Home of Imperial Russia, here’s the need-to-know guide to the modern Venice of the north.
Russia’s most northern city is snugly tucked into the eastern crevice of the Gulf of Finland, the most eastern inlet of the Baltic Sea. Though St Petersburg is Russia’s second largest city with a vast population of five million people, it has existed under several names. It became Petrograd in 1914 (to appear less German), and Leningrad in 1924 to honour the Soviet leader, and only once more became St Petersburg in 1991. Most locals, however, lovingly refer to it simply as ‘Peter’.
St Petersburg wears the remnants of it its turbulent history on its sleeve; the Aurora battle ship that signalled the start the 1917 October Revolution floats poignantly on the Neva River, Soviet emblems stand proudly from the pediments of grand 19th-century palaces (that now host vibrant fashion shows), and local activists scuppered plans to erect a 400m tall Okhota Center skyscraper in place of an old Swedish-Russian fortress.
But while its inhabitants are keen to preserve St Petersburg’s heritage, the city continues to evolve. Throughout the nineties St Petersburg was a truly European city, home to raucous squat parties that took place in its historical buildings and abandoned prisons. And since the noughties, the city has rapidly become a site of affluence and prosperity. Siberian oil, rising taxes and an influx of five million tourists per year has funded fresh waves of restoration, a new port on an artificial island and a 32km dam across the Gulf of Finland.
In recent years a creative scene has blossomed around the city’s historical centre, birthing the pop-up galleries, art hubs and boutiques that are defining a new metropolitan style. The city’s nightlife has also flourished – Dumskaya Street is a bar-hopper’s dream, with a small club on every doorstep, while Konushennaya square is home to clusters of trendy restaurants. Visitors to St Petersburg might expect its wealth of history, but are likely to be surprised to find a city in bloom.
St Petersburg has an incredible 182 museums, and while some – like the Russian Museum – are enormous, others are slight – like the cosy Museum of Russian beverages. Regardless of scale, the State Hermitage always has the longest queues (the largest art museum in Russia, and one of the oldest museums in the world). Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, the State Hermitage occupies six buildings and houses 350 exhibition halls. It is home to an astonishing three million pieces of art – from the Egyptian to the prehistoric eras, and Renaissance and Russian collections – and includes works by Degas, Renoir and Van Gogh.
Not far away stands the Russian Museum, which holds the largest collection of Russian Art in the world and is home to the renowned Summer and Mikhajlovsky gardens. Tucked just behind this is the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, the most eccentric architectural monument in the city, which was erected where Alexander II (the Tsar who emancipated the serfs in Russia) was killed.
For much more of an insight into contemporary Russian art, check out the Loft Project Etazhi (once a five-story bakery and one of the city’s original squats), a vast gallery space and design attraction in its own right. There is also the Erarta Museum, which only opened in 2010, but is now the largest private museum of contemporary art in Russia. This is home to 2,300 works of contemporary art from 150 Russian artists and also hosts plays, concerts, lectures and film screenings. The most exciting synergy of new artists, designers and musicians is, however, Tkachi, in an old manufactory building by the Obvodnyi canal – a must-see for all contemporary art and design enthusiasts.
Almost all good restaurants in St Petersburg are managed by either the Ginza Project or the Probka Family. Probka Family restaurants lean towards traditional Italian cuisine and design, and a little out of town is Riba na Dache, which is elegantly spacious with grand cream and brown décor. Ginza Project establishments, however, combine Russian flavours with a distinctly European approach – a concept that has proved popular in both Moscow and in New York. The chain’s Mari Vanna restaurant offers a uniquely nostalgic experience, where guests are invited to dine in what feels like a personable living room. Every aspect of the décor, from the twee curiosities on the walls and shelves to the quaint furniture and flowery aprons, both intrigues and makes you feel at home. This ambience is in stark contrast to the Ginza Project’s sleek Mansarda restaurant, which is located on the sixth floor of the Quatra Corti business center, which offers charming views of St Isaac Cathedral.
If you are looking for real Russian cuisine, try Kalitka. This refreshingly modern restaurant offers an outstanding menu with lots of pies, soups, game and fish. Or, for a more innovative take on Russian traditions, visit Kokoko (owned by celebrity singer Shnur) where an order of ‘borsch’ beet soup is served with ingredients on the side for guests to mix themselves. A final venue that cannot fail to impress is the Kempinsi Bellevue restaurant, which offers a fusion of French and Russian classics, elegantly set off by the hotel’s spectacular panoramic views across the city. This is a tremendous place to dine should you want to watch the concerts in Palace Square.
The best stretch to find a lively bar scene is on Dumskaya Street, home to a handful of St Petersburg’s hottest nightlife spots. Most people you meet out will have a grasp of English, and the strip of bars are so close together that guests are allowed to carry their glasses from bar to bar. Make sure to keep you eyes peeled for Fidel, a venue set up by Ska rockers Dva Samolyota, which promises live music and a fun energetic atmosphere.
Mishka bar is not far from Dumskaya Street. It’s cramped and dark, but has excellent music and a buzzing atmosphere. Stirka 40*, part café, part bar, and part launderette, attracts a similar scene. Launched as an art installation by its Berlin-based owner, this pocket-sized party is not only wonderfully bizarre but a great place to dance. If this doesn’t appeal, Estrada is pretty much next door and has a more glamorous environment with podiums and lasers to bring about a classier clubbing vibe.
When the revelling is well into the wee hours, head to Griboedov Hill – the longest running club in St Petersburg. On the surface Griboedov Hill may appear calm and polished but in its depths you are more than likely to find a crazy party or a good Russian band to keep you going.
The spirit of the Soviet ballet lives on in the city of St Petersburg, and during the winter holidays you can watch a dozen different adaptations of Swan Lake. But until recently, the Mariinsky Theatre and the Alexandrinsky Theatre were the only companies to rise above the rest. These never fail to approach a production from a new angle, even when staging classics from over a hundred years ago (such as the Dyagilev plays or historical ballets).
The Mikhajlovksy theatre, however, is on the up. It recently gained new management and has undergone an overhaul in attitude. An injection of funds has also meant that the theatre has gained Spanish contemporary ballet legend Juan Ignacio Duato Bárcia – or Nacho Duato as he is known – as an artistic director, which can only mean good things. The company has also already booked in a guest run from Chicago troupe, Hubbard Street Dance (known for their athletic mix of modern, jazz and ballet), which sets a high bar for the rest of the line up. Dance fanatics will enjoy any of the city’s classical affairs, but for its exciting and new edge, the Mikhajlovsky Theatre is certainly the one to watch.
Need to know
Aeroflot flies to St Petersburg (via Moscow) from Dhs2,518 return.