The fast train from Moscow to St. Petersburg takes four hours, a journey that will go by quickly for those reading Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, a crucial primer on Russia's most spirited royal. Upon arrival, get your bearings via a short city tour, noting the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, the Strelka and the grand Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg's main shopping street. Have dinner at the city's oldest restaurant, Palkin, where borscht is the specialty.
Day two should begin with an excursion to the countryside, with the first stop at Pavlovsk Palace, an Imperial residence that dates from the 18th century. Stop for lunch at the local restaurant BIP in the Pavlovsk village and then visit the Catherine Palace (formerly Pushkin Palace), home to the famous Amber Room. If there is time, drive west to the Peternoff Palace. Back in town, have dinner at Mansarda overlooking spectacular views of St. Isaac's.
Spend at least a half-day at the Hermitage, the complex commissioned by Catherine the Great to hold the royal art collection, one of the world's most extraordinary. If you were to spend just thirty seconds looking at every one of its more than 3 million treasures it would take close to three years to see everything. Highlights include the Gold Treasure Rooms and the thirty rooms of Italian art from the 13th to 19th centuries. (Tip: pre-book tickets online to skip the museum's long lines). After this history lesson, seek out the city’s contemporary art scene at Loft Project Etag and Erarta galleries and at the Nory Museum.
Head back to your hotel to change into formal eveningwear to see a dance performance at the Mariinsky Theatre. The historic building, previously known as the Kirov Theatre, was where Tchaikovsky debuted The Nutcracker, and its ballet company remains one of the world’s most acclaimed troupes. End the day with a straight vodka, in the Russian style, at the Grand Hotel Europe's famous bar--a favorite of Dostoyevsky.
On your final day in St. Petersburg, visit the Yusupov Palace, the famous venue of Rasputin's murder and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Finish the afternoon at the Kuznechny Market, where visitors and locals shop for honey, pickles and spices. Head to LowFat Studio and Lyyk Design Market to take a peak at Russia's funky new design inspirations. For your last Russian evening, in winter, have dinner at the cozy and fun Sadko, and take a sleigh ride back to your hotel. In warmer weather, board the Volga-Volga, a restaurant aboard a riverboat that travels the canals of St. Petersburg, and watch this Russian beauty illuminated.