How to visit Russia: 20 travel tips, from visas to vodka

20 Russia travel tips: from visas to vodka | PACK THE SUITCASES

Here’s a list of my top 20 Russia travel tips to get you started with planning a trip. Lots of people have asked me exactly how to visit Russia since I got back and began raving about it as a destination, so I’ve been working on this massive Russia travel blog post over the last few months. It covers everything from how to get a Russian visa, to cultural ‘must knows’, to safety and more. 

After falling in love with both Moscow and St Petersburg when I visited, I realised that although I’d blogged a lot about both cities, I’d not written more generic stuff about visiting Russia overall. It’s not somewhere most people have been to in my experience, certainly not here in the UK anyway. I’ve also not been able to find many UK-based Russia travel blog posts out there. So hopefully these Russia travel tips will help anyone planning on visiting this incredible country.

Anyway, pour yourself a vodka and get reading…

20 Russia travel tips: from visas to vodka | PACK THE SUITCASES

1. Plan how to get your Russian visa (from the UK)

You need a tourist visa to visit Russia from the UK for a holiday. It’s not cheap (a bit over £100 per person for a 30-day one) and it’s bureaucratic, which I think combine to put a lot of people off visiting. But with a bit of planning it’s perfectly doable, so please don’t let it hinder you if you want to go.

Shelling out a hundred-odd quid might feel a bit painful at the time, but you can save loads of money when you get to Russia because it can be done so cheaply. More on that later though.

So to sort out your Russian travel visa, you can either do it yourself or pay an agency to do it all for you. I did mine myself, but if you do want to outsource it to an agency then Visit Russia UK, the official tourist board, would be a good bet. I really don’t think there’s any need to outsource it though, and of course getting a third party to do it costs more. If you want some dead easy steps on how to do it all yourself, I cannot recommend these instructions from the Russia travel blog ‘Russiable’ enough. There’s no point me typing how here what I did to sort my visa out, because I basically followed this blogger’s steps to the dot. 

2. Get a SIM card that’ll work there

If you’re visiting Russia from the UK, remember that it’s not within the European Economic Area. This means that your phone isn’t covered by the usual roaming data we’re used to now (subject to the looming horrors of Brexit). It’s not somewhere you can easily navigate without the internet to hand, so getting a Russian SIM card for your phone is vital. 

At the time of writing, Megafon seems to be the best bet. When I went a few months back, I used Beeline, which was dead cheap for unlimited internet. You can’t order it online, so you need to plan to pick it up as soon as you get there. There are SIM cards you can order online, but they work out more expensive and actually buying it in real life is easier. Moscow Airport has a Beeline shop in the terminal you land in. They put the SIM in your phone for you and get it all set, which is really good. The bonus here was that everyone working in the Beeline shops seemed to be young, which meant that they were more likely to speak enough English to be able to know what you’re on about. 

3. Download all the Yandex apps

Google who? It’s time for Yandex, people.

Yandex is the Russian version of Google, which it would probably hate me for saying. It works much much better for while you’re in Russia, especially the maps and taxis. I downloaded the following Yandex apps (all free). Pretty much all of them came in handy every single day:

  • Translate – so you can muddle through conversations with people (English isn’t that widely known outside the cities) and decipher menus using its image-translation feature (you scan your phone camera over the text and it’ll translate – genius)
  • Maps – so you can find everything (Google maps won’t cut it; they simply don’t map things in Russia well enough)
  • Metro – so you can easily navigate the glorious metro system, using the world’s most user-friendly app (you just tap on stations and it’ll give you the quickest route)
  • Taxi – just as good as Uber and might come in handy despite the incredible public transport
  • Weather – this is far more accurate than just using your normal BBC weather app or whatever.

4. Learn a few phrases in Russian (but good luck with that)

English is not widely spoken outside of the big cities, apart from by young people. And even within them, I found a lot of people only did the basics.

If you learn a few phrases in Russian, it’ll go a long way in showing willing and being polite. The only issue here is how mind-bogglingly difficult pronouncing anything Russian is. I’m not bad at languages but OMG, even saying hello (zdravstvuyte) is a challenge. I could just about manage thank you (spasiba).

But don’t worry too much. Being brusque and pointing at stuff will actually go down really well with the locals. They love a bit of ‘direct’ communication.

