St. Petersburg is mostly known for its network of canals and spectacular bridges that lead people to call it « Nothern Venice ». A mix of exceptional architecture and rich history, the cradle of the Russian Revolution, the city houses some of the most important museums in the world and offers a vibrant and cosmopolitan atmosphere where foreign visitors are welcomed.
Which season to choose and which to avoid?
The best time to visit depends completely on what you’re looking for. The biggest crowds of tourists gather in June and at the beginning of July for the legendary White Nights (days of nearly round-the-clock daylight). This period is extremely beautiful for admiring bridges, going to concerts and parties, as well as summer palaces, gardens and fountains, - enjoying the ‘joie de vivre’ that reigns at this city of tsars.
Nighttime in the city during the “White Nights” period - credits to Igor Kukhalashvili via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
May and September equally represent the best time to visit: much less of a crowd, the weather is good, hotels are cheaper than in summer months, and fountains in Peterhof are already open. Try to avoid the beginning of May, as Russians have holidays and lots of tourists from all over the country arrive to St Petersburg at this time (about 01/05-10/05). The second part of May is much better for a trip. Unlike in Europe, the school year usually starts in Russia on the 1st of September so the city is never overcrowded during this month.
If you’re a fan of Russian poetry – come to the city in October, when you will be captured by the beauty of the « Golden Autumn ». It’s the best time for St Petersburg’s parks and imperial residences. November is perfect if you’re a misanthropist, the amateur of magnificent gloomy photos or a fan of Dostoevsky (probably even 3 in one!). Don’t skip the legend of the Bronze Horseman and enjoy the heaviest and greyest clouds you’ve probably ever seen.
The best time for museum goers is winter (except the first 10 days of January), as Hermitage and other must-see places are almost empty and really worth seeing. During this period the hotel prices are the cheapest, and you will save not only your time but your money as well. Don’t let the weather scare you, hot broth and Vodka Museum tour will warm you up for sure !
General tip: Consider buying a Petersburgcard, it gives you free entry to 50 museums, discounts, tours and a rechargeable travel pass already included. It can be booked online for 2, 3, 5 or 7 days (3200 RUB for 2 days) here. Having tickets in hand will help you to avoid waiting lines wherever possible!
This is the holy and adored Russian Louvre which was named the best museum in the world by Trip Advisor’s users in 2013. Housed in the Palace of Romanov tsars, Hermitage welcomes almost 3 mln visitors every year. If you arrive in Saint Petersburg in high season (esp. June-July) – don’t be terrified by the waiting line often stretching to the nearby square : this is a queue for free tickets (more than half of Hermitage visitors are schoolers, students, pensioners and have the right to visit the Hermitage for free), you don’t need to stand in it if you already have a ticket (buy it online or in the machine at the museum entrance). In winter there’s often a waiting line for the cloakroom so even with a ticket you’ll probably have to wait a little bit.
Queue to the Hermitage ticket office - credits to Leon Yaakov via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Tip 1: You can book your ticket online or buy it on automatic ticket machines. The second option is cheaper but prepare small money as the machine doesn’t give change : the price is 600 RUR (about € 8)
Tip 2: If you want to take photos : you need to acquire photo permission, although the right to take photos is included if you buy your ticket online.
Apart from Leonardo or Monet paintings, Hermitage offers lots of curious objects you would probably like to see : the oldest carpet in the world (Le tapis Pazyryk), the collection of Greek terracotta figurines (statuettes Tanagra) or Caucasus rooms with objects from Moshtcevaya balka, unusual archaeological site at the North Caucasus silk road. The Museum also houses the Treasure Gallery, which consists of the Gold Rooms (1,500 gold works from Eurasia, the Black Sea Littoral in antiquity, and the Orient) and Diamond Rooms (with a big jewelery collection). The tour of the Treasure Gallery is not included in the museum admission fee.
Tip 3: If you want to visit the Treasure Gallery in high season – you should arrive a little bit before the museum opening : your admittance is with a small group with a guide. There are several time slots, with different language options. It often happens in high season that all the tickets for the Rooms tour for the day are sold out half an hour after the museum opens, be one of the first to be sure not to miss it!
