01 State Hermitage museum
Big names like da Vinci, Michelangelo and Titian are on show in this vast art collection, housed in a complex of six historic buildings, including the Winter Palace — the former Neva River-side home of the Russian tsars. Even if you’re not art mad, its extravagant, baroque-style interiors are worth a visit in their own right. www.hermitagemuseum.org
02 Canal tour
Find out why St Petersburg has been dubbed ‘the Venice of the North’ on an English-guided trip of its canals. These classic waterborne outings are only possible from May to October, when the days are long and positively balmy. Public boats weave beneath the picturesque bridges and criss-cross its quaint waterways for glimpses of dolled-up women on the water’s edge, and leave every half-hour from a dock on Nevsky Prospekt.
03 Peterhof palace
The brainchild of Peter the Great, this 18th-century, UNESCO World Heritage Site is a stunning collection of palaces and gardens, often referred to as the ‘Russian Versailles’. Stroll through the manicured gardens and you’ll undoubtedly be drawn to the Grande Cascade, a lavish fountain display. Beyond this is the largest Peterhof palace — three-tiered neoclassical mansion, the Grand Palace.
04 St Isaac’s Cathedral
Make a pilgrimage to this illustrious cathedral whose gilded dome can be spotted from across the city. Built between 1818 and 1858, its interior is a thing of ethereal beauty with mosaic icons, paintings and columns made of malachite and lapis lazuli. You shouldn’t miss a climb up the 300 steps of the cathedral’s colonnade, either, for sweeping views of the former capital below.
05 Mariinsky theatre
Catch the latest raved-about ballet at this grandiose, five-tiered theatre, whose lavish interior drips with as much gold as its patrons do. Famous names to grace its stage include Vatslav Nizhinsky, Matilda Kshesinskaya and Anna Pavlova. Don’t expect to just walk in, though; you’ll need to book well in advance as the 1,625-seat auditorium is packed out almost every night. www.mariinsky.ru
Head to this stylish restaurant for an extravagant meal fit for a tsar (or tsarina) beneath the soaring stained-glass roof. King crab a la Romanove, duck variations a l’ Europe style and beef rib eye a la Loginov are all on the menu, and you can expect to rub shoulders with local celebs — from Russian models, TV stars or actors — to the strains of Tchaikovsky. www.grandhoteleurope.com
£ Barracuda: This little bistro serves a mix of hearty European and Russian grub plus an extensive menu of fish, fresh from the Baltic sea. Moscovsky Prospekt. T: 00 7 812 388 3222.
££ At Gorchakov’s Restaurant: Housed in the former mansion of the Gorchakov family, the lion’s share of this restaurant’s menu is a sophisticated mix of Russian and Ukranian cuisine. Highlights include dried venison and roast veal with cherries. Bolshaya Monetnaya Ulitsa. T: 00 7 812 233 9272.
£££ Ginza Restaurant: For atmosphere and dinner with the city’s fashionistas, head to Ginza, whose lengthy menu includes everything from sushi and Italian bites, to Uzbek cuisine, such as mutton ribs and chargrilled quail. Aptekarskiy prospekt. http://restoran-ginza.ru
To market: Browse stalls of honey-encrusted beeswax frames, piles of fruit and vegetables and smoked fish while shopping for the obligatory pots of caviar at Kuznechny Market, after a morning at the adjacent Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God Cathedral. Open daily 8am-8pm
Don’t miss: Travel to St Petersburg before 15 July for the annual St White Nights Festival, a celebration of the midnight sun that began in May. The eclectic programme of Russian performing arts takes in ballet, music and street theatre, although it inevitably squeezes in a few well-known guest artists from around the world.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)