Folks Russia is the largest country on the Earth, and it has a lot to interest the visitor as it spans so much of the globe from Asia across to Europe. I’ve been to Russia three times in my life, and if I thought four times wasn’t enough for India, three times doesn’t even scratch the Russian surface. But there is plenty to write about from my experiences as well, and it is not a country you can just get up and catch a flight to without knowing what’s what. But once there you will find that it a surprising destination in so many ways, so different from what your preconceptions might be, so varied in landscape, people and atmosphere. With its history of the Soviet Union, the rise of Putin, the way it influences the rest of the world, Russia is a country that perhaps scares some, and to other people it’s a place they are simply just not interested in. But those who choose not to go, I tell you, are missing out. Big time!
First of all, VISA
And yes, by all means do your planning, but plan to get your visa nice and early because it can be time consuming and fiddly. There are plans afoot for people to be granted entry to St Petersburg and Moscow and perhaps other parts visa-free, but as of August 2020, they are yet to materialise and the whole pandemic thing has at best put them on the backburner I would say. Should this happen though, once tourism is happening of course, I would expect Russia would see a huge influx of tourists. Why? Because organising a visa is, shall we say, a hassle.
It’s not as if it’s Turkmenistan or North Korea where you have to be on a tour, but there are a number of hoops to jump through, and I’ll touch on what you need to do but it’s probably a little different depending on what your country is, so you will need to get online and research or find a decent travel agent.
What you need before you can apply for a visa at your closest consulate is an invitation. You’ll need to know probably the exact date and entry point to Russia, and you will need accommodation booked for the first night as well. In 2007 I actually booked and paid for a hostel in St Petersburg, although I was not going to stay there (I was staying with my girlfriend at the time). The HI Hostel (I think it was) was attached to a tour agency and because of the booking they issued the invitation (which I had to pay for).
In 2017 I took the Trans-Mongolian train from Beijing through Mongolia before crossing and spending my first night in Irkutsk. Here I got Real Russia, who organised my train tickets, to offer me and invitation. I think I still had to have that first night booked. Which I did by myself separately and had to give those details over as well to Real Russia.
Once you have the invitation, you apply for the visa and pay the fee (the invitation is a separate fee you pay to the respective company). I can’t remember the application last time but I do remember that there were a lot of questions. Once in the actual country you have I think three days to register. Usually your hotel or hostel will register for you. It used to be that you had to register every time you went to a new city, but I don’t believe that is the case anymore (but maybe for some nationalities?)
Getting to Russia
You MAY want to do this before you arrange your visa. I have twice, but in 2007 I took a bus from Tallinn and I certainly didn’t have that ticket when I got my visa. Check the rules on that one, you may need it first.
Getting to Russia is not that hard. Let’s be honest, there are more ways to get to Russia than most countries, if not every country. You could come by plane, bus, boat or train from any number of countries. Most major airlines fly at least to Moscow and St Petersburg, but the country has 145 million people spread over a large area and so many many cities have international airports from St Petersburg to Vladivostok.
Aeroflot is the country’s national carrier, and although people used to laugh about it, it’s very commonly used and the safety on international and domestic flights has improved a lot in the last 25 years. S7 is another airline, based I think originally in the east but does fly Moscow and St Petersburg routes. I’ve heard good things about them and they will link you to Central Asia and other parts of the ex-Soviet Union. Because of family and trade ties, there are a lot of international connections to other ex-Soviet states which are much better connected to Moscow than say Frankfurt or Paris.
There are also any number of Russian airlines that are less well known, mostly flying domestically, and in the case of these just do some research before you fly about safety history. Unless this doesn’t matter to you, I admit to being more paranoid than most when it comes to flying, strange as that may seem!
Trains are a brilliant way to travel Russia, and my experience on them has only been positive. Yes – I do love trains, but still I think Russia, all in all, does a pretty good job. In 2009 they had over 85,000 kilometres of track. Now that’s not too shabby! This means that there are any number of connections from countries around the world into Russia, from China and Mongolia, to Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia, to the Caucasus and Europe. Moscow must have more extreme long distance connections than any city on the planet.
Of course, much of the original track was built during the times of the Soviet Union using prisoners to build. In far east Siberia the number of men who lost their lives building roads and railroads to connect to the west of the country is unknown. Today, it means that the country is really well connected by rail, and there are lines that extend not only to Magadan and Vladivostock in Eastern Siberian, but to places like Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Tbilisi (Georgia), Ulaan Baatar (Mongolia) and through to Belarus and Ukraine. A rail adventure across days and nights is not as boring as it sounds.
Buses also connect Russia with the neighbouring countries, run by different companies of course in different regions. I took a Tallinn – St Petersburg bus (both ways) once, and it was perfectly comfortable. But yet, not so Russian!
For a review of the Trans-Mongolian Trip, try here – Trans-Mongolian Itinerary
Okay so the Russian currency is, you probably know, the Ruble. At the time of writing this post, one USD was worth around 73 rubles. It’s a volatile currency that goes up and down (!) like a yoyo. So keep a close eye on it so you know exactly what you’re paying for things!
Moscow is the most expensive place in the whole country, and counted as one of the most expensive cities in the world, although I’ve found it isn’t THAT expensive to be honest unless you want to really eat out a lot at top end restaurants. You can even find decent deals on hotels too with a little searching.
Here are my accommodation reports from my 2017 trip to Russia.
Moscow – Slavyanka Hotel
Ekaterinburg – Marins Park Hotel
Irkutsk – Baikaler Hostel
Okay so here we go. Let’s be honest, Russian people don’t have a great reputation to being open and friendly around the world. And I will tell you you will certainly encounter a bit of stoic ‘Sovietness’ in some instances when in shops or purchasing train tickets or at the airport, there’s no doubt about that. Having said that, as a tourist you may find that that is part of the charm of Russia, that you are experiencing something ‘authentic’, as you expected to encounter when you decided to go to Russia.
