It’s my last day in Russia. I’m sitting in McDonald’s (as that’s the only decent place I found at 7am on Sunday in Moscow) and, since the weather is crap, I can happily stay here and work on my first post from Russia. I’ve been here for over a week, definitely not enough to get to know the country or even its two major cities properly but enough to observe and learn few things about Russia travel.
I could have easily spent all my time in Moscow or in St.Petersburg as they both are enormous and offer so much attractions but instead I’ve divided my time between these two cities as well as added Kazan to my itinerary. And the capital of Tatarstan was probably my highlight of this trip as it took me by surprise and was pretty cool!
But before I start telling you in details about my trip I want to share some of the Russia travel tips I’ve learnt that will hopefully come in handy for everyone planning their own trip to Russia!
First and most important Russia travel tip – learn some basic language. And if it’s too much (as this is not the easiest language) learn at least the Cyrillic alphabet. I honestly can’t imagine being here without my basic knowledge of Russian, it would be so challenging! Most of the signs are in Russian only (besides transportation, metro and train stations are well signed in English too) and the majority of people speaks only Russian (that was actually a bit of surprise for me).
I remember before my first trip to Ukraine couple of years ago I devoted one afternoon to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. I bought the notebook like for kids in the early years of school (it was with Hello Kitty because why not) and was writing down every single letter until I learnt it. Those few hours helped me tremendously during my trip as at least I could understand what’s happening around me. It still took me a while to put all the letters together but I managed.
Now, few years later, the ability to read Cyrillic alphabet is one of the best travel skills I have (especially that my favorite places to travel are in Eastern Europe or the Balkans). So yes, do yourself a favor and learn at least the letters! Extra points if you manage to communicate in Russian, even if very basic. My level of Russian is rather poor but I managed to survive here for over a week and I barely used English (my aim was not to use English at all but in St.Petersburg when people notice I’m not a local they immediately switched to English).
I think knowing the language was also the key to success when talking to people. Before coming here I’ve heard not so many positive things about Russian people, that they are cold and reserved, but my experience is completely different. Every single conversation I had was nice, friendly and full of smiles. People really appreciated the effort that I was trying to speak their language and when I was saying I speak only very little Russian they started speaking slower so we could still talk. Actually I find Russian people some of the friendliest I’ve ever met!
So when you are here don’t be afraid to speak Russian, smile a lot and you will be fine!
Get a local SIM card
Get a local SIM card as soon as possible. I didn’t really plan to do that as I didn’t think I will need it for a week but in Kazan I very quickly gave up. In Moscow you can connect to free wifi more or less everywhere but once you go outside of the capital things get more challenging.
Very often when there is a free and open wifi you still need to sign in using the phone number – in 80% of the cases it accepts only the Russian numbers – that’s when the local SIM card comes in handy. Even in one of the hostels I stayed at I needed to sign in with the local number to use the wifi. The best exception I came across was in the subway both in Moscow and St.Petersburg when you could surf the internet freely, you only need to go through few commercials first.
That said I found the speed of wifi rather poor in Russia so often I preferred to use the data I got with my SIM card instead of taking advantage of the wifi provided.
When buying the local SIM card there are few things you need to be aware of. Russia is the only country I know that has an internal roaming. When I was travelling by train from Kazan to St.Petersburg (22 hours only…) I got numerous text messages from my network, welcoming me in yet another region. If you plan to travel around Russia make sure your card will work in other regions too, not only in the one where you buy it.
Also don’t get scammed with the offer. A friend of mine went to the Megafon store in Moscow to ask for a card and was presented with an offer with 7GB of internet for 1000 rubles and exact dates when you are outside of Moscow so they can turn the roaming on for those places and days. That was too much for just 9 days of travel so she passed. When we arrived to our hostel in Kazan we got TELE2 cards there for 200 rubles, with 3GB of internet and the ability to use it all over Russia without any special requirements.
When buying the SIM card you need to present your passport, it’s a standard procedure so don’t be surprised with it.
Is getting a visa to Russia difficult?
There are so many urban legends about visa to Russia! They were actually the main reason why I postponed my trip here for such a long time (and now I regret it)! I got my visa in Poland but I think the procedure is more or less similar in other countries too, just the price may vary.
Yes, it’s a lot of paperwork to do and it seems overwhelming at first but all in all it wasn’t that bad. You need to collect all the documents required: you can get the voucher online (I got mine almost immediately even if the website stated maximum 48 hours time, it was around 20€), you can easily find the insurance too.