Tip 5: The Museum is closed on Mondays. If you come in high season, try to arrange your Hermitage visit for a Wednesday afternoon and avoid the busiest day – Tuesday. During lunchtime and in the evening there are less people (but keep in mind that you’ll probably need about 3-4 hours to see the most important Hermitage collections). Ticket offices close an hour earlier, than the museum itself.
Tip 6: The first Thursday of every month, you can visit the museum for free. Try not to go on this day as you’ll have to face a very long queue for free tickets and Hermitage is always overcrowded on these days.
Let’s hope you didn’t catch Stendhal’s syndrome at the Hermitage. Want more art? Take a look at the State Russian Museum. The Collection covers the complete history of Russian art, from the 11th century icons to contemporary artists. With the main collection housed in Mikhailovskiy Palace, the museum has expanded and now comprises Rossi and Benois wings and other buildings and palaces. Russian avant-garde collections and Soviet paintings are of particular interest. Take a step back in front of Pavel Philonov’s works (he was one of the most outstanding futurist artists of the 20th century): The State Russian Museum has the biggest collection of his paintings. You won’t regret it.
Pavel Filonov - Feast of kings, 1913
The Museum is open from 13:00 to 21:00 on Thursdays and from 10:00 to 18:00 on all other days, except Tuesdays when it is closed. Ticket offices close half an hour before the museum closing time.
Tip 1: On Mondays the State Russian museum is usually more overcrowded since on this day the Hermitage museum does not receive visitors; our tip is that the best time to visit is Thursday afternoon or Friday.
Tip 2: You can buy tickets and enter the museum from the Benoit wing side entrance where lines for the tickets are much smaller. It will probably make you do the museum tour in reverse chronological order (but without losing time in queues).
Peter the Great planned Peterhof as the residence of a sea king. This was to be his incarnation of Russia as a great European power, with a foothold on the shores of the world’s oceans, capable of competing with the finest Western courts — above all, with Versailles. Though the complex is located outside of the city, it belongs to the list of places that make Saint-Petersburg attractive for millions of foreign tourists. Apart from the palace, the complex comrises about 20 other museums, pavillions, buildings, beautiful parks and more than 150 fountains. It is definitely the attraction that you should not miss, but it is really difficult to plan a visit without queues.
Photo credits to superscheeli via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Tip 1: If you arrive in high season – try to to come on Monday : the Palace is closed this day but all the Parks and most of other attractions are open. If it’s not crucial for you visiting the Palace, you will thus save a lot of time (as the biggest lines are for the Palace and tourist groups avoid this day for coming to Peterhof).
Tip 2: If you can’t neglect visiting the Palace, try to arrive earlier. For foreign tourists (both groups and individuals), the admission time is limited: the first session is from 10:30 to 12:00 and the second from 14:30 to 16:15. Buy your ticket around 9:30/10:AM and go spend an amazing time in the Upper and Lower gardens with its world famous fountains, small pavilions and thematic museums.
Tip 3: Every day during the summer season at 11:00 you can assist the launch of the most famous ensemble of fountains, the Grand Cascade, which runs from the northern facade of the Grand Palace to the Marine Canal and comprises 64 different fountains and over 200 bronze statues. It’s more than spectacular and we advise you to take a look!
Tip 4: Plan your visit in advance by defining palaces and parts of the Parks you want to visit. Peterhof’s territory is too big to explore all of it in one day.
In the Eastern part of the Lower Park you can visit The Monplaisir Palace, the favourite residence of Peter the Great and the heart of Peterhof (closed last Monday of the month), The Catherine Block, that used to be the setting for magnificent court banquets, balls and receptions (closed last Thursday of the month), and the Bath Block giving insight into the everyday life of the Russian court (closed on Wednesdays).
Tip 5: If the weather forecasts rain – it’s better to change plans and go to Peterhof the next day : most museums and pavillions will be closed if it rains.
Another spectacular place to see outside Saint-Petersburg is Tsarskoye Selo with one of the best English gardens in Russia and the Rococo style Catherine palace. The most legendary part of this pompous building is the Amber Room, labeled as the Eighth wonder of the world.
