As winter approaches and the queues subside, now is the ideal time to see the sights of St Petersburg. But doing so by bicycle may well prove to be a revolutionary idea too far, says Ben Ross

Last weekend in the Summer Garden, autumn began its descent into winter. Its passage was marked by subotnik, the day when residents of St Petersburg – as in other Russian cities – volunteer to sweep up and tidy the streets and public spaces. Neat piles of yellow leaves were being busily brushed together by teams of locals as the pale sun cast long shadows on the ground, while just to the west, beyond the Lebyazhy Canal, the trees in the Field of Mars splashed golds and reds over the kitsch onion domes of the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood.

Just the time and place, you might think, for a bracing bicycle ride. St Petersburg is, after all, flat as a pancake. (Or, more properly, flat as a blini, the Russian version made with yeast.) It's also a young city, founded in 1703, and therefore blessed with wide, bike-friendly boulevards, rather than a cramped medieval old town. The golden spike of the old admiralty building on the south bank of the wide river Neva is visible from three major arteries – Nevsky Prospekt, Gorokhovaya Ulitsa and Voznesensky Prospekt – so you always have a useful point of navigation. And there are graceful canal paths to pedal down, a series of elegant bridges to traverse and an astonishing array of museums and white-stuccoed palaces, steeped in a turbulent civic and national history, to park beside and explore.

But it is only a tiny exaggeration to say that absolutely nobody rides bikes in St Petersburg. In the course of my four-day visit, I saw two children pulling wheelies on their BMXs and a pair of young men in Red Army fatigues wobbling gently along a pavement. In a city of five million people, that really isn't a lot. Meanwhile, the traffic was appalling, a constant grind of cars – Mercedes-Benzes, Audis, even Hummers among the vans and trucks – all going nowhere. When I asked one driver why he was prepared to sit in a queue for hours, he said simply, "I love my car." Then he added, "And a bicycle is very dangerous here."

I decided to take the risk. Of the two cycle-hire firms I could find, only one was answering the phone, so I headed down Nevsky Prospekt, past the imposing frontage of the Moscow Station, down an alleyway, through a battered green metal door and into a cellar.

Here, an array of gleaming new mountain bikes lined the walls (for use on off-road country tracks, it seemed, rather than the city). I was gestured, instead, towards one of two rather dilapidated examples next to the door; mine for 100 roubles (£2.65) an hour, plus a 1,500 rouble (£40) deposit, cycle helmet neither included nor available.

Fifteen minutes of high-adrenalin traffic dodging and a narrow squeak with a speeding bus later, I found myself – shaking slightly – at my goal: the northern gates of the Summer Garden, once the pet project of the city's founder, Peter the Great. Here, with unintended irony, a sign indicated that cycling was forbidden.

Peter would probably have liked the bicycle. He was certainly a fan of boats: Russia's greatest tsar made a trek to Western Europe to learn how to build them. In Deptford, in south-east London, he acquired the skills to build and defend a maritime city. In St Petersburg, he chose a site for his nation's new capital that had access to the Baltic and the world.

To encourage the use of boats he even forbade the building of bridges between St Petersburg's islands. Nowadays, there are 22 bridges across the Neva and hundreds more cross no fewer than 63 canals, dug to regulate the river water as it flows from Lake Ladoga – Europe's largest – into the Gulf of Finland. Many of the city's bridges are constructed to be raised; they lift in unison each night in summer between 2am and 5am. The idea is to allow ships to pass freely – but the habit also, I was told, provides a cast-iron excuse for many a philanderer. In winter, the Neva freezes (and the philanderers, presumably, cease their nocturnal liaisons).

I headed across the Neva to Zayachy Island, the home to the Peter and Paul Fortress and the first structure Peter the Great commissioned, in 1703. Until 1917 it was a prison (Dostoevsky and Trotsky spent time here, not to mention Peter the Great's son, who was tortured to death by order of his dad).

Most visitors come to see the striking baroque interior of the island's cathedral, wherein lie the bones of all of Russia's pre-revolutionary rulers, including Peter and Catherine the Great and – in a separate shrine – Nicholas II and his

family, who were reburied here a decade ago.

Nicholas II, with the unassuming title of Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, was deposed in 1917. The following year, he and his family were shot in a basement in the Ural city of Yekaterinburg. They died on the orders of Lenin, whose name would be adopted by St Petersburg after his death in 1924.

