Russia: 48 hours in the life of St Petersburg

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The Independent Online
Wear a Russian sheepskin hat, slide your hands into a fluffy glove- muff, pull on fur-lined boots and hire a horse-drawn sleigh. Esther Oxford introduces the delights of the former Hero-City of the Soviet Union.

Why go now?

Snow is thick and temperatures are cold, but the romance of a gold-domed, river-broken city muffled by whiteness will still any qualms. Ice-skate on the river Neva; cross-country ski in the parks that surround the golden statues and frozen fountains of Peterhof. Or descend to a basement bar and introduce yourself to a tableful of Russians, for a wade through a mire of talk, vodka and rowdy singing. For those who appreciate ballet and opera, winter is prime season; the Kirov Theatre (now known as the Maryinsky) is closed during the summer.

Beam down

You can fly non-stop to St Petersburg from Gatwick on British Airways (0345 222111) or from Gatwick or Heathrow on Aeroflot (0171-355 2233), for around pounds 500 including tax - or less through discount agents. Cheaper flights, or connections from other UK airports, may be available from discount agents for travel on Austrian Airlines via Vienna, Finnair via Helsinki, KLM via Amsterdam, or SAS via Stockholm or Copenhagen.

You will, however, need a Russian visa - which is, frustratingly, even more troublesome to get now than it was in the days of the USSR. An inclusive package can minimise the bureaucratic nightmare that the visa application entails. Intourist (0171-538 5902) has a three-night short break to St Petersburg, with departures starting on 20 February, including flights and four-star accommodation, for pounds 390 (plus pounds 25 visa fee). Scantours (0171-839 2927) offers a 10-day combination of Turku, Helsinki and St Petersburg, with three nights in Russia, for pounds 865.

If you are not on an organised tour, arriving at Pulkovo airport can be challenging; your first brush with the Mafia could be one of the less salubrious taxi drivers here, who try to coerce custom from new arrivals. Ignore them, change some cash into roubles, and take one of the fast minibuses or a regular city bus to Moskovskaya metro station, where you plug into the excellent underground railway.

Get your bearings

Slicing the city in half is the river Neva. North of the river is Petrograd, home to the Peter and Paul Fortress, the city zoo, a mosque (inspired by the mausoleum of Tamerlane in Samarkand), the battleship Aurora (an icon of the Russian Revolution) and the Museum of Russian Political History. Leafy trees adorn the residential areas; cafes, markets and antique shops break up the apartment blocks and parkland.

The south side of the river Neva hosts the backbone of the city - Nevsky Prospekt - and a high concentration of the city's sites, including the Winter Palace, the Bronze Horseman (inspirational for Pushkin's poem), the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, the city's three major cathedrals, and the Summer Palace and its gardens.

Check in

The Grand Hotel Europe (275 2001), lording it over Nevsky Prospekt, is the most sumptuous (and expensive) hotel in St Petersburg. It was completed in 1875, and given a face-lift by the Art Nouveau architect Fyodor Lidval, before being refurbished again in the late Eighties by a Swedish-Russian joint venture. Security is tight: visitors are questioned by security guards and metal detectors create an impression of a fortress. But once you are inside, the opulence is seductive (British newspapers, starched tablecloths) although the toilets (indeed, all the plumbing) could do with yet another overhaul.

The Astoria (210 5010), a short walk from Nevsky Prospekt, is a beautiful building with startling views of St Isaac's Cathedral. The journalist John Reed stayed at the hotel during the 1917 Revolution, and later wrote his famous account, Ten Days that Shook the World. The service is abysmal (expect to wait a good half hour for a beer) and the hotel is home to a casino - so garish New Russian money is in much abundance.

The Peterhof (325 8888), a cruise ship which serves as a hotel, is a cheaper option. The rooms are cabins - and small - but the furnishings are comfortable and the service is excellent. The ship is moored near the Tuchkov bridge, a short walk from Nevsky Prospekt.

Take a ride

If the ice breaks, dress up in those banished fox furs, buy a bottle of champagne and a jar of caviar, and hire a water-taxi to guide you along St Petersburg's network of rivers and canals. The afternoon light is exquisite; open fires in empty metal drums punctuate the landscape and sky. Call 230 7747 to book.

Alternatively, hire a helicopter for a city overview. Fifteen-minute trips from the Peter and Paul Fortress start at pounds 12 per person (104 1676 or 315 3458). Or take a horse-driven sleigh-ride from the Proster Equestrian Centre on Krestovsky Island (230 7873 or 230 7872).

Take a hike

A walk up Nevsky Prospekt to the river Neva will take you through the spectacular Palace Square, scene of the 1905 Revolution, and past the Hermitage (also known as the Winter Palace), a magnificent example of Baroque architecture and home to what is arguably the world's most impressive art collection.

