It’s well known that St Petersburg isn’t a cheap destination, and most of its entertainment comes with a price tag. But there are still many attractions you can enjoy for free. From St Petersburg’s elegant parks and sprawling flea markets to stunning Orthodox cathedrals and cutting-edge art galleries, there’s something for every penny-pinching traveller. Here’s our pick of the best free things to do in Russia’s imperial capital.
Make use of free-admission days
Some of St Petersburg’s top museums organise free-entrance days. For the State Hermitage Museum it’s the first Thursday of the month, and for the Kunstkamera the third Thursday each month. Other museums are admission-free throughout the year, for example the Vladimir Nabokov Museum or the Sigmund Freud Museum of Dreams. In many Orthodox cathedrals you also don’t have to pay an entrance fee. While the church architecture is stunning enough from the outside, just wait until you enter – the icon art is breathtaking.
Relax in parks and gardens
If you love the green spaces, don’t miss St Petersburg’s parks and gardens. There are plenty to satisfy any taste: the small, hidden Yusupov Gardens, the royal Mikhailovsky Gardens, the calm Tavrichesky Gardens, or the famous Summer Garden with its marble sculptures. The recently reopened New Holland Island in the city centre is St Petersburg’s latest cultural hub and a haven for artists, writers, professionals and tourists alike.
Stroll around Alexander Nevsky Monastery
The Alexander Nevsky Monastery is the most important Orthodox monastery in St Petersburg; its Church of the Annunciation was the first resting place for the tsarist family. The monastery is magnificent both inside and outside, but for many visitors the major attractions are its four historic cemeteries (which charge a small fee) – this is where you’ll find the graves of Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Roerich and many other great names of Russian culture.
Learn about modern Russian art
You don’t have to spend a fortune on tickets to see modern art in St Petersburg. Some of the city’s most progressive art galleries – Anna Nova (annanova-gallery.ru), Marina Gisich (gisich.com), Art Re.Flex, KGallery (kgallery.ru), Bulthaup (design-gallery.ru) and Name Gallery (namegallery.ru) – don’t charge admission, giving visitors access to enough paintings, sculptures and installations to fill an entire day. On the opening nights you’ll be treated with a glass of champagne and some appetizers; check the websites for dates of new exhibitions.
Browse the bookshops
Bookworms will love St Petersburg’s oldest bookshop, Dom Knigi, and the Bookvoed chain of stores (bookvoed.ru; centrally located shops are open 24 hours). If you aren’t planning on buying a book but still want to read one, you can just pick a title, sit and read it from cover to cover – no one will ask you to leave. These bookshops offer a beautiful collection of art books, obligatory Russian classics as well as a lot of books in English.
Visit a flea market
The biggest flea market in St Petersburg, located in the north of the city, is a place you’ll be telling your friends about for a very long time. ‘Udelka’, as the locals call it (because of its location near the Udelnaya metro station), is an extremely atmospheric place that offers a huge variety of artefacts such as antique icons, hand-painted samovars and, of course, the busts of Lenin. It’s open every weekend.
Explore the underground
The St Petersburg metro (metro.spb.ru) is one of the most attractive and ornate underground systems in the world – not to mention the deepest. Each station has stunning architecture and its own history. The most beautiful stations are Avtovo, Zvenigorodskaya, Narvskaya, Baltiyskaya and Kirovskiy Zavod, so make sure you break up your journey to admire them. The metro is not only a very impressive place but also the most popular way to travel around the city – it’s cheap, fast and efficient – and no matter how far you need to go, you’ll pay the same fare.
Hang out at anti-cafes
The ‘anti-cafe’ (or ‘time-cafe’) concept – which originated in Moscow – has become very popular in St Petersburg. The name means you are not charged for the coffee, snacks and sometimes desserts on offer; instead, you pay for the time spent there. This is perfect if you’re looking for a quiet space where you can relax, play board or computer games or even work if you need to. The oldest anti-cafe in St Petesburg is Ziferblat, but Miracle, Freedom and Ziferberg are also worth checking out.
Take a free tour
Every day at 10:45am, St Petersburg Free Tour (petersburgfreetour.com) offers a 2.5-hour walking tour through the centre of the city, departing from the Alexander Column on Palace Square. The walk covers all the essential sights, and the guides are very passionate and enthusiastic. While the tours are absolutely free, they’re also quite popular so don’t forget to book beforehand.
Hit the Baltic beaches
The northern coast of the Gulf of Finland, with its sandy beaches flanked by pine trees, is a very popular summer destination for St Petersburg residents. A relaxed atmosphere, fresh air, clean beaches and plenty of good restaurants make this a must-visit. If you’re in the city in winter, you can go for a walk on the frozen gulf – the views are overwhelming.