I’ve got a confession to make: I was more nervous about visiting Russia than I ever have been about a destination, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the political situation in the world’s biggest country has obviously been tense lately, and the media has made it out to be a pretty unstable destination. Any time I mentioned I was travelling to Russia people would raise their eyebrows and say things like “Hmmm. I hope you have a good cancellation policy” or “Are you sure that’s the best idea right now?” I almost reconsidered travelling there but in the end, after seeing that Moscow & St. Petersburg weren’t under any government travel alerts, I decided to go ahead.
The second reason for my trepidation was the lack of helpful information online about Russia. I suppose that’s not an entirely fair statement. There is information available, just not in the same overwhelmingly plentiful way as all other destinations I’ve ever visited. I found a few helpful blog posts and articles but in general it felt like there was more scaremongering and horror stories than useful information. Having now visited Russia for myself, I’ve come up with a few tips I wish I’d known before I went, which I hope will help you, and also fill a bit of that gap I noticed when I was researching.
After all of my nerves surrounding this visit to Russia, it turned out that they were completely unfounded. My long weekend there was totally uneventful, and I didn’t feel unsafe once. Sure, there were challenges which I’ll cover below, but I didn’t run into trouble or experience any of the situations described in the horror stories I read online. I really didn’t know what to expect from Russia, but it blew me away with its beauty, culture, food and the ease of getting around. My tip for you is to arrive with an open mind and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised.
2. Get an agency to take care of your visa
For me, getting a visa was one of the most stressful parts about visiting Russia, but once I decided to get an agency to take care of it, all of my stress dissolved. Yes, it cost £115, but they arranged my official invitation and the process was really quick and easy. The hardest part was filling in the ‘places visited in the past 10 years’ section on the application but when I had questions I just called the agency and they were more than happy to answer them for me. I know it’s possible to apply independently but for me it just wasn’t worth the risk of getting it wrong. I don’t usually throw money at problems but sometimes it’s just the best option.
(The agency I used was Visit Russia. I highly recommend them for their fantastic service)
3. Research opening days and times
There are no standardized opening and closing times for museums, cathedrals and other attractions in Russia. Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, for example, is only open from 10am until 1pm and is closed on Mondays and Fridays. Make sure you identify which attractions you really want to see, and work out when they are open so you can plan accordingly.
4. Know how to navigate the Moscow Metro
OK, this was a tip I had read, but I arrogantly thought “Pfft, how hard can it really be?” The answer is: really freaking hard! The ornately decorated Moscow Metro stations are an attraction in themselves, so there’s no point avoiding this Soviet marvel. Instead, be willing to take on the challenge, and don’t forget to take in your surroundings in the beautiful and grand stations. Here are a few tips for effectively navigating the system: Firstly, make sure you have a colour map that is written in both English and Russian. Secondly, count the number of stations you need to travel, as signage is not necessarily visible when you’re on the train so you can’t always be sure where you are. My final tip is to look very carefully at all of the signage – it’s not always obvious which direction the train at each platform is travelling, so take a few extra seconds to match up what you see on your map with what’s on the small, confusing signs at the platform. There might not be staff around to help you so be ready to work it out yourself. Rest assured, by the end of 48 hours I was feeling much more confident, so it’s not impossible!
5. Be smart (but not paranoid)
I was so worried about being pickpocketed in Russia, but I’m not sure what I was concerned about. I have been to Rome, Marrakech, Barcelona and Madrid and felt far less safe and more susceptible to pickpockets than I did in either St. Petersburg or Moscow. I have heard and read stories of people having bags and passports stolen in Russia, but I firmly believe that there is no more danger of this than in most popular European countries. As in those other countries, it’s important to exercise caution (don’t leave bags open or unattended, be aware of the people around you, etc.) but don’t be paranoid; there’s simply no need.
6. To passport or not to passport?
Apparently (and to be clear, I never had this confirmed by anyone) it’s required by law to carry your passport with you at all times when travelling in Russia in case you are stopped by the police. Opinions online differed as to whether it was acceptable to carry copies instead of your original, but in the end I decided the risk of losing my passport was too great to take and I carried copies of my passport and visa instead. I also saved copies online and took photos on my phone so I had access to this information wherever I was. I wasn’t stopped by the police so I can’t tell you whether they would have accepted anything but the original, but it’s a decision you’ll have to make based on how comfortable you are carrying your passport with you.
7. Pre-plan your meals wherever possible
Perhaps I was just in the wrong areas, but I found it really difficult to find places to eat while I was out and about. When I’m travelling, there’s nothing I hate more than being hungry and not being able to find somewhere to eat, and therefore being forced to eat terrible food. Restaurants aren’t very well signed, so the best plan is to look up a few good places to eat in the areas you’ll be visiting and bookmark them ahead of time. If you happen to stumble upon a great restaurant while you’re out, that’s great but if not, you’ll have a backup plan.
8. Be culturally appropriate
Russian culture isn’t too alien. Sure, smiling for no good reason in public is considered a form of insanity, and drinking vodka is practically a national pastime but there aren’t so many differences that you can’t get by. Still, it’s useful to know that it’s disrespectful to keep your hands in your pockets in churches (and the Lenin Mausoleum).
9. Try the vodka
Even if you don’t normally drink the stuff, if you’re in Russia you should definitely try some of the vodka – just call it cultural research. Vodka is served with meals, and it’s best to drink it as a shot, not sip it. I highly recommend trying a vodka tasting if you get the chance; I did this at the Four Seasons St. Petersburg and it was a memorable and educational experience.
10. Learn a few words
I wish I’d learned a few words of Russian before I visited. I was really surprised by how few people outside of hotels and the occasional restaurant could speak English, so even a handful of basic words would have helped ease the communication barrier. Google translate was a lifesaver too; just make sure you download the language pack when you have wifi so you don’t have to pay for costly data.
So there you have it: my ten essential tips for visiting Russia. Have you been? What would you add to this list? If you haven’t visited but have questions about this fascinating destination, let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.