St. Petersburg, Russia, is known for its historical European architecture. And this port town that sits on the Neva River makes a great place to visit for those interested in culture and sophistication. With genuine ties to Europe and a flourishing art and ballet scene, the second biggest city in Russia does not lack for things to see. Still, traveling to Russia is expensive (especially if you're coming from the west), making the city's free activities attractive to those wanting to stick within a budget. Visit the famous Bronze Horseman, take a stroll along Nevsky Prospekt, or admire the fountains on the grounds of the Peterhof without ever spending a penny.
At the spot where the Nevsky Prospect (St. Petersburg's main street) meets the Neva River lies one of the most grandiose squares from Russia's imperial times. Walking through the triumphal arch from Bolshaya Morskaya Street brings you to the Winter Palace of Peter the Great (now, the Hermitage Museum). The column in the center commemorates the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812. This is a great place to embark on your self-led and free tour of St. Petersburg.
Many songs, poems, stories, and book scenes have been written about Nevsky Prospekt. This street represents the heart of St. Petersburg history, but is also home to the city’s best shopping and nightlife. Walking along Nevsky Prospekt you will find the Kazan Cathedral (go inside for free), Dom Knigi (a fantastic bookstore), Gostiny Dvor (a nineteenth-century shopping mall), and a monument to Catherine the Great, among many other amazing sights.
This statue of Peter the Great—commissioned by Catherine the Great—was very controversial because Catherine ordered the inscription to say "To Peter I from Catherine II, 1782," thus attempting to legitimize her place on the throne. She actually had no legal claim to the throne, as she was a German princess. Still, this statue was an attempt to represent herself as his heir. The Bronze Horseman became a symbol of the city when Pushkin, one of Russia’s greatest poets, wrote a famous poem about it in 1833. Today, you can visit this iconic symbol fashioned atop its pedestal on your way to Palace Square, Nevsky Prospect, or other historical attractions.
The Kissing Bridge crosses the Moika River and offers a lovely view of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. Historically, it's considered St. Petersburg's sanctuary for lovers and a place to visit with that special someone. It is said that lovers who kiss on the bridge will have a happy life together—and the longer the kiss, the greater the happiness that awaits them. It is also a spot to bid farewell to loved ones, as someone who is kissed on the Potseluev Bridge will most certainly return to your life.
This monastery, named after the patron saint of St. Petersburg, is the city's oldest and one of its most revered holy places. It is still a functioning monastery, which is free to tour and well worth a visit. It's yellow and pink exterior lends brightness to any drab Russian day and the mosaic above the monastery's gate represents the intricate artisanal work that went into adorning the building. Many famous artists are buried in the cemetery grounds, but to enter the graveyards, an admission fee is required.
Visit the eastern tip of Vasilyevsky Island for a breathtaking view of the city of St. Petersburg. This landmark was one of Peter the Great’s favorite areas of the city and one of the focal points of its maritime trade. Today, it's decorated with two large columns depicting Russia’s four great rivers. In the summer, the surrounding fountains dance to classical music in this region where great Russian symbolism meets the sea.
The Peterhof can be considered the Versailles of St. Petersburg. And just like Versailles, you have to pay to enter the buildings of this most popular attraction. However, the royal gardens are free to visit. Spend several hours wandering around the beautiful parks and admiring the fountains built for Catherine the Great. And when you've had enough, maybe this is one attraction you should spring for and go inside.
Tour the Cruise Aurora
The Aurora battleship played an important part in the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It was built in 1900 and is now docked in St. Petersburg and maintained by cadets from the local naval school. Visit the ship and its small onboard museum for free and to peruse more than 500 original documents, photographs, and items representing the story of how this ship influenced Russia's history. The tour is quick and the boat's restoration is magnificent, featuring a meticulous paint job and shining brass work.
The Bolshoy Dom (literally translated to mean “The Big House”) was constructed in 1932 to house the State Security Committee (KGB). President Putin worked here before he transitioned into politics and it is currently a government building housing the Department of Federal Security Service (FSB). While you can’t go inside, you can still marvel at its architecture from the street. Check out the building' s pillars, high corner towers, and the typical Russian strictness of shape.
The famous Russian poet Pushkin participated in 29 duels before he was finally killed at this locale, now a memorial park. Georges d’Anthès, the man that struck the fatal blow to Pushkin's stomach, had been attempting to seduce the poet's wife. Pushkin died at the young age of 37—a historic event that is, even today, is considered one of Russia’s greatest tragedies. Visit the site of the duel to view a monument dedicated to Pushkin surrounded by green shrubbery, beautiful lawns, and mature trees.
St. Petersburg’s biggest library has open reading rooms complete with plenty of books in many different languages. It’s a great place to spend a rainy afternoon, and it’s free of charge. However, you will need your passport to get in. You can also attend one of the museum many exhibitions, including those that feature historical manuscripts, rare books, maps, and photographs.
During WWII, the Nazis kept St. Petersburg (then, referred to as “Leningrad”) under siege for over two years. About half a million people (mostly civilians) died during the siege and are buried in the Piskariovskoye Cemetery. It is one of the most striking testaments to the tragedy of WWII and an absolute must-see. The remarkable gardens adorned in flowers and the alleyway that leads visitors to a statue of the Motherland (portrayed as a grieving woman) make this sobering visit a treat for the eyes. Stop in for a moment of silence at the eternal flame that burns at the park's entrance.