Earlier this year, I was invited by a Russian friend to spend New Year’s Eve with his family. I realize that my experience traveling to Russia may be atypical for other travelers as we spent the trip with friends, however I hope that my experience helps you prepare to visiting Russia for the first time.
Seeing Moscow and the surrounding areas with my friend gave me the opportunity to see a side of Russia that many tourists don’t get to see as well as some of the main tourist attractions in Moscow. I’ve included a number of Russian travel tips as well as a few things that surprised me about traveling in Russia.
You can do independent travel in Russia, but it may not always be easy to find information
I ended up doing a lot of research before our trip to Russia and it turns out that most people go with a tour. There’s nothing wrong with doing a tour, especially if you’re not language inclined. However, if you’re an experienced traveler who has been to a country where you encouraged somewhat of a language barrier and the alphabet was not readable to you, you should be fine.
Depending on your visa situation, you might need to pre-book your hotels in order to get the visa. Although not everyone is a big planner, the visa does require a bit of legwork if you intend to travel independently. I’d recommend making an excel of your intended dates and whether you booked a hotel (with free cancellation) for those dates.
I encourage you to leave the main cities although it will be harder if you don’t speak Russian. Finding information in English or your native language (that isn’t Russian) may be a bit tricky, however it is out there.
It is fairly easy to hire a guide and I’ve heard that the Russian Couchsurfing community is very friendly. I found the Lonely Planet Russia guidebook to be very helpful with giving us great recommendations consistently.
Learn the Cyrillic alphabet
This is my number one tip for traveling in Russia! Even in Moscow where the Metro steps are announced in English, you need to figure out which direction you’re going in. Without knowing the Cyrillic alphabet, this will be difficult as most of the establishments that we visited did not have English menus. I learned the Cyrillic alphabet in about four hours, so it’s very easy–and doable on your plane ride.
Learn some useful Russian expressions
I’ve included some useful Russian basics that we found to be useful, especially the numbers as this was handy to know for buying tickets.
- Привет (Privyet) means hello
- Спасибо (Spicy-ba) means Thank you
- да (DA) means Yes
- нет (Nyet) means No
- Простите (Prasteete) means Excuse me
- Пока (Paka) is the easier way of saying goodbye!
- Вы говорите по-английски? (Vi gavareetye pa angleeskee?) is how to ask if someone speaks English.
- чая (Chaya) means tea
- кофе (Koffie) means coffee.
- Дайте мне… (Daytee mne) is a good way to ask, “May I have…”
- Счёт (Schyot) is the word for the bill.
- один (a-deen) means one.
- два (dva) means two.
- три (tree) means three.
- четыре (“chye-tir-ye) means four.
Credit Cards are accepted almost everywhere, but book things online was annoying
I tried to book a couple of things in advance before my trip, however my credit card wasn’t always working well or I had to call to unlock it as my credit card company was worried that I had been hacked. After setting up a travel notice on my account, we arrived in Russia.
I took out a small amount of cash, however in general, we rarely used cash as almost every single shop took cards. Basically every card was accepted although I’d definitely recommend a card with a chip.
The only thing that I found a bit strange was nobody ever asked for my signature and/or checked my name on my card against a form of identification. Usually, staff at the various restaurants showed us the bills, put the card in, and handed it back. It was that simple.
Russian hospitality is out of this world
Somehow, Russians have a reputation for being unfriendly and cold. I can personally attest to the degree of Russian hospitality that we visited and how warm we found the hospitality to be. To be fair, finding a Russian friend might take a little effort, but you might have luck through different hospitality networks if you’re traveling in Russia. You might be surprised how friendly Russians are, so expect to attract some attention if people hear you speaking English in public.
Originally, we intended to stay at hotels the entire time, however my friend and his parents refused to let us do this for the majority of our stay. Prior to our visit, my friend’s parents offered their apartment while they were off on vacation to us to stay at together with our friend. This was a very thoughtful gesture, but the story continues.
As we walked up to the building, I noticed a lot of signs indicating that there would be wet paint inside the building. We carefully dodged the wet paint and made a comment about it. My friend tells us that his mother specifically told the custodian of the building that she would have guests coming from the United States to visit, so the entire apartment building was repainted in time for our arrival.
Our friend and his family were so generous with us. They endlessly fed us, attempted to entertain us as much as possible as the language barrier allowed, and also wrapped us in scarves when we looked cold. Simply, we felt at home almost immediately and I came away with the trip trying to compare it to anywhere else I’ve been. The closest that I’ve experienced elsewhere was with my own family or with my husband’s parents.
Take your shoes off when entering someone’s home.
People do not keep their shoes on while inside someone’s house. Remove your shoes and put on slippers if they’re available. It’s rude otherwise.
