Just 20 years after the Soviet Bloc began to crumble, St Petersburg's grey, solemn streets have been transformed by the garish trappings of global capitalism.
The Nevsky Prospekt – the city's main thoroughfare since it was carved out of thick forest for Peter the Great, when he relocated his court to these godforsaken marshlands on the Gulf of Finland – is now lined with shops familiar from our own high streets.
The hotel scene has moved on too since the days when Intourist dictated where you could stay. The Hotel Astoria, part of the Rocco Forte Collection, offers a thoroughly cosmopolitan experience, with luxurious accommodation, destination restaurants and spa, and an unusually sharp concierge for a country that is still learning the art of service.
But appearances can be deceptive. St Petersburg hasn't been subsumed by international blandness. This city has a complex soul and still feels reassuringly foreign – that's as big a part of the experience as visiting the Hermitage.
Olga Polizzi has applied her philosophy of simple luxury to the design of the hotel's 211 bedrooms and 42 suites, smoothing away the sterner institutional edges that this building has acquired over the past century and returning it to its original purpose as a modish hotel. A palette of pastels complements the light oak parquet floors, and the generous use of linen, for the curtains, bed covers and cushions, adds a natural touch. The most ostentatious styling is the Italian marble in the bathrooms. (Book a room with a view of neighbouring St Isaac's Cathedral.) The hotel's communal areas are less restrained, lavished with velvet and adorned with antiques. Check out the brass plaques by the lifts to discover some of the famous past guests, from Rasputin and Lenin to Margaret Thatcher and Pavarotti.
The food and drink
The Kandinsky Bar and Rotonda Lounge provide opulent settings for a drink or snack, from morning coffee through to the cocktail hour and beyond. In the main dining room, the Davidov Russian Restaurant, international favourites such as buffalo mozzarella with tomato and parma ham are served alongside local dishes such as meat zakouski. Expect to pay around £90 per head for three courses without wine. The Borsalino Restaurant in the adjacent Angleterre Hotel serves a more affordable Italian menu in a dining room designed by David Collins. But your inner oligarch might prefer to indulge in a pot of Beluga in the Caviar Bar.
The Astoria Spa offers treatments, a Finnish sauna, Turkish bath and 24-hour gym. St Isaac's Cathedral is just across the green – climb the stairs to the colonnade at the base of its golden dome to get an overview of the city. Also within easy reach are most of the city's key sights, including the State Hermitage Museum, the Church on Spilled Blood, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Mariinsky Theatre, the Nevsky Prospekt and the River Neva. Ask the concierge about private, guided sightseeing tours, especially to Peterhof – Russia's Versailles.
Double rooms are available from £188 per night. British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com) offers return flights between Heathrow and St Petersburg from £261.
Hotel Astoria St Petersburg, St Isaac's Square, 39 Bolshaya Morskaya, 190000 St Petersburg, Russia (0800 988 4040 roccofortecollection.com).Reuse content