The last Romanov ruler's macabre story casts its own light on the city's turbulent 20th century. St Petersburg now seems so gracious, so vast – it's the fourth largest metropolis in Europe, after Moscow, Istanbul and London – that the events of 1941, when Germany began the siege of Leningrad, seem utterly incongruous. And yet there are reminders everywhere.

The epic Victory Square is practically the first thing you encounter on the way from the airport – and its Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad is a both an extremely moving testament to the "hero cities" of the USSR and an awesome example of Soviet-era aggrandisement. Then, too, there are the shell-scarred granite columns of mighty St Isaac's Cathedral, which rises with supreme opulence just to the south of the old admiralty. Stalin wanted to destroy it as the epitome of Russian Christianity, but he was persuaded to preserve it as a museum of atheism. Like so much of the city, it has now returned to its original purpose.

From the colonnade of St Isaac's, 258 steps above street level, there's a panoramic view of ecclesiastical St Petersburg, church towers and domes pricking what is otherwise a relatively low-rise skyline. But it was St Isaac's itself that dominated the view from my room at the Astoria Hotel just opposite – a building which is also embedded in the history of the city. Completed in 1912, it has in its time entertained guests as varied as HG Wells, Isadora Duncan, Deep Purple, Rasputin and George W Bush (though not at the same time), as well as being for a brief time a Bolshevik military hospital. It was also in the Astoria that Hitler, with characteristic hubris, planned to host a banquet following his conquest of the city.

These days, the stern Moderne-style façade hides an altogether more tranquil experience than that envisaged by the Führer. Redesigned by the Rocco Forte Collection, the interior conjures up the "simple luxury" brief carried through by the rest of the group's hotels. My room, although contemporary, still had enough character to make me feel as though I was enjoying something special, with elegant parquet floors and classic, understated furnishings.

What's more, the double-glazing was second to none – one of the benefits of a harsh winter season – rendering inaudible the clamour of traffic outside. Afternoon tea with blinis is the order of the day in the Astoria's Rotunda Lounge, munched to the sound of a gently tinkling piano, ideally with a slim volume of Pushkin's poetry to hand.

Pushkin, considered by many to be the greatest Russian poet, died in a duel on the outskirts of the city aged 38 in 1837, a fact that is still widely mourned in the city. "Mad monk" Rasputin, meanwhile, was poisoned, shot and eventually drowned in the Neva in 1916, which elicits far less sympathy these days. The scene of crime was the glorious Yusupov Palace, set on the narrow Moyka River, which joins the Neva just to the east. The 19th-century interiors are fabulously flash, with the tiny rococo private theatre a gilt-laden highlight: you can almost smell the greasepaint.

There was even a live performance on offer in the palace: on my visit to the ballroom, six iron-lunged choristers were on hand to deliver a bass-heavy rendition of Russian folk songs. Felix Yusupov did the dirty deed in a strange bachelor-pad annexe, reached by a hexagonal room with a series of false doors. The wax-work reconstruction of Rasputin's last moments is eerie enough; photos of the main protagonists drive home the fact that it wasn't so long ago that sex-mad holy man had the ear of Russian royalty.

Even if you prefer to avoid bicycles, there are some things you should seize the chance to do while in St Petersburg. Taking in a performance of an opera or ballet at the ornate Mariinsky Theatre – known as the Kirov during the Soviet era – is one of them. (I watched a magisterial performance of Aida there last Saturday, and there's a rolling programme of the greats on offer.) But if the prospect of being cast adrift on a night of Italian arias with Russian surtitles seems a bit much, head for the elegant Sadko restaurant opposite the Mariinsky. The hand-painted ceilings, dark red chandeliers and tasty Russian food are impressive enough – and the between-course operatic performances by the waiters add an extra cultural dimension.

St Petersburg's strong sense of culture radiates from the building at its heart: the Winter Palace. How extreme is the scale, how intricate the detail of the Tsar's winter home? Imagine the most lavish wedding cake, unravelled and stretched out for several hundred metres, and you get the general idea of the façade. The storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917, in which Lenin came to power, is celebrated by would-be revolutionaries around the world as the classic "man the barricades and smash the state" action. In fact, more people were hurt in the film-maker Eisenstein's restaging of the event than in the original uprising. Power was not seized from a bunch of aristocrats with a long history of oppression, but wrested from Alexander Kerensky's "bourgeois democrats", who had deposed Nicholas II. (They were arrested in the Small Dining Room, a rococo jewel dominated by 18th-century tapestries and a huge chandelier.)

