In the last few weeks I've been lucky enough to share some great guest posts offering travel advice about planning trips to Japan and China for beginners. These are places I've long been curious about visiting but just haven't yet. Another country that falls under that banner is Russia. The first question I always ask myself about travel to Russia is When is it the best time to visit Russia? We all know how cold it is in winter, but is summer much warmer? And maybe visiting Russia in winter is when you see it at its best or more authentic self?
Because I haven't been to Russia yet, I can't answer that question, but I was lucky that Sanskar from the VeganTrekker contacted me and he told me he could absolutely offer me and you some tips and advice on the best time to visit Russia. He's something of a Russia travel expert having been there multiple times, and yes, he's visited in both summer and winter. So now I'm going to hand over to Sanskar and to his knowledge in telling us the best season to travel to Russia.
When is the best time to visit Russia?
Russia is one of the coldest countries in the world. Some of its villages carry the record of coldest inhabitable places in the world. So, it sounds like a simple question, with a simple answer. Isn’t summer the best time to visit Russia?
Visiting a country that is known for its cold weather, I would say a trip to Russia in summer definitely makes things more comfortable and easier. However, there is a unique beauty in the cold season that makes Russia a true winter wonderland. Unlike many other northern countries, Russian cities are densely populated even in the most northern areas such as Murmansk and St. Petersburg. This makes travelling easier as you can find restaurants, public transport, and almost every department as in any big city functioning normally in sub-zero temperatures.
I have been to Russia many times in different seasons. I visited Russia first time in summer. I fell in love with its beauty so much that I decided to come again in winter. In winter, almost everything looked different, it felt like I am visiting a new place altogether. It was equally beautiful, and I had equal excitement as the first time.
In this article, I will be covering what you can do in Russia exclusively in summer and winter. These are completely different experiences and rarely intersect each other. In the end, why don’t you write in the comment section in which season you would be most excited to visit Russia?
Is Summer the Best Time to Visit Russia?
There are certain things that makes travelling to Russia easier in summer. For example, your fingers will not freeze when you are trying to take a picture on your phone or camera and your phone battery will not drain rapidly in cold weather. There is bright sunlight most of the times and depending on where you travel to the weather will be mild, or even quite hot. But the light is worth more of a mention as it glorifies the bright colours of Russian monuments, churches and buildings. You also get a better sense of what Russian people are like as thanks to warmer weather in summer, they aren't wearing huge coats and covered up in hats and gloves. People in cities show off their brilliant sense of fashion and you discover that Russians really know how to dress and carry themselves.
Nevertheless, there are some disadvantages in summer as well. Because this is an easier time to visit Russia, there are subsequently a lot of tourists. This means you should expect queues outside any popular attraction such as Lenin’s Mausoleum or the Hermitage Museum to be long, and finally, hotels and flights will be much costlier.
But you can save money by booking tours and museums in advance, like this private guided tour of the world famous Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. a tour of the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow (in a number of languages), and a tour of St Petersburg's parks. And here are many other things you can do in St Petersburg.
Things you can do in Russia exclusively in Summer
White Nights in St. Petersburg
White night is the phenomenon when the sky never gets dark. In the summer the closer you go to the arctic circle, the longer the days are. St. Petersburg’s location allow it to experience this phenomenon. It is the northernmost city in the world with a population of over 1 million! St. Petersburg’s beauty, its architecture, its history and culture that reflects in its everyday life makes it the best city in the world to experience white nights. The best time to visit St. Petersburg in Russia is from the second week of June until the end of the month, which is when the white nights are on their peaks.
Palace Bridge Raising in St. Petersburg
As the ice around the sea port at St. Petersburg and River Neva melts, the ship traffic increases as well. This is the time when you can view the drawbridge or bascule bridge raised. They raise mostly in summer and once they are raised, they remain that way for hours. This creates the most iconic moment in St. Petersburg. Many people recognize St. Petersburg from this bridge, just like how people recognize Paris from Eifel Tower.
Take a Cruise
During summer, the ice around sea port in St. Petersburg and River Neva melts, which allows cruise ships to easily operate in the region. Cruises from Finland to St. Petersburg are very popular. This is because you do not need a visa to Russia if you are visiting St. Petersburg for up to 72 hours from Finland via a cruise.
During Summer, River cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow is also a popular choice. You can find cruise packages that include tours of Moscow and St. Petersburg and a few other points of interest along the way. The packages usually include meals, hotels and airport transfer.
Alternatively you can do city canal cruises like this one in Moscow.
If long cruises are not interesting to you due to any reason, you can choose a short cruise for about 2 hours and 30 minutes on the Moscow river in Moscow city. This cruise is organized by Radisson cruise and it is available year-round! Moscow River zig zags through the centre of Moscow and passes through most iconic spots in the city. This cruise would be a great option to take a quick tour of the city with fine dine.
Golden Ring Tour from Moscow
Your trip to Russia is incomplete if you are planning to see Moscow and St. Petersburg only. You will miss a big part of Russian history and culture if you do not take a tour of the Golden Ring. Golden Ring is the collection of few cities around Moscow which have exerted significant cultural influence throughout the history of Russia. One of the most iconic cities in the Golden Ring is Suzdal. It once used to be the centre of Russia before the Mongol invasion. When the Russian empire decided to build trans-Siberian Railway, they skipped Suzdal and passed the railway through Vladimir instead. This caused Vladimir to become an important city in the region and Suzdal to skip any 20th-century development. The only industry that operates in Suzdal today is the tourism industry. The city itself feels like as if it is stuck in 12th - 13th century.
