Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library, Nat Geo Image Collection
Read Caption

The opulent Spas Na Krovi, or the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, features enameled, onion-shaped domes.

Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library, Nat Geo Image Collection

Cathedrals, canals, and cafés: the ultimate St. Petersburg itinerary

Discover art, cuisine, and culture in this Baltic seaside city.

St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, but the city is actually named after the Saint, who was mythologized in Christianity as the guardian of the keys to the gates of heaven. By picking this name, the Tsar made his plans clear: Petersburg was to be as beautiful as heaven itself. The city was built in extravagant Italian and French architectural styles, showcasing Russia’s European identity while maintaining its traditional character.

For summertime travelers, the weeks surrounding the solstice in June are perfect for long days of exploring and nights illuminated by the midnight sun. St. Petersburg celebrates the season with fireworks (heralding the Scarlet Sails, a red-draped ship that cruises down the banks of the Neva River), festivities, and arts events, including the White Nights Festival. While summer is a quick season in northern latitudes, the city shines year-round. Here’s how to spend three days in this exquisite city by sea.

Day 1: Museums, monuments, and the Mariinsky

9 a.m. Start your day at Ploschad Vosstaniya, or Uprising Square, where you can see a 118-foot-high obelisk topped by a gold star. This monument to Leningrad (St. Petersburg’s name in Soviet times) was inaugurated in May 1985 in memory of the calamitous 900-day siege at the hands of Nazi forces during World War II. The city’s valiant defense earned it the title of “Hero City.”

View Images

Visitors take in views of St. Petersburg while indulging in tea and pastries at Singer café.

9:15 a.m. Nevsky Prospekt is St. Petersburg’s main artery, and gives visitors access to some of the city’s most beautiful buildings, museums, cathedrals, and canals. The key sights in the eastern section are the Anichkov Bridge, known for its horse sculptures and decorated railings; Ostrovsky Square, which has an imposing statue of Tsarina Catherine the Great, one of Russia’s most influential monarchs; the custard-colored Alexandrinsky Theatre, one of the oldest in the country; and Gostiny Dvor, the city’s biggest department store that spans an entire block between Sadovaya and Dumskaya streets.

10:30 a.m. Next up is the crown jewel of Saint Petersburg: the mint-green and white Winter Palace, the former royal residence and State Hermitage Museum. The museum displays artworks that span the ages, from ancient Egyptian artifacts to Renaissance paintings. Don’t miss the Malachite Room, with its stunning green pillars and gold decorations, or Pavilion Hall, which houses the gilded Peacock Clock, an 18th-century mechanical timepiece that still works. You’ll also find entire rooms dedicated to icons, such as Monet, Renoir, and van Gogh.

3:30 p.m. Stop for a late lunch at Café Literaturnoe on the corner of Nevsky Avenue and Moika River Embankment.The two-story, historic café was a favorite of 18th-century writers, poets, and journalists, including Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who is said to have eaten his last meal here. Order comfort food like mushroom soup and chicken schnitzel, or go a little wild with caviar and elk steak.

5:30 p.m. Located in the Shuvalov Palace, the Fabergé Museum is the repository of nine jeweled eggs crafted by Carl Fabergé for the last two Tsars of Russia. The museum also hosts a collection of fine art and jewelry from Russia’s Imperial Era.

7 p.m. The Mariinsky is St. Petersburg’s undisputed venue for opera and ballet. Catch Tchaikovsky’s the “Nutcracker,” which premiered here in 1892, or opt for the theater’s modern rendition of Don Quixote. Tickets often sell out, so book online in advance. Arrive early so you have plenty of time to admire the theater’s architectural elegance and grand interiors.

Day 2: From fountains to frescoes

View Images

The Peterhof estate showcases intricate artwork and neoclassical architecture.

10 a.m. The Peterhof estate, built by Tsar Peter the Great, is the confluence of hydraulic engineering and neoclassical architecture. The 18th-century Grand Cascade, the most majestic of Peterhof’s fountain systems, ushers you to the Grand Palace. Add to that a few more museums and the upper and lower level gardens, and you have splendor par excellence. Most buildings are open all week except Mondays, but the fountains only operate between late May and early October. You can get to Peterhof by land, but the best way to go is by water—just like the Tsars of old. Hydrofoils depart from Dvortsovaya Embankment (just behind the Winter Palace) and a one-way trip takes about 30 minutes.

