How To Plan The Trip
Since this popular destination attracts tourists from around the globe - the crowds, waiting lines at sights and traffic can be daunting. It’s essential to have a good organizer. I turned to award winning U.K. based company Red Savannah (www.redsavannah.com/europe/russia) to arrange my trip. They specialize in creating the finest tailor-made experiences worldwide. Their team of experts organized everything for me while providing outstanding services with exquisite attention to detail. This included cutting through complicated visa requirements, excellent pre trip information and material, VIP no waiting for both entry into the country and departure at airports, transportation, top hotels, best restaurants, a superb guide and an extraordinary customized itinerary.
The White Nights
The ‘Stars of the White Nights International Ballet and Opera Festival’ featuring over 200 ballets, concerts and operas with star artists at the legendary Mariinsky Theater is one of the main attractions. Everyone wants to go and tickets sell out quickly. I attended a rapturous performance of Sleeping Beauty by the Mariinsky Ballet, formerly the Kirov where Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov performed - with great seats arranged by Red Savannah.
Everyone is outdoors during the White Nights; it feels like a party with the whole city celebrating the midnight sun. Open-air concerts take place in Palace Square and on the roof of Mariinsky II and fireworks light up the sky. Children were taking pony rides at 11pm in the park near my hotel in the center of town. People were sitting at cafes, wandering the streets and strolling along the romantic canals of the beautiful city. Crowds gather by the Neva River at 1am to behold the spectacular ‘opening of the bridges.’ The drawbridges open one by one, lit up in glowing colors of red, blue, green and yellow while a procession of boats glides by as if in a synchronized water parade to the stirring music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. I stood at the Palace Bridge mesmerized by the magic.
Sights and Attractions
My guide Gulia, arranged by Red Savannah, was born in St. Petersburg and knows everything about the destination. She’s smart, savvy, informative, personable and well connected, so I got into the attractions ahead of the huge crowds and long lines, sometimes before they were even open to the public. Here are some of the many highlights: The illustrious Hermitage Museum with over 2 million exhibits housed in the lavish former winter palace of Peter the Great including the Gold Room; Magnificent Peter and Paul Fortress, Peterhof Park and Palace with eye popping palaces, gardens and golden fountains known as the “Russian Versailles,” former summer residence of the Czars; Catherine Palace with gold galore and the fabled Amber Room; Yusupov Palace where you can visit the very spot where Rasputin was murdered; St. Isaac’s Cathedral with its striking gold dome and opulent interior and Faberge Museum with a fantastic collection of the ornately embellished eggs and other marvels.
Where To Eat
In this city full of excellent eateries, I especially enjoyed the duck with chestnuts, salmon marinated with cognac and best beef stroganoff ever at the stylish restaurant in the Hotel Astoria, a divine caviar tasting paired with vodka in Belmond’s Grand Hotel Europe, trendy Café Rubinstein and EM where every dish, such as local fish with cherry bisque, is a standout.
Where To Stay
Hotel Astoria, an elegant Art Nouveau stunner with sumptuous interiors, part of prestigious Rocco Forte Hotels, is as splendid as the magnificent city. The 5-star grand hotel originally built in 1912 is ideally located next to St. Issac’s Cathedral and just a few minutes walk to the main attractions. Glamorous suites feel like royal residences with posh furnishings, gorgeous Russian antiques and marble bathrooms. I had a glorious view of St. Issac’s from my window. Astoria Restaurant is exceptional and has a fantastical dessert in the shape of a Faberge egg. www.roccofortehotels.com
How To Go
Finnair is the most convenient option for travel to Russia from the US, where there are no direct flights. Transfers at Helsinki Airport for the short 45 - minute flight to St. Petersburg are fast and within the same terminal. In the air, the service is professional, friendly with comfortable seats. Business class offers lie-flat beds with excellent food and wine options.