Visiting the City Center of Saint Petersburg, Russia

russia st petersburg winter palace unesco world heritage
The signature monument of the Center of Saint Petersburg, Russia is the Winter Palace, which encompasses the unsurpassed Hermitage Museum.

According to UNESCO, what makes Saint Petersburg, Russia a World Heritage Site was the building of “the greatest urban creation of the 18th century” on the swampy estuary of the Neva River. The realization of the vision of Tsar Peter the Great to build Saint Petersburg, over a very short period of time, a city of distinguished edifices and beautiful waterways, was indeed an achievement worthy of world recognition.

If you're going to tour Saint Petersburg, a day spent walking around the city will certainly give at least a sense of the monumental scope of Peter’s dream as you take in the spectacular waterway vistas the city offers.

But, the best part of a visit to Saint Petersburg is actually getting inside the palaces and churches which limn the waterways and seeing up close the grandeur of the execution of Peter’s and his successors’ imaginations.

So, here's our list of suggestions of what to do in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

russia st petersburg hermitage museum
A good use for an ornate palace: turn it into a spectacular museum. Don't forget to spend some time on the decorative arts such as the urns and furniture. Sometimes it's overwhelmed by the spectacular paintings.

First, of course, in any visit to Saint Petersburg is the Winter Palace, which encompasses not only a spectacularly ornate palace, but also The Hermitage, one of the world’s largest and greatest art museums. The collection spans thousands of years–from Egyptian sarcophagi to an unsurpassed array of French Impressionists. If you're not stuck on a tour, allow an entire day for this enormous collection.

If you're not well versed in art yourself, however, a tour will allow you to hit the high points of what could be an overwhelming collection. But a warning: a tour guide's job can be to get you through the hordes of visitors and thousands of paintings far too quickly, and you'll miss things like Rogier Van der Weyden's, “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin” or the Murillo Madonna if you don't know what you're looking for. And your time in front of the Monets, Manets, and Cezannes is going to be limited, too. It's an enormous place with an endless variety of paintings and sculpture.

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The so-called Raphael's Gallery at the Hermitage is a replication of Raphael's decoration of a building at the Vatican.

Don't forget to admire the decorative arts, too. The furniture, the knick-knacks in the showcases, the chandeliers, the frescoes, the bas relief decoration both inside and out, are all worth stopping and admiring. Take your time. You will be rewarded.

Russia state museum Saint Petersburg soviet art
There's a great collection of modern Russian art at the State Museum, but the most interesting stuff, at least to me, is the monumental Soviet Art, such as this painting of Stalin addressing the Communist Party convention. Note the “saintly” ray of light hitting old Joe. I'm glad this stuff has been preserved.

Don't miss the Russian State Museum, which has a more modern bent, and also includes a room full of enormous Soviet era murals. I like that the collection includes Russian “expats” such as Rothko, Kandinsky, and Chagall, as well as Soviet approved, but not unskilled, representational artists, most of whom have never been heard of outside Russia.

russia st petersburg church our savior on spilled blood 8
The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, built to commemorate the assassination of Tsar Alexander II on that spot. What makes it doubly spectacular is that the decoration is all mosaics, not frescoes.

And, perhaps most impressive are the mosaic-covered walls of the Church of the Savior on the spilled blood, built on the site of the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II. This church definitely merits at least an hour. It's not huge, but the density of decoration and skill of execution is prodigious, and honestly is a tribute to the skill of Soviet restorers.

Built originally at the expense of the royal family as a memorial to Alexander II in the 1880s, the church was ransacked and looted during and after the Russian revolution. During the German siege of Leningrad (as Saint Petersburg was called then) the building was used as a morgue. After the war, it was used as a food warehouse until the 1970s, when it became a museum. Soon after, the restoration began. That restoration took 27 years, and the church was finally opened again–as a tourist attraction–in 1997.

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In the competition of excess, which was the main sport of the Romanov tsars, Catherine the Great's palace takes the prize.

Outside of the center of Saint Petersburg, in the “suburb” of Pushkin, is the palace of Catherine the Great. Honestly it gets slightly tedious moving from one enormous gilded room to another, but I do believe it should be seen. Oddly, I liked the design enough, and the use of the golds and blues is tasteful enough to overlook the inundation of luxuriance. Almost.

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One of the “vistas” of Saint Petersburg: the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, as seen over one of the Saint Petersburg canals.
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Saint Isaac's cathedral, framed by it's lovely park.

Finally, I spoke of the “vistas” of Saint Petersburg. And part of the beauty of the city is the urban landscape especially as it's framed by the waterways and extensive green spaces. In many ways, the city is reminiscent of Stockholm, and if you stretch your imagination a bit, even Venice.

These are only a sample of the dozens of worthy attractions in and around Saint Petersburg. You could allow a week to visit the city and never run out of things to do.

Also keep in mind: given the onerous procedure and expense of getting a Russian visa, you should plan your tour of Saint Petersburg, and the rest of the country, to allow you as much time as possible to see all you want to see.

The center of Saint Petersburg is a Unesco World Heritage site in Russia. For a list of Unesco World Heritage sites in Russia, with links to the ones we have visited, click the link.

Our visit to Saint Petersburg was part of our cruise of the “Waterways of the Tsars” with Viking River Cruises. We were hosted on the cruise by Viking, but any opinions expressed are our own.

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12 thoughts on “Visiting the City Center of Saint Petersburg, Russia”

    • Thanks, Doreen. Saint Petersburg is well worth the hassle. The palaces, museums and churches are really unsurpassed. The whole city is a monument to an autocratic system with unlimited money to spend for self aggrandizement.

  1. I am with Doreen on this – those photos are fabulous! Russia has never been high on my list until recently. . .seeing posts like this that dispel my image of it being drab and gray and then reading A Gentleman in Moscow has me thinking it might just be time to be thinking of a visit!

    • Jackie, I read that book, too, and loved it. So much that when we got to Moscow, we had lunch at the Metropol. It was delicious, btw, although the restaurant was not the same as the one so wonderfully described in the book. I want to get back there when they’re not preparing for the World Cup and get a more nuanced view. But Saint Petersburg is spectacular. We’re so lucky that it wasn’t destroyed by the Soviets and the Germans. Or that what was has been restored, such as the Church on the Spilled Blood.

  2. It is some years since I went to St Petersburg, and I suspect that the city is smarter now than it was then! But I do remember some spectacular buildings, particularly The Hermitage.

    • It’s really quite a nice city. Very clean. I’m not sure if that’s normal, or for the World Cup. But we did love it’s monuments. The Hermitage is spectacular.

  3. We had a day in St. Petersburg on a cruise from Helsinki. Didn’t have the time to peruse all the grandeur. But it was a great visit nonetheless for the vistas!

  4. Absolutely gorgeous images. The Catherine the Great hall reminds me of the Gold Room in the city hall in Stockholm. I’ve really been enjoying seeing some of Russia during the football games. I have no plans of visiting so l will just enjoy through you. :-)

    • Russia is difficult, in so many ways, so I can understand your reluctance. But maybe things will change one day and you’ll get there. A lot of it is worth the hassle.

  5. I can only imagine the opulence and grandeur – and yes, tediousness – of moving from one enormously guided room to another (imagine how they must have felt? ;) ). But what an experience to see just a glimpse of the Tzar culture. Beautiful pictures too, Tom!

    • Thanks, Lori. Sustained opulence can indeed be tiresome. But you do have to appreciate the mindset at the same time. It was a different era, and the dedication to extreme decoration was maybe a political as well as personal necessity.


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