The names that people in Russia call St Petersburg often give visitors the wrong impression. "Venice of the North" makes it sound dainty, when around its elegant streets and mesmerising art is a chaotic city of five million people. "Window to Europe" doesn’t fit either, as its days of looking at Europe from the outside are long gone. Russians have another name for their city of beauty and commotion, history and innovation: simply "Piter". Here's how to best experience Piter in a couple of days.
Wake up to a Russian breakfast of blinchiki (pancakes) with sour cream or caviar at Yat restaurant, on the embankment beside the River Moyka. From there it’s a short walk to St Petersburg’s heart – the State Hermitage Museum. You could spend a lifetime exploring the Hermitage's five buildings and still not see all of its art and treasures. If you only have a couple of hours but want to see something unforgettable, find the rooms with paintings by Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Rubens.
From the Hermitage, take a walk through the sumptuous Palace Square, then stop by Yusupov Palace – where Grigory Rasputin was murdered in 1916 – and Peter and Paul Fortress, where Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov family are buried.
After a morning breathing in Piter's classicism, spend the afternoon in some of its more eccentric places. Start with a European lunch served with a modern Russian twist at Schengen restaurant. Then brave a visit to Кunstkamera, also known as the Museum of Oddities, where exhibits include centuries-old two-headed embryos in jars. Kunstkamera is opposite the Hermitage and Winter Palace, on the other side of the River Neva.
Later on, take it a bit easier in the entertainment park on New Holland island. New Holland is a favourite spot for young couples and families with children: here you can stumble upon concerts and modern art installations, and find some more experimental places to eat.
After dinner, a performance at the Mariinsky Theatre is a decadent but affordable night out. Or for something more lowbrow – but just as quintessentially St Petersburg – go to the streets around Sennaya Ploshchad for a bar crawl. Piter, after all, is the home of the mega-popular Baltika lager and Tsarskaya vodka, and is also the centre of Russia's evolving craft beer and cocktail scenes.
Start your day with breakfast on the city's central boulevard, Nevsky Prospekt. Ring the buzzer on the unmarked door at number 81, and Ziferblat will introduce you to the Russian concept of an anticafe. Here the tea, coffee and cake are all free; what you pay for is the time you spend in this cosy room, playing chess or board games (and, just as often, meeting new people).
Close to Nevsky Prospekt is the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. Its heart-stoppingly beautiful domes are one of the most iconic sights in the whole of Russia – as well they might be, as they mark the place where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Finish your morning by stepping inside the Russian Museum, to see paintings by the Russian masters Repin and Shishkin, or by climbing to the top of St Isaac’s Cathedral, for a panoramic view that shows the scale of Europe's fourth-largest city.
For lunch, sample some food from St Petersburg's many international communities, with sushi or Georgian khachapuri (cheese bread) somewhere on Nevsky. Then stock up on Russian treats at Kupetz Eliseevs, St Petersburg's fanciest department store, housed in just one exquisite room.
If you are in the city during the White Nights festival between May and July, spend a long summer afternoon in Peterhof, the former palace and gardens of Peter the Great. Peterhof is about 30km from the centre of the city, and is reachable by train, metro and marshrutka bus (or in summer, on a boat along the Neva from outside the Hermitage). One of the highlights is the Lower Park, a beautiful green space that includes the Grand Cascade, a collection of fountains that Peter himself designed. If you are in Russia during the winter and the night is drawing in, take a shorter journey instead to Udelnaya Fair, an enormous flea market in the north of the city, and wander past the stalls full of Tsarist and Soviet-era nostalgia.
For a last dinner in St Petersburg, step back in time with an old-fashioned Russian supper at Severyanin restaurant.
You might also like:
The ultimate guide to historic St Petersburg
Five great day trips from St Petersburg
Beyond the Trans-Siberian: travelling Russia's unexplored northwest by train