Commissioned by Tsar Peter the Great (1672–1725) as "a window looking into Europe," St. Petersburg is a planned city whose elegance is reminiscent of Europe's most alluring capitals. Little wonder it's the darling of fashion photographers and travel essayists today: built on more than a hundred islands in the Neva Delta linked by canals and arched bridges, it was called the "Venice of the North" by Goethe, and its stately embankments are reminiscent of those in Paris. A city of golden spires and gilded domes, of pastel palaces and candlelit cathedrals, this city conceived by a visionary emperor is filled with pleasures and tantalizing treasures. With its strict geometric lines and perfectly planned architecture, so unlike the Russian cities that came before it, St. Petersburg is almost too European to be Russian. And yet it's too Russian to be European. The city is a powerful combination of both East and West, springing from the will and passion of its founder to guide a resistant Russia into the greater fold of Europe, and consequently into the mainstream of history. That he accomplished, and more. With a population of nearly 5 million, St. Petersburg is the fourth largest city in Europe after Paris, Moscow, and London. Without as many of the fashionably modern buildings that a business center like Moscow acquires, the city has managed to preserve much more of its history. Here, you can imagine yourself back in the time of the tsars and Dostoyevsky. Although it's a close race, it's safe to say that most visitors prefer St. Petersburg's culture, history, and beauty to Moscow's glamour and power. That said, St. Petersburg has begun to play a more active role in politics in recent years, as if it were the country's northern capital. It may be because of the affection the city holds in the heart of the country's political elite, many of whom are natives of the city. New high-speed trains now travel between Moscow and St. Petersburg, a new international airport and metro stations have just opened, and some crumbling parts of the city are undergoing reconstruction. St. Petersburg revels in its historic beauty but also embraces the new.
More than two decades have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union and with it the days when dining choices in St. Petersburg, or any Russian city for that matter, were limited to traditional, often uninspired, but always inexpensive Russian-style eateries. In fact, dining is among the great pleasures in the city of Peter the Great these days. Yes, you can dine like a tsar, and in just about any other fashion and on any kind of cuisine you prefer. Top chefs have taken over the dining rooms of some of the best hotels—including the Grand Hotel Europe, the Kempinski, and the W—where they serve top-notch food in beautiful settings. You'll also find a growing number of ethnic choices, and even vegetarians, often at a loss to find a meat-free meal in Russian, have some options, too.
Traditionalists need not worry, however. Homey and jovial budget eateries serving quick, substantial, and good meals for less than 250 rubles have mushroomed around the city. Stands selling Russian blini, the hearty Russian cousin of the French crepe, are everywhere, and they make a great pit stop.
Here are a few things to keep in mind. Few restaurants in St. Petersburg have no-smoking sections; in fact, some places have cigarettes listed on the menu. But attitudes are changing and you'll sometimes be offered a seat in a no-smoking section. The dining sections of St. Petersburg Times and St. Petersburg in Your Pocket are worth checking out, for both the restaurant reviews and the ads for tempting business lunch deals, which are typically priced between 300R and 600R.
It's not necessary to plan ahead if you want to land a table in a nice establishment on weekdays, but it's generally a good idea to reserve ahead for weekend dining. Ask your hotel or tour guide for help making a reservation. Most restaurants stop serving food around 11 pm or midnight, although more and more 24-hour cafés are opening.
Don't be put off by the spartan setting: the owners penny-pinch on furnishings and presentation but focus their attention on their famous blinis, deservedly considered to be the best in town. Stuffed with mushrooms, ham, pork, grilled chicken, cream, honey, and a dozen other fillings, they're rich in flavor and never over- or underdone. Be conservative when you order unless you're absolutely starving: a single blini is so rich and hefty that it may leave you stuffed. Teremok operates dozens of cafés and street stands throughout the city.
