I’ve long held a fascination with St Petersburg, it has been on my bucket list for far too long so I finally decide to do something about it!
With the relatively low rate of the rouble and the fact that British Airways Holidays are offering great flight and hotel packages to the city, I decided that it was high time for me to indulge myself this long yearned for city-break. With a little bit of admin inconvenience to get my visa and just a three hour flight from London’s Heathrow airport and I was soon on my way.
The best time to go to St Petersburg is June, the season of the White Nights, when the sun doesn’t fall below the horizon so it remains light all night. At this time of year the city springs into life with a 24/7 lively carnival atmosphere, outdoor concerts and classical ballet and opera performances held at the famous Mariinsky Theatre. Despite Russia’s reputation for being a chilly spot, we were blessed with sunny days, reaching 26°C, perfect for a city walk-ing and even a trip to the little known city beach.
I booked the Kempinksi Moika 22 hotel based on its proximity to the Hermitage Museum, smack bang in the middle of the historical centre of the city. The hotel is approximately 45 minutes’ drive from St Petersburg airport and we opted to the take the Kempinksi’s limo ser-vice until we got our bearings.
Not more than 10 minutes out of the airport and our jaws were already dropping at the stun-ning architecture that paves the way into the city centre. As we gazed around taking in the local neighbourhoods, the people, the shops, the reality hit us that we really were some-where very special and very different. A twinge of excitement hit me as I realised that I would spend some time getting acquainted with the Russian alphabet, that these symbols would begin to form familiar words in my mind as the days passed by.
St Petersburg came about due to the sole vision of Peter the Great. In 1703, inspired by the cities in Europe, he decided to create a Venice of the North, a city based on the water where all the prettiest angles and facades would face the rivers and canals. Stroll along the Neva River to see the Peter and Paul Fortress, the place where Peter the Great claimed St Pe-tersburg from the Swedes. The best way to see the city today is by boat, take a tour from Anglo-Tourismo who offer English speaking guides.
The Kempinski Moika 22 is a grand building, built on the Moika river from where you can get a glimpse of the stunning green façade of the winter palace at the Hermitage Museum just across the street. The district is by far the prettiest of the city, clean, with a safe feel and beautiful architecture wherever one cares to look.
We were met with a warm welcome before being escorted to our room. The room was deco-rated in a cosy, traditional Russian style with a hint of a nautical theme to reflect the city and port beyond. Whilst this is a five-star property it is anything but pretentious, the service is warm and friendly, all the staff speak excellent English and the concierges, clearly trained to a high standard are extremely knowledgeable. Guests can enjoy afternoon tea or a drink in the bar and you’ll often find a pianist, opera singer or jazz band to entertain you as you sip a good wine or knock back a shot of Vodka. For dinner and cocktails with a jaw dropping view, head to the Bellevue Brasserie located on the 9th floor. Under the expert guidance of Executive Chef Christophe Laplaza, the restaurant services French cuisine and Russian classics all the while diners can take in views of St Isaacs Cathedral and The Church on Spilled Blood. St Petersburg is a city whereby it’s easy to ‘walk your legs off’ so I’m sure that in the winter months, guests will enjoy the private spa facilities which include a sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi and massage.
With the urge to pack in as much as physically possible into this 5 day mini-break, we head-ed to the Singer Café (so called after the old sewing machine manufacturers) where we de-voured the lightest of Russian blini’s with smoked salmon and sour cream for a pre-theatre snack. We spent an enchanting evening watching the opera, thankfully with English subti-tles, in a box at the Mariinksy Theatre. The Mariinsky, formerly the Kirov is steeped in histo-ry having hosted all the good and the great of Russian Society. A second modern Mariinsky has been built next door, so remember to check which one you are going to book to get the experience and performance that you are looking for. We ended the evening with cocktails on the rooftop at the Kempinksi’s Bellvue Brasserie, taking in the twinkling lights of the roof-top views of the city.
Breakfast at the Kempinksi is a treat, a beautifully presented international buffet with Rus-sian dishes served a la carte. After a hearty breakfast we were met by our driver and private guide (booked through the hotel concierge), heading out through the suburbs to the Cathe-rine Palace. Our guide Natalia was fantastic. Natalia commenced the commentary the se-cond we got into the car, pointing out local architecture, telling us the history of the all the religious buildings, of which there are many, recounting stories from the revolution and the 2nd world war all the way.
A visit to Catherine Palace was top of my list but I still wasn’t prepared for its over the top opulence and outstanding beauty. I was immediately transported to the era of Catherine the Great, to lavish balls in the hall of lights and imagined what it must be like living in a place of such magnitude. Each of the rooms different to the other and always with a feature or de-sign element to catch the eye. The most well-known is the famous Amber room whereby the walls are completely covered in Amber.
Second on the list of must-see’s is the Hermitage, quite simply one of the most beautiful, biggest and well stocked museums in the world. Book online to avoid the queues, take good walking shoes and prepare for at least a full day of wonderment. The Hermitage houses eve-rything one would imagine and more from ancient Egyptian artefacts and burial tombs, to Roman and Greek statues, relics from BC, furniture, costume, weapons and pottery. The Hermitage also houses the one of the biggest Western European art collections in the world. Whole rooms dedicated individually to the likes of Rubens, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Ma-tisse, Picasso and Rembrandt.
St Petersburg is the perfect walking city with awe-inspiring architectural wonders everywhere one looks. Baroque, rococo, neo-classical, empire and even medieval gems coexist along-side pastel coloured palaces and a colossal 342 bridges. Pass by the art nouveau Au Pont Rouge, a stunning designer department store, teeming with beautiful designs and make sure you stop by the vast but minimalist beauty floor, art in itself.
Eating out in St Petersburg is simply fabulous. We stumbled upon the stunning Kupetz Eliseevs fine food hall, stuffed with delicious treats such as caviar, beautiful little cakes, macaroons, cheeses, meats, fine wines and sweets. Take a champagne cocktail afternoon tea in the middle of the store, or head downstairs to the brasserie or upstairs to the restau-rant for something a little more substantial all accompanied by live music.
For casual dining, head to the bohemian and uber cool Teplo with a friendly and buzzy at-mosphere and an eclectic mix of diners. Teplo is fabulous for families too with a dedicated playroom at the back of the building. Dishes are delicious and affordable. The veal stroga-noff was to die for, soft tender meat, rich and creamy and for less than the price of a glass of vino in London.
Also at the top of the Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor ratings is Zoom Café, again a hip café with a wholesome feel. Healthy local dishes, charming staff and diners can make their own drawings in between courses.
For brunch or coffee and cake, head to the cool and crafty Mickey the Monkeys, full of beau-tiful folk and food to match. Try the cottage cheese, avocado and salmon for breakfast with a huge jar of fresh fruit smoothies.
Thanks to Peter The Great and his exceptional vison, St Petersburg ticked every box for me and more, it’s now officially my favourite city break destination. A full five days wasn’t really enough, there’s still so much to explore. I’m curious to see this picturesque city in the snow filled winter months, when the canals are frozen over, the days short, the nights long and the locals huddle by an open fire tucking in a hearty stew.
Carolyn is the founder and CEO of women’s business travel network www.maiden-voyage.com