10 FREE Things to Do in Saint Petersburg, Russia
De-facto cultural capital of Russia, St. Petersburg is a city of lavish palaces and imperial parks, romantic canals and architectural bridges, art and history, white nights and endless rain. And like many gorgeous European cities, it's quite expensive.
But fear not, my brave voyagers! Visiting St. Petersburg doesn't have to cost you an arm and a leg. These "travel hacks" will show you how to enjoy one of the world's most sophisticated cities on a budget.
Some Essential Tips on Visiting Russia
- The Cold War is still on last time I checked, so if you're an American, you do need a visa to visit Russia. Plan to apply at least a month prior to the trip.
- When in Russia, have your passport with you at all times, or at least a copy of it.
- You are required to register your visa within 7 days of arrival to Russia, although only if you're planning to spend 7 consecutive days in one city. Many hotels register you automatically, but always confirm, or if you're staying at a private residence, register as soon as you arrive.
- Try not to look like a clueless American tourist with your big grin and a fancy camera hanging around your neck - people will try to take advantage of you.
- Don't smile at random strangers out of "politeness" or because you've made accidental eye contact with them - it's not part of Russian culture, and may look weird or suspicious to an average Russian.
- To that end, don't take Russian stonewall demeanor as unfriendliness. Russians are just not into fake social gestures. But if you're genuinely interested in their country, many people will be willing to show you around or help any way they can.
With over 200 museums, St. Petersburg is home to some of the world's most renowned art collections. You'd be remiss not to take advantage of this aesthetic bounty. The key is knowing when.
Most museums have free entrance once a month or on specific days of the year. For example:
- you can admire the splendor of the Hermitage Museum for free on the first Thursday of the month from 10:30 to 17:00;
- if mice with dog faces or an eight-legged lamb tickles your fancy, visit the Kunstkamera, which is one of the oldest museums of oddities in the world. It's free on the third Friday of each month (does not apply to the period from May 1 to August 31);
- The Alexander Pushkin Museum and Memorial Apartment admits all visitors for free on February 10, May 18 and June 6 from 10.30 to 18.00;
- The State Museum of the History of Religion is free for all visitors on the first Monday of each month.
If you can't plan your trip according to these dates, you can always opt for less popular but still historically unique no-entrance-fee museums: The State Monument-Museum St. Sampson Cathedral, The Museum of the History of Photography, Saint Petersburg Metro Museum etc.
2. Peter and Paul Fortress
Peter and Paul Fortress is one of the main symbols of St. Petersburg, and it's free to visit.
This historical complex houses many interesting sculptures and memorials. Among them - the Peter and Paul Cathedral which is a burial place of the Russian royalty, and a rather controversial sculpture of Peter I: the czar's head is comically small compared to his gargantuan body and long ape-like arms. Tourists love taking pictures sitting on the czar's lap. And they say that if you touch Peter's finger, it will bring you wealth.
Not only that, every day at 12 o'clock a cannon fires a blank shot from the Naryshkin Bastion - unforgettable. And loud. And be there by 11:45.
Address: metro Gorkovskaya. The fortress grounds are free, and open daily from 6:00 to 21:00. Entrance to the buildings (open from 11:00 to 18:00 Thursday-Tuesday) will cost you a few bucks.
3. Nevsky Prospect
Nevsky Prospect, the main artery of the city, is best experienced on foot, and it's absolutely free.
Start early in the morning (to avoid crowds) from Ploshchad Vosstaniya Metro Station and walk towards Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad). There's so much to see - Anchikov Palace, Aleksandrinsky Theater, Alexander Nevsky Monastery, Belozersky Palace, Bolshoy Gostiny Dvor, City Duma, Stroganov Palace, and other magnificent sights.
The weather in St. Petersburg can be treacherous and windy (think: San Francisco), so although walking is free, periodically stopping to warm up and rest at one of the gazillion Nevsky cafes will cost you a few bucks or more, depending on a place. (Some are expensive tourist traps. If you want a classy café with moderate prices, check out Café Singer on a 2nd floor of “Dom Knigi” bookstore on Nevsky Prospect, 28 - great selection of pastries with a spectacular view of Kazan Cathedral).
4. Kazan Cathedral
Now that you're rested and pleasantly full from all those sweet Russian blinis, it's time to visit another one of Saint Petersburg's gems - Kazan Cathedral. Built to resemble St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the Cathedral is home to a famous Orthodox icon of Our Lady of Kazan. And like St. Peter's Basilica, Kazan Cathedral features beautiful sculptures, mosaics, paintings and frescoes.
Tip: although not a requirement, most Russian women cover their hair inside the Cathedral. I suggest that you put a scarf or a hat on out of respect. And don't take pictures during the service.
Address: Nevsky Prospect, 25. Admission is free, 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
5. The Bronze Horseman
The Bronze Horseman refers to the statue of Peter the Great - the founder of St. Petersburg, as well as the eponymous poem by Pushkin. It's one of the most recognizable symbols of the city.
