The holy grail of travel is the destination that delivers a big bang for a bargain. Saint Petersburg exemplifies this rare bird in all its splendour. Here are a few tips and tricks if you have 48 hours in Saint Petersburg.
Moscow may dominate in scale and gravitas, but Russia’s second city thrives in its shadow, its beauty, legacy, and charisma generating their own glittering light.
The grandeur of its days as the seat of an empire may be somewhat faded, but Saint Petersburg is re-emerging, and its reinvigorated and reimagined modern incarnation – in which electric bands busk on the boulevards – is every bit as compelling.
Here, now, you don’t need to earn like a tsar to live like a tsar… for a few days at least.
Where to Stay
You may well choose to lodge in one of Saint Petersburg’s numerous grand hotels, a thrifty opportunity to lather yourself in a bit of luxury. And indeed, some of these may be worth a visit regardless, for “Tchaikovsky nights” at the Belmond, as an example.
However, in a country where banyas (steam baths) are integral to the culture, a boutique hotel offering this facility makes for an authentic alternative.
Fitting the bill handsomely is the Rossi Hotel & Spa – long on olde-worlde charm, short on unnecessary posturing, it is a quaint and intimate establishment, the type where the veteran doorman takes personal pride in extending hospitality and sharing his local knowledge.
It is conveniently located, satisfyingly comfortable, and unobtrusively atmospheric, with lavish spreads for breakfast, but its highlight must be the spa itself.
If you like the idea of setting your day into gentle motion with an hour divided between the sauna and the (turbo-powered!) jet pool, then this is just the place for you.
What to See
The priority when arriving in a new city should be to get the lay of the land, which in Saint Petersburg, ironically, is best accomplished off the land.
Its network of canals, feeding in and out of the Neva river, offers a magnificent vantage point from which to conduct a quick (or leisurely) exploration. There is a plethora of providers, routes, tours, and formats – which can be overwhelming.
A specialist operator, such as Red Sun Tours, whose high-quality offerings range from customised private excursions to small group tours, might be a useful place to start making your arrangements.
Once orientated, the sight-seeing, as you would expect of one of the great capitals of Western culture, is replete with possibilities.
The most noteworthy are:
- The Hermitage, the world’s second-largest art museum (after the Louvre), housed largely in the legendary Winter Palace, with its love-it-or-hate-it green pigmentation;
- The Peterhof, Peter the Great’s sprawling, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses response to the Palace of Versailles;
- The Fabergé Museum, home to the largest private collection of the eponymous eggs, and a palaceful of other exceptional design ware; and
- The Mariinsky Theatre, one of the iconic stages and spiritual homes of ballet. This ball of string though is as long as you want it to be.
Where to Eat
The uber-cool Mansarda, boasting a mesmerising view onto the enormous gold-plated dome of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, crafts a combination of classic dishes, including delicious renditions of local staples such as borscht and stroganoff, and modern fusion cuisine.
Its expansive menu is accompanied by an even broader 450-strong wine list, stewarded by one of Russia’s top sommeliers, featuring the regular cast of course, but also exponents from more obscure regions such as Georgia, Hungary, Israel, and Russia itself.
Less flash, but every bit as delightful is Makaronniki, a trattoria that will have you questioning your location in the world.
In a field as dense and competitive as the purveying of Italian food, it is a tall order to stand out, but stand out it does… and then some.
The pesto focaccia, the tomato cappuccino with ricotta froth, and the pork stracotto with BBQ ice cream, in particular, are of the highest calibre.
Throw in a rooftop courtyard, a well-considered Italo-centric drinks menu, and the most imaginative desserts you could hope to eat, and you have a lock for your schedule.
“Buon appetito” has just been appropriated to Russian.
Art-Caviar, a caviar boutique cum caviar-inspired fine-dining restaurant, offers the ideal setting for acquainting yourself with Russia’s best-known delicacy.
The knowledgeable staff, imaginative cuisine, and expert pairings make this a St. Petersburg highlight.
When people advise you to spend your money on experiences rather than things, this is what they mean.
Where to Drink
If you are in the market for a few mellow cocktails, you will be hardpressed to find better satisfaction than with Apotheke and its master barman – whose prodigious skill seems its reason for being.
There is a chalked-up cocktail list, comprising both universal and house recipes, to guide your selecting, but Apotheke also subscribes to the entertaining trend of taking orders by flavour, with damn fine results.
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