Coming to Russia in winter may sound a bit scary. I’ll be honest with you; when I run our Moscow tours in winter, I usually check on my tourists every 15 to 30 minutes, asking whether it’s too cold and whether we should we go inside somewhere. Usually, only Canadians say, “What do you mean cold? The weather is perfect!”
But despite the chill, I believe you need to experience a Russian winter at least once in your life — and what better time to do it than during the holidays? Here is a list of activities that will help you spend an absolutely unforgettable Christmas season in Russia.
The Orthodox Christmas is on January 7, but some of us celebrate the Catholic one as well. In general, I would say that we just love to have another occasion to celebrate (always a good reason to drink and eat a lot). For the winter holidays, Moscow is traditionally very beautifully decorated with festive lights, various Christmas trees and holiday installations. Moreover, in the city centre, you can see gorgeous ice sculptures. For instance, Victory Park is famous for a showcase of Moscow in miniature made of ice. You can even find all of our main landmarks! The celebrations are all around the city no matter how cold it gets.
Apart from celebrating the New Year itself, we also have “The Old New Year” that happens on January 14. It may sound a bit strange to have both, but the reason behind it is to celebrate the holiday according to both the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Plus, we drink for the old year hoping that everything good will remain with us.
If you want to survive in Russia, you need to learn how to warm yourself up. My parents would always say that I can’t expect dessert if I don’t eat soup. Soup is essential, and we have a good variety of them. Apart from the famous borsch, you can also try rassolnik (soup with pickles and barley), ukha (a type of fish soup), shchi (cabbage soup) and many others.
Hot drinks can warm you up as well, and you can find a great variety of amazing fruit teas in most Russian restaurants. I recommend trying the buckthorn tea as it’s our sweet and sour speciality. You can also find some interesting alcoholic drinks, like rye whiskey infused with black chanterelles.
The New Year is a great time to try Russian caviar. Believe it or not, we don’t eat it every day, only on special occasions. It’s also hard to imagine the New Year’s celebration without the famous salad Olivier, also known as Russian salad.
Enjoy the holiday atmosphere at one of our beautiful Christmas markets. The most famous one is at Red Square. The decor will blow your mind — the entire perimeter literally shines from garlands, balloons and Christmas tree decorations! These markets are also where you’ll find a large number of handmade souvenirs and handicrafts, as well as stalls with food and drinks featuring traditional Russian cuisine. In addition, throughout the winter holidays, artists and musicians will perform, quizzes will be held with prizes, and Father Frost, Snow Maiden and more magical guests will meet Muscovites and guests.
In Moscow, we have a lot of parties for children, but one of the most special happens at the Kremlin. When I was little, I always dreamed about going there. Kids can meet the Russian version of Santa Claus, Grandfather Frost, and enjoy activities with him and his granddaughter, Snow Maiden.
If the weather is good, you can also go to a park for sledding and throwing snowballs. A great activity for the whole family is building a snowman. There is no right way to do that — use your imagination express your creativity.
Russia is traditionally famous for producing great figure skaters. What our young girls do is truly magic. If you want to try it yourself, we have plenty of great ice rinks. Even if it’s your first time on the ice, don’t be scared — you’re sure to find a friendly stranger eager to help you out.
If you want a romantic atmosphere, I recommend Chistye Ponds ice rink. For those who prefer a livelier experience, then the best option is a skating rink at VDNKh, which occupies half of the exhibition centre and is considered to be not only the largest in Moscow but almost the largest in the world. If you want to see the modern side of Moscow, I recommend Gorky Park. You will find a lot of young and cheerful people there. For the best view, definitely go to the one and only Red Square. Yes, we have an ice rink right in the middle of our famous Red Square — and it’s fantastic!
If you want to see how professionals do it, go to one of our ice shows. Many of them are organised by famous Russian figure skaters. This year we have a show with four-time Olympic medalist and three-time World Champion Evgeni Plushenko.
The New Year holidays are also the best time to visit museums in Moscow because during this period over 70 museums will be open for free. Among them, you can find our famous Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, the Pushkin Museum showcasing the life of Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, and one of my favourite museums, the Gulag History Museum.
Movies are always great for feeling the holiday atmosphere and learning about Russian culture. You can watch them before you visit Russia or when you come here. Many of these movies we watch every single year around this time. For many Russians, there is no New Year without the film The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! The story is very interesting and truly romantic. A man who went to a banya (Russian steam bath) to celebrate the New Year with his friends gets so drunk that he accidentally arrives in Leningrad instead of Moscow. He goes to an apartment with exactly the same address and believes that he is in Moscow. And then a gorgeous lady walks in. Other movies I recommend are Carnival Night, Magicians and Morozko.
Want to discover Moscow during the holidays (or any time!) with a local by your side to share the city’s best tips? Hop on one of our Moscow city tours for day in the life of a Muscovite!