However, I personally have found Russian people to be the exact opposite of this. I’ve found them warm and welcoming and friendly. The thing is they can take a little time to warm to you, and they can be a bit standoffish about foreigners, not necessarily confident in their English skills or feel a little awkward. But this can come across as intentional rudeness – which it might be, but let’s be honest again, that can happen anywhere.
So you may need to make a bit of an effort. But if you find yourself as one of four in a railway compartment on the overnight to Moscow, well, if they offer you some vodka (quite common) take them up on the offer and despite lack of language skills on both sides (I basically can say ‘good’, ‘hello’, ‘thankyou’ and a few other phrases) you will find yourself making friends pretty quickly.
So, basically I would say, despite what you may feel or have heard, Russia is actually a pretty safe country to visit. Certainly I never felt any uneasiness like I did in some places in South America in Russia. Having said that, you need to be sensible. Late nights are probably the most dangerous time to be anywhere, especially at bars and I have heard of massive fights breaking out and foreigners being the recipient of some beatings which I have no doubt was due to excessive drinking – from all sides. Russian clubs can be a lot of fun though, so you know, just be careful and probably don’t go alone.
I haven’t had any issues with customs officials or anything like that, if you’re courteous and friendly, why would you? The roads are variable, there’s just so much road so you would expect that, and get out if the cities and only the main connecting roads are sealed. People drive very fast when they can in Russia, and when it’s cold, watch out for black ice.
It’s not a huge country for scammers, but here’s one I fell for last time I was in Moscow – Scammed in Moscow. Look out for this one, they descend on you so quickly you don’t know what’s happening!
Also of concern if you go hiking in deep Siberia or somewhere like that, you have bears!
Weather is also key, unless it’s the middle of summer, make sure you are prepared and layered-up, because it can turn cold fast. And snow can affect travel plans in so many ways. Speaking of snow…
Climate and When to Go
So, I’m going to start by telling you the worst times of years to go, and actually I would say that it’s not in the middle of winter, when everything is below zero and snow is all around, but around March-April and probably Octoberish too. That because in Spring the snow is melting, and it gets to become this awful sludge which is just disgusting, it’s still not particularly warm, and it’s really unpleasant. In Autumn, you get a bit of snow, it warms a little bit and melts somewhat, but again it becomes sludge, and there can be an awful lot of it outside the cities. Also, it’s very grey at these times of years. Having said all that – these are the times I’ve visited Russia mostly!
Mid-Summer is your go, but everyone else is also visiting and school is out, so places are much busier. This gives you the best chance for sun and warmth, and it makes a big difference. In 2017 I finally saw Moscow with blue skies, and suddenly I saw the true beauty of the city. In Moscow it’s rare to get much above 30 in Summer, and 25 in St Petersburg. Down south in Caucasus area it does get significantly warmer.
Winter is going to be cold, bitterly cold, and things will be snow covered, but there’s a certain magic in that and there will be far less visitors. The heating in hotels and any sort of decent building is really warm in Russia and ex-Soviet states too.
I like Russian food. Soups, dumplings, meat on a stick. I think that sums it up. There are plenty of places to eat, and if you’re out of the main cities, see if you can try little local run restaurants because they will give you a filling meal without costing much at all. You can find the western staples and a variety of cuisines in the main cities, but not so much outside. Russians LOVE Shashlik – squares of meat with onion and capsicum – on bbq or in a restaurant or wherever you can get it. And it’s pretty filling. Salad is pretty easy to come by, and borscht – red cabbage soup, is actually bloody delicious!
Top Sight Recommendations
Okay so I’ve been to these places – St Petersburg – Moscow – Novgorod – Ekaterinburg – Irkutsk, and also a little town called Luga which I wouldn’t be putting on the tourist map. I liked all these cities.
Everyone wants to get to Saint Petersburg and Moscow. There’s now a highspeed rail connection between these two, so that makes visiting both in one visit to Russia easier. They are both impressive cities, St Petersburg certainly has a romance about it, and Moscow you could easily spend a couple of weeks exploring the city if you wanted to. Plus so much of Russian history is contained in these two cities. Novgorod is only a couple – maybe three or four hours from St Petersburg and I didn’t mind it there, just had a day there seeing the Kremlin maybe. Ekaterinburg actually really nice city, not packed with things to see but built around a lake and the site of where the Romanov’s were executed.
Check Out – Moscow Through My Lens
Check Out – First Taste – St Petersburg
Further east to Siberia, I’ve only been to Irkutsk and the nearby town of Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal. For sure if in the region in the summer head to the lake, it’s a beautiful area and Russians flock to it. I believe there are a lot of mosquitoes though, so be warned!
Check Out – Sunday Spotlight – Irkutsk
I wouldn’t know where to start for other locations. Peterhof, near St Petersburg, looks amazing though with an incredible palace, not quite to the exuberance of St Petersburg’s Hermitage, but looks quite amazing. I personally would love to head to the north of the country to a place like Murmansk and see how REAL Russians live. The town of Sochi is down in the Caucasus and is apparently brilliant in both summer and winter – where the Winter Olympics were held a few years back. But in a country this size, where do you start once the obvious two are crossed off your list?
Also See – I Visited Russia… So You Don’t Have To!
Well, thanks for joining me today, and if Russia is a country on your list, then I hope today’s post was useful in some way. Thanks, and please comment – ask questions! Always appreciated! Hope you’re well and staying safe wherever you are – and May the Journey Never End!