48 Hours In: St Petersburg

As summer's endless light begins to fade in Peter the Great's creation, the Russian city's arts scene goes into full swing with a new season of ballet and opera, says Chris Leadbeater.

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

September in St Petersburg sees a shift in pace, as the near-endless daylight of summer starts to fade. The Mariinsky Theatre (1) marks the change. This icon of the arts, at Teatralnaya Ploshchad (square) 1 (007 812 326 4141; mariinsky.ru), launches its autumn seasons of opera and ballet on 18 September. Tickets from 400 roubles (£8).

Touch down

British citizens visiting Russia must obtain a visa prior to travel. A single-entry tourist visa is £50, plus £26.40 fee, via the UK visa office (0905 889 0149; ru.vfsglobal.co.uk). The standard processing time is five working days. You can fly to St Petersburg's Pulkovo airport (007 812 704 3822; www.pulkovoairport.ru) on B A (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow, or Rossiya Airlines (www.rossiya-airlines.com) from Gatwick.

The airport is 11 miles south of the centre. Shuttle bus K3 runs from the international terminal (Terminal 2) to Sennaya Ploshchad metro station (2), taking 25 minutes for R30 (60p). To hire a taxi, use the official Taxi Pulkovo counter (007 812 900 0000) in the arrivals hall. Expect to pay R750 (£15). This way, you avoid the exorbitant alternatives outside.

Get your bearings

St Petersburg sits on the Gulf of Finland. It was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, who dreamed of a metropolis that would echo the watery beauty of Venice. As such, the centre lies on the south bank of the River Neva, and is laced with smaller channels: the Moyka and Fontanka rivers and the Griboedov Canal.

The key thoroughfare is Nevsky Prospekt, which runs west from the main Moskovsky (3) railway station into the cultural core of St Petersburg. The city centre can be seen on foot, but it is also worth using the striking five-line Metro system (metro.spb.ru). Single journeys cost R27 (54p). Tickets – round tokens (zhetoni) – are sold by machine in every station. The main Tourist Bureau (4) (007 812 310 2822; eng.ispb.info) lurks just off Nevsky Prospekt at Sadovaya Ulitsa 14/52, open Monday to Friday 10am-7pm and Saturday noon-6pm (closed Sunday).

Check in

The Hotel Astoria (5), at Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa 39 (007 812 494 5757; roccofortehotels.com), is St Petersburg's most splendid accommodation dame. Double rooms with breakfast start at €250. I travelled with Russia specialist Exeter International (020-8956 2756; exeterinternational.co.uk), which offers a four-night stay at the Astoria – including breakfast, transfers and return BA flights – from £800 per person.

For a plush four-star option, the Angleterre Hotel (6), at Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa 24, does doubles from R9,100 (£176), room only (007 812 494 5666; angleterrehotel.com).

A cosy mid-range option at Naberezhnaya Reki Moyki 14, the Pushka Inn (7) (007 812 312 0913; pushkainn.ru) offers doubles from R7055 (£137), room only.

Day one

Take a hike

Begin in Isaakievskaya Ploshchad, where St Isaac's Cathedral (8) dominates. This 19th-century Russian Orthodox bastion (007 812 315 9732; cathedral.ru) exudes undeniable majesty – and is open to the public daily (except Wednesday), 10am-7pm, entry R250 (£5).

From here, forge north into the Alexander Garden. Take note of the statue of the city's founder Peter the Great (9) at the far end, on Senatskaya Ploshchad, which was heralded by Aleksandr Pushkin in his 1833 poem "The Bronze Horseman" – a keynote work in the history of Russian literature.

Tsar Peter gazes down at the sparkling flow of the river Neva. Follow his example as you stroll east on the waterfront strip of Angliyskaya Naberezhnaya, before pausing to admire The Admiralty (10) – the traditional home of the Russian navy, whose glinting spire is a city landmark.

Cultural morning

You could spend an entire week at The Hermitage (11), Dvortsovaya Naberezhnaya 34 (007 812 710 9079; hermitagemuseum.org). The planet's finest art gallery is laid out in a line of former palaces and theatres along the Neva, and boasts an astonishing collection that ticks off just about every major artist (Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Picasso and Van Gogh, to name a few). The complex is also worth seeing for the drama of its architecture – notably the gleaming gilt of the Armorial Hall in the Winter Palace. Open daily 10.30am to 6pm except Sunday (10am to 5pm) and Monday (closed). Tickets R400 (£8).

