Off-season travel: St Petersburg in winter

Oliver Bullough
12 March 2013

As part of an off-season travel special, Oliver Bullough breaks the rules and heads to St Petersburg in February

Russia in winter has a bad reputation: Napoleon's retreat from Moscow; Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag (‘12 months of winter, the rest summer'); famished wolves stalking through villages while peasants cower within. Rule one in the unwritten guide is: ‘Come in summer'. 

Take my advice and break the rules. February is the time to go, when the days lengthen a little, the sun sparkles on the snow and you feel like you have the most handsome city in the world all to yourself. You can wander the Hermitage corridors and look at Matisse's The Conversation for 15 minutes without a single person stepping in front of you to take a picture. When your feet tell you they've trod enough parquet, you can give them snow to crunch on, while the icy air flushes out your lungs and reddens your cheeks.

When you wear a scarf, gloves, puffy coat and long underwear, emerging into the Russian winter is pleasantly refreshing. You might even copy the Russian girls and eat an ice cream as you stroll along Admiralty Embankment.

When I want a winter walk, I take the metro out to the end of Vasilievsky Island and stride out over the sugar-white sea, turning after half a mile for an unrivalled view of Russia's imperial capital: the great, gold dome of St Isaac's cathedral rearing above it all. And then I join the less intrepid members of my party for coffee in the Café Idiot (complimentary vodka with everything), where there are enough chessboards and trashy novels to suit any tired tourist's taste. In an hour or two, I'm ready for the Mariinsky Theatre, home to the best ballet in the world — the perfect end to a perfect day.