After dark in the city of czars
Celebrate New Year's any night, huff a hookah, sample herring, and let the vodka flow
St. Petersburg is considered the Venice of the North, with its courtyards, canals, neoclassical edifices, and opulent squares. (Philippe Colombi/Getty Images)
ost travelers know St. Petersburg for its fabled White Nights, a month around the summer solstice when dreamers and tourists stay up to watch the city's stately landscape bask in the sun until midnight, and then, after a brief dark spell, light up again with the 3 a.m. sunrise.
But what about the rest of the year?
Just because nightfall comes at a more familiar time and the low northern sky is shrouded with clouds (the city has an average of 75 sunny days a year, most during the summer), it doesn't mean that a fall, winter, or spring trip to the city nicknamed Venice of the North is doomed to be a long, dark slog through frigid puddles. In its mysterious Italianate darkness the maze of the city's interconnected courtyards, canals, and alleyways is even more fascinating as it leads travelers past half-lighted archways of neoclassical edifices to opulent squares that Europe's most celebrated Age of Enlightenment architects designed for the czars.
At night any time of year, walk down the musty embankments past the black copses of the regal parks and you will feel like a character from Andrei Bely's masterpiece, "Petersburg," sinking into the maritime mist of a city that reveals something new at each turn.
Or stroll through Marsovo Pole, the former czarist parade ground-turned-memorial to Bolshevik commissars, where you can warm your hands in front of the Eternal Flame and watch one of the city's time-honored traditions: young brides in flowing white gowns downing champagne from the bottle on the backdrop of the ornate, gingerbread facade of the Church of Christ the Savior on the Spilled Blood.
Every night from April to the end of September St. Petersburg's fabled drawbridges raise their illuminated spans over the slow-flowing Neva River in an elegantly orchestrated ballet to allow seafaring merchant ships to pass through the city. Ask your hotel for the bridge schedule to avoid getting stranded on the wrong bank at night, since for the several hours that the bridges are raised there is no way to get across the river.
But if your hotel is in downtown St. Petersburg, south of the Neva, and you end up stuck north of the river, you can head to Yubileiny, a giant, Olympic-style indoor skating rink north of the city center that is open to the public until 5 a.m. on weekends and will rent you skates for $6 an hour (plus a $60 safety deposit, which you get back when you return the skates).
I visited St. Petersburg in late August. By then, the White Nights had given way to the cool, breezy darkness that will increasingly take over until the year's shortest day - just five hours and 52 minutes of daylight - in late December.
A good way to explore St. Petersburg's night life, I thought, would be to go on a guided Friday night pub crawl ($22 per person, price of alcohol not included), which promised, among other things, a stop at a working-class vodka joint and an underground student nightclub. Then my tour guide called in sick, and I was left to venture on my own into the darkened, elegant streets and embankments studded with palaces, hookah bars, theaters, coffee parlors, 24-hour bookshops, and clubs.
A budget-minded traveler, I eschewed the traditional fare of black caviar and champagne at the city's opulent baroque restaurants. Instead, after stopping by a couple of nondescript bars and bookshops, I opted for another Russian tradition: a New Year's Eve celebration replete with Russian salad, line dancing, and vodka toasts.
So what if it was August? At Purga, a bar that huddles in a lovingly renovated dungeon beneath a neoclassical apartment building facing the Fontanka River, every night is New Year's Eve.
I walked past the sculptures of Sphinx-like rabbits and descended a steep stairway into a cramped room bustling with the happy mayhem of a long-awaited party. Someone handed out party poppers and sparklers, and a small orchestra of men dressed in bunny suits played amid tables laden with so many unfinished glasses and bottles of vodka that it was impossible to tell which of them were props and which had been abandoned by euphoric customers.
Revelers danced to Christmas jingles as they awaited that staple of Soviet New Year's Eve celebrations - a 12 a.m. televised playback of a holiday address by former Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev.
"We do this every night!" a smiling waitress yelled over the roar of the band. Then, spotting a few customers who were sitting down in a fashion she deemed unfestive, she strolled over to their table, ushered them to their feet, and led them in a merry, Macarena-inspired line dance.
After the chimes struck 12 I climbed out of Purga, which literally means "snowstorm," but which in modern Russian slang also means the kind of daze in which one may find oneself after celebrating New Year's with too much vodka. To my right, a short block away, lay the city's main drag, Nevsky Prospekt. I could make out the Anichkov Bridge over the Fontanka, adorned with the four cheeky allegoric sculptures commemorating Russia's victory over invading France in the War of 1812: men taming horses (the more knowledgeable locals will point out Napoleon's profile between one of the stallions' hind legs). Cars zoomed past and pedestrians crowded the bridge. In St. Petersburg, the night had just begun.
After a two-minute walk from Purga, on Karavannaya Street - named after caravans of camels and elephants that once traveled here en route to the circus a block away - I took off my shoes and plopped down on some cushions with an apple-scented hookah in Marrakesh, a tea and coffee shop. Hookahs are all the rage in St. Petersburg, and hot tea makes a wonderful antidote for vodka. The whole experience was perfect for long conversations with friends after a night of partying.
But when I told that to my Russian friend, Yulia Burlakova, she immediately shot me down. The real conversation in Russia, she said, happens in the kitchen - the traditional place for candid interaction between friends, where during the Soviet era people talked candidly about politics and held underground poetry readings over glasses of vodka, jars of pickled mushrooms, and hot, black tea.
So we went to the one place in St. Petersburg that resembles a Russian kitchen the most: the Idiot, where the city's bohemian and expatriate communities intersect. Its four rooms, decorated with antique furniture and crowded with books and yellowed photographs, nestle in a semi-basement on the Moika River embankment. Here you are as likely to see pointy-bearded Leo Trotsky look-alikes stretched out on couches as American exchange students catching up on their homework and Chinese businessmen playing chess over sauerkraut.
All customers get a free shot of vodka and the vegetarian menu features all the trimmings of the Russian kitchen: mushrooms, salted herring, and pickled garlic. There is also an entree called The Large Gentleman's Kit, which includes all of those, a liter of vodka, and a taxi to the hospital (or to your hotel).
I leaned back on the Idiot's upholstered couch, sipped on cool grape-flavored vodka, and chased it with a bite of herring topped with ground beets and egg. It was close to 2 a.m, and I was savoring this delightful end to my night in the city. Outside the restaurant's window, the Moika River lapped softly at the granite embankment. Then I heard a woman's giggle and the clap of footsteps fading in the direction of St. Isaac's Cathedral. Someone else was exploring the mysteries of nighttime St. Petersburg.
Anna Badkhen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.