4 p.m. The point where Nevsky crosses Griboyedov Canal is home to some of St. Petersburg’s most exemplary landmarks. The southwest corner features the magnificent Kazan Cathedral, an early 19th-century structure built in the image of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The church is a must-see for its imposing colonnade and detailed interiors decorated with frescoes depicting the life of Christ. On the northwest corner stands Dom Knigi (House of Books) with its iconic glass tower and globe. For the best views of Kazan Cathedral, head to the coffee shop on the first floor of Dom Knigi.

St. Petersburg’s other iconic house of worship, Spas Na Krovi, or the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, was built on the site of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination. During the Communist-era persecution of religion, Spas na Krovi served as a potato warehouse, and Kazan Cathedral was converted into the Museum of Atheism.

6:30 p.m. Continue admiring the Kazan Cathedral and St. Petersburg’s architecture from a different perspective. Terrassa offers an expansive outdoor terrace, romantic views, and a sumptuous menu that features European and Asian cuisines.

8:30 p.m. Make your way to one of the city’s most beloved sites: Bronze Horseman, which depicts Peter the Great on horseback crushing a snake, a metaphor for his adversaries. The statue has inspired many artistic expressions, including Alexander Puskin’s poem and Vasily Surikov’s painting, both of which are namesakes. During the Siege of Leningrad (1941-44), the statue was shielded under sandbags to shelter it from Nazi artillery because locals believed it had mystical powers that protected the city.

Behind it, you will see the enormous St. Isaac’s Cathedral with its glittering gold cupola and giant granite columns. It is a fine example of neoclassical architecture with Orthodox Russian and Byzantine influences. The 19th-century basilica took 40 years to build, and one look at the stunning gilded interiors will convince you that it was worth the wait.

Day 3: Gardens and gilded spires

9 a.m. Indulge in the ultimate Russian breakfast: blini, or crepes, that can be savory or sweet. Head to Teremok (a chain restaurant) for buttery crepes filled with mushrooms and cream or condensed milk. If you are feeling particularly indulgent, order the blini with ikra (caviar).

10 a.m. Located on Zayachy Island is St. Petersburg’s foundational section and the original fortress: the Peter and Paul Fortress. Established in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, the Fortress has been through many incarnations, including a stint as a political prison. The gilded spire of the cathedral is not only a staple of postcards, it’s also the imperial burial ground. There are tombs of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and the last Tsar, who was executed in Yekaterinburg following the October Revolution that brought the Communist regime to power. The Fortress is also home to the Museum of Space Exploration.

2 p.m. From its fitting name to its zesty menu and snug interiors, Teplo (meaning warmth) serves comfort in many forms. If you are into snail mail, this is a great place to write your postcards. Teplo provides envelopes and stamps, and the staff will mail your letters.

3:30 p.m. With its many exquisite buildings and the largest repository of Russian art in the world, the State Russian Museum could absorb several hours of your day and not feel like enough. The museum hosts a collection of close to 6,000 invaluable icons from a period spanning five centuries.

6 p.m. Wrap up your trip to St. Petersburg with a trip at Gostiny Dvor shopping center. Look for scarves with traditional Russian patterns, and Baltic amber jewelry and ornaments.

10 p.m. In the months that River Neva is not frozen, the drawbridges open to let naval traffic through. It’s a spectacular sight, especially during the summertime White Nights Festival. Start with the Sky Bar at Azimut Hotel, and then make your way to Vasilievsky Island before the bridges open. Watch the magic from the Spit of the Vasilievsky Island. Now that you are “stuck” on Vasilievsky, move between 8th Line, VinoVeka, and Street Food No. 1, all located near Akademichesky Garden. Whichever side of the bridges you end up at, it will be a night you won’t forget.

Aanchal Anand is a travel addict who has been to more than 50 countries across five continents. When she isn't traveling, she is typically coaxing her two cats off the laptop keyboard so she can get some writing done. This story is adapted from National Geographic Traveller India.