It is the most European of Russia's cities, a sea of designer labels and familiar Western brands. But the drab poverty is still a culture shock – and there's something you should know about hotels…
Never in my life have I been more confused. It was about 10pm local time on the top floor of the Hotel Moskva in St Petersburg (confusion number one: a hotel named after the Russian capital, in the Federation's second city) and we were enjoying a quiet drink in the bar, people watching – as you do.
There was a husky, ruddy Dutch businessman with a worn-in face, tie around his navel in his shirt sleeves knocking back a vodka. There was a middle-aged couple rolling their fingers between each others' and... wow. There was a beautiful girl of Asian descent in a short red cocktail dress who sauntered past the table. She joined a group of similarly-clothed women who hung around a sound system. And they pressed a button.
In that split second the top floor bar of a high quality hotel in St Petersburg turned into a brothel. The girls – including the girl in the red dress, noticably underage when seen close-up – began gyrating to the music, taking turns to flaunt their wares for the patrons who, I guess, had become "clients". The Dutchman with the falling face was given plenty of attention and seemed willing to part with his money when the obliging girls came around with "sex menus" at the end.
Being British, we all looked into the bottom of our glasses and tried to pretend it just wasn't happening. Terrible fuss, all this sexual stuff.
We were aware that prostitutes worked in the hotel lobby: there had been an off-hand mention of that, and it wasn't particularly hard to tell who was and who wasn't a working girl, but the bar-cum-brothel indicates just how polarised Russia has become. A country containing incredible historical and cultural artefacts, it can be too surly, too seedy and too criminal for its own good.
That unusual moment aside, St Petersburg was one of the best trips I have had. Breathtakingly beautiful – and Russian enough, without seeming too cosmopolitan – it is like the Disneyworld of the Russian Federation. You can dip your toes in Russian culture without getting the cold shoulder so associated with this closed-off country.
Feel free to stare at passengers on the St Petersburg Metro – a world away from the old-world grandeur of Moscow, slick, sleek and modern – since they will only be staring at you anyway. If it all becomes too much, too unblinkingly Russian, you can wander down the luscious Nevsky Prospekt and clock up a few zeroes on your credit card with a visit to one of the innumerable designer boutiques that line the main street. To soften the culture shock further, your Western favourites – McDonalds, Subway et al – can be found on the self-same thoroughfare.
Slap bang in the middle of them, though, is a delightful little chocolate shop that sells delicate creations of all shapes and sizes. From chocolate boxes to bunnies, this underground room tucked away in a gatehouse is a must-see that doesn't appear on the typical tourist itineraries.
Restaurants – meaning true, authentically Russian eateries, with hearty bowlfuls of borscht and thick slices of potato bread – can be found on most streets branching off Nevsky Prospekt, but not on the main drag itself. There, it is mainly Westernised brands that take up expensive frontage.
At one end of the Prospekt is the River Neva, the heart of St Petersburg, with its breathtaking views of the Winter Palace – vast, capacious and overwhelmingly yellow against the bright blue skyline and the crisp white snow in winter. The cracking ice on the river makes for an impressive sight, and there are more than enough sights inside the Palace itself, home to the Hermitage Museum.
You won't make it through the whole place in one day. Rather, think about concentrating on an area that interests you, be it paintings of the Old Masters or classical Greek and Roman sculpture (which seems to take up half a floor of the museum). Permanently docked at the riverside is an old battleship that acts as a permanent reminder of the history of this Great Old Dame of Russia.
Behind all the beautiful architecture and the Western encroachment on an unapologetically Russian city, there remains the fact that this is the old Petrograd, founded by Peter the Great, and the old Leningrad, beseiged for 872 days running. Collar a friendly-looking local (if you can find one in the crowd of stern-faced Russians) and ask them about their past. They'll be only too proud to tell you about the near three-year wait their grandparents underwent for food and water, and will point you to the Neva, and to the battleship – gun pointed at the great Winter Palace.