These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Cultural thrills and contemporary edge
Facing west across the Baltic Sea, St Petersburg was created by its founder Peter the Great as a “window into Europe”. Designed by a slew of renowned European architects, its baroque palaces, geometric layout and picturesque canals (Goethe named it the “Venice of the North”) are purposely reminiscent of Europe, although Orthodox churches and the ubiquitous Cyrillic script are reminders that this is nonetheless an exotic land. Long regarded as the country’s premier cultural hub, it offers an endless array of artistic thrills that span over 200 museums (including the Hermitage and the Russian Museum) and world-class ballet, opera and classical music.
Visitors might be surprised by its contemporary edge too. Significant investment into the centre’s regeneration has resulted in a buzzing gallery scene and an ever increasing numbers of hip and upscale bars, restaurants and boutiques. To experience the city at its most romantic, visit during the White Nights, from late May to early July, when the sun blazes all night long and the city comes alive with arts festivals, outdoor concerts and more.
Hot right now . . .
Paul Sullivan, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the hottest things to do and places to eat this season.
This brand-new spot on the Moika embankment serves up re-invented Russian cuisine in an elegant dining room setting. Drawing on local ingredients and flavours, the presentation at Moyka 3 (00 7 812 931-13-33) is playful and contemporary, with colourful salads, homemade breads and dishes such as truffles a la Kiev with mushroom sauce, and crab, shrimp and scallops in cabbage rolls. Service is friendly and prices are reasonable too.
Regulars to St Petersburg staple Ryba (Akademika Pavlova St; 00 7 812 918 69 69) are in for a surprise for their next visit, as this stylish grand restaurant, formerly known for its Italian and Asian cuisine, has not only been comprehensively refurbished, but has been transformed into a high-end pizzeria. The menu now features more than a dozen types, from classic northern style Tuscan thin crust to doughy Neapolitan, plus gluten-free options, interesting toppings such as mortadella and pistachio, and the same panoramic views over the city.
48 hours in . . . St Petersburg
The obvious but nonetheless best place to begin an exploration of St Petersburg is at Palace Square, which has played a consistent role in the city’s 300-year history – the Bloody Sunday massacre and parts of the October revolution included.
Today, the vast but scenic plaza is mostly lined by eye-catching palaces, including the Winter Palace, former residence of Russian emperors and now home to the world-famous Hermitage Museum (Palace Square, 2; 00 7 812 710 90 79), the second largest art museum in the world. There’s no way of seeing all the rooms nor even the highlights within in one visit; the best approach is to research first and seek out specific rooms, artists or specific artworks (site plans are available online and at the reception area)… or simply satisfy yourself with whatever you find via an aimless meander.
Head to the lovely Literary Café (Nevsky Prospekt, 18; 00 7 812 312 35 50) for a rewarding borscht or beef stroganoff. If you’ve only got one day, take the opportunity now to stroll up and down Nevsky Prospekt; if you have two days, save that for tomorrow and instead mooch along one of the city’s finest canals, Moika, to St. Isaac’s Cathedral (St Isaac’s Square, 4; 00 7 812 315 97 32), whose golden cupola is one of the symbols of the city. The interior – large enough to hold some 14,000 worshippers – is well worth a look for its mosaics, paintings and stained glass windows, but the (literal) highlight is the rooftop walkway, reached via 300 steps, which offers wonderful views of the city.
Just behind the cathedral is the Bronze Horseman (Senate Square), the statue of St. Petersburg founder Peter the Great that was commissioned by Catherine the Great and created by French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet; the dramatic pedestal is the largest stone ever moved by humans.
Also nearby is Zakharov‘s striking Admiralty (Admiralteyskiy Prospekt) building, which was built as the fortified shipyard where the Russian navy was built, and now functions a naval academy.
Cross the river to Vasilevsky Island, specifically the spit of land known as the Strelka, a popular hangout area for locals thanks to its landmark Rostral columns, the Old Stock Exchange and scenic views across the Neva.
Head across the picturesque Troitskiy Bridge to get to the Peter and Paul Fortress, which offers a magnificent cathedral (which houses the tombs of Russia’s imperial family, including Peter the Great, Nicholas II and Catherine the Great), several museums and an exterior walkway with views back across the city.
Stroll back to town and enjoy innovative Russian dishes at trendy Hamlet + Jacks (Volynskiy Pereulok, 2; 00 7 812 907 07 35), such as raniki with chanterelles, chorizo and bisque foam, and Rostov duck with beetroot mole sauce and parsnip.
Continue exploring the city’s contemporary side by hopping in a taxi to Mexican-themed speakeasy El Copitas (Kolokol’naya Ulitsa, 2; 007 812 941 7168). It has been named as one of the World’s 50 Best Bars (2018), and the fabulous cocktail list includes many drinks concocted with rare imported tequilas and mescals. Reservations are essential and do bring cash as no cards are taken here.
A different day, a different square. Arts Square was designed by Carlo Rossi and features such esteemed buildings as the Mikhailovsky Palace (Sadovaya St, 2; 00 7 812 595 42 48) and the Mussorgsky Opera and the Ballet Theater; in the middle is Mikhail Anikushin’s stately statue of Pushkin, erected in 1957 to mark the 250th anniversary of the St. Petersburg’s – four years too late, in true Communist style.
Spend the morning exploring Russian masterpieces – from religious icons to avant-garde abstracts – at the Russian Museum (inside the Mikhailovsky Palace). Grab coffee and cake or a larger lunch (their pelmini are delicious) at Cafe Singer (Nevsky Prospekt, 28; 00 7 812 571 82 23).
