This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. Please see my full disclosure for further information.
Things to do in St Petersburg, Russia: a two day itinerary (highlights of St Petersburg and Peterhof) and travel tips (visa information, where to stay, where to eat) especially for cruise guests.
Dreams can come true.
That’s what I keep singing every time I think of my amazing trip to St Petersburg.
This city has always been on my bucket list. And I ticked it off only in 2019, after years of traveling and sailing.
What a wonderful feeling!
The first thing about St Petersburg that impresses you is how big it is. Everything is huge! Majestic palaces, colossal churches and wide streets. It feels like you’re walking in the city of giants!
If you arrive in St Petersburg without a plan you might feel a little overwhelmed. Because there are so many things to do and see in St Petersburg that it’s not easy to come up with an itinerary, especially if you are short on time.
For example I took a Baltic cruise and I only had two days to explore St Petersburg.
I spent the first day visiting the highlights of St Petersburg and the second day in Peterhof, the magnificent palace of Peter the Great. And I suggest you do the same because Peterhof is spectacular and you absolutely cannot miss it.
If planning your itinerary in St Petersburg is driving you insane, relax! Stop scratching your head. I’m here to make your life easier.
Well ok, your life maybe not, but your trip to St Petersburg, that yeah, I can do!
I made a one-day itinerary of the best things to do in St Petersburg. This itinerary is especially for cruise guests who don’t have much time.
At the end of the article I will also give you some information about visas, papers and other boring stuff you need to know before planning a trip to St Petersburg, Russia.
But now let’s focus on our itinerary!
Can you make me a promise though? Do you promise me that you will come back to St Petersburg and spend more days in this beautiful city? I will do it for sure and I promise you I will write another article with an itinerary at a way slower pace.
All right! Now have a huge breakfast (I’m sure that you won’t have a problem with that on a cruise ship) and get ready to visit this amazing city!
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA: TWO DAY ITINERARY.
DAY ONE: HIGHLIGHTS OF ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA.
My friend Cinzia and I started the day with a nice walk along the Neva River.
Little spoiler: we walked a lot! Both because we like it but also to feel less guilty for eating tons and tons of Russian donuts (absolutely delicious but I’ll get back to you with that).
Our first stop is the Russian Cruiser Aurora, the historic ship of the October Revolution that led to the end of the Russian Empire.
THE CRUISER AURORA.
The Cruiser Aurora has seen it all!
In particular Aurora is famous for firing in 1917 the blank shot that represented the signal for the assault on the Winter Palace.
If you are interested in its history you can get on board and visit the museum of the Russian Naval History of the 20th century.
We salute Aurora and head to one of the most important places in St Petersburg: Peter and Paul Fortress.
On your way there you will pass by St Petersburg Mosque, the largest mosque in Europe at the time of its opening in 1913.
PETER AND PAUL FORTRESS.
We can say that Peter and Paul Fortress is the birthplace of St Petersburg. In fact St Petersburg was born with the creation of the Fortress, the citadel founded in 1703 by Peter the Great.
Well it looks like Peter the Great didn’t spare any expense on his fortress! The Russian Emperors were not certainly famous for their modesty after all!
The Fortress is on the Island of Hares and includes a few buildings like Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, the Grand Ducal Mausoleum, the State Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg, and the Museum of Space Exploration and Rocket Technology (wow!!).
The highlight of the Fortress is definitely the Orthodox cathedral with its gilded bell tower. In the cathedral you can find the tombs of the Russian Emperors.
Our neck hurts from staring up at the bell tower. Let’s relax our head for a bit and enjoy the beautiful view from the beach (I wonder if anybody has ever dared to swim!).
That beautiful palace on the opposite side is the Winter Palace, one of the landmarks of St Petersburg, which belongs to the world famous Hermitage Museum.
It doesn’t look very far, does it? Let’s get there then!
WINTER PALACE (HERMITAGE MUSEUM).
Let’s start with a little fun fact. Why is the Hermitage called the Hermitage?
“Hermitage” means a place where you can live on your own. And that’s exactly what Empress Catherine the Great wanted in her own personal pavilion of the Winter Palace.
Do you ever have those moments where you want to be all alone in your room, away from everybody else? So did Catherine! Just with a few extra squared meters!
And what do you do then? Don’t you start decorating your own personal space to your taste?
And again, that’s precisely what Catherine did! She started filling her own “little hermitage” with artworks that she purchased from several European merchants. Artwork after another, her personal collection became the world famous Hermitage Museum with over 3 millions artworks!
Just like when you go to the supermarket to buy some milk and come back with enough food to feed the Bolshevik army (since we are in Russia).
Ok another “do you know why”. Do you know why the Winter Palace is called the Winter Palace? This is way easier to guess! Because the Winter Palace was the winter residence of the Russian Emperors. Big round of applause!
It was built between 1754 and 1762 to a design by the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli and here many events of Russian history took place.
There are 1500 luxurious rooms in the palace!
If you want (ehm ehm must) visit the Hermitage, the main collection is in the “Main Museum Complex” that includes the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the Great Hermitage, the New Hermitage, and the Hermitage Theater.
