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Kremlin at night

Visiting Russia – FAQ

It is sunny and warm now in Moscow, best time to visit! In the last several weeks you have sent me dozens of questions on that topic. Last week I had a pleasure to show my home city to a group of tourists, among which were American, Japanese, British and Swedish – all seemed to really enjoy the city, but said it was not easy to plan their trip here. It is time for UnderstandRussia to run a FAQ session on visiting Russia!

When to visit Russia?

May to August is the best choice. Is that because it is brutally cold in the rest 8 months? No, not really. From my other post Is It Always Very Cold in Russia? you have learned that cold is not the biggest nuisance (at least if you travel to Moscow and St.Petersburg). It is rather the nasty weather and lack of sunshine, which could negatively impact your trip here. If you are a tourist – you are outdoors most of the time, you want nice and comfortable weather and you want great pictures with the blue sky in the background. To get all that – visit Moscow during warmer months. It might get quite hot for a couple of weeks in July-Aug, but usually it is just nice and warm.

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Do I need a visa?

That depends on where you come from. Russian citizens need visas to most countries, that is always reciprocal. If you hold a US or EU passport – you need a visa, if you are from South America – you do not need a visa. Google that question first as time to get visa, cost of visa and the list of required documents vary. The longest and most expensive process as far as I know is for my American friends. It is reciprocal, when we travel to the US, we also have to pay and wait a lot.

My visa application says I need a letter of invitation. Where do I get one if I do not know anybody in Russia? I also read that I will need to register somewhere upon arrival. Where?

The hotel that you have booked will give you the letter of invitation for the visa. It is ok to change your mind later if you want to stay in a different hotel. In any case, the hotel in which you will actually stay will give you all registration docs you need. Do not lose those, that is important.

How safe is it in Russia for tourists? Do I need a bodyguard?

It is safe and you do not need a bodyguard. You need to take the minimum precautions against the pickpockets. Also – in any big cities it is not wise to walk around deserted neighborhoods at 3 am in the morning. But I would say that in general Moscow is more safe than Chicago, New York, London or Paris. It is especially more safe than US cities due to two reasons – it is illegal to carry guns here and we do not have “bad streets or neighborhoods”. Some really remote areas at the outskirts of the city may be less safe, but there is nothing there that may attract a tourist. Downtowns of all major Russian cities during the day are completely safe.

What is the locals attitude towards tourists? Are locals nice or hostile?

Russian smile

Typical Russian smile

Russians in general treat foreign tourists well and are curious about people, who come from different countries. Locals may seem hostile to you though, because they will typically not smile to strangers. That does not mean they do not like you, that is just the custom here.

A lot of people asked me: “I am American, the relationship between US and Russia is sour now. Will local people hate me because I am American?”. The answer is no. Although a lot of Russians are brainwashed with the State Propaganda now, the person who they hate is your president, not you. Russians get that you are not in charge of politics in your country and they like that you decided to spend your vacation to see their country.

Do I need to speak Russian to get around?

Russian is an extremely difficult language to learn. Russian is difficult even for Russians. So, nobody expects a foreign tourist to learn the language just for one trip. However, if you can learn 10-15 words and phrases (such as Hi, Thank You, Please etc.) – your life as a tourist will be so much better here. You will notice that making such a small effort will melt people’s hearts. We love when a foreigner speaks even a bit of Russian and will go out of our way to help you and make your stay here more comfortable.

In general, most Russians do not speak English. If you are stuck and need help – your best bet will be to ask younger people. But even older people, who do not speak English will try to help a foreigner with a map to find her way.

Moscow metro map

Moscow metro map

Navigation in the cities, even in Moscow, is not easy. Most signs are in Russian. Downloading an offline city map will be very useful. For navigation in Metro – I guess you will just have to compare names of the stations in the guide-book with names of the stations on signs. It may be really confusing during the first day. But at least we do not have trains which may go to different places from the same platform as in the US or UK tube.

How expensive is travel to Russia?

It used to be super expensive, especially travel to Moscow. Moscow was #1 most expensive city in the world for expats for several years in the row. Ruble collapse made travel abroad more expensive for locals and made travel to Russia actually quite cheap for tourists. If you compare Moscow to London, New York or Paris now – everything will seem to be very affordable in Moscow.

