Things to do in St Petersburg

St Petersburg is supposedly the most cosmopolitan city in Russia and yet I found it startlingly foreign. Most obviously the language and alphabet is completely different, and very few people are able to converse in English, making it almost impossible to communicate. After spending a few days here I also began to notice the differences in religion, culture and traditions. The freezing weather and lack of light gives the place an icy appearance, but step inside the historic buildings and you will be dazzled by the wondrous light, colour, art and design. Aside from sightseeing, there is plenty of magical music and dance to indulge in. The choices are endless so theatre fans can visit a different show every night if they so wish. Good food choices are limited but we found plenty of charming bars to spend the evenings sipping vodka cocktails and enjoying the warmth.

To Stay

Lion Palace, Four Seasons St Petersburg – this magnificent hotel only opened last year but has already built up a reputation as the finest accommodation in the city. With fine Italian and Asian restaurants, a 4-storey spa and luxurious bedrooms, the gloriously transformed Lion Palace has it all.

To Eat

Zhelyabov 25 Doughnut shop – come in from the cold streets and enjoy a hot cup of coffee and a freshly baked sweet doughnut. This basic café has been around for years and is a nostalgic reminder for the locals of post-Soviet times. The prices have also remained unchanged so a doughnut will only cost you the equivalent of 30 pence, coffee is about 20 pence!

Cococo – this forward-thinking restaurant offers new Russian cuisine with a focus on local organic ingredients and farm products. The recipes are inventive and exciting, I would recommend the Quail stuffed with baked potatoes and a glass of homemade lemonade.

Idiot café – this cosy little underground venue is an institution in St Petersburg. Relax in the lived-in comfortable furniture and enjoy a hot chocolate or choose a dish from the extensive menu which specialises in vegetarian cuisine. Every guest is given a customary shot of vodka on arrival.

L’Europe Restaurant – this grand restaurant is Russia’s oldest continually serving restaurant and is housed in an elegant and beautifully preserved art nouveau room. Serving smart Russian and European cuisine, I would urge you to visit on a Friday night when the famed Tchaikovsky Night takes place wowing diners with a performance of live music and ballet.

Mansarda – part of the successful and ever-growing Ginza group of restaurants, Mansarda is considered to be one of the best venues in town. Located at the top of the Quatra Corti business centre, the large restaurant has plenty of natural light and wonderful views of St Isaac Cathedral. They serve classic Italian food, prepared with care and stylishly presented.

To Drink

Terminal bar – you will find this tiny bar on Belinskogo street which is filled with fun food and drink places. Fight your way through the crowd and attempt to make an order (the waiters speak zero English); we ended up pointing to vodka on the menu and managed to get something which slightly resembled the drink we desired. The dim lighting is accented with the radiant green neon Terminal sign at the back of the room.

The Hat Jazz Bar – loud and kicking this jazz bar had an infectious atmosphere and great live music. Head here around 11pm and make yourself at home amongst the local hipster crowd whilst enjoying the effortless, improvised music.

Oh my tea! – we stumbled across this sweet little teashop which recently opened and serves unique loose-leaf brews to cold passers-by.

Apka – most people we asked in Russia recommended this place for the best cocktails… and we weren’t disappointed. A trendy and lively venue with talented bartenders and a great cocktail list make this place popular every night of the week. We were well looked after by Yuri (who has recently won a big cocktail competition) and tasted some fine drinks here.

PMI bar – there are two bars at this sleek venue. Ask the receptionists for the secret speakeasy and they will escort you, with a knowing smile, to the little door at the back, where the real cocktails are made. Here we were amazed by the creative and talented mixologists who make brilliant but expensive drinks.

Gin Tonic – this was the last and best bar we went to in St Petersburg. Hidden down a deserted alley, concealed by a plain black door you would only find this hang-out with exact instructions. The clever bartender made delicious off-menu drinks for us: a strong and aromatic Mr First, and a wonderfully fruity Cherry Manhattan.

To Do

Yusupov Palace – this is the former palace of the Yusopov family who ruled Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.  To some it is known as Moika Palace and was famously where Rasputin was murdered. Wander round the ornate rooms with the audio guide… I particularly loved the tiny Rococo theatre.

Russian Museum – just a few minutes walk from the Church of Spilled Blood this is the ideal place to learn about the artistic history of Russia. It is the first state museum of Russian fine arts and is huge so leave plenty of time to see it all. Make sure you go out into the lovely Summer Garden (any time of year!)

Orthodox service at Saint Nicholas Cathedral – this was one of the most memorable things I did in St Petersburg, and was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. A naval cathedral with numerous memorial plaques for the crews of sunken soviet submarines, is quite spectacular inside clad in gold and religious paintings.

To See

Church of Savior on the Spilled Blood – this building has an iconic exterior, but I was particularly impressed with the spendlour inside. Built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated it should be the first stop on all St Petersburg sightseeing itineraries.

