It is now decades since Russia emerged from the folds of the iron curtain and re-established itself as a must-visit destination for the adventurous traveller in search of exotic architecture and fascinatingly edgy Russian culture.
However, while Moscow may seem to be the obvious choice for a first visit, those who head to St Petersburg find themselves enthralled by a burst of commanding architecture and a cultural agenda to give any world-leading city a run for its money.
Late 18th century Russia became a hub for opera and ballet as we have grown to know them today and the lively city of St Petersburg was at the heart of the boom in cultural entertainment. During the last two decades of the 1700s, theatre after theatre was built, each endeavouring to outdo the last in a whirl of ornate décor, grand facades and top class talent.
Of these, the Marrinsky and the Hermitage were perhaps the most famous and following periods of decline and recurring popularity, both have recently been renovated to their former glory, combining some of the most outrageously extravagant architecture with some of the most high-tech modern sound and stage equipment in the world. Add to these another 39 grand theatre buildings and many more smaller showplaces and it is easy to see why St Petersburg is once again flying its cultural flag high above its rooftops.
If ballet, opera, drama or comedy is your thing, St Petersburg is the place to head. Best known for being the home of the world-famous Kirov Ballet, the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theatre, named after the Russian Empress Maria who was the wife of Alexander II, is the grandest night spot in the city seating an audience of up to 1625 for every performance. If you have ever hankered after watching a performance of Swan Lake in its birthplace, book your flight to St Petersburg and your ticket to the Mariinsky right away! Follow this with a trip to the Hermitage for a chamber music recital by the State Philharmonia, a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Alexandrinsky and the Russian Folk show at the Nicholaevsky Palace and you will begin to get a feel for what St Petersburg has to offer.
St Petersburg’s delights are not limited to its night-time entertainment however. Put on your comfy shoes and explore the streets of this UNESCO World Heritage City on foot to get the best from it. The grand baroque and neoclassical buildings are set off perfectly by a network of interlinking canals providing bridges, barge trips and beautiful sights galore.
Stop at a pavement café to enjoy freshly prepared pancakes or splurge on caviar and high-grade vodka in a nod to the excesses of the rich and influential classes. There are choices to suit every budget with a surprisingly broad selection of cuisines, all executed to perfection.
St Petersburg is best visited in the summer months to enjoy its sunshine and clear skies, but if you can handle the cold that comes with it, there is nothing quite like a winter visit to admire the grand architecture twinkling lights from beneath a blanket of freshly fallen snow.