Visit St Petersburg, Russia's second largest city and widely regarded as its cultural capital. Explore the famous landmarks with our expert holiday advice
Built on dozens of islands, criss-crossed with waterways and bridges, it's a big city that's best explored on an escorted tour. Get the inside story from specialist tour operator Jules Verne.
Built 300 years ago on the Neva River, at the head of the Gulf of Finland, it was the vision of Peter the Great who enlisted the finest architects in Europe to create a magnificent city to outshine those he had seen in the west. Visitors today will be wowed by the grand architecture and countless lavish palaces, showing the wealth and opulence of the Romanov Empire. Over the years St Petersburg has welcomed the likes of Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Lenin and today the city's cultural heritage lives on in its world-class art galleries and museums, theatres, churches, and cathedrals.
Visitors should also venture south to the town of Tsarskoye Selo to see the jaw-dropping blue and gold Catherine Palace, the summer residence of the Russian tsars, and the Pavlovsk Palace, an 18th-century Russian Imperial residence built by the order of Catherine the Great for her son.
What to see and do
Start where St Petersburg itself was started, at the Fortress of Peter and Paul, a stronghold built under the orders of Peter the Great in 1703 to guard the mouth of the Neva River. It houses a cathedral that is the burial place of almost all Russian tsars from Peter I to Alexander III, a former prison, and various exhibitions. You'll get spectacular riverside views from its walls, beneath which are beaches where locals sunbathe in the summer. You'll need at least half a day at The Hermitage, one of the world's oldest museums founded in 1754 by Catherine the Great. It boasts the largest collection of paintings in the world, alongside classical antiquities and decorative art. A new wing opened in 2014 dedicated to modern art.
The city's skyline is dominated by St. Isaac's Cathedral, the fourth largest cathedral in the world, where you can climb more than 260 steps for more great city views. Nearby is the Admiralty, the current headquarters of the Russian Navy, and the magnificent mosaic-filled Church on the Spilled Blood, built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Visitors can also explore the sumptuous rooms of the Yusupov Palace, also home to a waxwork exhibition commemorating Rasputin, who was murdered there.
Don't miss: the Fabergé Museum
The Fabergé Museum, home to the world's largest collection of Fabergé eggs, commissioned by the last Russian emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II. It's in the Shuvalov Palace, on the banks of the Fontanka River, restored in 2014 thanks to the efforts of Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian billionaire who has made it his mission to repatriate Russian decorative art sold by the Soviet government in the 1920s and 1930s.
St Petersburg's cuisine
Taking its name from one of the richest noble families in Russia, Beef Stroganoff – small beef pieces in a sour cream sauce and vegetables – is a traditional dish found in many restaurants, alongside Shchi, a cabbage soup that dates back to the 9th century. Also popular are savoury pancakes filled with meat, cabbage, cottage cheese, sour cream or caviar, sometimes stuffed and then fried again.
Travel top tip
The city is particularly beautiful in late May to early July thanks to the midnight sun, a phenomenon caused by its very northerly geographical location which means the sun doesn't dip below the horizon enough for the sky to grow dark. It's when St Petersburg holds its White Nights Festival with classical ballet, opera and music events.
The Catherine Palace and the Pavlovsk Palace are both offered as excursions by Jules Verne on its various Russian escorted tours, some combining St Petersburg with Moscow or with a cruise to and from Helsinki.