St. Petersburg

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St. Petersburg

Population: 4,848,700

Main industries: shipbuilding, automotive construction, trade and tourism

Governor: Georgy Poltavchenko

Founded in 1703

Interesting fact: St. Petersburg was famously built on a swamp — which means the city authorities are fighting a constant battle to stop it from sinking.

Helpful contacts: Rather than ringing up City Hall and the governor directly, investors are advised to contact the Committee for Economic Development, Industrial Policy and Trade (16 Voznesensky Prospekt; +7 812-576-0001; cedipt.spb.ru)

Sister cities: Over 50, including Los Angeles; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Paris.

ST. PETERSBURG — A very tall man stands on Palace Square, offering to lean over tourists in photos.

He is neither Lenin nor podgy Brezhnev as on Red Square but the city's founder, Peter the Great, in costume. Much later, another man dressed in 18th-century garb speeds up to a steady stream of tourists on a Segway.

Hearing a foreign language on the streets of St. Petersburg, or Peter, as the city is widely known in Russian, is increasingly common as the northern capital attracts many more tourists, pointing the way to a capital eager to do the same.

In 2005, when 3.5 million tourists came to the city, the St. Petersburg government set a target of attracting 5 million tourists by 2010, which it succeeded in doing. Last year, the city set a new target of 8.1 million tourists by 2016 and announced a plan to make the city more tourist-friendly.

The program will help the city prepare for a huge influx of tourists as the venue for the football Confederation Cup in 2017 and the World Cup the year after.

Major Businesses

St. Petersburg Sea Port (5 Mezhevoy Kanal; +7 812-714-9927; seaport.spb.ru) is one of the major entry points for trade in and out of Russia with a turnover of 12.1 million tons of cargo in 2010.

Baltika Breweries (3 6th Verkhny Pereulok; +7 812-325-9325; corporate.baltika.ru) is by far and away the largest beer producer in Russia. It is part of the Carlsberg group.

Baltic Shipyards (16 Kosaya Liniya; +7 812-324-9370; www.bz.ru) is one of the oldest ship-builders in Russia, turning out civil and military vessels.

One decision more than any other helped attract more tourists over the last five years — the scrapping of visas for cruise passengers, who can now visit the city for 72 hours without the centuries-old red tape that has normally ensnarled foreign visitors.

"That, of course, helped it increase by a large percentage," said Svetlana Petrova, the deputy head of the St. Petersburg tourism information center.

The tourism information center itself is another, very obvious step, which separates Moscow from St. Petersburg. There are seven centers dotted round St. Petersburg, the most prominent of which is in a small glass building next to the Winter Palace. Moscow did have one, hidden away in Gostiny Dvor, but that now lies empty.

For MT

Jacques von Polier
Managing and creative director,
Petrodvorets Watch Factory,
a 37-year-old Frenchman

Q: How did you come to be running a watch factory in St. Petersburg?
A: It struck me that for a country with such a rich culture, Russia has almost no historic national brands except for military ones like Kalashnikov or MiG. Most died or left in the 1917 Revolution or in perestroika. One of the few remaining was the Raketa watch. We bought the factory with the aim of saving the knowledge of Russia’s watchmakers and restoring the brand.

Q: What are the challenges you’ve faced?
A: We’re not selling or trading or brokering, we produce — and I’ve discovered there is nothing more complicated than that. But then, we wouldn’t be in this if it was just about money. You have to want to preserve something.
To be in Russia doesn’t make it easier. Raketa is a big national brand, and Russians are quite sensitive about what we do, sometimes a bit jealous. We’re a St. Petersburg factory that people from the city think of as their own — as in “nash” or “svoi,” as the Russians say.
But while the authorities have not helped us, they certainly haven’t hindered us. I think the people in City Hall know what we’re doing, and they respect it. We are the last Russian watch factory, and now we’re the only Russian brand with a stall on TsUM’s first floor in Moscow.

Q: What advice would you give to foreign investors thinking of setting up shop in St. Petersburg?
A: Our factory has been in St. Petersburg for 290 years, and that’s where it’s going to be for the next 290 years. But I have an office in Moscow that does everything that is not pure production. Marketing and so on — everything — is done from Moscow because Moscow is still the “center of the world,” let’s say.
There might be financial benefits to having your headquarters here — perhaps the rent’s cheaper — but in terms of being at the economic center of the country, it’s always Moscow.

