Most travelers come to St-Petersburg and Russia in summer. I don't blame them - the opportunity of minus temperatures and only a couple of hours of day light doesn't sound attractive. But if you really want to get to know Russia it's essential that you pack all your warm clothes and book the tickets during winter time. Believe me, you won't be dissapointed.
Yes, Russian winters are cold. But they are also cozy, white and with lots of time spent indoors drinking endless cups of tea (or something stronger =)) and outdoors playing in snow.
And of course there are activities which are best experienced in winter. Let me share with you my favorite ones.
Note: The name of the post says "St-Petersburg", but you could easily engage in the below mentioned activities in any part of Russia.
Even though banyas work all year round, I'm convinced that it's best experienced in winter. Banya is something like Russian sauna, but is not exactly the same. It's very hot and one uses water inside the hot room. To have the full experience you'd better ask the professionals, since I'm only an amateur and usually go to have a massage treatment after a good sweat. Usually those who visit banyas bring dry birch or oak branches to hit (massage) themselves and their friends. After the hot room you would usually have a cold shower or jump into an ice water pool. Outside the city you'd normally jump into a fresh pile of snow. In between heat sessions people drink tea and talk.
In cities banyas are public - with men and women going separately. It's not appropriate to wear clothes or bikinis inside, so if you are not comfortable with presenting yourself just take a light cloth with you. When you are done you would normally hear people saying "S ljogkim parom" which means something like "Enjoy your bath".
Here are my favorite banyas in St-Petersburg. If you have a chance and get an invitation to visit someones private banya - accept it! It's a more personal experience!
Дегтярные бани (Degtyarnyye Bani) (Degtyarnaya Ulitsa, 1, St Petersburg) - most of the people who I asked while doing the research for this post advised me to visit this banya. I did and I can assure you it was good. Clean, modern and friendly. Also the most expensive banya in St-Petersburg, but worth the money. Great to start your banya experience with if you are looking for a spa-banya combination. Be sure to order the soap massage!!
Ямские бани Yamskiye Bani (Ulitsa Dostoyevskogo, 9, St-Petersburg) - one of the oldest ones in St-Petersburg. Dostoevsky and Lenin were among it's visitors. Simple, but clean and with professional personnell who will help you if you are new in the world of hitting yourself with birch branches.
Мытнинские бани Mytninskiye Bani (Mytninskaya Ulitsa, 17-19, St-Petersburg) - this one is actually the oldest one in St-Petersburg and the one which stricktly follows the tradition. So for the real experience come here.
Don't forget to put on a special felt hat to protect your head from overheating. "S ljogkim parom"!
Morzhi (ice swimming)
As soon as rivers and lakes freeze you will see them - people who are not afraid of getting cold and swimming in icy water. Usually there are special spots where an open pool is cut in the ice. In St-petersburg you will find them right in the city center - in the Neva River next to the Peter and Paul Fortress. These brave people are called "morzh" - walrus. Traditionally ice swimming is connected with the Epiphany which takes place on the 19 January according to the Julian Calendar - this is when the swimming season officially starts.
Best combined with hot banya this is a truly Russian experience to try. If you are not up to jumping into freezing water you can just hang around and cheer to those who are.
Hermitage in winter and snowfall in the city
Hermitage is also an all year round activity (as banya =)), but there is special something to it during winter. As long as I remember my Hermitage visits were always during the cold months. The romance of the frost patterns on the old windows. The snow in front of the Winter Palace and warm dressed ladies who take care that noone comes to close to the art objects. It's been like this since my first visit when I was 5 or 6 and it hasn't changed until now.
Snowfall in the city adds so much romance and cozyness that the best thing you can do is walk around, enjoy and play snowballs!
Sleigh riding and sledging, ice skating and skiing
These are fun. As soon as there is snow everyone is outside. Sleigh riding, sledging, ice skating and skiing are the most winter famous activities.
The most picturesque and popular sledging places in the city center are:
Yusupov gardens (Sadovaya St, 54, St-Petersburg) and Tavricheskiy Gardens (Potomkinskaya Ulitsa, 2, St-Petersburg).
Best open ice skating areas you will find in: Moscow Victory Park (Kuznetsovskaya Ulitsa, 25, St-Petersburg) and Tsentral'nyy Park Kul'tury I Otdykha Im. S. M. Kirova (ЦПКиО) (Elagin ostrov 4, St-Petersburg).
For skiing it's better to go to the subburbs:
For traditional sleigh riding including dressed up people and horses pulling the sleigh head to Pavlovsky Park in Pavlovsk.
Tsarskoye Selo, Peterhof, Gatchina, Pavlovsk
Any of these towns are wonderful in winter. In summer they are beautiful too, but in summer there are way more people who are eager to check them out (especially Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo). In winter all the parks are clean white and are almost empty during the working week.
The easiest to reach are Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo (about an hour drive from a city center).
I was born in Tsarskoe Selo and spent my whole childhood there, so this is the one I always come back to. Alexandrovsky Park in Tsarskoe Selo is also worth a visit during winter months.
Pavlovsky Park and Gatchinsky Park are great if you are looking for something less formal and more natural, wild. Peterhof and Catherine Park in Tsarskoe Selo are more into english-french regular gardens.
IMPORTANT!!! When planning your winter trip to Russia please keep in mind that from 1 January to 9 January is holidays time in Russia. This means that all museums, parks, theaters, stores, cafes and whatever else are going to be VERY full! Especially in Moscow and St-Petersburg. Try to avoid these days for a visit and to save your time for activities rather than standing in long queues.