Saint Petersburg and Moscow have long enjoyed a cultural rivalry and one famous Russian quip sums it up well, “People move to Moscow for work and to Petersburg for love.” Petersburg, or Piter as the locals affectionately call it, was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great or Peter I. The city is not named after the Tsar but after Saint Peter, mythologised in Christianity as the guardian of the keys to the gates of heaven. By picking this name, the Tsar made his plans clear: Petersburg was to be as divine and beautiful as heaven itself. But there was a catch. He wanted it to look European and not Russian. So Petersburg was builtin extravagant Italian and French architectural styles. This is what makes the city such a darling on the Russian landscape: it showcases Russia’s European identity while maintaining its traditional character.
9 a.m. The Hero City
Start your day at PloschadVosstaniya (Uprising Square) where you will see the 118-foot-high obelisk with a gold star on the top. Inaugurated in May 1985, it is a monument to Leningrad (Petersburg’s name in Soviet times), which endured a calamitous 900-day siege at the hands of Nazi forces during World War II. The city’s valiant defence earned it the title of ‘Hero City.’
9.15 a.m. A Walk with a View
Walk down NevskyProspekt (Nevsky Avenue), Petersburg’s main artery, which will give you access to some of the city’s most beautiful buildings, museums, cathedrals and canals. The key sights in the eastern section are the Anichkov Bridge, known for its four horse sculptures and decorated railings; the Ostrovsky Square, which has an imposing statue of Tsarina Catherine the Great, one of Russia’s most influential monarchs; the custard-colouredAlexandrinsky Theatre, one of the oldest in the country; and GostinyDvor, Petersburg’s biggest department store, which occupies the entire block on Nevsky between Sadovaya and Dumskaya streets.
10.30 a.m. Space of the Art
Next up is the crown jewel of Saint Petersburg: the mint-green-and-white Winter Palace, the former royal residence and now the main building of the State Hermitage Museum. The museum holds everything from ancient Egyptian artefacts to some of the greatest paintings from the Renaissance. Entire rooms are dedicated to Monet, Renoir, and van Gogh. Don’t miss The Malachite Room, with its stunning green pillars and gold decorations, or The Pavilion Hall (Small Hermitage) which houses the gilded Peacock Clock, an 18th-century mechanical timepiece that still works (www.hermitagemuseum.org; open Tue, Thu, Sat 10.30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Wed and Fri 10.30 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Mon).
3.30 p.m. Literary Connection
Bite into a hearty late lunch at Café Literaturnoe. The two-storeyed café was a favourite of writers, poets and journalists. It is also where Russian poet Alexander Pushkin is said to have eaten his last meal. Order comfort food like mushroom soup and chicken schnitzel, or go a little wild with caviar and elk steak (18, NevskyProspekt).
5.30 p.m. The Tsars’ Crown Eggs
Located in the Shuvalov Palace, the Fabergé Museum is the repository of nine jewelled royal easter eggs crafted by Carl Fabergé for the last two Tsars of Russia. The museum also contains fine arts and jewellery from the imperial era. (fabergemuseum.ru/en/; open 10 a.m.-8.45 p.m., last guided tour at 5 p.m.).
7 p.m. Sound of Music
Mariinsky is Petersburg’s undisputed venue for all that is great in opera and ballet. Catch Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, which premiered here in 1892, or opt for Mariinsky’s modern rendition of Don Quixote. Book online because tickets sell out and arrive early so you can admire the architectural elegance and grand interiors of the building itself (www.mariinsky.ru/en).
10 a.m. Affairs of the Estate
The Peterhof estate, built by Tsar Peter the Great, is the confluence of hydraulic engineering and neoclassical architecture. The 18th-century Grand Cascade, the most majestic of Peterhof’s fountain systems, ushers you to the Grand Palace. Add to that a few more museums and the upper and lower level gardens, and you have splendour par excellence. Most buildings are open from 10.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. except Mondays, but the fountains operate only between late May and early October. While you can get to Peterhof by land, you should arrive by water—just like the Tsars did. Hydrofoil departures from Dvortsovaya Embankment (just behind the Winter Palace) begin at 9.30 a.m. A one-way trip takes about 30 minutes (Check website for boat timings; en.citycruises.ru).
4 p.m. The Hymns of History
The point where Nevsky crosses Griboyedov Canal is home to some of Petersburg’s most exemplary landmarks. The southwest corner features the magnificent Kazan Cathedral, an early 19th-century structure built in the image of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. On the northwest corner stands Dom Knigi (House of Books) with its iconic glass tower and globe. Pro-tip: for the best views of Kazan Cathedral, head to the coffee shop on the first floor of Dom Knigi.Kazan Cathedral is a must-see not only for its imposing colonnade but also its detailed interiors decorated with frescoes depicting the life of Christ (open 6.30 a.m.-8 p.m.).