Can I pay with the credit card while I am in Russia? Or do I need to bring cash? In which currency? Where do I change currency in Russia?

You can pay with a credit card almost everywhere (except for some street markets) in big cities. But even in Moscow, you will need to have cash on you. Best bet is to bring US dollars or Euro – you can exchange these anywhere where you see the tableau with the exchange rate. It should be pretty safe. Never ever try to exchange money on streets even if a person seems reliable.

Russia is so big! How Much Time Should I Plan For a Trip?

That really depends on how much vacation time you have and what would you like to see. Russia is a huge country, indeed. I am living here and I haven’t been to so many places yet. Unless you take a 6 month sabbatical from work – you will not be able to visit everything. But you do not need to see the entire country in one go. For most tourists – Moscow and St.Petersburg are the main attractions. And – believe it or not – you need just one week to see both capitals.

Map of Russia

Map of Russia – thousands of km, 9 time zones

For the first visit to Russia I would suggest to start with Moscow and St.Petersburg – do all the sightseeing, visit museums (Hermitage in St.Petersburg, Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow), go to the famous Bolshoy and Mariinsky theaters and explore the night life of these cities. You can actually do all that in one week since there is a fast train between the cities.

Suggested agenda for such trip is to arrive to Moscow, spend 3 days here and then take a fast (4 hour) or an overnight train to St’Pete and spend 4 days there. Here is the suggested itinerary (which may differ, depending on your interests and preferences):

Day 1 – First Day in Moscow

  • Red Square – “The heart of the country”, the most important and the most famous square. Just being here will make your heart beat with excitement. It is old, full of history and is indeed beautiful.

While you are at the Red Square – make sure you do not miss the following sites:

  • St' Basil's Cathedral

    St’ Basil’s Cathedral

    Gorgeous St’Basil cathedral – legend says that the architect, who build it, was blinded so that he does not build anything as beautiful ever in his life. Make sure you go inside – St’Basil has 8 tiny churches inside, which look like a fairy tale houses

  • Look at the Lenin’s mausoleum (from outside – I do not think it is open for visitors now). Lenin is still there except for the time he visits a building next to my friend’s home to get maintenance check)
  • GUM – #1 department store. Mostly western luxury brands inside now, but interesting architecture. And a great grocery store at the first floor, which looks like a typical Soviet grocery store (well, like a very posh ideal grocery store of that time). GUM also has a Bosco café, where you can have a super-expensive coffee, but with the view to the Red Square)
  • Before or After seeing the Red Square, you can go to Kremlin. Make sure it is before 4 pm, as Kremlin museums close early. There you can see:
    • 3 gorgeous cathedrals – visitors are allowed inside and it is the must-see
    • Tsar (King) Canon and Tsar Bell
    • A glimpse of office buildings, where Mr Putin works (you will not be allowed to trespass, but if you are lucky – you will see a president’s car or a helicopter)

Kremlin and Red Square will take at least half day. After lunch you can explore the surrounding area if you are not very tired – see one of main streets – Tverskaya or walk to Bolshoy Theater, gorgeous Metropol Hotel and former KGB building

Bolshoy Theater in Moscow

Bolshoy Theater in Moscow

Day 2 –  Museums& Culture – Tretyakov gallery (great collection of Russian paintings) + maybe exploring that area (old and interesting part of the city), go to see opera or ballet in the evening in Bolshoy theater

Novodevichii monastery

Novodevichii monastery

Day 3 – Novodevichii monastery (very picturesque) and campus of Moscow State University + viewing point and taking a boat along Moskva river and stopping by the Gorky Park – the #1 park in Moscow and a very fun one

Explore night life in Moscow if you still have energy on all or some of these days

St.Petersburg

Day 1 – Sightseeing in the center (cathedrals, Nevsky prospect etc)

Day 2 – Paul and Peter fortress and half day for Hermitage museum (However, I’d say that a half day in the Hermitage would probably be too short if you are a real fan of art.  One can easily spend the entire week in Hermitage. Going to the ticket vending machines might make the difference between waiting 20 minutes and waiting 4 hours to get to the ticket offices)

Peterhof Palace

Peterhof Palace

Day 3 – Peterhof palace near the city (gorgeous)

