I’ve had this blog post on my to-do list ever since I got back from my epic Scandinavian cruise. St Petersburg was the second stop on our 10-day cruise, and the only place where we docked overnight. This meant I was able to spend a full 2 days in St Petersburg, which was just enough time to see all of the city highlights. Luckily we booked on to an organised 2-day city tour with a private guide, who was able to whisk us around the city by minivan and ensure we saw as much as possible. If you’re visiting St Petersburg on a cruise, doing an organised tour is the only option. However, if you’re visiting as part of a wider trip and have an official visa, you can plan your own tour using this handy blog post. Here are the top things to do in St Petersburg.
My Personal Thoughts on Russia and St Petersburg
Before sharing the best things to do in St Petersburg, I want to give you my very honest opinion of the city. I was only in there for 2 short days, which really isn’t enough time to truly get under the skin of a country. But in the short time I was there, I felt that the local Russians were very cold towards tourists and foreigners.
Perhaps its because of their current and previous political turmoil, but everything seemed extremely serious, and nobody seemed to want to share their honest opinion about what it was like to live in Russia (even our guide). It was almost as if they had been told to trust nobody. The paranoia about Russian spies is real. From the moment I walked up to the very stern and strict immigration officers, it was like I should feel lucky for being allowed into the country, rather than feeling welcome. I don’t want to put you off visiting this amazing city, but I want you to know that the people really are not what sells this destination. The Russian culture is very serious and reserved (Russian children are taught in school never to smile, as smiling makes you look stupid). If you’re coming from a more liberal or open country, you may find this to be a bit of a culture shock at first. But St Petersburg is a beautiful city with a complex and intriguing history. Despite everything I have mentioned, if you ever get the opportunity to visit St Petersburg, grab it with open arms and embrace all that is special about this enigmatic city.
The Best Things to do in St Petersburg in 2 Days
1. The Hermitage Museum
The Hermitage Museum is easily the No.1 museum to visit in St Petersburg, and an absolute must for culture vultures (many people say its the Russian equivalent of The Louvre in Paris). The size and scale of the museum is vast and is located in the opulent Winter Palace of Catherine the Great. There are over 3 million pieces of art within the museum, but marvelling at the grand palace rooms (where no expense has been spared) was my favourite part of the Hermitage museum
Top Tip: The museum can get incredibly busy, but a small handful of visitors can access the museum before official opening hours, meaning you won’t have to battle any of the crowds. This is what we did as part of our organised tour and massively enhanced our experience. I’d highly recommend it.
2. Peter and Paul Fortress
Peter and Paul Fortress is another historical and incredibly significant point of interest in St Petersburg. Located right on the banks of the Neva river, the fortress became Russia’s Tower of London and a place for imprisoning political prisoners. Everyday at 12pm a canon is fired in the fortress which attracts a daily crowd. Be sure to step inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral too.
3. Visit the Yusupov Palace and Rasputins Cellar
I found our visit to the Yusupov Palace absolutely fascinating, mainly because we got to see inside Rasputin’s cellar. Rasputin is one of the most controversial personalities in Russian history and its here you can learn about his remarkable story in the place where his mysterious assassination happened. Life-like wax figures bring the story to life and the Yusupov Palace is like a smaller (but equally opulent) version of the Winter Palace at The Hermitage Museum. Be sure to check out the miniature theatre.
4. Watch the Russian Ballet perform at the Alexandrinsky Theatre
Our visit to see the Russian Ballet perform Swan Lake was without a doubt, the highlight of my time in St Petersburg. It felt like one of the most epic things I have ever ticked off my bucket list. I’ve loved ballet, dance and theatre ever since I was young so it felt like a real pinch-me moment. The Russian Ballet has residency in the Alexandrinsky Theatre, which is the oldest professional theatre in Russia. The theatre itself is a thing of beauty, enhanced by the incredible production on stage. If theatre and ballet is your thing, this is one of the most unforgettable things to do in St Petersburg.
5. Take an excursion to Peterhof Grand Palace
You need to allow at least half a day to visit Peterhof Palace, but it could easily be a full-day experience. Located about 45 minutes from centre St Petersburg, Peterhof Palace is a magnificent country palace built for Peter the Great in 1714-1725. It was severely damaged during WWII, but it has been carefully restored to its former glory. After exploring the house, don’t miss the stunning gardens and the solid gold fountain statues. As the palace gets so busy, it did feel as if we were being rushed through the rooms by the sour-faced palace guides.
6. Go on a Rivers and Canals Boat Cruise
After a morning at Peterhof Palace, we had enough time to stop for lunch and get back into St Petersburg for a 1 hour river cruise. Similar to Venice, a labyrinth of canals and waterways weave through St Petersburg, and are all connected to the central Neva River. This makes a river cruise the perfect way to explore the city from a different perspective (whilst resting tired feet). You’ll pass under picturesque bridges, mosey down canals and cruise down the Neva River.
7. Visit the iconic Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is possibly the most iconic sight in St Petersburg thanks to its colourful Russian Orthodox domes and spires. The church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, giving it its slightly morbid name. The church is an architectural wonder, inspired by St Basil Cathedral in Moscow.
Top Tip: Due to the high concentration of tourists, the area surrounding the church is rife with pickpockets. I definitely saw a few dodgy characters hanging around whilst there, so be extra vigilant round here and don’t have valuables on display.
8. Marvel at St Issac’s Cathedral
Finally, be sure to fit in a quick trip to St Issac’s Cathedral. The gold domes of the cathedral can be seen from all over the city centre, and this impressive 19th-century structure really is a work of art. Inside you’ll find incredible marble carving and three rows of mosaic icons surrounding the Royal Gate.
Thats my pick of the best things to do in St Petersburg in 2 days. If you’ve got longer to spend in the city, you’ll be able to enjoy everything listed at more of a leisurely pace. St Petersburg is a fascinating city and I felt really privileged to be able to see it.
What do you think of this round up of the best things to do in St Petersburg? Is Russia a country you’ve thought of visiting? Are you currently planning your own trip to St Petersburg? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below. Jess x
My trip 2 day tour of St Petersburg was part of a Scandinavian Cruise with Princess Cruises. All photos and views are my own.