Few cities match the classical elegance of St Petersburg, built on a grand, romantic scale, with extravagant palaces, ornate churches and millions of artworks
Peter the Great’s sprawling city, with its exquisite palaces, art treasures and stunning architecture, has long wooed culture vultures. Russia’s most beautiful imperial city celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2003 with year-long celebrations, which made Britain sit up and take notice.
Its changing name – from St Petersburg to Petrograd, Leningrad and back to St Petersburg – reflects a turbulent past. At the turn of the 21st century, it was still deemed unsafe to walk the streets of the place where Russia’s most famous revolutionaries and artists, from Rasputin to Stravinsky, made history.
St Petersburg is one of Europe’s most stunning cities, with everything on a grand, romantic scale that is designed to impress. Restoration projects are heralding a return to its former glory. Built on 44 islands, the city is one tenth water and the sweeping curve of 19th-century buildings on the wide main street, Nevskiy Prospekt, is reflected in the waterways.
On potholed side roads, bands of scruffy gypsies and old men with accordions mingle with debonair leather-clad young men – a mix of the old and new Russia. Follow the blaring loudspeakers and you’ll be treated to a barge cruise with crackling commentary, perhaps chugging past the ‘must-see’ gold-adorned, blue-and-white-turreted Russian Orthodox Church of the Spilled Blood.
Most people draw an intake of breath when they see the massive green, gold and cream edifice of the baroque Winter Palace, its bronze horses galloping atop the General Staff Building and fronting the most expansive square in Europe. The former home of Russian emperors, the Winter Palace houses the State Hermitage Museum, the city’s treasure trove and one of the world’s greatest art museums.
Walking through just a few of the 400 or so rooms in this 20km-long art fest is enough to make anyone’s jaw drop. The Hermitage has around three million items, with 70 works from Escher alone and many of the world’s most famous paintings, such as 'Madonna and Child' by Leonardo da Vinci.
In this sprawling city, it helps to stay centrally – in Rocco Forte’s five-star, glittering Hotel Astoria, for example, where views of the gold-domed St Isaac’s Cathedral from the bedroom will encourage you to leave the Volga linen curtains open.
Evening posturing can be found at the Mariinskiy Theatre, where a seat for a ballet performance can cost around US$100. Those lured by the world of Dostoyevsky should try a late night vodka in a leather armchair at The Idiot bar, signalled by a dimly-lit globe next to the Moika River.
A visit to St Petersburg isn’t complete without a trip out of town to one of its extravagant palaces. The one that impresses history-lovers most is the Alexander Palace in Pushkin, the last home of the Russian Imperial family. But if you like guilded opulence, you can’t beat Peterhof, where emperors showed off their wealth to the rest of the world.