FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

St. Petersburg: Window Of Opportunity

Sep 1, 2004
2004 / September 2004

St. Petersburg defies the laws of nature. Three centuries ago, Czar Peter the Great chose to locate his monumental city on a collection of marshy islands at the mouth of the Neva River. The swampy terrain, which required the sinking of millions of logs to provide a firm foothold for the foundations, was just one of the obstacles to overcome. Another was even more daunting: When St. Petersburg was conceived, Russia was one of the most insular nations on earth. With his new capital, Peter intended to drag his unwilling country onto the world stage.

Did he succeed? Take a walk down the main thoroughfare, Nevksy Prospekt, and you’ll instantly know the answer. The spectacular baroque architecture is more than a match for that of any city in Europe: Bridges cross several elegant canals — hence the city’s nickname, “Venice of the North” — and fronting the busy sidewalks there is a cosmopolitan array of international boutiques, fast-food outlets, business centers and fine restaurants. Peter intended his city to be a “window on the West,” but for modern Westerners it also serves as a window on Russia, a blending of the familiar and the exotic.

Historically, the nearest u.s. parallel is Washington, d.c.: Both cities were deliberately designed to impress. However, in Washington the pivotal buildings relate to the functions of democracy, whereas here the broad avenues converge on imperial palaces and cathedrals. Despite more than 70 years of communism, resulting in three name changes — to Petrograd, then Leningrad, then back to St. Petersburg — this remains a royal city.

Geographically, there is another u.s. comparison. Trace St. Petersburg’s latitude across the Atlantic and you’ll find that it lies as far north as Anchorage, Alaska. Keep that in mind when planning your trip. Winters can be exceptionally cold. In spring, pedestrians are occasionally killed by melting icicles falling from rooftops, so be careful at that time of year. And during the summer, the sun hardly sets — hence the city’s famous “white nights.”

For business travelers, the city offers a wealth of things to do between meetings. The Hermitage Museum is a must-see. Housed in the fabulous Winter Palace, it boasts one of the world’s premier art collections. It was the storming of this palace on Nov. 7, 1917, that heralded the end of the czars’ rule and the beginning of the Soviet era.

Even now, the legacy of communism can be felt. Russian bureaucracy remains something of a minefield to negotiate, though there is help at hand from various economic agencies and business centers. Perhaps the best starting point is the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia (www.amcham.ru), which has a chapter in St. Petersburg (Suite 318-B, 25 Nevsky Prospekt, tel 7 812 326 2590). As the Russian economy decentralizes, there are excellent business opportunities, especially in telecommunications, tourism, import and export, textiles and food production.

Anywhere in the world — and especially in Russia — business is all about overcoming hurdles and obstructions. Anyone doing business in St. Petersburg need only look at the city itself for evidence of what can be achieved with patience, determination and hard work.


Lodging

Grand Hotel Europe The Grand Hotel Europe evokes the aristocratic romance of the film Doctor Zhivago. Russia’s premier hotel for more than 125 years, it was extensively renovated in 1991 to recapture its old elegance after decades of communist neglect. Recent guests include heads of state, royalty and Hollywood stars. There’s a full complement of bars and restaurants, headlined by L’Europe, one of the top restaurants in St. Petersburg, where main courses cost $20 to $50. The Caviar Bar lives up to its name: A selection of caviar canapés accompanied by five luxury vodkas will cost $28. There are 301 rooms, including 22 duplex suites. Standard rooms are lavishly decorated (if a little small) and come with all the modern amenities. Standard room from $295; duplex suite from $400; executive suite from $1,100.

Grand Hotel Europe
1/7 Ulitsa Mikhailovskaya
St. Petersburg, Russia
tel 7 812 329 6000,
fax 7 812 329 6001
www.grandhoteleurope.com

Hotel D’Angleterre The Hotel D’Angleterre is ideally located on a square facing the impressive, golden-domed St. Isaac’s Cathedral and within easy walking distance of the Hermitage and Nevsky Prospekt. Renovated in 1986, the hotel offers the full range of business services. Guests also may use all the facilities of the adjacent five-star Hotel Astoria (astoria.hotels.spb.ru). There are 171 standard rooms and 22 suites; many of the rooms have views of St. Isaac’s Square. Standard room with courtyard view from $255; standard room with cathedral view from $337; junior suite with cathedral view from $385.

