White Nights and warm days: summer in St Petersburg

The few brief weeks of the White Nights – those incredible, luminous northern midsummer eves when the high latitudes are bathed in a pearlescent all-night glow – and sun-filled summer days in St Petersburg are an intoxicating time. By day, locals revel in the heat and the outdoors; by night, there are festivals, concerts and 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 Nights 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, as the sun slumps lazily towards the horizon but never fully sets. Here are some White Nights (and summer day) experiences not to miss in St Petersburg.

White Nights with fireworks over the Kunstkamera. Image by Alexander Hafemann / Getty Images White Nights with fireworks over the Kunstkamera. Image by Alexander Hafemann / Getty Images

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 Garden and sunbathe by the Neva

St Petersburg’s 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 is also typically ‘Piter’ (as Russians lovingly call the city). Old-timers sunbathe standing up – for the all-over tan. The riverside walls of the Peter & Paul Fortress are a favourite sun-lovers’ hangout.

St Petersburg’s Summer Garden. Image by Sylvain Sonnet / Getty Images St Petersburg’s Summer Garden. Image by Sylvain Sonnet / Getty Images

Go swimming

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 in 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 a kind of euphoria when you can stroll at midnight under a still-light sky. Start the evening with a breezy outdoor dinner somewhere like Terrassa (whose namesake terrace is open only in warmer months), then go dancing at one of the understatedly cool nightclubs such as Dom Beat. Or if you’re up for a night of bar-hopping, just head to Dumskaya Ul, where four of St Petersburg’s hottest drinking and music spots are located.

Opening of the Palace Bridge during the White Nights. Image by ESCUDERO Patrick / hemis.fr / Getty Images Opening of the Palace Bridge during the White Nights. Image by ESCUDERO Patrick / hemis.fr / Getty Images

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 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 Mariinsky Theatre’s Valery Gergiev founded the spectacularly popular Stars of the White Nights Festival. Between the end of May and mid-July, there are almost daily operas, ballets and classical concerts at the Mariinsky, featuring top-notch Russian and international stars. There are also outdoor concerts.

Performance at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Image by Glow Images / Getty Images Performance at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Image by Glow Images / Getty Images

Be part of Russia’s biggest celebration

This is it, the high point of all the White Nights revelry. The Scarlet Sails event in late June is the biggest annual public gathering in Russia (over a million people attend). There’s a mock pirate battle on the Neva River, 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 have become the consummate symbol of White Nights, and perhaps the most special moment of a St Petersburg summer.

This article was first published in January 2012 and was last updated in April 2015.