Few cities balance the romance of yesteryear and the ambition of tomorrow quite like Russia’s favourite destination, St Petersburg.
It’s mere minutes before the witching hour at St. Petersburg’s iconic Grand Hotel Europe and the elegant lobby lounge and cigar bar is packed with the city’s movers and shakers. St Petersburg’s beautiful sip luxury Russian vodkas served by a dedicated sommelier and feast on Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea in a scene that’s increasingly synonymous with the new face of Russia. The country’s most historic city is also its most forward moving, as young, affluent Petersburgers flex their capitalist muscle at a host of chic restaurants, innovative galleries and world-class clubs hidden behind historic facades and surrounded by the gilded edifices of the past.
The 275-room Grand Hotel Europe epitomizes St Petersburg’s duality: despite opening 130 years ago, the lavish hotel is a home away from home for visiting royalty, celebrities and politicians, and remains as much a living museum as it is a house of slumber. Despite its rich history, the hotel has one foot firmly planted in the present; rooms feature high-speed internet, rain showers and flat-screen televisions, while its restaurants and chic bars are populated by the city’s upwardly mobile.
The Grand Hotel Europe isn’t the only place attracting the city’s new generation of affluent citizens. A modern yet elegant performance of Giselle at the nearby Mikhailovsky Theatre is sold out, with plenty of young, well-heeled ballet-goers making their way through powdered snow from the Grand Hotel Europe’s lounges to the regal boxes of the esteemed stage. Established in 1833 by decree of Tsar Nicholas I, the Mikhaylovsky is one of Russia’s oldest opera and ballet houses and a must-visit for couples in love.
Only a couple of blocks away, city insiders walk off their meals with retail therapy at the Great Gostiny Dvor, the city’s iconic and utterly expansive department store. Not only is the Grand Gostiny the oldest retail centre in the city, it’s regarded as the world’s first shopping arcade and its yellow-hued arches, reaching towards the horizon, can’t be missed. Building commenced in 1757 with elaborate designs by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, but a recent renovation has brought this unique retail setting into the 21st century and now countless boutiques and an extensive department store fill the cavernous space, drawing in a mink-clad crowd of affluent families and tourists from the luxury hotels of the city centre.
You’ll also find the social set in the palm-lined coffee lounge at the Elisseeff Emporium, further down Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s most elegant thoroughfare. Originally built in 1902, this acclaimed department store was opened by the Elisseeff Brothers and the food hall on the ground floor is a mesmerizing showcase of all the luxury tipples and titbits the new generation of Russians have come to enjoy, from handmade truffles to diamond-filtered vodka, imported cheeses and Caspian caviar. Be sure to browse the luxury spirits counter for bottles of Beluga and Imperia vodka, considered by many to be Russia’s top drops, and kick your feet up with the city’s elite in the intimate coffee shop at the emporium’s heart.
Although St Petersburg is famed for its classical art collections, much of which can be found in the Russian Museum or the Hermitage, the contemporary art scene is also heating up. The Hermitage will open a dedicated modern art wing in 2014 and galleries are cropping up across the city, catering to new collectors. Erarta, located on Vasilievsky Ostrov or Basil’s Island, one of the city’s 42 urban isles, boasts the country’s largest non-governmental collection of contemporary art and is dedicated to promoting Russian art from across this vast country. Another leading art venue is Loft Project Etagi, which is made up of three galleries and exhibition spaces and an art-themed bookstore, hidden away on Ligovsky Prospekt.
You can contemplate the collection in Letny Sad or Summer Garden, situated on its own 12-hectare island on the south bank of the Neva River. Managed by the Russian Museum, and accessed from the Dvortsovaya Embankment, join the city’s trendsetters as they make the most of summer’s white nights with picnic dinners and live concerts amongst the 18th century marble statues and tree-lined alleys of the 300-year-old park.
Text by Nick Walton | Photos courtesy of Grand Hotel Europe and by Nick Walton