Before travelling to Russia's 'northern Venice' I have to admit that I was concerned about my trip. Media reports of aggressive nationalism, racism and anti-LGBT incidents in Saint Petersburg and across the Russian Federation in the recent years had made me cautious.
Yet my first impressions upon arrival were of a sophisticated and elegant city. Taking the taxi from Pulkovo airport to Saint Petersburg's city centre took a little more than half an hour. I'd arrived in the evening, so the heavy traffic that's typical of the city had passed, and the car was able to cruise uninterrupted down the wide, peaceful avenues of the city towards my hotel. I began to grasp just how immense was this northern Russian metropolis. I was expecting the Baroque and Neoclassical architecture, yet I wasn't prepared for the scale of the UNESCO city centre. This is understandable though when you consider that this was the Imperial capital of Russia for centuries before the 1918 revolution.
Even as a first-time visitor I quickly realised that this is a city not only impressive for its grand architectural heritage of palaces and cathedrals, of classical domes and spires, but also defined by its geography. The city is built on the Neva river delta that flows into the Gulf of Finland. The city sprawls over former marshlands and islands. Navigating the city centre on foot gives you a better concept of these island neighbourhoods divided by rivers, waterways and canals, crossed by hundreds of bridges.
This Imperial capital was founded by Tsar Peter the Great, who wanted a progressive city, and one that was modelled on the sophisticated capitals of Europe.
Now Saint Petersburg once again wants to convey those progressive values, building on its success as a Host City for last year's FIFA World Cup, when it welcomed thousands of international visitors and football fans who were allowed to travel without a visa, just a personalised spectator card (Fan ID).
The city wants to be recognised for more than just its palaces and museums but also as a modern metropolis, and a welcoming destination. Thankfully in my limited experience staying in the affluent UNESCO city centre, I felt safe, and although English is not widely spoken in this traditional and conservative city, welcome too.
Taste of Russia
Food is a great way to understand modern Saint Petersburg. The restaurant scene is vibrant, driven not only by growing tourism but also business travellers. President Vladimir Putin frequently returns to his home city, and often showcases Saint Petersburg for international meetings.
US and EU sanctions against Russia for its 2014 role in Ukraine and the Crimea have had a significant impact upon Russia's restaurants; and strangely led to a renaissance in Russian cuisine. President Putin reacted to the imposition of economic sanctions with bans on imports of American and European produce. This forced international restaurants to change their menus, or face closure due to unavailable ingredients.
These days in Saint Petersburg where once you might have dined at an Italian restaurant you now can enjoy national and regional gastronomy, using predominantly Russian ingredients. What the cuisine lacks in international credentials seems to be more than made up for by diversity in dishes, from traditional pre-revolutionary style food, contemporary cuisine, gastronomy from the former Soviet republics and even nostalgic Soviet restaurants. Menus of popular feel-good recipes and family dishes popular during the period of relative peace and prosperity from the 1950s have made a comeback.
In contemporary Saint Petersburg there is no shortage of such fascinating cultural differences - it's what makes travelling in Russia so rewarding. From US fast-food restaurants like McDonald's transformed into 'Russian restaurants' with even the logos and branding in Russian Cyrillic script, to strangely popular tourist merchandise decorated with images of President Putin (where no irony is intended), Saint Petersburg, despite its imperial past, is certainly very different to a typical European capital.