Perched on a single piece red granite pedestal, Russian czar is depicted on a horse stumping out a snake (Russia's enemies), his glare transfixed on some site in the distance, perhaps, Russia's glorious future.
Address: Senatskaya Ploshchad, Metro Admiralteyskaya.
6. Site of Pushkin's Duel
Poet and national treasure Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was shot in a duel with the Frenchman Georges d'Anthès on a cold January morning of 1837.
In response to vicious rumors that d'Anthès was courting his beautiful wife Natalia, Pushkin had to challenge the Frenchman to a duel to defend her honor. "It is my misfortune to be a public man," lamented the poet.
He was only 37 at the time of his death. It pains to think how much more sublime poetry he would've written if his heart wasn't stopped by that lethal bullet.
"Baron d'Anthès - may his name be triply cursed," wrote Pushkin's contemporary Smirnov. And it still is. Pushkin was the greatest Russian artist, and his death still looms over Chyornaya Rechka (Black Creek), where the duel took place.
The site is marked with a monument which you can visit for free at the following address: Kolomyazhsky pr, metro Chyornaya Rechka.
7. The Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center
The Pushkinskaya 10 Art Center is an internationally-known art cluster of galleries, museums, concert venues, clubs, studios, and a theater.
It also contains the Museum of Non-Conformist Art, which houses a collection of alternative contemporary art, and is free to visit.
The Beatles fans will be delighted to find The John Lennon Temple of Love, Peace and Music on Pushkinskaya (open every Friday), while the rest can enjoy a number of free exhibitions.
Address: Pushkinskaya 10, metro Ploschchad Vosstaniya.
For 200 years Peterhof ("Peter's yard") was the summer residence of the Russian royalty, and as such, it's an important part of history. The palace was built as a monument to Russia's victory in the Northern War that gave Russia a much needed access to the Baltic Sea.
Because of its unique cultural significance Peterhof was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and in 2008 it was recognized as one of the 7 Wonders of Russia.
You can admire the royal gardens for free anytime except May to October when the fountains work (otherwise it's about $3), and if you want to visit the Grand Palace of Peterhof, you'll have to pay the entrance fee.
Tip: if possible, pick a warm sunny day to fully enjoy the experience, get there early (by 11 am) and bring some snacks and water with you - everything's expensive at Peterhof!
Address: Razvodnaya ulitsa, 2, about 29 km from the city.
9. The Summer Garden
The Summer Garden is a magnificent park complex in the center of St. Petersburg. Initially conceived by Peter I as a garden of fountains, the Summer Garden boasted a sophisticated fountain system that rivaled that of Versailles.
Unfortunately, Peter's fountains didn't survive the flood of 1777, but the Garden is still one of the most beautiful places in St. Petersburg.
Address: metro Gostiny Dvor, next to the Field of Mars and St. Michael's Castle. Open daily 10 am to 9 pm in the summer, 10 am to 7:30 pm in the winter, except Tuesday.
10. Chizhik Pyzhik
Beloved Chizhik Pyzhik, only 11 cm (about 4 inches) tall, is the smallest monument in St. Petersburg, and something of a local legend.
This bronze statue of a siskin, considered the city's good luck charm, is often overlooked or simply unknown to the average tourist. But it's immensely popular among the Russians. So much so that the city has multiple replicas of Chizhik to quickly replace the statue when it's stolen, and it's stolen A LOT.
Why are people zealously stealing a small bird statue? The answer lies in the mysterious Russian soul and, therefore, cannot be clearly communicated nor understood by normal logic. One thing is certain: it is not the statue's value that inspires the thieves, but rather the humor of the situation.
Not only that, Chizhik Pyzhik is a very apolitical, anti-ideological statue in the country that had monuments to political leaders on every corner for 70 years. People appreciate Chizhik's simplicity and happy-go-lucky spirit that is said to help "students to get through unhappy love-affairs and get around on public transport without having tickets." And if you toss a coin and it lands next to Chizhik, it'll bring you good luck. So this quirky attraction is almost free.
Address: embankment wall of the Fontanka river, close to the Summer Garden.
Useful Russian Vocabulary
Yes – Да (da)
No – Нет (nyet)
Hello (informal)! – Привет! (priVET)
My name is ... – Меня зовут ... (meNYA zoVUT...)
Thank you – Спасибо (spaSIbo)
Please (and "you're welcome") – Пожалуйста (poZHAlusta)
I’m sorry – Извините (izviNIte)
I don’t understand. – Я не понимаю. (ya ne poniMAyu)
I don’t speak Russian. – Я не говорю по-Русски. (ya ne govorU po RUSski)
Do you speak English? – Вы говорите по-Английски? (vi govoRIte po angLIski?)
Help me! – Помогите! (pomoGIte)
Where is the bathroom? – Где туалет? (gde tuaLET?)
One ticket, please. – Один билет, пожалуйста. (oDIN biLET, poZHAlusta)
How Would You Spend Your Time in St. Petersburg?
© 2016 Lana Adler