Wander along Nevsky Prospekt, catching some of the avenue’s bustling atmosphere and admiring the buildings, before taking a detour to the eye-catching Church of the Resurrection (aka Church on the Spilled Blood; Naberezhnaya Kanala Griboedova; 00 7 314 21 68), whose brilliant post-Soviet restoration took almost 30 years. The almost cartoonish exterior, modelled partly on Moscow’s St Basil’s, is highly photogenic, but the inside, full of mosaic icons, is every bit as impressive.
To the east of the church lie the perfectly maintained Mikhailovsky Gardens (00 7 812 595 42 48), whose interconnected pathways, dotted with ice cream and chestnut vendors, are a pleasure to stroll.
Wander back along the Fontanka River canal, stopping off at the Faberge Museum (Fontanka River Embankment, 21; 00 7 812 333 26 55), to have an early dinner at the elegant Palkin (Nevsky Prospekt, 47; 00 7 812 502 22 00). This sophisticated restaurant – named after its founding family – is one of the oldest in town, and the French-Russian menu is as traditional as it gets. Picture aristocratic treats such as foie gras, truffles, and black caviar, as well as signature classics from cabbage soup to lamb on the bone.
Afterwards, take a taxi to the Mariinsky Theatre (Theatre Square, 1; 00 7 812 326 41 41) to admire its opulent interiors and enjoy some opera, ballet or a concert, ensuring you grab a glass of bubbly and enjoy the views from the venue’s balcony during the intermission; if you’re lucky you’ll see the sun setting over Ekaterininskiy Park.
Where to stay . . .
The Astoria enjoys a stellar reputation thanks to an illustrious roster of guests comprising celebrities and politicians hailing from near and far. Other alluring features include a spectacular view of the St Isaac’s Cathedral, a fabulous restaurant serving Russian classics and a good-quality spa. The rooms are stylish and highly comfortable, decorated in bright red-and-white, blue-and-white or green-and-white palettes.
Doubles from £204. Bolshaya Morskaya Street, 39; 00 7 812 494 5757
Alexander House is set inside a building originally constructed in 1826 for a prosperous St. Petersburg merchant. Reconstructed by owner Alexander Zhukov and his wife, it features a wealth of original elements (rustic wooden beams, restored brickwork) that are matched to tasteful antique bookshelves and cabinets, and peppered with framed maps and a bevy of wooden sculptures, souvenirs and artworks – many of them procured during the owner’s travels.
Doubles from £75. Kryukova kanala, 27; 00 7 812 334 35 40
One of the best-known and most reliable hostels in St. Petersburg, Baby Lemonade – as the name might suggest – is inspired by the hippy and rock & roll aesthetics of the swinging Sixties and Seventies. It offers a mix of dorms and private rooms, all spotlessly clean, and service is friendly and fun. The most idiosyncratic room is actually the family room, Pop Art; it has a round double bed and two single beds as well as reproductions of pop-art masterpieces on the walls, and skylight.
Dorms from £5 and doubles from £21. Inzhenernaya street, 7; 00 7 8 812 570 79 43
What to bring home . . .
Nothing yells St Petersburg more than a Raketa (“rocket”) wristwatch, which have been produced in the eponymous town near Peterhof since the 18th century. Soviet themes are available and can be found in the Nevsky Atrium mall.
Another great gift with a connection to St Petersburg is amber. At Exclusive Amber Collection (Passage shopping centre, Nevsky Prospekt 48) you can find elegant necklaces and bracelets as well as fossils and even paintings containing the precious stone.
When to go . . .
St Petersburg has several different characters, depending on the season. Winter ostensibly lasts from October to May, and as well as being somewhat chilly, is also romantic, cheaper and less crowded. May and June are warmer – and famous for the White Nights, when visitors descend to enjoy the slew of cultural offerings and enjoy the extra sunlight. Needless to say, prices climb and the streets and hotels are fuller, which continues to be the case throughout July and August, as the mercury climbs and the city plays outdoors. Autumn is short but glorious, while spring is mostly a matter of navigating through melted snow.
Know before you go . . .
All western visitors to Russia need a visa. Real Russia (020 7100 7370; realrussia.co.uk) offers a quick and easy service.
Emergency numbers: All services: 112; Fire: 01; Police: 02 (For English-speakers – 164-9787); Ambulance: 03
Local laws and etiquette
St Petersburg is a very laid back and generally safe city, but the usual precautions should be taken against pickpocketing and phone/bag snatching, especially in busy tourist areas such as the underground and Nevsky Prospect.
It’s worth carrying your passport or ID around as police checks do take place, though they’re usually not the corrupt shakedowns of yesteryear.
There are a few general rules of etiquette, mostly general Russian superstitions rather than distinct to St Petersburg: don’t shake hands across a doorway; always bring a gift if visiting someone’s home; don’t place your elbows on a table when eating; don’t place finished bottles on the table – the floor is the preferred place for them.
Attitudes around LGBT+ culture in Moscow and St Petersburg are changing, if slowly. There are communities and clubs in both cities, but they tend to remain mostly hidden from public view. Exercise caution in public. For more information, read the FCO advice.
Telephone code: Dial 00 7 812 for St Petersburg numbers from abroad. To make international calls from a fixed phone line in St Petersburg, dial 8, wait for the dial tone, then 10, then the country code, city code and number
Time difference: +3 hours (which means +3 from UK in winter, but +2 in summer)
Flight time: London to St Petersburg is four and a half hours
Paul Sullivan is Telegraph Travel’s St Petersburg and Moscow expert. In St. Petersburg he can be found strolling the canals and exploring the city’s dynamic cultural and gastronomic scenes.