How to Have the Best Day in Russia's Culture Capital

What to see and do if you’ve got just one day in this northern gem

You’d need 24 days, not hours, to even begin to see all that St. Petersburg has to offer. But with just one day here, you can get a taste of what makes this Russian gem so compelling. Just a few of these suggestions will be enough to keep you entertained all day, fair warning, though: You’ll be planning your next visit back here before you even leave.

STROLL THE CITY

Once you’ve dropped your bags off at your hotel, turn right around and head out for a walk. There’s no better way to get a sense of St. Petersburg and its unique mix of old and new, industrial and opulent. The city’s main street is Nevsky Prospekt, named after Russian Prince Alexander Nevsky and immortalized in an 1835 story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol. It bisects the city, stretching for three miles. Here you’ll find upscale shops, buzzing cafes, and grand palaces, museums, and cathedrals.

VISIT THE CATHEDRALS

For some of the most stunning sights in St. Petersburg, make your way to two of its historic houses of worship. The multicolored Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, along the Griboyedov Canal, was built as a memorial to the “tsar liberator” Alexander II on the very spot where he was fatally wounded in 1881. Unlike other churches in the city, it was built in the medieval style (think St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow) and completed in 1907. Inside, it’s a mosaic masterpiece, with ornate scenes covering the walls and ceiling.

Next, head to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, whose 333-foot-tall gold dome is a dominating landmark of the city. Completed in 1858 after 40 years of construction, the colossal cathedral is a wonderland of semiprecious stones, metals, and decorative arts. Before leaving, climb up to the colonnade that runs around the dome for unrivaled views of the city.

GET OUT ON THE WATER

Water, not blood, courses through the heart of St. Petersburg. Situated strategically on the Baltic Sea by Peter the Great, it’s one of Russia’s busiest ports. The city itself is crisscrossed by more than 80 rivers and canals. The broad Neva River is the city’s main waterway; stroll along it to see the elaborate architectural details in its granite embankments. From May to September, when the weather is warmer, take one of the many boat tours offered along the banks of the Neva and the larger canals.

TAKE IN A MUSEUM

St. Petersburg is home to some of the finest art and antiquity museums in the world. There’s simply no way to see them all in one day, so choose the very best: the Hermitage Museum. This titan, founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, includes more than three million works of art and cultural artifacts. There are paintings by Rembrandt, van Gogh, Titian, Rubens, and Picasso; sculpture by Michelangelo; galleries of ancient armor and weapons; and much more. The museum’s setting is just as impressive. It fills six buildings along the Neva River, including the magnificent Winter Palace.

EXPLORE A PIECE OF HISTORY

History buffs shouldn’t miss the Peter and Paul Fortress, the city’s original citadel. Established by Peter the Great in 1703, the fortress takes up all of small Hare Island in the Neva River. It never fulfilled its destiny as a defensive fort, but instead has been the site of a notorious prison for political figures, the headquarters of the tsarist secret police, and the site of rocket experiments. Incongruously, it’s also the final resting place for many of the tsars; Peter the Great himself is buried at the front of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which boasts an impressive bell tower.

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SEE THE BEST IN BALLET

St. Petersburg has a storied history in the world of music and dance, especially classical ballet. In 1892, Tchaikovsky premiered The Nutcracker at the grand Mariinsky Theatre, which still shines as the home of the Mariinsky Ballet and the Mariinsky Opera. Mikhail Baryshnikov got his start here, as did Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. Another landmark theater with a long pedigree is the Mikhailovsky Theatre, founded in 1833 by Tsar Nicolas I. Check performance schedules and get tickets far in advance to make sure you don’t miss out.

Washington, D.C.-based writer Nancy Gupton has too many books, too many cats, and a very long list of places to visit.

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