You can see why Russia is fast becoming a popular tourist destination with magnificent attractions like the Hermitage, the Kremlin, Kazan Cathedral, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood and St Basil’s Cathedral. There are a few things you need to know before heading to Russia and I have detailed 19 things to consider before you go.
1. Check if you need a visa
Russia does require you to have a visa unless your country is listed in the “visa-free regime” most of these will be the former Soviet Union Check more here for details about “visa-free regime” countries. There is one loophole to the rule; if you are arriving by boat or cruise ship to St Petersburg then you are able to stay in St Petersburg for 72 hours without a visa.
Allow a month minimum to obtain your visa. The recommendation is to apply for your visa before booking flights and accommodation, although you need to list your host company, dates and at least need to know where you are interested in staying.
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2. Register Upon Arrival to Russia
The process of registering on arrival dates back past the Soviet times to ensure you were not occupying the valuable Russian soil without authorities’ permission. The registration used to be a little stamp in your passport on a paper attached to your visa and/or on the new migration card (if it was given to you) before 2007 which needed to be registered within 72 working hours.
It been a little more modernised since 2007 and is now a special piece of paper that confirms your registration has been submitted. It’s not meant to be your obligation and should be done by the accommodating party. However, if it’s not registered within 7 working days upon arrival you could be fined, deported (although deportation is unlikely) and denied entry to Russia for up to 5 years.
Both our hostels provided us with the piece of paper we needed for our registration upon arrival. If they don’t provide this chase your accommodation to provide this!
3. Everything is in Сyrillic Writing unless it is Tourist Related
All the writing is in Cyrillic which can make it interesting for those who are used to the Latin alphabet. I personally cannot read Cyrillic so this made it a little challenging navigating and reading menus at restaurants that didn’t have an English menu.
There are a few signs with English translation but some cities don’t have them at all. This of course can make it a little frustrating as a tourist.
When I was travelling around google maps offline, a tourist map of the city or a phrase book/notepad which has necessary words like “exit” Выход, “entrance” вход, “restaurant” ресторан, “pharmacy”аптека, “bank” Банка and “metro” метро.
Our first experience of eating out at a restaurant where no one spoke English was a fun experience. We ended up randomly guessing what to eat on the menu. That is a little challenging when you are the vegetarian hoping for a non-meat dish!
The little icons looked like they would be burgers and pizza. My boyfriend thought he was getting a cheeseburger and ended up with plum dumplings. My sister thought she would end up with some kind of burger and got chicken tuna sandwich. I got exactly what I thought I would, a margarita pizza!
Even though it was much to my amusement the others didn’t get what they wanted, my boyfriend enjoyed his plum dumplings. My sister less so. She really doesn’t like tuna.
If you not so game at randomly selecting food then most restaurants in the tourist area will have English menus available. Just check the menu before you sit down.
4. English isn’t spoken too often in Russia
English is not as widely spoken in Russia as it is in many other popular tourist destinations in Europe. In Moscow, we found that English was less commonly spoken than in St Petersburg. Here are the best phrases to learn that will help you on your trip to Russia:
Hello Здравствуйте (ZDRAHST-vooy-tyeh)
Thank you Спасибо (spuh-SEE-buh)
Yes Да (dah)
No Нет (nyeht)
Goodbye До свидания (duh svee-DAH-nyah.)
I can’t speak Russian Я не говорю по-русски (хорошо). (yah nee guh-vah-RYOO pah ROO-skee [khah-rah-SHOH])
Do you speak English? Вы говорите по-английски? (vyh guh-vah-REE-tyeh pah ahn-GLEES-kee?)
Good morning Доброе утро (DOH-bruh-yeh OO-truh)
Good evening Добрый вечер (DOH-bryh VYEH-chuhr)
Where is the toilet? Где туалет? (gdyeh too-ah-LYEHT?)
Vodka водка (VOHT-kah)
Water вода/ой (vah-DAH / vah-DOY)
For all the tourist attraction we went to, we found that everyone spoke a little English so it was easy enough to buy tickets. Although, some museums did not translate from Russian to English and we ended up skipping a couple of attractions because of this.
5. Best Currency to Exchanging Money for Roubles
The best currencies to exchange in Russia are US Dollars and Euros. Other currencies do not get a very good rate.
Only change money at banks, hotels and airport exchange bureaux. It is an offense to change money from street traders. Most major banks and currency exchanges will sell you Roubles as well.
6. Debit/Credit Cards are not widely accepted
There are places in Russia that will accept debit/credit cards for purchases and there are some that don’t. Debit/credit cards are becoming more popular and undoubtedly it will soon enough be much more widely accepted.
You can get money out from ATM machines where I was in Moscow and St Petersburg, and you could also get money from major banks.
I recommend you keep some cash on you at all times, particularly if you are going to eat out or accept any goods or services ahead of purchasing so that you don’t get caught out not being able to pay.
7. Public Transport is the Best Way to Get Around Cities like Moscow and St Petersburg
Public transport is the best way to get around in most cities, especially the larger ones equipped with a subway system. The Moscow Metro is known as one of the most efficient and cheapest underground transit systems in the world. I would have to say the Moscow Metro is also one of the most beautiful. The stations are tourist attractions in their own right. Read more about how to complete a self-guided tour of the Moscow metro station during your visit.
In Moscow, our accommodation gave us an English version of the metro map which was super handy for navigating the metro. However, where and how to buy tickets won’t be included in the map so make sure you are aware of how to do this activity.