Hotel D’Angleterre
39 Ulitsa Bolshaya
St. Petersburg, Russia
tel 7 812 313 5666,
fax 7 812 313 5125
angleterre.hotels.spb.ru

Arbat-Nord Hotel The Arbat-Nord Hotel is a brand-new (opened June 2003) boutique property that provides a homey refuge from the hustle and bustle of downtown St. Petersburg. The nearby Summer Gardens, just a two-minute walk away, offer a great place to unwind. Nevsky Prospekt is also within walking distance, as are three subway stations, providing access to all points of the city. The 33 rooms are bright and airy and are fully equipped for business travelers. There’s a 40-seat restaurant and a bar open till 5 a.m. Transfers to the airport are available for $30. Nightly rates from $185.

Arbat-Nord Hotel
4 Ulitsa Artilleryskaya
St. Petersburg, Russia
tel 7 812 103 1899,
fax 7 812 103 1898
www.arbat-nord.ru

Hotel Moskva Hotel Moskva doesn’t win any prizes for architectural beauty: It’s a huge, monolithic, Soviet hotel constructed in 1977. But, it has always been popular with package tourists and increasingly caters to individual business travelers. Completely refurbished in 2003, the Moskva now makes the most of its prime location at the eastern end of Nevsky Prospekt. When you sleep here you’re in illustrious company — the hotel faces Alexander Nevsky Monastery, the final resting place of some of the greats of Russian culture, including Tchaikovsky, Dostoevski and Rimsky-Korsakov. There are 625 rooms, including 50 suites; many have views of the Neva River and the monastery. Single rooms from $82; suites from $181.

Hotel Moskva
2 Ploshchad Alexander Nevskogo
St. Petersburg, Russia
tel 7 812 274 0022,
fax 7 812 274 2130
www.hotel-moscow.ru


Dining When I first visited St. Petersburg back in the 1980s, the cuisine generally consisted of cabbage soup followed by a plate of boiled potatoes with a few lumps of fatty meat. There was little pleasure in eating out.

That has all changed. Now the selection includes hundreds of decent restaurants catering to all tastes. You can eat your way around the world here, but don’t forget to try the Russian specialties: especially blini, the local pancakes.

Restoran You’ve got to admire the chutzpah of any restaurant that decides to call itself, simply, “Restaurant.” The décor is in keeping with the name: understated sophistication. In a city in which themed restaurants are all the rage — if you want to eat like a Viking or share a round table with King Arthur’s knights, your fantasies can be realized in St. Petersburg — Restoran is a refined alternative. No gimmicks, just great food. Many Russian specialties are on offer, and even the cabbage soup tastes superb. Toast your meal with one of the homemade vodkas. Main courses cost $15 to $30.

Restoran 2 Tamozhenny Pereulok
St. Petersburg, Russia
tel 7 812 3278979

Taleon Club Taleon is the critics’ choice. For three years running it’s been voted the best restaurant in St. Petersburg. Housed in the one-time mansion of a wealthy merchant, the décor is jaw-droppingly opulent. The menu is a mixture of European and Russian cuisine; the medallion of venison is especially recommended. Main courses cost from $30 to more than $200. There’s a good-value brunch ($39 per person) every Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Reservations are required, and there is a dress code (jacket and tie).

Taleon Club Eliseev Palace Hotel
Moika River Embankment
St. Petersburg, Russia
tel 7 812 315 76 45
www.taleon.ru

Propaganda Restaurant A chic reinvention of Soviet style, Propaganda opened in 2000 and instantly became one of the trendiest venues for business lunches. The décor is industrial — lots of bare metal and rivets — with trimmings in communist red. The menu is an inventive fusion of local and international cuisine. Main courses cost $10–$20.

Propaganda Restaurant
40 Nabereznaya Reki Fontanki
St. Petersburg, Russia
tel 7 812 275 3558
www.propaganda.spb.ru


Nightlife

During the long, dark nights of winter, St. Petersburg’s nightlife offers a means of escape. And in summer, when darkness never falls, why bother sleeping? Whatever the time of year, weekday or weekend, there’s a wealth of options.

