It’s one of the great cities of Europe – where we meet Russia. For a long time, Leningrad was very grey, though magnificent in its own way, but now it’s been freshened up and is a glittering city that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. Now is a particularly good time to experience the city’s white nights, when evenings stay light until gone midnight and festivals are held across St Petersburg. For more information, see saint-petersburg.com.
Anything special I should pack?
Even if you’re going in the summer, prepare for some cold nights, and in the winter pack everything. The other must-pack is a copy of Anna Karenina. You should read Tolstoy while you’re there.
What’s the first thing you do?
The walk along the river Neva is wonderful, and to stroll through the sites of the 1917 Revolution, the Winter Palace at the centre of it all, is an invigorating, unforgettable experience. It’s impossible to walk through the area without feeling the weight of events that shaped the whole of Europe. History follows you everywhere.
Where’s the best place to stay?
There is a wonderful boutique hotel called the Alexander House (007 812 334 3540; a-house.ru) on a canal near the Mariinsky Theatre which I thoroughly recommend. Staying there is a very Russian experience, but comfortable too.
Where would you meet friends for a drink?
Bars tend to be dingy. But take pot luck. The fancy ones are a bit of a pain. Avoid them as much as you can. If you want to push the boat out, bar 22–13 at 2, Konyushennaya Square (647 8050; 22–13.com) near Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s main street, will tell you in five minutes what has happened to Russia in the last 20 years, but might excite you too.
Where is the best place for lunch?
The terribly overpriced French-ified restaurants are not a good idea. I’d go for somewhere like Kavkaz (312 1665; kavkazbar.ru), at Karavannaya 18, which serves fairly authentic Georgian fare, and is stocked with good wine. Let them cook your meat on their open fire.
And for dinner?
The Bellevue Brasserie at the Kempinski Hotel Moika 22 on the Moika River Embankment (335 9111; kempinski.com) which is in the heart of things and boasts great views too. The food is varied and very good in my experience, and the ambience is youngish.
Where would you send a first-time visitor?
You’ve got to visit the Winter Palace, which was formerly home to the Russian Tsars and is steeped in history, and the Hermitage (710 9079; hermitagemuseum.org), which has one of the world’s greatest art collections. I’d also suggest going to one of the three Mariinsky (326 4141; mariinsky.ru ) theatres – the old opera house, the new opera house (which cost more than £400m), or the Mariinksy concert hall. If you have time, you could of course visit all three – cheap seats are easy enough to come by.
What should I avoid?
The taxis in St Petersburg are a nightmare. They’re managed and run by Russian cowboys who will fleece you at the drop of a hat. So be very careful. If possible, order a taxi through your hotel, walk, or agree a pre-determined fare. Otherwise you will be ripped off. If you want to see the dark side of St Petersburg, get in a taxi.
What should I bring home?
I’d suggest getting some amber jewellery, made locally. There is a huge amount of amber around but watch where you buy it; I’d suggest getting it from the most downtrodden-looking antique shop in the shabbiest side street. Whatever you do, don’t bring back a Russian Matryoshka doll (which contain dolls of decreasing size inside).
All western visitors to Russia need a visa. Real Russia (020 7100 7370; realrussia.co.uk) offers a quick and easy service.
Emergency numbers: dial 01 (fire), 02 (police), 03 (ambulance) – though English is not generally spoken
Local laws and etiquette
Although things have improved greatly, Russian police are still notorious for shaking down foreigners for “paperwork infringements.” Carry your documents with you at all times.
Telephone code: dial 00 7 812 for St Petersburg numbers from abroad. To make international calls from a fixed phone line in St Petersburg, dial 8, wait for the dial tone, then 10, then the country code, city code and number
Time difference: +3 hours (which means +3 from UK in winter, but plus +2 in summer)
Flight time: London to St Petersburg is four-and-a-half hours