Q: So why invest in St. Petersburg?
Some friends of mine have a food distribution company in St. Petersburg, and they are very successful because the market doesn’t have as many competitors as it has in Moscow.
Also, you may want to be in St. Petersburg for nonbusiness reasons, because it is a very nice city — it’s quieter, less polluted and the people are maybe less aggressive. As a working environment, it is a nice place to work.
I actually share my time between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and I love both for very different reasons. I love Moscow for its 24-hour energy, like an energizer, and I love St. Petersburg because it is more civilized.

— Roland Oliphant

The tourism information center has the little things that tourists take for granted in other popular European destinations but are rare in Russia. The center provides free maps, advice in a number of languages and a place to hide from the St. Pete weather if it turns rough.

Some of the measures the city took in the last five years are clear to anyone coming from Moscow.

"If you go in the metro, signs are in Russian and in the Latin alphabet," Petrova said. "There are also information signs and maps near tourist sites saying, 'You are here.'"

The city also has a tourism hotline provided by MegaFon that has English-language operators. (But three calls to the line were abruptly cut off before anyone answered.)

The city's desire for tourists is to boost the city's coffers. Foreign tourists spend more than Russians visiting the city, with one report estimating that they more than double Russian visitors' spending. The study by Fontanka.ru put tourists spending at 24,000 rubles ($775) over a three-day trip compared with 11,000 rubles for Russians.

"All that we have — cultural treasures and heritage — can be monetized only through the development of tourism," said Sergei Korneyev, head of the northwestern regional section of the Russian Union of Tour Industry.

"Tourism was and remains one of the most profitable and quickly growing types of business, and only it can be the locomotive for development of St. Petersburg as a global center," he said.

St. Petersburg is renowned as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and Russia's "capital of culture," so you're spoiled for choice. We asked local doyen of the performing arts Igor Stupnikov for his pick of the best high-culture destinations.

You already know about the Hermitage, the Peter and Paul Fortress and St. Isaac's Cathedral. So we've picked some lesser-known but worthwhile attractions.

What to see if you have two hours

The best use of two hours is probably your own walking tour: amble down Nevsky Prospekt and gawk at the vast and perfectly formed Palace Square, where the curved facade of the Admiralty faces the Winter Palace (now housing the Hermitage Museum). You could also get the chance to take a small diversion to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, an elaborate memorial church built on the spot Tsar Alexander II was killed by anarchists in an explosion in 1881.

What to do if you have two days

If in season, definitely see a ballet or opera at the Mariinsky or Mikhailovsky theaters (see interview). But you don't have to do anything: Especially during the "white nights" season, you can quite happily spend 24 hours at a time wandering the canals and streets and get slowly drunk on history and architecture.

Also consider stopping by the Victor Tsoi Museum (Club Kamchatka, 15 Ulitsa Blokhina; +7-921-987-2313, +7-921-856-1679; clubkamchatka.ru), which is appropriately located in the boiler room of the club where the Soviet rock legend worked for two years in the late 1980s. Covered in graffiti tributes and open weekdays and weekends, it also doubles as a club.

The small but intimate Vladimir Nabokov Museum (47 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa) occupies one floor of the mansion in which the master of Russian and later English literature spent his pre-revolutionary childhood. A must-see for any fan of Nabokov, the museum is covered with the sketches of butterflies he made for his wife and offers a very good video documentary, though largely in Russian.

Where to eat

For MT

Igor Stupnikov
Ballet critic, cultural commentator
and author of dozens of books on theater

Q: What are the worst and best aspects to life in St. Petersburg?
A: The main difficulty is the same in cities all over Russia — transportation. Roads and getting around the city can be very difficult.
As for the best thing: There’s often this sense of total freedom — of the kind we have seen since the recent elections, people are pushing for things, on the radio, in newspapers. St. Petersburg sometimes frightens the authorities because it is a city of intelligentsia and thinking people, and they always have their opinions and make their own decisions. But in comparison to Moscow, St. Petersburg is a calm city — much calmer. It’s like the Neva River — powerful, huge, broad — but it flows calmly.

Q: Is it still correct to call St. Petersburg the cultural capital of Russia?
A: I think it’s still true today because, despite lots of financial and artistic difficulties in recent years, new theaters are opening and old ones are being renovated. In the past year or so, the youth theater on Fontanka has been renovated and the Buff Theater got a completely new building. The Mikhailovsky Theater, which is the city’s second cultural center after the Mariinsky, has a completely new renovation, and the Theater Raikina has finally reopened after years of closure. And Grigory Kozlov — one of our most famous directors — got the Buff’s old building for his new troupe. So in the end, we’re up one theater.

