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The Essential Guide to Arts & Culture in St. Petersburg

7 iconic sites from Russia’s cultural capital

Although Moscow now serves as Russia’s political center, St. Petersburg is still considered the country’s cultural capital. Art enthusiasts will have no difficulty finding world-class museums, theaters, and churches to explore whilst visiting this historic, storied city. Here are a few of the must-see attractions visitors have to add to their St. Petersburg itinerary.

1. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Top Pick: Russia's Realist Masterpieces

Located in the historic Mikhailovsky Palace, St. Petersburg State Russian Museum houses thousands of Russian paintings, mosaics, and sculptures from the 10th to the 20th centuries.

State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

The most famous painting in the museum’s collection is artist Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga. Completed in 1873, this huge oil on canvas received mixed response at the Vienna World Exhibition but now remains one of the most famous paintings on social injustice.

Barge Haulers on the Volga, by Ilya Repin (From the collection of The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

Another masterpiece by Repin at the State Museum is his portrait of author Leo Tolstoy. It took Repin an entire decade to complete this painting of the novelist behind War & Peace.

Leo Tolstoy Barefoot by Ilya Repin (From the collection of The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

2. State Hermitage Museum
Top Pick: The Largest Vase in The Largest Museum

Spread out between six historic buildings and boasting 3 million masterpieces, the State Hermitage Museum is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world.

The State Hermitage Museum

The museum is particularly famous for its feline residents. Approximately 70 cats live and ‘work’ in the museum as official rodent catchers, and there is a whole department of the museum dedicated to caring for its four-legged population.


As well as trying to spot the museum's furry residents, you have to see the massive Kolyvan vase (1843), which was carved out of three jasper stones. Weighing almost 20 tons, this impressive work of Russian stone cutting took workers at least 14 years to complete.

Kolyvan vase, 1843, Abraham Melnikov (From the collection of The State Hermitage Museum)

3. Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art
Top Pick: Creative Cartoons on Contemporary Art

The curators at Erarta believe an appreciation of art is critical to living a fulfilling life. For this reason, Erarta strives to make Russian contemporary art as accessible as possible to everyone.

Photo of Erarta Museum, 2010 (From the collection of Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art)

To help make art more engaging for a wider audience, Erarta has collaborated with animators Dmitry Visotskiy and Andrey Sikorskiy on a cartoon called “The Adventures of BB Square.” In this cute and colorful series, Malevich's Black Square, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Vincent Van Gogh, and more artistic masterpieces literally spring to life.

The Adventures of BB Square Erarta Museum (From the collection of Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art)

In addition to exploring art history, “The Adventures of BB Square” demonstrates how art can be used to address a wide range of contemporary issues.

4. Mariinsky Theater
Top Pick: The Epicenter of Russian Ballet

Ever since its opening in 1860, the Mariinsky Theater has been at the center of St. Petersburg’s performing arts scene. Many of Russia’s most iconic works of ballet, opera, and symphonic music trace their origins to the Mariinsky, including Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker.

Mariinsky Theater

Although Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was first performed in Moscow in 1877, most people associate this famous ballet with the Mariinsky. Choreographers at Mariinsky heavily edited Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and presented it to great acclaim in 1895. This revised version of Swan Lake is the one more commonly performed today.

Autumn Trilogy: The Mariinskij Theater in Ravenna SWAN LAKE (From the collection of Ravenna Festival)

5. Street Art Museum
Top Pick: The Art of Russia’s Youth

Located in an old plastics factory, the Street Art Museum is dedicated to exploring the post-Soviet world by showcasing works by international street artists, painters, and graphic designers.

Remember Tomorrow Unknown, 2015 (From the collection of Street Art Museum)

Recent exhibitions at the Street Art Museum explored complex issues such as the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the migration crisis. One representative work exploring the complexity of globalized immigration is Kirill Kto’s colorful mural Incomprehensible.

Incomprehensible by Kirill Kto, 2016 (From the collection of Street Art Museum)

6. Church of the Savior on Blood
Top Pick: St. Petersburg’s Most Sacred Spot

The Church of the Savior on Blood is St. Petersburg’s most impressive Russian Orthodox church. Built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, this church is highly respected for its large collection of pristine Russian mosaics.

Church of the Savior on Blood

Sometimes called the “Museum of Mosaics,” the Church of the Savior on Blood contains 7,500 square meters of Biblical mosaics on the church’s walls and ceilings.

Church of the Savior on Blood

7. Russian Museum of Ethnography
Top Pick: Celebrating Diversity in Central Asia

Commissioned by Nicholas II in 1907, the Russian Museum of Ethnography is on a mission to preserve the arts and crafts of approximately 200 different ethnic groups in Central Asia. This museum is particularly celebrated for its large collection of weaving devices and clothing, religious artifacts, and highly detailed porcelain figurines.

Russian Museum of Ethnography

The most famous room in the Russian Museum of Ethnography is the stunning marble hall, which contains a 96-meter long bas-relief championing Russia’s ethnic diversity.

Marble Hall

When Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg, he hoped his city would become a cultural capital on par with the great sites of Western Europe. Today, nobody doubts St. Petersburg’s role as one of the greatest artistic cities in the world.

Words by Eric Esposito
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