At the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, on the Baltic Sea, stands the city of St Petersburg. In the 18th century, Peter the Great transformed the swampy banks of the Neva River into a fine European-style city, his "window on Europe". Known as Petrograd and then Leningrad, many Russians refer to it as "Piter".
Increasingly cheap flights to St Petersburg touch down at Pulkovo, to the south of the city. The approach to the airport takes in rather grey suburbs and concrete buildings, in stark contrast to the city.
Its attractions are numerous. There are 539 bridges, more than anywhere else in the world. Apart from Peter the Great's modest wooden cabin, and the Winter Palace, main residence of the Tsars and the Hermitage Museum's main building, there are St Isaac's Cathedral and the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, a St. Basil-esque building, a swirl of colourful onion domes, red brick and mosaics.
By far the best time to visit Piter is late May-early June, during the White Nights. As St. Petersburg is the most northern city in the world, the sun does not descend below the horizon enough for the sky to grow dark.
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St Petersburg climate
St. Petersburg has bitter cold winters, marked by freezing winds and heavy snowfall. The average winter temperature is around minus 10 (Celsius), but January and February can be colder. Summers are mild with temperatures around 18 degrees. The summer days are long, and June to early July is the time of White Nights, the twilight that replaces the dark of night.
When to fly to St Petersburg
St. Petersburg is busy with foreign and Russian tourists June through August. Visitors come for the sights and arts and to experience the White Nights.
Late spring and early autumn are good times to search for cheap flights to St. Petersburg and visit. The weather is typically mild, although still unpredictable. Winter has fewer crowds and hotels are easier to come by, but be prepared for the bitter cold.
Getting around St Petersburg
Head out on foot to best experience St Petersburg’s sights and architecture. There are plenty of public transport options for those who don’t feel like walking. You can still get great views of the city by taking a cruise on the Neva River. The metro is a very popular option for both residents and tourists. It’s cheap and fast, but can get very crowded during the day. Buy your tokens or multiple-trip tickets at the station. You can also ride a bus, tram or trolley car.
Buses cover the areas the subway doesn’t. Trolleys are the slowest option. Purchase tickets for any of these from the drivers or at kiosks beforehand. Make sure you validate them when boarding. Marshrutky are minibus shuttles that you can flag down on the bus route. Pay the driver and request a stop when you get to your destination. There are also plenty of taxis, which are inexpensive as well.
Private cars often act as non-metered taxis, so negotiate a fare before you get in. Avoid driving yourself if you can. Roads are often in disrepair, traffic is congested and street signs are in Cyrillic.
St Petersburg insider information
- The Peter and Paul Fortress dates from 1703. It was used as a political prison until 1917, home to residents including Trotsky, Dostoevsky, Gorky and Lenin's older brother, Alexander. The Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul, with its needle-thin spire and weather-vane of an angel with a cross is a must-see. It is where all the Russian Emperors and Empresses from Peter the Great to Alexander III are buried.
- The Palace Square is where you will find the Winter Palace (home to the tsars, now the State Hermitage - the largest artistic, historical and cultural museum), the General Staff Building, the Building of the Ministries and the Alexander Column. The works of Rubens, Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian and many others are on display in the Hermitage.
- St. Isaac Cathedral is the biggest Orthodox Cathedral in St. Petersburg and the fourth-highest cathedral in the world after St. Peter's (Rome), St. Paul's (London) and Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence). The interior boasts walls studded with semi-precious stones.
- The Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood was built on the spot where Alexander II was murdered. The church has brightly coloured onion-shaped domes and the interior is covered in mosaics.
- The Nevsky Prospekt is St. Petersburg’s main street, lined with fashionable shops and cafes.
- The Kirov Central Culture and Leisure Park on Elagin Island is popular with locals. There is an ice-rink in the wintertime, badminton courts and boat trips.
- The Peterhof, Peter the Great’s Summer Palace is about 32km (20 miles) from the centre of St Petersburg.
- The Russian Museum has about 400,000 exhibits. The museum complex includes the Stroganov Palace, St Michael's (Engineers) Castle and the Marble Palace as well as the Mikhailovsky Gardens, Engineering Gardens, Summer Garden (with Summer Palace) and the House of Peter the Great.