Czar Struck In St Petersburg

30 Apr 2007 by business traveller

The Russian cultural capital renowned for its grandeur that few European cities can match, St Petersburg's glided treasures and opulent architecture dazzle Jill Fergus.

While on business in St Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, be sure to explore its many historical attractions. The city, founded by Peter the Great in 1703, has long been known as the country’s cultural capital and has a grandeur that few cities in Europe can match. You’ll marvel at its magnificent architecture (Baroque palaces, wide streets, spectacular monuments), world-class museums like the Hermitage, traditional churches filled with priceless religious treasures and elegant theatres. And if you haven’t been here recently, you might be surprised at how cosmopolitan the city has become.

St Petersburg is a fabulous city to see by foot. There are numerous bridges spanning charming canals (little wonder it’s called the Venice of the North). One of the best places to start a walking tour is on Nevsky Prospekt – the city’s main thoroughfare lined with beautiful pastel-coloured buildings and massive churches. As you walk towards the Neva River, you’ll pass designer boutiques, Parisian-style cafés, gourmet restaurants – there’s even a few Old World grocery stores left such as Elyseev selling caviar, smoked salmon, chocolate and specialty coffees. Once you reach the end of Nevsky Prospekt, you are not far from Palace Square, which fronts the famous Hermitage Museum.

The Hermitage is, of course, one of the world’s greatest museums, on par with the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is situated on the riverbank and housed in four historic buildings. The main one is the Winter Palace, the stunning residence which once served as the winter home of the tsars. Its interiors are richly decorated with frescoed walls and ceilings, parquet and mosaic-tiled floors and crystal chandeliers. The museum’s enormous collection features paintings by Da Vinci, Raphael and Rembrandt, portraits of Russian rulers like Catherine the Great and Nicholas II and Alexandra, antique furniture and armour, gilded carriages, as well as the spectacular Imperial jewels including many glittery pieces by Fabergé, the famous jewellery-maker.

Another not-to-be missed attraction is the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood – the dramatic name is due to the fact that it was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. It is a traditional Russian Orthodox church, modelled after St Basil’s in Moscow, with soaring onion domes, ornate brickwork and awe-inspiring interior wall-to-wall murals of religious figures. It is as breathtaking inside as it is outside, so be prepared to spend a lot of time here. Just across from the church is the Tourist Market, one of the best places to stock up on Russian souvenirs. Dozens of vendors sell everything from matryoshki (nesting dolls), fur hats, military caps and Soviet flags and pins.

Along with its museums and churches, St Petersburg has a reputation as a world-class centre for the performing arts. The mint green-and-white Mariinsky Theater dating from 1859 is the city’s premier spot for ballet and opera. The lavish interiors include gilded balconies, chandeliers and an impressive ceiling mural. During the Soviet era, it was called the Kirov Ballet but it reverted back to its original name in 1992. Such ballet legends as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov have danced here. You can also catch a symphonic performance at the esteemed Philharmonic.

Across the street from the Philharmonic is one of St Petersburg’s most cherished institutions. It’s not a church or a museum, but rather, a hotel – the Grand Hotel Europe, one of the city’s most historic, located just off Nevsky Prospekt. At the Grand Hotel Europe (Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa 1/7, www.orient-express.com; doubles from US$432), which dates from 1824, you can walk in the footsteps of some of Russia’s storied figures including Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Anna Pavlova and Maxim Gorky, and today it continues to be the city’s social centre. Recently, it was acquired by Orient Express Hotels and the company has recently renovated all of the 301 rooms.

The hotel has several restaurants and highly recommended is the Caviar Bar, a jewel box space with live music and a traditional Russian menu. Order the delicious caviar sampler (beluga, osetra and sevruga) accompanied by sour cream and warm buckwheat blinis. Another option is the Landskrona restaurant on the top floor of the Corinthia Nevskij Palace hotel. The menu features gourmet European cuisine (rack of lamb on beetroot polenta, rabbit loin with vanilla risotto, etc) and wine from France, Italy and Spain. There is also the intimate Old Custom’s House, an 18th-century warehouse that’s been converted to an upscale restaurant (popular with business people and well-heeled locals). Dine on refined French fare amid vaulted brick ceilings and wide plank wooden floors.

Late night, you can hit the Kandinsky Bar at the posh Hotel Astoria with live jazz and the Idiot, a bohemian, antique-filled hangout named after the Dostoevsky novel. And a visit to the bar at the Grand Hotel is a great way to cap off an evening in St Petersburg – and you never have to worry about closing time, as it is open 24 hours a day. This two-room Art Nouveau treasure is richly decorated with stained glass ceilings, brass-and-hand-blown glass lighting fixtures, wood panelling and green marble tables. It is always buzzing with all manner of people from tourists to locals, visiting dignitaries to powerful Russian men who travel with a phalanx of bodyguards. It’s the only bar in the country that offers Dom Pérignon by the glass and, of course, there’s an extensive selection of vodka including one that comes in a faux Fabergé egg (it cost US$1,500 and you keep the bottle, the shot glasses and costume jewel-encrusted egg) – the ultimate Russian souvenir. Na zdorovia!



St Petersburg is experiencing a major hotel boom. Starwood Hotels & Resorts (www.starwoodhotels.com) has announced plans for a new W hotel scheduled to open mid 2008 – the first W in Eastern Europe. It will be located on Voznesensky Prospekt, near St Isaac’s Square (rooms will overlook the gold-domed St Isaac’s Cathedral).

Beyond the historic facade will be contemporary interiors. A signature element will be the Living Room, the hub of the hotel where guests and locals can enjoy a cocktail or a coffee after a day of meetings or sightseeing. There will also be a restaurant and a rooftop bar with stunning city views. The W will have approximately 135 rooms outfitted with 350 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and goose-down comforters. Guests will also have access to the brand’s Whatever/Whenever concierge service.

Next year, Starwood will add another St Petersburg hotel. The Le Meridien St Petersburg (formerly the North Crown Hotel) is scheduled to open following an extensive renovation. It is located in the Petrogradskaya district, an area known for its beautiful architecture and Old World charm. Major attractions including the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Hermitage are nearby. There will be 322 rooms, two specialty restaurants, a 1,301-square-metre spa and an indoor swimming pool. There will also be extensive conference facilities offering approximately 2,136sq m of meeting and event space. The Le Meridien St Petersburg will also offer unique features such as river boat service that will transports guests across the Neva in style.

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), which opened a Crowne Plaza Hotel in Moscow last year will open a Crowne Plaza Hotel (www.ichotelsgroup.com) in St Petersburg in early 2009. The hotel, located in a historic building dating from 1789 is in the Admiralteysky district and will feature 339 rooms, two restaurants, a swimming pool, a state-of-the-art gym and conference facilities. It will also feature a covered atrium with shops and bars.

In addition, IHG will open two Holiday Inns in the city in 2008 (the Holiday Inn Ligovsky Prospekt and Holiday Inn Moscovsky Prospekt), bringing the total number of rooms for the three hotels to 968.

Sokos Hotels (www.sokoshotels.fi) plans to open three St Petersburg properties in 2007, all centrally located. Set to open this June is the Holiday Club Spa Hotel located on Vasily Island. It will have 276 rooms, eight meetings spaces (the largest of which can accommodate 300 people), numerous restaurants and a bowling alley. The Sokos Hotel Olympic Garden, situated in a serene park, is scheduled to open this fall (348 rooms, 13 meeting space, two restaurants), while the Sokos Hotel Vasilievsky, also on Vasily Island, will have 255 rooms, a restaurant, bar and meeting facilities and is due to open at the end of the year.

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