For many centuries, Russians have been going to banyas to relax and de-stress in the winter. In fact, there’s nothing more quintessentially Russian than a banya in winter. The “banya” (bathhouse) used to be considered a sacred place because the unification of all the elements of nature was observed in it – water, air, fire and earth. Nowadays the tradition of going to the bathhouse is more popular than ever with both Russians and tourists. The ritual of the banya involves steaming for long periods in a wooden chamber fitted with a small furnace. Don’t be surprised or start calling for help if you see people beating each other with sticks: bathers take turns to beat each other with a “venik” (besom) – a birch switch that stimulates blood circulation.
There are a lot of ice skating rinks in the city in winter, but the one at the New Holland island is undoubtedly one of the best and cosiest. To warm up after you can have lunch or dinner at their famous Kuznyahouse restaurant, or try some street food at one of the cafés in the Bottle House.
An ice bucket? You call that a challenge? Filming yourself as you tip a few litres of cold water over your head on a summer’s day is all very well, but you’ve got some way to go to match the brave souls who line up to take the plunge each year on January 19th, the date of the Epiphany in the Russian Orthodox calendar. Last year more than 50,000 people in St. Petersburg alone voluntarily immersed themselves three times in a blessed section of freezing water in honor of the baptism of Christ. If you want to watch, or even take part, there are 17 sites in and around St. Petersburg officially set up to help the faithful and/or foolhardy test their mettle, the most central being on the banks of the Neva just by the Peter and Paul Fortress.
The northern coast of the Gulf of Finland, known as Kurortny district, with its endless beaches flanked by pine trees, is a very popular destination for St. Petersburg residents. A fresh air, relaxed atmosphere and plenty of good restaurants make this a must-visit. In winter you can also try walking on the frozen gulf – the views are mind blowing.
Winter is synonymous with fairy tales, tradition, surprises and family time. December usually starts in St. Petersburg with a series of unmissable events for young and older folks alike. The most famous theatres in the city host a great choice of performances based on classic fairy tales such as Cinderella and the Nutcracker. Check the playbill of the Mariinsky or Mikhailovsky theaters and buy tickets in advance.
The Christmas Fair on Pionerskaya Square is the biggest winter fair of St. Petersburg. Every year, Russians, as well as representatives of several dozen other countries come together for a celebration of all cultures. Here you can find traditional crafts, rare delicacies, great food and drinks from all over the world. There’s also an ice rink where you can rent a pair of skates and a fun fair where you can compete for prizes, or even meet the Russian Santa Claus – Ded Moroz (Father Frost) - at his cabin.
Winter season means outdoor sports in St. Petersburg. Sure, jogging becomes hardly sustainable, but now you’ve got snowboarding and skiing. Whether you are planning a weekend escape from the city, or just a short daytime break, the area around St. Petersburg offers various opportunities suited to every taste, pocket and, especially, skiing skill. Pamper yourself in a spa after a day up and down the slopes, enjoy dinner with a great mountain view, or release your energy and challenge your abilities on a series of acrobatic ski trails. The best resorts near the city are Igora, Ohta Park, Tuutari Park and Snezhny Kurort.
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