Coming to St. Petersburg is a special treat for me since I was last here as a student 25 years ago, before the fall of communism. I wanted to return to see just how much the city had changed. Back then, the average person waited in line for several hours a day just to buy life's necessities. The city was run down, without color, without any zest for life.
How times have changed. I spent a delightful five days in St. Petersburg during the “white nights” of summer, when it remains light outside until after 10pm and people can enjoy long days of walking (residents are quick to point out that the city is far more walkable than Moscow). It’s often referred to as "the Paris of the North" for good reason: both cities are bisected by a major river (the Neva standing in for the Seine), with majestic 18th-century buildings (albeit here they are often pastel colored), wide boulevards, and manicured parks.
With the extended daylight, I never ate dinner before 9pm, so I did what many residents do in the summer: enjoy early evening drinks on a terrace. The city has several accessible spots that offer excellent panoramic views. Try Terrassa (my favorite), which looks over the Kazan Cathedral. Also, the W Hotel has a nice rooftop view of St. Isaac's Cathedral and the surrounding cityscape.
A few noteworthy restaurants include Barbaresco, Vox, and Stroganoff Steak House. These are among the city’s more contemporary restaurants, offering a mix of cuisines. In fact, it’s hard to find many restaurants serving Russian cuisine in the city center.
I spent a couple of days doing the tourist sites, including a half-day guided walking tour, a canal boat cruise, a visit to the Hermitage (the former Tsar's residence; now one of the world's largest museums), a stop at the Russian Museum, and a boat ride to spend a few hours at Peterhof Palace (summer residence of the Tsars).
When it comes to lodging, the best (and priciest) options include the Astoria, the W Hotel, and the Kempinski Hotel Moika. A new Four Seasons will open later this year. I spent five nights at the Kempinski, a classically appointed, beautifully designed hotel with an excellent rooftop restaurant and terrace and an elaborate breakfast spread on the lobby level. My only complaint is that the rooms need some updating (the TVs and bathroom need a refresh, and the bed is rather soft). The service, however, is top notch.
I look forward to returning before another 25 years pass. As with Moscow, under four hours away by train, there's so much more to explore.