From Russia with love

St Petersburg is a dazzling mix of majestic golden domes, soaring spires and palatial grandeur, finds travel writer Norman Miller.


St Petersburg is Russia’s most attractive city. Threaded with silvery tributaries and canals, it's built on more than a hundred islands in the Neva Delta and is strewn with architectural gems like giant stone confetti. But when building started in 1703, this spot on the Gulf of Finland was pretty much a swamp, on which Czar Peter the Great chose to realise his vision of building a western-looking city to showcase the growing might of his Russian empire.

Architectural splendour

Many architectural shore experiences begin with St Isaac’s Square, where a giant bronze statue of Peter looks suitably commanding on a rearing horse and the sculpted façade of the gold-domed Cathedral vies with its dazzling interior of mosaics and towering malachite columns. But the more beautiful godly edifice is St Nicholas Naval Cathedral: a Baroque-Russian fusion with its five gold-capped domes rising from the trees of Glinka Street.

For others, the Church of the Spilled Blood is lovelier still, built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated. Its iconic mosaic-adorned domes on the exterior are sometimes dubbed ‘onion domes’, their distinctive shape inspired by candle flames.

Cultural treasures

Is the Hermitage the world’s grandest museum? You’d have to spend days deciding, given its three million objects spread through various Baroque palaces, from Paleolithic figurines to Picasso.

The city is also brilliant for bookworms: follow in the murky footsteps of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, or imagine the grand balls and theatrical evenings of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Grand designs

For a different perspective, take to the water for city cruises on the broad Neva and its tributaries, where you can contrast the riverside grandeur of the Yusupov Palace with the imposing warship Aurora, whose guns signalled the start of the 1917 Revolution.

Within easy striking distance of the city is the 18th-century Catherine Palace, a Russian riposte to Versailles, from its 305m long technicolour façade to the endless acres of landscaped gardens. And also Peterhof, where the world’s largest and most majestic fountain ensemble, the Grand Cascade, eclipses the interior glories.

There’s also world-famous shopping on Nevsky Prospekt and world-class cultural classicism with its opera and ballet at the renowned Marinsky Theatre. Before or after a show, you can grab a cocktail at the W Hotel, a contemporary newcomer whose rooftop bar has a dreamy view over the dome of St Isaac’s cathedral – bringing you full circle on a magical day.

Fine dining

For starters (literally), discover zakuski – tapas-like small bites with big flavours such as herring with beetroot or poached perch. Beside the Nabokov Museum, Teplo offers affordable Russian classics such as pickled herring and blinis, and has a rare no-smoking policy, while wallet-saving chain Teremok on Nevsky Prospekt offers soups and pelmeni (dumplings).

Meanwhile, the Grand Hotel, an Art Nouveau gem where Tchaikovsky honeymooned, is a glorious shrine to caviar, with a selection of 60 accompanying vodkas to choose from. And finally, the uber-swish Palkin brilliantly updates classic Russian cooking for the 21st century.