7. Don’t Drink The Tap Water
It is not uncommon even to open the tap to see some brown water coming out for a little while and not the highest quality of water. If small amounts of tap water is consumed it won’t hurt you so brushing your teeth with the water will cause harm. It could cause an upset stomach or growing illness in your stomach at most.
When you are in Russia drink bottled or filtered water. If you are ordering water at a restaurant and don’t want carbonated water ensure you say that you want water without fizz or gas.
The accommodation we stayed at is Moscow and St Petersburg installed a filter solution so their water was safe water to drink and saved us money. Alternatively, boiling water from the tap can make it safe to drink.
8. Russia is Safe to Travel
Yes, Russia is just as safe as visiting any other European country. There is petty crime such as pickpocketing and other tourist scams. Just keep your wits about you when walking around especially in a crowded area and look out for tourist traps.
9. Plan an Itinerary
Russia is a big place with lots to see especially if you are only covering Moscow and St Petersburg on your trip. Planning is key to make sure you cover the highlights, allow for museum and attraction closure days and time to cover some of the sheer sizes of the sights.
Creating your own DIY itinerary is the best way to explore Russia. Not only creating does creating your own DIY itinerary allow you to have flexibility but it is cheaper than a tour.
If you are planning to go to Moscow and St Petersburg, here are some ideas:
The Ultimate Guide on How to Spend Four Days in Moscow
St Petersburg 4 Day Itinerary
10. Be mindful of prices
Russia does tend to have tourist and local prices so you will generally be paying more than the locals do. Museum tickets is an area you will generally see the prices difference against Russians. If you claim to be a Russian they will ask to see your passport or proof that you are a Russian resident.
It is still cheaper than other European destinations but the key to being careful with prices in Russia is making sure you understand what the cost should be especially for restaurants, cabs or buying souvenirs.
If you are lucky enough to be a student then using your student ID can save you money at museums and other attractions. Restaurants also have deals called ‘business lunches’, which are great value for dining out.
11. Be Prepared for the Weather
The weather in Russia is hard to predict and is generally very changeable. Places can be known to having 4 seasons in a day or just be extremes of hot and cold. Even the Russian locals do not know what to expect from the weather.
Not being from a cold country myself, I am not sure I could handle the extreme cold of Russia during the winter. If travelling during the winter, it’s more important to protect yourself from the wet, rather than the cold. As bigger cities will be warmer the snow will melt quicker and turn into mush than regional areas. Make sure if you are travelling during winter that you bring the right shoes. Had I gone there in winter I would have taken my snow boots.
When we visited Russia, it was during summer and we were very lucky with the weather! Only 2 days that rained out of the 8 days when we were there. The temperature was similar to a London summer and we just packed light clothes along with a jacket plus some umbrellas and good walking shoes like sneakers.
13. Take Off Your Shoes When You Enter Someone’s Home
Be prepared to take off your shoes when you enter someone’s house in Russia or even your accommodation. Slippers are usually offered to guests when they come to visit. It was a rule at our hostels that we took our shoes off and they offered us disposable slippers to wear around the hostel.
I think it is a mix of comfort and cleanliness due to the weather which can drag dirt through the house via your shoes.
14. You Can’t Buy Alcohol from a Store After 11 PM
Shops will stop selling alcohol after 11pm so make sure you get your last-minute booze beforehand. Alternatively, places like Moscow and St Petersburg will have plenty of bars to party and drink the night away.
15. Dress up for a night on the town
Planning to hit the clubs whilst you are in Russia? It’s key to dress up otherwise you may not make it past the ‘face control’. For ladies it best to wear high heels and short skirts and for men to wear all black.
If you prefer to go to the theatre or a posh restaurant, do like the Russian do and dress up and you will fit in like a charm.
16. Asking for a Mixer with Your Vodka is a Sin
Vodka is a big deal for Russians and breaking the traditions and by not drinking it as a shot is a sin. If shotting vodka is a struggle then have a chaser with the shot like a lemon, a pickle or, perhaps, a separate glass of water. Vodka is drunk in swift shots, not sipped.
17. Be respectful in churches
When travelling we tend to dress for the weather in European countries and don’t always think that what we are wearing will be an issue. For example; if you walked into a church in Russia with shorts and a tank top it would not go down to well.
Ladies, when entering an active church you should cover your head and shoulders. In some monasteries and churches, it’s also required to wear a skirt, however, there are generally wraps are available at the door if you forget. Men have it easier with only needing to take off hats and not to wear shorts.
18. Check the Train Timetable
Long-distance train timetables are written according to Moscow time and can make it difficult when travelling across Russia’s multiple time zones. In most stations, the clocks are set to Moscow time. If you are only travelling between Moscow and St Petersburg there is nothing to worry about as they share the same time zone. Ensure you double check before travelling.
19. Reserve Tickets to the Russian Ballet (remember some close during August)
Book ballet tickets at least one month in advance as the reasonably priced tickets sell out fast and you could be left paying £150 and upwards. I booked us tickets online to the Mikhailosky Theater as they were around £25 – 30. Even though it was cheaper than the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky the performance was still spectacular.
Below are the top ballet theatres in Russia (if you are going to Moscow or St Petersburg in August some of the theatres close so you may not be able to see the ballet during this month). You will be able to see what performances are on, how much they cost and will be able to book your tickets online.