By Antonia Cundy
Boasting world-class attractions such as the State Hermitage Museum and the coloured domes of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, Russia’s cultural capital is hardly overlooked. But the city’s appeal goes beyond its aesthetic virtues.
Streets made for walking
St Petersburg’s wide avenues and canal embankments, which Peter the Great modelled on those in Venice and Amsterdam, make walking around the city a pleasure. Its four central districts (Tsentralny, Admiralteysky, Vasileostrovsky and Petrogradsky) are centred around the State Hermitage Museum, the second-largest art gallery in the world (after the Louvre in Paris), and the Palace Bridge over the Neva river. From there, almost every attraction is within an hour’s wander.
St Petersburg’s midsummer is marked by “white nights”. The city’s northern location on the Gulf of Finland means the sun never fully sets between May and June, illuminating the streets and canals with a pearly glow all night long. The period is one of constant festivity; the Mariinsky theatre hosts the two-month-long Stars of the White Nights music festival with daily concerts, opera, plays and ballets.
But for many, the Scarlet Sails festival, celebrating the end of the school year, is the highlight of the season. There is a mock pirate battle on the Neva, fireworks and a watershow in front of an enormous ship with blood red sails.
A rich variety of food
A hip and lively gastronomic scene challenges any stereotype of Russian food and drink. The focal point is Rubinstein street, where bars and restaurants spill on to the pavements on hot summer nights. Bekitzer offers falafel, hummus and tahini to rival any Tel Aviv eatery, while 48 Stulyev hosts live jazz and European-Asian fusion dishes. Prices are equally appetising: in St Petersburg, a three-course meal with cocktails can easily be had for around $25.
St Petersburg’s historic attractions attract droves of tourists, but there is an alternative scene ready to reward those who get to know the city. Port Sevkabel, which opened last year on the shore of the Gulf of Finland in the city’s Vasileostrovsky district, includes a skate park, artist and fashion studios, and galleries. Weekend food markets and festivals often turn into late-night parties.
Loft Project Etagi on the central Ligovsky Avenue is an old bread factory turned exhibition space (and fantastic roof terrace) with independent shops. If tourists pack out the Mariinsky, head to the Baron von Derviz mansion, home to the St Petersburg Chamber Opera, which performs intimate shows in an elaborate drawing room.
Thirty kilometres south-west of St Petersburg, the gardens and palaces at Peterhof are a glimmering gold and green mix of cascading fountains and immaculate topiary.
Equally beautiful — but more natural — is the serene Lake Ladoga, at 17,700 sq km the largest lake in Europe, 40km inland from St Petersburg. Lined by a pine forest, it offers swimming, hiking or boating out to its island monasteries. For those who prefer the open water, Repino on the Gulf of Finland has sandy beaches and summer dachas (holiday homes), as well as offering cross-country skiing in winter.
Photographs: Dreamstime; Konstantin Semenov/Shutterstock