St. Petersburg is considered by many to be the cultural capital of Russia, located in the northwest of the country on the Gulf of Finland. It is a relatively new city, founded by Peter the Great in 1703. Ten years after its founding, St. Petersburg was made the captial of Russia, and remained so until 1918. Peter the Great’s decision to settle here and make the city the capital was initially unpopular, as the area was then swampy and virtually empty. But the city soon took on all the grandeur of the Imperial Court and became the country’s main centre for culture. It has remarkable architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries, hundreds of cultural institutions, a variety of interesting monuments, and now brings together quite a mix of world cultures. The city is often referred to as Russia’s “window to the West,” because of its proximity to Western Europe, and the city’s inhabitants tend to consider themselves more European, and sometimes more sophisticated, than other Russians. St. Petersburg also appears more European than other cities in Russia because of its Italian-style architecture. During the Soviet period, the name of the city was changed to Leningrad, though it became St. Petersburg again in 1991.
The city is also known for its unique landscape with its elegant beauty, and its magical “White Nights,” when the sun stays up for almost 24 hours in the summer. The city incorporates a number of small islands connected with bridges and is full of many canals, which has inspired some to call it “the Venice of the North.”
St. Petersburg is known for having unpredictable weather, as its location near to the Baltic Sea means that the weather can change suddenly and often. It has a maritime climate, meaning that the weather is milder than inland areas, and the winters are cold but not brutal. There are distinct changes of seasons, and the summer is the most popular time to visit, when temperatures average around 20°C (68°F). In the fall, the trees change beautiful colours and there is often sun and crisp, cool days. Winters are quite cold, with temperatures averaging around -12°C (10°F), and snow and freezing winds are common. Throughout the year, the weather changes often, and a nice day can turn suddenly rainy or very windy, as well as the other way round.
The official and primary language of St. Petersburg is Russian. The inhabitans often also speak Finnish or Estonian. In tourist areas and establishments you can usually get by with English, and occasionally German.
The primary religion in Russia is Russian Orthodox Christianity, practiced by approximately 70% of the population. The Russian Orthodox Church is seen as part of Russia’s cultural heritage, and even nonbelievers often feel a connection to the religion. The rest of Russia’s religious population is mainly comprised of Muslims (5%), Roman Catholics, Jews, Armenian Gregorian Christians, and various Protestant denominations. Together, Jews and non-Orthodox Christians make up only about 1% of the population.
The currency used in Russia is the rouble. 1 rouble is made up of 100 kopeks. Notes come in denominations of 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, and 1000 roubles, and coins come in denominations of 1, 5, 10, and 50 kopeks, and 1, 2, and 5 roubles. There is a law that only banknotes and coins issued in 1997 or later are valid.
Tipping is common is Russia, and is done similarly to most European countries. In restaurants tipping is not required, but a tip of between 10 - 15% is normal if you are happy with the service. Tipping nothing at all is often considered ungracious. If you pay by cash in a restaurant, saying “thank you” at the moment they pick up your money means that you don’t expect change.
In hotels, tips are much appreciated, and you can leave around 30 - 50 roubles a day for the housekeeping staff. When assisted by coat check and luggage attendants, a tip of 20 - 50 roubles per item is appropriate, though many people do not tip in these situations. Tour guides and taxi drivers should also be tipped, at your discretion.
Be aware that tips should always be left in cash, even when paying the bill with a credit card.
The value added tax (VAT) in Russia varies depending on the item or service, and usually ranges from 10 - 18%. Unfortunately, foreigners who make purchases in Russia cannot claim tax refunds on items they take back home.
The country code for Russia is +7, and the area code for St. Petersburg is (0)812. To call St. Petersburg from abroad, dial any country exit code, plus 007 812, followed by the local number. To make a call within St. Petersburg, just dial the local 7-digit number. Usually local calls from fixed lines are free, even if you are calling to a mobile.
There are some public telephones and a number of telecom shops in St. Petersburg, and it is also not uncommon to ask to use phone in a café or shop, though they will likely charge you.
There is a large number of internet cafés in St. Petersburg, many of which are located on Nevsky prospekt. Many of the internet cafés in the centre of the city are open 24 hours, and they usually have decent connections. The cheaper cafés may have slower connections, however.
Be aware that the people answering emergency numbers in Russia usually only speak Russian, with the exception of the foreigners’ line.
Foreigners’ police line: 164 9787
24-hour pharmacy: 311 2077
Business hours in St. Petersburg are generally Mon - Fri 9 am- 12 pm and 1 pm- 6 pm, and stores are also open on Sat, usually from 10 am - 7 pm. Most shops and other businesses close for the lunch hour, though museums, churches, and supermarkets are usually open all day. Large supermarkets and department stores stay open later, usually until 9 or 10 pm.
On the following days, most shops, banks and museums will be closed, and public transport is likely to be more limited.