Opposite, over the Neva, the Peter and Paul Fortress (12) at Petropavlovskaya Krepost 3 (007 812 230 6431; spbmuseum.ru) was the city's founding point. Several museums lie within the walls, but the siren call comes from the Peter and Paul Cathedral, where Peter the Great is entombed alongside the murdered family of the last Tsar. The fortress is open daily 6am to 9pm, but museum hours vary. A five-museum ticket costs R370 (£7.20).

Elsewhere, the Nabokov Museum (13) salutes the author of Lolita in his birthplace at Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa 47 (007 812 315 4713; nabokovmuseum.org). Open noon to 5pm on Saturdays, 11am- 6pm Tuesday to Friday. Entry R100 (£2).

Lunch on the run

Stop off at Stolle (14), a popular chain that dishes out classic thick-crust Russian salmon pies for R95 (£2). Try the branch at Konyushenny Pereulok 1/6 (007 812 312 1862; stolle.ru).

Take a ride

Go underground to explore a metro system that, built in the Fifties as a grandiose Communist statement, is hugely graceful. Sportivnaya station (15) (Line 5) is themed on ancient Greece. Pushkinskaya (16) (Line 1) could be a hall for Roman gods. Gostiny Dvor (17) (Line 3) greets visitors with a stained-glass mural that depicts the struggle of the working man.

An aperitif

Grab a cocktail (from R250/£5) with St Petersburg's cool young things at Clean Plates Society (18), a trendy bar at Gorokhovaya Ulitsa 13 (007 812 934 9764; cleanplates.ru).

Dining with the locals

Pitched chicly atop an apartment block at Pochtamtskaya Ulitsa 3, Mansarda (19) (007 812 946 4303; ginza-mansarda.ru) is all glass-sided modernity; try the gazpacho with crab for R880 (£18). Gimnazya (20), at Konnogvardeisky Bulvar 21 (007 812 570 0770; gimnazya.ru), is breezily upmarket, serving veal ravioli for R500 (£10). To the south, Rubinshteyna Ulitsa is dotted with eateries – of which Sardina (21), an Italian restaurant at Nos 6-8 (007 812 929 9998), may be the best rated. Pasta dishes from R500 (£10).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Churches of impressive scale abound in St Petersburg. Aside from St Isaac's (8), visitors should certainly take in the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (22) (007 812 315 1636; cathedral.ru). So named because it's built on the spot – at Naberezhnaya Kanala Griboedova 2b – where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Open daily except Wednesday, 10am to 7pm, entry R250 (£5) .

Just off Nevsky Prospekt at Kazanskaya Ploshchad 2, the Kazan Cathedral (23) (007 812 314 4663; kazansky-spb.ru) was built in the first decade of the 19th century. Its curving colonnades sound a deliberate echo of St Peter's in Rome. Free entry (8.30am-8pm).

Window shopping

Nevsky Prospekt is festooned with retail options. Passazh (24), at No 48, is a cherished department store dating back to 1848 (007 812 312 2210; passage.spb.ru). Kupetz Eliseevs (25), at No 56, is a fabulous delicatessen that's sold cheeses, vodkas, chocolates and caviar since 1902 (007 812 456 6666; kupetzeliseevs.ru). A few doors down at No 60, Imperial Porcelain (26) pines for the era of the Tsars as it dispenses crockery ornate enough for regal banquets (007 812 571 3262;ipm.ru).

Out to brunch

Perched prettily on the second floor of the Dom Knigi bookshop at Nevsky Prospekt 28 (007 812 448 2355; domzinger.ru), Café Singer (27) has the air of a literary salon. It serves thick sandwiches from R350 (£7) and decadent sugary pastries from R160 (£3).

A walk in the park

The Field of Mars (Marsovo Pole) (28) has been sited just below the Neva since the city's first years. A manicured expanse of lawns and paths, it trumpets various Russian military triumphs.

Rather more 21st century, New Holland (Novaya Gollandiya) (29) opened earlier this year – an inventive green space with bars, cafés, sculptures and deckchairs wrapped around a defunct naval prison at Naberezhnaya Admiralteyskogo Kanala 2. Open Monday to Thursday (11am-10pm) and Friday to Sunday (11am-11pm), until 30 September (007 812 971 0510; newhollandsp.com; free).

Icing on the cake

If you can summon the energy, the raising of the Neva bridges is one of the spectacles of summer. In the small hours these sturdy crossing points lift their arms to allow large ships out to sea.

The two most central bridges, Blagoveshchensky Most (30) and Dvortsovyy Most (31), both perform their time-honoured ritual at 1.25am.

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