Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… St Petersburg

Russia’s progressive metropolis is abuzz with contemporary creativity against a backdrop of unrivalled classical riches. David Kaufman reports.

August 14 2011
David Kaufman

There are monumental cities and then there are cities built as monuments: St Petersburg is clearly among the latter. Rising along the Neva river and sprawling westward to the Gulf of Finland and Baltic Sea, the city is an exercise in architectural egotism. Established by Peter the Great in 1703, St Petersburg was purpose-built to replace Moscow as the tsarist capital and defend Russia from the increasingly powerful Swedes. For more than two centuries the city served Peter’s purpose, evolving from soggy swampland into a cosmopolitan confection with some 150 palaces spread among 42 islands linked by nearly 350 bridges.

Although Peter may be long gone, and the capital relocated back to Moscow, St Petersburg has never felt more regal. Coursed by a grid of broad canals and verdant with elegant royal gardens, the city, bisected by the Neva, is nothing if not a knockout. Architects Domenico Trezzini, Carlos Rossi and Bartolomeo Rastrelli crafted a careful urban plan that is both wholly original and evokes the best of Europe’s 18th-century aesthetics. Towering over those canals as in Venice, but with waterfronts more reminiscent of Stockholm, the baroque and classical palaces and squares are unrivalled in richness and ubiquity, even after decades of Communist-era neglect.

Despite the surface decay, St Petersburg is once again Russia’s most progressive metropolis. The city where Tchaikovsky composed and Tolstoy wrote now buzzes with contemporary creativity, from art and architecture to fashion and food.

All of these came together earlier this summer on the opening weekend of the new W St Petersburg hotel. The City’s first new-build five-star since the Bolshevik Revolution, the W’s Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel-designed interiors, Alain Ducasse-helmed restaurant and launch parties featuring Italian designer Antonio Marras and Dutch fashion duo Viktor & Rolf suggest hotel-as-lifestyle-destination conceit has finally arrived in town. The W’s location – in the heritage-rich Golden Triangle, moments from the Hermitage – could not be better. And with floor-to-ceiling windows, the W’s 137 rooms, not to mention Ducasse’s rooftop bar, are ideal for taking in midsummer’s White Nights.

Until the Four Seasons arrives this winter, the W’s closest competitor is Sir Rocco Forte’s Astoria, which celebrates its centenary next year. Fronting St Isaac’s Square, the Astoria is within walking distance of the Mariinsky Theatre, home of the Kirov Ballet. Its 210 Olga Polizzi-designed rooms come in cool aquas and creams and there are five suites named after iconic composers facing St Isaac’s Cathedral. A Carita beauty salon and Decléor spa, along with the caviar-rich Davidov Restaurant and Kandinsky Bar, are reasons to visit even if staying elsewhere.

“Elsewhere” might mean the Grand Hotel Europe, St Petersburg’s first luxury property. Dating from 1824, the Grand, on Nevsky Prospekt, is a monument to Imperial-era excess, sensitively updated for the 21st century. The 17 new rooftop Terrace Rooms compensate for snug interiors with full-frontal views of Arts Square (home of the Russian Museum) and the Church of our Saviour on the Spilled Blood. Brave the “career” smokers and lounge in the art nouveau lobby bar for glimpses of Romanov-styled living almost a century after the tsar’s last breath.

The Romanovs would have taken pride in Erarta, the city’s new contemporary art museum, which opened last year in an imposing 1950s former research institute. Its collection of 2,000 works by some 140 postwar artists represents St Petersburg’s most serious effort at establishing itself as a legitimate rival to Moscow’s cash-fuelled, oligarch-led arts arena.

Joining Erarta is a clutch of smaller, though equally influential, galleries and institutions. There’s the Loft Project Etagi, presenting large-scale visual art and photography works, and the private, year-old Novy Muzei (New Museum), which focuses on edgier artists from both the Soviet era and today. On the posh Fontanka Embankment is the pioneering Marina Gisich, a former gymnast who’s spent the past decade nurturing most of the city’s, if not Russia’s, emerging contemporary stars at her eponymous gallery.

It could conceivably take as many years to fully explore St Petersburg’s most important artistic treasure – the 1,000-plus-room State Hermitage Museum housed in the Rastrelli-designed Winter Palace. The crowds are mob-like in their intensity, the guards Gulag-esque in strictness – but no matter. Established by Catherine the Great in 1764, the royal collection is replete with Western treasures, from old masters such as Rembrandt, Raphael and Ruben to more recent works by Picasso, Dégas and Manet. Add in extensive artefacts from prehistoric Russia, along with Imperial porcelain and endless displays of coins, epaulets and badges, and there are over 3m items in all, spread among six separate palaces and museums.

Smaller in scale, but no less lavish, is the Russian Museum, a former Grand Duke’s residence housing the world’s largest collection of Russian fine art. While the 6,000 Russian Orthodox icons are certainly inspiring, the museum’s important contemporary collections – heavy with works from the socialist realism, constructivist and suprematism schools – present names such as Chagall, Malevich and Kandinsky on their native turf. Several additional icons are on display at the nearly next-door Church on the Spilled Blood, an onion-domed landmark built in 1883 by Alexander III on the site of his father’s assassination. Its lavish, mosaic-clad interiors bring the Bible to life and are vibrant and moving.

Despite Roman Abramovich’s recent $400m purchase of the 18-acre New Holland Island, the oligarchracy in St Petersburg remains far lower-profile than in Moscow. Shopping is more high street than high fashion; restaurants, while expensive by London and New York standards, convey a subtler, cooler idea of wealth than is seen in the capital. Perhaps that’s why Rei Kawakubo opened and designed Comme des Garçons’ sole Russian outpost here. “Concept” store Day & Night displays Helmut Lang sportswear and Alexander Wang footwear amid exposed Day-Glo piping. For truly fashion-forward finds, Lykk Design Market and Banya Concept Store are worth inspection. They’re both one-stop resources for cutting-edge local brands – slim-fitting leather jackets by Leonid Alexeev and luxe deconstructed menswear from Sosnovska.

Conventional, rather than cutting-edge, would best describe St Petersburg’s culinary arena, which currently suffers from an obsession with all things sushi. Even at rigorously hip destinations such as the rooftop Terassa and Mansarda, the maki and nigiri show up rather inexplicably alongside perfect insalata caprese, daubs of foie gras and an updated take on chicken Kiev. At least two venues, however, are sushi-free: the homey Teplo, near the Nabokov House museum, and Alain Ducasse’s Mix at the W Hotel. Both pay respect to Russian culinary traditions; the former via dishes such as a classic beef stroganoff and vatrushka (sweet curd tart); rich stewed rabbit and finely smoked salmon on blinis at the latter.

Still, as in Moscow, St Petersburg’s true foodie finds are its numerous restaurants from the former Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics. At Karavan, Uzbeki small plates such as lamb-stuffed manty dumplings and cheese-and-meat pies called cutaby are followed by platters of grilled meat and fragrant pilafs. It’s heavy, hearty cooking, better suited for dark winter days than bright summer nights; and like St Petersburg itself, it’s a dose of Russia’s Imperial past in the heart of its forward-thinking future.