Travelers who refuse to stray from the comfort of warm weather will miss out on all that Moscow has to offer during the winter. The ornamental and historic city that Russia calls its capital comes to life when the temperatures plummet to below freezing and the snow starts falling on Red Square. There's something so undeniably charming about seeing the colorful, tented rooftops of Saint Basil's Cathedral capped with a layer of icy frost during the dead of Moscow winter.
Unlike other cities whose residents go scurrying away to hibernate in their dens come December, the people of Moscow embrace the sub-zero climates in style. They bundle up in their furs and ushanky—traditional hats with earflaps—to peruse Christmas markets, dine at restaurants, and attend the opera anyway. The benefits of visiting this city during winter go far beyond the fact that it's cheaper and less crowded with tourists. The scenery is even more awe-inspiring with a dusting of snow, the food is warm and comforting, and the cultural events are not to be missed during winter in Russia.
Moscow is not where you go to get a suntan after the holidays. In fact, the Moscow winter could chill you to the bone, but rest assured it's all part of the fun. The average high for December, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is 27 degrees Fahrenheit; for January, 23 degrees Fahrenheit; and for February, 26 degrees Fahrenheit, although it certainly isn't abnormal for temperatures to dip down into the teens.
Additionally, the cold is often accompanied by generous amounts of ice and snow that are dropped on the city by frequent winter storms. The city, itself, is primarily unfazed by these storms—you'll still see cars driving and people walking in the midst of them—but don't be surprised if your flight into or out of the city gets canceled or delayed. As is the case in Russia in winter in general, icicles grow thick and heavy on roof overhangs, threatening to fall, so be sure not to linger underneath them while you're out touring the area's magnificent cathedrals.
What to Pack
Stuffing your suitcase with bulky (and heavy) winter clothing can be frustrating and expensive, which tends to deter Moscow winter travel altogether. A trip to Moscow between early December and late February requires enough accessories to cover the extremities—wooly hats, cold-weather socks, knit scarves, and a good pair of gloves are essential—not to mention a coat that falls below the hips, boots, and waterproofs, too. Remember: Fashion is secondary to avoiding hypothermia in this polar city.
The Moscow winter calendar is brimming with cultural events that travelers wouldn't be able to experience any other time of year. It starts with the annual Russian Winter Festival, which runs for an entire month from mid-December. The celebration spans several locations—including Izmailovo Park and Revolution Square—and features everything from over-the-top ice sculptures to traditional dance performances, ice skating, and stalls serving up traditional fare. New Year’s Eve is one of Moscow's biggest events of the year. Tens of thousands spend it in Kremlin—Moscow's central complex—to watch the Kremlin tower strike midnight with fireworks cracking in the background. Others watch the light show at Red Square.
Christmas in Russia falls on January 7. The week between New Year’s Eve and Christmas Day is a time of relaxation for Russians. Families focus on spending time together and preparing traditional foods, including ukha (fish soup) and sauerkraut. Tourists may spend this time seeking out Moscow's culinary gems as well. Check hours of restaurants, shops, and other businesses before visiting, however, because much of the city will be closed, meaning that you will have to endure the chill of Russia in winter outdoors.
Maslenitsa, Russia’s farewell-to-winter festival, occurs in late February or early March. This pagan celebration is marked by games, contests, and cultural traditions. It’s held in the Red Square area every year and draws crowds of Muscovites and visitors alike.
More to Do
While going to festivals and eating food sounds like a fair enough itinerary, there's even more to do in Moscow during winter. Practice your ice skating skills at Gorky Park or one of the near-50 other outdoor rinks around Moscow. Warm up in a Russian banya (a Slavic steam bath) or marvel at the holiday lights at Teatralnaya Square, Nikolskaya Street, Pushkin Square, or Tverskoy Boulevard. Be on the lookout for what Russians call "snowman parades," where the snow on sidewalks is erected into hordes of cheery powder people. And for a respite from the frigid temperatures, pay a visit to the Tretyakov Gallery, the State Armory Museum, or the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Who says the Moscow winter has to be cold?