2 months prior to our arrival to Moscow we had no any plans about traveling to Russia. But at the end this 1 month trip to Russia in summer of 2016 turned out to be one of the highlights of 2016. We had heard and read many bad things about Russia so we were ready for whatever comes and kept our expectations low.
But again – saying “go and see yourself first before judging”, turned out to be right.
We instantly fell in love with Moscow, one of the world’s largest megalopolises, and wilderness of Siberia now have a special place in our hearts, too. And there were just so many good moments, which made this experience so special. We will come back one day for sure.
But here I’m going to share with you what we learned along the way, and what are the most important things to know before traveling to Russia.
You need to apply for Russian visa in advance
Citizens of most countries need to apply for Russian visa before traveling to Russia.
Those who don’t need visa, when traveling to Russia, are citizens of CIS (The Commonwealth of Independent State) countries and citizens of few South American, Asian and Balkan countries. For up to date information check out website of your countries Foreign Office.
It is possible to apply for Russian visa at your home country as well as abroad. We applied for Russian visa in Russian Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Here you can read about our experience applying for Russian visa abroad. In most situations obtaining visa at your home country will be easier.
To apply for Russian visa we, Latvians, like most of Europeans needed to provide medical insurance certificate valid for Russia and Visa support letter + voucher. Both “papers” can be bought from travel agencies.
Russia is BIG
Which means – many time zones. If you will be traveling by train, remember that intercity trains in Russia are always running to Moscow time. In train stations in Russia they always have a clock showing Moscow time.
Which means – different weather conditions. If you will be traveling to few places in Russia, check weather forecast for all these places and learn a bit about what you can expect there. Because while in one part of Russia it’s maybe +35, it can be +10 in another, and it all during the hottest time of the year.
Overall, when traveling to Russia it’s always smart to have warm jumper and rain jacket, even in summer. There are also parts of Russia where you can’t really live without them. And it’s all during warmest months of the year. But winter is another story. Check it out before your trip!
Russia isn’t too expensive & you can pay with bank card for almost anything
If you will travel only to Moscow, Saint Petersburg and other biggest cities, then it may look different for you. But if we look on Russia in general, you feel there like in some of the cheapest European countries, where public transport ticket costs like 0,3 – 0,5 euro, lunch for two isn’t more than 5-8 euro and 200 kilometer train ride is again only some 5 euro.
Speaking more about traveling costs withing country, you can travel by train all the across Russia for about 200 euro. It’s cheapest class, of course, but it’s 7 (!) days of travel and 10 000 kilometers. More about traveling by train down below!
In Latvia we are used to pay with my bank card for everything. It was nice thing to learn, that in Russia it is absolutely the same. In most of places in Russia they accept bank card payments. And it’s quite common to pay for almost anything with your bank card, even if it’s just 100 – 200 Rubble (1,5-3 euro). When traveling in Southeast Asia or India I rarely have my bank card with me when going out, because there you mostly need cash. So it was a good change again not to think about how much cash I have with me.
Mostly you need cash only to pay for city public transport and in markets.
Getting a SIM in Russia is easy and cheap
Not only that. It’s also cheap to use it. For example, in summer of 2016 when we were traveling in Russia we bought prepaid SIM cards of MTS, one of the top 3 mobile service providers in the country. Unlimited mobile internet (we spent at least few GB withing our stay in Russia) + few hundred minutes of calls within a country and unlimited calls to other MTS numbers in Russia cost us only 400 Rubble (about 6 euro) for 1 month.
We bought our MTS prepaid SIM cards right at the Vnukovo International Airport, in Moscow. SIM cards themselves were for free. We just paid these 400 Rubble for internet and calls.
If you will need international calls to call someone back home, ask customer service representatives at the shop to put some more money on your account. If you will be going to different parts of country, it might be good to ask, if you will be able to use this SIM card and all its services inside the whole Russia or in some particular regions only.
MegaFon, MTS and Beeline are biggest mobile service providers in Russia.
English language isn’t widely used in Russia
Not too many people in Russia know English. Those who does know something often are just too shy to use it, because they aren’t confident about their knowledge. Of course, in most touristic places and in bigger cities it will not be a problem to find at least someone, who can assist you. Though, some asking around might be necessary.
Try to learn letters of Russian alphabet (it uses letters from Cyrillic script) before traveling to Russia. It will help a bit if you will be able to read. Because sometimes it’s all you need to understand what’s written there. Especially since nowadays Russians use quite a lot of English words, but they write them with their letters.
We both speak Russian really well. So for us it wasn’t a problem at all. And we met also other travelers, who didn’t know a word in Russian, but they said, that they feel just fine.
Food – Traveling to Russia
Russians eat a lot of different salads. And often these salads are heavy, dressed with mayonnaise. There are also different meat dishes in Russian cuisine like schnitzels and pork chop. Mashed potatoes and rice are most used sides. And then there a lot of different “pierogi”, baked case of dough with a sweet or savoury filling. On trains and in train station they always have freshly baked “pierogi”, mostly with cabbage or potatoe. But it’s possible also to get those with meat.
Try Olivier salad (Cалат оливье) in Russia. That’s what in other countries they often call a Russian salad. Though, only rarely it’s the same as good or similar to the one in Russia. From drinks I urge you to try kvass (квас).
Tip – in many places in Russia they have special lunch offer, usually between 12 – 14 and only on weekdays. It’s called business lunch. In Russian they call it the same way, only they write it with their letters – Бизнес-ланч. Then they usually have a fixed menu from as little as 100 Rubble (about 1,5 euro) in smaller and average sized cities and 200 Rubble in Moscow.
Traveling by train in Russia is easy, but it takes a lot of time
As I already mentioned, Russia is the largest country in the world by its territory. And train here is the most popular form of transportation for long distance trips within a country. I bet you have heard about Trans-Siberian Railway. We were traveling by train in Russia, too. And so from our experience we can say, that it’s convenient, easy and not expensive.
BUT – it takes a lot of time. To travel whole width of Russia you will spend on a train a whole 1 week. Yes, 7 days of non-stop travel is what it takes to travel all the way across Russia.
If you are short on time it’s wise idea to travel for at least some part by plane. It will be more expensive, sometimes few times more expensive (you can travel all the way across Russia for about 200 euro), but it will save you a lot of time. Especially on longer distances.
Where to go and what to see in Russia
If you are interested in culture and history, go on see at least some part of so called The Golden Ring, which is a ring of cities northeast of Moscow. Wandering through the streets of these ancient places you will feel like after traveling in time. Moscow and Saint Petersburg are both well worth the visit, too.
If it’s not something specific that you want to see or do in Moscow and Saint Petersburg then 2-3 full days for each one of them will be enough.
Read more about The Golden Ring on Wikipedia.
If you are nature lover and that’s what you are after in Russia, then think about going to lake Baikal (we were hiking at lake Baikal), Altai Mountains and Ural Mountains. All these places are unique and spending a week or more in each of them is very, very easy. So plan accordingly if you want to visit more than one of them during your trip to Russia.
If you still have some questions about traveling in Russia, contact us!
Author: Kaspars Misins
Kaspars is a long term traveler and travel blogger from Latvia. He loves going on long walks, reading non fiction books and spending time outdoors. Together with his girlfriend Una they are traveling – volunteering – working abroad since 2013. On WeAreFromLatvia.com they share their experience and things learned along the way.