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A day on the Moyka, St Petersburg, Russia

The Guardian, Friday 27 December 2013
Anastasiia Fedorova and Jamie Rann

Buzzy new bars, hip hostels and a creative vibe are adding a youthful edge to elegant St Petersburg.

A day on the Moyka, St Petersburg, Russia

Moyka riverside, St Petersburg. Photograph: Alamy

Something is going on behind St Petersburg's elegant but inscrutable classical facades. While Russia's former capital has always had the looks, its personality has been, at best, enigmatic and, at worst, dull. But now, characterful creative spaces and cafes serving top-notch street food are giving the city some edge. Ground zero for this transformation is the strip of land between the rivers Moyka and Neva. Recently rejuvenated by the new metro station at Admiralteyskaya, the area – also home to big-hitters like the Hermitage museum – is easy to explore on foot and a perfect introduction to the future of St Petersburg.

Set yourself up for a day in the snow with brunch at 22.13 (Konushennaya ploshad 2) 1, a local favourite that hides its past as a taxi garage with a beautiful arched ceiling, spiral staircase and vintage furniture from Paris. You can try modern variations on Russian specialities, such as cottage-cheese pancakes with berries for around ?5. There are brunch classics, too, plus Russians' beloved pan-Asian options, if you fancy a Thai squid-and-ginger omelette first thing.

A day on the Moyka, St Petersburg, Russia

Each day, coaches disgorge thousands of tourists into Palace Square so they can troop round the Hermitage. Dodge them with a whirl round the mega-museum's bold new contemporary wing opposite, Hermitage 20/21 (2, Palace Square 2. After courting controversy by opening with a show by the Chapman brothers, raffish young director Dmitry Ozerkov is now curating a Japanese show. Next year will see Manifesta, the roving art biennale known for pushing boundaries: get set for clashes with the city's conservative elites.

If you've a taste for irony, or just a hankering for fresh air, take a winter stroll in the Summer Gardens 3, the city's oldest and most elegant park – recently restored. With Mikhailovsky Garden and the Field of Mars, this forms a picturesque little green lung at the intersection of all the city's many watercourses. If you get peckish, pop in to retro pie emporium Stolle (Konyshenny pereulok 1/6) 4: a hearty slice of the rabbit and mushroom pie will make your day, or even change your life.

Nursing a single espresso for two hours so you can use the Wi-Fi has been consigned to history by Russia's beloved "anti-cafes", where you pay (pennies) for the time you spend there and get all the tea, biccies, books and impromptu concerts your heart desires thrown in. Miracle (Moshkov Pereulok 4) 5, is one of St Petersburg's best – a good place to take a break and meet the locals.

A day on the Moyka, St Petersburg, Russia

The Hermitage museum’s new contemporary wing. Photograph: Igor Simkin

Head next door to Taiga Space (20 Palace Embankment) 6, a former mansion on the banks of the Neva river that has been renovated by its tenants and transformed into a creative space with workshops, design studios and cafes. It's also a fashion destination, thanks to 8-Store (), a boutique that sells affordable bags, clothes and jewellery from Russian independent labels. Check out Asya Malberstein's leather handbags and other accessories and Sasha Chi Jewellery. For something more highbrow, wander down the Moyka to the Nabokov Museum (47 Bolshaya Morskaya Street) 7, housed in the building where the writer was born. It's a real slice of pre-revolutionary aristocratic St Petersburg, stuffed with family mementoes and some of the author's stunning butterfly collection.

The best places for an early supper are around Gorokhovaya Street: for mind-blowing apple pie and the best service in St Petersburg (not a hotly contested prize), try Jerome (round the corner at Bolshaya Morskaya 25) 8; if you just want a quick (and trendy) refuel, go to Potato with Mushrooms (Gorokhovaya 12) 9, a newly opened temple of the tattie that specialises in kapsalon, a recently invented Dutch street-food delicacy – fries, kebab meat, melted Gouda and salad. If that's not your cup of heart disease, Clean Plates Society (Gorokhovaya Ulitsa 13) 10, does a good butternut squash salad.

A day on the Moyka, St Petersburg, Russia

Clean Plates Society. Photograph: Igor Simkin

Darkness descends early at this time of year, leaving ample time to explore the area's flourishing bar scene. The cosy Bistro Dekabrist (Yakubovicha Street 2) 11, serves great burgers (on wooden slabs), plus a good selection of beers and ciders (still a rarity in the city). Mayakovsky (Pochtamptskiy Pereulok 5) 12, is the place for classy cocktails with a Russian twist, inspired by avant-garde poetry and Russian folk tales.

St Petersburg has enough great bars for several nights' worth of bar crawling (and there is nothing locals like more), but not many nightclubs. Nevertheless, the real party starts late. There's plenty of post-midnight drinking and dancing to be had at More (Malaya Morskaya 20) 13, which is tucked away in an old residential building near the imperious St Isaac's cathedral. The way in – via an unmarked courtyard and up a flight of stairs – gets you in the mood for an adventure and a night of live music and cocktails. Alternatively, head back east to Architector (Millionnaya Ulitsa 10) 14, a creative cluster that really comes alive at night in a passable impression of East Berlin. Superbly named skateshop Angry Boards will be shut by then, but Las Veggies churns out piping-hot mushroom soup until dawn, or whenever you spill out of one of the six bars on site.

• This feature was supplied by The Calvert Journal

Where to stay

St Petersburg is short of medium-priced hotels, but a new breed of independent hostels have stylish well-designed interiors. Hello Hostel (+7 812 643 2556, 50 English Embankment) 15, is in a former mansion, hosts parties popular with locals and tourists, and has doubles from ?34 a night. If you're splashing the cash, book into W Hotel (+7 812 610 6161 , doubles from ?149 B&B) 16, the only branch of the upmarket chain in Russia.

Local's tip

Artem Ignatyev, founder of Apparat Mag

For delicious drinks with a difference, try Pif-Paf on the Griboyedov canal, 17: there's a cosy bar in the front and a hip little hairdresser in the back. It's a burger joint, too: the paneer and seaweed number puts other veggie burgers to shame.

(c) 2000