In early summer, the city of St Petersburg experiences the White Nights, glowing midsummer days around the summer solstice when the sun never sets and the nights are awash with a white glow. The phenomenon, which characterises locations of high latitudes, sees St Petersburg pulsating with energy, with cafes, restaurants and museums open around the clock, and open-air festivals and lively music concerts keeping revellers up all night.
St Petersburg is abuzz with locals and visitors from the end of May – when the snow has finally melted and the sun has begun to warm the city’s canals, bathing them in golden hues – although it’s during the months of June and July that visitors descend on the city to experience this most thrilling phenomenon. Typically lasting for just a few weeks from roughly mid-June to mid-July, the White Nights are the best time to experience St Petersburg, with scores of events taking place throughout the day and night.
An unmissable St Petersburg experience during the White Nights is watching one of the Neva River drawbridges open, a magnificent spectacle that is best witnessed up close from one of the pleasure cruisers that ply the waters. The city bridges open at night to allow large vessels to sail between the Volga River and the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea, with ships sailing only between April and November as the Neva River is frozen during the rest of the year. During the day, the bridges remain closed, allowing for motor vehicles and pedestrians to go about their daily business.
A major highlight of the White Nights season is the Scarlet Sails event, which takes its name from the eponymous romantic novel by Russian author Alexander Grin. Celebrations took place earlier this year on 23rd June, seeing over 1.5 million attendees flood the city (and over 10 million people watch it live on TV). Held on the Sunday closest to the summer solstice, the event celebrates the graduation of high school students, including graduates of the city’s military and cadet schools, and school-leavers from all over Russia and beyond, from Moldova to Armenia. This year’s theatrical show saw performers donning traditional costumes from the time of Peter the Great, with scenes depicting different periods of Russia’s history. The event culminated in a spectacular light and pyrotechnical show, with fireworks illuminating the night sky as an impressive brigantine with 18 scarlet sails plied the Neva River.
With classical music so embedded in Russian culture, it’s no surprise that many events taking place during the White Nights are intricately linked to classical music. The historic Mariinsky Theatre, where a number of works by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were premiered in the 19th century, hosts the Stars of the White Nights (22nd May – 21st July 2019), the biggest international music festival in the country, with over two hundred events taking place, from opera and ballet performances to chamber music concerts.
This year’s 14th International Musical Collection Festival saw conductors, soloists and renowned classical music stars perform at the Shostakovich Philharmonia, with over 25,000 classical music fans attending its 25 concerts. At the Palaces of St Petersburg 27th International Music Festival, renowned opera singers and instrumental soloists from Russia and beyond performed over the course of a month in the halls of some of the city’s most opulent palaces, including at the New Hermitage and the Mikhailovsky Palace.
Jazz fans weren’t disappointed either. In early July this year, The International Folk Blues Festival saw famous Russian and international singers from the world of jazz and blues take to the stage to perform in the open-air at the city’s charming Yusupov Gardens. The Usadba Jazz Festival, which takes place yearly in mid-July, is another unmissable event for jazz, blues, soul, fusion, funk and world music aficionados. Interestingly, St Petersburg was the birthplace of jazz music in Russia, and today attracts top performers from the country and beyond who come to play at the city’s many jazz joints (check out The Hat, a lively drinking hole that attracts some of the industry’s biggest names).
Fitness fanatics took part in the 30th International White Nights Marathon, which took place in late June, seeing over 12,000 amateur and professional participants from over seventy countries run 42km through the historical centre (a shorter 10km race draws runners of different fitness levels).
If an agenda jam-packed with events seems too much, you can experience next year’s White Nights simply by taking a stroll or a leisurely bike ride at night along the canals, taking in the city’s lively atmosphere. Dotted here and there you’ll see kiosks and food carts selling Russian morozhenoe, ice cream served in a cone or a cup-shaped wafer, making for a great little pit stop to cool off as you explore the city streets, bathed in a luminescent glow at this magical time of year.
Top Image: Bird's Eye View of St Petersburg © Shutterstock
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