Most of St. Petersburg's liveliest and richest cultural events take place during the magical summer weeks when there is no "after dark," under the soft, elongated sunset of the White Nights. Its 18th-century palaces throw open their doors for midnight music concerts, its regal parks and squares host open-air jazz festivals, and much of the city seems to be wandering the bridges and quays or floating down the canals until morning.
Of course, this city that considers itself Russia's cultural capital is alive with performances the rest of the year as well, and city boosters increasingly fill the calendar with events to even out the tourist flow, and to remind visitors that its northern latitude is not the only reason to visit St. Petersburg.
What was known for decades as the Kirov Ballet and Opera Company has again adopted its pre-revolutionary name of the Mariinsky Company, and performs at the magnificent Mariinsky Theater when it's not touring internationally. Its reputation, funding, and talent suffered during the decade following the Soviet Union's collapse, as many of its best dancers went abroad. But it's enjoying a revival, and its standards remain world-class. Meanwhile, the city has benefited from growing competition by smaller companies.
The city's club and bar scene hasn't reached the superlative debauchery of Moscow's, but St. Petersburg's discos and casinos still offer plenty to shock and stimulate a Western visitor.
English-language listings for theater, music, and movies are best found in The St. Petersburg Times (www.sptimes.ru). Bar and club reviews can be found in the free, bilingual listings magazines found at restaurants and hotels.
Casinos -- St. Petersburg's high-brow history didn't keep out the flood of gaudy gambling establishments embraced by post-Soviet Russia. Slot machines are found in places you least expect them, including upscale restaurants and shops. Casinos however were set to shut down sometime in 2009 in an effort to clean up the shady business that often goes hand-in-hand.
Where to Go During White Nights
Several festivals claim to be St. Petersburg's "official" White Nights event, but in fact there are so many entertainment options that it doesn't matter who's more official than whom. The city government defines the period as the 50 days when the sun never gets more than 9 degrees below the horizon, roughly from late May to mid-July. The biggest events run for 2 weeks in late June around the summer solstice. Some festivals with the name "White Nights" in them start as early as May, so even if you're not in town on the longest day of the year, you have plenty of performances to choose from. See the Mariinsky Theater website (www.mariinsky.ru) for details of its Stars of the White Nights festival, considered the most prestigious in town. For schedules of the White Nights Jazz festival, another top draw, see www.jazz.ru/eng. The Shostakovich Philharmonic hosts a June music festival. Film festivals, fashion festivals, and beer festivals fill up any space left on the White Nights calendar. Once you arrive, consult your hotel concierge or the English-language The St. Petersburg Times for more listings.
The main all-night, outdoor party scene is along a stretch of Angliiskaya Naberezhnya (English Embankment) on the south bank of the Neva, not far from the Hermitage, with street musicians, food stands, and throngs of people. Elsewhere, most official events are held in the evening, starting around 8 or 9pm, except at the dance clubs, where the partying starts and ends much later. Outdoor music festivals fill up stages at the Summer Gardens and Taurida Gardens, good for walks and picnics before or after the concerts. The imperial palaces outside St. Petersburg put on summer music performances, with the festival at Peterhof especially impressive, including concerts around the fountains and in the ballrooms. The towns of Vyborg and Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin) also host music concerts. A few cruise companies and dozens of private boats ply St. Petersburg's canals in the wee hours during the White Nights, offering an excellent way to celebrate the city's overall beauty.
This is the city where Maurice Petipa invented ballet, so it would be a shame not to pay homage by watching some of the world's top stars interpret this most classical of dance forms. Yet watching The Nutcracker in a Russian theater or hearing a Shostakovich concerto in a Russian symphony hall are only the most obvious ways to appreciate St. Petersburg's performing arts. Flawless dancing and searing melodies grace lesser-known works, too. St. Petersburg offers you an opportunity to explore operas and ballets less common outside Russia, such as Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin or Rimsky-Korsakov's Imperial Bride. Classical music venues are conservative in their repertoires but produce consistently rigorous performances -- at surprisingly low prices. Take note: Most theaters close down after the White Nights until the season reopens in September, so if you're here in late July or August, your performance options will be slim.
