WINTER PALACE – Excavations beneath the Hermitage Theatre in the late 1970s revealed the principal residence of Peter the Great. Some rooms have been restored, complete with Dutch tiles and parquet floors, and exhibit the tsar’s personal items from the Hermitage collection.
CHURCHONTHE SPILLED BLOOD – St Petersburg’s most elaborate church was completed in 1907 to commemorate the death of Tsar Alexander II, who was assassinated here. Despite its grizzly heritage, the glittering, multicoloured onion domes and intricate interior mosaics are simply spellbinding.
HOUSE OF SOVIETS – Sprawling southern St Petersburg was once planned to be the centre of Stalin’s new Leningrad, with House of Soviets intended as the central administrative building. Begun by Noi Trotsky in 1936, this magnificently sinister building is a classic example of Stalinist design, with its columns and bas-reliefs, and an enormous socialist realist frieze running across the top.
VODKA MUSEUM – This small private museum tells the story of Russia’s national tipple in an interesting and fun way, from the first production of ‘bread wine’ to the phenomenon of the modern international vodka industry, complete with waxwork models and some very ornate bottles. The English-speaking guide livens things up a bit or, if you’d like to sample the exhibits, take a tasting tour.
FOLK AND DANCE SHOW – Terrible title, but Feel Yourself Russian is an excellent show of traditional Russian folk music and dance. The two-hour performance features four different folk groups, complete with accordion, balalaika and Cossack dancers. It’s worth attending just to get a look inside the spectacular 19th-century Nikolayevsky Palace.
CRUISER AURORA – The Aurora had a walk-on part in 1917’s October Revolution when its crew fired a blank round from the forward gun as a signal for the start of the assault on the Winter Palace. Sunk by German bombs in WWII, it’s been restored and is now a museum where you can view the crew’s quarters.
SMOLNY INSTITUTE – This 1808 Palladian building was originally Russia’s first school for women, but went on to be chosen by Lenin as the Bolshevik HQ during the October Revolution and was the site of prominent Communist Party member Sergei Kirov’s assassination, supposedly at the orders of Stalin.
KIROV MUSEUM – Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov was one of the most powerful men in Russia in the early 1930s. His decidedly unproletarian apartment is now a museum showing how the Bolshevik elite really lived, with examples of cutting-edge 1920s technology, such as an American GE fridge and the first-ever Soviet typewriter.
TRANSPORT – BA and Transaero Airlines fly direct from London Heathrow to St Petersburg. Pulkovo Airport is 14 miles south of the city – shuttle bus 39A links to the centre, or get the city bus 39. The St Petersburg metro is efficient, cheap and most useful for travelling long distances but it can be a bit of an adventure if you don’t read Cyrillic. Metro maps in English are available in the tourist publications that are distributed around town. St Petersburg is relatively compact and can be explored on foot.
WHERE TO STAY
The modern 15-room Green Apple Hotel in Liteyny has good-value ‘ekonom’ rooms, which sleep upto three people-the third bed is on a mezzanine. There’s also a communal kitchen.
Historic Alexander House, opposite Nikolsky Cathedral, has styled each of its 14 spacious rooms after an international city. There’s a fireplace-warmed lounge and vine-laden courtyard with restaurant.
No two rooms at the 1830 Belmond Grand Hotel Europe are the same, but most are spacious and elegant, and the top-floor terrace has spectacular views across the city’s rooftops.