I am finally writing about the trip my husband and I took to Saint Petersburg earlier this summer. We fell in love with a city that has a lot to offer, particularly to art and architecture lovers, but also foodies! It was our first time in Russia and we both left wanting to explore more. One of the highlights of our trip was spending two nights in a historic suite at the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe: without a doubt the most opulent and spacious hotel room I’ve ever stayed in.
After my 2-month stay in Bali, I decided to travel less and to prioritise countries I’ve never seen before. So far in 2018, I have been to five new countries and one of them was Russia.
I have to admit something to you: after going through the unnecessarily stressful and expensive visa application in London (jump to the end of the post to read more about it), I nearly regretted booking a trip to Russia.
Thankfully, Saint Petersburg is beautiful and truly exceeded our expectations. We soon forgot about our visa woes!
Belmond Grand Hotel Europe
The Belmond Grand Hotel Europe is a historic hotel classified as a national and cultural landmark. It was built in 1824/25 and is located in the very heart of St. Petersburg on Nievsky Prospekt, surrounded by the city’s most celebrated landmarks. The facade by Italian architect Carlo Rossi is distinctive of the 19th century architecture and blends seamlessly with the nearby Mikhailovsky Palace (now the Russian museum).
The moment I stepped into the hotel, I felt instantly immersed in the history of the city. For over a century, the Grand Hotel Europe has enchanted the high society of Saint Petersburg with glitzy parties hosted in its beautiful rooms and Art Nouveau restaurants.
The Lobby Bar
The Lobby Bar, designed by architect Fyodor Lidval, will take your breath away with its Art Nouveau decor (fully restored in 2012), glass panel windows, gilded stucco cornices, marble floor, original green-tiled fire places and bronze sculptures that are also state heritage artefacts.
Being right by the Nievsky Propsket and in the historic centre of the city (a Unesco World Heritage Site) made me feel part of the old Saint Petersburg of the past and the modern reincarnation of the city.
A city that has just hosted the Fifa World Cup and is much more open to foreign tourism than ever before.
Why Saint Petersburg Should Be On Your Travel Bucket List
Saint Petersburg is a young city: it was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. It’s also a city full of young people, students coming from all around Russia (and neighbouring countries) to study at this schools and universities. This makes Saint Petersburg a fun place, full of trendy cafés, bars and clubs. It is also cheap, easy to get around on food or public transport (failing that, Ubers are really cheap) and friendly. The language isn’t much of a barrier as everyone in shops and restaurants speaks English well. And the weather is great! At least, it is in the summer. We were there at the end of August and it was warmer and sunnier than in London (of course!).
Saint Petersburg is situated on the Baltic Sea, at the head of the gulf of Finland, and is a city of a thousand bridges: over the Neva river and over canals. Which makes it a very romantic destination, perfect for a couple’s getaway.
What better place to stay for a special holiday and a bit of romance than the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe? I can assure you that this hotel will make your trip to Saint Petersburg memorable.
This was my third collaboration with Belmond (after Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons in Cotswolds and Reid’s Palace in Madeira). They offer a diverse collection of luxury hotels and travel adventures renowned for their timeless luxury, elegance and culinary excellence.
As a lover of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, staying at the Belmond hotel was a total dream come true!
I especially loved L’Europe, one of Russia’s most historic restaurants, open since 1905. Sumptuous dinners for Queen Elisabeth II, Igor Stravinsky, Jimmy Carter, Jacques Chirac and Michael Douglas (just to name a few) were hosted within these walls. Elton John even gave an impromptu concert on this stage at the end of a dinner in 1979. The carved arches, wooden balconies, stained glass window and ceiling of L’Europe restaurant are the epitome of the turn-of-the-century Russian decor.
Belmond Grand Hotel Europe is also home to a fusion restaurant, Azia; a modern café and chocolate shop, Mezzanine Café; and St. Petersburg’s only caviar restaurant, featuring a selection of traditional Russian cuisine and over 50 of the world’s finest vodka’s.
Caviar Bar & Restaurant
The caviar and vodka tasting was a very interesting experience and something completely new for me. We were introduced to five types of Russian vodka made from different ingredients (rye bread, oat, wheat and buckwheat). It was fascinating to taste such different flavours in a spirit that I always assumed would taste pretty much the same everywhere.
