For the past 15 years, two institutions have dominated the hotel scene in St Petersburg: the Grand Hotel Europe on Nevsky Prospekt, operated by Orient-Express, and the Astoria, which became part of the Rocco Forte Collection in 1997.
But last year a W opened on Voznesensky Prospekt and, although its rooms and service are an acquired taste, the views from its roof terrace almost justify the outrageous cost – £14 – of a glass of house white. And an even bigger shake-up to the hotel scene is expected this winter when Four Seasons opens in the lavishly restored Lobanov-Rostovsky Palace, next door but one to the Astoria.
Built between 1817 and 1820 by the same architect as St Isaac’s Cathedral (next to which it stands), the Four Seasons is jaw-droppingly grand, with two immense porticoes, each supported by eight Corinthian columns. Better yet, the main entrance is flanked by two Renaissance marble lions, sculpted for the Medici by Paolo Triscorni and mentioned by Pushkin in his great narrative poem The Bronze Horseman. The meticulously restored imperial interiors promise to be just as splendid, not least the martial friezes on the grand staircase – the building served as the headquarters of the Ministry of Military Administration from 1824 until the revolution. There’s also an imposing winter garden and a four-floor spa.
Inevitably this is causing the competition to raise its game. The Astoria, which celebrates its centenary in December, has reduced its room count by a tenth to increase the number of its suites to 58, all of which have been refurbished. It hasn’t the palatial quality of the Four Seasons, but it has heritage, atmosphere, a real sense of Russian-ness and five lovely signature suites. All the rooms have parquet floors, curtains and counterpanes of Volga linen, and there’s an impressive collection of Russian art hung throughout. Even the exquisite china in the hotel’s elegant Rotonda café – very much a St Petersburg institution – comes from the Lomonosov Imperial Porcelain Factory. Just occasionally the Russian theme descends into cliché (such as the stills of Sean Connery and Daniela Bianchi in From Russia With Love that hang in the bathrooms, and the communist star-shaped wall lights) but I loved almost everything else.
The Astoria has an extraordinary history. Lenin addressed the crowds from the balcony of suite 211 and Hitler planned to celebrate his proposed wiping of St Petersburg “from the face of the earth” in its still gloriously old-fashioned ballroom, even going so far as to have invitations printed. Mikhail Bulgakov spent his honeymoon in room 412, where he started work on his great novel The Master and Margarita. Its heritage and sense of place, not to mention its outstanding pastry chef, Natalia Koveshnikova, will be hard to rival.
The hotel also has a close relationship with the Mariinsky Theatre, with its own box, so opera and ballet tickets, as well as backstage tours, are easily arranged. And with rooms from about £220 (if you don’t need much space, those in the lower categories are enchanting), it’s likely to be considerably less expensive than the Four Seasons.
Also in the process of transforming itself is the Taleon Imperial, which occupies an 18th-century palace on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and the Moika river – it is adding 32 new rooms this year. It too has a remarkable past: Dostoyevsky and Turgenev were members of a salon that met in what is now its ballroom, and Pushkin used to visit the writer Aleksander Griboedov, who lived in an apartment here. Most of the signature suites retain wonderful original features, though the ugly upholstered leather furniture isn’t always in keeping. Indeed, there’s no denying this is the most ostentatious of the five-star hotels. That said, the Georgian cuisine in its slightly raffish Gastronomic Bar Griboedov is both inexpensive and very good.