Theatre -- English-language theater performances are rather rare in St. Petersburg, though the choices multiply during the White Nights. See The St. Petersburg Times (www.sptimes.ru) for listings.
Beyond the White Nights -- Some festivals to watch out for during the off season include the Autumn Marathon Jazz Festival in October, run by the city Jazz Philharmonic; the White Days festival in January, with performances at all the major ballet and concert halls; and the New Year's Festival of dance and music late December to early January.
Theater Dining -- St. Petersburg's theaters are too spread out for a theater dining scene, and performances tend to be too early (7pm as a rule) for pre-theater meals. The area around the Mariinsky Theater is surprisingly devoid of good dining options, so many visitors head for the rather incongruous Shamrock Irish restaurant and pub across the street, or the Russian coffee shop Yest around the corner. A better but slightly farther option is Ob'ekt, a Russian-European cafe-bar with a casually elegant atmosphere and reliable food, at 82 Moika Canal (tel. 812/312-1134; metro: Sadovaya).
The Club & Music Scene
Someone is playing live music or spinning dance tracks somewhere in St. Petersburg any time of day, any time of the year. The city claims to be the birthplace of Russia's post-Soviet rock scene, spawning such bands as Pep-see, Tequilajazz, and the raspy, raunchy Leningrad, which went on to spawn others. Dance clubs run the gamut from freaky to haute couture to retro. Even the most mainstream of nightclubs or bars is bound to have topless entertainment, which has become such a staple of Russian nightlife that most Russians don't seem to watch.
St. Petersburg's jazz clubs are a treasure, but there aren't enough of them to go around. Petersburgers cultivate a keen interest in the genre, celebrating world-renowned musicians and those who practice the searing notes of the particular form of Russian jazz. The White Nights Jazz Festival is one of the highlights of the summer season, not to be missed if you're here that time of year. See www.jazz.ru for details and listings.
Nightclubs & Cabarets -- Unfortunately, most nightclubs in St. Petersburg have become synonymous with bordellos, and the stage shows are little more than strip acts. The nightclubs in the more expensive hotels are somewhat cleaner, though they tend to be stale and not worth the high drink prices. The bars and dance clubs are a better way to feel the city's nighttime pulse. One exception, perhaps the only cabaret in town, is the Chaplin Club, which puts on pantomime shows, comedy shows, or jazz performances at 7:30pm every night for about 65 rubles. The shows are in Russian but visually enjoyable, and the atmosphere is relaxed and arty with a vaudevillian feel. During the day, children's parties are staged and a generous all-inclusive Russian-European lunch is offered for 300 rubles. The club is at 59 Chaikovskogo Ulitsa (tel. 812/272-6649; metro: Chernyshevskaya).
The Bar Scene
St. Petersburg's bar scene is less extensive than Moscow's, but it's more compact -- largely jammed up along Nevsky Prospekt -- and perhaps more creative. Nevsky's bar-restaurants are open until the wee hours, or all night. During the White Nights, the taps flow steadily till dawn. The brewing industry has blossomed in and around St. Petersburg in recent years, and many of the country's favorite brands are based here. Be sure to try out local beers Tinkoff, Baltika (no. 7 is the most accessible), and Nevskoye at some point during your stay.
The Gay & Lesbian Scene -- The gay scene in Petersburg, as elsewhere in Russia, really emerged only over the past decade after Soviet-era laws against homosexuality were scrapped. Now the city's gay club scene is like its counterparts in any major metropolis: fickle. Today's hot spot may be too mainstream -- or may have gone straight -- by next season. Many of the city's top dance clubs have gay nights, and nearly all clubs are gay-friendly. See www.gay.ru/english for up-to-date listings.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.