Russia is expecting lots of guests for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. A huge event which rises a lot of questions for visitors in many terms - safety, country open-mindedness and accessibility being some of the most important.
Being a holder of Russian passport and spending at least 1 month per year in St-Petersburg, my hometown, by no means am I going to give you in this post an overview of the whole Russia. But I will try to give you some insides into the mysterious "Russian soul" as well as some general tips of what you can expect when visiting this controversial country.
I believe that living for the past 10 years in Europe and traveling around the World gave me an opportunity to have a view on Russia from the outside.
If this is your first time traveling to Russia, than "A beginners guide to Russia" may be of use and interest to you.
Before I start...
Just to avoid misunderstanding, I'm not going to share any political opinions here neither do I plan to judge or critisize. Incomprehensible to many I dearly love my home country where my whole family and some of the best friends still reside, but at the same time I don't see a place for me in it anymore.
Talking about Russia is always difficult for me - I lived there for 20 years and took many things as normal, but I know that many of you are planing your trips and would want to know a bit more than what the travel guide or the news channel says. Let's hope I can help.
before you go - arranging a visa
Once you settled down your travel plans and decided which part of the country you want to discover it's time to start organizing.
Fact: Russia belongs to those countries where you need a visa to enter. If you are seriously considering traveling to Russia be sure to arrange your visa beforehand - you can't obtain it on arrival. The standard processing time is about 20 business days.
The process of obtaining a visa is as bureaucratic as it could get - filling in forms, attending an interview at an embassy, obtaining an invitation, waiting in line et.c. Better check the exact information on required documents and processing times on the official page of a Russian Embassy or Consulate at your place. Russian tourist visa costs something about 90 USD and is a single-entry visa only!! Keep this in mind if you plan to cross borders (especially in Kaliningrad region).
Instead: Based on my personal experience (my husband and my kid are German nationals and they need visa every single time) I would recommend you save your time and nerves and apply for a Russian visa over travel agencies which specialize in visa services. Check the internet or watch out for those agencies which are usually located in the areas where Russians live. This is how we always get visa for my two Germans. In this case your visa would cost more - about 120 USD, but believe me it is worth paying extra.
The only way you could try applying for a visa on your own if you live infront of a Russian Embassy, just kidding.
TIP: There are some ways to avoid the bureaucracy and visit Russia on visa-free basis, but there are certain conditions to be met:
- first of all if you are in the visa waiver programm and belong to one of the 49 countries who doesn't require a visa consider yourself lucky. You can see the whole list here
- for travelers arriving by cruise ship or ferry a 72 hours visa-free regulation applies
- visitors of the 2018 FIFA World Cup don't need a visa during the period of the games, but you need to prove that you have a “Personalized card of the spectator” also known as a “Fan ID”.
Safety is the most important issue which rises a lot of questions for everyone going to Russia.
I don't have a certain answer here, simply because I would lie if I say 'Yes, Russia is safe'. I also believe that everybody has their own limit of feeling secure. I don't want to scare you off! Russia is way safer than many other countries, but I want to warn you to take the security issue seriously! In most of the cases nothing is going to happen and you will go through your journey safe and sound.
Here are some of the tips on helping to stay safe and secure when in Russia (metropolitan areas are more affected):
- Robbery and pickpocketing. One of the most common issues. Russian thieves are very innovative, so take good care of your belongings, especially documents. I would suggest leaving your valuables at a safe in a hotel or in an apartment and carry around a copy of your papers.
- Avoid walking alone at dark time of the day. Tourists, especially foreigh ones are easy to spot in Russia (remember my words when you are there). It's the way they behave and the way the dress. So try not to attract extra attention to yourself when alone or being outside in the dark.
- Avoid cheap deals. I know it is tempting to have something half-price, but try to avoid anyone approaching you with 'special offers' or 'only for you, my friend' suggestions. You might end up paying double.
- Keep you valuables hidden. As my mom always says the best way to stay safe is not to provoke others. Even though some Russians do have Iphones, apple watches, expensive cameras and jewelry, I wouldn't recommend you to show it off on public. I persoanlly was approached 2 times with a knife with a request to give my phone. And please rememebr - if they ask, you let it go!
