Russia in winter is a breathtaking spectacle of colour. As the CEO of a travel company, I have the fortunate pleasure of visiting many of the destinations our tours explore, and with Moscow and St Petersburg featuring in brand new itineraries, it was time to discover the nation for myself. As I arrived in Moscow, it was the bright colours of the city in winter that caught me by surprise. Standing in the Red Square, I was immersed in five centuries of history, surrounded by the stunning colours of the red brick walls and gilded church roofs, in swirls of blues, greens and yellows - a true kaleidoscope of colour. Views unimpeded by crowds make winter a worthwhile time to visit, provided you pack for cold weather and plan ahead to spend time indoors warming up. With plenty to see and do here, it's easy to escape the cold.
One of the most popular attractions is of course the Kremlin. Still used as the official presidential residence, having once been the home of the tsars, the Kremlin fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site, made up of five palace buildings, four cathedrals and an imposing outer wall. Wandering around the publicly accessible areas of the complex, the interior décor is striking in its opulence, particularly within the cathedrals themselves. Steeped in the long, and often chilling, history of the country, the Kremlin gives some insight into the lives of Russia's former leaders. Close by, Lenin's Mausoleum provides another glimpse at history, with the former Bolshevik revolutionary leader lying in state. After visiting a collection of important sites at the heart of the city, I took a breather with a mug of cognac-laced hot chocolate - a great way to warm up in winter, and an experience I can thoroughly recommend.
I moved on from Red Square, and got to know the city beyond the postcard scenery. I wanted to see the city from the perspective of our customers, and so I made sure to visit Sparrow Hills, a site perched above the Moskva River, where views from the observation platform allow you to see across the city, and even count the huge '7 Sisters' skyscrapers that Stalin ordered built to celebrate Moscow's 800th anniversary. Later, I explored Moscow's architecture at ground level, passing the UNESCO-listed Novodevichy Convent, sometimes translated as the 'New Maidens' Monastery', a working cloister that dates back to the 17th century, and the adjacent Novodevichy Cemetery, where many of Russia's greatest heroes are interred.
Following my time in Moscow, I moved on to St Petersburg. The Sapsan train travels at 200km/hour, taking passengers from the centre of Moscow to the heart of St Petersburg. With comfortable seating, and good coffee available on board, the four hour journey is pleasant, providing wonderful views of the Russian countryside, dotted with dachas, forests, and, intermittently, a few towns.
On arrival in St Petersburg, I began my exploration with a visit to the Peterhof Palace. Sometimes referred to as the 'Russian Versailles', in winter the palace buildings and gardens are enveloped in freshly fallen snow, and during my visit, the bright sunshine bouncing off the amazing blue and gold of the building made for a perfect setting. With almost no other visitors, it was easy to explore - one of the upsides of a winter journey.
Inside the palace no photography is allowed, but the interior décor is unforgettable. Room after room of adorned high ceilings, intricate gilt work, and fine art put the grandeur of the Romanov dynasty on display.
Following my visit to the palace, I embarked on a city tour, to get to know St Petersburg, and its most famous inhabitants, better. A visit to the Peter and Paul fortress provided an insight into the last resting place of the Romanovs, Russia's final imperial family. Tsar Nicholas II's remains were buried in the chapel, following the execution of the family in 1918. The world-famous Hermitage Museum also provides a view to Russian history and art; the site of the 1917 Bolshevik uprising, today some 3 million works of art are on display, seamlessly blending a sense of the nation's past, rooted in its creative expression.
The final must-see place to visit on a winter tour of St Petersburg is, ironically, both outside of the city (about 18 miles outside the boundaries), and was built for use in the summer.
The Catherine Palace was the summer residence of the Tsars, built on a scale to rival Versailles and other European palaces, with massive ball rooms surround by gold-edged mirrors and magnificent ceiling frescoes, often depicting the power of the ruling Romanovs, to enhance its opulence. The grounds are equally impressive, and a winter troika ride is not to be missed - just wrap up warm and enjoy the views of the palace from the surrounding countryside.
My final thoughts on visiting Russia in winter: as two busy cities, Moscow and St Petersburg are wonderful to visit at this time of year, thanks to the smaller crowds and vibrant colours that contrast with the surrounding snow and ice-blue skies; but come prepared for the cold, with thermal layers and an itinerary that includes frequent trips indoors!