Greetings, Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in St Petersburg, Russia. You are a rather adventurous person if you’re looking to spend 24 hours in St Petersburg. People warned me more about Russia than they did about any other country I have been to, possibly as some after-effect of the Cold War. “Russians are mean,” people said. “The food is bad and the police will send you to Siberia.”
As usual, the negative stereotypes were entirely wrong. St. Petersburg is beautiful, the food was very good, people were friendly, and the only encounter I had with a police officer was the one who sat next to me quietly as we listened to a free concert of religious music in a park. The only danger I saw in St. Petersburg is that there are too many fun things to do, and it’s hard to know where to start. Allow me to help you begin to plan a beautiful 24 hours in St Petersburg.
24 Hours in St Petersburg
Where to Stay?
St. Petersburg is one of the most expensive cities in Russia. So if you’re spending at least 24 hours in St Petersburg, and you’re on a budget, but you still want to stay in the city center, your options are limited. That’s why I was glad to find the Nevskaya Classika Hotel. It was right near the Hermitage Museum, so the location was perfect. My room was clean, affordable, and convenient!
24 Hours in St Petersburg
What to Pack?
The weather in Russia is unpredictable, and it definitely rained several times during time in St P. So the two most important things you’ll need to bring are an umbrella and some rain boots. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds blowing over the Neva River.
For rain boots, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them on a stroll about Peter the Great’s city without feeling like some gauche American with gross feet.
Finally, if you’re not from Europe, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. European electrical outlets don’t work with either American or British plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
24 Hours in St Petersburg
Morning: Petersburg Free Tour
I was a little nervous about spending 24 hours in St. Petersburg by myself because I can’t speak Russian, and I didn’t know how welcome an English speaker would be in most places. So I thought it would be a good idea to take a little walking tour of the city to get myself oriented. I’m very glad that I chose this tour because our guide, Anastasia, was very friendly and knowledgeable and her English was flawless.
24 Hour TIP
Please just note that unlike some other free tours, you should register in advance here online. Also, even though the tour is free, I don’t think it’s nice to go on one of these tours and pay nothing.
Many free tour companies make the freelance guides pay the company about 2-3 dollars for each person who goes on the tour. So if you leave no money, you’re really costing the guide 3 dollars. I usually leave the equivalent of fifteen dollars unless the guide does something really amazing. That’s enough to cover the company fee, plus about ten for the guide.
I don’t want to share everything I learned so that you can have more surprises when you take the tour for yourself. But just to whet your appetite, here are:
Approximately top 5: st. petersburg free tour
1) Peter the Great’s statue
St. Petersburg was founded by the Tsar Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century. (That’s ol’ Peg Leg Pete’s statue above.) Don’t let the name confuse you, though! The city is named for St. Peter and not Peter the Great. Tsar Peter was a big fan of European culture and wanted his capital to be like a European city, instead of the more “Russian” old capital, Moscow. So he designed St. Petersburg to be like one of the French or Italian cities he loved so much.
St. Petersburg stayed the capital until the Communist Revolution, at which point the capital was moved back to Moscow. This turned out to be good news for the architecture of the city. Because the Communists weren’t based in St. Petersburg, they didn’t bother to destroy most of the buildings there that were associated with the aristocracy or the tsars.
2) The Alexander Column
The tour began at the Alexander Column outside the Hermitage Museum. The column commemorates the famous Russian victories against Napoleon. You may have read about this time in War and Peace. On the top, it has a statue of an angel holding a cross and squishing a snake with his foot.
Anastasia told us that the angel’s face was designed to look like Tsar Alexander I and that the snake is supposed to represent Napoleon. I think if they wanted to make it clear that the snake was supposed to be Napoleon, they should have made it wear a funny hat and put one hand inside its jacket. But snakes don’t really have hands, do they?
3) The Kazan Cathedral
It is most remarkable for its long curved shape, and it reminded me a bit of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, even though this is a Russian Orthodox church and not a Catholic church. Under the Communists, this church was closed of course and renamed Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. I feel like maybe things would have been better for the Communists if they’d had even a little bit of a sense of humor.
4) Lucky toes
Anastasia told us that young Russians are not very religious, but almost all Russians are superstitious. She took us to the entrance of one of the buildings in the Hermitage Museum complex that features ten giant statues of Atlas, the Titan who holds up the world in Greek mythology.
Anastasia told us that it was good luck to rub one of their big toes and make a wish. I love making wishes on anything because deep inside I have the delusion that I am a Disney Princess, so this was the most fun part of the tour for me.
5) Lunch at Marketplace
We still have half our 24 hours in St. Petersburg left, so you’re probably getting hungry. After the tour, I went to get lunch at a restaurant called Marketplace, which is right on the main boulevard of St. Petersburg, Nevsky Prospekt. Anastasia told us it was a good place to get a “business lunch”, which is an inexpensive set menu available at many places that serve lunch in St. Petersburg. And yes, even in Russian you call it a “business lunch”.
I was very nervous about my first attempt to speak Russian, but all I did was get my tray and say, “Business lunch, pazhalsta (please),” and soon I found myself served with a dish of beet salad, a small bowl of squash soup, and a plate of pasta with meat sauce. It was a surprisingly tasty and filling lunch and, no joke, the whole thing cost the equivalent of three dollars. If this was eating in St. Petersburg, sign me up!
