The nights are drawing in, so make the most of them. That's the thinking behind the White Days festival (whitedays.com), which starts this month. It's an inspired idea, thought up by St Petersburg's five-star hoteliers, to put on an arts programme that rivals the city's famous summertime "White Nights" and keep the tourists coming during the dark days of November to April.
For while the weather may be distinctly chilly and the diplomatic dial turned to fast-freeze, more and more of us are prepared to wrap up warm and head east to explore Russia's great cities. And it's no surprise that St Petersburg is one of our favoured destinations. The city's elegant avenues showcase an abundance of grand palaces and fine historic monuments – it's a veritable open-air museum.
Yet, while St Petersburg's historic heart has been preserved, this city is no stranger to turbulent times, from the ruthless rule of its founder, Peter the Great, and the royal houses that followed him, through the Soviet era, and a siege by the Nazis, to Putin's new Russia. Today, St Petersburgers are embracing global capitalism – and at break-neck speed. Just 20 years ago visitors would have seen city dwellers queuing for rations in front of anonymous buildings. Today, Zara, Subway and many other familiar Western brands are here competing with home-grown businesses for the rouble in your pocket.
... the Hermitage Museum, a collection that stretches across four buildings and contains enough masterpieces to detain an ardent art lover for several years;
... the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, a memorial to the terrible suffering endured by the local population, resulting in half a million dead, when the Nazis besieged the city for 300 days between 1941 and 1944;
... the Peter and Paul Fortress, the spot where Peter the Great began construction of his city on the marsh, and the resting place of the tsars;
... the battleship 'Aurora', which fired the shot that signalled the start of the 1917 revolution;
... a night at the opera or the ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre;
... the psychedelic onion domes of the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, and opulent interiors of the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was murdered;
... strolling through the city's oldest park, the Summer Garden;
... a boat trip in summer along the river Neva and the city's canals.
St Petersburg has no tradition (yet) of transforming neighbourhoods into trendy enclaves. To find the city's in-crowd, your best bet is to head to Nevsky Prospekt, the area to hang out in day or night, which is roughly divided into "Old Nevsky" and "New Nevsky" by Vosstaniya Square. For the latest designer shopping, call in at Mania Grandioza (number 41), a shoe heaven that opened last month, while CCCP (number 54) and Onegin (Sadovaya 11) are two of the top nightspots.
Russian Vodka Museum
The idea of studying rather than imbibing Russia's favourite elixir may seem to miss the point, but the new Russian Vodka Museum offers just a taste of its history before you get to wet your whistle. It's set in a former army barracks, where one room has been allocated to displays of vodka-related artefacts that take the visitor through the ages to today's multimillion-rouble industry. And while the information is in Russian, there are English-speaking guides on hand to give an informative mini-tour. Then, it's on to the tasting room, where you can try before you buy.
Details: Russian Vodka Museum (00 7 812 570 6420; vodkaroom.ru ).
If you thought Russian cooking was a load of old borscht, book a table at Terrassa. This restaurant on the top floor of the smart Vanity designer department store doesn't just command great views of the city from its balcony in warmer months, it also offers plenty of culinary theatre for diners inside. Watch the chefs at work in the open kitchens, cooking everything from pizza to Georgian pies from the fresh produce on display.
Details: Terrassa (00 7 812 937 6837; terrassa.ru ).
A door in the wall on Ligovsky Prospect provides an unassuming entrance to an audacious creative space. Loft Project has turned a former bakery into a five-storey showcase for artists, architects, photographers and designers, with current exhibitions including 100 Objects of Italian Design. A new organic vegetarian restaurant and a wine bar provide welcome refreshment, too.
Details: Loft Project (00 7 812 611 0166; loftprojectetagi.ru ).
"After 12 years here, I've finally found the best view in St Petersburg," says Lisa Kreutz, senior property consultant at Pulford Real Estate and Serviced Flats. "The rooftop restaurant at the Kempinski Hotel not only offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the Hermitage and historical centre, it also provides a pampering retreat from the many challenges of daily life in Russia – a place to relax and reflect on the impossible city realised by Peter the Great."
How to get there
British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com ) flies daily to St Petersburg from £286 return. Rooms at the Hotel Astoria (0800 988 4040; roccofortecollection.com ) start at £234 per night. The hotel is offering a three-night "White Days" package from 15 November to 31 March (excluding Christmas and New Year). The price is £1,000 for two sharing a classic room, including breakfast, entrance to the Hermitage, a city tour with an English-speaking guide, massage and a dinner in the Davidov restaurant.
St Petersburg tourist information ( visit-petersburg.com ).Reuse content