5. Forget false stereotypes about Russia

I’ll be honest, I didn’t realise just how many stereotypes there were about Russia until I started planning my trip. Of course, all my experiences there relate to visiting the big cities, so bear that in mind.

Here are some things I found that were absolutely baffling and not at all true:

  • People seem to think Russia will be expensive. It’s not expensive. You can get a slap-up lunch for about £5. It does have swanky hotels and restaurants if you want to have a spendy and glam holiday, but it generally has a huge range of options for any price bracket. You can absolutely do it on a budget.
  • It’s not cold all the time. Russia seems to only be known for snow and people waddling about wrapped up in fur. But it has four seasons and is only cold in winter. Hello 30-degree sweltering heat in June when I went! Of course you can go in winter and see it as a snowy wonderland, but it was gorgeous in summer and I really enjoyed it.
  • The food is not ‘just beetroot and cabbage’. It’s some of the best and most varied in the world. I’d not heard a stereotype about poor food quality until I spoke to some old people about Russia and they said it had a rep for bad grub. Russia actually had the best food I’ve experienced outside of Japan, which is proper high praise. You can also get lots of other interesting cuisines there, but more on that in #8 of this list…

6. Be prepared for the size and scale of cities… and just all of Russia

The buildings in Russia are massive. The squares are ginormous. Everything is on a big old scale. Nevsky Prospekt, the main road in St Petersburg, would take ages to walk down. The Kremlin in Moscow is so much bigger and grander than your average palace.

It’s all so OTT and extra. Have a read of my Moscow blog post where I talk about having some kind of overawed meltdown in VDNKh (I can’t even begin to describe what VDNKh is right now).

3 days in St Petersburg, Russia: itinerary | PACK THE SUITCASES

7. Don’t be scared of the Cyrillic alphabet

Yes it looks terrifying, but you can do it! I’m here as your personal cheerleader to say that a lot of the words are European language words just translated. And if you get to grips with what the Cyrillic letters are, it’s amazing how much you can work out.

A bit of understanding of it will really help you when navigating to somewhere.

8. Be prepared to get fat because the food is unreal (especially if you’re veggie)

While vegan food takes a little bit of planning in Russian cities (where doesn’t it?!), it’s perfectly doable and often amazing. Obviously I’m talking about cities here – I’m not sure how it’d be out in the sticks. But I’m going to assume most other travellers will be doing the cities too.

Veggie and pescatarian options take little to no planning. Everywhere caters for us really well.

As already mentioned, outdated stereotypes about the food being bland and just cabbage/beetroot are so, so wrong. Russian food actually the best I’ve had outside of Japan. Also, it’s not only about Russian cuisine. You’ll get the chance to experience loads of other interesting ones because the Russians like to eat like we do in the UK: VARIED. Every street has a great selection of options we don’t tend to see in most of Europe like Israeli, Cuban, Georgian, and Ukrainian food. Of course it has the usual Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Italian etc too, but it’s so good being able to experience new stuff that you probably won’t bother with the more ubiquitous. 

Despite all these exciting foods, one of my favourite things was a simple cherry brioche pie sold by street stalls. Incredible stuff and only 9 million calories a pop.

9. Assess safety risks for yourself

Quite a few people have asked me about safety in Russia so I’m going to attempt to answer you here.

On my trip, I felt incredibly safe the whole time (apart from when crossing roads – see #16 of this list).

But, and this is a big but, my feeling safe in Russia is based on my trip just to the two biggest cities and as a privileged, white, cis woman. Moscow and Saint Petersburg felt much safer than many cities I’ve been to and lived in. Of course in some touristy areas, there’s the risk of pickpockets. But the same goes for most European capitals.

However, I can’t judge safety for others. If you’re LGBTQ+ and/or any ethnicity other than Caucasian, it may not be so smooth sailing in Russia. Being gay isn’t illegal in Russia like it is in some places and I did see openly gay people in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg. But nowhere near as many as you would in most European cities and none giving public displays of affection. These are the two most ‘accepting’ cities, with thriving LGBTQ+ scenes. Clearly, we’re all aware that Russia has serious problems with equality. But there are plenty of other countries with horrendous laws/attitudes that tourists go to all the time, too. Look at Hungary, Egypt, China, Turkey, Morocco, or Latvia. Name me a country in which all the citizens agree with their government and I’ll eat my proverbial hat.

I think you have to do your own specialist research and reading up to decide whether Russia is right for you to visit. 

