10 Essential Tips for Visiting Russia

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.

10 Essential Tips for Visiting Russia

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.

10 Essential Tips for Visiting Russia1. Don’t believe all that you hear

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

10 Essential Tips for Visiting Russia

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

10 Essential Tips for Visiting Russia

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?

10 Essential Tips for Visiting Russia

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

10 Essential Tips for Visiting Russia

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

10 Essential Tips for Visiting Russia

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.

10 Essential Tips for Visiting Russia

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10 Comments

  • Catalina M says:

    Great tips, thanks a lot! I’m just planning a short week visit to Russia and I have two tiny questions… I read that photographing stations, and “official looking” buildings could get you into troubles.. any thoughts / experiences related to that? And… any good food tips? Thanks a a lot! :)

    • Elle Croft says:

      Hi Catalina,
      Thanks for your comment – how exciting that you’re off to Russia!
      I didn’t have any trouble taking photos anywhere – but I’d just be aware of your surroundings and make sure you keep an eye out for any signs that tell you not to take pics. I was snapping away inside the Kremlin with no trouble, and didn’t have any issues. Hopefully you’ll be able to take loads of pictures, because there’s so much to see.
      In terms of food, I’ll admit that what we ate was generally not all that memorable. But there were a few exceptions. I ate at this restaurant in Moscow and really enjoyed it: https://hacha.ru/en/. Also, a reader recommended https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g298484-d7745994-Reviews-AQ_Kitchen-Moscow_Central_Russia.html which looks great. Cafe Pushkin is a must for breakfast (and Instagram pics!!). And if you’re in St. Petersburg, make sure you stop by the Four Seasons hotel to do a vodka tasting – it’s so much fun! Have the best trip! x

  • Jen says:

    This is fantastic and I thank you for sharing. Russia has been a country I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. Only just last year I traveled abroad for the first time, and now I’ve got the travel bug.

    Russia has always seemed intimidating to travel to, but I don’t want to let that stop me. So now I’m looking into planning my own solo trip. Is it very easy to travel without a car? The main two cities I want to visit are Moscow and St. Petersburg.

    Also would you recommend booking hotels and such on your own or through an agency?

    Any other helpful tips are appreciated! Thank you.

    • Elle Croft says:

      Hi Jen,
      I travelled to Moscow & St. Petersburg without a car and it was totally fine. I’m not going to lie, getting around Moscow is tricky because the metro is SUPER confusing, but it’s a fun experience (and some of the metro stations are breathtakingly beautiful), just allow extra time for getting lost. St. Petersburg is really walkable and if you want to see anything outside the city there are tours that would probably be easiest (take a look at Viator, they often have great options, and it’s a good way to meet other people if you’re travelling solo).
      I usually book hotels online, but if you feel more comfortable with an agency, that’s a great option too. Just make sure you read the reviews and try to stay close to town so you don’t have to struggle getting in and out every day.
      My only other tip is that if you’re going to Moscow & St. Petersburg, spend more of your time in St. Petersburg – there’s loads to see in Moscow, but I just loved walking around St. Petersburg and taking in all the pretty buildings. It feels more European, too, so a bit more familiar.
      I hope that helps – let me know if you have any other questions!
      Elle x

  • Amir Kabir says:

    Iranian don’t need visa for traveling to Russia, this has motivated so many Iranian citizens for a visit to Russia. Iranians love shopping, this is a very good opportunity for Russia business

  • Bob says:

    I would add…. if arranging a taxi from the Airport to the hotel get the hotel to arrange it. Should be standard practice really but we feel foul of it and got stung a little inbound…. :-)

    • Elle Croft says:

      Great tip, Bob – thank you. We caught public transport both ways but for those who are planning on catching a cab it’s really helpful to know things like this!

  • These tips are incredibly helpful! Russia has always been somewhere I want to visit, but without a lot of interest from others I travel with, it has not made it to the top of the list. I have heard that St. Petersburg is beautiful! Your photos are beautiful!

  • Kelly Michelle says:

    Great post, we visited St. Petersburg in 2003 and it’s stunning. I really want to go to Moscow however the whole getting a visa issue is just a hassle however I think I will be using your tips if we do go ahead with Moscow and get your agency recommendation to do the visa.

    We saw people getting pick pocketed right in front of us and I have to agree, smiling in public makes the Russians think you are completely insane! xx

  • Grace from Amble.travelblog says:

    I’ve lived in this beautiful country (for short stints) twice now and still have so many corners to explore. I wrote this post about Russia’s little quirks (in a town 12 hours south of Moscow) after a month of living there (http://theartofwandering.blogspot.com/2013/10/our-month-iversary-only-in-russia.html) – check it out if you’re interested! Glad you enjoyed your trip!!

    Grace

    xXx

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