Russian-born writer, curator and cultural critic Anastasiia Fedorova explores the off-beat side of her hometown; a city where old world grandeur and a contemporary creative spirit go hand-in-hand
Even if you don’t know much about Russia, you could probably imagine St Petersburg — the imperial ballrooms from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or dark narrow streets from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or ballet performed in concert halls adorned with gold. Indeed, St Petersburg is a destination for fascinating classical culture. But having grown up there, I’m also familiar with its more hidden side — its buzzing bars and young artistic spirit.
Thinking of St Petersburg’s dazzling imperial splendour, it’s easy to forget that the city is just over three centuries old: it was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great as the naval stronghold in the Baltic and Russia’s window to the West. Built by the most renowned architects from Italy and France, the city combines the elegance and poise of European capitals with Russian-style huge scale. Thanks to the abundance of canals and small rivers, it is also often called Venice of the North. St Petersburg is perhaps most famous for the phenomenon of the White Nights — a few weeks around midsummer when it doesn’t get properly dark, and long hours of shimmering blue, violet and golden dusk are great for walks around town.
Visiting St Petersburg for the first time, a few hours should definitely be spent in its world-renowned museums. I remember the stunning palace interiors of the Hermitage Museum and impressive collection of Russian paintings in the State Russian Museum after visiting both on school trips — and yet I come back almost every time I’m in town. Also a ticket to see opera or ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre is a must — a chance to see its new stage, which opened in 2013.
One of the best ways to feel the city’s inherent romanticism is going for a walk along the granite embankments of the Neva River, or along one of its numerous small rivers and canals (such as Moyka, Fontanka or Griboyedov Canal). My off-beat architectural highlights would be Tolstoy House, built in 1912 in the style of Northern Moderne; and the constructivist Palace of Culture for Communication Workers where Gosha Rubchinskiy staged his show in 2017.
Images courtesy of Valentin Baranovsky ©
For visitors to the city in the summer, New Holland is a must-see. The outdoor creative hub is a perfect reflection of how the city’s heritage blends with its contemporary culture. Located on the 18th-century artificial island surrounded by disused red brick naval barracks, New Holland is home to pop-up cafes, bars, a spacious green space and various creative projects.
But perhaps St Petersburg's biggest highlight is the plentiful bars and restaurants where local creatives go to relax, have a bite to eat, drink, dance and chat. The new local favourite is the trendy semi-secret Tiger Lily Cafe (don’t be surprised, the entrance is through a flower shop) serving Chinese food with a contemporary twist. Co-op Garage is great for pizza and craft beer, or head to Israeli restaurant and bar Bekitzer for shots and nibbles.
Images courtesy of Ivan Sorokin © / Katya Nikitina ©
When it comes to drinking, head to for a young, hip crowd and great cocktails (be sure to try the speciality, Free Ingria), Redrum for local craft beer, and vodka bar Café Mayak for cheap spirits in the authentic Soviet interior. Stay up till the early hours of the morning dancing at Tancploshadka, then walk back through the buzzing streets on a light summer’s night – the perfect experience of the off-beat young St Petersburg.
Images courtesy of Tjasa Kalamar ©
Anastasiia Fedorova is a freelance writer and curator based in London. She is a regular contributor to Dazed, i-D, Vice, The Calvert Journal and The Guardian.