19 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Going to Russia
We’ve just spent a month travelling throughout Russia visiting nearly a dozen cities without a tour. As memorable as our experience was, there are certainly a few things I wish I had known ahead of time. Whether you’re planning for a Trans-Siberian adventure or a quick city escape to St. Petersburg, I hope these Russia travel tips help prepare you for what’s coming your way!
If you’re new here, Wes and I both turned 30 last year and we decided to each choose a new country to travel to this summer. I picked Georgia and he chose Russia, a place he’s been wanting to visit since as long as he can remember. I was excited about his choice but not really expecting much of Russia to be honest. And now? I have a new sense of love and appreciation for a country that is, unfortunately, so often misrepresented. It was the beautiful cities, delicious foods and, most of all, the generous people that really blew me away.
Our month in Russia came and went by too fast. If it weren’t for our Russian tourist visa limitations (30 days for Canadians), we likely would have stayed longer to explore more. I have a feeling this was just our first of many visits to come.
1. Learning the language will be more helpful than you think
Russian is, obviously, the official language in Russia and English isn’t widely spoken outside of tourist-friendly cities. Even if you’re only planning on visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg, a little bit of Russian will go a long way. I would recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet and a few key phrases like your usual greetings (hello, goodbye, thank you, etc.) and, “Excuse me, I don’t speak Russian. Do you speak English?”
Wes and I started learning Russian about 5 months before our travels with the help of sites like Duolingo, Pimsleur and Italki. He made a lot more progress than I did and it was largely thanks to his Russian that we were able to navigate more easily in smaller cities. Do you need to study for 5 months before going to Russia? Obviously not. It isn’t the end of the world if you show up with nothing but your best charade skills. That said, the more time and energy you put into a Russian crash course, the more benefits you’ll reap once you land.
2. Google Translate will come in handy
In Russia’s two main cities, most signs and museum info will be displayed in Russian and English. Some menus are translated and you will likely come across waiters and hotel receptionists that speak English pretty well. Other than that, you’ll be left to your own devices. Pun intended. Luckily, there are some really good (and free!) apps like Google Translate that will help you navigate through the language barrier. It’s also worth making room on your phone to download the Russian language within the app so you’ll be able to use it offline.
I found that I used the app’s camera feature nearly everyday while in Russia. You simply align the camera with the foreign text you’re trying to read and the app does a pretty decent job of translating at least some of the words. This came in really handy in cafes and restaurants with no English menus (though I’m sure I looked ridiculous holding my phone to my face like a magnifying glass). It doesn’t work well with fancy fonts or handwritten Cyrillic. Below is a side-by-side comparison of how Google Translate’s camera feature works with the actual oatmeal box on the right and a decent English translation on the left:
3. Get some Rubles in advance
Whether you’re flying directly into Russia from your home or travelling via another country, get some local currency ahead of time to hold you over when you first arrive. This will save you from resorting to the currency exchange office at an airport or railway station that is definitely not going to give you a favourable rate. The currency in Russia is the ruble. You may see this displayed as RUB, руб or ₽. 1 CAD is roughly 50 RUB and bills come in denominations of 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 5,000.
Credit cards are widely used in Russian cities with the exception of some local markets and small, cafeteria-style eateries. It can be hard to break large bills (even ones that aren’t really that large). Sberbank and VTB are the two major banks we saw most frequently. I’ve read that you can exchange money for a good rate at these banks but we opted to take out money from ATMs instead since our bank account waives foreign withdrawal fees.
4. It’s not that expensive if you’re smart about your budget
I’d say our biggest initial expenses in Russia were the visa application fees, train tickets and accommodations. Aside from those, we were able to stick to a pretty conservative budget each day despite what we’d heard about Russia being so expensive. We limited our paid tours and attractions to 1-2 per city and resorted to hostels in some of the more expensive cities. Eating at cafeteria-style diners called stolovayas allowed us to save a lot on food as we were able to eat comfortable for around $5 CAD per meal.
That said, your style of travel will determine how much you spend on a daily basis. If you’re very interested in the art, history and culture of Russia, then you’ll likely spend anywhere from $2 to $20+ at every museum you visit. If you’re ordering drinks and appetizers when eating out at trendy restaurants, then you could easily spend over $20 per meal.