Mariinsky Theatre 2 – the modern sister of the original Mariinsky Theatre built in 1860, Mariinsky 2 is one of the largest theatre and concert venues in the world. The auditorium seats up to 2000 people at full capacity and comes alive with the enchanting opera and ballet productions. We saw a beautiful performance of Swan Lake here. If you have time try to visit the original Mariinsky Theatre too, it is just next door to the new building.

Saint Isaac Cathedral – this is the largest Russian Orthodox Church in St Petersburg. After seeing the glorious interiors climb the 211 steps up to the dome which is over 100m high and has great views of the city.

Hermitage Museum – one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. The Russians often say, ‘If you looked at every painting for a minute it would take you 7 years’! Needless to say we didn’t see them all, but we did manage to see the famous Elgin marbles borrowed from the British Library. The rooms with their elaborate ceilings are almost as impressive as the art.

To Shop

Beluga Deluxe– this expansive souvenir and jewellery shop has every Russian item you could wish to take home. Opt for some golden amber, fur or a traditional hand-painted Russian doll.

Tatyana Parfionova – St. Petersburg’s most famous clothing designer offers immaculate designs in flowing silk and velvet, as well as a line of homewares that includes linens, tableware, furniture, and even original paintings.

Eliseyev Emporium – this famous food hall and café was constructed in 1902-1903 for the Elisseeff Brothers and is still as glamorous as ever selling luxurious foods and specialities. Pick up some caviar or chocolates, or sit at the central café and take in the atmosphere whilst warming up with a hot drink.

Things to do in Budapest

Before visiting I knew little of Budapest’s twin city appeal. Dramatically divided by the Danube, Hungary’s beautiful capital offers a wealth of exciting sights and activities for visitors. Linked by the epic chain bridge Buda and Pest are very different areas to explore. Buda is a historic hub characterised by its amazing hills, and here you will find the most important tourist attractions. The retro Furnicular carts transport you up the hill to the Castle District where you can see the Royal Palace, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. Pest is the younger and trendier side of the city where people go to work, shop and play. This area is action packed with creative opportunities and has much more of a buzz about it. We spent most of our time here eating, drinking, shopping and marvelling at the impressive buildings surrounding us. I would urge any Budapest guest to visit both sides of the city to experience a true flavour of the Hungarian way of life.
To Do
Szechenyi Baths: thermal baths are a unique aspect of Budapest and this venue is one of the most renowned. In the open air this picturesque pool soothes guests all year round. It is the largest of its kind in Europe and feels quite extraordinary to be in such a hot pool of blue water outside, especially when it is snowing around you!
Gellert Baths: The Gellert Baths are a traditional Hungarian Bath complex locted in the Gellert Hotel in Buda, along the Danube. It is open to the public, but hotel guests enjoy free admission. These baths are stunning and will leave you feeling refreshed and cleansed.
– Boat trip Danube: Even on a gloomy winters day The Legende one hour Boat Trip was worth doing. Offering an unrivalled view of the city on both sides, you will understand the history and culture of Budapest and see all the great architecture. Book here.
– Climb up to the top of the St Stephen’s Basilica (known as Budapest Cathedral), the largest Church in the city. We visited at sunset to see the whole city illuminated and glowing.
To See
Museum of Fine Arts: This huge regal building is hard to miss. We saw a lovely Cezanne exhibition when we visited in January… and it is always worth going along to see the permanent collection of Spanish masters and Venetian paintings.
House of Terror Museum: Sadly this much talked about museum was closed for refurbishment when I was in Budapest but I’ve heard the exhibition on the Holocaust is memorably affecting and a must see.
Opera: Enjoy a performance at the world famous Budapest State Opera House… though be warned you are unlikely to understand a word, Hungarian subtitles are not easy to translate.
To Eat
Ringcafe Burgers: Located on the main Andrassy Street Ringcafe is known to have the best burgers in town. The owner was recently in London sussing out the best on offer, returning to Budapest with a load of fresh new ideas. The menu has an extensive list of burger varieties, and they are delicious, with soft juicy meat and brilliant accompaniments.
Gundel: Famous for its fine brunches, this restaurant presents Hungarian food with a French twist. The Gundel pancakes are particularly popular amongst diners!
Onyx: This opulent fine restaurant is one of two Michelin starred establishments in Hungary. Chef Szabina Szullo artfully reinterprets Hungarian classics with precision and care. The food and wine are exquisite.
New York Cafe: Located in the Boscolo Hotel, this cafe has always been a favourite for locals and tourists in Budapest. The rich history and beautiful interior is more of a reason to visit than the food.
To Sleep
Boscolo: This epic hotel is indulgent and impressive both inside and out. The baroque rooms and suites are luxurious and the hotel also offers wonderful spa and fitness facilities.
Four Seasons: A deluxe five star palace, the Gresham Four Seasons is fit for a king/queen. Architecturally amazing and immaculately designed, the Danube facing suites are arguably the most desirable rooms in the city.
With fantastic food, sights and culture, I find it bizarre that Budapest is not a more popular destination for European weekends away. If you are looking for a cheap and memorable trip abroad, book flights to Hungary immediately.
Many thanks to the Budapest Tourist Board for all their help with this trip. More information here.