It was St Petersburg’s dramatic history and mysterious reputation that first lured me to its winding, canal-lined streets and vast squares. I wasn’t disappointed. The inspiration for some of Russia’s finest writers — including Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who penned Crime and Punishment here — its historical city centre rewards a willingness to explore. The city’s atmospheric nature is enhanced by its far northerly location: from late May to early July, St Petersburg experiences White Nights, when the sun barely sets. The downside is that in the winter months, dawn turns to dusk in the blink of an eye — although this is perfect for a party.
One of St Petersburg’s biggest draws is its stunning collection of cultural treasures, with world-class museums, theatres and galleries galore. Many of these can be found on or around Nevsky Prospekt, the sight-packed, three-mile-long central thoroughfare that’s the city’s social, cultural and business hub.
The 20th century brought revolution, war and the chaos of the Soviet collapse to St Petersburg. This political and social turbulence has left psychological scars. “Everyone in this city over the age of 30 has a story to tell; it might not always be a happy one, but it’s sure to be as interesting as hell,” is how St Petersburg native Sergei describes his fellow locals to me as we sit in one of the city’s smoky cafes.
Although often described as Russia’s most European city, and famed for its intellectuals, poets and dissidents, St Petersburg has grown increasingly reactionary in recent years. Notorious for its far-right football hooligans, it was the first city in Russia to enact the country’s notorious ‘homosexual propaganda’ law. No one has yet been convicted, but the controversial legislation has tarnished St Petersburg’s international reputation.
But St Petersburg defies easy categorisation. Visit to explore its troubled history and impressive cultural heritage and make your own mind up about this spectacular city on the banks of the Neva River.
There’s much more to Russian food than the ubiquitous blinis. But don’t take my word for it: head to Palkin, one of St Petersburg’s oldest and most famous restaurants. Founded in 1785, both Dostoyevsky and his fellow author, Nikolai Gogol (a renowned 19th-century foodie), dined here while pondering the next chapters of their classic novels about tormented Russian souls. If your budget can stretch, it’s the ideal place to pass a cold St Petersburg winter evening, with its ‘imperial cuisine’, including black caviar, crab meat and sturgeon, as well as simpler, filling traditional soups.
Another place to get to grips with ‘real Russian food’, is the excellently named Russian Vodka Room No 1. It’s not all vodka — although it does also house a museum on the history of Russia’s national beverage. Dishes here range from Tsarist-era cuisine to Soviet favourites such as chicken Kiev and other plates from the iconic Book of Tasty and Healthy Food — a must-have cookbook/propaganda tool for any self-respecting Soviet housewife. Be adventurous — oven-cooked buckwheat and ‘herring under fur coat’ are so much tastier than they sound.
Vegetarianism is making inroads in Russia, where it was largely unheard of before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but finding a meat or fish-free meal can often prove problematic even in St Petersburg. Fortunately, the city is home to one of Russia’s finest vegetarian restaurants, in the shape of the atmospheric and friendly The Idiot Restaurant. Linger for an evening playing chess or chatting to the many English-speaking Russians who come here.
If the lack of spices is getting you down, don’t despair. Tandoor Indian Restaurant, a St Petersburg favourite since the mid-1990s, offers authentic Indian cuisine. Curry isn’t well known in Russia though (Indian restaurants are a real rarity here), so some of the dishes are somewhat milder than you might expect.
Property developers are eyeing it up, but for now St Petersburg’s historic centre, based around Nevsky Prospekt, remains a UNESCO Heritage Site. The city centre boasts a beguiling mixture of architectural styles, from baroque to neoclassical, most of which is the work of Italian architects enlisted by Peter the Great in the 18th century.
One striking exception is the spectacular Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, whose Byzantine onion domes would look far more at home in Moscow. A cacophony of colour, the church was constructed on the site of the 1881 assassination of the reformist tsar Alexander II. Used for many years by the atheist Soviet authorities as a potato warehouse, the church has since been painstakingly restored. The souvenir market opposite the church is worth a browse, although be wary of the many ‘KGB watches’ and other similar items. They’re invariably fakes.
