The allure of Russia lies in its ambition. Of architectural splendour in the face of harsh arctic winters; of imperial rulers forging empires; of a resilient people flourishing despite the length, breadth and vastness of her lands. It's an intoxicating mix of ambition with the exotic thrill of the unknown (dialed up by the sheer distance and remoteness of Mother Russia from our part of the world), and all laced with the rich and intriguing history of tsars and wars (veiled with conspiracy and treachery).
And nowhere does this ambition find a grander home than in Russia's ex-capital, St. Petersburg.
Founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 — as ambitious an emperor as they ever did come — who had a penchant for the baroque European style of architecture, St. Petersburg is the undisputed cultural capital of Russia; boasting the greatest concentration of museums, theatres and libraries than any other city in the country. And, cancel out the Russian accents while sipping a coffee by one of its many canals, you might even mistake your surroundings for Amsterdam.
Having just visited St. Petersburg days before Christmas (a very white Christmas, as you'll see in my photos below), here is my 24-hour tour of the imperial city — complete with local suggestions picked up along the way — on what attractions to see (and which to miss), what to eat (in addition to borscht), and the best place to stay (if you're going to trek all the way out there, you might as well do it right).
Be warned: This schedule is chocker block. Car hire recommended.
9.00am: The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood — with its towering colourful turrets along the Griboedov Canal — was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III in 1883 (and completed in 1907) as a memorial to his father, Tsar Alexander II, who was killed by a bomb from an anarchist detonated on that very location on 13 March, 1881. As the story goes, Alexander II was travelling in his carriage when the first bomb hit but was not injured. He left the safety of his carriage to help others affected by the first blast, but was then hit by another bomb. Bleeding severely, he was rushed off to the Winter Palace where he later died in the arms of his son, Alexander III.
A fine work of medieval Russian architecture, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood — which shares a similar style to Moscow's famous St Basil's Cathedral in the Red Square — now functions as a museum with an awe-inspiring interior decorated with 7,500 mosaic pieces.
Local recommendation: A red-hot tourist favourite, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood is perennially packed. Instead of visiting the church between the standard operating hours of 10.30am and 6pm, pay extra to visit either before or after those regular hours to avoid the masses.
10.00am: If you're after a fully-functioning place of worship, then head on over to St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral in the western part of St. Petersburg. With two services daily, this baroque Orthodox church was completed in 1762 and is closely associated with the Russian Navy — naval officers would pray here before heading out to sea — as it's dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of seamen. The St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral actually consists of two churches: St. Nicholas on the lower level and the Epiphany Church on the upper level (which was consecrated in the presence of Empress Catherine the Great).
Local recommendation: No photos are allowed within the Cathedral, but for a great exterior shot — to capture that gorgeous baby-blue facade topped with five golden gilded domes — take a picture looking back at the church from the four-storey bell tower located at the rear of the premises.
11.00am: Okay, let's give the churches a break and head on over to the Fabergé Museum, housed within the 200-year-old Shuvalov Palace by the Fontanka River. The king of jewellers, and the jeweller for kings, Peter Carl Fabergé worked for the last two Russian tsars — setting himself apart from other designers with designs inspired by Europe instead of just Russian history and culture — and famously created eggs for the royal family every Easter. Fabergé created a total of 50 imperial eggs from 1885 to 1916 (except for 1904 and 1905 during the Japanese War) and nine of those eggs are on display in the museum.
My favourite? The first imperial 'Hen egg' commissioned by Tsar Alexander III as a surprise for his wife Maria Feodorovna during Easter in 1885. Influenced by Danish minimalist design, it consists of an unembellished outer shell that reveals a circular yolk of matte gold, which opens to reveal a gold hen with ruby eyes, which then opens to reveal a diamond and gold crown with a ruby pendant (which is now missing).
Local recommendation: Everyone visits to see the nine imperial Easter eggs — and rightly so — but make sure you check out Fabergé's enamel pieces too. He was renowned for creating more than 144 different colours of enamel and there is a beautiful collection of snuff boxes and trinkets in the museum showcasing his mastery of this craft.
1.00pm: Feeling hungry? Time for lunch at Restaurant Sklad No 5 just off St. Petersburg's main artery, Nevsky Prospect. We're talking the best borscht soup in town (as recommended by locals) and warm wholesome pies (try the fish or chicken) served in a quaint and cosy restaurant located under the must-visit Eliseevsky Store with its wonderful array of local delicacies, sweets and pastries.
Local recommendation: Have a progressive lunch. Entrée and main course in Restaurant Sklad No 5 below, and then coffee and sweets in the Eliseevsky Store above. The Store is also the perfect place to buy some treats for your friends and family back home. It's a two-in-one. Win.
2.30pm: No visit to St. Petersburg is complete without a visit to the imposing St. Isaac's Cathedral. At a height of 101.5 metres and capacity for 14,000 people, the late neoclassical basilica is the fourth largest cupola cathedral in the world — after St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in London, and the Duomo in Florence. The current St. Isaac's Cathedral was ordered by Tsar Alexander I and is the fourth iteration of the church built on the premises — the first three were either destroyed by fire or replaced by subsequent designs. The church is dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia (the patron saint of Peter the Great) and took 40 years to complete (from 1818 to 1858). Needless to say, you must venture inside. Architect Montferrand used 14 different types of marble for the interior decoration and the ceiling artwork is simply breathtaking.
Did you know? 60 people died from painting the main dome in amalgama — a toxic composite of gold and mercury. This process of gilding is now banned. However, the dome has retained its golden brilliance despite never been regilded since 1858.
Local recommendation: The cathedral weighs 30,000 tonnes and is surrounded by 62 columns, each of which is crafted from 114 tonnes of red granite. Look closely at some of these columns and you'll see bullet marks — remnants and scars from the Second World War.