Day 4 – Tsarskoe Selo palace (where the famous amber room is)

In St.Pete – watch the bridges open at night (while making sure you are at the same side as your hotel;)

If you have more time (let’s say a week for Moscow alone):

  • Do the same as in previous itinerary, but make it less packed – spend more time enjoying breakfasts and lunches at the open terraces of cafes, go for a walk without having a particular destination in mind, take more photos of street life etc.
  • In continuation of the previous point – you could spend the entire day at the Gorky Park (assuming you visit in summer and the weather is nice) – you can play all kinds of sports there, have a long walk, eat at one of the cafes or just read a book in a park
  • Having more days in the city will allow you to go to more museums, concerts, theaters etc. To recommend – which ones I will need to know more about your interests
  • Another interesting thing would be to visit one of the former factories in the center of Moscow, which are now centers of art, crafts and entertainment. Check out TimeOut Moscow for ideas and the schedule of events
  • If you are interested in the Soviet period of history – you may go to VDNH – it is an interesting place, a former exhibition of achievements of Soviet republics – a large area with huge pavilions of these republics. Not much is going on in these pavilions now, but this place is still interesting from the architectural standpoint and was recently renovated
  • You can take a day trip(s) to one of the Golden Ring cities and look at beautiful churches, country side and buy some authentic souvenirs
  • Finally – you can spend several hours on seeing the “sleeping quarters” of Moscow – that is how we call the area which is outside the center (people go to the center to work and come back home to sleep).

How will I get around in Moscow and other Russian cities? Should I plan to rent a car or is there a reliable public transport?

Night traffic jams in Moscow

Night traffic jams in Moscow

If you are foreigner, I strongly advise against renting a car, especially in Moscow. Russian drivers are a bit crazy and the traffic is dense. There is an abundance of public transport. Choosing metro is probably the easiest way of transportation. Moscow metro is gorgeous, it is one of the must-see tourist attractions and trains arrive every 50 seconds during the day. If you need to take a taxi – either arrange that from your hotel or pick yellow cabs. Do not pick unofficial cabs if you are a foreigner, you will be charged much more than a local and might have hard time explaining where you want to go. In general – avoid taking taxi during work days and especially during rush hours (  and 4 pm – 8pm in Moscow) if you do not want to spend hours in the traffic jam.

To get from and to Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo airports using the train is convenient and inexpensive.

What is the food like? Is the food spicy? Which dishes should I try? Is the street food safe? Is it safe to drink a tap water?

Let’s start with the water. You can drink tap water in most places, but I suggest you drink bottled water because it tastes better. Tap water is still filtered with chlorine, which impacts the taste.

Borsch with dill

Borsch with sour cream and dill

Food in Moscow and St.Pete restaurants is absolutely safe to eat and there will be a lot of variety – from traditional Russian food to any kind of ethnic food. If you travel outside of the cities though – you may need to be more careful. If the place does not look like a restaurant (if it is a street food kiosk) – refrain from any minced meat or shawerma. Also, Russians use too much mayo and sour cream. Food that is high in fats may be difficult to digest if your daily diet is less fatty.

Pelmeni are welcome at any Russian lunch or dinner

Pelmeni are welcome at any Russian lunch or dinner

All food will not be spicy…even the ethnic food, which is supposed to be spicy. Russians do not like spicy food. You can ask for pepper at the table or ask to make dishes more spicy if you are at the ethnic restaurant.

Trying local food is a part of the immersive experience in any country. Read my posts on what Russians eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner and what is the typical festive meal and try as many items as you can (including Russian cold soup Okroshka, if you are adventurous).

I have special dietary needs – gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, kosher, halal etc. Will I be able to find the food I need in Russia?

My advice is to do a lot of research before your trip. If you plan to visit just Moscow and St.Pete – with the prior research you will find enough restaurants and grocery stores to cater to your needs. In all other places that will be a major challenge. Most Russians will understand if you are a vegetarian, but they will have no clue what is gluten-free or vegan or kosher or halal and such food may not be available.

If I was to spend a month or two traveling Russia – where would you recommend?

Russia has really amazing nature and culture. You can find everything from mountains to lakes and seas, meet people of different religions and lifestyles, see both the world-famous and the folklore art.