The opening hours of the palace are quite limited. From Wednesday to Monday it is open from 10:00 to 16:45 (Oct-Apr) and 12:00 to 18:00 in May and September. In the summer, the palace is open from 12:00 to 19:00. Each Tuesday (all year) and the last Monday of the month (Oct-Apr) the palace is closed. In the summer the queue takes about two hours and there are also a lot of limitations related to school vacations and national holidays.
For individual visitors the general entry time is 12:00-14:00 and from 16:00 to 17:00, although there are extended opening hours during peak season (June to August). To get information on extended opening hours you can consult the museum’s website, but to be sure to get inside and not lose time and nerve cells, the best option is to book a group tour.
Tip: don’t come alone or co-operate with some other tourists if stuck in a long queue: while some of you are waiting in the line, the others can take a walk in the park and then change places. It’s a normal and respected practice for Russians. In any case it is much easier and faster to just join the group visit.
Photo credits to Alexxx Malev via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
In case you’ve seen all the museums above (bravo!) or at least some of them (good job) and are looking for something interesting or fun to do in the city, we’ve prepared this list for you with some lesser-known essentials.
1) Watch the bridges on the Neva rise at night
Take a bottle of champagne and your camera and go to Neva bank to watch the bridges rise during navigation season. Make sure you’re on the right side to get back after : when the subway is closed and bridges open until about 5 AM there won’t be any way to cross the river! Just try to imagine how peterburgers’ life can be difficult because of these bridges…
2) Eat «pychki» at 25 Bolchaya Konyuchennaya
These are donuts that taste the same as they did 50 years ago. Cheap and supertasty. No need to continue as you’re probably re-reading the first sentence : yes, it’s true, Russians had donuts in Soviet times and they even had « donut cafés » like this one!
3) Get to one of the St. Petersburg’s roofs
The views are awesome, especially if you find one not far from Neva. Looking at bridges from the roof at sunset is a triple bonus. If you don’t have a friend in the city that knows a roof you can climb – don’t worry, there are « roof tours » and roofers who will accompany you for a moderate fee.
4) Tell a native resident you’ve been to Moscow and liked it much less than St Petersburg
You’ll gain a bunch of friends, the moment you finish saying that. Petersburgers don’t like Moscovites, they consider them snobby. Ironically, almost all Moscovites agree with them, adore Petersburgers and don’t like other Moscovites. No need to go deeper into the strange Russian soul.
5) Enjoy the walk on Nevsky Prospect
This is the center of the city and its main artery. If you know anybody in Saint-Petersburg (even the guys who were sitting next to you on the plane) you will meet them here for sure.
6) Kiss on the Kiss Bridge !
If you go to Saint-Petersburg with your sweetheart – nothing is more romantic due to dozens of legends that exist about this bridge. Happiness is granted to the couple kissing here, and the longer the kiss – the happier your common life will be.
7) Visit the Mariinski Theatre
One of the most famous opera and ballet theatres in the world, plan in advance to buy your ticket on the theatre’s website.
8) Throw a coin to Chizhyk-Pyzhik
You need to know that it exists to be able to find the 11-cm height statue of a small bird on Fontanka embarkment. If done – make a wish and throw a coin (it shouldn’t fall in the river). The popular nursery rhyme dedicated to this character reveals something essential about Russians :
Chizhik-Pyzhik, where have you been?
Drank vodka on the Fontanka.
Took a shot, took another -
Check the Wikipedia to know the origins of the song if interested, and to understand why in Russian rhymes birds drink vodka shots.
9) Climb St Isaac’s Cathedral’s collonade
250 steps for a 360-degree view of the city, well worth it!
10) Check the Museum of Rebellious Machines
Or the Lego Museum. Or the Museum of the brick’s history. Or Sigmund Freud Dream Museum, museum of Emperors’ bicycles, Museum of Death or even the Museum of soviet slot machines. Saint Petersburg is really the most cultural Russian city.
We’re waiting for your postcards and wish you schastlivogo puti (a pleasant journey)!