St Petersburg has well and truly shaken off its dowdy Soviet past and reinvented itself as a vibrant city with a glittering history
The first time I came here it was still called Leningrad, and as the old regime faded away, much of the city seemed as grey as the waters of the nearby Baltic. But 20 years later, massive investment has restored St Petersburg to its imperial splendour - the glittering, bejewelled city of the Tsars. If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a dashing prince or a feisty damsel, dolled up and off to a swanky soirée straight out of the pages of Pushkin, this is the place for you.
Nobody could be unmoved by the epic grandeur of Palace Square, a vast open space flanked by the elegant classical arcades of the former Army headquarters to one side and the baroque flamboyance of the Winter Palace to the other. The Palace’s art collection, where I first encountered Rembrandt’s sombre canvases among the last word in Tsarist interior excess, can easily repay a day’s exploration. Whether it’s art, architecture or history that gets you going, you’ll be in for a feast here.
But it’s the city’s lesser-known delights that give a better feel for how it might have been to live in that bygone age. The Yusupov Palace has had a chequered history - home to Russia's richest family, but also the scene of the murder of the mysterious Rasputin, when his influence of Tsar Nikolai II seemed to grow too great. On my first trip it had only recently reopened to the public, and provided an unforgettable shaft of light in the city.
Opulence and luxury were very much the style for the Yusupov family - in addition to the obligatory ballroom, they built their own fully-equipped theatre and staged opera, drama and ballet in-house to impress their guests. The aristocrats are long gone, and the oligarchs haven’t managed to seize it all for themselves, so modern visitors can enjoy a guided tour of the palace, delve into the grisly mystery of Rasputin’s demise or - best of all - take in a concert or look out for a glittering ball or masquerade in these sumptuous surroundings. For one night, at least, every Cinderella can dream of her Prince Charming.
Another memorable moment from that first trip was travelling through the first snowfall of the autumn and arriving at the palace at Tsarskoye Selo (also known as Pushkin, since the great poet went to school in the neighbouring village). Across the crisp white parkland, the palace rose like a fairytale vision. Inside, the gold and mirrors of the ballroom - and an amazingly smooth floor designed to allow even the most inelegant school trip to glide - were breathtaking.
Today it’s even better, thanks to the painstaking reconstruction of the Amber Room. Not only is it astonishingly beautiful, it’s a reminder of the fate of the palace during World War Two - the Great Patriotic War. As the Nazis encircled Leningrad, blockading the city for 900 days, the place was looted and destroyed. The famed Amber Room vanished, spirited away by storm troopers in the night. Even after the rest was restored to its original glory, the mystery of the missing treasure remained until a painstaking reconstruction to celebrate St Petersburg’s 300th anniversary in 2003.
It’s not the only palace to rise phoenix-like from the ruins of the war. On the Gulf of Finland at Peterhof, Peter the Great - a ubiquitous presence in the city he founded to anchor Russia in Europe rather than Asia - constructed a Versailles of his own. Come in summer time, as cascades of fountains play down the slopes towards the sea, then jump on the hydrofoil back to the city, perhaps in time for a more sedate cruise along the canals in the pale twilight of the White Nights.
Amid the splendour, St Petersburg is a contemporary city. Nevsky Prospekt, the main artery, has all the bustle of any major city centre, but a short step along any canal takes you back in time to a place of classical elegance. It’s a great place to stroll, though the cliché ‘Venice of the North’ doesn’t do justice to a vibrant, lived-in city rather than Italy’s exquisite museum piece. As the spiritual home of Russian music, from the days of Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky to the current cutting edge of rock, techno and clubbing, it’s a 24-hour destination with something for everyone.
Where to stay
The Astoria Hotel is steeped in class and history - with five-star price tags to match. At the other end of the scale, the Na Muchnom has a great central location, affordable rates and offers a mixture of private and dormitory accommodation.
BA and Rossiya have scheduled services between London and St Petersburg. The Russian National Tourist Office on Piccadilly in London is a good starting point for arranging visas and can advise on travel.