If you have a lot of time (a month or more) – possibilities are really endless. Definitely try to go to lake Baikal – that is the largest lake on earth and it is amazingly beautiful.

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Altai mountains are a very popular tourist destination as well – you can do a horse tour there or just do hiking. Kamchatka area (Far East) is one of the most unusual places on Earth – with mountains and geysers – but a trip there would be quite expensive. If you want to go to the seaside – it will be easy to visit Sochi, which hosted the Olympic games last year. Regarding skiing – we have some gorgeous mountains (Caucasus, Ural mountains etc), but the infrastructure there is not as developed as in Alps, so for now skiing in Alps is a better skiing experience.

Regarding planning the trip – you can easily plan Moscow and St.Petersburg (and the vicinity) travel on your own and travel solo, but for all other trips – it is better to use a tour agency and go with a group. You will have better experience and all the logistics will be taken care of by the agency.

Where can I buy souvenirs? Which souvenirs should I bring from Russia?

Filimonovo toys

Filimonovo toys

I wrote a big post about Russian souvenirs last year. And I wrote that I do not have a good recommendation of the store, where you can buy all these items. But now I have a great recommendation for you – there is a great brand new online store, where you can buy all those souvenirs and many more! And you will not even have to carry them in your luggage – they will arrive to your place and prices seem reasonable. My advice is – travel light and order souvenirs via this site. You can be sure to get authentic goods there, when buying souvenirs on the streets that is not always a case.

I am sure that left some questions unanswered. Please let me know in comments and I will be happy to answer your questions! Please visit Russia, we will be thrilled to welcome you here! Readers of my blog can always count on my personal help with planning trips to Russia and meeting me in Moscow if I am not traveling! 

Leave a Reply

  • Kim Hopkins - 3 years ago

    Really interesting information.Me and my husband are going to visit Moscow next month. At first I wasn`t really sure if it is safe but then I research and found out that Russia is perfectly safe country. I can`t wait to see “Krasnai Ploshad” :) Greetings!

    • Tanya Golubeva - 3 years ago

      Hi Kim! I wish you and your husband a wonderful time in Russia! Добро пожаловать! (Welcome!)

  • Ritesh - 1 year ago

    Hi tanya,
    Very helpful information.
    I’m planning to visit Russia in July 2018 for the Fifa worldcup.
    Depending on whether I get the tickets.

    I will be in Russia for 18 days and I will try and accommodate the places you have suggested above.
    I am also working on learning Russian (the basics)

    My questions are,

    1.
    I have read almost everywhere that Russians seem to be curious about different races ( trying to be as politically correct as possible)
    than racist.

    I’m an Indian and I want to know if it is safe for me to visit and what are the things I should know about Russians, in terms of behavior.
    I don’t want to be impolite to anybody.

    2.
    If you could tell me something about the nightlife in Moscow and St Petersburg.

    3.
    Are there hostels in and around the bigger cities that accommodate solo traveller’s?

    • Tanya Golubeva - 9 months ago

      Hi Ritesh,

      Apologies for not replying earlier.
      I am quite confident that you will not experience any problems in Russia, being Indian. Actually, people in Russia are very friendly towards Indians and very fond of Indian movies and culture! If you will be able to speak some Russian, I will greatly help you to connect with locals and make friends (sadly, not many people here speak conversational English)
      Nightlife in both Moscow and St’Pete is great! Lots of restaurants and night clubs. Clubs do tend to have a face control though, which in my opinion is an bad practice. But it exists and if you want to go to the popular places, make sure you don’t wear snickers or other sport clothes.
      There are hostels in Moscow and other cities, but as far as I know prices skyrocket for the Championship time. Hope that you have already booked something.
      Enjoy your visit! See you in Moscow, let me know when you will be here if you will have time for tea or coffee!

      Best,
      Tanya

  • Anonymous - 11 months ago

    Americans are more brainwashed than Russians are. The only difference is that in America, the illusion of democracy give people the impression that the media is free. But that is now changing, Americans are now searching for alternative sources of info which is why even RT has been successful in the West. When Russia becomes weak and is turned into another Iraq or Libya then you’ll appreciate Putin.