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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.

In Russia’s northern city of St Petersburg, the few brief weeks of White Nights and sun-filled summer days are an intoxicating time. By day, locals revel in the heat of the outdoors; by light-washed night, there are festivals, concerts and all-night parties. 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 along one of the breezy riverside embankments for a real taste of summer, St Petersburg-style. During the few brief hot weeks, 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. Sunbathing by the Neva River is also typically “Piter” (as locals lovingly call the city). The riverside walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress are a favourite sun-lovers’ hangout.

Go swimming
Lake Ladoga – the 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 is not quite 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 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 is kind of euphoria to strolling 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 – about 3 am – 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 are on foot, make sure you are on the correct side of the river to get back to your accommodation: the metro stops at 12:30 am and with the bridges open until 5 am, there is 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 Petersburg’s stages were traditionally 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.

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 18 June this year) is the biggest annual public gathering in Russia, with more than a million people attending each year. There is a mock pirate battle on the River Neva, followed by 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.

© 2012 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘White Nights in St Petersburg’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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