Cross the bridge on to Vasilevsky Island, passing a Guinness bar and the university grounds. The golden spire of Peter and Paul Fortress will be on one side of the Neva; the sea-blue walls of the Hermitage on the other. Cross the second bridge, stroll along the river's edge, and the enormous walls of the fortress (once known as the "Russian Bastille") will soon give way to the entrance.

The Peter and Paul Fortress is the city's oldest building, and the burial site of every czar since Peter the Great (with the exception of Nicholas II). Peter imprisoned (and later executed) his son Alexis in the fortress. Dostoyevsky, Gorky and Lenin's brother are other famous prisoners.

Outside the cobbled yards, church and museum buildings, the self-styled "walruses" will entertain. These are the die-hard swimmers who take a daily dip in the Neva all year round. During winter they pierce holes in the ice.

Alternatively you can follow the footsteps of the fictional murderer Rodion Raskolnikov, of Crime and Punishment, in a guided walking-tour of Dostoyevsky's St Petersburg. Prices start at $10 a person but are open to negotiation, especially in winter (164 6850).

Lunch on the run

If you are walking back from the Peter and Paul Fortress, take a right on to Naberezhnaya Reki Moika, from Nevsky Prospekt, stroll along beside the canal for a couple of blocks, and you will find The Idiot cafe (named after Dostoevsky's novel).

This is a winding rabbit-warren of sofa-filled rooms and cosy corners. The cappuccinos are large and creamy and the food is distinctly Russian: blini and pelmeni (meat pies), beet and potato salad. The cafe doubles as a used-books store, stocking what appears to be the city's only selection of English language books. Chess is a popular pastime, and it is acceptable to start chucking back the vodkas any time before lunch.

Cultural afternoon

The Hermitage museum houses a three-million-piece collection of works of art, not all of which are on display. It is said that it would take nine years to look at every item. There are rooms devoted to Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse - not to mention fabulous treasures from Asia.

Between 1697 and 1852 only royalty and their guests could enter the Hermitage; thereafter, "decent citizens" were occasionally admitted. It was only after the 1917 Revolution that ordinary people were allowed in.

Window shopping

Samovars, black lacquer boxes, nesting matryoshka dolls, fur hats, busts of Lenin and red Soviet flags are all easily obtained in hotel shops (fantastically over-priced) and on Nevsky Prospekt - home to the best boutiques and department stores (look for Passage) - as well as Dom Knigi, the city's most famous bookstore (excellent for art books and sheet music).

Demure dinner

Dvorianskoe Gnezdo serves oysters, caviar and other such delicacies - exquisitely prepared. The restaurant is located in the tea pavilion of the Yusupovsky Palace, formerly the home of one of the city's richest families. It was also the setting for the murder of the mad Siberian monk Rasputin - by stabbing, drowning and poisoning. Reservations essential; credit cards accepted (312 3205).

Early hours

The Jazz Club (164 8565) plays jazz from 8pm. Tunnel (233 2562) is a Bohemian nightclub in a former Soviet bomb-shelter; the DJ plays progressive, house and/or techno music. For those who like spectacle, try the Zoopark, a small venue right in the centre of the city zoo. The sounds of not-too- loud rock and bards echo round the pathetic bear cages and monkey circus, softly, softly, so as not to wake the animals. The entrance is on Kronverksky Prospekt. For an all-night ice-skating disco, try the Yubileyny Sports Palace (238 4049), also on the Petrograd side of the Neva.

Sunday morning: go to church

Trinity cathedral, a modest building in Neoclassical style, nestles within the walls of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, at the east end of Nevsky Prospekt. On Sundays the cathedral heaves with worshippers lighting candles, kissing icons and chanting, while its choir is said to be one of St Petersburg's best.

Bracing brunch

The Europa restaurant in the Grand Hotel Europe hosts a Sunday jazz brunch - champagne, delicatessen, fresh cheeses and fish, exquisite pastries arranged in piles the size of small mountains - for US$45 (pounds 28). Call 329 6000 to make a reservation.

A walk in the park

The Summer Gardens, between Trotsky and Liteiny bridges, were built on the orders of Peter the Great and remain one of the city's most beloved (and most central) sights. Those who have enjoyed kicking up snow, brushing past icicles and stroking frozen statues include the writers Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol, and the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Icing on the cake

Try a real Russian banya. Bring a towel and shampoo and buy a venik (a leafy bunch of birch twigs, available at the paybooth) for the steam room. Alternate between the cold plunge pool, hot steam cavern, tea area and beauty treatment room, where salt is rubbed into the body to encourage sweating, and honey is smoothed on to moisturise.

Mytninskie Bani (271 7119) is the only wood-stoked banya still operating in town; or, if you want to try the Russian tradition of leaping through the ice in a freezing lake, try the banya at Bolshaya Ozyornaya (553 2396). This bathhouse is open 24 hours a day and has sauna, Russian parilka, pool, gym and massage.