5. Plan as much as you can in advance
We really enjoy spontaneously travelling throughout Europe and Mexico but found that Russia isn’t exactly the best country for those unplanned, last-minute type of getaways. For starters, you’ll probably be travelling between cities via train and buying tickets in advance helps ensure you get both a good seat and a more favourable fare. This is especially true when travelling during peak season like summer holidays since locals are taking trains for their vacations as well. The same can be said for booking accommodations, theatre tickets and concerts or sporting events. I don’t recommend booking anything until your Russian tourist visa has been approved or at least read through the cancellation terms carefully if you decide to book accommodations before getting your visa.
6. Things won’t be as foreign as you thought
When friends and family heard we were planning to spend an entire month travelling throughout Russia, I could sense their reservations. Some flat out called us crazy for even wanting to go in the first place. I didn’t really know what to expect and wondered if we’d experience the stereotypes and outrageous things you see in Reddit threads about life in Russia.
I know it’s easy to get sucked into thinking Russia is as bleak and depressing as some news outlets portray it to be but, for the most part, I would say Russia feels very European. From the cobblestone roads in the old towns to the grand churches, beautiful architecture, street performers, outdoor cafes, markets and art displays, the majority of cities we visited had a very summer-in-Europe feeling to them.
7. People may stare (but won’t smile)
I was born and raised in Toronto, a city where you would generally avoid making eye contact with strangers on the street unless you’re about to interact with them. That’s why it didn’t take long for us to notice that it seemed like everyone was staring at us when we passed each other on the sidewalk. People seemed to constantly make eye contact and my natural reaction would be to smile. No one smiled back.
8. People are polite and chivalry is not dead
Despite the non-smiling note above, I found Russians to be very courteous toward us and kind at times when it was obvious we were a couple of clueless Canadians. Elders are respected so seats are always given up for them on buses and metros. Drivers opened doors for me and even a sweet old man carried my (embarrassingly heavy) suitcase off the train for me.
Once I was approached by a young man in St. Petersburg who started walking beside me and talking to me in Russian. After my very broken Russian reply, he switched to English and continued to say how beautiful I was and how he’d like to get to know me and went on and on before I could get a word in. When the stranger found out I was travelling with Wes (who had been walking a few steps away), he told Wes to stand closer to me or I’d get swept away. No cat call. No whistle. Just, I’d like to get to know you better.
9. You might get yelled at
Despite the polite note above, we got yelled at more times than I wish to remember. For filming when we weren’t supposed to, for not putting our luggage through security the right way, for holding up the line and walking between train carts when we weren’t supposed to. It was embarrassing. And frustrating. After the first few times, we learned not to take it personally. I know that’s easier said than done but you just have to shrug it off and move on. Now I think of it as a rite of passage and part of the Russian experience. Did you really go to Russia if a babushka didn’t yell at you?
10. You will likely cross a time zone when you least expect it
There are 11 time zones in Russia which should come as no surprise considering it is the biggest country in the world, after all. It’s worth double checking the local time in the next city you’re travelling to in case you have to inform a host of your arrival or if you’ve got another reservation that day.
♢ You might also like: 16 Things I Wish I had known before going to Poland ♢
11. You will come to enjoy the stolovaya experience
A stolovaya, столовая in Russian, is a cafeteria-style diner serving up simple meals at very affordable prices. It sounds uneventful but I honestly thought I’d never step foot in one again after how our first visit went down. It was busy (lunch time), stressful (no one spoke English), and intimidating (everyone but us knew what to do). Our second visit was a little less nerve-wrecking and it kept getting easier after that to the point where we’d be eating at a stolovaya nearly everyday.
They’re a popular choice among locals and we were able to find these in every city we visited. They’re an excellent budget option for casual meals where you know you’re going to be able to find soups, salads, meats, veggies and desserts without any fuss. Some stolovayas were pretty small with limited choices and others had huge spreads with a fancier, hotel buffet feel to them. Either way, we were nearly always able to get a full meal for around $5 CAD. That’s the real reason we kept going back ;)
12. You can find coffee anywhere and everywhere
Before travelling to Russia, I had heard there was a big tea culture throughout the country. I read somewhere that it’s not uncommon for Russians to drink tea three times a day and the coffee drinker in me started to worry. For no reason at all. From big chains like Starbucks to independent cafes to kiosks and even little coffee trucks, I saw coffee everywhere in Russia. I even counted 6 cafes within one block of a busy pedestrian street in Nizhny Novgorod. SIX. So whether you’re on team tea or team coffee, you’ll be able to get your fix in Russia.