10. Be aware of when Russian national holidays are

This kind of goes for any holiday abroad, but especially so in Russia. You may want to avoid times when Russians are off work, and a holiday will usually increase hotel/flight prices too.

But you might also want to plan to be there for specific things.

For example, when I went to St Petersburg, I deliberately made sure our travel dates aligned with the White Nights holiday. This was one of the most surreal things about visiting St Petersburg. It’s a period during summer when the city stays light late into the night, with very white skies. It was about 23.30 in this picture below!

White Nights usually runs through mid-June to the beginning of July, but do check because it varies each year. During the period, the city is alive 24 hours a day and museums/restaurants/bars all stay open later, while festivals and gigs go on. The city’s drawbridges get raised in the night, taking boat cruises on the Neva River after 1am. This is a big deal and people flock to watch the bridges go up, but if you’re knackered from walking all day then it’s good just to wander the city’s many canals earlier in the night. There’s a proper hyped-up atmosphere and everyone is in a sort of euphoria, having lost all sense of time. I loved it and am so glad I planned the trip around it.

11. Don’t worry about there being no normal (British) tea

Does anyone else lose sleep over this? Every time I travel, I pack a suspicious-looking parcel of teabags in the bottom of my suitcase because in most of Europe, you can’t get normal tea (for non-UK readers, that’s English breakfast tea with milk).

I assumed Russia would be the same and that I’d have to do my usual teabag drug-smuggling. But I was pleasantly surprised. Normal tea was everywhere. Most cafés had it and there were no qualms about serving it with milk rather than doing something weird involving a slice of lemon (looking at you, Germany).

I felt at home instantly. Thanks, Russia. Thrussia.

12. What to pack: go glam or go home

Anyone who knows me knows that I love dressing up (the making an effort kind, not the fancy dress costume kind). So do lots of people in Russia. This is the main reason I very quickly decided that Russia is my spiritual home.

It was the first place I’ve ever been to where I was frequently not the only person in the room who’d matched their nail varnish to both their outfit and earrings. What a place. 

The locals also seemed to love glamming up for a meal and drinks out. It was like being at home in Liverpool, which also has this scene. Most European cities are incredibly laid back with outfits. I’m normally actively dressing myself down to fit in, and still end up feeling overdressed while surrounded by people in the classic jeans-Converse-and-jumper uniform of Europe. Not so in Russia. I was cracking out the jumpsuits and heels like there was no tomorrow and fitting right in every evening. So if you’re packing for a trip to Russia, don’t be afraid of throwing in more nice stuff than you would for other countries.

Another great thing about this attitude was getting plenty of outfit inspo when wandering about in the daytime. SO many great midi skirt and top combos everywhere. I ended up buying a few new midi skirts while I was there because I got so overexcited.

20 Russia travel tips: from visas to vodka | PACK THE SUITCASES

13. Forget any preconceptions you may have about costs

Russia can be really cheap for Western travellers. When you’re planning your trip, take this into account with your budget.

  • Public transport: So efficient and affordable. Metro tickets cost less than 50p per journey. A train ticket from Moscow to St Petersburg in a nice class was less than £50.
  • Food: As already mentioned, food can be really really cheap yet very tasty and nutritious. Canteens mean that you can literally have a slap-up meal for a few pounds (see #20 of this list).
  • Drinks: Beer is cheap too: a large lager (think Baltika) can be as little as £1, and a pint of excellent craft beer is less than £3.
  • Culture: Getting into the big museums, galleries and exhibits is not free, and is more expensive for foreigners, but it’s still cheaper than major European destinations. 
  • Hotels: I was in awe of Russian hotels for their quality and affordability. Grey House is a gorgeous aparthotel in St Petersburg, where I stayed in a massive superior double room for about £75 a night, and Azimut Smolenskaya in Moscow was a big glossy hotel in Moscow with incredible views over the city for about £40 a night for a normal double room. Both would have been a lot more in other countries.

14. Embrace your resting b*tch face

In Russia, smiling at stranger is seen as the behaviour of a lunatic and beaming at people for no other reason than ‘being polite’ is unheard of. As the proud owner of a resting b*tch face, I’m completely with the Russians on this.

Don’t let their RBFs put you off. Everyone we met was warm, friendly and funny once you got talking. They just don’t arrange their face into a smile unless they’re genuinely laughing or chuffed at something. It’s refreshingly authentic. 

