The brightness of this city's future is palpable as you watch its young population walk along its streets, coming of age in a city that has seen revolutions, sieges and an endless era of communism.
St. Petersburg's history, however, is equally obvious in its Baroque- and Neoclassical-style architecture and the scenic bridges (there are 342 in all) that cross over its many canals. It's a much more Western-style city than we expected; Emperor Peter the Great founded it in 1703 and designed it after he'd fallen in love with Amsterdam and Venice.
We began our stay at the Grand Hotel Europe, which re-opened in 1991 as the first five-star hotel in Eastern Europe. At 130 years old, this Grand Dame has hosted a who's who of historical VIPs, including Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, George Bernard Shaw, Maxim Gorky and Dmitri Shostakovich, to name but a few.
If you're a history buff, a stay in one of the top-line suites is for you, since they are protected by the city from undergoing any dramatic changes. Nevertheless, or perhaps even more so for that reason, they evoke a true sense of place. The Imperial Suite has housed Bill Clinton and Prince Charles—it has a dining room and its own piano.
In addition to a spacious layout, the hotel's "Ladies' Suite" provides amenities such as a professional-powered hairdryer and Bulgari products. You'll also have the use of a car and driver for shopping excursions, or a ride to the nearby Orthodox Church on Sunday. Terrace Rooms on the fifth floor have great outdoor space; request one that overlooks Arts Square for views of the Church of the Spilt Blood.
For a bit of fun around the city, the hotel's excellent concierge team can provide exhilarating, over-the-top experiences, such as a helicopter tour over the city or to visit the Peter-Paul Fortress, where you can shoot an artillery gun at high noon. They can also secure VIP access for you to the city's many museums, and tickets to the Tsar's Box in Mariinsky Theatre. For fine dining, be sure to enjoy the Sunday jazz brunch in the swanky, in-house L'Europe restaurant. The Lobby Bar, an absolute must for an after-dinner drink, is also a great place to hear music.
Hotel Astoria is remarkable for its location (it's on St. Isaac's Square and close to the Hermitage Museum), but equally so for its interiors. Prince Charles, George H. W. Bush and Henry Kissinger have all stayed here; in fact, the hotel has not one, but five two-bedroom Presidential Suites, all named for Russian composers. We were most graciously received with some fine Russian caviar, blinis and champagne in the dining room of the Tchaikovsky Suite, which has a balcony. In each of these suites, the hotel places CDs of the composer's work in the sitting area alongside a personal CD player. The sitting area flows into the very private master bedroom with a separate full bath, which sports a walk-in shower. On the other side of the dining room there's a self-contained guest bedroom.
If you're seeking a real rush, the concierge can book you on a MiG-2 flight, complete with a trained pilot in one of Russia's famed fighter planes; or, if you prefer, she can fly you via private charter plane to Moscow for the day to visit Red Square, Novodevichy Convent and to dine at the Kremlin Patriarchs' Chambers. If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, an elegant dinner in Davidov's, the hotel's demure and poshest restaurant, may be just the ticket; being here puts you smack into the world of Russian-style opulence. The restaurant is also well known for its Caviar Bar and be sure to also check out the hotel's Winter Garden; back in the day, Hitler had planned to hold a victory ball there had he successfully overtaken the city.
For a dramatic change of pace, Alexander House is a "mini-hotel" housed in a building dating back to 1826. Off the beaten path, it is near the sites that have been depicted in Dostoevsky's novels. Each room at Alexander House is different, and while quarters are simply furnished, they are comfortable and stylish.The hotel is open year round; if you are there during the warmer weather you can enjoy the courtyard garden, which has some creatively private dining spaces.