Travel Tips

Ask the Locals: St. Petersburg, Russia

Locations in this article:  Moscow, Russia Paris, France

Catherine’s PalacePeter is broadcasting his radio show this weekend from St. Petersburg, Russia (formerly Leningrad), a place of elusive mystery and epic history, soaring architecture and sumptuous art, fabulous castles and fine cuisine.

With 45 islands, 300 bridges, 50 palaces, 200 museums, and white nights in summer, this magical city has an energy that was unleashed 20 years ago and just keeps growing.

We wanted to learn where locals hang out in this fascinating metropolis when they’re not working, so we asked around.

Here we offer up some of their best recommendations on where to eat, play and absorb the richness of Russian culture.

Mihail Torich – Features Editor for Time Out St. Petersburg

The Hermitage is to Russia what The Louvre is to Paris. No visit to St. Petersburg would be complete without a visit to this famous museum, to take in the priceless works of art that date from antiquity to the 20th century. Lesser-known, but almost equally dazzling, is the Russian Museum, which contains a massive collection of Russian sculpture, graphics and paintings spread over five buildings.

The Hermitage at nightThe key to getting the most out of either of these museums is to go during off hours to avoid the crowds and noise. Early mornings on weekdays are the best time to have the place to yourself, but remember that the Russian Museum is closed on Tuesdays and the Hermitage is closed Mondays.

And when you’re at the Hermitage, make sure you keep an eye out for the “real” guardians of the art – the cats! Cats have lived on the premises since the reign of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna in 1745, when she commanded that they be brought there to catch mice and guard the treasures. At one time there were about 200, but now they number about 70. They are fed and protected by museum staff, who let them live in the basement during the bitter Russian winters. However, during the spring and summer they can be spotted strolling through the grounds and gardens.

Russian Museum:

Another famous tourist site that never fails to impress even the locals is the fountains of Peterhof (Petrodvorets), which are located in front of Peter the Great’s palace complex just south of St. Petersburg. There are over 64 different fountains of various sizes, shapes and levels of complexity. Considering that they are more than 200 years old and operate without the use of pumps, this is an engineering feat you won’t want to miss.

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Though reminders of St. Petersburg’s history are all around town, there are also plenty of opportunities to explore the city’s vibrant contemporary art scene. “Etagi” (“floors” in English) is a luxury loft project/art space/hostel located in an industrial building in the city center. Previously a bakery, the building’s stark interior of concrete pillars, metal corners, drilling machines and heavy equipment was intentionally preserved to give the space an edgy atmosphere, though a few snazzy new design features were added.

Pushkinskaya artist EfimenkoThe building offers modern art galleries, showrooms for Russian designers, a wine bar and restaurant, a hostel, and performance space where almost every night of the week you can see dance, movies, theater and more.

The Pushkinskaya 10 art center is similar to Etagi, offering a bohemian mix of art galleries, museums, studios, and shops—all under one roof. Started in 1989 by a bunch of squatters in an abandoned building, Pushkinskaya is now one of the biggest and best-known “underground” art centers. Although it’s not as underground as it used to be after the fall of communism, it’s still worth a visit. The art spaces are only open from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, so time your visit so make sure you don’t miss out.

Kizhi ChurchWhen you get hungry, try Sadko restaurant, known for its traditional Russian cuisine. Located next door to the legendary Mariinsky Theatre, at Sadko you’re able to dine on fine Russian food in a more casual manner than you would at other comparable restaurants.

There are numerous nightclubs in St. Petersburg, almost too many to mention. But a notable one preferred by many fans of the city’s lively music scene is the A2 Club. Founded by Svetlana Surganova, frontwoman of the rock band Surganova i Orkestr, the club occupies the second floor over a wine bar called Assemblage Actuel. In addition to offering live music performances and late-night DJ sets, there is also a jazz concert once a week. A2 is located in the city center, in the “pyat uglov” area (five corners) where Ulitsa Lomonosova and Zagorodny Prospekt intersect.

Peter & Paul FortressKonstantin – St. Petersburg native

To get transported back to Imperial Russia of centuries past, take a tour of the Pushkin and Pavlovsk palaces, just outside the city. The two are former summer residences of the Russian czars. Like Versailles near Paris, you’ll marvel at decadent décor, which includes gilded picture frames, ornate wood carving, priceless vases, crystal and bronze chandeliers, plus amber, malachite, and porcelain fixtures in many of the hundreds of rooms. The parks and gardens are impressive in their own right, with acres of ponds, artificial islands, walkways, promenades and lush landscaping.

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Krestovski Island is great place to go and relax when the hustle and bustle of St. Petersburg starts to wear you down. Thought the eastern part of the island is built up, the western side has the Maritime Victory Park, which houses a beach, restaurants, a theme park – and soon a stadium for outdoor concerts and more. You can sunbathe on the beach, ride bikes along the shore, or even fish on the pier – and the restaurants will cook your catch for you! The island is located right in the middle of the Neva River, and is accessible via the Krestrovsky Ostrov metro station.

Russian nesting dollsFor nightlife, Konstantin recommends Ostrov, a club located in the western part of downtown St. Petersburg. The spinning dance floor (which also moves up and down) will keep you on your toes while you gyrate to the sounds of the latest pulsating Russian pop music. As a bonus, a light mist of water is sprayed from above, which will keep you cool during the summer months. Address: 37 Lieutenant Schmidt emb. Vassilievsky Island.

For a quieter evening, head to Schatior, where you can grab some drinks in a covered courtyard amid beautiful decor. There’s also a garden restaurant, which is very romantic if you happen to be looking for a place to bring your significant other, and the staff speak English. Located downtown, 1/2 a block from the landmark onion-domed Church of the Resurrection.

Great views over much of St. Petersburg can be found at Terassa Restaurant, which sits on the top floor of a shopping complex called the Ginza Project. The menu is European/Asian fusion, and serves really good sushi. Before you eat, spend some time visiting the boutiques of Ginza, which will help you work up an appetite.

By Karen Elowitt for

For more information on St. Petersburg, tune into Peter’s radio show.