Quiet revolution

St Petersburg is coming in from the cold. Go now to watch the future unfold, says Christian Broughton
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The Independent Travel

I'm expecting dancing Cossacks, costumed babushkas, stuffed bears and samovars. So when I arrive at the "Russian-themed" restaurant, I am shocked. Could this really be the right place? A series of simple, vaulted dining-rooms with rendered walls, antique mirrors, bare floorboards, pine tables and chairs clothed in modest hessian. Even the name is minimal: the restaurant, it turns out, is called "Restaurant". Nothing naff. Nothing tacky.

I'm expecting dancing Cossacks, costumed babushkas, stuffed bears and samovars. So when I arrive at the "Russian-themed" restaurant, I am shocked. Could this really be the right place? A series of simple, vaulted dining-rooms with rendered walls, antique mirrors, bare floorboards, pine tables and chairs clothed in modest hessian. Even the name is minimal: the restaurant, it turns out, is called "Restaurant". Nothing naff. Nothing tacky.

"We call anywhere that does traditional Russian food a theme restaurant," explains our Russian host, over a shot of horseradish vodka and a bowl of borscht. "You don't get that many like it here. But if you want Japanese, Chinese, Indian, French or Italian food, you'll find more of them."

It's true. St Petersburg has always been Russia's most cosmopolitan city. It was founded in 1703 as Peter the Great's "window on Europe" and, with Soviet austerity now swept away and hi-tech and media businesses moving in fast, the city is embracing a new wave of Western-style luxury.

Among the ever-growing range of restaurants there's the upmarket, intimate, Seventh Guest, where the up-to-the-minute menu ranges from modern European to Asian fusion. Or the younger, hipper Italian restaurant, bar and club, Aquarel, which from the outside looks like a vast UPVC conservatory floating on the Neva (the main river in the Venice of the North) opposite the Hermitage, but inside is all groovy retro sofas and slick tables, with DJs and a stainless-steel open kitchen.

But it's not just flashy new restaurants that are brightening up the place. A facelift arrived in 2003, in time for the G8 summit and the city's 300th anniversary. And with 700 palaces and mansions, the baroque centre of St Petersburg is now a dizzying clash of fresh-painted yellows, pinks, greens and blues. The Romanovs and their friends weren't big on taupe.

The city's history is irresistible. There's the Hermitage, of course, one of the world's great museums. Some of the works may have been sold off under Joseph Stalin, but that still leaves a mind-blowing, priceless stash of European art - around three million exhibits in total. In high summer you'll spend hours queuing outside. In winter, you can just walk in. And it's a good job, too - you do not want to be hanging around in the freezing February air, even if you have bought a big furry hat at a flea-market.

And that's the rhythm of things here. By day this is a city of stunning churches and palaces, each brighter than the last, culminating in the gaudy dazzle inside St Isaac's. At markets, a couple of hundred roubles (£4) will buy you a piece of Soviet memorabilia, or perhaps a faux-antique icon. Conversely, the best prices for caviar are found in smart, specialist shops. By night, you can find clubs and bars easily, no mater what time it is. (Although winter's not quite so hedonistic as June and July, when the sun barely dips below the horizon and the White Nights bring on the world's most fearsome vodka binges.)

After dark, the sobering side of this city comes to the fore too. There are huge problems with alcoholism, prostitution, homelessness and heroin that's about 50p a hit. But this is not a city that feels threatening, and, somewhere out of St Petersburg's extraordinary mixture of history and high-rolling ambition will emerge the future. That's why it is so fascinating now.

Rooms at the Corinthia Nevskij Palace Hotel, Nevskij Prospekt, start at £200 for a double until 15 April, www.corinthiahotels.com. Return flights to St Petersburg with Czech Airlines start at £226, tel: 08704 443 747, www.czechairlines.co.uk

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Berlin

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