Petersburg’s other iconic church, Spas Na Krovi, has a somewhat frightening name in English: The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. That’s because it was built on the site of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination. Incidentally, the brother of Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s Bolshevik leader, was executed for being involved in the group that fatally wounded the Tsar (open 10.30 a.m.-6 p.m.; 1 May-30 Sep open 10.30 a.m.-10.30 p.m.; closed Wed).
During the Communist era persecution of religion, Spas na Krovi served as a potato warehouse, and Kazan Cathedral was converted into the Museum of Atheism.
6.30 p.m. Open-air Dinner with a View
Continue admiring the Kazan Cathedral and Petersburg’s architecture from a different perspective. Terrassa offers an expansive outdoor terrace, romantic views, and a menu that features European and Asian cuisines (3 Kazanskaya Street).
8.30 p.m. Of Battles and Prayers
Make your way to one of Petersburg’s most beloved sites: Bronze Horseman, the statue of Peter the Great on a horse crushing a snake, a metaphor for his adversaries. The statue has inspired many artistic expressions, including Alexander Puskin’s poem and VasilySurikov’s painting, both of which are namesakes. During the Siege of Leningrad (1941-44), the statue was shielded under sandbags to shelter it from Nazi artillery because locals believe it has mystical powers that protect the city.
Behind it, you will see the enormous St. Isaac’s Cathedral with its glittering golden cupola and giant granite columns. It is a fine example of neoclassical architecture with Orthodox Russian and Byzantine influences. The 19th-century basilica took 40 years to build. A look at the stunning gilded interiors will convince you that St. Isaac’s was worth the wait (open 10.30 a.m.-6 p.m.; 1 May-30 Sep open 10.30 a.m.-10.30 p.m.; closed Wed).
9 a.m. Blini for Breakfast
Indulge in the ultimate Russian breakfast: blini or crepes that can be savoury or sweet. Head to Teremok (various locations) for buttery crepes filled with mushrooms and cream or condensed milk (my personal favourite). If you are feeling particularly indulgent, try the blini with ikra (caviar).
10 a.m. Holding Down the Fort
Located on Zayachy Island is Petersburg’s foundational section and the original fortress: the Peter and Paul Fortress. Established in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, the Fortress has been through many incarnations, including a political prison. The gilded spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral is a staple of Petersburg postcards. The cathedral is also the imperial burial ground. There are tombs of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and the last Tsar who, following the October Revolution that brought the Communist regime to power, was executed along with his family in Yekaterinburg. The Fortress is also home to the Museum of Space Exploration and the Street of Time.
2 p.m. A Side of Snail Mail
From its fitting name to its zesty menu and snug interiors, Teplo (which means warmth) serves comfort in many forms. If you are into snail mail, this is a great place to write your postcards. Teplo provides envelopes and stamps, and the staff will mail your letters (45 Bolshaya Morskaya Street).
3.30 p.m. Old Times’ Sake
With its many exquisite buildings and the largest repository of Russian art in the world, the State Russian Museum could absorb several hours of your day and not feel enough. The collection of close to 6,000 invaluable icons from a period spanning five centuries is arguably the most compelling treasure here. Keep an eye out for the paintings of Nikolai Roerich, who was deeply drawn to India and spent many years in different parts of the country (open Mon, Wed, Fri-Sun 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thu 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Tue).
6 p.m. Shopping Expedition
Time for a shopping expedition at Gostiny Dvor. Look for scarves with traditional Russian patterns, and Baltic amber jewellery and ornaments (35 Nevsky Prospekt; 10 a.m.-10 p.m).
10 p.m. Crossing The Bridge
In the months that River Neva is not frozen, the drawbridges open to let naval traffic through. It’s a spectacular sight, especially during the White Nights. Start with the Sky Bar at Azimut Hotel, which happens to serve vegetarian caviar, and make your way to Vasilievsky Island before the bridges open. Watch the magic from the Spit of the Vasilievsky Island. Now that you are “stuck” on Vasilievsky, move between 8th Line, VinoVeka and Street Food No. 1, all located near Akademichesky Garden. Whichever side of the bridges you end up at, it will be a night you won’t forget (Sky Bar 43/1 Lermontovsky Prospekt).
To explore more of Russia, see our FIFA World Cup 2018 guide to the country here.
Aanchal Anand is a travel addict who has been to over 50 countries across 5 continents. When she isn't travelling, she is typically coaxing her two cats off the laptop keyboard so she can get some writing done.