- Avoid police. This is hard to admit, but police are not the most trustworthy source of help you can get. Most likely you will end up filling in thousands of forms, spending hours on their premises and ending up paying money to speed up the process. Not everybody is the same, of course, but if you can deal without police do so.
- Avoid crowds. In huge cities like St-Petersburg and Moscow it is difficult to avoid crowds, but if you can do so. Terroristic attacks are not uncommon in Russia.
- Emergency exits. It hurts me to tell you this, but always check where emergency exits are and whether they are open.
- Single women travelers. For single women travelers it's always best to find travel buddies. Keep to all the above mentioned.
- Gay travelers. If you have followed the news you know that Russia is not the best friend for gay travelers. You will find more people judging gay couples than supporting them.
- check out where the nearest Embassy or your country representative is located and carry with you their phone number and address. These are the ones who you should ask for help at the first place!
Fact: Language barrier may be a trap or a way to great experiences and new aquaintanance.
In metropol areas you will find enough people speaking basic English. You will also find english signs in city centers - a couple of years ago this was not the case. Most of the service area workers speak basic English as well. Most taxi drivers don't.
The further away from cities you go the less people would understand you. In rural areas and small villages tourists are not common and mostlikely noone will speak English.
- It's always best to approach younger people if you have a question or need help. The older generation either doesn't speak English or is shy to do so and will attempt to talk Russian to you, which is no real help.
- Most of the companies have on-line services with an english version. If you don't want to challenge your Russian skills, get your theater or train tickets via internet.
- Try to learn Russian alphabet. Even if you can't talk, many words sound familiar when read.
Transport is usually not a issue in Russia, except for the traffic jams and poor road conditions.
- Public transport. If you want to travel cheap stick to public transport - in cities buses and metro are usually the most reliable way of moving around. A couple of years ago public transport got their own lanes in larger cities making it more attractive and punctual.
- Marshrutka. A smaller version of a bus 'marshrutka's' are privately owned vehicles usually of chinese origin. They are covering routes of public transport as well as areas where there is no public transport available. They are a bit more expensive, but a ride would cost you something about 1.50 Euro anyway. Known for crazy driving skills these are not to avoid if you want to reach remote areas. You have to tell a driver to stop where you need to or raise your hand if you want to 'catch' one. Otherwise they won't stop.
- Train. Train is a very popular way of traveling. It is actually a special ritual of traveling by train in Russia. Distances are great, journeys take long and people start getting to know each other, share food and stories. The inalienable part of a train ride is getting a cup of tea in a cup holder. Train thefts are not uncommon, so watch out! You will find all the timetables and the related information on the Official Russian Railways page.
- Renting a car. to be honest I have never heard of anyone renting a car in Russia, but that doesn't mean you can't. I wouldn't recommend you to though, because the driving skills, the police abuse and the conditions of the roads are not inviting to drive in Russia. Not to menions traffic jams. Transportation is so cheap that it is better to spare your nerves system on renting a car.
- Taxi. These are plenty and cheap. Most of the major companies like Uber, Taxovichkoff and Yandex.Taxi have apps via which you can place your order.
- Bike. Since a couple of years biking is getting more and more popular in Russia and some cities provided the riders with special bike lanes. But anyway cities in Russia are not bike friendly. Too busy traffic and ugly manners of driving (both by bikers and by car drivers) make biking quite dangerous.
In metropolitan areas there is no problem with connection - WiFi is widely available in almost every cafe, bar, restaurant, movie theater or even on the subway. But if you want to have your own sim card with data this is not so easy to get. Like in China, you need to have a Russian passport to obtain one. The easiest way is to ask a Russian person to get you one, otherwise you might have to stick to indoor WiFi.
Fact: I don't need to tell you about an obligoatory travel insurance, because if you apply for a visa you will have to get one anyway.
Medical services are good in Russia, depending on how much money your are willing to invest. You will have to pay for anything extra if you don't want to end up with a golden tooth at the end.
Emergency number in Russia is 03.
- In case of emergency try to inform or ask someone to inform your embassy or country representative.
