Travel

09.04.13

How to Play Hooky at the G20 Summit: A Guide to St. Petersburg

World leaders are heading to Russia’s second-largest city for two days of photo-ops and meetings. Fun, right? Instead, may we suggest pulling a Ferris Bueller and sneaking out for a day on the town?

On September 5, leaders from the world’s top nations will arrive in St. Petersburg and begin shuttling between very important plenary sessions and photos ops with their fellow rulers—and sometime rivals—during the annual two-day G20 summit. But let’s face it, these international confabs can get a little dull. Rather than resorting to a covert game of online poker to get through the monotony, political and business leaders should slip out to see a little of what St. Petersburg has to offer outside of the conference-room walls.

The good news is G20 participants will be holed up at the Constantine Palace, which is a historic landmark in its own right; the bad news is they’re a semi-isolated, 30-minute jaunt from the city center. But don’t worry, no one will notice a prime minister slipping out—they’ll be too distracted by President Obama’s plans to ruffle the Kremlin’s feathers by meeting with human rights activists on the first day of the summit. While he’s busy getting under Putin’s skin, here’s a guide for what other, more rebellious, leaders should do around St. Petersburg.

GAWK at the unparalleled treasures of the State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace. You could spend a whole day wandering through this complex comprising the former royal residence, hermitages, a theater, auxiliary showroom, and more. Since time is of the essence, check out the current “Europe Without Borders” installation on the Bronze Age before rushing back for a G20-style lesson on European borders.

WATCH Russia’s world-famous ballerinas perform classics like Swan Lake and Don Quixote at the Mariinsky Theatre. The 19th-century building was joined in May by a modern glass-and-limestone ballet and opera house, which promptly sparked a debate among Russia’s cultural leaders, who criticize its massive cost and idiosyncratic aesthetic. Form your own opinion to bring up during small talk at a summit luncheon.

PRAY for signs of progress in the Millennium Development Goals at the inimitable Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. Built on the site of Emperor Alexander II’s death, this landmark survived looting after the Russian Revolution, followed by a long-term closure. It was used as a morgue during World War II, and later as a warehouse, before being restored and reopened in 1997. (Warning: if your prayers go unanswered it may be because the church was never resanctified as a place of worship.)

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Virginia Mayo/AP

RELAX after a day of deciphering political and economic jargon at a bath where there’s a good chance no one speaks your language. It’s not exactly luxurious, but if you want to experience rejuvenation like Rasputin himself, follow the locals to the Kazachie Banya for a steam, dip in the freezing pools, and requisite flogging with bundled dried birch leaves. You will leave glowing and ready for hours of handshaking.

PAY HOMAGE to Russia’s greats at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, where graveyards read like a who’s who of cultural Russian history, including greats like author Fyodor Dostoevsky and composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

PRACTICE your best nature-loving Putin impression at Russian Fishing, a pondside restaurant that helps you bait and catch your own fish, which is then prepared for your gastronomic pleasure. During an earlier stint as president, Putin took then-French president Jacques Chirac here.

INDULGE in vodka paired with top-notch caviar served by a bow-tied waiter pushing a selection of the delicacy around the smoky, intimate art nouveau Caviar Bar in the Grand Hotel L’Europe.

After a day of fun in St. Petersburg, slip back into the Constantine Palace through the back door so your delegation team is none the wiser.