January 1 and 2, New Year’s
January 7, Orthodox Christmas
March 8, Womens’ Day
May 1 and 2, May Day
May 9, Victory Day
June 12, Independence Day
November 7, Peace and Harmony Day
December 12, Constitution Day
St. Petersburg is not an unsafe city, though are certain things that a tourist should watch out for. Exercise care whenever you change money, as fraudsters who will try to trick you are not so uncommon. To help avoid this, never exchange money with individuals, no matter how good a deal they might offer, but rather go to a legitimate establishment. You should also be very careful with your credit cards and credit card receipts, as these can be taken away from you in restaurants or nightclubs for example, and sneakily returned after someone has used them to make expensive purchases.
When taking a taxi, it is always safer to order one by phone than to take one you see on the street, especially at night. Also, try not to walk alone at night if you can avoid it, and walk on well-lit, busy streets when you can.
Discovering St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg is full of beautiful and ornate old buildings, landscaped gardens, winding canals, historic museums, a variety of performance spaces, and other attractions. The city structure was carefully planned out, and this can be best appreciated when you get the chance to step back and view the whole that the individual buildings, parks and canals contribute to. St. Petersburg is a city that still celebrates its imperial past, and most of its famous sights include it’s old palaces, opulent ballet and opera houses, grand museums and quirky yet nostalgic monuments. There are also many beautiful and architecturally-noteworthy cathedrals and churches, though churches never had the same importance in St. Petersburg as they did in the much older city of Moscow, due in large part to the secular ideas of Peter the Great.
While sightseeing in St. Petersburg, it’s very helpful to have a map with both English and Russian place names, as most of the street signs are only in Cyrillic letters.
Peter the Great’s Summer Palac
The Summer Palace is a small palace commissioned by Peter the Great in 1710, situated in a large park. Visitors to the palace today can see the palace’s carefully restored interior, with many of the tsar’s personal items on display. You can also visit the historic Summer Gardens, which Peter the Great built to imitate the grand and fashionable gardens he had seen in Europe. The original marble statues in the garden’s alleys are still standing, and there is also a lovely tranquil pond that is home to many swans.
Opening times (Palace interior): Wed - Mon 10.30 am - 5 pm
The Mikhailovsky (St. Michael’
This beautiful castle was built by Catherine the Great’s son Paul when he came to power in 1796, in order to protect himself from the nobility and royal guards who he believed wanted to assassinate him. His plan didn’t work for long, as he was killed in a coup in 1801. The castle gets its name from a vision that one of the soldiers guarding the castle’s construction site allegedly had, of the Archangel Michael guarding it along with him. Today the palace houses part of the Russian Museum and is open to the public.
This is one of the most impressive monuments to Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, and depicts him on a horse as a Roman hero, facing the Neva River and surrounded by some of the city’s most important buildings. The statue was commissioned by Catherine the Great, Peter’s successor, and sculpted by Etienne Maurice Falconet. A 19th century legend states that St. Petersburg will never be conquered while the Bronze Horseman stands.
The most famous feature of the Palace Square, the Alexander Column is a monument in honour of the Russian victory over Napoleon. It is named after Emperor Alexander I who ruled from 1801 - 1825, during the Napoleonic Wars, and was built between 1830 and 1834. Made from red granite, the column is a single monolith of stone that stands more than 25 metres high and is a wonderful feat of engineering, especially as it was created an installed without any modern machinery.
A war memorial built in 1812, the Narva Triumphal Arch is one of St. Petersburg’s famous landmarks. The original arch was wooden, designed by Italian architect Dzhakomo Quarenghi, who was also the brain behind many of the city’s well-known buildings. The arch was built to welcome home soldiers returning after the Napoleonic wars were won. The arch had to be rebuilt in the 1830’s because the wood was decaying, and this is the arch that remains today, constructed from brick and covered with sheets of intricately ornamented copper.
This bridge was completed in 1903, built as part of the celebrations commemorating the 200th anniversary of the city. It runs across the River Neva, just north of the Field of Mars on the left bank, and next to the Peter and Paul Fortress on the Petrograd side. It was only the third permanent bridge in the city, and is one of the most beautiful. It has an elegant shape and is covered in ornate cast-iron Art Nouveau designs and has some atmospheric tripod streetlamps.
The Blue Bridge (Siniy Most)
This is the bridge that runs over the Neva between St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the City Hall. It’s claim to fame is that it is the widest bridge in the world (97.3 m), and is as wide as the Isaakievskaya Square adjacent to it. The bridge was designed by V.I Geste and completed in 1818. It is made of cast iron, and gets its name because the underside is painted blue, dating back to the days when all the bridges in the city were colour-coded.
Cathedral of St. Andrew the Fi
This is a particularly beautiful pink and white late Baroque cathedral located in a very scenic area on Vasilevsky Island. The cathedral is named for the Apostle Andrew, who was believed to be the personal protector of Peter the Great. Highlights inside the cathedral include a variety of 18th-century icons, one a remarkable mosaic icon of St. Andrew.
