Why: Winter in Russia’s enchanting imperial capital is a bit like stepping inside a snow globe. A dusting of white ramps up the fairy-tale factor of architectural gems like the immense Winter Palace and ornate Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. Add ice on the Neva River (and on dozens of smaller frozen rivers and canals), and the winter scene is downright magical. Embrace the season by strolling the snow-covered Neva embankments and sledding, cross-country skiing, and skating in city parks. If you’re more into seeing snow than being out in it, that’s OK too, says St. Petersburg native Anastasia Druzhevskaya, co-founder, with Davide Castellucci, of the St. Petersburg Essential Guide. “Davide and I like warmth. So, like many people living in St. Petersburg, we enjoy staying home and in restaurants and cafés, and watching falling snow in the windows.” One of Druzhevskaya’s favorite vantage points for soaking in winter views is Piterland Aquapark. She adds, “Through glass walls you can see [the] snowy Gulf of Finland [while] staying in warm water.”
Where: St. Petersburg is located in northwestern Russia about 240 miles east of Helsinki, Finland, and roughly 430 miles northwest of Moscow. The closest international airport is 11 miles south of the city.
When to Go: Visit December 18 to January 10 for the 10th annual Christmas Fair, and December to mid-February to see the hometown Kontinental Hockey League pro team, SKA Saint Petersburg, in action at the Ice Palace.
What to Pack: Prepare for subzero temps, but don’t skimp on style. In fashion-forward St. Petersburg, winter attire is more urban chic (think heeled boots, fur hats and coats, and well-coiffed hair) than ski bum.
Music for the Flight (Curated by Spotify):
Best Places to Enjoy the Winter Weather: Sled and ice-skate at Kirov Central Culture and Leisure Park. Cross-country ski in Sosnovka Park and along beaches of the Gulf of Finland. Walk the Neva River embankments. Visit a public banya (bathhouse) such as the old-school Yamskiye, or Coachmen’s, bani (former regulars include Dostoyevsky and Lenin) and the tourist-friendly Degtyarnye bani.
Currency to Bring: Russia’s currency is the ruble. Large banks typically offer the best exchange rates (one United States dollar is worth about 62 rubles). MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted, and there are ATMs in most hotels and metro stations.
Cultural Tip: Although Russians typically don’t “smile [at everybody] like Americans do” and can seem “cold and reserved,” says Druzhevskaya, tourists should feel welcome. “When you become friends with Russians they start smiling,” she adds. “In general, people here in St. Petersburg are polite, so they will be happy to help foreigners.” Her bonus tip for fitting in more like a local: “Order vodka shots [at restaurants] to heat up.”
Inside Tip: St. Petersburg’s Soul Kitchen hostel regularly ranks among the top hostels in Russia and Europe. Winter rates are about $50 a night for two people in a private room, and under $20 a person in a shared dorm room.