4.00pm: With such a rich and storied history, Russia has more than its fair share of drama and intrigue. Enter: Yusupov Palace — the site for the murder of Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin on 17 December 1916. There is a lot of mystery surrounding Rasputin, but what is known is that he came to St. Petersburg in 1904 and developed a reputation for helping people with their health issues (though he wasn't a qualified medical doctor). He had the ear of Empress Alexandra (wife of Tsar Nicholas II) after healing her son (and only heir to the empire) Prince Alexei from haemophilia and, as such, wielded considerable influence over Russian politics. Eventually, a group of noblemen led by Prince Felix Yusupov orchestrated the murder of Rasputin — he was shot by Felix Yusupov after poison was found to be ineffective. Visit the basement of Yusupov Palace for an exhibition of the plot to kill Rasputin (complete with wax figures of key players).
Did you know? It was rumoured that the Yusupov family was as wealthy as the Tsars. In addition to the murder of Rasputin, visit Yusupov Palace for its ornate rooms (boasting original silk brocade walls from the 18th century), secret passages, and even a palatial theatre.
Local recommendation: Ask the staff to let you into the Tsar's box in the palatial theatre (located on the first level) so you can view the stage from the perspective of a royal.
6pm: Time for an early dinner at L'Europe Restaurant. Located inside Belmond Grand Hotel Europe — the first five-star hotel in Russia and where you should also be staying when visiting St. Petersburg — L'Europe boasts stunning art nouveau interiors and original stain-glass windows from 1905 showing 'Apollo in his chariot' created using sketches by Leon Benois. It is Russia's oldest restaurant, and everyone who is anyone that's visited St. Petersburg, has dined here. Think: Queen Elizabeth II of England, US Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, composer Igor Stravinsky, and movie stars Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas, just to name a few. Fun fact: Elton John even game an impromptu performance on the restaurant's stage in 1979 after his own concert in the city.
Local recommendation: Try the Beef Stroganoff — the restaurant has the original recipe from the Stroganoff family. Fancy some caviar instead? Head on over the neighbouring Caviar Bar & Restaurant which has a 'master of caviar' on site to help you differentiate, taste, and mix the 15 different types of caviar on offer.
7.30pm: We've had an early dinner so we can catch the ballet or opera at Mariinksy Theatre. Opened in 1860, it was named after Empress Maria Alexandrovna (wife of Tsar Alexander II), and has staged the premieres of many operas by Mikhail Glinka, Modest Mussorgsky, and Peter Tchaikovsky. The Italian-style U-shaped auditorium has a seating capacity for 1,625 patrons.
Local recommendation: You simply have to catch Peter Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake or Nutcracker. Russian ballet at its finest.
10.00pm: After the ballet, we're heading back to the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe for cocktails at the Lobby Bar before retiring for the night. Open 24 hours, this is the perfect place to unwind with a martini in hand while listening to live jazz vocals accompanied by piano every evening; all set in beautifully restored turn-of-the-century interiors.
Local recommendation: When booking your stay in the hotel, ask for the Dostoevsky suite (named after the Russian novelist who penned Crime and Punishment) on the historic first floor. This corner suite is the general manager's favourite and it overlooks the fine art square (bordered by three museums) with a statue of the famous Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin.
9.00am: Rise and shine. We're skipping breakfast at the hotel for traditional donuts at Pyshechnaya. Why settle for yet another serving of bacon and eggs when you can tuck into freshly made donuts from a recipe dating back to 1958? Wash down these delicious donuts — topped off with generous lashings of icing sugar — with a cup of no-nonsense coffee or tea (just like the locals) and you're good to go.
Local recommendation: Visit in the morning to avoid long queues and remember to bring a packet of tissues. The restaurant only has "tissues" in the form of handcut brown paper (placed on tables). It may be a nostalgic nod to the rationing realities of Soviet Russia, but it's not an effective way to wipe off the grease from your fingers.
10.00am: We've saved the best for last. The State Hermitage Museum is actually a collection of five buildings — Winter Palace, Large Hermitage, Small Hermitage, New Hermitage, and Hermitage Theatre — and is the place to view all the best art collections (both royal and noble) in St. Petersburg. Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great when she acquired the paintings of Berlin merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky, the Hermitage Museum now houses over three million pieces of art (only a small percentage is on public display) and boasts the largest collection of paintings in the world, including my personal favourite, Rembrandts' Return of the Prodigal Son. Fun fact: The Hermitage has the second largest collection of Rembrandts in the world (after Amsterdam) because the Bolsheviks sold 18 Rembrandts after the revolution. In any case, with such a large and impressive collection of priceless works on display, make sure you allocate a few hours to really explore the museum.
Did you know? The word 'hermitage' means a place for a hermit or recluse because it was originally only accessible by a privileged few. The State Hermitage is home to 16,000 paintings, 600,000 drawings and prints, 12,000 sculptures, and more than 250,000 works of applied art, 700,000 archaelogical exhibits, and 1,000,000 coins and medals.
Local recommendation: Access to the State Hermitage Museum is free on the first Thursday of every month. Also, make sure you check out Leonardo Da Vinci's Madonna and Child with Flowers (The Benois Madonna) — painted in 1478, it is first work by Da Vinci independent from his master Verrocchio.
HOW TO GET TO ST. PETERBURG
Qatar Airways now flies daily to St. Petersburg via Doha, providing the fastest route from Singapore to the Russian imperial city in just 16 hours and 30 minutes.
Awarded Airline of the Year 2017, Best Business Class 2017, and Best Business Lounge 2017 by Skytrax, let me tell you from first-hand experience, you're in very good hands when you book a flight with Qatar Airways.