St. Petersburg and Moscow have feuded for three centuries, said Anya von Bremzen in Food & Wine. In 1703, reform-minded Czar Peter the Great moved Russia’s capital from Moscow to the European-style city he had built on Baltic swampland. Called St. Petersburg, the stately new capital was part of Peter’s effort to Westernize Russia. After the Communist revolution of 1917, however, Moscow once again became the center of government, and St. Petersburg temporarily became Leningrad. In recent years, thanks to the city’s newfound oil wealth, its baroque palaces are no longer surrounded by heartbreakingly shabby apartment buildings, or its streets lined with desperate pensioners hawking wares. Canalside mansions have been spruced up, and St. Petersburg has become the trendy new place to experience authentic Russian culture.
The Grand Hotel Europe, where Tchaikovsky once stayed, is an 1824 gilt-and-marble grande dame that still evokes “czarist nostalgia.” It sits just off the Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s own version of the Champs-Élysées, “which culminates in the iconic golden spire of the Admiralty building.” On the prospekt, the Muzei Shokolada, or Chocolate Museum, offers busts of Lenin fashioned from dark and white chocolate that once would have landed the chocolatier in the Gulag. Though the playwright Anton Chekhov never spent much time in St. Petersburg, the fashionable Chekhov restaurant “captures the melancholy-tinged warmth of the country estates and food” he wrote about. Diners can sip vodka infused with pine kernels served by waitresses in 19th-century costumes as a pianist plays Chopin. Pork ribs, a specialty of the house, are simmered for 24 hours and served with buckwheat and pierogies.
No visit to St. Petersburg is complete without a day trip to Peterhof. Reached by hydrofoil on the Gulf of Finland, this former royal palace “is a demi-Versailles of gilded rooms and elaborate fountains.” Oranienbaum, an hour’s drive further on, is famed for its 18th-century Chinese Palace, “a rococo confection where Catherine the Great entertained.” Back in the city, don’t miss a chance to dine at “my all-time favorite” St. Petersburg restaurant, Podvorye. It may have a kitschy, log-cabin facade, but after feasting on solyanka, a thick Slavic chowder made with smoked meats and olives, I decided I’d been “squandering my life on Italian and Japanese food.”