The biggest problem seems to be with the accommodation and this question appears often on my Facebook group about travelling in Eastern Europe (if you’re not a member yet click here to join, it’s an invaluable source of information). What you can do (and what I did too) is to reserve a place to stay on Booking and once you get a visa you can cancel those reservations. Most of the places allow you a free cancelation anyway.
The problem with Russian visa is that you get it for specific dates so if something goes wrong you might end up in the trouble. When applying for a visa I added 2 extra days, just in case (and that’s why I needed those fake reservations), especially that my flight back departs late in the evening from Moscow.
The other trick with Russian visa is that it’s almost impossible to get a meeting directly at the consulate. Don’t let that discourage you. Just call your nearest visa center (in Poland they are divided by the regions) and ask about the situation there. Visa center is a very smart idea that Russian authorities had. It’s the official Russian institution that intermediates in getting a visa, for a fee of course (25€ in Poland). In Warsaw we could apply via the visa center anytime we wanted to and we got our passports back exactly 10 days later (not working day, just regular ones) with no issues at all.
So to sum it up: yes, there is a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy involved but once you start going through the process it’s pretty straightforward. Yes, it’s rather expensive to get a visa to Russia but definitely worth it (the visa fee itself for Polish citizens is around 35€ but with the visa center fee, the voucher and the insurance the amount increases, a lot). Don’t make my mistake and don’t wait too long with visiting Russia only because visa procedures overwhelm you.
Is Russia expensive?
Another urban legend is that Moscow is crazy expensive. I have to disagree. Of course you can spend a lot of money here, like in any other big city, with all the fancy shops (I’m looking at you TSUM) and restaurants around. But if you travel in a casual way (not budget and not luxury, just normal) it’s really fine here.
I’m actually pretty surprised how affordable Russia is. Most of the prices are similar or even smaller than in Poland (and that’s already a rather cheap country in European standards). I’ve spent way less money than I expected here and I didn’t really save.
The good news is you can pay by card literally everywhere, even by metro ticket or souvenirs in the train (I’m a happy owner of five beautiful glass holders now).
Where to eat in Russia? How is Russia for vegetarians?
When eating out I can definitely recommend you stolovaya – a cantine-alike restaurant with local food and affordable prices. They are made for locals mostly so you can be sure you get a good food there. You can also see everything that’s in the offer so even if you don’t speak Russian or don’t read Cyrillic you can just point to what you like.
In Moscow I can recommend Mu-Mu chain stolovaya, if you are close to Red Square you can also find another one, Stolovaya no.57, on the top floor of GUM – this one can get crowded because of the location. In St. Petersburg I’ve seen so many more stolovayas around, the best one I visited was the chain “Talerka” – not only the food was good but also the interior was cool. If you’re wondering where to eat in St. Petersburg I can assure you will have lots of options to choose from!
If you visit Kazan I highly recommend trying Tatar cuisine and the best place to do so is the fast food restaurant Tiubeyeti (I’ve visited the places recommended by many but they were not as good). I’ve seen some stands on Bauman street and next to the train station but the proper restaurant can be found at Kremlevskaya street. The selection of Tatar food is really big and they have some vegetarian options too. This was probably the best meal I had in Russia and again, so affordable!
If you’re a vegetarian, like me, your time in Russia might get slightly challenging but it’s still much better than in many other countries. There are always pancakes or syrniki and you never can go wrong with them but there are usually other options to choose from too!
Train travels in Russia
I can’t imagine a better way to travel around Russia than by train! During this trip I did three overnight journeys: Moscow – Kazan (12 hours, 2nd class – kupe), Kazan – St.Petersburg (22 hours, 3rd class – platskarta) and St.Petersburg – Moscow (8 hours, 2nd class – kupe).
To be honest train tickets are rather expensive here, or maybe I’m just used to Ukrainian trains’ prices. I spent around 150€ for these three connections. As soon as you have the itinerary for your Russia trip you should book the tickets online as they might get sold out (plus the earlier you buy, the cheaper the ticket is). There are few tricks when buying the ticket online (most important – you don’t need to select “passport” as the ID -that’s for Russian citizens, you need to pick “foreign document”) – you can find the whole instruction here (btw, Seat61 is probably the best website about train travels, ever). In most cases the printed ticket is enough to board the train, you don’t need to go to the ticket office to exchange it for a regular one.