Today, the Winter Palace comprises part of the Hermitage Museum, the second-largest collection of art in Europe (after the Louvre), which occupies a vast complex of 18th-century buildings. Last weekend proved to be a good time to visit: the long summer queues had subsided, leaving me with the chance to gawp in relative peace at the Rembrandts and medieval icons, the Da Vincis and the Impressionists.

There's also exercise (to see every gallery you would need to walk 13 miles) and a curious form of entertainment to be had at the Hermitage. Time the end of your visit to coincide with closing time, then make for a relatively inaccessible part of the building (the Matisse room should do the trick). Here, at five o'clock sharp last Sunday, a uniformed guard arrived and, without any ceremony, turned off the lights. The stern babushka who been watching from the corner immediately rose and picked up her bags, gesturing me to the door.

From there I was marched briskly through room after room, and as we reached each one we picked up another elderly lady, similarly anxious to speed me and my fellow art lovers on our way. By the time I reached the cloakroom I was being pursued by about seven of them, all huffing and puffing and tutting behind me. So I made my escape, out into the crisp air of a city on the very brink of winter.

'Tis the season for spectacular arts events

"Winter in town, summer at the dacha" was the order of the Imperial heydays, and one to which contemporary Petersburgers still adhere. Today's visitors might not score quite the number of invitations to balls and ridottos as a century ago, but the "winter season" is when this glittering city of the arts puts on its finery: ballet and opera premieres at the Mariinsky, special exhibitions at museums, gallery openings and parties to while the winter nights away.

The reason? Russia's summer is fleetingly brief. In July and August, sun-starved city folk disappear to countryside cottages or on foreign holidays in such numbers that St Petersburg resembles a ghost town, save for the hordes of tourists stuck in two-hour queues for the Hermitage.

The wise visitor avoids the summer swarms and hotel surcharges, and comes instead when air fares lose their summer sting and an ice-frosting adorns the city.

Outside St Petersburg, the gardens of the Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo palaces acquire a surreal white panorama, and winter fun in the form of sleigh-rides and ice-skating makes up for the short days.

Neil McGowan

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

The writer travelled as a guest of British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which offers return flights from London Heathrow to St Petersburg from £284 per person, based on departures during November 2008. To reduce the impact on the environment, buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfoot print.travel).

Staying there

Rocco Forte Hotel Astoria, 39 Bolshaya Morskaya (00 7 812 494 5757; thehotelastoria.com). Double rooms start at £234 room only. The Astoria's three-night "White Days" package costs £1,000 for two people sharing which includes accommodation inclusive of breakfast, entrance to the Hermitage, a city tour, a Russian Classical massage and a Russian Table dinner in the Davidov restaurant including vodka and champagne. Excluding flights. To book call 0800 988 4040 or see roccofortecollection.com. The package is available for travel from 15 November to 31 March (excluding Christmas and New Year).

Visiting there

Yusupov Palace, 94 nab reki Moyki (00 7 812 314 9883; yusupov-palace.ru); 450 roubles (£11.85).

Mariinsky Theatre, Teatralnaya ploshchad (00 7 812 326 4141; mariinsky.ru). Book online, seats from 400 roubles (£10.50).

The State Hermitage Museum, 34 Dvortsovaya nab (00 7 812 710 9625; hermitagemuseum.org). Book in advance from the website for US$17.25 (£10.15).

Eating & drinking there

Sadko, 2 Glinki ulitsa (00 7 812 920 8228).

Cycling there

Skat Prokat (00 7 812 717 6838; skatprokat.ru) is at 7 Goncharnaya ulitsa. Bike hire for 400 roubles (£10.50) per day, or 100 roubles (£2.65) per hour, plus a deposit. The St Petersburg traffic pays no attention to cyclists, so be careful.

Red tape & more information

British nationals require a visa. Apply to the Embassy of the Russian Federation, 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QS (020-7229 8027; rusemblon.org), £45 for a single entry. You must provide a tourist voucher and confirmation in Russian from a tour operator. Russian National Tourist Office (020-7495 7570; visitrussia.org.uk).

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