It’s mere minutes before the witching hour at St Petersburg’s iconic Grand Hotel Europe, and the elegant lobby lounge and cigar bar is packed with the city’s movers and shakers. They sip luxury Russian vodkas served by a dedicated sommelier and feast on Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea in a scene that’s increasingly becoming synonymous with the new face of Russia. The country’s most historic city is also its most forward moving, as young, affluent Petersburgers flex their capitalist muscle at a host of chic restaurants, innovative galleries and world-class clubs which have opened behind historic facades and within the gilded edifices of the past.
The intimate lobby bar of Orient- Express’ Grand Hotel Europe is a fitting place to start any exploration; the hotel has long been an icon in a city of landmarks and the list of notables who have called it a home away from home is literally as long as your arm. While the likes of Rasputin, Tsar Nicholas II and George Bernard Shaw enjoyed the hotel’s individually-designed suites and the performances held in the L’Europe restaurant (Tchaikovsky even spent his honeymoon here), more contemporary guests include the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Leonardo Di Caprio, Naomi Campbell and Sharon Stone. Both Elton John and the late Whitney Houston have performed late night impromptu concerts here, the latter at the vodka bar where the city’s A-listers meet for pre-theatre tipples or late night concoctions, knowing they’ll always be in good company.
From the hotel, it’s an easy walk to another hot spot located in the nearby Grand Palace luxury shopping mall. Here, Chaika, a unique concept restaurant, has turned heads and pleased palates with its menu of simple yet elegant Soviet-era cuisine. A gastronomic map of the former Soviet Union, the restaurant is as much a celebration of the past as it is a bastion of the future; regular high-profile retro-themed events take place, while intimate concerts are conducted beneath walls covered with propaganda posters and era-art. Waiters slip past a duo of Soviet-made scooters hidden under the mezzanine stairs as they serve the new generation the cuisine of their parents. Make your caviar selection from a glass case beneath shelves of USSR-made toys, Lenin busts and shimmering sickles, before ordering from a comprehensive menu that leans towards Georgian dishes, a favourite with all Russians. The satsivi, a Georgian-style chicken dish served with a walnut sauce, is stunning, as is the salmon tartar with caviar and sour cream, and the delicate home-made dumplings known as pelmeni.
Only a couple of blocks away you can walk off your meal with some retail therapy at the Great Gostiny Dvor, the city’s iconic and utterly expansive department store. Not only is the Great Gostiny the oldest shopping centre in the city, it’s regarded as the world’s first shopping arcade and its yellow-hued arches, reaching towards the horizon, can’t be missed. Building commenced in 1757 with elaborate designs by Bartolomeo Rastrelli but a recent renovation has brought this unique retail setting into the 21st century and now countless boutiques and an extensive department store fill the cavernous space, drawing in a mink-clad crowd of affluent families and tourists from the luxury hotels of the city centre.
You’ll also find the social set in the palm-lined coffee lounge at the Elisseeff Emporium, further down Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s most elegant thoroughfare. Originally built in 1902, this acclaimed food hall was opened by the Elisseeff Brothers and the ground floor is a mesmerising showcase of all the luxury tipples and titbits the new generation of Russians have come to enjoy, from hand-made truffles to diamond-filtered vodka, imported cheeses and Caspian caviar. Be sure to browse the luxury spirits counter for bottles of Beluga and Imperia vodka, considered by many to be Russia’s top drops, and kick your feet up with the city’s elite in the intimate coffee shop at the emporium’s heart.
Although St Petersburg is famed for its art collection, much of which can be found in the Russian Museum or the acclaimed Hermitage (one of the largest art museums in the world), the contemporary art scene is also heating up. The Hermitage will open a dedicated modern art wing in 2014 and galleries are cropping up across the city. Erarta, located on Vasilievsky Ostrov or Basil’s Island, one of the city’s 42 urban isles, boasts the country’s largest non-governmental collection of contemporary art, and is dedicated to promoting Russian art from across this vast country. With branches in London, New York and Zurich, and with Hong Kong opening later this year, Erarta’s collection features more than 2,000 pieces by 150 artists and is as much a museum as it is a commercial gallery.
St Petersburg’s northerly latitude (it sits at almost 60 degrees north, on par with Oslo or southern Greenland) means that from May to July the sun barely sets at night. Join the locals as they make the most of these White Nights in the newly re-opened Letny Sad or Summer Garden, situated on its own 30-acre island on the south bank of the Neva River. Managed by the Russian Museum, and accessed from the Dvortsovaya Embankment, there are picnic dinners and live concerts held amongst the 18th century marble statues and tree-lined alleys of the 300 year old park.