The phrase “Russian winter” may bring to mind images of tall fur hats, snowcovered gold church domes, and steaming bowls of borscht. It may also remind you that both the armies of Hitler and Napoleon were driven off by the cold winter of the north and that “Russian winter” is also an explanation why every invader has failed to conquer the country. Winter of 2010-2011 was forecast to be the worst in Russia (and Europe in general) since they began keeping weather records, but so far, it’s just been freezing (or below) as usual.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to visit the largest country in the world when it’s cold. The long lines to visit Moscow‘s Kremlin or St. Petersburg‘s Hermitage museum virtually disappear over the winter months, and hotel prices, which still high, dip to slightly more palatable levels. More than anything, winter is when you’ll find Russia at its most “Russian”: residents draped in fur, sipping vodka, or taking a steam at a banya bathhouse.
After a recent stint in Russia over the winter holidays, I put together a few ways to get through a week or two in subzero temperatures and even learn to love the cold.1. Find something warm to sip – Though Russia is famed for their vodka-drinking (more on that below), you’ll find coffee to be the most widely available beverage, with even the simplest cafes offering a full range coffee drinks from espresso to macchiato. You’ll find familiar brands like Starbucks and Costa Coffee, as well as Russian chains like Kofe Xaus (Coffee House) and Shokoladnitsa (Hot Chocolate) on nearly every street in major cities with every conceivable hot drink including tea (pronounced “chai” like in Turkish and many Balkan languages).
2. More warming beverages – You can’t talk about Russia without talking about vodka, the national spirit. Russians actually tend to drink more beer than vodka, though both are readily available most anywhere food and drinks are sold and both good for a warm-up. Cocktails are pricey anytime they involve imported alcohol, but a half-liter of local beer or a small glass of vodka (sipped, not drunk as a shot!) can warm you up for a just few bucks. While many bars and restaurants can serve alcohol 24 hours a day, a new law means you can’t buy strong alcohol (i.e. nothing stiffer than beer and wine) after 10pm so plan ahead if you want a late nightcap.
3. Eat filling food – Take a look at any Russian menu and you’ll see the food is made for cold months – hearty stews and soups, variations on meat-and-potatoes, and salads that rely heavily on mayonnaise and meat. If you are looking for lighter (and cheaper) but still substantial fare, seek out pelmeni dumplings, pierogi cheese or meat pies, and blini pancakes. Russian chain Теремок (pronounced Teremok) is all over Moscow and St. Petersburg and is a quick and reliable stop for a pancake with any conceivable filling from ham and cheese to red salmon caviar. They have both restaurant locations and street stands, with handy picture menus so you can point to your choice instead of struggling with Cyrillic. Street food gets classier when caviar is involved.
4. Tread carefully – An ice storm hit Moscow just after I arrived on Christmas, making the sidewalks slippery and treacherous. Many Russians took advantage and slid gleefully down the street and down hills. It may look fun, but you don’t want to spend your vacation in traction or even with a bruised tailbone. Take small and careful steps on icy streets; gravel is used to make it less slick but salt not as common. Ladies, you will see Russian women tottering along the street in 4-inch stiletto boots and think you too can do it. You cannot. It is in their DNA to walk gracefully in high heels on ice while we slip and slide in our most practical shoes. Speaking of shoes…
5. Wear boots – I admittedly mocked my husband for buying huge waterproof boots before our trip, as they won’t see much action in Istanbul where winter temperatures have barely dipped below 50 F, but he was warm as toast. I wore knee-high flat leather boots most days, and while they weren’t waterproof, they kept me relatively warm and dry (though warmer socks might have helped). On the days I wore shorter, slip-on shoes with long pants, I was miserable and ended up with wet pant cuffs and cold ankles. Embrace the equestrian look and tuck your pants into your boots for extra warmth (then again, men may just want to make sure their cuffs aren’t too long).
6. Dress in many thin layers - You may think Russia is the time for big bulky sweaters and coats, but you’ll find that thinner is better. Many museums require you to check your coat at the door and you won’t find them all to be well-heated, so better to have warm clothing underneath. Layers also give you options: I arrived in Moscow in a wool coat bought in Istanbul and left wearing a puffy down coat UNDER the wool, plus a few other layers. Let your wardrobe be flexible and able to add or subtract, it’s easier to pack as well. Check the Gadling cold weather gift guide for some good winter clothing ideas.
7. Bring a good hat – Walking the streets of Moscow, you’ll be sorely tempted to buy a beautiful fur hat like everyone else you see but think again. Is it really that cold where you live? Do you realize how expensive a fur hat is (think a few hundred dollars at minimum for a good one)? Also, a structured fur hat can’t be stuffed in a purse or a pocket on the metro and needs to be carried inside museums, it’s like having a pet to take care of! Suddenly a ski cap seems much more practical.
8. Find the shortcuts – Even in subzero temperature, walking is still the best way to explore Russia’s major cities, and streets are usually well-cleared. After you get your bearings, however, you may want to look for some indoor shortcuts: department stores and shopping centers that span a block, underground passages, and subway tunnels. Russia’s metros are not only beautiful (and heated), they often have multiple entrances that can put you blocks closer (or further) from your destination. Find your landmarks and figure out the Cyrillic so you can take a break from the outdoors for a few minutes.
9. Check your hotel amenities – After location and price, two key hotel features may be a bathtub and a coffee maker or tea kettle. After a day trudging around the city in snow, a hot bath and a cup of tea can be worth their weight in gold. My Moscow hotel room at the Mamaison Pokrovka, had a full-fledged espresso machine with every option for coffee and tea, greatly helping us to warm up each morning and night. Also, some mid- to high-level hotels offer a pool, sauna, and/or jacuzzi for guest use but check the fine print: many are only free for guests for limited hours in the morning.
10. Soak at a banya – Another Russian winter essential is the bathhouse where you can sit in blissfully hot steam for hours. You may want to skip the birch branch flogging but there’s a reason many brave souls dive into snow after a steam: the banya brings your body temperature way up and warms you inside out, while the snow seals your pores. Sound too extreme? Maybe skip the snow and go back to the beginning of the list for some borscht and beer. Na sdrovia!
Find other ways to keep warm in frigid temps? Have you found Russia worth braving the cold? Leave your suggestions and experiences below in the comments.