The light fantastic in St Petersburg

After the long, cold winter, the city's residents revel in the White Nights of summer, with festivities that run well beyond midnight, says Chris Leadbeater

The sky is behaving strangely. It is swirling behind the dome of St Isaac's Cathedral – its misty, gossamer brightness condemning the grandest of St Petersburg's vast churches to silhouette. And there are dabs of blue amid the clouds – shards of turquoise-azure which hint at a time somewhere near 3pm in autumn. I check my watch.

It is sticking to its story – that the hour is well past 11pm, and yet the day is still with us.

Russia's former imperial capital is surely the most splendid urban setting for a date with the midnight sun. True, Helsinki and Oslo also enjoy the "White Nights" that grace the upper portions of Europe in high summer. But nowhere does this carnival of light seem quite so dramatic as amid the architectural flamboyance of a metro-polis that was dreamt up by Peter the Great in 1703 – all epic palaces and open spaces on the banks of the River Neva.

The White Nights period is an intoxicating experience in St Petersburg – and a lengthy one too. Between now and 17 July, the sun will not set before 11pm over a place that dots the map at 59°56N – and it will take until 14 July before it is so tardy as to be back above the horizon later than 5am. Between these hours, the city is bathed in a persistent pale lustre that gradually dims to gloom, but never wholly surrenders to black.

The result is a season that is embraced by a city that endures six months of winter – 50 or so days when St Petersburg forgets about thick coats, sturdy hats and traditional Russian reserve, and instead acts with the giddiness of a gaggle of pupils on the last day of term.

Indeed, "Scarlet Sails" (Alye Parusa) – the centrepoint of the festivities that illuminate the city between late May and late July – is just that. Scheduled for 11pm next Saturday, this riverside party is a celebration of the end of the school year. Tied to the 1922 children's book of the same title – written by the author Alexander Grin, whose fairytales injected drops of the fantastical into the austerity of post-revolutionary Russia – it will see a tall ship, masts clad in fiery red, glide down the Neva as a metropolis rejoices on the south bank.

Along English Embankment (Angliyskaya Naberezhnaya), bands will strum, orchestral ensembles will perform and fireworks will explode as boat races and "pirate battles" play out on the water. In a way, this is a New Year's Eve extravaganza staged at the heart of the calendar, a sign of the happy topsy-turviness that engulfs St Petersburg in summer.

There are other, less cacophonous notes to the season. Since 1993, the city's artistic icon, the Mariinsky Theatre, has proffered the Stars Of The White Nights festival – a flurry of elevated culture. The 2013 run of shows continue until 28 July with ballet staples such as Swan Lake and opera cornerstones like Tosca and Aida – but will come with added sparkle this year because the striking new glass-and-limestone venue, Mariinsky II, which opened last month, will also be used.

The merry atmosphere is palpable whether you are drinking in one of a crop of stylish watering holes – such as the DJs-and-cocktails enclave of Clean Plates Society on Gorokhovaya Ulitsa – or dining at the Astoria Café in the sacred confines of the Hotel Astoria – the accommodation giant that has just marked its 100th anniversary.

Strolling to the river from the latter just as 1am dawns, I realise that the joy even envelopes the city's municipal rituals. From May to November, when the flow is free of ice, the Neva's bridges are raised during the small hours to let boats pass to sea. A crowd has gathered, awaiting the lifting of the Blagoveshchensky and Dvortsovy bridges, the two most central structures, which spread arms in unison at 1.25am.

As the moment arrives, a cry goes up, and the music from the food stalls and ad-hoc bars on the edge swells. Here, it seems, is the answer to the question of what happens after dark when, strictly, there is no darkness.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to St Petersburg from Heathrow.

Staying there

Doubles at the Hotel Astoria (007 812 494 5757; thehotelastoria.com) start at £161, room only. Four nights with breakfast, transfers and BA flights from Heathrow, cost from £850pp through Exeter International (020-8956 2756; exeterinternational.co.uk).

Visiting there

Mariinsky Theatre, Teatral'naya Ploshchad 1 (007 812 326 4141; mariinsky.ru).

Clean Plates Society, Gorokhovaya Ulitsa 13 (007 812 934 9764; cleanplates.ru). The locally based Saint-Petersburg.com office offers more tourist information.

More information

British passport-holders require a visa; £77.60 (0905 889 0149; ru.vfsglobal.co.uk).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Sport
football
News
i100
Life and Style
Virtual reality headset: 'Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face'
techHow virtual reality is thrusting viewers into frontline of global events and putting film-goers at the heart of the action
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness