21 February 2018
Coined the ‘Venice of the North’, St Petersburg is abundant in palaces, museums and cultural centres and with so much to see and do there, it is the perfect destination for a city break with friends or a loved one. For Europe specialist, Anne, a stay Russia’s imperial capital is all about its music, culture and cuisine.
During my stay in St Petersburg, I was lucky enough to stay at the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, one of the city’s most glamorous and historic hotels. Music is everywhere in this hotel. Upon waking in my junior suite, I eased myself into the morning by listening to classical music on one of the CDs provided in my room. At breakfast, the music continued – sampling Russian caviar listening to a live pianist felt a world away from my life at home! It was the perfect way to start the day; I felt a real connection to the city and couldn’t wait to continue exploring.
I sampled some traditional Russian fare for breakfast including the equivalent of a Cornish pasty, a tasty treat called piroshki. These little baked buns are filled with either meat or a sweet filling, and whilst some were quite interesting on the palate, some were delicious! I knew I had time to ponder at breakfast, to soak up the atmosphere and gaze up at the breathtaking art deco glass ceiling, safe in the knowledge that my guide would be waiting for me at reception – no last minute panic planning required!
As well as being one of St Petersburg’s most iconic hotels, the Grand Hotel Europe is conveniently located just off St Petersburg’s main boulevard, Nevsky Prospect. My wonderful guide, Julia, gave me the option of taking a 15 minute walk or a 10 minute car ride to our first stop, the Hermitage Museum, to see the sights of the city first hand.
Nowadays the Hermitage Museum is one of the largest and most impressive art galleries in the world and also houses the iconic Winter Palace. It would take a staggering 11 years to make your way around the Hermitage if you stopped to admire each painting for 1 minute! Fortunately, I was accompanied by Julia who expertly escorted me around the palace, navigating the crowds with ease as she gave her detailed and engaging commentary of one masterpiece after another. I particularly enjoyed seeing Michaelangelo’s beautiful marble sculpture, the Crouching Boy, and the 18th century Peacock Clock, a formidable piece of craftsmanship, comprising a mechanical golden peacock, cockerel and an owl. The Malachite room was particularly impressive – a vast sweeping drawing room coated in gold and embellished with lavish crimson curtains and malachite ornamentation – simply stunning. Only too soon, our 3 hour tour came to an end and we made our way on foot to Café Astoria for lunch, passing the incredible St Isaacs Cathedral en route.
Housed within the beautiful Hotel Astoria and with views across the square, Café Astoria offers a selection of international and Russian cuisine – I tried the traditional Russian Olivier salad. Enjoyed by many Russian families since the 1800s, this salad usually comprises potatoes, carrots, pickles, eggs and diced chicken with mayonnaise. Cafe Astoria’s more refined version is made with grated fennel, avocado and crab and is absolutely delicious. For my main course, I chose a grilled fish selection which was served on a steaming hot solid salt platter. The fish, a selection of tuna, scallops, dorado and sea bass, was perfectly cooked and so tasty. For dessert, I opted for a traditional Russian honey cake, Mierdovick which was layered with a rich cream. The perfect way to round off a morning immersing myself in the traditions of Russia.
Every corner of St Petersburg is etched with its grand history, and delving into the rich heritage of this elegant city for a few days can be perfectly paired with a cultural getaway in Moscow. The artistic powerhouse is a city for all seasons too, so whether its wrapping up warm for a winter break or whiling away long summer nights cruising along its tranquil canals, St Petersburg is a true gem to discover in eastern Europe.