St. Petersburg, Russia

Photo: Rocco Forte Hotels

Russia isn’t very high on your travel list. Cybersecurity. Human rights violations. Political corruption. The Ukraine occupation. Its president. You could go on and on, and cross it off your list completely. There’s only one problem. You really want to see St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site with more than 8,000 historic landmarks. It’s the Venice of the North with endless canals and more than 400 bridges. It’s the northernmost city with a population of more than one million people. Plus it’s the cultural capital of the largest country in the world. Unfortunately, that country is Russia.

For a relatively young city, St. Petersburg has quite a history. The Swedes first built a fortress at the confluence of the Neva and Okhta Rivers in 1611. It was conquered by the Russians during the Great Northern War nearly 100 years later. Peter the Great officially established the port city in 1703. It then became the capital of the Russian Empire, was renamed twice (Petrograd and Leningrad), was sieged by the Germans during World War II, and was neglected during the Soviet years. Its original name wasn’t restored until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Photo: Rocco Forte Hotels

A name reversal was fairly easy. The restoration of the rest of the city took a lot longer. St. Petersburg’s architecture is varied and fascinating with gilded domes, golden spires, and pastel palaces. St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Yelagin Palace are Neoclassical structures. The Winter Palace and Smolny Convent are ornate and Baroque. The Chesme Church is a Neo-Gothic masterpiece. While the Elisseeff Emporium oozes Art-Nouveau charm. It took a while, but St. Petersburg eventually became the Window to the West again.

Hotel Astoria is one of the buildings that underwent extensive renovations. The Art-Nouveau hotel, on St. Isaac’s Square, first opened in 1912. It attracted famous guests—artists, fashion designers, movie stars, and politicians—with its grand facade and plush interior. When it reopened for its centennial, Hotel Astoria married Old-World elegance with modern amenities. Individually designed rooms feature parquet floors, fun stripes, and marble bathrooms. The Astoria Restaurant serves classic Russian dishes with contemporary twists. Afternoon tea, a long tradition, is set out in the Rotonda Lounge. Gin cocktails are crafted in the Lichfield Bar. Plus the Astoria Spa is the perfect place to warm up when the fall winds blow through the city.

No matter how hard you try to talk yourself out of them, Hotel Astoria and St. Petersburg remain on your travel wish list. You hope to stay at the historic hotel and explore the heart of the city one day. It could be a long wait.

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