Paris is chic and romantic; New York is brassy and cool. This much we know. In comparison, St Petersburg is a blank canvas. Its mistakenly perceived distance (it’s only a 3-hour flight, in fact) and the silly visa process had kept Stylist away, but we soon realised we had denied ourselves a hugely rewarding travel experience just because it wasn’t that well-known.
From the Porsche airport transfer to the W Hotel, the biggest surprise to a Russia first-timer was the city’s beautiful architecture. The whole of St Petersburg is a UNESCO-protected baroque architectural masterpiece. This makes shopping tricky as even the most famed boutiques don’t have signs – but it makes the city unlike any other.
One must-visit is The State Hermitage museum, where St Catherine The Great stored the spoils of her art-buying habit. The result is 365 palatial rooms, decorated along the fine line between sonorous beauty and gold-leafed gaudiness, exhibiting from a collection of almost three million pieces. Having spent five hours exploring the endless rooms of prehistoric to modern art (including Monet, Gauguin and the largest Matisse collection in the world), Stylist was dazzled, and had still only managed to see a small fraction.
It is this grand opulence that the W Hotel St Petersburg (two-minutes walk from the Hermitage) seeks to channel, while keeping the edgy youthfulness of the chain’s earlier hotels in New York and London. The hotel is laced with references to Russian history and culture – stretching from the Fabergé Egg-inspired jewel colours of the lobby to the distinctly Russian geometric floral silhouettes cast by the guestroom’s oversized mirrorball lights. After all the baroque decor of the city, the simplicity of the guest rooms (from the white widescreen TV, iPod radio and desk to the brown marble wet-room-shower) make them a refreshing retreat.
Why it's hot
St Petersburg is literally getting hotter by the day with its annual White Nights Festival – named after the few weeks in summer when the sun doesn’t set for 18 hours and the whole city is bathed in light. Starting in May and spread across the city in a three-month-long party spanning the arts, from ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre to pop-up catwalk shows in carvernous grand halls. The nights only begin in the midnight sun and wind down at sunrise. For those with the stamina, this means you can sneak cultural opportunities early in the mornings: Stylist especially enjoyed having countless Kandinsky paintings all to ourselves at The Russian Museum one morning.
Eating and Drinking
Try MiX, the W’s ground floor resturant with a menu by French chef Alain Ducasse. Particularly delicious was the rabbit cooked in cocotte, courgette ‘a la cuillere’ served with a glass of Pomerol Fugue De Nénin and followed by a Brittany shortbread rhubarb and strawberry dessert served with vanilla ice cream. Or visit Russian Vodka Room No. 1, where Stylist enjoyed the purest vodka and caviar, alongside a Russian feast including blinis, borscht, dumplings, stroganoff and an elegantly prepared sturgeon. All of this and an alcohol menu you would expect from a restaurant adjacent to the Russian Vodka Museum. If you’d prefer to stick to the fresh juice, the warm atmosphere still make it worthwhile.
A 30-second cobbled saunter from the hotel’s entrance runs the Neva river. Hiring your own private tour boat will not only help you get your bearings, but will also open up the beauty of the city. Stop off when you see the onion dome spires of the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood and capture the colourful mosaic inside.