My mom and I took a trip to Russia back in the spring that exceeded all of our expectations. We traveled through Moscow and St. Petersburg in an eleven-day whirlwind of delicious food, beautiful architecture, and cultural immersion.
As an American, Russia has always been a bit of a question mark; historic and famous, yes, but often shrouded in mystery, especially with the current political climate.
Plenty of people gave me curious looks and headed dark warnings as our trip approached, most of which proved to be completely unfounded.
If you’re planning a trip to Russia anytime soon (or even just thinking about it), I’ve compiled a list of tips and myth-busters to help guide you during your journey deep into the old USSR.
(Sidebar: These tips are written from the perspective of an American towards other Americans. While most points are still relevant no matter your nationality, there are a few specific tips related to the visa process, cultural expectations, etc. that may be less practical if you come from a different country than I do.)
1. Don’t let Russian-American politics color your view
If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this: people are not their government.
There’s this misconception in America that, because of the issues surrounding the Russian president and our own, that Americans are not welcome, safe, or even legally allowed to enter the country. Total nonsense!
Keep politics and your vacation separate and you’ll be just fine.
2. You don’t need a tour group
Russia isn’t as secretive or closed off as it once was—anyone with an American passport can explore the country on their own! No need for a tour operator (unless you want one, in which case there are plenty of options available).
3. Plan your visa carefully
While it’s far from fun or inexpensive, getting your visa is a relatively straightforward process.
You need the typical items (an updated passport, two printed photos, and a completed application form). You also need a letter of invitation from a third-party located in Russia, which sounds a lot scarier than it really is. Your hotel will typically send you the letter with a small fee, or you can order one online with an agency.
This does mean that you’ll need to book your itinerary in advance—both flights and hotels—and that there may be trouble if you change either after receiving your visa.
You will also typically need to apply through ILS, the official visa agency through which the Russian consulate generally conducts its application process. There is a fee and it takes a little longer, but your chances of applying directly to the consulate are slim anyway.
A final note: You can only apply for a visa 30 to 90 days before departure. This isn’t a problem during low season, but keep in mind that the wait times listed on the ILS website during high season may not be updated to reflect the current situation. My mom and I applied for ours two weeks before our flight and were told that the consulate was impacted and all visas were delayed for up to five weeks (we ended up paying double on our fees just to get it rush processed). This was also after waiting three weeks for our appointment—so if at all possible, I highly (HIGHLY) suggest starting the process as early as the window allows.
For more information on the visa process, check out this site.
4. Don’t expect English
Russia is a large country. It’s also considered the political and economic center of Eastern Europe.
What that means is that very few Russians have any incentive to learn English. Most tourists are from the surrounding countries in Eastern Europe and Asia, the majority of which speak Russian as a first or second language.
As a result, it’s one of the few major countries in the world where most people still don’t know a lick of English. Come prepared with a positive attitude and a lot of pointing and gesturing.
5. Don’t be intimidated by the locals
Yes, it’s true that Russians rarely smile.
Unlike Americans, Russians are very straight-forward people. They don’t really engage in niceties just for the sake of it, which means you won’t find strangers smiling at you without reason.
This has created a woefully misguided impression that Russians are unkind. In reality, they have one of the most hospitable cultures in the world.
Don’t be afraid to ask a local for help. They may look serious, but they’ll go out of their way to try and accommodate you.
6. Learn the Cyrillic alphabet
This will make your life a lot easier. And I promise, it’s not nearly as scary as it looks!
Just spend a few weeks before you leave reviewing the letters and sounds. Even if you don’t know any Russian, this skill alone will make recognizing destinations much simpler (and you’ll be less likely to call a Yandex to the wrong train station and nearly miss your train—not that I would know).
7. Learn a few words as well
Although I’d argue that Cyrillic is the best thing to focus on if you’re short on time, do try picking up a few basic phrases before you arrive if you can. Even a simple “hello” and “thank you” in the local dialect will impress the Russians you come across, as most don’t expect Americans to bother learning any languages outside of English (and especially not Russian).
