St. Petersburg winter

If you want to understand St. Petersburg properly, you should visit in winter. Yes, it's cold and dark, but it's also wonderfully atmospheric, and the city never looks more beautiful than when the sun finally rises on streets covered in fresh snow. The cultural life of the city is also going at full pace, with plenty of premieres and parties to fill the long dark evenings, except over the extended winter break at the beginning of January.

Winter scene on Admiralteyskaya Embankment in Saint-Petersburg, Russia
Winter scene on Admiralteyskaya Embankment

25 December is a working day in Russia - the Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on 6 January - and New Year is the big winter holiday. Celebrations are taken seriously, and continue on and off right up to the Orthodox New Year (13th January). The whole period has recently become an official holiday, and much of the city shuts up shop for the fortnight. Celebrations are mostly family-oriented, but New Year's Eve itself is a magical experience for residents and visitors alike, with the streets filling up around midnight, fireworks glittering all around, and everybody partying until dawn and beyond. Christmas is also one of the best times to enjoy the rituals of the Orthodox Church, with churches and congregations at their most festive and welcoming.

The other big traditional festival is Maslenitsa, the Russian equivalent of Mardi Gras or Shrovetide which lasts for a whole week before the start of Lent. Apart from gorging on pancakes, Russians traditionally spend the week performing a variety of celebratory rituals that include winter sports, involved family ceremonies, and the burning of a big doll on the last day. This is essentially a village festival, and has less currency in Europeanized St. Petersburg, but its still worth checking for events.

Essential clothing in winter includes hat, scarf and gloves, thick socks and waterproof winter boots, plenty of layers and a genuinely warm coat - many Russians now are switching from more traditional furs and sheepskins to synthetic padded coats, but they do need to be of equivalent warmth to their natural predecessors. Bear in mind that, while it's cold on the street, indoors it's normally well above "room temperature", so unless you're planning to spend the whole day outside you're better off with things that can be easily taken off and put back on again. Thermal underwear is not necessarily the best bet.