When St. Petersburg was built, its inspiration was the cosmopolitan West. But as Igor Lipovetsky of Exeter International, which specializes in high-end travel to Russia, explains, "During Soviet times, the word 'cosmopolitan' couldn't exist. Now that spirit has returned."
Sophistication has come swiftly to every corner of St. Petersburg—most noticeably to its restaurants. Far from the gray gruel of yesterday, there's now Japanese food (Ginza, this city's version of Nobu), as well as Georgian (Ketino serves exceptional country stews), and terrific local fare (Lenin's Mating Call is packed with Communist-era memorabilia; the waitresses wear sexy Stalinist worker outfits). But the hot ticket is the Parisian-themed Palkin. St. Petersburgers love French cooking, and chef Valentin Komisin delivers with duck in oyster sauce and foie gras soufflé. Traditional Russian cuisine has also improved dramatically. At Davidov in the Hotel Astoria, the borscht and beluga are perfection.
St. Petersburg is at its most endearing, however, when it's not hurrying toward the new but polishing up the past. Rocco Forte, whose Hotel Savoy in Florence is one of our favorites, has perfectly restored the Hotel Astoria, opposite St. Isaac's Cathedral, which is still the best place to stay—and shop. The hotel's czarist blue and gold Lomonosov dinnerware is for sale in the restaurant. More recently, he refurbished the adjacent Angleterre Hotel. Like the Astoria, the decor was done by his überstylish sister Olga Polizzi. Forte doesn't have much competition (Kempinski's Grand Hotel Europe is for conferences), but there is the new Eliseev Palace Hotel. On the Moika River, it's where businessmen gamble, dine, and gorge on vodka and cigars. The hotel does have its own style, but it lacks the soul of the Astoria.
Perhaps the most remarkable makeover of all is on the cultural front. "The first wave of tourists just wanted to see what was left after 70 years of communism," says Exeter's Lipovetsky. "But the second wave seeks real beauty." And that's something St. Petersburg has in abundance. President Vladimir Putin is from St. Petersburg, and to mark its tercentenary he went on quite a spree, spending some $1.5 billion on cultural projects. Landmarks all over town have been restored: the Alexander Column on Palace Square; Mikhailovsky Castle; Italian Baroque palaces, such as the Stroganov (a new czarist restaurant from local impresario Yevgeny Prigozhin just opened here); and the unmissable Amber Room, destroyed by occupying Nazis but newly re-created, at the Catherine Palace. Putin has also spent a reported $280 million alone rebuilding the Congress Palace, Konstantinovsky. And at The Hermitage, Golden Room Number One has reopened following a 10-year restoration. It's the one collection in the museum not to pass up; its treasures are a staggering index of czarist opulence (Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, left more than 15,000 dresses when she died, but only six rubles in the treasury).
Putin's expenditure, while extreme, was a smart investment. Now it seems that no one can get enough of the president's hometown. "This summer is impossible. Try getting a reservation. Business from the U.S. has tripled," says Lipovetsky. And it's not only tourists but Russians who are standing in three-hour-long lines snaking around the Tsarskoe Selo museum—a fact that requires a certain savvy for travelers to St. Petersburg. The best time to visit is autumn. You can get tickets for the Mariinsky Theater or the Philharmonic; the hallways of the State Russian Museum will be empty; you can visit the Yusupov Palace's exquisite private theater; and you will be assured a good view of the Hermitage's Hidden Treasures, particularly some of the 74 Impressionist works (Degas, Monet, Cezanne) taken from the Germans in World War II, which, because of the threat of being confiscated, will never travel outside St. Petersburg. Seeing these "missing" masterpieces conveys a compelling sense of privilege. At its best, this is what St. Petersburg is all about.
Ginza Dinner, $60. At 16 Aptekarsky Prospect; 7-812-324-7094.
Ketino Dinner, $70. At 23-8th Line of Vasilyevsky Ostrov; 7-812-326-0196.
Lenin's Mating Call Dinner, $70. At 34 Kazanskaya St.; 7-812-117-8641.
Palkin Dinner, $100. At 47 Nevsky Prospect; 7-812-103-5371.
Davidov Dinner, $90. At 39 Bolshaya Morskaya; 7-812-313-5815.
Hotel Astoria Rates, $440-$2,400; 7-812-313-5757.
Angleterre Hotel Rates, $380-$750; 7-812-313-5666. Both at 39 Bolshaya Morskaya.
Eliseev Palace Hotel Rates, $480-$2,400. At 59 Moika Embankment; 7-812-324-9911.
• The best English-speaking guide in St. Petersburg is Ludmila Kolesova from Exeter International (800-633-1008; www.exeterinternational.com).
• For a truly authentic Russian lunch (for $9), ask your concierge to book a table at the members-only Taleon Club in the new Victoria restaurant (59 Moika Emb.; 7-812-312-53-73).
• Don't mind the hordes at Podvorie restaurant (16 Filtrovskoye Shosse, Pavlovsk; 7-812-465-1399) near Catherine's Palace. It's well worth the trouble.
• Beluga Deluxe (5 Ploschad Iskusstv; 7-812-325-8264) and North Way (36 Angliyskaya Emb.; 7-812-312-2062) are the best places to buy caviar. The quality is superb, and you get to taste before buying.