St Petersburg: The Weekender | Country & Town House
Country & Town House Magazine | March 2014
St Petersburg: The Weekender
The way to explore this extraordinary city is armed with a knowledgeable guide, says Laura Ivill
This is St Petersburg’s year – the State Hermitage Museum celebrates its 250th anniversary, there’s a new international airport terminal, and the glorious Fabergé Museum welcomes visitors after ten years in the making.
Stay: The Four Seasons Lion Palace (fourseasons.com) opened last autumn after a decade of planning and renovation, and has the best address in the city. The smart hotels have traditionally been a bit staid, but this, with its prime location next to St Isaac’s Cathedral, a stone’s throw from the Hermitage and close to the famed Mariinsky Theatre, is as fresh as a daisy. In a former 19th-century palace, built when the Russian nobility had a passion for extravagant parties, it was originally occupied as swanky apartments and therefore adapts perfectly to a hotel – with an added top floor of rooms with terraces. Suites on the first floor have impressively high ceilings, and gliding along the powder-blue corridors and up the Italian marble staircase, the hotel oozes history, yet with seemless modern touches, all delivered with that charming Four Seasons service.
Eat: Banish all thoughts of stodgy winter fuel - many of the restaurants serve great-tasting Russian dishes of borscht, beef stroganoff, soups, stews and fish. If you are going to the Mariinsky Theatre try Sadko (sadko.rst.ru) opposite, which serves traditional fare at reasonable prices and where the Russian beer is so refreshing after a day on your feet. Over at the Russian Vodka Museum (vodkamuseum.su) the small exhibition tour ends at the bar where three shots of Russian Standard vodka (distilled in the city) and salty canapés costs just £4.60. Italian influence abounds in the city’s eateries, and for fine dining, Percorso at the Four Seasons is a sumptuously ornate but distinctly contemporary series of dining rooms, with a jaw-dropping open kitchen walled in marble with an imaginative fringe of oversize crystal baubles (around £100 per head including wine). The hotel’s Asian restaurant Sintoho includes a Japanese Teppanyaki griddle, and its spacious Tea Lounge under a glass atrium, is a relaxing place to meet friends at any time of day.
Visit: For first timers, you will want to book a city tour to see the most you can in a weekend. Public transport is sketchy (with its web of canals St Petersburg isn’t really suited to underground trains, and taxis are expensive), so a driver and private guide will ease you into the city’s many highlights. In the Hermitage, your guide can take you directly to the showshoppers - the Old Masters and French Impressionists in what was Catherine the Great’s winter palace. A vast corridor of portraits of the tsars and their wives makes the ideal introduction into how influential this dynasty was on the city, and how they looked to Europe for their cultural cues. Half an hour from the city centre by car is Catherine I’s Summer Palace (http://eng.tzar.ru/museums). The Nazis were camped here for 28 months, and when they fled at the end of the Second World War they sacked and burned it. Painstaking restoration over the 70 intervening years has brought back its glory - you might need sunglasses for all the gold leaf.
Do: It’s a pristinely historic city, only founded in 1703, when it was carved with sweat and sacrifice out of the marshland. In summer the main attractions are packed with tourists, not least from the cruise ships, who come for the ‘white nights’ when the sun barely sets; consequently early spring and late autumn are ideal for first-timers. Having an English-speaking guide will bring the stories of its wealthy inhabitants to life, tales of intrigue, opulence and bloodshed. At the Yusopov Palace your guide will describe the fateful evening that Rasputin was murdered here, but this private museum also has a charming, intimate theatre where occasional ballet performances take place (saint-petersburg.com). The new jewel in the city’s crown is the Fabergé Museum. Tickets are pricey (around £70pp) and scarce (only pre-booked admission is possible for small groups or couples), but it dazzles with 4,000 objects of Pre-Soviet applied arts, including nine astonishing Easter eggs created by the Fabergé workshops to be given as gifts by the tsars.
Buy: Nevsky Prospekt is the main avenue of the city, but it’s noisy with traffic and there’s not much to delight. Instead, check out the museum shops as you go for handpainted Russian dolls (from £25 up to thousands). The authentic amber shops at Catherine Palace are great for statement pieces (the one outside the museum is much less crowded), where brooches are around £50 and necklaces £100. Generally, classic Russian hats in rabbit could be £50, or polar fox costs upwards of £200.
Book it: The Russia specialist Exeter International (exeterinternational.co.uk, 020-8956 2756) offers four nights at the Four Seasons Lion Palace B&B, including return airport transfers, flights with BA, two days with a private guide, driver and entrance fees, from £1,780 per person sharing (£2,100 high season). Exeter can arrange visits to the Fabergé Museum for £70pp, or try the Four Seasons (fourseasons.com/stpetersburg).