All eyes may be on Russia as this summer's World Cup approaches, but the country holds much more than soccer stadiums. Set your sights on the second-largest city, St. Petersburg, with its European-inspired boulevards, iconic palaces and museums, and charming Old World hotels that are practically made for Russian royalty. Culture vultures can get their fix perusing the Hermitage, the second-largest museum in the world (think Russia's version of the Louvre), by day before sitting in one of the opulent opera houses for a ballet come nightfall. If you’ve already checked off capitals like Paris and London from your list, St. Petersburg makes for a dreamy alternative that’s just far enough off the beaten path while still offering honeymooners the European charm of its well-trodden neighbors.
Where to Stay
Start your stay in style cozying up in one of city’s landmarks, Rocco Forte Hotel Group’s five-star Hotel Astoria, where rooms look out onto the golden dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and sites like the Hermitage and Opera House are just a short stroll away. In the 1930s, the hotel acted as an artist haven, and just a decade later, its winter garden was where Hitler planned to host his victory celebration after World War II (rumor has it he even had invitations made). When the hotel first opened its doors in 1912, it hosted the likes of Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov and poet Sergei Yesenin, but its more recent claim to fame is its role in James Bond film “GoldenEye” (as well as celeb clientele from The Doors and The Rolling Stones to Madonna). Another Bond flick, “From Russia with Love,” makes appearances in guestrooms with black-and-white blown-up scenes hanging on bathroom walls.
When you’re ready to slip out of your sumptuous suite, head down the winding staircase (definitely an Insta-worthy shot!) and take a seat in the lounge where you can indulge in two other long-standing traditions: high tea and vodka. Sample vodka alongside a series of three types of caviar paired with pancake-like blinis and all the fixings (think everything from chopped capers to sour cream and cheese). For a true taste of Russian cuisine, forget any notion of continuing your pre-wedding diet and indulge in a degustation at Astoria Restaurant with a menu titled “Feel like a Tsar” that includes Cognac-marinated salmon and baked duck breast with cherry and beetroot purée.
What to Do
As you stroll along mansion-lined canals crossing over one of the city’s 342 bridges that glow come nightfall, you’ll instantly see why St. Petersburg—a city built on more than 100 islands—is considered the Venice of the North. Signs of the czars are found at almost every turn, from the myriad of museums housed in former imperial palaces to the magnificent mosaic-lined cathedrals. You’ll quickly get familiar with the city’s main drag, Nevsky Prospekt, which stretches from Admiralty to Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Here’s where you’ll find everything from souvenir shops to some of St. Petersburg’s must-visit sites like postcard-favorite Church of Our Savoir on the Spilled Blood, with its signature candy-colored onion domes.
It can quickly get overwhelming navigating the city’s many palaces and museums, so your best bet is to go with a guide who can help map out a plan that makes the most of your time (and energy). Some of the more prestigious hotels in town like the Hotel Astoria have special relationships with major sites like the Hermitage, meaning VIP entry before the cruise ship crowds start pouring in. While you could spend weeks in the city and barely scrape the surface in terms of hitting up the many landmark sites, there’s a few worth adding to your must-visit list, including the State Hermitage Museum, with a collection of over 3 million items spanning six historic buildings; the State Russian Museum, home to the country’s largest collection of fine art; the gold-covered Peterhof Palace, a.k.a. the Russian Versailles; and the sky-blue Baroque Catherine Palace, with its world-famous Amber Room.
When you’re ready to put a pause on playing tourist, take a seat at a museum that takes itself a little less seriously, the Russian Vodka Museum, where you’ll get schooled on the national spirit while taking part in a pairing featuring three types of vodka served alongside pickles, rye bread and herring. While the city isn’t known for its nightlife, there’s one outing you can’t miss: a trip to the ballet. Even if you’ve seen “The Nutcracker” dozens of times, nothing beats dressing up and watching the Russian ballet in one of the country’s oldest opera houses, the Mikhailovsky Theatre. After the show, head for a nightcap on Rubinstein Street (whose claims to fame include the “Tolstoy House” and the first official rock club, which opened in 1981). Beer Geek is the place to taste your way through Russian craft brews, while the tucked-away Orthodox plays on spirits from Russia’s Soviet past, with whimsically titled craft cocktails like the Russian Champagne and chamomile liqueur-infused “The Sleeping Beauty.”
Where to Eat
It’s easy to quickly get your fill of blinis and sour borscht soup, but Russia’s nouveau cuisine takes a cue from its European neighbors with lighter fare served in a gastronomic fashion. For lunch, head to one of the restaurants du jour, Tartarbar, a sleek, industrial-inspired space with exposed brick walls and a menu of crudo (think beef tartare topped with everything from smoked beetroot to parmesan and parsley mousse). In the center of the city, man-made New Holland Island once served as the city’s shipyard, with a brick-lined, circular building dubbed The Bottle that operated as a naval prison. Over the past few years, this area has become one of the hippest in town with trendy bistros and boutiques moving into the former cells. One restaurant worth seeking out lies just next door in the historic Foundry building. At Kuznya House, locals gather over drinks and dinner, choosing from a global menu that skews from spicy kimchi soup to beef stroganoff and baba ganoush while DJs take over the dining room as the night wears on. For a honeymoon meal to remember, book a seat at one of the chef’s tables hiding behind a swinging set of kitchen doors at one of the city’s newest eateries, Birch. The intimate dining area is decorated in a minimalist Scandinavian chic design with birch incorporated into everything from the tables to the installations on the walls. As for the menu, picture Michelin star-worthy small plates of Asian-inspired cuisine with decadent starters like miso-glazed turkey pâté.
Where to Daytrip
Skip town and head an hour out of St. Petersburg to the beautifully sculpted Pavlovsk Park, one of the largest landscaped gardens on the globe. Start with a visit to the 18th century neo-classical palace that served as the summer residence of emperor Paul I and his family, where rooms are designed by some of Russia’s most famous architects and house a collection of over 57,000 treasures, from Rubens paintings to a 606-piece gold dinner service set. When you’ve got your museum fill, step outside to the Versailles-inspired square where you’ll find a set of wheels awaiting to take you on a horse-drawn carriage ride through the gardens. If you happen to be brave enough to visit during winter when the snow-covered city looks like a scene out of a Russian novel (picture plenty of chic fur hats and coats), you can hop on a traditional Russian troika for a three-horse sled ride through the countryside.
On your way back to the city, pause for lunch at cozy Russian restaurant Podvorye, a log cabin-style space where branches form chandeliers and bear skins hang from the walls. Here’s where you can try some of the country’s most authentic homestyle cuisine like pirozhki, fluffy vegetable—and meat—filled pastries, and blinis topped with red caviar and salted salmon.