuptsov Yeliseyevykh

Magazine Kuptsov Yeliseyevykh

Magical and fairy-tale-like seem like the most adequate words to describe it. If you’ve seen the film ‘Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium’, then imagine that Magazine Kuptsov Yeliseyevykh oozes that sort of charm. Sit down for food, a glass a champagne, a cake or a coffee or buy something from the confectionary store. If there’s one thing I would highly recommend visiting in St Petersburg, it is this place. A wonder for children and a treat for adults too.

Magazine Kuptsov Yeliseyevykh

A walk down St Petersburg’s canals is something you’ll find yourself doing, whether you plan it or not. Their architecture and the buildings that surround it are colourful and somewhat have European influences. With the cruise boats passing through, you might even be reminded of Venice. That said, taking a cruise boat is a great way to see the city and fear not, blankets are offered even in the summer.

The sunset hours are particularly mesmerizing by the canal as the sun peaks through the buildings and seeing as in the summer it gets dark very late (around 10 pm) you can take an evening boat ride to enjoy the views.

canal st petersburg

One of these canals will take you to the Savior on the Spilled Blood Cathedral, that colourful building with onion-domes that represents St Petersburg. Its astonishing detail, thorough mosaics and colourful round domes are bound to take your breath away. And the interior is as impressive as the exterior with nearly every corner filled with detailed mosaics and paintings.

photo via unsplash

While you are on cathedral sightseeing, venture out the island past the large Neva River that cuts through the city to visit St Peter and Paul Cathedral. Walking through the crowded bridge and around the island is an adventure in itself and will offer an alternative view of St Petersburg’s landscape. Part of a fortress, this cathedral is the first and oldest landmark in the city, built around the beginning of the 17th century.

It’s a bright yellow building with a pointy tip that sticks out far in the distance, so you can easily navigate yourself towards it. Walking around the fortress feels like explore another village and do wander around as you never know what you might find. When I was there, the annual Sand Sculpture Festival was taking place with a dozen enormous creations. What a treat that was to discover!

sandfest russia

St Isaac’s Cathedral is also worth a visit, though it currently functions as a museum. It is the largest orthodox church and the fourth largest cathedral in the world. For a better view sit at one of the benches in the park opposite it.

To see St Petersburg, you don’t really need an overpriced bus tour. Simply pick up a map, perhaps visit the tourist office, read a fun online guide (like this one 😊) and venture out into the streets. The city, in all its elegant beauty and class, is sure to capture you. And you’re looking for a little something extra, then talk to the locals. Everyone I met in St Petersburg was extremely friendly, spoke good English and were the cherry on top of an amazing trip.

Happy travels!

All photos by Eleni Philippou unless indicated otherwise