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EXCLUSIVE | Global Gayborhoods: St. Petersburg

EXCLUSIVE | Global Gayborhoods: St. Petersburg

This former capital of Russia boasts gorgeous architecture, a history of creative citizens, and a gay scene comparable to now-capital Moscow.

The City of Palaces has had more than its fair share of close calls with extinction in the 20th century. Time and again, however, St. Petersburg's architectural splendor and World Heritage skyline has literally risen from its own ashes, always quickly wrenching the title of Russia's cultural capital back from Moscow.

These periodic population devastations and resurgences are not random. The metropolis' reputation as a bastion for liberal willfulness, artistic production (Nabokov, Dostoyevsky, Shostakovitch) and cosmopolitan demographics deservedly endures -- the mass exoduses and population devastations caused by Lenin's Red Terror, Stalin's Great Purge and the Nazi siege of World War II notwithstanding.

St. Petersburg's gay and lesbian scene has also fluctuated with Russia's cultural and political climate: same-sex acts were decriminalized in 1917 by Lenin, re-criminalized in 1934 by Stalin, and decriminalized again in 1993 with an age of consent set at 16.

The growth of queer life in St. Petersburg -- which became home to Russia's first public "LGBT Center," Krilija (P.O. Box 108, St. Petersburg, 191186; 011-7-812-312-31-80; Krilija.Sp.Ru/2Eng.htm) in 1991 -- has been neck and neck with that of Moscow, which held the country's first Gay Pride Parade in 2006.

Tips: Bed Head
Steeped in the high luxury standards of old world Europe, the Taleon Imperial Hotel (Moika River Embankment, 59; 011-7-812-324-99-44) not only offers the amenities you might expect -- an indoor pool, a salon and full fitness facilities, for example -- but also some most wouldn't, like complimentary butler service, Empire furniture and a lunch on the house at their fine restaurant. Also, it's within walking distance of The Hermitage Museum and St. Isaac's Cathedral.

Tricks: Hot Nights
What spot is hot changes fast in any major city, but Central Station (1 Lomonosov Ulitsa; 011-8-812-312-3600; Nevsky Prospect metro), Greshniki (28/1 Griboyedova Canal; 011-7-812-318-4291; Nevsky Prospect or Gostinii Dvor metro) and Bunker (90 Fontanka embankment; 011-7-812-320-9348) have firm roots in the scene.

Central Station, which has three floors, and nearby Greshniki (Sinners) are good bets for good, lucky nights surrounded by local beauties, while Bunker is an excellent cruising bar that also hosts its own weekly parties.

Tips: White Nights
For a few weeks every June, St. Petersburg's nights are spontaneously replaced with a preternatural eight-hour twilight, caused by the city's latitude and proximity to the Arctic Circle.

While not a specifically queer time for celebration, the entire city empties into the streets for this, reveling for ten days at the end of the month with non-stop parties and cultural events. Without nighttime between days, it's as if there is no tomorrow -- only one long, hedonistic today.

Tips: Lost?
By daylight, it's certainly an adventure to navigate Cyrillic street signs, find English-speakers, and convert rubles to euros or dollars in a taxi that may be trying to charge you three times the normal fare. (Meters are frequently broken, to boot.)

By night, however -- and especially after a few vodkas -- the charm of a good adventure can wane and it can be helpful to have a guide, or at least a map on which your hotel is circled in red.

A good source of information, Gay.Ru is a commercial LGBT website that also arranges queer guides for travelers in St. Petersburg and other major cities. Krilija, mentioned above, also offers everything from visa invitations to home-cooked Russian meals and accommodations to queer tour guides. They also offer escorts, should they be desired.

Otherwise, check out Indigo Shop (Nevsky Pr, 32-34; 011-7-812-448-5533; Nevsky Pr or Gostiny Dvor. metro stops) for copies of local publications with up-to-date listings or the website Xs.Gay.Ru/Eng, which includes club listings.

Friends in the know are also easily found at Cafe-Max (90/92 Nevsky Prospect; 011-8-812-273-6655; Mayakovskaya metro), an Internet cafe that serves alcohol and attracts a young set of gay boys. Watch out for hustlers!

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