Not far from the Hermitage there is Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, another example of the Russian “simplicity”.
SAINT ISAAC’S CATHEDRAL.
Here comes the magnificent Saint Isaac’s Cathedral! Like the luxury in the Winter Palace wasn’t enough!
Gilded dome, luxurious decorations, golden mosaics and columns of precious stones. I personally loved the malachite columns. Absolutely beautiful!
I mean, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral was at the time the church that cost the most in Europe for its construction!
And talking about records, it’s the second tallest Orthodox church (after the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow) and its dome is one of the biggest in the world.
Let’s now walk along the Moika, one of the branches of Neva river’s delta, to get to Kazan Cathedral.
Kazan Cathedral is in Nevsky Prospekt, the main street of St Petersburg.
It was built between 1801 and 1811 and dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, very much loved by Russians.
The design of the church was inspired by Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The original project wanted two rows of columns but for some reason they only made one.
Walk now along Griboedov Canal to get to the last stop of today’s itinerary: the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.
Before you get to the church you will see on your right the Russian Museum that includes many Russian artworks.
CHURCH OF THE SAVIOR ON SPILLED BLOOD.
Well our “do you know why” here comes quite naturally.
Do you know why the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood has such a “joyful” and “happy” name?
Because it was built over the spot where Emperor Alexander II was killed in an attack in 1881. Two years later his son Alexander III built the church in memory of his father.
A canopy inside the church indicates the exact spot where the emperor died.
Despite its very very creepy name, the church is absolutely beautiful with its cute colorful little domes, typical of Russian architecture.
Between the landmarks of St Petersburg this church is for sure the one that I wanted to see the most. The one that really made me feel I was in Russia. Besides wearing three sweaters in August!
DAY 2: PETERHOF.
A must-see attraction in your trip to St Petersburg is for sure Peterhof, the summer residence of the Emperors of Russia until 1917.
Wonderful! In fact it is one of the “Seven Wonders of Russia“. And UNESCO World Heritage Site. So yes, Peterhof is definitely something!
Peterhof’s Palace was built between 1714 and 1723 by order of Peter the Great. It is an outstanding complex of palaces, gardens and extraordinary fountains that alone are worth the trip.
PETERHOF: UPPER GARDENS AND LOWER GARDENS.
Well there are two areas in Peterhof: the Upper Gardens and the Lower Gardens.
The Upper Gardens have free entry and include five main fountains.
But the highlights of Peterhof are in the Lower Gardens and they do have an entry fee (of course!!). The Lower Gardens include the Grand Palace and the largest fountain complex in the world!
The star of all fountains is for sure the Grand Cascade with its bright and shining golden statues that almost make you blind. The most famous statue is the statue of Samson, that hot guy in the middle tearing a lion’s jaws with its biceps.
What a macho man!
HOW TO GET TO PETERHOF FROM ST PETERSBURG.
Peterhof is about 30 kilometers from St Petersburg. Close but not that close.
I think that public transportation isn’t the best option. You can do it of course, but it does take some time.
My advice is to take a taxi. You save time and it’s quite cheap. I mean, quite cheap if a Russian orders a taxi for you. We asked the receptionist at our hotel to book a taxi for us because locals have special fares.
Now the problem is the taxi from Peterhof to St Petersburg because that one, that is expensive!
So the best option is a taxi from St Petersburg to Peterhof and Hydrofoil from Peterhof to St Petersburg. The Hydrofoil is a boat that takes you right in front of the Hermitage Museum.
ATTENTION!! ATTENTION!! The Hydrofoil comes and goes from the pier in the Lower Gardens that as you know already have an entry fee.
Once you leave the Lower Gardens you can never come back. It sounds like a terrible curse but I really want to insist on this point because this is exactly the mistake we made.
We exited the Lower Gardens and wanted to get back to get the Hydrofoil but we got a big fat NO. No way!
And no. Making eyes won’t work either!
When you leave you don’t come back. End of the story.
So here’s my advice. Taxi from St Petersburg. Visit the Upper Gardens. Visit the Lower Gardens. Don’t get out of the Lower Gardens for any reason. Take the Hydrofoil back to St Petersburg.
Read a second time and repeat after me!
WHERE TO BUY YOUR TICKET FOR PETERHOF.
You can buy your Lower Gardens ticket online. As for the Grand Palace, you can buy your ticket online only from October to April, when the entrance to the Lower Gardens is free because the fountains are closed. For obvious reasons I would say. Brrrr, so cold!
So in summer you can only buy your ticket for the Grand Palace right on the spot. But be aware that there are only two scheduled visits and the line is usually huge.
Basically it might be complicated to visit the Upper Gardens, the Lower Gardens and the Grand Palace all together in one day, especially if you are short on time. Unless you book a guided tour.
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA: TOURIST INFO AND TRAVEL TIPS.
And now here’s the boring stuff that I promised.
Just kidding. It’s just that all the bureaucracy and the visas, and the invitation letter, are a little complicated.