You can definitely take this tour in winter as well. However, most of the places in the golden ring, including Suzdal are open-air museum. The entire city of Suzdal is considered as a museum. This means most of the time you will be walking on the streets and exploring the city. When I was there, I took many off-road paths and climbed hills, just to take some pictures. It will be difficult to do that when it is really cold and snowy.
If you will search for a tour online, you will find most of them cost more than $500. I wrote a guide on how you can take a tour of Suzdal in less than $30. The trick is to use public transport only. Which is very convenient, reliable and includes a journey by a high-speed train on a section of trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladimir.
Is Winter the Best Time to Visit Russia?
Travelling to Russia in winter has its own unique challenges, yes, but it also has many advantages. Flights and hotels are cheap making winter a cheaper time to visit Russia. And you won’t have to face long queues of tourists outside various points of interest.
As I mentioned before, Russia looks completely different in winter. Its landscape changes completely as the green grasses are replaced by white snow. Some might say, this sounds gloomy, but the architecture of the Russian cities and the bright colours of their monuments look stunning paired with beautiful Christmas decorations, New Year lights and snow in the background. This especially gives Russia's two principal cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, a look of a true winter wonderland.
It's also worth remembering that Russia in winter is a huge part of the country's identity and culture, so to visit Russia during the winter months would also mean you can enjoy quite uniquely Russian experiences.
Things you can do in Russia exclusively in Winter
Russia has a rich and diverse culture. There are lots of indigenous people who live in Urals, Caucus and Siberian part of Russia. One such indigenous people are Chukchi people who are native to Russia’s far north. These are the people who bred Siberian Husky. If you do not have time to explore the indigenous life in Russia’s far regions, you can still do that just a few kilometres away from Moscow in Husky Land! You can enjoy dog sledge, tribal dance and throat singing by the indigenous Chukchi people here. This is one of a kind of experience. It is very new and not many people know about this place yet including my Muscovite friends.
Walk on River
Yes, it sounds crazy, but you can walk on the frozen river in Russia. Last Christmas when I was in Moscow, I realized that walking across frozen rivers can create a lot of short cuts, thus, making your walk simpler. It was cool (pardon the pun!) to experience that I was walking on the river and could see a new side of the city. I even saw some locals walk out on the frozen river early in the morning, make small holes through the ice to catch fish!
Take a Bath in Banya
Also known as Russian Bath, or sometimes Russian Sauna, Banya is a must to do activity in winter. The more people you have with you, the more fun it is in Banya. This is a very traditional Soviet experience. You can find Banyas in villages, inside houses or public banyas in the cities. Almost everyone in Russia and the former Soviet Union has experienced it.
The concept is to get into a very hot room. Sometimes the temperature may exceed 90 degrees Celsius. Initially, it could be a bit uncomfortable, but you will soon get adjusted. Due to humid air and high temperature, the body starts sweating excessively. At this step, people hit or slap each other with dry birch leaves. These leaves have herbal properties that nourishes and cleanses the skin. In the last step, you should come out of this room and immediately jump into icy cold water. This change in temperature is considered good for health. It tones your body and kick starts the blood circulation.
You can do this cycle multiple times, in between the cycles people usually drink tea and eat snacks.
Aurora Borealis in Murmansk
When we think of viewing Aurora Borealis, we often think of going to Alaska, Sweden, Iceland, or Lapland in Finland. However, Murmansk in Russia is a more convenient location in my opinion. Murmansk lies 2 degrees north of Arctic circle. With population over 300,000. It is the largest city inside the Arctic circle. Imagine a city of a size somewhere between Orlando and Miami right inside the Arctic!
Murmansk is well connected with road and rail to the rest of Europe unlike any other settlement anywhere in the arctic circle. This large city gives you the option of exploring the north and view the Aurora borealis being not too far away from the civilization, restaurants and hotels. If you are an inexperienced traveller or uncomfortable being outdoors in dark and cold nights, Murmansk is an easier option for you to view the northern lights.
So, when is the best time to visit Russia?
If you haven't guessed already, it's my opinion that the best time to visit Russia is any time of year!
In fact, Russia is beautiful all year round and whether it is summer or winter, you will always have a lot of things to do, but . If you are a first-time visitor to Russia, I would probably suggest visiting in summer just to make your first experience of Russia easy, however, if budget is something you need to think about then it's still very doable to visit Russia in winter, you just may need to think more about what you do and pack. Either way, whatever time of year you visit Russia, you will be tempted to come again in the alternative season anyway! So when will you book your trip to Russia?
About the Author
I am Sanskar Shrivastava, a Duke University alumni who is now working in the travel industry. A vegetarian by birth I am now exploring a vegan lifestyle. I love to travel and explore authentic vegan and vegetarian food traditional to those places and write about them so that you don’t have to eat just fries on your next trip. Follow me on Instagram and Facebook too!
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