Ever wanted to wear your sunglasses at night? Your best chance may be in St. Petersburg, where thanks to the natural phenomenon known as White Nights (from May till late July), the sun finally dips below the horizon at 11:30. That makes for long days of sightseeing that stretch into longer evenings of revelry—a perfect combination for a trip to Russia’s second-largest city.
Take off your shades to admire the jewels of imperial Russia at Bellevue Brasserie, nestled high above the city. Locals and visitors alike are drawn to the Kempinski Hotel’s 360-degree restaurant, especially to marvel at the nearby Hermitage Museum as the day’s last rays reflect off a green facade as vibrant as pistachio sherbet. On the ground, exploring the former Winter Palace of Empress Catherine the Great—and the many artworks she collected that are now on display to the public—could take days, so plan at least one if not two afternoons to meander.
More splendor awaits at Peterhof, Peter the Great’s imperial suburban complex inspired by the grandeur of Louis the XIV’s Versailles, and its magnificent fountains are another great reason to visit St. Petersburg in the summer. The palaces and gardens are a must-stop so you can admire the Grand Cascade, a splashing symphony that was the 18th-century version of Las Vegas’ Bellagio extravaganza.
TWO CITIES: The Hermitage Museum is a must-see destination in St. Petersburg, while Moscow, above, offers many delights.
Getting there by plane, train and automobile is half the fun; starting in the center of St. Petersburg, the commute via car is about an hour. As you weave past iconic onion domes like those on Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood and over the bridges spanning labyrinthine canals, guides like Esperance Travel’s Marina Leonko will lend greater context to a history as expansive as the steppes of the Motherland. Unlike intuitive Romance languages, Russian is as difficult to pick up on as purported; though street and subway signs are in English, it’s worth it to sit back and relax on the ride as the former literature and art professor regales you with centuries of tales of war, royalty, hubris and what it was like growing up under Communist rule. Plus, there are insights into the best foodie markets (Yeliseev Emporium) and “hidden” restaurants (Cafe Singer). Ride back into the city on the high-speed hydrofoil, which cuts the commute in half and doubles the excitement. Coasting on top of the water’s surface, you’ll get an expansive view as you re-enter St. Petersburg, enough to inspire you to return for a slow-speed tour.
Despite its appellation as “Venice of the North,” this Russian gem’s canals are much wider than those in Italy or Amsterdam, and there’s plenty of hop-on/hop-off options on a cruise past highlights like Peter and Paul Fortress (the city’s original citadel) or Michael Garden, which adjoins the Russian Museum. The best bet is to plan indoor museum visits and outdoor activities around the weather, for even in the height of summer the temperatures crest at 70 degrees. Railway aficionados won’t be able to resist the lure of Grand Maket Rossiya, an 8,600-square-foot model train museum that presents the entire Russian Federation in miniature. Laughing at playful polar bears in Siberia or marveling at the onion domes of Moscow make for an easy way to spend an afternoon.
Those with an extra day to travel can head to Moscow via a real train that whisks riders to the country’s capital, where history lovers will have their breath taken away. Admire the Candy Land-like spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral, just as colorful today as when they were finished in 1561, or snake your way through the lines outside of Lenin’s tomb. But for all that is old, there is lots developing in Moscow, including brand-new Moss Boutique Hotel, which sports minimalist modern design and modern local art. Bicyclists will rejoice with free wheels, and trendy in-house eatery Coffeemania whips up excellent cappuccinos for fueling up. Traditionalists may prefer tea from a samovar or vodka tasting, and Cafe Kranzler Bar & Terrace fits the bill with views toward the Kremlin and Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge. Although Russia isn’t exactly renowned for its cuisine, much of it is quite good and fans of the Netflix series Chef’s Table should add Moscow’s White Rabbit restaurant and the panorama from its glass-domed roof to their agenda.
Back in St. Petersburg, fill up for a long day of sightseeing at Kempinski’s lavish breakfast spread before visiting the spectacular Fabergé Museum for eggs of another kind. Nine Imperial Easter Eggs make up the museum’s 4,000-plus-piece collection, but there are more than simply million-dollar eggs at the museum. With many pieces collected from the royal family on display, Fabergé, much like St. Petersburg, has plenty of jewels to see.
Fabergé Museum, fabergemuseum.ru; Grand Maket Rossiya, grandmaket.ru; Hermitage Museum, hermitagemuseum.org; Moss Boutique Hotel, mosshotel.ru; Kempinski Hotel, kempinski.com; Peterhof, en.peterhofmuseum.ru; White Rabbit, whiterabbitmoscow.ru
- – The Sapsan bullet train takes less than four hours to get from St. Petersburg’s Moskovsky Station to Leningradskaya Station in the heart of Moscow.
- – Unlike most of Europe where museums are closed on Mondays or Tuesdays, closures in St. Petersburg rotate between the iconic locations; Fabergé is closed on Fridays, for example.