From the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, cross over Nevsky Prospekt to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, which was inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. If you can drag yourself away from the bustle and beauty of Nevsky Prospekt for a moment, turn right down Bolshaya Morskaya Street and you’ll find yourself on the colossal Palace Square. The Alexander Column that dominates the square is the largest free-standing column in the world. The colourful collection of elegant buildings opposite is the State Hermitage Museum.
You could easily spend an afternoon wandering around the Peter and Paul Fortress, which dates from the founding of the city. At the centre of the fortress stands the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul, the final resting place of all the country’s tsars and tsarinas, including the remains of the Romanovs, slaughtered by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and re-interred here exactly 80 years after their executions. In the winter months, look out at the rear of the fortress for the city’s so-called ‘walruses’, a group of locals who take dips in the freezing waters of the Neva River. In the summer it’s all sunbathing and beer.
Even if you’re getting a little overwhelmed by all the cathedrals and churches, you’d be ill-advised to leave St Petersburg without a visit to the spectacular St Isaac’s Cathedral. The largest church in Russia, St Isaac’s is perhaps most impressive around dusk, when its imposing form dominates the skyline. Its viewing dome also offers breathtaking views of the city.
The arts have always been an integral part of what makes St Petersburg tick, with composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev both once calling the city home. The hub of the city’s passion for the performing arts is the Mariinsky Theatre, which offers world-class opera, ballet and classical music performances. The addition of a new $700m (£439m) second stage in 2013 has breathed new life into the theatre. Russians traditionally dress up smartly for the opera and ballet, so follow suit, unless you want to attract disparaging stares. “We don’t insist, of course,” says a cloakroom attendant who preferred to remain anonymous. “But it’s always nice to see foreign guests make an effort.” Tickets for big shows sell out quickly, so book well in advance.
The pride of Russia’s art world, the gigantic State Hermitage Museum features a jaw-dropping array of original paintings by artists such as Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, and Picasso. Officials say it would take 11 years to check out every exhibit. The best way to visit is to decide in advance what you want to see, and head straight to the relevant halls. That’s easier said than done, however, so expect to be distracted. The Hermitage, which is due to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2014, also contains the Winter Palace, the pre-revolutionary residence of Russia’s tsars.
For Russian paintings, head to the nearby Russian Museum, which exhibits everything from priceless religious icons to works by avant-garde artists such as Kandinsky.
If you want to splash out on top-notch accommodation, you won’t have to look far. This being St Petersburg, though, you’d expect a little history with your luxury. The five-star Hotel Astoria more than ticks that box. Set right on St Isaac’s Square, with stunning views of the nearby cathedral, the Astoria is where Hitler planned to celebrate the fall of the city with a grand ball. The führer was so confident of victory, he even had invitations printed. But the city, known then as Leningrad, withstood a 900-day siege by Nazi forces before it was finally liberated by the Red Army.
Another hotel that offers luxury and a sense of history is the opulent Grand Hotel Europe, which is perfectly located on Nevsky Prospekt. This 135-year-old hotel, designed in the style of a traditional St Petersburg palace, has seen it all. The mad monk Rasputin held wild parties in its rooms, while Russia’s doomed last tsar, Nicholas II, held extravagant banquets here. In the 1990s, it was the favoured hangout for new Russian gangsters as they discussed their dubious business deals. More recently, both Bill Clinton and Prince Charles have stayed here.
If you’re after something a bit less extravagant, try the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel. At first glance, it may not seem to have much going for it: a hulking Soviet-built hotel a taxi-ride from the centre. But its location on the coastline of the Gulf of Finland — Russia’s gateway to the Baltic Sea — is perfect for wintertime strolls. And after you’ve braved the elements, warm up in one of the hotel’s traditional banya steam baths.
