By Anne Z. Cooke

Full moon rises above St. Petersburg Russia
Full moon rises above St. Petersburg

Russia's northern capital, St. Petersburg, sprang up in the early 18th century by the will of Tsar Peter I, also known as Peter the Great. Not only did he engineer a series of reforms that were to put Russia among the major European powers of the day, he opened Russia to the influence of the West; invited the best European engineers, shipbuilders, architects, and craftsmen to come to Russia to modernize the country; and orchestrated its development to create his personal European paradise.

Without question, the markings of continental Europe are everywhere in the city, which is often called the "Venice of the North" or the "Paris of the East." Both monikers are justified: like watery Venice, St. Petersburg is built on 42 islands connected by 360 bridges that cross the Neva River and its 65 smaller rivers and natural canals. And like Paris, the city is laid out in wide boulevards with leafy squares lined with stunning Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-Classical palaces.


From late May to early July, the sun really never sets in St. Petersburg -- it actually never gets more than 9 degrees below the horizon -- thus the term "White Nights" was coined to describe the period around the summer solstice. The nature of the phenomenon can be explained by the geographical location of St. Petersburg, the world's most northern city with a population of more than 1 million. Located roughly on the same latitude as Oslo, Norway, the southern tip of Greenland, and Seward, Alaska, the sun doesn't go under the horizon deep enough for the sky to get dark. Literally, the dusk meets the dawn, keeping it is so bright that streetlights are never turned on.

Technically speaking, the "White Nights" are not unique to St. Petersburg, but the northern nights seem to have received more poetic acclaim here than elsewhere. It's the world's only metropolis where a "White Nights Festival" takes place, including "Stars of the White Nights" at the prestigious Mariinsky Theater ( from mid-May to mid-July. It's also where residents spend their evenings strolling on Nevsky Prospekt -- the city's main thoroughfare -- walking along the canals, taking all-night boat tours, enjoying sidewalk cafes that remain open late into the night, and listening to outdoor jazz concerts in parks and squares. This is peak tourist season.

During my recent visit in late July (daylight still lingers until close to 10 p. m.), I preferred daytime wanderings, and visitors should be advised that most of the city's major attractions do not keep late-night hours regardless of the time of year. The State Hermitage Museum (, for example, the most visited place in all of St. Petersburg, opens from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed Mondays), but advice to a first-time visitor is "get there early" or purchase tickets in advance online.

The state-owned museum is really five linked buildings that sit along the Palace Embankment on the Neva River -- the Winter Palace, Little Hermitage, Old and New Hermitages, and the Hermitage Theater -- and a full day's exploration might not even be sufficient to appreciate its offerings. The Winter Palace is the building that most people recognize, and deservedly so for it's a masterpiece of Baroque architecture. Simple numbers give an indication of its grandeur: 1,057 rooms, 117 staircases, and 1,945 windows. In total, the museum, which Catherine the Great started in 1764 when she bought a large number of Western European paintings, houses more than 3 million objects.

A view of Palace Square from the third floor of the Winter Palace provides another grand impression of the city, although I was told the square isn't large by Russian standards, despite the fact that the curved General Staff Headquarters is nearly a half-mile wide, and the Alexander Column in the center weighs 600 tons. The square was widely used as a staging ground for Russian political activity leading up to the Russian Revolution, but today it's used as a parking lot for tour buses and as the setting for rock concerts from the likes of Elton John and the Rolling Stones.

During White Nights, or whenever the weather is cooperative (the average temperature in summer is 66 degrees), you can easily go on a do-it-yourself walking tour using Nevsky Prospekt, a 2-1/2-mile thoroughfare, as a focus. After visiting The Hermitage and Palace Square, we headed to Isaac's Square with its imposing namesake cathedral and equestrian monument honoring Emperor Nicholas I. If you're in the market for matryoshka nesting dolls to bring home as an inexpensive souvenir (some sell for as little as $2), you can find lots of vendors in the center of the square selling them. Those that claim to be hand-painted will set you back more.

We walked further on to Kazan Cathedral, a surprisingly secular, European-styled building that resembles St. Peter's in Rome. Consecrated in 1811, the church was commissioned by Emperor Paul I whose architect was ordered to "follow the model" of St. Peter's. No onion domes or elaborate Orthodox symbols here. For those, you'll have to travel a little further, cross over Nevsky and head down the Griboyedov Canal to one of the most photographed churches in St. Petersburg, The Cathedral of the Resurrection.

More familiarly known as the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, the colorful nine-domed cathedral is a masterpiece of architecture and a precious piece of art. The "spilled blood" in its second name honors Emperor Alexander II, who was mortally wounded on the site in 1881. Covered with mosaics inside and out, the church closely resembles Moscow's Cathedral of St. Basil and is an excellent example of Russian creativity and artistic achievement. The Griboyedov embankment at the rear of the church is also filled with souvenir vendors, so if you missed buying your matryoshkas earlier, you'll find more here.

While you're near the canal, consider a boat tour of the city it's a delightful -- and some say the only -- way to see St. Petersburg. You can find boats here with English-speaking guides, or head back to Isaac's Square and pick one up along the Fontanka or Moika embankments. The routes vary, but most will head out to the Neva for you to admire The Hermitage, Peter and Paul Fortress and Smolny Cathedral from afar. Most of the city's bridges provide eye candy as well, although the drawbridges can be a huge nuisance from April to November when they're raised at synchronized times from 2 to 4:45 a.m.

