A first timer’s guide to St Petersburg: explore Russia’s bohemian ‘Venice of the North’

A first timer’s guide to St Petersburg: explore Russia’s bohemian ‘Venice of the North’

Explore Russia’s majestic second city like an insider and beat the crowds with our expert guide to help you plan your journey — and what to do once you get there.

4 March 2020
Header image: Daria Piskareva and Serj Berezkin

When to visit

Experience the city at its most romantic (and most hospitable,) during the city’s famous White Nights, the period from the end of May to mid-July when the night sky only ever reaches twilight. Celebrations culminate in the White Nights Festival, where the city dances through the ever-present dawn.

Sevkabel Port. Image: Egor Rogalev

Where to stay

If you’re new to St Petersburg, the Tsentralny, or Cental District is the place to be. Located close to the city’s most iconic landmarks and offering a vast range of restaurants, bars, and art galleries, Tsentralny is the beating heart of the city.

If you’re travelling on a budget, our favourite is Late Breakfast Club Hostel, an affordable yet cosy hotel hidden in a tranquil courtyard, or Taiga, a designer hostel with scattered artwork and birch-lined walls.

Those who want to indulge meanwhile, should head to the old-fashioned glamour of the historic Grand Hotel Europe, boasting the same opulent mahogany and gold interiors that have attracted celebrity visitors throughout the years — including composers Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy and writer H.G Wells.

Grand Hotel Europe. Image: courtesy of Belmond Grand Hotel Europe

​Literature lovers, however, might feel more comfortable at the Brothers Karamazov Hotel, Dostoyevsky’s former residence. The building itself is conveniently located in the centre, yet away from the buzz of Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg’s main artery. Alternatively, experience the city’s long-gone imperial chic at Turgenev House, a swanky alternative to a hotel in the 19th century house where writer Ivan Turgenev lived for two decades.

Getting around

If you’re travelling from the airport, the 39 or K39 buses run to the Moskovskaya metro. Taxis to the centre take approximately an hour and should only be booked at the official counter in the arrivals hall, or via a mobile app — choose Gett, Uber or Yandex Taxi. It shouldn’t cost more than 1500 roubles (around £20).

The best way to get around the city itself meanwhile, is either on foot and by metro. To get a sense of St Petersburg, in all of its grand and imperial, shabby and decaying, bohemian and intellectual glory — you have to walk it. When you’re tired, hop onto the metro (tickets are a fixed price regardless of where you go) and enjoy the palatial marble and gold platform interiors that define socialism’s greatest subway systems.

St Petersburg metro. Image: Peter H under a CC license

What to see

It is popular wisdom that St Petersburg was designed to be empty, and that’s how it looks its best. The starting point of your trip should be Palace Square, a grand open space that encapsulates the essence of the city itself: perfectly planned and intimidatingly beautiful. It’s also where you can lose yourself in the Hermitage and its awe-inspiring collection of fine art. Continue walking one way down Nevsky Prospekt, and you’ll reach the intricate, pastel-coloured beauty of the Cathedral on the Spilt Blood, perched over the canal itself. The only thing more exquisite that the exterior decoration are the painstakingly-created mosaics you’ll see inside.

Turn the other way and you’ll be able to walk to the lavish St Isaac’s Cathedral, originally intended to be the main church of the Russian Empire, and marvel at its grandeur: each column around the base of the site is constructed from a single block of red granite weighing 80 tonnes a piece. Climb the stairs to admire the jaw-dropping view from its splendid golden dome.

View from St Isaac’s Cathedral. Image: Egor Rogalev

Slightly further away from the centre, take the metro or walk to Theatre Square and admire the splendour of the Mariinsky Theatre — perhaps taking the time to book a ticket to sample the eclectic variety of its opera and ballet programme, ranging from the classical to the avant-garde. Otherwise, cross the picturesque Troitskiy Bridge to visit the Peter and Paul Fortress, which includes a magnificent cathedral, several museums and breathtaking views of the city.

Mariinsky Theatre. Image: Sergejf under a CC license

As you walk, take a look at the buildings you pass: St Petersburg is home to some of the finest entrance halls and staircases in Europe, serving as unofficial museums to the city’s quotidian life. Adventure into stairwells and sweet-talk your way past concierges and residents on the upper floors and climb to iconic St Petersburg rooftops — the sight alone are enough to justify the journey.

Where to eat and drink

While often considered Russia’s most classical city, St Petersburg’s rising gastronomic scene proves that when it comes to eating and drinking, Russia’s second city is nothing if not modern. If you want an authentic taste of Russia, take a trip into the Soviet era at Mayak. Serving up borscht and nostalgia in equal doses, Mayak conjures a sense of the past with portraits of Lenin, Dzerzhinsky and Marx against dark wood paneling. Embrace the cliché and order yourself a plate of boiled eggs and red caviar from the uniformed waitresses. For a more contemporary taste of St Petersburg meanwhile, head to Co-op Garage, a mouthwatering pizza joint in a hidden courtyard, or Butilka, a former prison-cum-restaurant and contemporary art hub.

The courtyard at Co-op Garage. Image: courtesy of Co-op Garage

Sightseeing is exhausting, so if you want to grab food on the go, then make sure you fuel up with pyshki: legendary local ring donuts available in several chain shops. Head to the pyshechnaya, or donut shop at 25 Bolshaya Konyushennaya Street, which has been operating since 1958 and has barely changed over the past 60 years. As well as meeting the venue’s resident cat, you can tuck into a delicious sugary donut for just 12 roubles (approx. £0.10).

You can also grab your chance to take a sip of Leningrad bar-hopping culture and indulge in the debauchery of the Petersburg intelligentsia at Khroniki, a cosy pub known for its nastoiki (dry, sweet alcoholic infusions). Try the house cocktails, and engage in existential conversations at the countertop with music journalists, philologists, woodwork masters and other regulars of the St Petersburg scene. If the night is still young, then Nekrasova Street to the north of Nevsky Prospekt is probably where the party’s at. Stop by Dead Poets, Brimborium or Bazin, a bohemian Soviet drinking house boasting an impressive collection of classic films and cult oddities.

Khroniki. Image: courtesy of Khroniki

Where to party

Looking for a club to dance the white nights away? Stroll along the Griboyedov Canal and check out Yus Yus, a two-room, neon-red establishment with a 1990s house party vibe. Alternatively, head to Pif Paf, a decadently hip bar which also functions as a hairdressers with a party about to start within its tinsel-covered walls. If that hasn’t got you up and dancing, Tantsploshadka, an old-time St Petersburg nightlife cluster where Caribbean disco and upbeat electronica fill the dance floor, is just a few minutes’ walk from the picturesque Savior on the Spilled Blood cathedral. A little further on Liteyni Avenue, you’ll also find Union — a vibrant bar hosting disco halal, fem-punk performances, acoustic concerts, experimental psychedelic sounds, alongside regular club nights.

If you’re willing to travel a little further for a night to remember, head to the seafront of Vasilevsky Island: a vibrant creative cluster rejuvenating a post-industrial corner of the city’s harbour. Outsider music club Machty’s remote location might be the best reason to visit, with no neighbours to complain as the party gets wild after midnight.

Watch out!

If you’re coming to St Petersburg in the summer, then watching the city’s drawbridges slowly rise to allowing passing boats to travel through the centre is a must. Both locals and visitors alike gather at Palace Bridge to see it open up above the waters of the river Neva.

Bridges drawing at night. Image: Andrey Korzun under a CC license