By Derek Green
Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, the city spent 200 years as capital, the results of which are there for all to see today – grand palaces, vast parks, and imperial era opulence. Today, the streets are dusty, fast paced and a tad daunting – St Petersburg is the kind of city you need to have a safe word and a comfortable hotel to retreat to when it all gets too much.
It goes without saying that you will fight the crowds for the best vantage points of the State Hermitage Museum, Summer Garden, and Peter and Paul Fortress, but a boat trip around the canals is a great way to become familiar with the layout of this sometimes chaotic city. Tip – The tour commentary is often in Russian by default, so ask around to find a company that offers it in English.
You just never know what to expect in Russia. The city’s 6 million or so inhabitants are often self-absorbed, rude and slightly edgy, so it’s pretty important to find and book a good hotel in advance, and get settled in before you head out into the streets.
The staff at the Corinthia Hotel impressed from the outset, bending over backwards to help with the documents required to obtain a Tourist visa prior to arrival, and that first impression was confirmed face to face – professional and prompt at every opportunity, organising cars, ballet tickets, and restaurant bookings. The hotel itself is located on busy Nevsky Prospect, walking distance to shopping, canal tours, the subway, and many attractions.
There was a security person at the entrance at all times, which was a comfort – it was good to know you could duck back inside for a breather if need be – and helped make the whole St Petersburg experience worthwhile. (As did the fact that rockers Thin Lizzy were staying here too, and we got to have a good chat with veteran bassist Marco Mendoza over the buffet breakfast. He was missing his family, and I miss heavy metal, so I like to think we both got something out the moment.)
Corinthia Hotel St Petersburg, Nevsky avenue, 57.
You may struggle to actually find the original Winter Palace – many visitors mistake it for the opulent State Hermitage Museum as seen from the Palace Square – but it’s actually hidden behind a non-descript looking doorway a hundred metres around the corner on the embankment, attached to the rear of the Hermitage buildings. It’s definitely worth a look and to listen to the compact presentation by the guide, if for no other reason than to witness its contrast with the magnificence of the Hermitage itself.
Wander along the canal bordering the lovely Mikhailovsky Garden, and you’ll come across one of St Petersburg’s great icons; The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. The shiny baubles and colourful “onions” of this wonderful temple are built on the site where Tsar Alexander II met his end. The history of this city is certainly a sad one, suffice to say if a building was constructed on every bloody spot there would be nowhere left to walk.
Its hard to imagine coming to this part of the world and not going to the ballet. The Mariinsky Theatre (Kirov Opera and Ballet) is an excellent choice. The theatre itself is majestic and full of character, the performances creative and slick. It is expensive, but hey, when are you going to be back here again in this lifetime?
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is the largest church in Russia, and even after one hundred and sixty-one years after its completion, its shiny dome still dominates the skyline of the city. As you gaze up you may find yourself wondering if that rounded roof really is gold, and the answer is yes, the entire area is gold plated.
Katyusha Restaurant, across from Kazansky Cathedral is a great spot for sampling Russian fare accompanied by attentive and prompt service. Borsch, meat dumplings, elk tartare, and caviar pancakes are all on the menu here, as are some surprisingly good vegetarian options. Try some of their signature cocktails if you dare!
Katyusha Restaurant, Nevsky Ave., 24.
For a more casual bite or reasonably priced lunch, be impressed by the authenticity of Abrikosov, also on Nevsky Ave, as you sip their excellent coffee or munch on omelettes, herring, or the house-made Russian pickles. If you’re in the mood for something more substantial, you could do worse than the classic beef stroganoff washed down with a local brew.
Abrikosov, Nevskiy Ave., 40