— Roland Oliphant

Helsinki Bar (31 Kadetskaya Linia; +7 812-995-1995; helsinkibar.ru) is a Finnish retro-themed place peddling "tasty food and northern romance." Popular with visitors from nearby Helsinki, the reasonably priced menu includes reindeer venison carpaccio. Two people can comfortably eat for 1,500 rubles ($50). Do NOT try the horseradish vodka. Well, maybe just once.

The Podvorye Restaurant (16 Filtrovskoye Shosse, Pavlovsk; +7 812-466-8544; podvorye.ru) in Pavlovsk, just south of the city, is a traditional Russian restaurant that has been favored by all kinds of distinguished visitors, including St. Petersburg's most famous son, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and actor Kurt Russell. After being destroyed by a fire in April, it is set to reopen its doors to regular diners again on Jan. 1. Management recommends the cold and hot zakuski. An average bill for two without alcohol is 3,600 rubles to 4,000 rubles.

Mechta Molokhovets (10 Ulitsa Radishcheva; +7 812-929-2247; molokhovets.ru) is the best place to mix with the St. Petersburg elite. Opened in 2003 by Lyudmila Chubais, the first wife of former Deputy Prime Minister and bureaucrat-of-all trades Anatoly Chubais, it is still a known haunt of the political elite. Rumor has it that you're quite likely to see former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and friends at the next table, although the management will not comment on guests "who live in Russia." They are proud, however, to have hosted Sir Paul McCartney. The average bill for two is 3,500 rubles to 4,000 rubles without wine. The stroganoff is apparently a particular strong point.

Where to stay

There is no shortage of places to stay in St. Petersburg.

As the number of tourists increase, the city has been seen by luxury hoteliers as a prime new market. Six hotels opened in the city in the first half of 2011, and several more in the second half.

The boutique chain W (6 Voznesensky Prospekt; +7 812-610-6161; wstpetersburg.com) opened their first hotel in Russia in May, complete with a restaurant run by Michelin-starred French chef Alain Ducasse, just around the corner from St. Isaac's Cathedral.

Stupnikov's Picks

The most interesting establishment at the moment is probably the Mikhailovsky Theater (1 Ploshchad Iskusstv; +7 812-595-4305; mikhailovsky.ru), which is headed by fruit-importing tycoon Vladimir Kekhman. He’s brought a new artistic director of ballet who works in a great many spheres, and they’ve made a point of bringing in new talent — prima ballerina Natalia Osipova and principal dancer Ivan Vasiliev were poached from the Bolshoi earlier this year, for example. So there’s always something happening there.

The next big thing is a new interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty,” premiering Dec. 16 — and the whole city’s waiting for it.  

The Mariinsky Ballet (1 Teatralnaya Ploshchad; +7 812-326-4141; mariinsky.ru) is also doing very interesting work. It’s not a small outfit, it’s true, but nonetheless there are always new shows coming out there. They also have several festivals with an international flavor — including the eponymous Mariinsky Festival and the vast White Nights festival, which goes on for several months and sees a great number of foreign dancers, new ballets and a vast range of productions.

In fact, if you don’t do anything else, go to the ballet, and see something from the classics — “Don Quixote,” perhaps — at the Mariinsky Theater. Everyone has seen “Swan Lake,” so I’d say try to see something a little different.

Very interesting and unusual work is going on at the Alexandrinsky Theater (Ploshchad Ostrovskogo; +7 812-312-1545; alexandrinsky.ru) headed by Valery Fokin, who stages very idiosyncratic, modern interpretations of classic plays like Gogol’s “Marriage” and Tolstoy’s “The Living Corpse.” He always draws your attention to the out-of-the ordinary — so it’s a place that appeals to theater lovers who are interested in seeing something new.

The Youth Theater on Fontanka (114 Fontanka Naberezhnaya; +7 812-316-6564; mtfontanka.spb.ru) is headed by Semyon Spivak. They stage shows for both children and adults. Most recently they staged a highly acclaimed production of Italian comedy “Filumena Marturano.”

Although the Hermitage (2 Dvortsovaya Ploshchad; +7 812-571-3420; hermitagemuseum.org) is a classic tourist destination, it also often hosts exhibitions of visiting art from overseas collections, which means you can see stuff here you would never be able to see elsewhere — including paintings that are very rarely exhibited and that almost no one has ever seen before.

— Roland Oliphant

The hotel, where rooms cost 300 euros ($400) a night, is housed in a 19th-century building, but service is very 21st-century with staff trained to say "Whatever, whenever" any time they knock on a guest's door, while water has been renamed "Wet Your Whistle."