8. Download Yandex
Guys! Yandex is incredible!
It’s exactly like Uber, only infinitely cheaper—most rides around St. Petersburg and Moscow will cost you less than $5 for a private ride. We even took a car back from Peterhof to the city (about an hour’s drive) and the total bill was $11. That’s how much it would cost you to go half a mile in San Francisco.
Yandex and Uber also merged recently, so you won’t find the latter even if you try.
9. Get a SIM card
In addition to the point above, you should also purchase a SIM card upon arrival. It will make it easier to navigate the city (and call a Yandex when needed). Data is ridiculously inexpensive. You can find any of the big four providers (MTS, MegaFon, Beeline, Tele2) at the airport when you arrive.
10. Prepare for Russian traffic
Moscow traffic is a nightmare. A simple ten-minute drive down the block can turn into a forty-minute one if you don’t time your route correctly. Try to avoid traveling on the streets during rush hour if at all possible (and time your flights accordingly).
11. Don’t try and see everything in a week
Russia is the largest country in 👏 the 👏 world 👏.
That means if you’re planning a one or even two-week vacation of touring the entire country—you’re out of luck.
Even Moscow and St. Petersburg can be difficult to cover in just a few days. That doesn’t mean that a short trip to Russia won’t be worth it, just temper your expectations.
12. Don’t skip out on St. Petersburg and Moscow
Some people like to skip the larger metro sections of a country (think Yangon, Manila, or even Rome) in favor of smaller towns and rural areas, but you’d be missing out if you didn’t take a least a few days to cover each of these beautiful cities.
13. Always check the timezone
Again, Russia is big. Always doublecheck the timezones of the cities you’re visiting, especially if you plan on taking a cross-country journey like the Trans-Siberian Railway.
14. Use the Sapsan between Moscow and St. Petersburg
Yes, the Trans-Siberian Railway is famous, and you should definitely consider traveling through at least part of the country on this historic train if you have a lot of time to spare and plan on visiting some of the smaller, more provincial towns.
Otherwise, if you’re only visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Sapsan (Russia’s high-speed train) will cut your travel time in half.
15. Don’t listen to rumors about how “expensive” it is in Moscow
I once saw an article listing Moscow as the most expensive city in the world. This is (excuse my language) complete and utter horseshit.
Whoever wrote that list had clearly never visited New York, Paris, Zurich, or (gasp!) San Francisco.
Hostel dorm rooms start at around $5, or $10 if you have standards. You can also find inexpensive meals at local canteens for just a few bucks. And remember Yandex?
Moscow is certainly considered expensive by Eastern European standards, but on a global scale, I’d place it on the higher end of mid-range. If you’ve survived in Seoul or Barcelona, you’ll do just fine here.
16. Plan extra time in the Moscow metro
Really! The Moscow metro is a work of art in itself. You can even take tours to learn more about the history of each station.
Book a tour of the Moscow Metro here!
17. Use the side entrance at the Hermitage
The Hermitage is one of the most famous museums in the world and should be a top priority for your trip should you choose to visit St. Petersburg.
As you can imagine, its fame draws many, many visitors on a daily basis. In order to avoid the 400+ person line out front, head to the side entrance. You’ll need to purchase your ticket ahead of time online (or on your phone when you arrive), but you’ll save yourself an afternoon of waiting between tour groups just to enter.
18. Be prepared to stand in churches
Fun fact: Russians don’t build pews in places of worship. They believe that devout followers should suffer as Christ did, which includes standing for hours during long sermons.
If you’re searching for a place to rest your feet after a long day of exploring, look elsewhere.
19. Get your ballet tickets in advance
The Russian ballet is world-famous. And like most popular things, tickets tend to sell fast.