13. You should get used to using Yandex
While we’re used to Google Maps and Uber Eats, Russians use Yandex. It’s a Russian company that is primarily a search engine but also offers different apps and services. Instead of Uber, you should download Yandex Taxi. For food delivery, there’s Yandex Eda. For more detailed navigation, get Yandex Maps. For ride shares, the app has an English option but for food delivery, we could only use it in Russian.
14. You might need a Russian phone number
Free wifi is readily available in most cafes, restaurants, city parks and even in the metro. The downside is that you are often required to enter a valid phone number when logging in and you’ll then be texted a pin code that grants you access to the internet. Since most of us aren’t roaming when we’re travelling, it’s worth getting your phone unlocked and buying a local SIM card from an authorized dealer when you first arrive.
SIM cards are easy to get and very affordable in Russia. On our first day in St. Petersburg, we visited MegaFon which is a popular carrier throughout the country. We each got 20GB of data that would be good for our 30 day visit and had constant service during our travels with the exception of Vladikavkaz, a southern city close to the Georgian border. All we needed was our passport and each plan costs us a very reasonable $12 CAD. Be prepared for a lot of spam text messages.
15. There’s no need to worry about third class sleeper trains
When Wes told me our train schedule, I was skeptical to say the least. The idea of travelling for 18 hours on an overnight train in a foreign country was one thing, but throw in the words ‘third class’ and I was expecting the worst. Similar to our stolovaya experiences, the first one was a little rough. We didn’t know where to put our luggage, we didn’t know if we’d have any food available and we prayed the AC would turn on at some point (it did).
In total, we must have spent close to 70 hours of our month on a train and every ride came with memories that made our travels in Russia even more special. There were little girls who showed us their toys, train attendants who seemed to take extra good care of us and bunkmates we shared our snacks with. I know first class comes with its own perks but being in such close quarters with other Russians felt surprisingly welcoming and we were always taken care of by complete strangers. I was even a bit sad on our last overnight train ride.
16. People do dress nicer than you
Whenever Wes and I come to Central and Eastern Europe, we know we’re going to be among the least stylish in a crowd. It seemed like everyone our age was on trend in Russia. I saw men going to work in tailored suits and shoes that a groom might wear to his wedding. Women had their hair and makeup done no matter what time of day it was. For a second it made me wish I had packed more summery dresses and at least one pair of heels but the second I saw a group of women stop on a bench to bandage up their toes and ankles, I quickly snapped out of it.
17. Instagram is a pretty big deal
Forget Instagram boyfriends! In Russia there are Instagram girlfriends, parents, friends, cousins and even grandparents patiently snapping away as their subject poses in front of every tourist attraction. Some are quickly taken on phones while others have their DSLR’s, multiple outfits, props and additional lighting with them. We even saw digital photo booths at main squares and popular restaurants that let you post directly to Instagram.
18. So many stores are open 24/7
I saw a 24-hour Starbucks in St. Petersburg and thought, well that’s pretty neat. Then I spotted a 24-hour grocery store followed by a 24-hour pharmacy. But it was the 24-hour flower shop that really stumped Wes and I. Who the heck is buying flowers in the middle of the night and how do all these stores stay in business?
Apparently it’s not uncommon for people to be out and about at all hours of the night. Especially in Russia’s bigger cities, of which there are over a dozen with more than 1 million inhabitants. With so many people either burning the midnight oil or partying late or rising at the crack of dawn, there comes a demand for round-the-clock businesses. Even Wes’ tutor said she called a moving company late at night to schedule a truck for the following morning and they said they could be there at 2am if she wanted to move sooner.
19. Bring something good for your host
If you happen to be invited to someone’s house for lunch or dinner, don’t forget to pick up a gift like dessert, wine or something from your country of origin. When we were in Moscow, we had the pleasure of meeting Wes’ tutor in person. She invited us to her family home and we stopped to get flowers before meeting her at 3pm. Because this was between meal times, I thought we’d have a chat and maybe a drink with some appetizers. What I wasn’t prepared for was an entire feast with multiple rounds of food and drink. When we thought there couldn’t possibly be anymore food, there would be more. We didn’t leave her home until 8 hours later when the whole family drove us back to our apartment at 11pm. The level of hospitality was more than we could have ever imagined and it made me wish we had brought more than just a flower arrangement.
Well, as per usual, this turned into a longer read than intended but hopefully sheds some light on what travel in Russia is actually like. There’s so much more we have to share about our month so feel free to ask us any questions below and we can address it in an upcoming blog post to help anyone travelling to Russia!