The Money Honey Saloon (14 Apraksin Dvor, www.moneyhoney.org) is not the sort of place its name might immediately suggest. In fact, it’s a venue for live music (rockabilly and country) and dancing. The entrance is a mock-up of a Western saloon. Upstairs, the City Club is a great place to shoot some pool. There’s a cover charge of $2. Moloko (12 Perekupnoy, www.molokoclub.ru), just off Nevsky Prospekt, is another good place for live music.

At the other end of the scale, the Mariinsky Theater (1 Teatralnaya Square, www.mariinsky. spb.ru) is the home of the world-famous Kirov Ballet, which nurtured stars such as Nijinsky, Nureyev and Baryshnikov. The Kirov spends increasing portions of the year touring the globe, but if they’re in town, be sure to catch them. To ensure a ticket, book well in advance — your travel agency should be able to help. Tickets are easier to come by for the Mussorgsky Opera and Ballet Theater (1 Iskusstuv Square), which specializes in contemporary works.


Shopping

Nevsky Prospekt is the main shopping artery, with a full range of international outlets. About midway down you’ll find Dom Knigi, the biggest bookstore in town. Housed in the prerevolutionary headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Co. (the logo’s still on the roof), it has lost some of its unique, old-fashioned atmosphere since a recent renovation, but it’s still worth a visit if you’re looking for souvenir books or English translations of Russian literature.

Bootlegged CDs and DVDs are widely available, though any savings (you’ll pay $2 to $4) are counterbalanced by variable quality. Fake computer software is also on sale, but often comes with the less-than-desirable bonus of destructive viruses.

There are souvenir stalls at most of the city’s major attractions, as well as a dedicated Souvenir Fair on the west bank of the Griboedova Canal, opposite the multidomed Church of the Resurrection of Christ. Popular souvenirs include sets of wooden matryoshka dolls, which can cost from $2 to around $100 if you want them custom-painted with the faces of your own family (you need to supply suitable photos — it takes about a week). Other typically Russian items include enamelled Palekh boxes, miniature busts of Lenin (which make good paperweights), fur hats and old communist posters.


Sightseeing

The Hermitage Museum (www.hermitagemuseum.org) houses at least 3 million priceless works of art. It would take several weeks to see everything, so plot your course according to your interests. The building itself — the former Winter Palace of Catherine the Great — is an attraction in its own right. Each room is more spectacular than the last. Admission is $16 for a single visit, $24 for two-day entry. Closed Mondays.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, constructed in 1703, is St. Petersburg’s oldest building. The fortress is topped-off with a needle-thin, 400-foot golden spire — one of the city’s most distinctive landmarks. Admission to the grounds is free; access to the buildings costs $4.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with its immaculate golden dome, is just one of the city’s many magnificent cathedrals. The interior is incredibly ornate. There are excellent views from the colonnade at the base of the dome, reached by scaling several hundred steps. Admission to the cathedral, $8; entry to the colonnade, $3.

St. Petersburg is surrounded by the spectacular country residences of the czars, easily visited from the city. The most impressive is Peterhof (also known as Petrodvorets), a sprawling palace set within acres of immaculate gardens facing the Gulf of Finland.

Get there by hydrofoil, departing from the Hermitage: $9 each way.


Info to Go

International flights arrive at Pulkovo-2 Airport (LED), 10 miles south of downtown. Transfers by a combination of subway and bus cost about 60 cents. By taxi, you’ll pay $10 to $20, though the meters don’t always work and newly arrived foreigners are at the mercy of the taxi driver’s honesty.

Trains arrive from Helsinki at Finland Station, from the Caucasus and Siberia at Moscow Station and from the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine at Vitebsk Station.


Flights from the United States to St. Petersburg require a change of planes either in Moscow or in one of the major European hubs. Aeroflot (www.aeroflot.com), now using Boeings for its international service, usually offers the best value departing from New York; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; Seattle; and San Francisco, via Moscow.

Air France (www.airfrance. com) offers flights from several U.S. gateways to St. Petersburg, via Paris. Other airlines with one-stop service between the United States and St. Petersburg include Delta, British Airways, KLM, Austrian Airlines and Lufthansa.

 

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FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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