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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Holiday on Ice in St. Pete

St. Petersburg in the winter is a city aglow, its broad boulevards, graceful bridges, glittering palaces, winding canals and beautiful, snow-blanketed parks illuminated throughout the long, dark nights.

This city boasts cultural treasures that rival those of Paris, Vienna, London and Rome, but perhaps its greatest attraction in any season is its history. Vibrant and ever present, St. Petersburg's bloody, tumultuous past is as inescapable as the mists that rise from the ice-glazed streets with the winter sun at midmorning.

Knowledgeable and friendly tour guides are plentiful in St. Petersburg, where the maze of streets off the main thoroughfares can be bewildering. The Russian Union of Travel Industry ((812-4) 325-1144, arranges tours and provides information for tourists.

What to See

Mariinsky Theater, 1 Teatralnaya Ploshchad, (812) 326-4141, Performances of the theater's world-class opera company attract crowds of young people who act as if they're at an American rock show, talking excitedly about the performance during intermission and thronging around concession kiosks buying cards and photos of their favorite opera and ballet stars. Orchestra seats, individual cushioned wooden armchairs with legroom galore, are 200 euros.

Russian Ethnographic Museum, 4/1 Inzhenernaya Ul., (812) 313-4320. The museum's Siberian exhibit is a must-see: tableaus depicting indigenous people in far eastern Russia who live in teepees, wear beaded buckskin clothing, hunt with bows and arrows, ply rivers in canoes and ride reindeer rather than horses.

State Hermitage Museum, 2 Dvortsovaya Ploshchad, (812) 710-9625. I know it's one of the world's greatest art museums, but I skipped the staggering trove of paintings and sculptures collected by Catherine the Great and instead toured the adjacent Winter Palace (1,500 rubles for a one-hour individual tour; 350 rubles admission).

Yusupov Palace, 94 Moika Nab., (812) 314-8893. Wealthier than the royal Romanovs, the Yusupov family lived in equal splendor in this colonnaded palace on the banks of the Moika River. After you've toured the 180-seat rococo private theater and the tiled Moorish Room, visit the cellars where the scene of Rasputin's murder is preserved and mannequins in period dress are posed in a re-enactment.

Pavlovsk Park, (812) 470-2216. For the ultimate Russian winter experience, head about 19 kilometers south of the city and take a troika (sleigh) ride through the 5,000-square-meter English garden commissioned by Catherine the Great. Tucked into a wool blanket at the back of a colorfully painted three-bench sleigh drawn by a big white horse and driven by an ageless babushka wearing a gypsy shawl and whipping a long green stick, I felt like I'd died and gone to Tolstoy heaven (50 rubles for two).

Where to Eat

Avoiding the high prices of the city's elegant hotel dining rooms, I could nonetheless boast back home that I lived on caviar (red caviar, that is) throughout my stay: thin blini pancakes, spread with sour cream and a forkful or two of the caviar, then folded into a bite-size envelope, were delicious, affordable and ubiquitous.

Aktyor, 4 Voznesenky Prospekt, (812) 315-0675. This cozy, familial candlelit restaurant off Nevsky Prospekt near the Astoria was my introduction to borshch. My bowl was piping hot, the beet-red broth as spicy as Chinese sweet-and-sour soup, with plentiful strips of lean, slow-cooked beef (170 rubles).

Kilikia, 26/40 Gorokhovaya Ul., (812) 327-2208. A local favorite, this Caucasian-Mediterranean restaurant, warmed by brick ovens, serves such delicious dishes as khauma, a potato dish; and spicy tava stew. Dinner for four costs about 800 rubles.

Na Zdrovye!, 13/4 Bolshoi Prospekt, (812) 232-4039. Featuring "Russian and Soviet Cuisine," this popular restaurant has decor to match: a bust of Lenin and an album of 78-rpm records embossed with Stalin's profile, as well as heroic paintings of peasant life. The fare, including pelmeni half stuffed with beef, half with pork, was delicious. Dinner, with drinks, for two cost about 1,000 rubles.

Idiot, 80 Moika Nab., (812) 315-1675. Visitors are often told that Dostoyevsky used to hang out here. Looking around the dimly lit grotto, with its dark furnishings and fireplaces and men playing chess and talking conspiratorily at rough-hewn wooden tables, you can imagine him brooding in a corner. But those aren't anarchists in the dining room, they're vegetarians, downing complimentary mini-shots of vodka and feasting on the red caviar (190 rubles) and other meatless fare.

Night Life

Lenin's Mating Call, 7 Per. Grivtsova, (812) 571-8641. Nothing subtle about the Bolshevik-bashing here, where Lenin, dressed in biker garb, leers from a framed painting and visitors duck under an iron curtain that hangs overhead like a guillotine blade. The bartender and cocktail waitresses are dressed in low-cut Communist Party Pioneer uniforms with miniskirts, red high heels, red fishnets and hammer-and-sickle garters that surely have Lenin and Stalin turning in their tombs.

Purga, 11 Fontanka Nab., (812) 313-4123. Cover, 100 rubles. The name means snowstorm, but surreal is more like it in this wildly raucous basement club on the Fontanka River where every evening at midnight, "New Year's Eve" is celebrated with ringing bells, sparklers, free drinks (sweet Champagne) for all, and everyone joins in a rousing drinking song that I was surprised to learn is the Russian national anthem. While the shirtless bartender serves drinks and party hosts dressed in floppy-eared bunny costumes pass out Father Frost Santa hats, revelers form a conga line and do the bunny hop through the club's two catacomb-like rooms.

Liverpool, 16 Ul. Mayakovskogo, (812) 579-2054; no cover. This Beatles-themed pub features nightly Fab Four cover bands like the Sunflowers, who wear bowl haircuts and play spot-on versions of early Beatles tunes; the accents even sound Liverpudlian. The band started playing on St. Petersburg street corners five years ago, the guitarist told me, and "one day we were playing a Beatles song and I looked up and there was Paul McCartney. He said we were getting it right. We've been playing Beatles ever since."

Where to Stay

Hotel Astoria, 39 Bolshaya Morskaya Ul., (812) 313-5757, Lovely, with all the amenities of an Old World luxury hotel and, with free Internet access, cable television and DVD players, most modern. Opened in the waning days of the tsars, the Astoria brought out the bourgeois in American (John Reed, Louise Bryant, Emma Goldman) and Russian (Lenin) guests alike. Doubles from $300.

Grand Hotel Europe, 1/7 Mikhailovskaya Ul., (812) 329-6000, Perhaps the most sumptuous in St. Petersburg. In winter, doubles start at 11,400 rubles, or about $430. The hotel's gorgeous Art Nouveau lobby bar is great for people-watching and its cathedral-like L'Europe Restaurant, serving French cuisine, is a tourist attraction in itself.

Alexander House, 27 Nab. Kryukova Kanala, (812) 259-6877, This warm and friendly 14-room hotel (doubles from 130 euros) is in an early 19th-century canal-front mansion, beautifully renovated and offering satellite television and high-speed Internet access.