The visa process is not easy for many nationalities
Depending on your nationality, the visa process for Russia might be difficult and expensive. The visa process for Americans was not easy or cheap, but it was worth it. My friend encouraged us to go through a secondary agency who may have the ability to speed up the process compared to going to the embassy.
Checking your coat (during winter) is typically free and you may not be allowed into a museum without taking it off
At least for me, it took a bit of getting used to, but most establishments, including restaurants and museums, have a coat rack that is free and available for use. Most people leave their coats at the door and they’ll look at you funny if they see that you’re trying to enter with your coat on. While at a museum in Yaroslavl, I tried to keep my coat as I was cold, however the staff would not let me inside with my coat on.
The Metro stations in Moscow are worth admiring
It’s weird to write that you cannot miss the metro stations in Moscow, however the Moscow metro is an amazing historical artifact. It was built during Soviet times and the idea behind many of the early stations was to inspire the population with propaganda. As a New Yorker, I was shocked at how incredibly clean the Metro lines are in Moscow. I’d recommend taking a tour of the Moscow Metro to fully appreciate its stunning stations.
The cities are very large
Moscow itself is a sprawling metropolis with over 11.92 million residents. Really. It is the largest city on the European continent, so do not underestimate how long it may take to get between two places on the map.
I recommend paying very close to attention to your hotel’s location. Ensure that you will be along a metro stop if you’re staying in Moscow or St. Petersburg as the other train system is not as tourist-friendly.
We stayed mostly on the outskirts of Moscow and ended up dealing with a separate train system: the suburban train system. This system was very affordable, however buying a ticket can be quite intimidating if you are not well-versed in Russian. There are faster as well as slower trains that will bring you closer to the city center. After missing a fast train from one point in the city center, it took over 1.5 hours to return on the slow train…
Book your tickets in advance for the major tourist attractions
If you intend to visit most of the major attractions, expect major crowds. If you don’t want to wait in line, you can purchase your tickets ahead with a tour company who will be able to explain the historical or religious significance of what you’re seeing.
Say goodbye to Google Maps and hello to Yandex for Maps
Google did work while we were in Russia, however Google Maps didn’t work as well as Yandex Maps. Yandex is the homegrown Russian equivalent of Google who has a host of applications that you can download onto your phone. I found their maps to be far more accurate and actually very intuitive for non-Russian speakers.
WiFi can be found, but you might not be able to sign on without a non-Russian phone number
Although WiFi was generally available and there would be signs for it, many of the Russian WiFi networks require a Russian phone number in order to log on. A foreign phone number is not possible in many cases. As a result, I didn’t have WiFi for many of the days that we were there as roaming charges were high.
If you intend to use your phone while in Russia, a Russian travel tip would be to purchase a cheap Russian SIM card, which will probably be cheaper than your home network. The major Russian phone companies are MTS, Beeline, and Megafon. Similarly, it will allow you to access the various “free” WiFi networks. There is free WiFi on the Moscow metro trains if you get desperate…
Eating Russian food and other options…
I’m not vegetarian, but I found Russian food to be delicious. It’s really its own thing. In particular, I came away from this trip a huge fan of dumplings and Russian pickles. (Varenichnaya is a popular dumpling chain in Moscow with a retro Soviet style interior.)
For many of our meals, we ended up at massive canteen-like buffets where you just pay for what you take. Although menus and signs will be in Russian most likely, you’ll end up trying out a lot of typically Russian food. (Грабли is a popular Moscow restaurant chain for a casual Russian-style buffet that my friend likes)
Due to history, Russians are a big fan of food from other former Soviet countries and there’s a lot of diversity in Russian cities still. Simply, in Moscow and other major Russian cities, you will not have difficulty finding a restaurant with food from these regions. My friend in particular is a huge fan of Uzbek cuisine and Uzbek pilaf is delicious.
Many credit Stalin with introducing Georgian food to Russia and the giant grilled meat sticks that you will see out in public are of Georgian origin. In general, Georgian food is beloved, delicious, and easy to find.
Most people don’t speak English
Unfortunately, many older Russians do not speak English. With the younger generation, English is becoming more common, but it’s still not widely spoken. You can find English more widely spoken within Russia’s major cities.
In general, I recommend using caution about what you say in English in public, especially if you are in Moscow or St. Petersburg, as many people in these cities do speak English very well.
Even while we were dining at a local restaurant, a man came up to us after hearing the three of us talking in English after eavesdropping on our conversation for 20 minutes from the next booth after. He wanted to just mention that he worked in a similar field and ask us where we were from in the United States, so be on your best behavior. You never know.
Download a translation app before you go
Google Translate offline was very handy on my phone as I was able to take a picture of a couple things that I wasn’t sure of and have an instant translation. Yandex Translate is slightly better for Russian translations.
People are excited to speak about English and…it can get weird
Many of the people that we met who did speak English were very excited about practicing English with us and to ask where we were from. Expect Russians to ask you about your hometown or country.
