Between May and July, St Petersburg experiences its legendary White Nights when the northern sun remains suspended above the horizon and the nights glimmer with a pearly glow. Tourists flock to the city during these months to enjoy the extended daylight hours. Cafés and restaurants stay open extra late and the city plays host to an abundance of festivals, concerts and parties.
Get acquainted with all things St Petersburg with a little help from our handy guide highlighting the finer points of interest, uniquely Russian treats, and even a military oddity.
Rooms Fit For An Oligarch
Conveniently located on the bustling Nevsky Prospekt, the Corinthia Hotel St Petersburg is housed within two renovated 19th century buildings and offers imperial Russian grandeur fused with contemporary elegance. Of particular note is the hotel’s opulent lobby, which is resplendent with sparkling chandeliers and a sweeping staircase that’s as evocative as a harp glissando. Treat your taste buds to gourmet cuisine at the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant or spend a chilled evening at Bar Nevsky over cocktails and live jazz music.
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Chances are that when you think Russia it’s the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood that first comes to mind. The church’s five colourful onion-domes are fairy tale-esque but the building has rather more grim beginnings, having been built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881—hence ‘the spilled blood’ of its name. The interior is just as extraordinary and features some 7,000 square meters of intricate mosaics. Construction lasted some 24 years and costs exceeded 1 million roubles, making this iconic Russian Orthodox building one of the most lavish pieces of 18th century architecture in the world. A guided tour will really bring the church’s rich history to life.
The Original Winter Wonderland
Commanding a prominent position on the south embankment of the Neva River, the rococo mint green, white and gold Winter Palace was home to the Russian Tsars from the 18th century onwards. Today, the palace houses the State Hermitage Museum, which features a staggering three million items across 360 rooms. Galleries are bursting with Eurasian and Asian antiquities, priceless sculptures, and paintings by Rembrandt, Titian, Michelangelo, Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse. The whole palace is a true who’s who of Old Masters. Top tip – take advantage of the museum’s themed tours to skip the queues and head to the rooms of most interest to you.
All That Glitters
The Winter Palace also houses the historic Gold Drawing Room, which was reconstructed from scratch following a fire in 1837. The room comprised part of Tsaritsa Maria Alexandrovna’s suite and was refurbished for her by Andrei Stakenschneider who employed heavy gilt mouldings for the ceiling and walls in a Byzantine style.
A Good Lashing
After a busy day of sightseeing, plump for a traditional banya, part of local life here since the 12th century. St Petersburg has a number of these spas dotted around the city, ranging from homely bathhouses to more luxurious establishments with palatial interiors. In addition to the steaming, bathers are also treated to a friendly flogging with a bundle of eucalyptus branches known as venik. It’s a surprisingly pleasant sensation and supposedly eliminates toxins and improve blood circulation. Make of the science what you will but, hey, we’re not arguing with the man brandishing a whipping birch. When you’re all steamed out, plunge into an ice-cold pool to re-energise the body and purify the skin.
Crème De La Kremlin
Indulge in fine Russian cuisine in a swish tsarist-era setting with a reservation at Palkin. Dating back to 1785, the restaurant’s interior oozes aristocratic flair. This was also the eatery of choice for many a Russian artiste, including writers Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Nikolai Leskov and Anton Chekhov, painter Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, as well as composer Petr Tchaikovsky, among others. The menu offers a gastronomic banquet of national recipes from a bygone era, most of which have sadly been lost elsewhere in the city. Black caviar and Kamchatka crab meat? Yes, please. There’s also over 120 vintages to savour not to mention an alcoholic apothecary of sublime cognacs, brandies, calvados, and—unsurprisingly since we are in Russia—vodkas. Fantasticheskie!
For a uniquely Soviet mode of transportation, hop into one of St Petersburg’s tank taxis. These military-grade tanks come with their own turret machine guns. But fear not, you won’t suddenly find yourself caught in a missile skirmish between rival taxi drivers with a penchant for road rage; all weaponry has thankfully been deactivated. Climb up the ladder, enter the hatch, and get comfy on real military seating as you’re chauffeured past points of interest inside what is undoubtedly the safest vehicle on the streets.
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