10 Tips on Travel to Russia in Winter
Travel to Russia in winter?! Merely mentioning these three words in the same sentence would make many of us cringe and shiver because of the ingrained stereotypes (thank you, ‘Doctor Zhivago’) of endless white landscapes, remote villages with log cabins half-buried in snow, and troika horse sleighs driven by fur-clad peasants.
Well, things have changed. Global warming or not, during our resent stay in St. Petersburg at the end of December, the temperatures were above freezing and with no snow in sight, which was unusual for the time of year to say the least. If the ongoing trade sanctions and the crash of the Ruble were indeed negatively affecting the Russian economy, this was not immediately obvious – stores and restaurants were full of well-dressed locals (Russians dress as well as they can afford to when going out) spending money and having fun and the streets were bustling with people well into the night.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and spend most of our time out and about strolling and enjoying the city’s beautiful architecture and cultural sites. Here are a few tips on travel to Russia in winter you may find useful.
- Some of St. Petersburg’s main sights like the enormous Hermitage Museum, the ornate Church on Spilled Blood with its unique interior mosaics, and Catherine Palace with the Amber Room, are so crowded in the summer months that having to wait in line for an hour or more just to get in is not uncommon. This is of course never an issue in winter when there are no cruise ships unloading thousands of passengers on shore tours daily.
- If visiting over the Christmas holidays (as we did), St. Petersburg’s main streets and squares and especially the historic Nevsky Boulevard and Palace Square are beautifully illuminated, and store windows are decorated with garlands, lights, and winter motifs.
- Russians do not really celebrate December 25th (they use the Julian calendar and have their Christmas on January 7th), so it is just a regular working day and restaurants, museums, and shops are open as normal which is quite handy.
- Top concert venues in St. Petersburg like the Mariinsky and the Mikhailovsky Theaters offer a variety of ballet, opera, and symphony performances in the winter, but are usually dark in August – September.
- New Year’s is the most important and widely celebrated holiday in Russia when additional cultural events and performances take place. Children’s performances always include Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz) – the Russian equivalent of Santa, and Snow Maiden (Snegurochka). This is a time to be with family and friends and enjoy traditional New Year’s dishes like the Olivier salad, the Vinaigrette beetroot salad, and blinis with caviar.
- If traveling with kids, make some time for the circus which is a favorite pastime in Russia enjoyed by both young and old. We went to the Bolshoi (Large) Circus on Fontanka Street, also called the Ciniselli Circus.
First opened in December 1877 under the management of the Italian circus director Gaetano Ciniselli, it recently underwent major restoration and the building now looks amazing both inside and out. We enjoyed the performance which was based on the Cinderella story and with strong emphasis on acrobatic tricks, comedy, and aerial acts.
- You will not get much daylight in St. Petersburg in the winter. In December, sunrise is not until 9:30 AM or so and sunset is around 4 PM. Plan accordingly so you can walk around and visit outdoor sites during the day and go to museums, the theater, or a slow and relaxed dinner after dark.
- Dress in layers. Interior spaces in Russia – shops, restaurants, museums, and private homes are seriously overheated in winter (in many cases they have central heating which cannot be individually adjusted). Public buildings would almost always have a cloakroom where you can (and often must) leave your overcoat, hat, scarf etc. and then get them back on the way out.
- Do stroll along the Nevsky Boulevard – St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare. Not only is it lined with beautiful historic buildings housing many stores and restaurants, but it busy with locals going about their business, shopping, or socializing from early morning till late at night. While there, stop for a coffee and a pastry at the ‘Sever’ confectionery shop at No. 44 and enjoy the amazing array of cakes, cookies, eclairs, macaroons, and other sweet treats.
- St. Petersburg has a thriving restaurant scene with myriad culinary options for every palate. We opted for traditional Georgian (from Georgia the country, not the state) cuisine and walked along the Griboedov Canal to Hochu Harcho. What a delightful dinner – great service, pleasant décor, and a fantastic meal of delicious khachapuri bread hot from the oven, fresh seasonal vegetables and greens, and grilled chicken and lamb skewers topped by a bottle of their excellent Kindzmarauli red wine.
To summarize, we had a great time exploring St. Petersburg in and would travel to Russia in winter in a heartbeat again!