As Americans, we felt like people were actually very warm towards us. People certainly would pay attention to us on the street after hearing us speak English and a number of strangers came up to us to talk on the street daily in Moscow. Even my Russian friend found this bizarre…
All of these conversations were benign, but some interactions took a turn towards the weird side.. While at a train station in Moscow, my husband ordered a drink at a cafe. A Russian man heard him ordering and introduced himself. He immediately decided to sing the Kokomo song from the Beach Boys with the lyrics messed up with the words, “Bahama, USA.” He asked Jacob if he recognized it and continued to sing it over and over hoping that it would result in….something. Another interaction resulted in a hug outside of a bar.
In general, people kept coming up to Jacob to ask where he was from (in English). In a single day, this happened five separate times while we were in Moscow. A man on a suburban train who refused to believe that Jacob was from Kentucky, asked to see his passport to verify, then told us everything that he knew about Kentucky.
Russian architecture is incredible
I was blown away by the stunning architecture that we saw in Russia. In the major cities, you’ll find many streets reminiscent of other European cities with ornate exteriors. The churches were also incredibly beautiful and unique.
As someone who grew up in the US, I was also fascinated by the Soviet side of things, so don’t miss the seven sisters in Moscow. These Stalin-era skyscrapers are incredibly impressive and large. Even underground, you’ll find the metro stations in Moscow to be incredibly ornate and beautiful.
Politics are better not discussed
A lot of people are not comfortable discussing politics and it’s generally better not to broach it unless you know the person well or they start the conversation.
If you’re visiting a city, you should be able to ask at your hotel for an English speaking guide.
Most things outside of major cities are really geared towards Russians, who often travel within Russia. As a result, not all tour guides will speak English well. Most hotels will have tour guides available to call who you can hire for the day for an impromptu private tour. My friend’s parents did this while we were in Yaroslavl and they said it wasn’t very expensive.
Tea is more ubiquitous than coffee
Russian tea culture is incredibly well developed. You can find tea basically everywhere. Even if you’re not a big tea drinker, like me, you might be surprised by the variants of the tea that you’ll find, especially at home. Tea is easy and cheap to buy at booths and cafes all around Moscow. Western-style coffee shops are still not overly common, but becoming more popular in major cities.
Expect Central European prices in the major cities and things to be cheaper outside of the major cities
Costs in Russia were what you’d pay while traveling in Central Europe. They weren’t horribly expensive although hotels in Moscow were on the higher side (30-85 euros per night) depending on how nice the hotel is and your timing. Expect to pay around 45-55 euros for a decent 3-4* hotel that isn’t a international chain.
Food prices were on par with what you’d expect for Central Europe within Moscow. At no point was I really shocked at the bill, however I paid around 8-15 euros for a decent meal. Groceries and alcohol were a lot cheaper, on par with Central Europe. If you’re sticking to slightly nicer restaurants, you’ll spend more, but it’s possible to spend less than this if you stick to local restaurants and typically Russian food (like dumplings).
Visit at least one monastery
We visited the Sergiyev Posad monastery outside of Moscow. The architecture were incredible and a nice change from the major cities. It’s hard to describe how incredibly large these complexes are and luckily, the Sergiev Posad monastery is fairly tourist-friendly.
Russian churches expect women to wear skirts that are on the longer side (below the knee) and to cover their head when entering. Even when visiting Sergiev Posad in winter, I was surprised by how covered up many women were, so bring extra clothing to wear into the churches. They’re absolutely stunning and worth the extra weight for.
Plan a visit to the flea markets for unique souvenirs
For the most unique souvenirs, head to the flea market. We ended up visiting the Izmaylovsky market in Mosocw, which is a great place to pick up some unique souvenirs. My favorite souvenirs from our trip were our hats and and a decorated tea cup holder with a rare Soviet-era tea glass inside.
Be sure to visit a Russian banya and enjoy your bath
A Russian banya is a unique experience to have while in Russia. In winter, many people feel that the banya gives them a burst of energy to start off the day with. I found the banya to be very good for my skin.
Banyas are gender separated in general although it’s okay for married couples to go together if it’s a private banya. Some Russians even have their own private banya, especially if they have a self-standing house. You can read more about visiting a banya here.
If you want to visit the Christmas markets, remember that Russia is majority Orthodox
Christmas in Russia is really cool to experience. Expect to find Christmas markets around the New Year’s period and in early January prior to the 7th. We were lucky enough to be there for the Christmas lead-up and the Christmas markets were a lot of fun to browse.
I visited one of the main Moscow Christmas markets and ended up finding lots of great souvenirs, including a birch coffee container. (Birch is considered to be a symbol of Russia.)
