Despots have got themselves a bad name over the centuries. But if it wasn’t for the megalomaniacal tendencies of the pharaohs, we wouldn’t be appreciating the Great Pyramid of Giza today. St Petersburg, for two centuries Russia’s imperial capital, fits a similar bill.
Built from scratch above a swamp by Tsar Peter I as a replacement for provincial Moscow, St Petersburg should dispel any lingering misconceptions that oligarch-style displays of conspicuous consumption are a purely modern Russian phenomenon.
Nope, the spankingly lavish palaces constructed by Peter and his fellow Great, Catherine, go to prove that in Russia, bling has always been the thing. In more recent times, this beautiful city has given us some world famous names: Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Rasputin and not forgetting President Putin.
Tom Barber is a founder of award-winning travel company originaltravel.co.uk
Another city to add to the list of "If only there was a good boutique property..." I feel a hotel chain coming on. In said absence, plump for the W Hotel. The decor is as slick as the service, but the real draw here is the miXup bar and terrace, with outrageous views across to the golden dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral. wstpetersburg.com
Etagi is St Petersburg’s original "Superman" (is it an art space? Is it a café? Is it a bookshop? Er, yes). This multifunctional city-centre hub is also a great place to grab a bite to eat. The Green Room Café is strong on communal dining and organic produce. Try the delicious chicken soup. loftprojectetagi.ru
The "dining at a mate’s house" vibe is taken to its logical conclusion at Teplo, with one dining area even scattered with kids’ toys. Go local when ordering: caviar and blinis followed by the best beef stroganoff in town, all served with a smile – not something universally on show in these parts. v-teple.ru
Until recently, the nightlife choice in town was between overpriced Cristal-sloshing cafes or arty dive bars. Entering the fray is Dom Byta, something of an homage to Hoxton but this being eastern Europe rather than east London, the drink of choice is vodka. Order a Beryozka – vodka with birch sap. Surprisingly tasty. Ulitsa Razyezzhaya 12
For all you literalists out there, Griboedov is the quintessential underground club. It’s an actual former Cold War-era bomb shelter that plays host to an eclectic mix of live bands and DJs, stocks a wide range of well-priced vodkas and welcomes a rowdy crowd most nights. griboedovclub.ru/en
Another of St Peter’s all-things-to-all-hipsters set-ups is Tkachi Creative Space, with a gallery, gig spaces, café and bookshop. Downstairs, shops sell all manner of clobber and the best is Banya Concept Store for new and vintage clothes, many by Scandinavian designers. Check out the changing rooms designed like shower cubicles – with tiles, working shower head et al. tkachi.com
When the Neva River is navigable during the ice-free summer months, the city’s nine bridges are raised each night to allow ships through to the sea. You can set your watch by the raising of the main two – Blagoveshchensky and Dvortsovyy – at precisely 1:25am. Just make sure you don’t get caught on the wrong side of the river from your hotel unless it’s for a very good reason.
St Pete’s taxi drivers are known to have a habit of fleecing visitors, so walk instead, or use the city’s extraordinary Metro system. Created during the Soviet era as "palaces for the people", the stations are opulent, laden with crystal chandeliers and frescoes.
Head to New Holland island, a former naval base bought by Abramovich to be revamped as a creative hub for film, fashion and food. Until launch in 2017, it’s a park with deckchairs, open-air table tennis and pop-up restaurants from the likes of top city eaterie the Society of Clean Plates. newhollandsp.ru/en
Bars where they add a nought to the price of everything because punters prefer that: eg, Blesk (which means “gloss”), full of bull- necked Mafiosi types and Paris Hilton-esque svelte Svetlanas toting chihuahuas and partying like it’s 1999.
Because the summer hordes have dissipated but the famed white nights are still pretty white. This is a serendipitous place great to visit all year round — as brief as they are, the winter days are all white, too. ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼New Holland island is set to be one of the city’s big attractions
BA, Air France and Lufthansa fly daily to St Petersburg from London.