The city is enjoying the status of a tourism hot spot. This is number one Russian destination both for foreigners and for Russians. We made up a list of reasons why tourists like coming here and added a few ones ourselves. Nothing unusual, it would just be useful for you to read if you are still hesitating to book a flight to St. Petersburg.
And we have listed 10 reasons not because 10 is a pleasant round figure, it’s just how many we really counted.
1. Open Air Architecture Museum
Saint Petersburg’s nickname «an open-air architecture museum» says for itself. The city is known for its architectural offerings: Baroque, Classiсism, Constructivism, Northern modern, the list goes on. Nonetheless this mixture of styles doesn’t mean the existence of eclecticism, which is the feature of Moscow, for example. On the contrary the city architecture has its own logic, unity, uniqueness, order and rules. Smooth, distinct clear rows of buildings are creating this special city atmosphere, because of which many locals never even are thinking of moving to another city or a country.
What makes St. Petersburg so special is that founded in 1703 it was built not spontaneously, but according to specially worked out plans designated by famous European architectures and urban specialists. That’s why the layout of the city’s downtown is profoundly thought and looks as something holistic despite many reconstructions of the city. Just strolling in the streets is a great attraction itself in St. Petersburg, let alone observing great architectural monuments such as Winter Palace, Dvortsovaya (Palace) square, the St. Isaac Cathedral, the Kazan Cathedral, the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, the Peter and Paul fortress and many other buildings that are parts of the world architecture heritage. The most convenient way to do it is to hop on a city tour bus.
2. Superb Location
St. Petersburg is under 1 hour by plane to four European union states – Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; Moscow is about 1.5 hour, Belarus (Byelorussia), Moldova, Ukraine are about 2 hours. Helsinki can be reached by bus in five hours, with Tallinn, Vilnius and Riga being within about the same time period. By train Allegro you are in Helsinki just after a three-hour trip, to get to Tallinn it takes some more. To put it briefly, St. Petersburg has earned a reputation as a stopover for vacationers willing to visit major cities within Moscow – Baltic – Finland route. A typical journey looks like 1-2-3 days in Moscow, 3-4-5 days in St. Petersburg with a further trip to Helsinki where one day is rather enough and from where it is possible to easily reach Stockholm or Tallinn by ferry.
3. High Level Of Arts
Alexandrinsky Theater at night
Saint Petersburg acquired a reputation as a spot for theatre-goers, fans of painting, ballet-lovers. To be honest, in Moscow, for example, there are tons of museums and theatres too, but it’s St. Petersburg that is widely regarded as the capital of Russian culture. The city really has a wide range of experiences to offer throughout the year, there is no shortage of regular performances of classic shows such as Carmen or The barber of Seville or Swan Lake. A collection of paintings of Pablo Picasso? The Hermitage museum has it. A tour that visits the buildings where the characters of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment lived? No problem, and in the Museum of Dostoevsky you may even come across a descendant of the world-famous writer. We did once. And the Mariinsky theatre’s opera and ballet to top the list. This all is here, ranging from The Black Square by Malevich and Giselle to live performances of Rammstein or Cirque du Soleil.
4. Suburbs: Russian Versailles, Amber Room And Former Closed Military Base
Within an hour ride by bus or by car from St. Petersburg, lie small towns of Pushkin, Peterhof and Kronshtadt.
Pushkin (named after the most popular Russian poet Alexander Pushkin) has the Catherine’s palace which contains the legendary Amber room (and a picturesque park, of course); Peterhof is dubbed The Russian Versailles, and the Internet pictures will show you why; Kronshtadt is a naval base (still in operation) which used to be closed for visitors in the Soviet times, especially for foreigners. What we want to say is that around Saint Petersburg there is a lot of things to do, and you have lots of choices when it comes to spending time beyond The Hermitage, observing architecture and raising bridges. Each of the towns has its own personality and something interesting to offer.
And that is not a full list of suburban and outside-of-St. Petersburg options. There are also Gatchina, Lomonosov, Ivangorod, Valaam and, first and foremost, Vyborg, which we highly recommend.
5. Amazing Photos
You know that as of 2015 the Hermitage permitted making photos free of charge? Except for professional photographing, of course. Take your selfie stick and snap a shot with a Rembrandt in the back.
