A new Emirates route to the Russian city of St Petersburg makes this an ideal time to visit Russia.
My Kind of Place: St Petersburg
Why St Petersburg?
Lying on the Baltic coast and sometimes referred to as Russia's "northern capital", St Petersburg is inevitably overshadowed by its larger, brasher neighbour Moscow. Yet this city of 4.6 million packs an enormous cultural and architectural punch, not least because under Tsar Peter the Great in the 1700s the city was the capital and central to its rulers' attempt to forge Russia's place in Europe.
The city sits astride the Neva River delta, its impressive historical centre laid out along either side. For almost three years during the Second World War the southern side of the city, then known as Leningrad, was besieged by German troops who wanted to obliterate it; a million died but the city survived.
Today's cultural highlights include the State Hermitage museum (www.hermitagemuseum.org), set in the green and white Winter Palace, the Mariinsky Theatre (known outside Russia as the Kirov; www.mariinsky.ru/en), the Cathedral of the Resurrection (which is partially modelled on St Basil's in Moscow) and Catherine Palace, 25km from town and the tsar's fantastical baroque summer residence (http://eng.tzar.ru/).
Any trip to Russia would be incomplete without a visit to this gorgeously civilised city of canals, monuments and formidably well-educated, polite people.
A comfortable bed
The Corinthia at 57 Nevsky Prospekt (www.corinthia.com; 0011 7 812 380 2001) is a good mid-priced five-star option, located on a reasonably central site. The hotel has several attractive restaurants, a cosy lobby and freshly refurbished rooms (the quietest are at the rear of the building; the ones with the best views are on the high floors at the front). Double rooms cost from US$257 (Dh944) per night including taxes.
Still on Nevsky Prospekt but a bit closer to the main tourist sites and more expensive is the Grand Hotel Europe (www.grandhoteleurope.com; 011 7 812 329 6000), which was built by Orient Express 130 years ago and still boasts elements of period charm. Double rooms cost from $372.89 (Dh1,370) including taxes.
Find your feet
It's impossible to cover all the sites on foot in one or two days, but a two-hour walking tour will give you a taster. Walk up Nevsky Prospekt to the Dvortsovaya Ploschad (square) with Alexander Column in the centre. From here you can see the State Hermitage. Continue over the Dvortsovy bridge for spectacular views of the river, the historical district embankment and two of the islands in the Gulf of Finland.
Come back over the same bridge and walk along the Zimny canal to the Moyka river, which looks and feels a bit like Amsterdam. Continue along the river to Teatralny Most (bridge) from where you can admire the gilded domes and mosaics of the Cathedral of the Resurrection. Carry on along the Griboedova canal back to Nevsky Prospect; one side is both cobbled and pedestrianised.
Meet the locals
Central St Petersburg has an abundance of attractive bars, restaurants and live music venues popular with locals. Currently hip is a block of old tsarist-era stables on Konyushenny Pereulok (lane) - there are several to choose from, including Achtung Baby, which has high ceilings and is a great blend of restaurant, cafe and club.
Behind Konyushenny Pereulok is a large ex-industrial area where the city's energetic young and student population hang out in homely and basement cafes and in nightclubs created in old warehouses.
Book a table
It's right on the outskirts of town, but I loved Staraya Bashnya (Old Tower) restaurant in Pushkin (Tsarskoye Tselo, or tsar's village), near Catherine Palace. The restaurant is a cluster of old farm buildings (14 Akademichesky Pereulok; 0011 7 812 466 6698) and inside it's snug and cosy (so reserve in advance), with exposed brick walls, antiques and old photographs. On the menu are Russian salads, pickles and borscht for starters, classic Russian courses like pelemi (garlicky beef dumplings) and beef stroganoff for the mains and ice cream for dessert, and a three-course meal costs from $25 (Dh92) In central St Petersburg, but on the Petrograd side, Chekhov restaurant (4 Petropavlovskaya ul; 0011 7 812 347 6045) will transport you to the agrarian idyll of The Cherry Orchard. Dishes include Black Sea grey mullet Rs520; Dh60), barrelled herrings with potatoes and onions Rs290; Dh33) and black Siberian wild mushrooms (Rs280; Dh30).
One-off pieces of handmade Russian jewellery, including Fabergé eggs, are available at Yakhont Jewellers in the old Fabergé building (24 Bolshaya Morskaya, 0011 7 812 314 4235); get high quality souvenirs, porcelain, artwork and hand-painted Russian dolls from Pushkin Art Gallery on Yakubovicha str. 5 (www.pushkin-art.com; 0011 7 812 325 9708).
What to avoid
Culture fatigue. When going around the Hermitage, it's tempting to sigh "Oh, another old master" and forget that there is nowhere else in the world that you'll see such an impressive collection of art. Watch out for pickpockets on Nevsky Prospekt, which can be crowded and slightly rowdy late at night.
As well as the main sights, try to fit in some alternative museums or galleries. Art Center Pushkinskaya 10 opposite the train station in Vosstaniya, which contains the Museum of Nonconformist Art and the New Academy of Fine Arts Museum (www.nonmuseum.ru), is worth a look: opening times are Wednesday-Sunday, 3-7pm.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) offers return flights from Dubai to St Petersburg from Dh1,900 including taxes.