Most performances will be completely sold out day-of, but you should plan even earlier if you can. There are only a small number of seats which 1.) offer superior views and 2.) are also affordable. Book at least a month out if you plan on swiping on of these.
20. Try the local cuisine (it might surprise you)
Russia is known for a lot of things, but the food isn’t one of them.
And that, my friend, is a shame.
Russian food is varied, hearty, and inexpensive. It’s also really tasty. Don’t believe me? Just walk into any local restaurant and ask for a serving of pelmeni or blini. Trust me.
21. Head to a Stolovaya for cheap meals
There’s a lot of affordable fine dining to be had in Russia. You’ll find chef-crafted meals for $5-10 a plate.
But if you’re on a shoestring budget (or just want to experience some local flavor), Stolovaya, or the local canteen restaurants, are a great option. They’re styled based on cafeteria’s from back in the old Soviet days and are a perfect choice for travelers who want to experience a variety of dishes but may lack the vocabulary (and rubles) to order very much.
22. Don’t miss out on Georgian and Uzbek cuisine!
Due to geographic proximity and past political ties, there is a heavy Georgian and Uzbek influence in Russia. Moscow is one of the best places in the world to try these unique cuisines outside of the original countries themselves.
Pro Tip: If you order Khinkali, make sure you eat them the right way!
23. Get used to drinking tea
While there are plenty of coffee options in the larger cities (yes, even Starbucks), most Russians are traditionally fond of tea. This is the best form of pick-me-up if you want a more local experience.
24. Be aware of local holidays
Russians celebrate a lot of the same holidays as the West (Christmas, Easter, etc.), but there are a few that are unique to the country (like Victory Day).
These celebrations can provide a wonderful look into local customs and traditions, but they can also be a source of stress when planning your travels. Hotels and transportation will book up earlier and might even be more expensive. Make sure you check the calendar to see if your trip coincides with any special celebrations, and plan accordingly.
25. Avoid traveling in spring
A lot of places are beautiful in spring (Tokyo, Paris), but Russia isn’t really one of them.
While you’ll still have a great trip regardless of the season you choose to visit, spring is the least ideal time of year. This is when the snow from winter begins to melt and the streets turn to slush, making the cities a little greyer and more difficult to navigate. Try and aim for early summer or winter if you can.
26. Visit the local grocery for inexpensive souvenirs
Thinking of bringing home souvenirs? Most grocery stores have a nice variety of vodkas, caviar, tea, chocolate, and even non-food items like Russian dolls. You can buy a fifth of a local spirit for just a few dollars!
27. Dress up a little when out in the cities
As someone from San Francisco, the concept of dressing up is a little foreign to me. I was surprised to see women in Moscow dolled up in dresses, lipstick, and heels in the middle of the day.
While you don’t need to go all out just for lunch plans, you might stand out if you walk around in just a hoodie and leggings. Try and clean up a bit if you want to blend in.
28. Tip as you want
Tipping culture in Russia is as it should be in the rest of the world: tip if you want to.
Earth-shattering, I know.
A lot of locals leave a 10% tip when they eat out, but it’s not mandatory like it is in the U.S. Service workers get paid enough to sustain themselves without added generosity. So if you received great service? Tip! If not, don’t—no one will look down on you for it.
29. Always coat check
It’s considered rude to bring your coat into a restaurant, which probably explains the confusion that ensued when I tried to carry my fur jacket up to my mom’s birthday dinner at Palkin for photos.
30. Be prepared for a military presence in Moscow
The level of military protection on the streets of Moscow can be striking if you’re not used to it. It’s not uncommon to turn down a quiet street and spot a handful of officers carrying automatic weapons.
Don’t worry—they’re not here to harass you or make you uncomfortable. I actually felt safer knowing that they were around in case anything were to happen.
Russia is an amazing country with so much to offer, and it’s a shame that more Americans don’t visit. If you’re looking for a unique, inexpensive, and culturally enriching holiday (with incredible food!) then look no farther than this beautiful place.
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