We spoiled ourselves with a decadent long weekend in beautiful St. Petersburg, a destination fit for royalty. The city’s plentiful palaces, museums, churches and restaurants are best enjoyed in spring or summer when the days are long and the temperature moderate. The 3 days in this “itinerary” are interchangeable, but be aware that most museums in St. Petersburg are closed on Mondays.
Day 1: St. Petersburg classics
Have breakfast in the middle of the bustle at atmospheric Yeliseyevsky Gastronom. This Art Nouveau food hall opened in 1903 and is also great for lunch or afternoon tea. Continue along Nevsky Prospect to Palace Square for the State Hermitage Museum, one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. Situated in the Winter Palace and adjacent buildings, the museum has an enormous collection of art ranging from Egyptian antiquities to 20th century paintings.
Avoid queues by buying your tickets online in advance here. They are valid for 180 days so no need to know the exact date you’ll be going. There is a separate entrance for visitors with online tickets in the Small Hermitage, just to the right of the Winter Palace. There is simply too much to see, so you’ll have to be selective. This article can help you find the highlights and plan your visit. You can get too much of a good thing, so stop halfway for a snack at the reasonably good museum café and keep the newly opened General Staff building for another day (see Day 3).
After all this opulence, head to Pyshechnaya for pyshki (donuts) and coffee. An ever-popular place, it hasn’t changed much since soviet times. From here, walk to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. It can’t get more scenically Russian than this. The church is at its most beautiful in the evening light, but it closes at 18:00 so make sure you arrive in time to see the dazzling interior. Automatic vending machines are located right next to the tickets booths, they are simple to use and usually have no queue.
Have an early dinner at elegant Mechta Molokhovets. The restaurant only has a handful of tables and serves food based on a famous 19th century cookbook by Elena Ivanovna Molokhovets. It is a little expensive, but this is traditional Russian cuisine at its best and the service is impeccable.
Finish your day with drinks and views at the glass rooftop bar of the Kempinksy Hotel Moika 22. During spring and summer, it gets dark very late in St. Petersburg, but if you are here at another time consider going here before dinner to catch the sunset.
Day 2: Tsarskoye Selo palaces and gardens
On your second day, head out of town to Tsarskoye Selo in Pushkin. Ubers are incredibly cheap, so there’s not really any need for a private driver. Upon arrival, take in the view from the top of the Pevcheskaya water tower (for a small access fee). The tower now houses a trendy hotel and restaurant. Head over to Catherine’s Park and Palace, a summer residence built by Catherine I, Peter the Great’s second wife. The fabulous landscaped park scattered with pavilions, monuments and other structures feels almost like Disneyland.
For lunch, go to Podvorye a short drive away in Pavlovsk. It looks touristy, but is actually very popular with the locals and the food explains why. Podvorye serves a long list of expertly prepared traditional food. Wash it all down with a selection of home-made flavored vodkas, or with some tasty (and less alcoholic!) kvass, a fermented beverage made from rye bread.
After lunch, you can visit Pavlovsk Palace and its garden nearby, or head back to town. Have your driver drop you off at the Strelka, the easternmost tip of Vasilyevsky Island. From here you can take a digestive stroll towards Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral on Hare Island. Have dinner at trendy Koryushka, enjoying the gorgeous views over Vaislyesvski Island and the Winter Palace across the Neva River as it gets dark. Things liven up with music later in the evening.
Day 3: end in style with world class art, caviar and ballet
Have a quick breakfast at Bushe, before heading once again to Palace Square for the last (and in my opinion, best) part of the Hermitage Museum: The General Staff Building housing the Hermitage’s collection of modern art. Although the annex opened in 2014 few people seem to be in the know, which is great because it will let you admire the impressive collection of Matisses, Picassos and Van Goghs relatively undisturbed. The poorly indicated entrance to the General Staff Building is just to the left of the arch, and feels more like the entry to an office building than to a world-class museum. Head straight to the 4th floor. The building is a bit of a maze and lots of rooms are still empty, but who cares with so many amazing and famous artworks to see!
Sunday brunch at the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe is an absolute must (assuming day 3 is a Sunday, if not switch days or opt for the also rather fabulous Caviar Bar instead). Served in the Art Nouveau dining room of L’Europe, this is decadent time travel at its best, with an impressive buffet of dishes right out of an opulent 1960s cookbook. The delicious food is served with unlimited “champagne” (read prosecco) and vodka, so afterwards all you will want is a nap, but there is more to see! Pay a leisurely visit to St Isaac’s Cathedral (the views from the top are nice if you can make it up the stairs), followed by tea or drinks at the cosy Xander Bar at the nearby Four Seasons hotel.
Finish your decadent St Petersburg weekend in style with a ballet at the Mariinsky theatre. If miraculously you are still in need of dinner, try Mariinsky’s Backstage restaurant.