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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.