We suggest you start at a hotel that will take you into the world of 19th century Imperial Russia: the Astoria, situated ideally between St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Mariinsky Palace, not far from the Winter Palace and the Hermitage.
Whether or not your budget allows you to stay at the Astoria, you might consider beginning your day with the lavish buffet breakfast at the hotel’s Davidov Restaurant, with stunning views of the square and majestic St. Isaac’s Cathedral (you’re going to need the calories!).
Step outside into the square and turn right toward the cathedral you’ve been eying over your morning coffee. The interiors here are well worth the admission price (what would you pay to see six of the largest lapis lazuli columns in the world?).
Exit out the other side of the cathedral and head across the garden in front of you to the iconic Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great. You can’t miss Catherine the Great’s not-so-subtle inscription on the enormous granite stone base: from Catherine the Second to Peter the First.
The towering golden spire of the Admiralty is your next landmark, so head towards it after you have circled Falconet’s monument to Peter. By the time you reach this golden spire, you will see one of the grandest urban spaces in Europe: Palace Square with the Winter Palace on one side and the General Staff building curving along the opposite side. If you have never been into the Hermitage (and the Winter Palace) this is your chance.
We’d recommend getting here by 9:45am and Exeter will sneak you in early, before the general public is allowed inside. A few moments alone with the Rembrandts will make it worth the extra expense. While inside, your Exeter guide will slip you your prized tickets to the Gold Treasures Room of the Hermitage. You will be among the few able to see an extraordinary array of ancient gold, diamond-encrusted swords and ruby-lined saddles, all personal possessions of the Romanovs.
When you’ve had enough of the Hermitage’s treasures and are ready for a break, take a stroll down Millionaire’s Row and over to Stolle (Конюшенный пер., 1, St Petersburg, Saint Petersburg, Russia 191186 Tel: 8 (812) 312-18-62) , a wonderfully simple local bakery creating the finest pierogi (baked pies - almost like a strudel). Try the mushroom, rabbit and cabbage for lunch and leave room for the fresh seasonal berries for dessert.
Before you slip into a pierogi-induced coma, head back outside towards the Field of Mars, where Paul I spent endless days playing soldiers…with real soldiers. The field is beautiful in any season, but especially so in the summer with flowering gardens stretching in all directions. Toward the end of the field, you’ll see the impossible-to-miss onion domes of the Church on Spilled Blood. Head there for a look inside the only church in the world entirely decorated with mosaic tiles inside and out. (Shoppers can’t miss the open air market next door: the best souvenir shopping in the city.)
Next to the Church on Spilled Blood (spas na krove, in Russian), you’ll see the Russian Museum, housing one of the finest collections of purely Russian art in the world. From Andrey Rublev’s famous icons to Repin’s impressionist Imperial portraits, this is an art collection you can only see in Russia.
The Russian Museum is on beautiful Arts Square and a statue to Pushkin stands in the middle. Stop for a coffee at the famous Stray Dog Café – famous as a literary salon in the early 20th century.
Across the square you’ll see the historic Grand Hotel Europe. If Russian lacquered boxes are of interest, you’ll find Le Petit Opera art shop on the first floor (the second floor if you are American). These are the finest in the city, but they are all one of a kind art pieces and not to be confused with the tourist selection in the market.
Head back outside to Nevsky Prospect in front of the hotel and go left to see if the finest food store in St Petersburg, Yeliseevsky, has reopened after its major renovation. The stunning interiors and art deco touches are unlike any food emporium you have ever seen. Sadly closed for several years the building has new owners who can use the rest of the building as they please, but must reinstate the shop due to its historical value.
A stop at Dom Knigi (House of Books) is a must – and the views from its floor-to-ceiling café windows are amazing.
End your day with a private boat tour – showing you St Petersburg from a totally different perspective: from the famous canals of the Venice of the North. Your guide will point out buildings and sights of particular interest: the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre, the Bankovsky Bridge with its winged-griffins, Kazan Cathedral, and countless palaces.
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