Now the interesting thing is that in 2nd class carriages – kupe – the upper berth is less expensive than the lower one and the difference was significant. I prefer the upper berth anyway so that was good for me. There is a non-spoken rule that a passenger occupying the upper berth can sit in the lower one as well, after all that’s where the table is, but no one will be crazy enough to climb to the upper one just to sit there. So when booking an upper berth you have the place all to yourself!
Just a small note: if you travel by the double-deck night train (I had that one on St.Petersburg – Moscow route) and you buy the upper berth on the upper deck expect a really tiny space – that’s definitely not recommended for tall people!
It might seem to be difficult to climb to the upper berth – there’s a small ladder but I honestly can’t use it. Instead I always do it the way the fellow passengers taught me in the night train from Odessa to Lviv couple of years ago – I stand with one leg on the table and then lift up to the upper berth – it’s fast and works every time! Only in Kazakhstan people looked with reluctance at this method, everywhere else it was all fine!
The Russian night trains were pretty awesome, probably the best I’ve ever travelled with. They were all modern, very clean, had power sockets and air condition. It’s wise to have your own flip flops / slippers to walk around as the place is really clean – I saw provadniks washing the floor half way through the journey. There is always a hot water available in each carriage, you can also buy some drinks and snacks (or souvenirs!) from provadnik – a person taking care of the carriage (there is one in each of them). When you prepare for the train journey it’s best to have your own cup and spoon with you as well as the tea or some instant soups (you can easily buy those at or next to the train stations) – if you don’t have those you can always buy a cup of tea from the provadnik.
If you travel in the 3rd class carriage get some extra food for the journey, not only for yourself but also to share with your fellow passengers as that’s what people do and you don’t want to feel stupid for not having anything to share.
Entrance tickets to museums
If you plan to visit museums / places of interests, especially in St.Petersburg, it’s wise to buy tickets online beforehand. That’s why I did for the Hermitage and it was the smartest idea ever. There is a dedicated entrance for visitors with online tickets and there were barely few people when I went in. On the other hand the line for the people to buy tickets and enter the Hermitage through the main entrance seemed to be never-ending and at the time I was there the Hermitage was temporarily closed for new visitors.
Taking pictures in Moscow metro and St. Petersburg metro
Metro is one of the biggest tourist attractions in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. After my recent incident when police stopped me in Kharkiv, Ukraine most likely for spending too much time underground and taking picture of every single metro station I was slightly reluctant about photographing metro station in Russia. But as it turned out there is really nothing to worry about as it is allowed to take pictures at the stations, you just can’t use the flesh.
I visited too many metro stations to count, took pictures everywhere, couple of times the police and security was walking next to me and no one really minded. There are even tours dedicated to beautiful Moscow metro stations, I would have probably taken it if I had more time.
Victory Day in Russia
I visited Russia at the beginning of May (I needed only 3 days off from work to have 9 days of travel). There are good and bad things about travelling at this particular time of the year. As you might now 9th of May, the Victory Day, is a big thing in Russia. When I arrived, on April 28th, parts of the Red Square in Moscow were already used as tribune for the big day and in the next days the constructions continued. That also meant the mausoleum of Lenin was out of order – too bad as visiting it was among the top things to do in Moscow for me.
It was similar in St. Petersburg – on my first day things were good but further during my stay there more and more constructions appeared in front of the Hermitage completely blocking the view. At the same time it was possible to walk in the middle of Nevsky Prospekt as it was closed for the vehicles. So travelling to Russia around the Victory Day might cause some troubles and inconvenience but I bet it’s really interesting to be here on that very day and see the famous parade – too bad I’m not staying here for that!
Is Russia safe?
For the whole time during my Russian trip I felt really safe. No one bothered me, people were all helpful and friendly and there was not a single unpleasant situation. There was a lot of police around as well as surveillance system all over the place and that could have added up to my overall feeling.
This time I was travelling with a friend but we split up couple of times and when I was spending days on my own I felt fine and safe too. I would definitely have no problems doing the whole solo female travel in Russia thing!
In Moscow we went to 30 Seconds to Mars concert and even if the crowd was really huge the exit from the Olympic stadium and the return back to the hotel went really smoothly.
Even if I found Russia to be safe I still recommend getting a travel insurance before your trip, always! I’ve learnt my lesson that you never know what might happen. You can get a good travel insurance at World Nomads that specialize in travel.
So that’s it for now. I’m sure I will be returning to Russia again as now I want to see more or the country really badly – I will be hopefully adding more info to the article in future. If you have some Russia travel tips you’re more than welcome to share them in the comments!