Driving through snowy St. Petersburg, I was eagerly anticipating my visit to the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe. The hotel has been such a large part of the dramatic history of the city; I imagined greatness and grandeur on every front.
Superbly situated within walking distance of The Winter Palace and The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, it’s adjacent to the Arts Square and Nevsky Prospekt. Rumour has it that when the hotel opened in 1875, it created a wave of pre-opening gossip amongst the local population because its restaurant had electric light bulbs – the first in St. Petersburg to boast such opulence.
I was, therefore, expecting a Grande Dame of a hotel – one noted for its exemplary service, ample charisma and stunning historic décor. What I didn’t expect was the somewhat jaded, old-fashioned dowager that I found. Of course, some areas shone, but, overall, the hotel didn’t live up to the hype.
Yes, the walls are adorned by many priceless pieces of art. And yes, the hotel hosted a notable guest list over its history: from Tchaikovsky, who stayed during his honeymoon; prima ballerina, Anna Pavlova; George Bernard Shaw; Dostoyevsky – who based his book Crime and Punishment around the hotel’s location in Nevsky Prospekt; Tsar Nicholas II in his final days; and, one of the least favourite guests of times past, Rasputin.
And now, in 2018, I experienced flashbacks to the days of old. Service in some areas, as an example, made me feel that while maybe not as far back as Rasputin’s era, was nevertheless firmly set in the cold, dark days of Soviet Russia. Other sections of the hotel, however, had service and an atmosphere that was commendable. But overall, there wasn’t much happiness within these walls.
Too many of the hotel’s 266 rooms and suites had décor which was drab and old-fashioned, with some of the worst fabrics on furniture that I have ever seen. The images on the website did not show the rooms to their full, faded glory.
The good news is that the hotel was going through a major room refurbishment whilst I was there, but I do wonder whether the new design (which I saw in a mock-up room), will make much of a difference. I hope I’m wrong; watch this space.
- Daily breakfast for two
- Buffet breakfast
- Room upgrade upon arrival
- Subject to availability
- Dining experience
- One lunch or dinner for two excluding alcohol, taxes and gratuities, conditions apply
- Early check-in / Late check-out
- Subject to availability
- Complimentary Wi-Fi
Exclusive benefits may vary by hotel or hotel group. Exclusive benefits apply when booking the Best Available Rate and are not combinable with any hotel offers or special packages unless stated.
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- Facts & Amenities +
Upon arrival, I was greeted immediately by the doorman. He was dressed in a very smart, almost full-length overcoat and matching hat with gold brocade epaulettes and very shiny shoes. He welcomed me to the hotel in a very thick Russian accent and signalled to a bellman to come out and assist with my luggage. As I only had a small weekend case, I declined the assistance and went inside.
The reception desk, a long, dark wood counter, was in a large atrium style room with a very high ceiling, similar to that of a greenhouse or conservatory. Very old fashioned in style, the heavy fabrics on the sofas and chairs added to the feeling, upon arrival, that the hotel had seen better days.
I was checked in efficiently enough, but this went to pieces when she handed me a voucher to give to my waiter at dinner (I had a special offer for a free meal during my stay).
After the formalities, she pointed to the lift and said that I could, “Use that one.” She must have seen my face as she then added, “Unless you would like someone to show you to your room?”
Rooms and suites
Arriving on my floor, I navigated my way down to the very end of an exceptionally long corridor. At the end was my junior suite, and as I walked through the door, I hit a parquet floor with a rug on top which made me trip up as it was not secured in place.
My room looked out onto the busy Nevsky Prospekt – the main street in St. Petersburg. On one side of the hallway were three wardrobes built into the wall and on the other, a dark wood console table and the doorway through to the bathroom. The bedroom was a good size, but straight away, I could see that this hotel needed upgrades. The colour scheme was a variation of colours, between mustard, bottle green and orange, with some red thrown in and lots of dark wood. Flashback again, 1970s this time.
At the end of the bed was a large square cabinet which I knew from experience was the TV. At the touch of a button, it juddered up and down, accompanied by a DVD player. A what?
There was more furniture in the room – not comfortable, but rather to fill the room. I was relieved, however, to find that the writing desk had UK and European sockets.
Technology in the room was, again, a bit of a time warp, with old-fashioned style telephones in a yellowy-brown colour with push buttons (something I’ve not seen in a hotel for about twenty years). The TV had about eight English channels, all of which were news stations. There were no available sockets by the bed or USB sockets at all. The heating was on a control panel which, I presume, would also provide air-conditioning in the summer. Wi-Fi, however, worked wonderfully well.
