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 sun and the outdoor cafes; by night, there are festivals, concerts and partying to indulge in.

This is a time when St Petersburg is at its most lustrous, when radost zhizni – 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 days) experiences not to miss in St Petersburg.

The Scarlet Sails fireworks over the Neva River and Palace Bridge © Drozdin Vladimir / Shutterstock

Have some fun on New Holland Island 

The city’s stunning new green space and creative hub, New Holland Island has quickly become a haven for artists, locals and tourists alike. Outdoor concerts are the big draw in summer, but there’s lots more going on: you can explore creative cuisine in the cool cafes, join the yoga sessions on the grass, hone your drawing skills at a sketching class, check out art installations on the grounds or temporary exhibitions in the Pavilion, catch occasional film screenings and lectures, and even play some ping pong or pétanque.

Stroll the gardens and sunbathe by the Neva

St Petersburg’s Summer Garden has been specifically designed for leisurely strolls during languid summer days. Walking along its shady avenues, decorated with classical white marble statues and soothing fountains, is a quintessential St Petersburg experience. Mikhailovsky Garden, right behind the Russian Museum, is another great option; the huge blossoming lilacs on Mars field provide wonderful shade. Sun-baking by the Neva is also typically ‘Piter’ (as some Russians lovingly call the city). The riverside walls of the Peter & Paul Fortress are a favourite sun-lovers’ hangout.

A striking fountain in St Petersburg's Summer Garden © Anton Kudelin / Shutterstock

Discover your inner polar bear

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. It’s really not that cold.

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 the historic streets of the city at midnight and feel like it’s still long before bedtime. 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 street, where four of St Petersburg’s hottest drinking and music spots are located.

The opening of a bridge across the Fontanka River at night © Pete Seaward / Lonely Planet

Watch the Neva bridges open

The signature tradition of the White Nights is watching the spectacle of the massive  Neva River bridges heaving apart to let through boat traffic at night. 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 working at midnight and, with the bridges open until 5am, there’s no other way to cross the river. If you do get stuck on the wrong riverbank, you’ll experience something that happened to nearly every local at least once!

See the Stars of the White Nights

Midsummer was traditionally when Russian performing artists took holidays or went on tour, and St Petersburg’s stages were always quiet during this season. That was 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 all over the city.

The Swan Lake ballet performance at the Mariinsky Theatre © Gary Latham / Lonely Planet

Feel like a royal

In the tradition of European courts, Russian royals loved to have a summer palace to retire to from the bustle of the capital (which St Petersburg had been for over 200 years). That’s why the city is surrounded by gorgeous little towns that grew around the summer palaces. In Pavlovsk, a vast woodland park leads straight to the palace gates; Pushkin is where Catherine the Great kept her famous Amber Room; Oranienbaum features landscaped parks, lakes and historic buildings; and the crown jewel, Peterhof, has spectacular fountains and ornate gardens. All of them are available to explore – just don’t slip on the polished ballroom floors!

Join the city’s biggest celebration

The high point of the White Nights revelry, the Scarlet Sails in late June is the biggest annual public gathering in St Petersburg, with over a million attendees. 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, which anyone can watch from the embankment.

First published in January 2012

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