Belye nochi, the Russians call them - White Nights. These are the incredible, luminous northern midsummer eves when the high latitudes are bathed in a pearlescent all-night glow. The few brief weeks of the white nights and sun-filled summer days in Russia’s northern city of St Petersburg are an intoxicating time. By day, locals revel in the heat and the outdoors; by light-washed night, there are festivals, concerts and awake-all-night partying to indulge in. This is a time when St Petersburg is at its most lustrous, when zhizni radost - the peculiarly Russian brand of joie de vivre - is irresistible.
White Night revelling starts in May, when the city finally succumbs to spring and the parks are filled with flowering trees, but mid-June is peak time, when the sun slumps lazily towards the horizon, but never fully sets. Here are some White Night - and summer day - experiences not to miss in St Petersburg:
Eat your fill of morozhenoe and arbus
Russians take their ice-cream making very seriously, and delicious, creamy Russian morozhenoe becomes ubiquitous in mid-summer. Buy some from an ice-cream cart and wander one of the breezy riverside embankments for a real taste of summer St Petersburg-style. During the few brief hot weeks of summer, stalls selling arbus - giant, juicy watermelons - also sprout up all over the capital. Take one with you and head for a shady park.
Visit the Summer Gardens and sunbathe by the Neva
St Petersburg’s Letnii Sad (Summer Garden) is specifically designed for strolling during languid summer days. Walking along its shady avenues decorated with cool white marble statues and soothing fountains is a quintessential St Petersburg experience. Sun-baking by the Neva as also typically 'Piter' (as Russians lovingly call the city). Old timers do this standing up - for the all-over tan. The riverside walls of the Peter & Paul Fortress are a favourite sun-lovers’ hangout.
Lake Ladoga - source of the Neva - is a short train ride from the city, and its forested banks are a favourite Petersburger summer destination for picnics, canoe paddles and cooling swims. Komarova Beach on the Gulf of Finland is a fine place to visit mid-summer. It’s not the Caribbean, but in less than an hour’s journey from the city, you can feel a million miles away. Take icy dips in the Baltic here and breathe deep on the sea breeze.
Stay up all night
You have to do this at least once during the White Nights season. There’s kind of euphoria when you can stroll at midnight under a still-light sky. Start the evening with a breezy outdoor dinner somewhere like Okean, set on a converted cruiser moored on the Neva, then go dancing at one of the understatedly cool nightclubs like Datscha on Dumskaya Ulitsa. As the sun rises - that’s about 3am - make your way to the glass enclosed upper storey of Revolution for the best view of dawn over St Petersburg from any dance floor.
Watch the Neva bridges open
This is the signature tradition of the White Nights: watching the spectacle of the massive Neva River bridges heaving apart to let through boat traffic. Watch from the riverside embankments or take to the water on a White Nights boat cruise and slip right through the heart of the midnight city. If you’re on foot make sure you’re on the right side of the river to get back to your accommodation: the metro stops at 12.30am and with the bridges open until 5am, there’s no other way to cross the river.
See the Stars of the White Nights
Midsummer was traditionally when Russian performing artists took holidays or went on tour and St Peterburg’s stages were always quiet during this season...until 1993 when the Marinskii Theatre’s Valery Gergiev founded the spectacularly popular Stars of the White Nights Festival. Now, between the end of May and mid-July, there are almost daily operas, ballets and classical concerts at the Marinskii, featuring top-notch Russian and international stars. Outdoor concerts also feature: in 2011 Sting played to a crowd of 30,000 outside the Tsar’s Winter Palace.
Be part of Russia’s biggest celebration
This is it, the high point of all the White Nights revelry. The Scarlet Sails event (held on 22 June in 2013) is the biggest annual public gathering in Russia (over a million people attend). There’s a mock pirate battle on the River Neva, then a firework extravaganza, culminating in the appearance of a tall ship with blood red sails. The imagery originates from a popular Russian children’s book, but the Scarlet Sails - Alye Parusa - have become the consummate symbol of White Nights revelry, and perhaps the most special moment of a St Petersburg summer.
This article was first published in January 2012 and was republished in June 2013.