The tale goes that Hotel Astoria, a Rocco Forte Hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia, was spared from Hitler’s 1941 invasion because he liked the property so much and intended to hold his victory party there. Luckily, he never had the opportunity.
More respectable notables from the worlds of music (Aerosmith, Sting, Elton John), politics (Henry Kissinger, both President Bushes, Colin Powell), Hollywood (Kevin Costner, Will Smith) and the global glitterati have been guests since.
On my trip, the lobby is decked out for the holidays with Christmas trees, an exquisite gingerbread town, and red ribbon and garlands atop every surface. The exterior is resplendent with wreathes hung from ground-floor windows and a huge spruce on the corner balcony overlooking the square.
A port city on the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg is the second largest in Russia, and its crown jewel, Hotel Astoria, which opened in 1912, sits regally on St. Isaac’s Square. Recently, the art nouveau building underwent a massive renovation, and I see evidence of the delicate restoration work as I take the sweeping staircase to my floor. The doors in the hallways that lead to the suites are original and feature large frosted-glass circle windows draped in ornate molding. The elaborate doors swing open to a private hallway, leading to my quarters—a grandiose entry of pure drama. Nightfall comes early in wintry Russia, but the view of trees flanking the park festooned with twinkling lights is delightfully enchanting.
World-class museums are as common in St. Petersburg as blini and borscht. The State Hermitage Museum (anchored by the gilded Winter Palace, former home of Russia’s tsars), celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution last year. The Fabergé Museum inside Shuvalov Palace on the banks of the Fontanka River is also a must and holds the first egg commissioned by Tsar Alexander III as a gift for his wife. Then, there’s the Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened in 2010, with over 2,000 works in its collection.
Along with its preservation of history, Russia and ballet are quite synonymous. So the opportunity to catch The Nutcracker at the Mikhailovsky Theatre is an absolute treat, especially this time of year. Preceding the theater adventure is a vodka and caviar tasting in Hotel Astoria’s Rotunda Lounge, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking St. Isaac’s Square serving as the backdrop. Three Russian vodkas are beautifully paired with a trio of Black Russian caviar and all the classic accoutrements. Post-show, I enjoy a light supper at the chef’s table at Birch. The relatively new restaurant is in a boutique contemporary space offering a menu rich with modern flavors. Try the homemade cornbread (not something you’d expect in Russia) and, for dessert, the savory eggplant, pear and Gorgonzola fondue.
Russian cuisine surprises me in its breadth. Lunch one afternoon is at the quirky Tartarbar, and—as the name suggests—the menu consists of tartars prepared in a variety of clever ways. Also unexpected is New Holland Island, originally a center for shipbuilding under Peter the Great. Opened to the public in 2016 and scheduled for completion in 2025, it has been redeveloped with food stalls, shops, and eclectic record and bookstores. During winter, though, specialty Christmas shops and an ice skating rink spring up. Another evening, I have the chance to experience Russian Vodka Room No. 1, both a restaurant and a vodka museum with 215 varieties of the spirit. Located in central St. Petersburg, this is the place to experience traditional Russian cuisine such as borscht, chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff. It is an incomparable culinary excursion.
With American New Year’s Eve already passed, I nearly forget it’s Christmas Eve in Russia Jan. 6, until I see the adorable stockings hanging on the doors of the Hotel Astoria guest rooms where children sleep. Christmas morning dawns bright and clear with sun glinting on freshly fallen snow—everything in the city is transformed. On the way to a horse-drawn sleigh ride at Pavlovsk Palace, which was built by Catherine the Great for her son, I stop at a Russian Orthodox church. The early morning sun bathes the church in a soft glow as parishioners come and go, participating in the annual service.
That evening’s performance of Giselle at the Mariinsky Theatre is a delight—certainly enhanced by access to the hotel’s private box through a separate entrance, which the concierge can arrange. After the show, I share drinks and late-night snacks with other guests at the hotel’s Lichfield Bar. Sipping a final glass of Champagne, I glance out the window and spy a lone rider on his horse plodding slowly into the square as the snow flurries start to fall—a storybook ending to my first Russian adventure. Peak season room rates from $383 per night, suite rates from $656 per night