24 Hours in St Petersburg
Afternoon: Grand Maket
If you still feel like you haven’t learned enough about Russian culture, head to the Grand Maket, which is definitely a little off the beaten track for most tourists. If you’re being accompanied by small children during your 24 hours in St. Petersburg, they will certainly thank you for taking them here.
This is because the Grand Maket is a giant model replica of the entire massive nation of Russia. If you get the audio guide, you can learn about everything from the history of the roller coaster (a Russian invention) to the Russian lumber industry. More than anything the Grand Maket makes it obvious how huge Russia is. Don’t forget that it’s the biggest country in the world!
It would be impossible for me to tell you about everything I saw at the Grand Maket, so it’s time for…
Approximately top 5: grand maket edition
1) winter in russia
When I thought of winter in Russia, I usually imagined political dissidents suffering while trying to plant crops out in the frozen wastelands of Siberia. But these snow-covered villages look invited and charming. It needs two things, though. First, a tiny Gordeeva and Grinkov practicing their Olympic routines. Second, a miniature version of Napoleon’s army turning to popsicles.
2) wooden churches
I had no idea that you could make such spectacular buildings out of wood. Apparently most of Russia’s wooden churches are located in the northern part of the country. I think these are modeled after the churches in a town called Suzdal. I’m impressed by the architectural creativity on display here, and I’m also impressed that Stalin apparently never got around to burning them down.
My audioguide informed me that lumber is a major industry in Russia which helps explain where the wood comes from to make the churches. Many of the displays in the Maket have movable parts, so you can actually watch miniature Russian woodchoppers felling miniature Russian trees.
3) cruise ships
Yes, that’s actually a miniature Disney cruise ship on display here. What impressive brand synergy! Disney’s only actual port of call in Russia is St. Petersburg, but this doesn’t look anything like St. P to me. I think it might be Sochi instead. Perhaps Russia is trying to encourage Disney to expand their service in Russia? That seems a little unlikely in today’s political climate.
4) Night lights
The Grand Maket operates on a timer, and every so often, all the lights in the museum will turn off and the exhibits will flex their nighttime lighting powers. Then you have to run around as quickly as possible in order to see what all the regions of Russia look like at night. Just be careful to not accidentally shove a Russian child in your haste!
5) terrifying tiny tanks
The Grand Maket is also where Vladimir Putin trains his tiny army of miniature Russians as they prepare for the imminent tank invasion of the United States. There! Now you’ll have nightmares for a week.
24 Hours in St Petersburg
Late Afternoon: Dinner at Koryushka
Don’t forget that St. Petersburg is on the water, so of course a local specialty is fish. One of the main fish to be found in the waters around St. Petersburg is called koryushka. As you can see from my graphically fishy picture above, they are little fish kind of like smelt. But don’t worry! I don’t think they actually fish them from the Neva River itself because I’m not sure how pollution-free the Neva is.
I ate these fishy friends at a restaurant called (what else) Koryushka located on Hare Island where the Peter and Paul Fortress is. They were fried, crispy, and salty, and went very well with dilly potatoes and a nice ginger lemonade. You can make reservations online, but make sure to have an early reservation. We have a spectacular cultural evening ahead of us!
24 Hours in St Petersburg
Of course you cannot spend even 24 hours in St. Petersburg without visiting the ballet! No one takes ballet more seriously than the Russians. There are several ways to get a ticket. I actually lucked out and had a tour guide offer to buy me a ticket for the ballet free of charge. But she is no longer working in the industry, so I can’t offer that as a choice. I suggest that you either ask at your hotel for help or go to the box office of one of the theaters and buy a ticket the day of the show.
I was doubly lucky because not only did I have a Russian to buy a ticket for me, I also got to see Swan Lake at the Alexandrinsky Theater. This theater dates to the early 19th century and such famous Russian playwrights as Anton Chekhov have had shows performed here. I entertained myself before the show started by gazing at the gorgeous ceilings and red curtains.
It’s very hard to write about a dance especially when you cannot show it, and photography is of course not allowed during the performance. But I was completely floored with how crisp the movements are and how the dancers moved in perfect unison. It reminded me of watching my favorite Russian skaters, the aforementioned Gordeeva and Grinkov. And of course even if you don’t like the ballet, there is always Tchaikovsky’s magical score.
Russian Pronunciation Tip!
I was staying with a Russian woman and told her that I had gone to see the ballet. She was confused and said she didn’t know what ballet was. I was totally baffled until something clicked in my brain, and I said “Ball-ET”, pronouncing the final T. Her face lit up and she understood immediately.
Further Reading: 24 Hours in St Petersburg!
Are you ready to start booking your hotel in St Petersburg? Let me help you out with some further reading! For other suggestions for things to do, I like Lonely Planet’s guide to St Petersburg. The book is divided into chapters according to neighborhood, which makes it easy to use for planning purposes.
Russians are VERY proud of their classic literature, so you’ll be popular if you’re at least a little familiar. But maybe you won’t have time for all of War and Peace. Still, you can impress any Russians you meet by reading one of Tolstoy’s poignant novellas, The Death of Ivan Ilych.
Or you can try some of Chekov’s gorgeous (and occasionally funny) short stories. There’s a reason some people call him the greatest short story writer who ever lived! Plus I guarantee they’re not as long as War and Peace. They’re called short stories for a reason!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in St Petersburg. If you’d like to spend another 24 hours in St Petersburg with the Catherine Palace, try here. If you want to visit St Petersburg with the Russian Museum, click here. If you’d like to spend a St Petersburg itinerary with the Hermitage museum, click here.