Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is St. Petersburg, Russia.
Some people like St. Petersburg best during the midsummer weeks when the sun barely sets, said Jonathan Bastable at Condé Nast Traveller (U.K.). But I prefer Russia's old czarist capital in the winter, when cold saps the air of moisture and the atmosphere becomes "as crisp as a ginger biscuit." Sometimes, mist creeps in from the Gulf of Finland, scattering the thin northern light and making the city's pastel palaces appear "as weightless as party balloons." On clear days, I climb to the top of St. Isaac's cathedral and gaze out at the gleaming spire of the Admiralty, the Winter Palace with its sea ice–green walls, and the glittering golden domes scattered like spilled trinkets. Up there, "you see the city for what it is: one enormous work of art."
There's no shortage of other fine art in St. Petersburg. You could spend a month in the Hermitage, exploring its miles of corridors, without properly covering the museum's countless exhibits. "So choose your targets well — the Gold and Diamond rooms, the Leonardos and Raphaels — and zip by the rest." But try to spend the short daylight hours outdoors. Some of the city's best sights are on the canals: the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin was fed cyanide-laced cakes; the gaudy, onion-domed Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where bomb-throwing anarchists fatally wounded Czar Alexander II. "When the cold begins to seep into your bones," duck into the Fabergé Museum on the Fontanka River.
Music courses through the city's veins. Tchaikovsky lived and died here, and his masterpiece, Swan Lake, seems always to be playing at one venue or another. My ticket to see the ballet at the Alexandrinsky, a stately theater founded by Catherine the Great, cost less than $14. Sacred Russian music of a different sort can be experienced during evensong at Preobrazhensky cathedral, home to one of the city's best choirs. The choreography of worship is "mesmerizing": the chanting priests, the incense, the heart-searing liturgy, "Gospodi pomilui, Gospodi pomilui" ("Lord, have mercy"). Stay just as long as you want. But savor the dark, chilly walk home, "because you will never be closer to knowing what it means to have a Russian soul."
Read more at Condé Nast Traveller, or book a stay with Steppes Travel. A five-day package starts at $2,740.