The former imperial capital still captivates, with accommodations that are often nothing short of sumptuous. In fact, as elsewhere in modern Russia, where luxury almost always means opulence, sophisticated minimalist interiors are few and far between here. Instead, heavy curtains, tapestries, ornate furniture, and deep carpeting grace the interiors of many of the top hotels, some of which are set in stately 19th-century mansions and charge prices to match the surroundings. One pervasive shortcoming is service, and in even in some of the grandest hotels you might encounter a somewhat haughty staff.
Like Moscow, St. Petersburg has a shortage of moderately priced hotels, and even economy-class hotels cost about twice the price you'd pay in almost any other European city. The best budget options are some of the guesthouses in former mansions that were converted to communal apartments during the Soviet era. Much nicer in this reincarnation, they're intimate, have a genial atmosphere, are often furnished with antiques, and charge rates that often include home-cooked breakfasts and modern comforts, such as free Wi-Fi.
On an organized tour, you're likely to land in one of the old standbys run by Intourist, the Soviet tourist agency monopoly. Most U.S. and British tour operators take advantage of the discounted rates at the Moskva or the Oktyabrskaya. If you're traveling on your own, the main reason to choose one of these hotels is their lower rates; many of them aren't convenient to major attractions.
An expanding number of realty agents like City Realty can organize a suitable and safe apartment rental, usually in the center of the city. The prices for such apartments usually run the level of three-star hotels, but accommodations often have much more space.
St. Petersburg's cultural life is one of its top attractions. The city oozes musical history, and there's a fascinating and thrilling concentration of the brightest names in classical music here. Russian classical ballet was also born in St. Petersburg and you can almost always catch a performance of Swan Lake at any time of the year.
The city's nightclubs and discos can't compete with Moscow's glamorous establishments in terms of grand scale, pomp, and attitude, but they offer a more laid-back environment and friendlier crowds.
Your best source for information about what's going on is the St. Petersburg Times, a free, local, independent English-language weekly that's published on Wednesdays. It can be found at airline offices, bars, clubs, hotels, cafés, and other places generally patronized by foreigners or students. The publication has a calendar of events in the Arts and Culture section, with theater and concert listings, a club guide, and a restaurant column.
The vast majority of Russians are, by economic necessity, not big consumers. In fact, official figures suggest that only 10% of Russians earn more than $1,000 a month. You probably wouldn't realize this on a walk down Nevsky prospekt, lined with shops and, most noticeably, the city's big department stores and shopping arcades. While not all the goods are of the quality you might find in the big stores in New York or other European cities, plenty of jewelry, high fashion, and other luxury goods fill the shelves of shops that cater to those with the means to afford them.
For a distinctly Russian experience, try to seek out the fashion designs of Tatyana Parfinova, Sultanna Frantsuzova, Leonid Alexeev, and Larissa Pogoretskaya. Especially appealing to Westerners are typical Russian handicrafts, such as gzhel (blue-and-white and majolica pottery), shiny khokhloma tablewood (wood painted with flowery ornaments and imitation gilding), zhostovo metal trays (painted with elaborate enamel designs), and electric samovars—you'll find them in all the shops catering to tourists.
There are several things to keep in mind when shopping in St. Petersburg. For one, except for the Russian designers mentioned above, this isn't the place to stock up on fashion pieces. People tend to dress conservatively in St. Petersburg, often in plain dark clothes. Fashion as a means of self-expression hardly exists here yet except among the very young. When it comes to buying clothes, practical considerations hold sway, and that can make for a range of colors that doesn't go much beyond black, white, or gray. Also, most Western fashion brands sell for more than you'd expect to pay elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.
Don't be surprised by the number of supermarkets, pharmacies, and other stores that are now open 24 hours, seven days a week—they're fairly reliable and have emerged because of the hectic lives Russians lead.
If you want to take presents home, some of the best buys include fine porcelain, carved wooden goods such as toy soldiers or chess sets, and Russian-made silverware and linen. More than the goods on offer, one of the great delights of shopping St. Petersburg is the surroundings in which you'll find yourself, including 18th- and 19th-century shopping arcades, art-nouveau interiors, colorful food markets, and the other evocative settings of this romantically historic city.