Another medium-range hotel worth considering is the centrally located Vesta Hotel. The rooms are decent, if unspectacular, but with a prime location just a short walk away from major sights like the Hermitage, it’s a perfectly acceptable option. If you want some more independence, it also lets out apartments.
If you’re planning to visit St Petersburg during White Nights, book early so as to avoid disappointment.
The cradle of the Russian rock scene, St Petersburg is big on live gigs. Some of the most intriguing take place in Fish Fabrique, a legendary club/concert venue that’s been around since the wild 1990s, when its shadowy legal status often saw it raided by bribe-hungry Russian cops. It’s gone 100% legal since then and has also expanded. Excitement levels haven’t dropped much, though.
Long-time favourite Griboedov is the place to come for all manner of electronic beats. Located in a former old Soviet-era bunker, this DJ bar also puts on live concerts, some of which take place in the club’s new above-ground restaurant. Queues to get in, however, can be very long at the weekends.
Newer on the St Petersburg club scene, but quickly developing a big reputation is Dacha, which one clubber described to me as a “Berlin-type hangout”. The description is apt enough, not least for its subtlety cool interior. Popular with representatives of St Petersburg’s ‘creative class’, as the urban, educated arty types are increasingly known in Russia, Dacha’s eclectic musical tastes run from deep house to 1980s pop hits.
Before heading out for the evening, get in a pre-club drink or two (or even a meal) on Fontanka, at Pirogi — the St Petersburg branch of the popular Moscow restaurant-cum-bar-cum-club. Another choice venue to warm up for the night ahead (weather permitting) is Dyuni, an open-air bar set in an industrial courtyard with imported sand. You can even brush up your table-tennis skills here, if the mood takes you.
If jazz is your thing, then you’re in good company. St Petersburg is a big jazz town, with some impressive Dixieland orchestras giving impromptu street concerts in the summer months. For jazz and a beer, The Other Side Gastro Bar, on Nevsky Prospekt, provides these simple pleasures in spades.
Rossiya Airlines flies direct from Gatwick; British Airways flies from Heathrow. rossiya-airlines.com ba.com
Average flight time: 3h30m.
A taxi between St Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport and the city centre costs approximately £30. In St Petersburg, taxis (including those of a number of English-speaking firms) can be hailed on the street, although not many use a meter, preferring instead to agree on a price beforehand. Be aware that not all are licenced. The best way to get around the city centre, however, is by bus. If you’re travelling further afield, use the cheap and efficient Metro system, whose stations are still emblazoned with Soviet-era imagery. One journey (any length) costs 28 roubles (53p), while a 10-journey pass will set you back 265 roubles (£5). If the escalator rides seem to be taking an exceedingly long time, that’s because the St Petersburg Metro system is the deepest in the world.
When to go
The White Nights period (June to July) is the most spectacular time to visit St Petersburg. It’s also the most popular and expensive. To dodge the crowds and save some cash, visit in August, before the onset of the colder months. However, if it’s snow and ice you’re after, then time it with a visit in January.
Need to know
Currency: Russian rouble (RUB). £1 = RUB 52.
International dial code: 00 7 812.
Time difference: GMT +4.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. eng.cathedral.ru/kskursii_v_spase_na_krovi
St Isaac’s Cathedral. eng.cathedral.ru
Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan. saint-petersburg.com/virtual-tour/kazan-cathedral
Fish Fabrique. T: 00 7 812 764 48 57.
Dacha. Dumskaya Ulitsa 9.
Pirogi. T: 00 7 812 275 35 58.
Dyuni. T: 00 7 812 380 33 48.
The Other Side Gastro Bar. T: 00 7 812 312 95 54.
DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide: St Petersburg. RRP: £7.99.
The St Petersburg Times (English-language; useful for listings).
How to do it
Travelbag offers seven nights at Hotel Astoria from £849 per person with flights from Heathrow with SAS via Stockholm. travelbag.co.uk
Published in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)