The opening party saw half-naked girls dancing on a platform overlooking the cathedral and a secret room for VIP guests, where a young woman danced in a shower of foam and a bath was filled with ice and test tubes filled with vodka cocktails.

Apart from W, the most notable openings were the four-star Crowne Plaza (61 Ligovsky Prospekt; +7-812-244-0001; ichotelsgroup.com/crowneplaza), part of the Intercontinental Hotels Group, in May and a second Crowne Plaza near Pulkovo Airport (6 Startovaya; +7 812-240-4200) in December.

Part of the city's program aims to increase the number of hotels in the city. Alexei Chichkanov, head of the city's committee for investment and strategic projects, told a local web site that prices were too high.

"We have an average price of 3,500 rubles a night," he said.

W stands opposite the site of a new Four Seasons hotel, which is expected to open in 2012 in an 18th-century mansion that has two large statues of stone lions at its entrance.

One of the most historic hotels in the city is the 19th-century Angleterre (St. Isaac's Square, 24 Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa; +7 812-494-5666; angleterrehotel.com), which was remade by Rocco Forte into a luxurious but unpretentious and very welcoming establishment. With fantastic views of St. Isaac's Cathedral, the hotel served as the venue for at least one great poet's suicide (Sergei Yesenin hung himself here in 1925) and Adolf Hitler's planned but never realized victory banquet. Rooms start at 25,000 rubles ($800) per night.

The city does have a huge number of minihotels in the center, where rooms can be found for 1,300 rubles and up. A building round the corner from St. Isaac's has three in one building with a fourth on the way.

Try the Nevsky Inn bed and breakfast (+7 812-315-8836; nevskyinn.com), one of many minihotels operating out of former communal apartments in ordinary blocks of flats around the city. A great budget option with good rooms just off Nevsky Prospekt and five minutes from the Winter Palace, prices start at 50 euros ($67). Whole apartments can be rented from 100 euros a night.

As part of the city's five-year plan for tourism, eight campsites will be also built for tourists.

Adding more hotels is not enough, one expert said. Not all staff are as attentive as the specially trained W workers.

"We are still far behind the international level of hospitality," said Roman Krutin, associate dean of the St. Petersburg University of Services and Economics, "We need new people with a new way of thinking."

Conversation starters

It is not a myth that St. Petersburgers will take any opportunity to flaunt their cultural superiority over supposedly avaricious and coarser Muscovites. In fact, they do it all the time. It can be quite humorous, especially if you can get a Muscovite to face off with them.  

Gazprom's proposed headquarters for its oil unit, Gazprom Neft, has sharply divided opinion in recent years. Opponents fought hard to save the city's unique character from the towering structure, which if built would be the tallest building in Europe. Plenty of others feel it's just the kind of development the city needs if it is to continue to grow.

Culture tips

This is culture's hometown. Oligarchs and investment bankers should bear in mind that throwing parties on the Cruiser Aurora is considered brash. Muscovites are likewise reminded that this is a European city, so please try to use a knife and fork and wash your filthy Asiatic hands.

How to get there

Pulkovo Airport (+7 812-704-38-22; +7 812-704-3444; pulkovoairport.ru) is dealing with ever-increasing traffic but has still not undergone a 21st-century glass-and-steel overhaul like Moscow's airports. It is connected to Moscow's three airports by more flights per day than you can shake a stick at. Aeroflot's prices start from 3,320 rubles (just over $100) roundtrip. There are also connections to most other large Russian cities and overseas destinations, including Prague, Paris, Nice and Amsterdam. Bus No. 39 runs between Pulkovo Terminal One and the Moskovskaya metro station every 12-20 minutes from 5:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. The trip takes 30-35 minutes.

Rail services to St. Petersburg's Moskovsky Station (85 Nevsky Prospekt; +7 812-457-4428, 457-4663; moskovsky-vokzal.ru) run from Moscow's Leningradsky Station. While you can still take the overnight sleepers (seven to nine hours, 2,000 rubles to 9,000 rubles ($64 to $288) roundtrip, depending on class), the increasingly popular and cheaper option is the high-speed Sapsan, which takes about four hours and costs between 1,840 rubles and 6,040 rubles ($59 to $193).

The Finlyandsky Station (6 Lenin Square; +7 812-768-7685) also runs a high-speed train connection to Helsinki (3 1/2 hours, from 84 euros [$113]).

It takes about 10 hours to cover the 743-kilometer trip by car from Moscow.