St Petersburg: Christmas tree in Palace Square
After just a few hours of walking around St Petersburg, my eyes are starting to ache.
And it’s not due to the bright sunlight glancing off the snow-covered streets – in fact, the December weather is unseasonably mild and the sky is cloudy and grey, with not even a flake of the white stuff on the horizon.
Instead, at almost every turn I’m dazzled by a beautiful vista, a magnificent palace or an exquisite church. I don’t even need to stray too far to find examples of all three; I’m staying on Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main artery.
Over three miles long, it stretches from the Admiralty, which sits by the wide River Neva, down to the railway station.
The city’s St Peter The Great
It’s lined with elegant, classical 18th and 19th- century buildings, their exteriors painted in an array of candy colours, from rose pink to primrose yellow to sky blue.
Some are now offices and some are department stores or malls, such as Gostiny Dvor, one of the first shopping arcades in the world and home to nearly a hundred different stalls selling souvenirs, clothes and homeware.
Some, like the elegant five-star Corinthia, where I’m staying, are hotels. But most of them used to be private homes for the rich residents of what swiftly became Russia’s second most important city.
St Petersburg was founded in 1703 by legendary leader Peter the Great (who earned his nickname as much for his height – 6ft 8in – as for his many achievements).
He wanted to create a city that would compare to the likes of Venice or Amsterdam.
An unprepossessing but strategic patch of marshland by the delta of the River Neva was where he decided to set up Russia’s new court – who were, it has to be said, reluctant to move from more comfortable Moscow.
The Winter Palace in St Petersburg
However, within a hundred years it had become a compelling cultural centre, and a place for aristocrats to party and take part in highbrow pursuits.
Today, it’s still known as a haven for the arts; it spawned composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, the Kirov ballet, and literary giants like Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Come wintertime, the city takes on a special quality. Russia celebrates Christmas on January 7, but it prepares for it in much the same way as most of Europe.
Pionerskaya Square is where the city’s big Christmas market is in full swing at this time of year, and sipping on a steaming cup of mulled wine I stroll between stalls selling wooden decorations shaped like the soldier from The Nutcracker, or the classic, brightly coloured, traditional matryoshka dolls.
There’s also a huge array of other crafts and souvenirs, such as jars of local honey, gingerbread, toys, woollen gloves and mittens and more. In the distance, gold church domes shimmer in the twilight, and more candy-coloured buildings beckon.
I head to Palace Square, home to the world-renowned Hermitage Museum, but also to the city’s main Christmas tree, a giant spruce festooned with lights.
The Hermitage was originally conceived as a place to store and privately display Catherine the Great’s art collection.
Catherine was an ambitious German princess who’d married Peter the Great’s grandson, Peter III, then forced him to abdicate, taking charge in his place.
She became an avid collector of paintings, sculpture, and antiquities; soon they could no longer be contained in her sole residence, the pistachio green Winter Palace, and four more buildings were constructed.
Today they contain more than three million items – it’s mind-bogglingly huge – and the art, which includes paintings by Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Raphael, almost pales into insignificance compared to the interiors of the edifices which house it.
St Petersburg is a go-to destination for the festive period
Ceilings are covered in gilt stucco, staircases are lined with marble statues and a chapel is dotted with gold cherubs.
My eyes are dazzled once more at the fabulous Fabergé Museum, close to one of the city’s most iconic bridges, the Anichkov.
Carl Fabergé was a 19th-century Russian jeweller, famous for the Easter eggs he made out of gems and precious metals.
Today, nine of them are on display here.
Like the rest of St Petersburg, it really is a sight for sore eyes.
Russian nesting dolls
10 things to do in St Petersburg
1. Go ice-skating on the rink at New Holland Island (newhollandsp.ru/en), a renovated district near St Isaac’s Cathedral.
2 Bring home a pot of red caviar (it’s cheaper!) from Eliseevy, a delicatessen housed in a beautiful Art Nouveau building (kupetzeliseevs.ru/en/).
3 Sample a slice of medovik, a delicious local layered cake made with honey and cream.
4 See a festive ballet such as The Nutcracker at one of the city’s sumptuous historic theatres, such as the Mariinsky or the Mikhailovsky.
5 Marvel at the Impressionist and post-Impressionist art at the General Staff Building (hermitagemuseum.org).
6 If it’s snowing, head to Pavlovsk Palace (en.pavlovskmuseum.ru), where you can go for a magical troika (or horse-drawn sleigh) ride in the grounds.
7 Discover the history of Russia’s most famous spirit at the Vodka Museum (vodkamuseum.su/en) with a tour, which includes a tasting at the end.
8 Gawp at the magnificent, Rococo-designed gilt and stucco-façade (and interiors) of the Catherine Palace, 20 miles from the city centre, where the Tsars spent their summers.
9 Try a warming dish of pelmeni, soft, meat-filled dumplings that look like tortellini, usually served with sour cream.
10 Have a glass of mors, a classic Russian drink made with cranberries, sugar and water.
Way to go
A three-night stay at the five-star Corinthia Hotel on Nevsky Prospekt, including flights from your nearest airport, costs from £670pp with Regent Holidays. They can also arrange city and Hermitage tours. To book, visit regent-holidays.co.uk.