- I would suggest you go for public services and pay for extras instead of private ones. Private is ususally twice the price but similar quality.
- Fake madicine. Even though you can can get any medicine you want in Russian pharmacys (even without prescription) there are plenty of cases of fake medicine trade. This issue rose especailly high with the applied political sanctions. If you are on special medicine bring it with you.
You shouldn't miss on trying Russian cuisine when in Russia. I'm saying that because the variety and international influence changed Russian appetites.
You can not leave the country without trying borsch, pelmeni, blini or pirogi at least once!
But: As with medicine with applied sanctions the food quality decreased significantly. You can still buy everything you need and grocery shops are overloaded with products, but try to pay attention to what you purchase.
This concerns especially dairy and meat products.
After the reports about burning cheese and exploding sausages I try to pay attention to my diet when in Russia and reduce the amount of dairy I consume.
Sometimes, when I am traveling with the little one I take food with me.
Many supermarkets and stores are open 24/7 which makes life easy.
- Avoid buying cheap products. They are mostlikely of a poor quality.
- Dairy products. If you can't live without dairy products try to buy them from responsible sources. You will notice that in supermarkets there are special stands selling farmers dairy products which usually cost three times as much as the other ones. I usually get them.
- Meat and fish. For best meat and fish go to a market. Avoid buying processed foods!
- Eating at cafes and restaurants. You simply can't avoid eating out and you shouldn't be discouraged to do so. But try to opt for places with good reviews or the ones which were suggested to you. Avoid weird looking eateries and fast food kiosks.
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people and russian mentality
One can write books about Russian mentality and every time discover something new.
It's hard to explain and to understand for those who grew up on the other side of the border, but Russian people are some of the best and interesting personalities you'd ever meet.
Many say that Russians are negative and rude, but this is not always true. It is not easy to establish a contact or a relation to a Russian person, mostly because the Soviet Past and repression for saying something wrong are still not that far away. But this changes with young generations.
If you managed to become closer to a Russian, be sure that this is an honest and steady bond.
- Russians are known for their ability to party and drink and if you get an invitation to join be sure to accept it. It's a good manners to says a toast every time a glass is raised. Noone drinks alone and in silence.
- Russians don't mind to stand in line. In long line.
- It is also good manners to say 'thank you' to someone who helped you out in term of a gift or envelope with money.
- Victory Day (9 May), New Year and International Womens Day are the most important holidays in Russia, usually involving fireworks and days off.
- Machismo is widely spead, with lots of families still living according to the rules 'Man works, woman cook and takes care of children'.
- Consumerism is also an important part of Russian mentality - people love spending free time in shopping malls.
- It is very important for Russians to look exeptionally good. Many still judge by looks.
- Cultural scene in Russia is amazing and by all means try to visit at least one museum or a play (especially when in Moscow and St-Petersburg).
- Russians love drinking tea and eating sweets. A combination of both is a compulsory ending of every meal.
- Russians are considered as grumpy, but if you get a smile it's an honest one!
While I've been writing this part of the post I have asked in Quoka 'How would you describe the Russian mentality?' And I like the answer by Misha Sivan. It fits.
The Russians live and wait,
Noticing the smallest sign.
Understanding that they’ll be fucked,
But don’t know when and how.
traveling with kids
Russia is not a dream destination for traveling with kids simply because it is nicer to walk along a beach somewhere in Spain instead of a loud busy dusty city. Rural areas are great and gorgeous though, but aren't well developed for foreign travelers.
But if you decide to take your little one along there shouldn't be any issues if your kid already can walk.
- Baby and children products are widely available.
- Kids playing grounds are to be found in most of cafes and restaurants.
- Cultural events and happenings are en masse in every Russian city as well as educational programms.
- Every cafe and restraurant serves childrens menu.
Traveling with toddlers:
- If you are still traveling with a stroller, try to pack a robust one. Russian streets are not stroller friendly.
- Beware, that you might feel quite limited in your abilities of entering shops and publich transport (with exception of buses). There are no lifts to enter undergound and many shops have steps and narrow doors. There are special services which will help you to carry your stroller downstairs, but you will have to call them every single time.
Safe travels and please drop me a message if you need further advice.