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Russia in winter: essential travel tips

A land of much mystery, Russia is a great place to visit at any time of year. However, to witness it at its most Russian, you really have to go in winter.

The serious snow begins to arrive in November and can stay until early April, but the best time to go to experience the world-renowned Russian winter is January and February. Travelling at these times means you’ll have fewer hours of daylight—approximately 6 hours—but also ensures you’ll have blankets of picture-perfect snow, and that it won’t yet have turned to springtime slush. It also gives you the chance to celebrate New Year (1–5 January) and Orthodox Christmas (7 January).

The world-famous Russian arts calendar is fuller in the winter, due to the fact that many of the troupes and companies are on tour during the summer but return home later in the year. Couple this with the much, much shorter queues as a result of fewer tourists, and you’ve got the perfect situation to bask in some classic Russian culture—the most famous locations being the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow and the Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg.

The snow-dusted buildings will make you feel like you’ve just stepped into a fairytale, and there’s a whole host of wintery activities available: from ice fishing to dog sledding, cross-country skiing to troika rides, so there’s plenty to keep you occupied. But, before you pack your bags and jet off, don’t forget first and foremost that snow=cold.  Temperatures for January and February in Moscow and St Petersburg average at −8°C, but frequently drop to around −20°C, which means you need to be prepared.

Layers are your friend

Wind chills can be unpredictable, so pack light thermals to wear underneath your clothes. Also, most buildings will have you check your coat in at the door—better to have lots of thinner layers than one chunky jumper you have to surrender and then spend your entire visit shivering! On this note, drying laundry can be a bit tricky in Russia in the depths of winter, so make sure to bring clothing that washes and dries quickly.

All about the accessories

Embrace sensible shoes—invest in a good pair of waterproof boots with good traction to avoid slipping over. A warm hat which covers your ears is essential (or pack some ear muffs if yours doesn’t), as is a pair of good quality gloves. 

Hearty fare

Warm yourself up with a beverage, or a steaming bowl of borscht. Russia’s full of warming soups, stews, pancakes and tasty pelmeni dumplings. If you’re still freezing, do as the Russians do and hit the vodka.

Short and sweet

Make use of massive department stores and metro stations: some of them cover several streets and can save you trekking through the cold for longer than you need to.

Banya bliss

If you really need to warm up, a Russian sauna, called a banya, is a must. Banya temperatures will often exceed 93°c so you can be sure to get toasty. If you’re feeling brave, it’s customary to cool off in the outdoors after a while by rolling around in the snow.

  • Picture 1: f.stroganov / Flickr
  • Picture 2: AlphaTangoBravo / Flickr
  • Banner image: Oleg Mirabo / Flickr