21 July 2024

The Rococo splendour of Catherine Palace
St Petersburg:
the Tsar attraction
Teresa Levonian Cole discovers priceless art, regal history and magnificent architecture in the Venice of the North
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Petersburg is only four hours by express train from Moscow but it could be a different country. In a city of Italian not Stalinist architects, it would be easy to forget you are in Russia. Peter the Great, it's said, hated Moscow. When he founded his modern capital at the mouth of the Neva River in 1703, he looked to the West for inspiration.

In the course of the next 100 years, his court built the city's magnificent baroque and neo-classical palaces. Today, visitors flock to the Peter and Paul Fortress, with its sombre Romanov tombs, the massive St Isaac's Cathedral and the Hermitage Museum, that treasure trove of European art (look out for its army of cats, introduced by Empress Elizabeth in 1745 to keep the resident rats at bay).
Explore the Venice of the north
bottle is said to be based on his hip flask); and Felix, who once gave the ballerina Anna Pavlova a silk dress studded with rubies and diamonds for her performance in Swan Lake. It was the same Felix who fed Rasputin cookies laced with cyanide.

Above all, St Petersburg – built on 42 islands (it's known as Venice of the North) and spanned by hundreds of bridges – is best experienced on foot. Lewis Carroll noted on his visit there in 1867: 'I feel as if I could and should be content to do nothing for many days but roam about it.' Stroll along the pastel-coloured Neva Embankment as days lengthen into White Nights (where from around May to the end of July, it never gets darker than twilight) and watch the bridges open to allow ships through to the Baltic.

St Petersburg is undergoing a beautification process, with restorations and smart new apartments constructed behind old facades. Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich has bought Peter the Great's historic navy warehouses on New Holland island and, with girlfriend Dasha Zhukova, plans to restore them for use as a multi-purpose cultural complex, slated for completion in 2018. Hip restaurants and bars with names such as Meat Head, Mansarda, Berlin Season and Tao are mushrooming – and even Jamie Oliver has made his mark in the city with his Italian-themed eatery.

Original article published in Mar 2015. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
The Yusupov Palace should not be missed. From 1710 to the Revolution, it was home to four generations of this colourful family. They included Nicholas, one of Catherine the Great's art buyers; Dimitri, a lover of Coco Chanel (the shape of the No.5 perfume
"Above all, St Petersburg is best experienced on foot."
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