Don’t drink (only) vodka
We didn’t have vodka once while in Russia and Russians get annoyed by these stereotypes. Instead, we drank what our friend and his family drank: some sparkling wine, whiskeys from former Soviet republics, and on occasion, some beers. The craft beer scene in Russia is growing and I was impressed with the local beer that I tried in Moscow.
Russia is safe, but pickpockets definitely exist
Russia felt very safe while we were there. We had no hassle and it’s like any city in the world: there’s crime and you need to pay attention to your surroundings. We were warned by my friend about pickpockets on the Metro, but we didn’t have any issues. In general, I never felt nervous about walking around, even at night when we were virtually alone.
Winter in Russia isn’t so bad, but different
Winter is a nice time to visit Russia as it opens up the opportunity for many more activities in the snow. Unfortunately, we visited during a warm winter, so the snow was not deep enough to go dogsledding with the dogs that belonged to my friend’s uncle. However, you can still enjoy hiking as the snow generally freezes over well enough that you can walk on it with a good pair of wool boots.
Dress warmly and in layers. I ended up wearing my warm jacket with a t-shirt and a sweater underneath as needed with jeans. This was enough, however I’d recommend a warm hat, gloves, and a scarf. The wind chill is what often bothered me the most.
In terms of shoes (even in winter), you don’t need snow boots for traveling in Russia in winter if you’re only visiting the major cities as a good waterproof pair of shoes will do the trick. I wore my waterproof booties, which were fine for Moscow. I saw a lot of ladies wearing heels or heeled boots out in Moscow, so you’ll feel pretty underdressed if you’re wearing snow boots.
Russian holidays to be aware of as it may drive up prices
Shortly around New Years is a major Russian bank holiday and many people will travel between New Years (December 31st) and Christmas (7th of January). As a result, expect elevated prices during this time as many people will visit the major cities for shopping. Moscow was incredibly busy when we were there and it also made hotels more expensive…. Another major holiday is Victory Day (May 9th).
Bring some nicer outfits if you’ll be going out to dinner or attending a dinner with a family
To say the least, Russian women know how to dress well. I chronically felt underdressed, even though I packed a couple of dresses that I’d consider nice by Dutch or American standards. If you intend to eat out at a nice restaurant as well as go out at a nicer establishment, bring some nicer outfits suitable for a really nice evening out with you.
To get the best exchange rate, use a ATM.
In general, I recommend using an ATM to get the best exchange rate if you intend to take out cash. If you need to exchange money, you can do this at a bank in order to get better rates, but I’d recommend minimizing foreign cash as the ruble is the Russian currency.
Standard European plugs are used
This is a small note, but it’s the same two pronged plug used in the rest of Europe (besides the UK). If you’re traveling from elsewhere, you might want to buy a European travel adapter for your electronics.
Russia is a huge country, so don’t underestimate your time traveling between cities that seem close on a map
We only had about two weeks and I was in the Moscow area. I still feel that there’s a lot more to see in Moscow as well as other cities that I didn’t get to visit in the Golden Ring. For this reason, I’d recommend ensuring that you have enough time to see the cities.
The most popular journey between Moscow and St. Petersburg is an overnight train between the cities that is quite luxurious (according to my friend), however it takes about eight hours. If you only have a week, plan accordingly as Moscow can easily take up five days.
Buy a Troika card in Moscow
St. Petersburg also has a similar item, however the Troika card is a contactless reusable card used for the Moscow metro. You can reload the card with ten rides (as we did), which made it easy enough to get around without having to worry about the balance. The card itself costs 50 roubles and you can reload it at any Moscow Metro station. It’s worth it, even just to see the stunning metro stations.
Ask your Russian hosts for their version of cheers
When we were staying with my friend, his uncle had his own version from the village near where we were staying. That was the version that we used for most of our stay, however ask first to see what you host prefers to use.
Some amazing hotels that have remained intact since Soviet times still exist
While looking at hotels, I ended up finding a few hotels that have barely changed since the Soviet era. In particular, we stayed at Legendary Hotel Sovietsky, a hotel that has been mostly unchanged since Soviet times. This hotel commissioned by Stalin himself was built in 1952 and it has marbled-columns as well as wood paneled rooms. It did not disappoint to say the least.
Its famous Yar restaurant was moved from another location and was the site of a favorite theatre where famous Russian authors would dine in Czarist times…. It has been restored and it was used for party meetings and as well as banquets. (It’s absolutely stunning if you get the chance to peek inside…)
The airports are outside of the city center
If you have a layover at one of the airports in Moscow or St. Petersburg, be warned that the airports are outside of the cities. Plan accordingly for the transit time as it took us about 1.5 hours to reach the airport from our accommodation.
Luckily, Moscow has a high-speed train (Aeroexpress) that connects the airport with the city for a reasonable cost. However, we still lost quite a bit of time navigating to the station where we caught the airport train. Ensure that you’re heading to the right airport as well. 😉