St Petersburg is a Russian revelation, says Nick Boulos from Express (UK)

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Despite the late hour, a large crowd had gathered along the attractive embankment of the Neva River. Couples stood near groups of friends strumming their guitars, while on the river a steady stream of boats ferried tourists up and down the wide waterway. The sight of St Petersburg glowing under the midnight sun was spellbinding.

As the time fast approached 1:30am, the city’s famous Palace Bridge opened to allow boats to travel upstream. Above the city’s most historic and handsome buildings – on one side the pointy gold-topped Peter and Paul Cathedral and on the other, the pastel green walls of the Winter Palace – the sky remained midnight blue.

Summer is a special time in Russia’s second, and most elegant, city. It’s also quite a revelation and not what you might expect from a weekend in the world’s largest country. There’s neither a snowflake nor a fur coat to be seen. Instead, it’s dominated by “white nights,” a phenomenon in which the sun never quite sets.

Located on the Gulf of Finland, the city was founded in 1703 and became the Russian capital a decade later – an honour it held until 1918 when Moscow was reinstated as the country’s capital.

The long and balmy days show the city at its best, with ample time to cruise the canals, roam the museums, seek solitude in the churches and get tipsy on shots of vodka… this is Russia, after all.

But there are surprises far beyond the weather. Strolling down Nevsky Prospekt – St Petersburg’s equivalent of Oxford Street – I was struck by just how, well, un-Russian the whole place felt. Aside from a few Soviet touches on the outskirts, the city’s historic heart is, upon first glance at least, every bit as European as Vienna or Budapest.

In comparison, Moscow – 450 miles away – is Russian through and through, its skyline dominated by formidable Stalinist architecture and the high red walls of the Kremlin. Softer St Petersburg is a perfect introduction to this intriguing and often intimidating country.

My first stop was the acclaimed Hermitage Museum, home to arguably the world’s greatest collection of art. Spread across five buildings, including the exquisite Winter Palace, built in the early 18th Century by Peter the Great, you could easily spend days wandering around the gilded state rooms, admiring works by Picasso and Matisse among others.

If the Hermitage showcases international masterpieces, the nearby Russian Museum pays tribute to local artists past and present. The most impressive treasures of all, however, were on display across town at the new Fabergé Museum in the Shuvalov Palace.

Among the 4,000 pieces on display are a dozen or so Easter eggs made for the imperial family by legendary Carl Fabergé in the late 20th Century. These are no ordinary Easter eggs. Each individually designed and worth millions of dollars, they feature diamonds, gold, rhinestones and silver and open up to reveal a surprise within. My favourite was an egg of transparent yellow enamel, made in 1897 to celebrate Nicholas II taking the throne. Hidden inside is a miniature replica of the carriage used by the tsar at his coronation.

I took stock of these varied treasures over a coffee at Kupetz Eliseevs, an ornate art nouveau food hall with chandeliers hanging from a giant pineapple-esque palm tree in the centre of the room. Milling around, local foodies picked up pricey bottles of vodka and closely inspected tins of Beluga caviar.

I indulged in these two most Russian of delicacies at the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, home to St Petersburg’s only caviar restaurant. Delicate blinis, each topped with tiny glistening balls of fishy decadence, were presented alongside glasses of potent Siberian vodka.

Thankfully, I didn’t have very far to stumble home. This landmark property dates back to the 1820s and briefly enjoyed a stint as a hospital during the Second World War when Leningrad, as it was then, was under siege.

Just around the corner from the Grand Hotel Europe is the jewel in St Petersburg’s sparkling crown: the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. Its whimsical onion domes – swirling shades of blue, green and white – loomed against the clear blue sky. Inside, gold reigned supreme. Following a restoration that lasted almost 30 years, it reopened with intricate mosaics of religious scenes and figures decorating every inch. Its unusual name comes from the assassination of Tsar Alexander II that took place here in 1881.

Boats sped along the canal just outside the church. Gliding past the parks and palaces, the castles and neoclassical riverside buildings was a pleasant way to experience the city from a different perspective and a beautiful way to end my time in Russia’s understated but most charming second city.

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