Opening times: Daily 9 am - 7 pm
Cathedral of Saints Peter and
The oldest church in St. Petersburg, this cathedral is also the second-tallest building the city, with only the television tower reaching a greater height. The first church on this location was wooden, built in 1704, and the stone cathedral that remains today was built between 1712-1733. When the church was built it was considered quite radical for its departure from the traditional Orthodox style, since it is built in early European Baroque style. A great many of the rulars of Russia are buried here, including Peter the Great, and the graves are very ornate and extravagant. Other highlights include the multi-tiered bell tower and its tall “needle” sticking up into the sky, and beautiful paintings and icons inside of the church.
Church of the Intercession of
This is a small and unusual church in the north of St. Petersburg, founded in 1913. It’s located on the grounds of the Polytechnic Institute, known for its Russian Neoclassic architecture, and the design of the church combines elements of traditional Russian village church style with the Style Moderne. The most famous feature of the church is its large gold dome. The rest of the church is covered with a combination of decorative yellow plaster and bare bricks. The interior walls are covered completely with frescoes.
Opening times: Daily 9 am - 6 pm
Unquestionably one of the most beautiful churches in St. Petersburg, the Smolny Cathedral is known for its majestic cupolas and is located on the banks of the Neva. It was designed by the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who also designed the Winter Palace. The cathedral was contructed between 1748 - 1761. It used to have an amazingly grand and opulent interior, with a cut-crystal balustrade in front of the altar, marble decoration and sculptures on the walls, a marble pulpit and a big silver Ark of the Covenant. The cathedral was looted during and after the revolution, however, and closed for a long time starting in 1923. In the 1970s it became a museum and then a concert hall, which is still one was its main uses today.
Church of the Baptism of Our L
This is a small, red-brick, late-19th century church located on Gutuevsky Island. It has a very ornate façade incorporating tiled mosaics, gilded reliefs and other decorations in the Russian medieval style. The interior used to be equally richly decorated, with a marble alter, ivory icons, and colourful frescoes, but these were destroyed or removed during the Russian Revolution.
Opening times: Mon - Sat 9 am - 6 pm, Sat 8 am - 8 pm
Church of the Smolensk Icon of
A beautiful Baroque church on Vasilevsky Island, this stone church was completed in 1776 to replace the original wooden structure, built in 1760. It is located on the grounds of the Smolensk Cemetary where St. Ksenia of St. Petersburg is buried, one of the city’s favourite saints. There is a chapel in the church devoted to her, as well as a separate chapel near to her grave. The church houses a number of esteemed holy relics, the most famous of which is it’s Icon of the Merciful Mother of God, which was given to the church in the 19th century by the monks of Mount Athos.
Opening times: Daily 6 am - 5 pm
This garden is located next to Palace Square, at the very centre of St. Petersburg. It takes the place of what used to be Admiralty Square and avenue, which was a popular place for the aristocracy to meet, walk and relax. The gardens were created between 1872-1874, as part of the celebrations 200 years after Peter the Great’s birthday. They are named after Alexander II, who was the tsar in power at the time. The gardens include many trees, a beautiful fountain and statues of famous Russian figures.
These botanical gardens are some of the oldest in all of Russia, founded in 1714 and commissioned by Peter the Great. Originally known as “The Apothecary’s Garden,” they became a centre for plant and medicinal herb research that was one of the foremost in Europe. The garden later branched out to include many rare and exotic plants and trees, brought to Russia by expeditions to foreign lands. Today, the gardens are organized in the English landscape style, and include plants from all over the world, from native Russian plants to various tropical and sub-tropical flora.
Opening times: Sat - Thurs 11 am - 4 pm
This garden was founded by order of Peter the Great in 1704 and is situated where the Fontanka River flows out of the Neva. The layout of the gardens is designed according to precise geometric principles, which Peter the Great was involved in planning. The gardens are home to many rare and beautiful flowers and plants, various fountains, and marble statues brought to St. Petersburg from all over Europe. Peter the Great’s Summer Palace is also located in the gardens, which was one of the first stone palaces to be built in the city.
Opening times: Daily 10 am - 9 pm
This garden is adjacent to the Michael Palace, also known as the Russian Museum. The gardens have a long history, and have been used for many different things over the years. Originally a formal French garden, the gardens were later turned into a hunting reserve and nursery, and later, during the reign of Empress Elizabeth, a labyrinth with fountains. The gardens began to take on the form they have today around 1825, when they were turned into a landscaped park. Today they combine two landscape styles, with English-type gardens in the centre and French-style landscaping around the edges.
This park was founded in 1945 to commemorate winning World War II. The park is massive, covering 68 hectacres, and includes formal landscaped gardens with ponds, canals, and more than 100 species of trees and bushes. There is also a flower garden and an avenue at the centre of the park called the “Avenue of Heroes,” lined with bronze statues of Soviet heroes.