A guide to the White Nights Festival in Russia

Updated: 23rd March 2020

Every year the beautiful city of St. Petersburg becomes the perfect stomping ground for culture-obsessed night owls. For a period of two months this former Russian capital comes alive with a calendar of events that provides visitors with a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the city's cultural richness against a backdrop of a never-setting sun. Unsure what we're referring to? Read on for our comprehensive guide to the White Nights Festival.

Kunstkammer in St Petersburg - White Nights Festival - On The Go Tours
The Kunstkammer against a sky made colourful by the midnight sun

What are the White Nights?

The term 'white nights' refers to a natural phenomenon more commonly known as the midnight sun. It occurs during the summer months around both poles, north of the Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle. Due to the extreme latitude of these regions, the sun does not fully set for roughly a two month period around the summer solstice. On the night of summer solstice the sun remains visible all night long.

Countries where this phenomenon occurs include Russia, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Canada and the USA (Alaska). Many of these destinations will celebrate the summer solstice in their own way but the city of St. Petersburg goes one step further and honours the entire white night period with its own festival.

What is the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg?

The White Nights Festival is a public gala of cultural events organised by the Saint Petersburg City Administration. Held in one of Russia's most beautiful and poetic cities, the festival brings together ballet, opera, classical music and the arts with a schedule of performances that showcases the best of the country's homegrown talent alongside some of the world's most prominent names.

The festival largely refers to the Stars of the White Nights Festival, which is a near two-month-long calendar of ballet, opera and classical music performances and concerts held at the magnificent Mariinsky Theatre, the Conservatoire and the Hermitage Theatre. Each year is different with a mix of classics and lesser-known works premiered and reprised. Other events and performances occur outside of the Stars of the White Nights, most notable of which is the overnight opening of some of St. Petersburg's most prestigious museums and art galleries. Entry is free and visitors can browse collections of art and other exhibits until the small hours of the night. It is known as the Long Night of the Museums.

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Museum of Political History - credit Garrett Ziegler at Flickr
Inside the Museum of Political History. Photo credit Garrett Ziegler @ Flickr

Which museums are open during the Night of the Museums?

Many of St. Petersburg's most interesting museums participate in the Long Night of the Museums event. Some will keep their doors open all night while others will offer an evening programme that finishes before midnight. Here is a selection of museums that have participated in recent years:

History of Religion Museum - charts the history of religious beliefs and practices throughout the world with art works, texts, and ritual items.
Memorial Museum of Leningrad Defense and Blockade - documenting the infamous city siege through photos, propaganda posters and donated survivor artefacts.
Museum of Dolls - displays a rich collection of dolls, lead soldiers and traditional folk toys from around the world.
Museum of Political History - a comprehensive overview of the politics that have shaped Russia from past to present.
Sheremetev Palace - serves as a branch of the Museum of Music with a collection of 19th-20th century musical instruments.

Dozens more museums and institutes get involved and you can find a more comprehensive list on the Art Night website.

Scarlet Sails at the White Nights Festival - Russia - On The Go Tours
The Scarlet Sails is one of the most popular White Nights events

What else happens during the White Nights Festival?

It's not all art and culture during the White Nights Festival with a number of more public events taking place. The highlight for many is the Scarlet Sails show. It is a celebration for students graduating high school and held on the weekend closest to the summer solstice. It has become popular with people from all walks of life thanks to the huge fireworks display, an open-air concert and spectacular multi-level water, light and pyrotechnic show. On the Neva River a boat with red sails crosses the water, wishing graduates a smooth voyage into adulthood where they can realise their ambitions.

Another highlight is the series of carnivals that take place across the city, most notably in the suburb of Peterhof. Actors perform re-enactments in period costume with period horse-drawn carriages ridden through the streets to celebrate some of Russia's most important historic events. There are also contemporary shows with big-name international bands performing in the city's Palace Square with The Rolling Stones a recent appearance.

When is the White Nights Festival?

The official Stars of the White Nights programme runs between late May and late July each year with the exact dates varying by just a day or two. The Long Night of the Museums occurs a few days before this and is a one-night event only. The museums stay open from 9pm to 6am the following morning.

The natural phenomenon of the white nights lasts from late May to early July with the brightest of these nights falling between the 11th June and 2nd July.

St Petersburg during the White Nights - Russia - On The Go Tours
The opening of the Neva Bridge is a must-see during St. Pete's white nights

How to enjoy the White Nights like a local

For international visitors to St. Petersburg, the White Nights Festival presents the perfect opportunity to gorge on culture but for the city's residents it's a time to have some fun in the midnight sun. Here's a few insights to help you enjoy the experience like the locals do.

Eat ice-cream, known as morozhenoe and available from strolling carts that pop up all over the city during the summer months. Those avoiding dairy can opt for fresh slices of watermelon instead.

Watch the Neva Bridge parting to allow passage for boat traffic. The riverside embankments afford clear views or if you're in the mood for something a little special, take an evening boat cruise and experience the city from water level at the same time.

Wander the city streets, following the network of canals until you arrive somewhere that takes your fancy. The act of unplanned wandering is known as gul’yat in Russian and is an art form in its own right. If you prefer not to leave your ambling to fate, arm yourself with a self-guided city walk.

Drink at one (or more) of the city's many bars, pubs or cafes. With night-long sunshine it's the perfect time to hop from bar to bar, enjoying a cold beer or fancy cocktail while sat on an outdoor terrace observing the buzz of the city.

Dance all night long, if the thought of never-ending sunlight makes you uncomfortable. Russia's big cities are notorious for their hedonistic lifestyles and there's plenty of nightclubs waiting to ensconce you in darkness and pulsating music.

Sleep...but only once you've experienced all you can.

And don't forget to book show tickets in advance - ballet, opera and classical music performances at the Mariinsky Theatre sell out months in advance.

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