When the Neva is navigable, the bridges across it have to be raised to allow large vessels to pass through on their way to the Gulf of Finland. For visitors, their openings add yet another dimension to the city's charm, and crowds gather every night along the embankment to watch them rise.


Some call St. Petersburg's "White Days" -- the period from December to March where the sun rarely shines, snow marks the landscape, and the average temperature hovers around 15 degrees -- the ultimate winter experience. The official "Whites Days Festival" takes place from the last week in December to New Year's Day, the major holiday on the Russian calendar, but fans of Russian literature will recall that winter was always the fashionable season in Imperial St. Petersburg. Balls and concerts were held in splendid halls and Russian high society sped from one affair to the next in carriages and troikas crushing the snow and ice beneath wheels and runners.

You can experience a similar buzz today with a winter visit that highlights indoor activities dominated by the city's great performing arts. The Mariinsky Theatre, home to the Kirov Ballet, Kirov Opera and Mariinsky Orchestra, hosts a full slate of productions from Christmas to "Maslenitsa," the period before Orthodox Lent (March 3 to 9, 2008), including a gala New Year's Eve performance and ball. The Philharmonia, Russia's most celebrated musical institution, also hosts a Winter Arts Festival in December and January, with events held in Arts Square, in the Great Hall of the Philharmonia, and in the Russian Museum.

For a full slate of performances, events, and activities, including rates for all-inclusive packages from 10 participating hotels, visit



Grand Hotel Europe, 1-7 Mikhailovskaya Street,, is one of the St. Petersburg's most exclusive properties. Classified as a national and cultural monument, the Orient-Express hotel runs for a full block from Nevsky Prospekt to the Square of the Arts, with a lovely Grand Terrace on the Nevsky corner open during warm weather. Five floors of rooms and suites surround an atrium restaurant, one of five (see Where To Eat). Guests can choose from 300 rooms and suites, including the Belles Chambres, which retain original architectural details. Double occupancy room rates start at 11,400 RUR ($445) without breakfast, but the hotel offers "White Days" packages. Phone 329-6000.

Hotel Astoria, Ulitsa Bolshaya Morskaya 39,, occupies a grand position on Isaac's Square and is about a five-minute walk to The Hermitage. It combines Russian character with the elegant sophistication that marks hotels in the Rocco Forte group, notably stunning interior design by Olga Polizzi, a fitness center, and great restaurants (see Where To Eat). The hotel has 174 bedroom and 39 suites, all featuring state-of-the-art technology. Double occupancy room rates start at 11,800 RUR ($460) without breakfast, but the hotel offers "White Days" packages. Phone 494-5757.

Angleterre Hotel, Ulitsa Malaya Morskaya 24,, is a first-class hotel designed for business travelers and managed by its sister property, The Astoria. Each of its 188 rooms is decorated in a style that combines classic Russian with contemporary European elements. A Club Floor and lounge provide an ideal office and home away from home. Rates during "White Days range from 9,385 to 11,855 RUR ($365 to $461) without breakfast; phone 494-5666.


When it comes to eating in a foreign country, I do my best to eat like the locals, which in St. Petersburg means pirozhki (small meat or vegetable pies), blini (Russian pancakes), pelmeni (dumplings) and lots of (expensive) caviar. Since perestroika, however, it's difficult to talk specifically of "Russian" cuisine, as many specialties now served in St. Petersburg restaurants actually originated in different republics of the former Soviet Union before restructuring.

That aside, it's sometimes tricky to find an authentic Russian restaurant with English-speaking servers or translated menus. To solve the problem, stick to hotel dining rooms, nearly all of which have a caviar bar or Russian-themed dining room.

Davidov Restaurant, Astoria Hotel, offers fine dining nightly and on weekends a "Russian Table" filled with traditional dishes such as chicken Kiev, beef Stroganoff, pelmeni with mushrooms, and caviar with blinis accompanied by chilled vodka; 2275 RUR ($88) per person; a la carte menu 1955 RUR ($76) without wine.

The adjacent Angleterre Hotel has a separate Caviar Bar overlooking Isaac's Square. The "menu" features the best of the big three -- Beluga, Oscietra and Sevruga, named for the sturgeon in which they're found and in descending order of price and size of the egg. It's recommended that they be eaten in this order as well. Prices vary depending on amount.

The Caviar Bar at the Grand Hotel Europe offers a "Romanov's Menu" for two, that includes Oscietra and salmon caviar; smoked sturgeon, pike perch and trout; Vodka marinated salmon; Baltic herring; pelmeni with smetana sauce; bear stew, and strawberries Romanov; 5650 RUB ($220) without wine or vodka.

If you're looking for a grand finale to a visit to The Hermitage, though, you might also enjoy the restaurant there (8 Palace Square; 314-4772) located in the easterly wing of the General Staff Building. Ten rooms, each designed in a different style, offer Russian classics and French-inspired food. There's also a Caviar Bar is you simply can't get enough of the stuff. A la carte menu 1500 RUR ($58) per person without wine.


Independent visitors to Russia are required to have a visa. You can obtain one from Pinnacle Travel Document Systems ( For general tourist information visit (310-2822), the official site of the city's tourist board. In St. Petersburg, the tourist information office is located at Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square 12, near The Hermitage and Alexander Column. Here you can get street maps, hotel and museum information, and book tours. The currency in St. Petersburg is the Russian Ruble (RUR); Euros are not generally accepted. All phone numbers are for local calls; from the U.S., dial 011+ 7 + 812 + local number.


© Anne Z. Cooke

Travel | White Days, White Nights Mark St. Petersburg's Seasons