What to do with 48 hours in St. Petersburg
First published in Sawubona Magazine November 2019 edition
The holy grail of travel is the destination that delivers a big bang for a bargain. St. Petersburg exemplifies this rare bird in all its splendour. Moscow may dominate in scale and gravitas, but Russia’s second city thrives in its shadow, its beauty, legacy and charisma generating their own glittering light. The grandeur of its days as the seat of an empire may be somewhat faded, but it’s re-emerging, and its reinvigorated and reimagined modern incarnation – in which electric bands busk on the boulevards – is every bit as compelling. Here, now, you don’t need to earn like a Tsar to live like a Tsar…for a few days at least.
You may well choose to lodge in one of the city’s numerous grand hotels, a thrifty opportunity to lather yourself in bit of luxury, and indeed some of these may be worth a visit regardless, for “Tchaikovsky nights” at the Belmond as an example; however in a country where banyas (steams baths) are integral to the culture, a boutique hotel offering this facility makes for an authentic alternative. Fitting the bill handsomely is the Rossi Hotel & Spa – long on olde-worlde charm, short on unnecessary posturing, it’s a quaint and intimate establishment, the type where the veteran doorman takes personal pride in extending hospitality and sharing his local knowledge. It’s conveniently located, satisfyingly comfortable, and unobtrusively atmospheric, with lavish spreads for breakfast, but its highlight though must be the spa itself. If you like the idea of setting your day into gentle motion with an hour divided between the sauna and the (turbo powered!) jet pool, then this is just the place for you.
The priority when arriving in a new city should be to get the lay of the land, which in St. Petersburg, ironically, is best accomplished off the land. Its network of canals, feeding in and out of the Neva, offers a magnificent vantage point from which to conduct a quick (or leisurely, as you would have it) exploration. There is a plethora of providers, routes, tours and formats – which can be overwhelming. A specialist operator, such as Red Sun Tours, whose high-quality offerings range from customised private excursions to small group tours, might be a useful place to start making your arrangements.
Once orientated, the sight-seeing, as you’d expect for one of the great capitals of Western culture, is replete with possibilities, some of the most noteworthy being: the Hermitage, the world’s second largest art museum (after the Louvre), housed largely in the legendary Winter Palace, with its love-it-or-hate-it green pigmentation; the Peterhof, Peter the Great’s sprawling, keeping-up-with-the-joneses response to the Palace of Versailles; the Fabergé Museum, home to the largest private collection of the eponymous eggs and a palaceful of other exceptional designware; and the Mariinsky Theatre, one of the iconic stages and spiritual homes of ballet. This ball of string though is as long as you want it to be.
If the way to a traveller’s heart was through their stomach (probably the case for many of us), then St. Petersburg would be in for the win, hitting a trifecta of quality, variety and tradition.
The uber-cool Mansarda, boasting a mesmerising view onto the enormous gold plated dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, is a case in point, crafting a combination of classic dishes, including delicious renditions of local staples such as borsht and stroganoff, and modern fusion cuisine. Its expansive menu is accompanied by an even broader 450-strong wine list stewarded by one of Russia’s top sommeliers, featuring the regular cast of course, but also exponents from more obscure regions such as Georgia, Hungary, Israel and Russia itself. A singular dining experience!
Less flash, but every bit as delightful is Makaronniki, a trattoria that’ll have you questioning your location in the world. In a field as dense and competitive as the purveying of Italian food, it’s a tall order to stand out, but stand-out it does…and then some. The pesto focaccia, the tomato cappuccino with ricotta froth, and the pork stracotto with BBQ ice-cream in particular are of the highest calibre. Throw in a rooftop courtyard, a well-considered Italo-centric drinks menu, and the most imaginative desserts you could hope to eat, and you’ve got a lock for your schedule. “Buon appetito” has just been appropriated to Russian.
If you’re in the market for a few mellow cocktails, you’ll be hard pressed to find better satisfaction than with Apotheke and its master barman – whose prodigious skill seems its reason for being. There’s a chalked-up cocktail list, comprising both universal and house recipes, to guide your selecting, but Apotheke also subscribes to the entertaining trend of taking orders by flavour, with damn fine results.
One of the great joys of travel is the prospect of sampling local traditions and local delicacies in situ, where they’re usually at their best. Arguably this doesn’t get more exquisite than in Russia, the home of caviar. A Tsar would simply order a kilogram of albino beluga, but for the rest of us St. Petersburg’s ArtCaviar presents an outstanding alternative. This caviar boutique with its adjoining caviar inspired fine-dining restaurant offers the ideal setting for acquainting yourself with this delicacy. The knowledgeable staff, whose passion and zeal are undoubtable, and the sublime culinary creations, witness pressed caviar in straciatella cheese with strawberries, expertly paired with Russian (or other) wines, make for an indelible experience. When people advise you to spend your money on experiences rather than things, this is what they mean.
For those with a sweet tooth the Russian afternoon tea at the Astoria is a special treat. The hotel has been host to some of the world’s most recognisable names, so a visit represents a chance to rub shoulders, and to linger in its aristocratic setting listening to live piano and enjoying Russian pastries such as pirosky (which is savoury), sguschenka, and medovik cake. Go hungry.
Ride hailing applications such as Bolt, Gett and Yandex make the best means for moving about in St. Petersburg. Make sure you get yourself a Russian SIM card on arrival – it’s an essential requirement for accessing WIFI in most places.