You can overview the city in many ways: walking, boat trip, double-decked buses (hop on – hop off), a 360 degree views from the height of 40 meters (the St. Isaac Cathedral’s colonnade), views from rooftops and even a helicopter tour over the downtown, so are numerous angles and sights on your pictures.
One of the great things about St. Petersburg is that the city is incredibly picturesque. We usually make 500+ pictures during an ordinary day walk, despite the fact that we are locals.
Get your camera ready and be sure to pack enough flash cards. If you want our advice on how to make the greatest photos for your Instafriends, take into consideration that one of the most exciting features in St. Petersburg are roofs. You cannot visit it within an officially approved tour, but some locals do such tours at their own risk. If you are not willing to run such a risk (though not big one), go up the colonnade of the St. Isaac Cathedral.
6. Easy To Get To
St. Petersburg is very well connected by air network with major cities throughout Europe as well as by trains and coach routes. It’s just 1.5 hour by plane or 4 hours by train from Moscow. You can also use a ferry from Helsinki. Yes, some obstacles occur when you try to get a Russian visa, the process sometimes gets a bit complicated. But the fact that thousands of Europeans and Americans do come here every year tells that the obstacles are removable. One of the most popular ways to get into the city is being a part of a cruise tour which means you don’t need a visa for up to 72 hours.
See also our post How to get to St. Petersburg.
7. White Nights
One of the biggest highlights of visiting St. Petersburg is reading a book in the middle of the night – without using electricity. The astronomical phenomenon is that the sun doesn’t sink behind the horizon completely as it happens in the darker days, and some light is still left on the Earth’s surface. The phenomenon can be seen not only in St. Petersburg, throughout the Northern Europe it’s being observed too, but namely here it is especially elegant. The white nights are not long, officially from early June to early July, though really can be seen already as of late May till the middle of July. If coupled with warm weather (which is not inevitably, unfortunately), the period is the best time for a midnight walk around the city center.
8. Raising Bridges
Just imagine: two parts of a nicely lit bridge are moving from each other. Or one part of a bridge is moving up while the other part of the object stands still. And this all is happening in the middle of the night against a background of the lit facades of the Peter and Paul fortress, the rostral columns and other interesting monuments. Once a bridge is raised, river cargo ships are staring to pass by on the way to the merchant port or directly to clients in European countries. The opening of the Neva bridges is a technological procedure which lets river ships pass along the last stretch of the Volgo-Balt water route on their way to the Gulf of Finland. And, of course, one of the most popular tourist attractions.
9. High Safety Level
Our own experience and travel forums readers’ reports say that St. Petersburg is safe for travelers. Just follow some basic rules, don’t put your wallet into a rear pocket of your jeans, keep your docs in a hotel room or an apartment and you’ll not need to contact the police. Of course, getting pick-pocketed is not unheard of here, but the chance to discover the absence of money or cellular phone is no bigger than in any other European city.
From a global safety standpoint, St. Petersburg has so far been free of terrorist attacks and severe natural disasters (we mean our times, from the second part of the 20th century onwards). The greatest threat here is traffic, since the number of private cars has been increasing with drivers’ skills still being at a low level. You’d rather run into trouble with a car when crossing the Nevsky avenue than with a terrorist hijacking your plane at Pulkovo airport.
Anyway read our article Threats and Safety Tips When Visiting St. Petersburg.
10. Losing Your Illusions
The city gives you a taste of Russian life, and we bet it’s strongly different from what you had in your head before arrival. Many newcomers told us that they had been heading for a poor country crowded by policemen and KGB officers and military men guarding food warehouses from hungry people. Just like a typical picture of North Korea. Upon arrival they all were surprised to know that St. Petersburg (and Russia as a whole) is a rather friendly and tourist-oriented area without bears and tanks in the streets and with long lanes of worldwide brands selling their products to the local middle class. Let alone the absence of suburban (or even central) areas which the police don’t dare to enter as is the case in some highly-developed countries.
How much of Russia in Saint Petersburg and how much of St. Petersburg is contained in Russia? Surely, St. Petersburg is a bit strange to the other part of the country due to its europeness, culture, special atmosphere and so on. But the difference is not that drastic. You will not see big changes in behavior of people, their dressing manners, the way they spend their free time if you travel to Kaluga or Tyumen. And in these cities bears don’t walk along the streets either 🙂
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