The bathroom, too, had seen better days. The marble used throughout was a pink terracotta version that, once upon a time, was popular. There was a double vanity and a bathtub with a separate walk-in shower with a power-head that, while old-fashioned, at least worked well.
I appreciated the Elemis toiletries, and additional amenities like a shaving kit, dental kit and mouthwash, plus a comb and emery board were welcome.
The lighting was efficient, and there was a separate makeup mirror on the side which was illuminated too. The hairdryer was acceptable, however, there was no socket in the bathroom and not one anywhere else near a mirror. Annoying.
During my stay, the F&B experiences were probably the highlight.
As I stayed on a Friday night, I ate at the L’Europe restaurant when the Tchaikovsky evening is hosted once a week. I was thrilled to be here on this night, for so many reasons, including that this infamous restaurant in housed is a stunningly ornate room with original Art Nouveau works throughout.
It was the first restaurant in town to have electric lights when it opened, and the multitude of bulbs adorning the walls create a circus-like effect along the walls and the archways – a stunning display. The pièce de résistance, however, was the vast stained-glass window at the end of the room depicting Apollo on his chariot pulled by gleaming white horses. The drama of the scene was breathtaking.
The Tchaikovsky night is not be missed – with a string quartet, a pianist, opera singers and ballet dancers, the night was in tribute to the composer and other famous guests of the hotel, including Anna Pavlova herself. Other nights feature jazz ensembles and speakeasy singers, New York style.
As for the food, it was delicious. Menu choices included beef Stroganoff, caviar, fish and other meat dishes. There were amuse bouches and palate cleansers throughout the meal, and the service was exceptional. With only a small number of tables, the restaurant had an exclusive atmosphere; it was a first-rate experience.
Breakfast, however, was slightly more of an ‘event’ with probably triple the number of tables and way too many diners. The buffet selection was extensive, with tables for cold-cut meats and cheese, bread and pastries, a hot buffet area and an egg and pancake station, plus cereals and fruits. Overloaded, many of the waiters struggled with even the most basic of English requests.
Other restaurant options
The lobby bar was a highlight: more modern in style with an excellent selection of spirits and wines. The bar staff were very knowledgeable and spoke very good English.
The hotel’s Caviar Bar and Restaurant, designed in the late 1800s, is a historical monument. Here you can try a range of rare vodkas (there’s a vodka ‘sommelier’), liqueurs and, of course, caviar. Don’t miss the Egg in Egg – the signature dish of truffled scrambled egg topped with Beluga, Osetra and salmon caviar served in egg shells. As St. Petersburg’s only caviar restaurant, the hotel’s in-house experts will give you a true Russian experience.
On the mezzanine level of the hotel, under the glass greenhouse roof, afternoon tea is served using a gorgeous tea set designed locally and exclusively for the hotel. A traditional Russian tea – very similar to an English tea – it is offered at a very reasonable price (compared to London, anyway) and was very busy daily.
Spa and wellness
There is a full Carita spa whose services include hair cutting, colouring and styling, facials, massages, body treatments and nail care and even some expert tanning services.
There is a small plunge pool at the hotel in the spa and fitness area.
There are no special services for children.
Staff and service
The staff in the bar and the restaurants were excellent overall and the experience was good. On the front desk, the service was ‘efficient’ at best but not overtly friendly, and although it didn’t really impact on my stay too much, as a first and last impression, this is definitely an issue.
One thing to note is that many of the staff on the front door did not speak good English which did prove a bit challenging on occasion when I had asked for directions. They rushed in to find someone with better language skills.
The hotel seemed to be a meeting place for quite a few Russian businessmen, plus there were a lot of American and European guests milling around whilst I was checking in.
I did see some Chinese guests also whilst I was going to my room, carrying large bags full of furs. In the restaurants and bar, there were locals and foreigners alike which gave the hotel a more upbeat feeling.
Overall, it seems that a lot of groups stay here which explains a lot of the negatives I experienced.
The departure from the hotel was much like my arrival – efficient. There was just no real warmth or friendliness which would endear you more to the team here.
I departed from the grand door onto the snowy street, and the heavily coated doorman ushered me to my waiting car with a cursory nod. Off I went.
How to get here
40 minutes by road from St Petersburg Pulkovo International Airport
266 rooms & suites