Travelling to Russia for the first time may seem like a crazy adventure – and though a ‘closed door’ policy was in place for almost a century, Russia is not that scary at all. While touristy cities are well equipped for visitors, there are a few details to consider beforehand. Read carefully and start packing!
Citizens of most countries outside of the former Soviet Union will be required to apply for a visa before arrival. The process is fairly straightforward, but an invitation from a licensed tourism operator or from a Russian citizen is required. The only loophole is arriving by cruise ship. Visitors coming by sea are granted 72 hours visa-free entrance into Russia if they have made arrangements with a travel agent. It’s not a lot of freedom to roam around, but at least it will save a bit of effort on the visa front.
Although this may vary from destination to destination, generally speaking Russians are not that good at English. Yes, they do study it from a young age and many have a good understanding, but are just generally shy to speak. Restaurants tend to have menus in English, people working in tourism definitely speak a second and/or third language, but your general stranger may not be able to properly explain himself. So get ready with some guidebooks and maps that you could use as props. A few useful words and phrases may also be a good idea to learn, not just to help in an emergency, but also to impress the occasional local with a courteous ‘spasibo‘ (thank you).
Public transport is the best way to get around in most cities, especially the larger ones equipped with a subway system. The underground tends to be more user-friendly as maps are translated into English, but personnel usually won’t be able to help with buying tickets or answer any questions about directions. So make sure you know how the system works, i.e. where to buy tickets and how to use the subway map. Also when travelling by bus and underground, pay close attention to the names of the stations announced. It is usually only in Russian, but English maps give a phonetic transcription, so listen closely.
Whoever comes to Russia thinking that it is freezing all year round will have a very unpleasant surprise upon arrival. Russia does tend to have cold winters, but the summers can also be incredibly hot and humid, especially in cities like St Petersburg. Of course, weather is hard to predict, but a general understanding of the climate can be incredibly useful when planning activities. If travelling during the winter, it’s more important to protect yourself from the wet, rather than the cold. Snow in big cities tends to melt soon after it falls, turning into slushy mud, so pack appropriate footwear and have a change of socks handy if a lot of walking is on the itinerary. Layers are welcome and needed, as well as warm coats for outside activities, but don’t overdo it with the furry hats – your identity as a tourist will be easily spotted.
Russian cuisine has a lot to offer, but does throw quite a few unfamiliar names at you. If you are looking to make the most of your gastronomical visits, do some research beforehand of the different food available each season, so you are not stuck eating borscht (beetroot soup) everyday. Centrally located restaurants will certainly have English-speaking staff to help you out, but if in search for a local experience it is wise to be ready, especially to avoid ordering something like meat gelatine by accident. Although even that can be an acquired taste.
Unlike most Western countries where ordering tap water at a restaurant is a common affair, Russians certainly don’t drink their tap water. It isn’t uncommon even to open the tap to see some brown water coming out for a little while. Let’s not get into the chemistry side of the water and get depressed about its quality – suffice to say that bottled water is the only one safe to drink, although don’t worry about using water from the tap to brush your teeth. If you don’t want to fork out for bottled water, boiling water from the tap can make it safe to drink, although will still taste a little bit heavy.
There are certain dos and don’ts when arriving in any country. Russia is becoming more relaxed over the years, but being a fairly traditional society, there are certain rules and expectations that people follow. For example, if invited to a Russian home, guests are expected to follow etiquette, like bringing a small gift upon arrival. Also, dress code is quite important in theatres and some restaurants. Nobody will stop you from entering, of course, but it’s best to be ready than wearing jeans in a crowd of formally dressed people. Also, visiting Russian Orthodox churches implies a number of rules: women should cover their heads and wear long skirts (trousers are mostly allowed) and men should wear long trousers as well as take off any headwear.
Meaning of course that travelling to Russia is as safe as visiting any other European country. Yes, petty crimes such as pickpocketing are still very common, which is no different to any other tourist destination, but there is no violent crime in broad daylight. Exercise due caution in crowds, and be careful not to get scammed in tourist traps are the most important points to remember. If anything does happen, hotels will be helpful in reaching out to the police or to embassies in case of a lost passport. But again, these are unlikely events.
It’s best not to venture out into the city without any cash handy. Russia is gradually making the transition from cash to credit and cards are generally accepted, but you may never know what the exchange rate might and if Russian banks will accept your cards. Also public transport is usually paid for with cash, and some taxis are unable to accept cards. Tipping is expected in restaurants, which is done by cash after paying the bill. To avoid any difficulty, exchange your local currency for roubles in advance to get a good rate, and have it ready before travelling.
Planning is key when visiting Russia – in Moscow and St Petersburg particularly, there is much to see and do. With limited time and alternative museum closure days, it’s good to plan ahead of getting there. Some attractions are also located outside of the city and would also need travelling time factored in. Of course, a spontaneous trip is never out of the question, but arriving with a general understanding with what exactly is of interest to you and when is the best time to visit is beneficial. Unless staying for an extensive period of time, seeing everything will be an unlikely ordeal, so don’t afraid to be picky.
Of course, as a tourist, you expect to spend more than your average local does. For example, museum tickets for foreigners in Russia are more expensive and, yes, they will ask to see your passport. Still, remember that Russia is not the most expensive city in Europe and prices are generally quite average. So when choosing a restaurant, taking a cab or buying souvenirs be mindful of what the prices should be. The best way is asking locals for recommendations, but even a quick browse on the internet will prevent any monetary disappointments.