St. Petersburg: White Nights calling
Whoever called New York “the city that never sleeps” had clearly never been to St. Petersburg in the summer.
The Russian metropolis, which will host seven matches at next summer’s FIFA World Cup, is bathed in almost perpetual daylight between May and June.
If New York dances in the dark, St. Petersburg does a summertime shimmy without dimming the lights.
Developed in the early 18th century under the watchful eye of Peter the Great, the city was home to Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and Dostoyevsky, helping it quickly grow into Russia’s cultural capital.
With its quaint canal-lined streets, it is easy to see why people refer to it as “the Venice of the North.”
On any given summer evening, St. Petersburg’s main vein, Nevsky Prospekt, bustles with musicians, street vendors, shoppers, boat hoppers, idle young lovers, and curious tourists gazing disbelievingly at the pale blue sky and checking their watches.
The Russians call this period of the year Belye Nochi, or White Nights, and it is without doubt the best time to visit.
Marked with a two-month celebration of culture — including theater, ballet and all-night parties — the White Nights Festival culminates with the spectacular Scarlet Sails show, a massive light and sound performance involving classical music, fireworks and a giant scarlet vessel sailing down the Neva River.
It is, during these days, not uncommon to see toddlers out with their babushkas at 2 a.m. and gathering with other residents on the banks of the Neva to watch the city’s drawbridges undergo their nightly tradition of opening to the sound of classical music.
The numerous small tour boats that dot the water, jostling for position, add to the occasion.
But staying up all night would mean missing out on so many of St. Petersburg’s daytime attractions. History is everywhere in the city formerly known as Leningrad, from the Peter and Paul Fortress (which broke ground in 1703) and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (built where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881) to the Mariinsky Theater (which premiered Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” in 1892).
The monolithic State Hermitage is one of the world’s oldest museums, dating back to 1754, and has more than 3 million artefacts in its collection, including the works of Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt.
It can get chaotically busy in the afternoons, so best go early in the morning and spend an entire day there — but still do not expect to see everything.
One thing that is certainly not old in St. Petersburg is the food. Fresh, flavorsome and unexpectedly economical, you will struggle to find a bad restaurant in the city.
With more than 30 million Muslims in Russia, there is a plethora of halal restaurants too.
Pkhali Khinkali, at 27 Bolshaya Morskaya Street, offers incredible Russian and Georgian cuisine, including a spice-infused lamb soup called bozbash that alone is worthy of a Michelin star — or Michelin tsar?
The Cheby Room, located just off Nevsky, serves up piping hot chebureki — a traditional fried pancake — with a variety of fillings (you cannot go wrong with sweet pumpkin).
On a Sunday, Kuznechny Market allows visitors to try more than 10 different types of thick, fresh honey and a wide array of crisp fruits and vegetables.
Signs of the Muslim population are visible throughout the city, but nowhere more so than at St. Petersburg Mosque, which was the largest in Europe when it opened in 1921.
Located on Kronverkskiy Prospekt, the mosque has a capacity of 5,000 worshipers, and during Ramadan last month welcomed 1,500-2,000 Muslims for iftar every night. Given that on the city’s longest day, the sun rose at 1.26 a.m. and did not set until 10.26 p.m., if there are any St. Petersburg residents who you might expect to not eagerly anticipate the White Nights, it would be the sizeable Muslim population during Ramadan.
Yet as Shagimardanov Idar, president of the Association of Muslim Businessmen in Russia, said: “For us, fasting is never a problem, no matter how many hours per day are required, even when it’s 21 hours such as this year.”