Although just 300 years old, St Petersburg has a rich and exciting history, full of dramatic events and major historical figures. Founded in 1703 by Emperor Peter the Great as his ‘Window on the West,’ St Petersburg enjoys a vibrant, cosmopolitan atmosphere and some of the most beautiful architecture in Europe. For those interested in culture and history, St Petersburg is an ideal weekend away – just three hours on a plane from London.
Set in the heart of the city, at the corner of Nevsky Prospect and the Moika Embankment, the Taleon Imperial Hotel is the perfect base to use to explore the city. The only St Petersburg hotel to be housed in a former palace, the Taleon Imperial is rooted in St Petersburg’s history; the original building was built in the late 1700s on the foundations of Empress Elizabeth’s wooden Winter Palace. Maxim Gorky, Alexander Pushkin, H G Wells, Dmitri Shostakovich and Napoleon’s notorious lover Marguerite-Josephine Wiemer have all walked the hotel’s corridors, and indeed, history awaits at every turn. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the building grew and changed hands numerous times, before an extensive renovation process that began in 1993. Over a decade, the building was transformed into a luxury hotel, which opened to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the city in 2003. In a perfect blend of Baroque and Rococo Russian indulgence and state-of-the-art facilities, the building has been carefully preserved to bridge past and present. An army of restorers painstakingly re-gilded and restored each room, working from archives to uncover historical works along the way. Original features have survived the test of time, including nineteenth century interiors in the Walnut Salon, Library, Music Salon and Ballroom.
The hotel now has 89 classically designed bedrooms including 49 Superior Rooms (over 35 square metres) and 40 suites. The hotel also houses the four largest suites in St Petersburg including the Emperor Suite – as the name suggests, a truly palatial 240 square metres of marble, mahogany and inlay through two bedrooms, two bathrooms, dining room, study – and the Empress Suite, with marble columns, sumptuous fabrics, open-plan interiors, and a bathroom inspired by a Venetian Renaissance palazzo, all so grand it would have appealed to Empress Catherine the Great, a woman who knew how to live life on a grand scale.
The hotel’s rooftop spa features a spectacular swimming pool under a glass dome with panoramas over the city. No Russian city break, however, is complete without experiencing a traditional Russian banya. The hotel’s Eliseev Banya is quite an experience, starting in the steam room with a ritual beating of aromatic birch leaves. This is followed by a dip into the icy-cold plunge pool – leaving the skin tingling – and ten minutes lying in the hay-loft room. It’s as bizarre as it sounds! This classical Russian spa experience is certainly a strange one, but it did leave my skin feeling baby-soft.
Famed for its traditional Russian cuisine, dining in the hotel’s Taleon Restaurant involved tasting several types of caviar and an extensive vodka menu. Delicious! Renowned for its brunch on Sundays, the restaurant gave us a taste of St Petersburg’s gastronomic scene. The Victoria Restaurant on the sixth floor has amazing views from the terrace overlooking the Moika River and Kazan Cathedral. Both restaurants are extremely formal in style, and not big on atmosphere, but definitely worth a visit to experience a true Russian meal.
Only there for a weekend, it was important to be realistic about what we could achieve during our visit. Just moments from the St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood (both are extraordinary and an absolute must to visit) the hotel is also just five minutes walk from the State Hermitage Museum. Walking into Palace Square and catching the first glimpse of the museum is an unforgettable experience. The architecture and sheer size of the Hermitage is absolutely staggering. One of the oldest and largest museums in the world, it has been open since 1852. Founded by Catherine the Great, the museum comprises six historical buildings on the river, including the Winter Palace, a former home of Russian Emperors, with nearly 400 rooms spread out over three floors.
The museum has one of the world’s finest art collections that includes more than three million works of art. Some 300 years ago, Peter the Great began acquiring these artefacts, but it was Catherine the Great who bought many of the key Renaissance paintings and built the sumptuous Winter Palace to house her collection.
Wandering around the glittering, gilded, frescoed rooms of the great Winter Palace gives a stunning insight into the astonishing wealth of the Romanovs. The State Rooms, Pavilion Hall and Golden Drawing Room are simply dazzling – with walls covered in gold leaf, floors inlaid with exotic marble or timber and ceilings corniced, coffered or vaulted and dripping with crystal chandeliers. The Winter Palace’s main staircase is the magnificent creation of Bartolomeleo Rastrelli. Supported by ten solid granite columns and lined with Italian sculptures bought by Peter the Great, it was formerly known as the Ambassadorial Staircase, where visiting foreign dignitaries would enter the palace for audiences with the Tsar. It’s not difficult to see how war-torn peasants and workers finally turned in resentment on their rulers.
But these rooms are just an opener to the art collection, which ranges from little-known masterpieces, such as Scythian gold jewellery from the seventh century BC, to famous modern art, including Picasso’s great Blue Period paintings. Two of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces, the Madonna Litta and Madonna Benois are the sole reason that many visitors come to the museum. Catherine the Great’s Peacock Clock in the Pavilion Hall never fails to evoke amazement from its admirers.
Happy to arrange day trips, the Taleon Imperial organised our English-speaking guide who showed us these St Petersburg landmarks and gave us a private tour of Pavlovsk, the former country residence of the Russian Imperial Family. Now a Russian State Museum, the Pavlosk Palace is one of the more impressive buildings outside the city. Our guide revealed the secrets of its classical architecture, sumptuous interiors and art collections, and was happy to point out the surrounding dachas (second homes in the country) of former Tsar families. We finished the tour with a traditional sleigh ride in a horse-drawn troika carriage – a truly unique experience through magical wintery landscape.
The Taleon Imperial Hotel offers the Leading Hotels of the World’s ‘One-Of-A-Kind’ stays. Designed as a bespoke, one-off trip, the stay incorporates elements that cannot be found at any other hotel. A palace hotel for the twenty-first century, the Taleon Imperial certainly allows guests to capture a taste of opulent Tsar living from days gone by.
‘One-Of-A-Kind’ stays at the Taleon Imperial Hotel start from £2,000. This includes a two-night stay for two in a superior suite, a tour of Pavlovsk, a Troika horse ride, a Russian banya experience, tickets to the Hermitage Museum and dinner at the Taleon, as well as a history tour of the hotel.
Venetia travelled as a guest of The Taleon Imperial Hotel (www.lhw.com/taleon) and British Airways (www.ba.com). For more information or details on One-Of-A-Kind experiences with The Leading Hotels of the World, please visit www.lhw.com/oneofakind