Russian winters are notoriously cold, but when St Petersburg is covered in snow, the city is at its most beautiful. With picturesque scenes, fewer crowds to contend with and plenty of festive events to enjoy, winter is a fantastic time to visit. From Russian Orthodox Christmas and seasonal shows at Mariinsky Theatre to Russian festival Maslenitsa, here are our top festivals and winter events in St Petersburg to take the chill off.
Christmas is a magical time in Russia. One of the best ways to get in the festive spirit is to visit the St Petersburg Christmas Fair. Great for souvenir or gift shopping, the annual market at Pionerskaya Square has plenty to offer the whole family. Visitors can browse stands selling traditional Russian handmade crafts, sample national foods and enjoy live entertainment.
One of the biggest winter events in St Petersburg is New Year’s Eve. From extravagant parties to splendid fireworks displays, there are plenty of opportunities to ring in the new year in style. While many choose to spend the night in the city’s opulent restaurants, bars and clubs, others gather on the banks of the Neva River to watch a colourful fireworks display over famous sights such as the historic Peter and Paul Fortress.
Christmas in Russia is celebrated not on 25th December, like many other places in the world, but on 7th January, meaning that in St Petersburg, festive celebrations carry on into the new year. Russian Orthodox Christmas is honoured in a similar way to Christmas in December, with a family feast, but in Russia it is traditional for 12 foods commemorating the 12 apostles to be served.
Held in the lead up to Lent, Maslenitsa (also known as butter week) is a popular religious holiday in Russia. Celebrations are held across St Petersburg, where people snack on pancakes (the signature food of the festival), enjoy wintery activities such as sleigh rides and sledding, and take part in traditions such as burning straw Maslenitsa dolls on the Sunday of Forgiveness.
There are few things more successful at inspiring that festive feeling than a Christmas show. Throughout December, St Petersburg’s iconic Mariinsky Theatre hosts a series of seasonal concerts and performances. Visitors can choose to between a traditional rendition of The Nutcracker or classic operas with a spritz of festive glitter.
A thrilling draw for winter swimming enthusiasts, the Big Neva Cup is St Petersburg’s most dramatic seasonal sporting event. Not for the faint-hearted, athletes race across a broad ice-hole swimming pool carved into the Neva for the tournament. With water temperatures well below zero, expect many sharp intakes of breath, with competitors travelling in from across the world for a chance to trump their chilly personal best.
Traditional local artisans and crafters from further afield set up to New Holland Island every festive season for the New Year’s Market. The cheerful village springs to life from the winter solstice and runs through the first week of January, with a glittering bracelet of craft stalls surrounding an immense decorated fir tree. There’s live music and street food aplenty with festive-themed masterclasses to inspire little ones.
Murder, intrigue, crime and punishment… St Petersburg has it all. Those fascinated by the more ghoulish side of history will love these significant spots from fiction, and real life.