The caviar tastings ranged from Beluga (the rarest and costliest caviar, prized for its soft and large eggs), Sevruga, Salmon caviar and Ossetra (or amber caviar, which is very rare and sought after). I rarely eat caviar and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between varieties until this moment, but now I can appreciate this food more.
The Historic Suites of the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe
Now let’s move to the most exciting part of my stay: my room! Staying at the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe was already a dream, but imagine my excitement when, upon arrival, we got upgraded to one of the historic suites! You may think that, as I often travel for work and stay in beautiful properties around the world, I have gotten used to luxury. I assure you that no matter how well travelled you are, being upgraded to a suite at the Belmond always feels like winning the lottery!
Our butler Svetlana (available 24/7, as an added bonus of being a suite guest) accompanied us to the Lidval Suite on the Historic Floor of the hotel.
There are 10 historic suites on this floor: sumptuous spaces evoking turn-of-the-century Tsarist elegance. They are all individually named after people who had an impact on the history of the hotel and furnished following a unique theme. You have the Pavarotti suite with a grand piano (the tenor stayed in this very room in 2004) or the Dostoevsky suite dedicated to the Russian writer who was a frequent guest of the Grand Hotel Europe.
Our suite was named after Fyodor Lidval, one of the greatest early 20th-century architects working in St Petersburg. He was a master of the Art Nouveau. In 1908, he was commissioned to redesign the Grand Hotel Europe’s interiors, including the Lobby Bar, L’Europe restaurant and Krysha Ballroom.
It was bigger than an average London one-bedroom flat! It featured high ceilings, beautifully-restored stucco, original antique furniture and Italian marble bathrooms.
I have never stayed in a hotel room as big and grand as the Lidval Suite at the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe. I certainly won’t forget the feeling of waking up in a historic room in a hotel in St Petersburg and sitting in the glass-covered veranda.
To guests looking for a more contemporary decor (with the same space, luxury and 24-hour butler service), the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe offers 6 magnificent Avant-Garde suites. The six rooms were unveiled in 2014 and created from nineteen rooms on the first floor of the hotel. They are inspired by 20th century Russian artists such as Kandinsky, Malevich and Rodchenko.
While the Lidval Suite is the best room I have ever stayed in, the Avant-Garde suites of the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe are the most beautiful rooms I have ever seen.
While the temptation to spend our days at the hotel was strong, we had to go out to explore the city. Saint Petersburg has so much to offer: the world’s best museums, spectacular churches, theatres, panoramic views from the many rooftop bars, but also diverse neighbourhoods, parks and river cruises.
My Top Things To Visit in St. Petersburg
You cannot miss a visit to the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum. Allow at least one full day for your visit and get there early (book the ticket online to avoid queues). It’s worth it!
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, which took 24 years to build and is a masterpiece of 18th-century Russian architecture. It’s wonderful inside and out!
My husband insisted on visiting the historic metro stations of Saint Petersburg, which is also the deepest subway in the world. We visited around 6 or 7, each one built in a different architectural style and filled with sculptures and art pieces.
Walk up to the top of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral for spectacular views over the city and the Neva river.
Don’t miss the Russian Ballet at Mariinsky Theatre. Months before our trip, I had booked tickets to see Swan Lake in this historic theatre. The show was absolutely wonderful (but also very long)!
I also highly recommend eating out at one of the many trendy restaurants in Rubinstein Street, watch the bridges draw to let ships pass in and out of the Baltic Sea (every night during the navigation period from April to November) and join a Bicycle Tour of the city with Peter’s Walk.
Applying for a Russian Tourist Visa
First of all, to apply for tourist visa you need an invitation letter stating the dates of your trip. We couldn’t get one for the first two nights of our trip, because we had booked a stay in an Airbnb apartment. But if you book a hotel for every night of your trip, then you can request an invitation letter without additional costs. We used a travel agency (Express to Russia – $18 per person).
We filled the form downloaded online, then applied at the visa office in London three weeks before the trip. The standard application takes up to 20 working days, so we were advised to pay for the express service to be on the safe side. It was almost double the price! I paid £110 for my visa with an Italian passport, while Sandy paid £180 with his British passport. It’s a lot of money to spend for a 5-day trip, so in hindsight I wish we had planned a longer holiday to see Moscow and other sights, as the price of visa would have been the same (one month, single entry).