Never thought I would visit this city, and I’m glad I did
St. Petersburg is a three-hour hop from London and, having slept little on the night before, I pass out immediately. We land at Pulkovo airport — a relatively small airport for what we’re about to find in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. An Uber-driver is there to pick us up. The surroundings look quite industrial, but as we head down to the Astoria Hotel, the buildings begin to get more imposing and landmarks start appearing.
We’re staying in the swankiest hotel in town, with the names of famous guests from Sting and Madonna to Lenin and Tony Blair listed on the wall next to the elevator. I’m casting my eyes down the list when the concierge came to show us our room.
Beautiful interiors mixing contemporary design, bedding of Russian linen, and Italian marble bathroom fittings — simply elegant! We have a spectacular view onto the golden domes of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, one of St. Petersburg’s most famous landmarks. The weather is on our side this time. With an unbelievable forecast of 16–17 degrees, it looks like winter has finally left St. Petersburg and spring is here!
And the schedule, in between wandering the streets of St. Petersburg, involves a Swan Lake play, visits to top art museums, a Russian afternoon-Tea experience, and more culinary adventures (our taste buds are still missing those flavours).
To dive straight into Stories of Astoria skip the next section
What to see in St. Petersburg?
1) Swan Lake at The Mikhailovsky
We bought tickets in advance to The Mikhailovsky theatre to watch Swan Lake on the day we arrived. Lucky enough to catch this performance during our trip, the next show will play in summer. The Astoria sponsors two arts festivals a year and also has their dedicated box.
2) Saviour of the Spilled Blood
Admire the architectural confectionery of St. Saviour Cathedral
3) Climb Peter and Paul Fortress — Top view over the city from Colonnaded Walkway
4) Hermitage — Spend a day at the Hermitage, home to over 2 million pieces of art
5) St. Isaac’s Cathedral (the view from the top is breath-taking)
The largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city and the fourth largest cathedral in the world.
Stories of Astoria
Travelling back in time….
Denis and I were lucky enough to have a fantastic private tour of the Astoria Hotel, an impressive landmark of the city of St. Petersburg. Its history goes back as far as the beginning of the 20th century, a time when the Russian economy was booming. The land belonged to the Astros brothers who decided to sell it to the Americans. The name of Astoria is not very common among the Russians. If you’re wondering where “Astoria” comes from, the hotel was named after a famous port city in the United States.
Designed by architect Fyodor Lidval, the hotel first opened its doors in December 1912. This place witnessed the October Revolution in 1917, survived two World Wars saving hundreds of lives, hosted some of the most exquisite and historical events in the world and saw thousands of celebrities, prime ministers, and heads of state passing through its doorways. Some great historical times breathe through these walls and today was our time to listen and find out some lesser-known stories about Hotel Astoria.
Where the New and Old can finely coexist
Hotel Astoria is considered a national heritage and just as any other historical building it must be preserved and restored. Refurbishments of the interior have been made along the decades, but the hotel’s facade has barely changed since 1912.
When you step inside the hotel, the modern, luxurious pieces of furniture and the old finely coexist. The 100 years old chandeliers are brightening up the hallways and the main reception. Leaving the reception desk and turning right, you’ll find yourself in the Rotonda parlour. By day, it’s home to a great Russian afternoon tea experience. By night it turns into a very elegant salon where you can enjoy a fine cocktail or a glass of wine listening to live music and piano.
For someone who loves and appreciates history as much as I do, this a truly unique experience.
As part of the tour, we visited the Tchaikovsky Suite, the only Royal suite you’ll find in Astoria. I found myself, just for a couple of minutes, on the very same balcony from which Lenin gave his victory speech in 1917 and the view was impressive!
The pseudonym of “royal” makes you think there cannot be anything more luxurious and exquisite than this.
A few minutes later after we left the Tchaikovsky Suite, we stepped into the Tzar suite. Right there, right on that moment you realise that interior design is a real art and indeed a very expensive one. Most premium suits including this ones were decorated by Olga Polizzi, Rocco Forte’s director of design. Her philosophy is traditional sophistication plus modern style.
The Winter Garden of Astoria
Speaking of historical events and rulers, 25 years later after Lenin’s speech, Hitler wanted to organise a party in the Winter Gardens of Astoria to celebrate what he was hoping to be, Germany’s victory in the Second World War. We all know what happened three years later, and he never got the chance to host such celebration after all. For decades, the Winter Garden and the Ballroom have been hosting some of the most spectacular events in the country, organised by world-known brands and artists. BMW launched their 7-Series in 2012.
On the other side of the main corridor and passing the reception area, it’s the Astoria restaurant. Of course, I can describe every single dish we enjoyed there, but this won’t pay it justice. So I will let the pictures do the talking and try to walk you through our culinary experiences starting from Day One.
This experience is available at the Rotonda Lounge (Astoria Hotel). You can choose from all kinds of Russian sweetmeats to go with the tea (confectionery chef Yulia Ivanova), homemade blini with sauces, traditional Russian meat patties, mini-sandwiches, biscuits and gingerbread…
Take a closer look and notice the delicate blue criss-cross of diamonds on white. We were told this particular type of porcelain was created for Hotel Astoria and soon became a national icon. For ease, visit the Art Salon opposite St Isaacs by the Neva.
A little Souvenir
Russian dolls: well, we have to, don’t we? I grew up in Romania where you could find these beautifully painted dolls in almost every house. As a kid, I was “unscrewing” them to reveal a smaller figure of the same sort inside, which has, in turn, another figure inside of it, and so on. The smallest one you would find is probably the size of a thimble.
A Final Note…
The city is a real jewellery, but I wish I had a bit more time to visit the royal palace on the outskirts of St Petersburg.
The fountains at Peterhof, modelled on Versailles, were still turned off. In summer, this place is surreal and we must visit it one day. Everybody told us Pushkin is the most beautiful in winter, with its landscaped parks and two palaces. We ran out of time and it is one of many reasons to return.
For three days I had the chance to unveil stories of the city and to discover the soul of St. Petersburg — Turning street corners, visiting some of the world’s most imposing buildings and gazing beyond façades into historical courtyards.
~ St. Petersburg, we’ll see you soon…
Opinions expressed are solely my own; The photos belong to me with the exception being the cover image.