But! I will also write about exciting things, like what to eat and where to stay. Two things that definitely play a major part in a trip!
But duty first! About papers and letters…
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA: VISAS AND DOCUMENTS.
Ok. Where do I start?
Let’s say first that to enter Russia you need a visa.
Now St Petersburg has recently given tourists from certain countries the opportunity to visit the city with an electronic visa. You can check here if your country is listed but beware that you cannot leave Leningrad Region with that visa (meaning the region of St Petersburg). So basically you can’t go to Moscow. But I will keep you posted because it looks like Russia is considering extending this new electronic visa solution to the whole territory.
At the moment you can freely move within Russia only with a regular visa.
So here’s how it works. You book a hotel room. They give you an invitation letter (whether for payment or free of charge) together with the booking confirmation. You bring your passport, your invitation letter and a nice picture of you to the embassy and come back a few days letter to collect your passport with your brand new visa on a page. You also get your name printed in Russian! So cool!
So keep in mind that when you go through the visa application, you will have to stay without your passport for a while.
Now THE QUESTION. If I change my mind about the hotel? Since they have given me the invitation letter do I have to stay in that specific hotel?
No. It’s an invitation letter, not a blood pact. Let’s just say that you need the invitation letter to request the visa, then you can sleep wherever you want. Of course, it comes to common sense. If you invite someone and they don’t show up, you get a little bit upset, don’t you?
THE OTHER QUESTION. If I travel on a cruise do I need a visa? The answer is not that simple.
You don’t need a visa if you book a shore excursion on board. Not even if you take part in a guided tour where they pick you up and drop you off at the cruise terminal. But you can’t visit the city on your own.
I’ll explain better. You can go on a tour of the highlights of St Petersburg but once it’s over you can’t leave the ship to have a stroganoff and a glass of vodka.
So if you want to be free to visit St Petersburg as you please then you can only do that if you have a visa, even if you are on a cruise.
Anyway if you have any doubts you can take a look at this fabulous blog Russiable. Here I found a lot of information about anything I needed to know for my trip to Russia.
Wow, that was hard! Now we can finally talk about the fun stuff!
WHERE TO EAT IN ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA.
From the bottom of my heart I recommend these two restaurants: Katyusha and Bellevue. They are very different from each other but they do have two things in common: amazing food and great location!
Katyusha is in Nevsky Prospekt and has a unique ambiance. It feels like you are in a dollhouse. So cute!
The waitresses are all in traditional dresses and everything is so yummy.
We had some pelmeni (D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S meat filled dumplings served with sour cream that I A-D-O-R-E) and a stroganoff (sautéed ground beef with onions, mushroom and sour cream).
A completely different atmosphere waits for you at Bellevue Restaurant, located on the rooftop of the elegant Hotel Kempinski.
It’s the perfect restaurant if you fancy an exclusive candlelight dinner with a magnificent view of St Petersburg.
We ordered again the stroganoff: D-I-V-I-N-E!
Other traditional dishes include of course caviar (black or red) and soups of meat, cabbage and potatoes.
And of course the donuts! I told you I would get back to you with that!
There is a small place in the city where they sell super cheap and delicious donuts. Everybody in St Petersburg knows about this place, that’s why there’s always a huge line. But trust me. It’s absolutely worth it!
I’m talking about Pyshechnaya and it’s by Nevsky Prospekt. What a perfect snack break!
Make sure you have some rubles with you because they don’t accept any other currency neither a credit card.
We found out too late when we were already at the counter but luckily the sweetest guys ever bought us the donuts. SPASIBA!
WHERE TO STAY IN ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA.
I know. Traveling on a cruise and booking a hotel room doesn’t sound too good. But it’s very convenient. For two reasons.
First of all, because if you book a hotel room to get your invitation letter, why not stay after all?
Second, it’s not that easy to come and go from the ship because each time you have to go through immigration. It’s not that fun, is it? And the cruise terminal is quite far from the city center.
Besides hotels in St Petersburg are quite cheap!
So yes. Even if you have your fancy cabin in your fancy ship, it’s still better to stay in a hotel in the city.
We stayed at Liteyny Hotel. We had a very good stay, rooms are clean and simple, everyone is very kind. They helped a lot, they booked taxis for us and stored our luggage after check out.
They just have an elevator that could fit well in a horror movie but once you get used to it you might even like that thrill!
Nice breakfast included and quite central location (about two kilometers from the Hermitage Museum, perfect to sweat off donuts and stroganoff!).
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA: GENERAL INFORMATION.
Time: GMT +3 (no time difference in summer)
UE Country: No
Schengen Country: No
Roaming UE: No
And here we are at the end of my article.
As you see, you can totally visit St Petersburg in two days. You just need a little bit of planning that’s all. Especially concerning visas and papers.
You also want to choose what to visit according to your preference and how much time you have. I visited Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood but I did want to visit more!
Starting with the Hermitage. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to go inside the museum because it would have taken me too much time to visit properly.
So I leave you with the promise that I made at the beginning. Which is to come back to St Petersburg and stay longer next time. The first thing I will do is going to the Hermitage. And you?