20 Russia travel tips: from visas to vodka | PACK THE SUITCASES

15. Assess the weather carefully before you go

Like I said in #5 on this list, many people seem to think of Russia as being cold, but it’s a place of extremes. Yeah, you get the stunning snowy winters that you see in Russian postcards full of people wrapped up in fur and snow on the Kremlin, but summers are SIZZLING hot. When I went, it hit 35 degrees in June, in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

If you’re going in the height of summer or winter, you’ll need to look carefully at how that affects what you get up to. Melting on the metro in Moscow after doing 30k steps round VDNKh with my feet covered in blisters from my sandals was a low point for me.

16. Be prepared to cross roads with caution

In Russia, roads are for cars and pavements are for people and never the twain shall meet. Until you need to cross the road that is, and then you take your life into your own hands.

Think the madness of Italian drivers, mixed with a casual disregard for human life (both yours and the drivers’ own), and you have the Russian road experience. Use pedestrian crossings and don’t chance it. Ever.

20 Russia travel tips: from visas to vodka | PACK THE SUITCASES

17. A tipping travel tip: tip 5 to 15%

I know my American readers are obsessed with tipping so you’ll want to ask me this now I’ve been to Russia! Nowhere has a tipping culture quite like the USA. In Russia, tipping is similar to the UK and Europe. You only need to tip if you really liked it, and then go for 5 to 15% of the whole bill. I’m talking about proper restaurants here obviously. You don’t need to tip if you’re just buying food at a counter. 

18. Don’t get too excited for vodka

Russia’s known worldwide for its vodka, right? #ladsontour #shotshotshot

While it’s true that vodka (often served with pickled herring) is a Russian tradition, it’s not as prolific as you might expect.

I experienced a lot of craft beer, and a thriving craft beer scene, in both Moscow and St Petersburg. And the amount of Georgian restaurants meant that you could get the best wine in the world very easily (Georgian orange wine – seriously, if you’ve not tried it you’ve not lived). They also had a serious love for their national drink kvass, which er, I did not share. Soz. 

I think it’s still worth trying a proper Russian vodka while you’re there though. My top tip would be this rooftop bar by Pushkin near St Petersburg.

19. Leave your medications at home

… Well apart from any you need on prescription, obvs. If you do need that, double check it isn’t on Russia’s banned drugs list and get a note from your GP (translate it into Russian online just to be on the safe side). I don’t know how frequently the banned drugs list is enforced at airports, and certainly no one queried anything in my hand luggage when I arrived (not even the teabags: see #11 of this list). But I’d advise being better safe than sorry.

Also, don’t bother bringing headache tablets, hayfever sprays or your suppository of choice with you to Russia. There are pharmacies everywhere in the cities and they’re open all the time. No wasted hours trawling the streets of Munich on a Sunday looking for flu relief here. Hell no. You’ll be able to sample the much higher-powered Russian versions of paracetamol and Night Nurse, not to mention the Russian favourite cure-all, activated charcoal. Enjoy.

20. Don’t be scared of self-service restaurants

A trip to Russia would be incomplete without a trip to a Soviet-style self-service stolovaya. This roughly translates to ‘canteen’, but it’s so much more than that. They’re ridiculously cheap, the food is simple but delicious and I couldn’t believe what a good quality sizeable meal you can get for around £4.

Also, they’re an important part of Soviet history so it’s interesting to still be able to visit them. They started in the 1920s as a new programme of public catering facilities. Today, despite McDonalds and the like being everywhere, locals still flock to stolovayas. Stolovaya No. 57 is probably the most famous in Moscow, located in GUM department store.

Whichever stolovaya you go to though, they’re all roughly the same concept: point at what you want or load it into your own tray as you go around the canteen. No botched attempts at Russian required. 

20 Russia travel tips: from visas to vodka | PACK THE SUITCASES

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7 Comments

  1. Ooh I’ve never been to Russia but have enjoyed all your posts about it and this has convinced me I need to go!! We went to the Ukraine many years ago.

    Really love your writing style as usual, it’s like hearing from a friend.

    J x

  2. Thank you so much for this post. My wife is liking the sound of how dressy it can be! We’re going in April, Moscow and Kazan.

  3. Craft beer (cherry was my favourite) and Georgian food are lush. By the end of my week I had OD on gold and jewels love the tips in your post, cannot wait to return.

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