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30 Priceless Tips For First Time Travellers To Russia | Я не говорю по-русски

The largest country in the world is not short of controversy. It seems like it is in the news every other day. Don’t let this put you off, it draws tourists the world over with its world-class art, epic landscapes and multifaceted society.

We reached out to experts to find 30 priceless tips for first-time visitors to Russia.

#1 What to expect St. Petersburg

A truly European-inspired city, most buildings are baroque in style. I lost count of the number of churches with their iconic onion domes; the most famous being the colorful Church of the Spilled Blood, which is just as spectacular inside as out. You’ll find the incredible attention to detail is something most churches have in common here, so do try to visit as many as possible. A trip to the Hermitage is also must, both from a historical and cultural standpoint. 

St Petersburg is called ‘The Venice of the North’ because of the canals surrounding the city, but what I didn’t realize is that the light is beautifully captured here as well. What struck me the most was the gorgeous views along the waterfronts at dusk. With the setting sun melting into the background and reflecting off the canals and those monumental buildings cast in shadow, it is quite magnificent!

Contributor: Denise Foley

Company: denise-foley.com

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#2 What to expect Moscow

Moscow feels completely different, and yet the same. At first I found myself comparing the swirls, curves and color of the baroque buildings in St. Petersburg to the more simplified, constructivist styles in Moscow. But really Moscow also shares some traces of the baroque as well as some art nouveau sensibilities, you just need to know where to look. Yes, visit the Kremlin, St Basil’s, and historic Red Square, but also try to see other neighborhoods. There are streets outside of the typical tourist areas which are just beautiful; with open parks and meandering streets, you get a very different sense of life here. 

And of course, the famous underground! The circle line is a series of stops on the Moscow subway which is dedicated to the arts. Intended as ‘palaces to the people’, each station pays homage to a different medium: painting, sculpture, mosaic-tile and stained glass works are proudly displayed as part of the overall environment. A gift to Russian citizens from Stalin, don’t miss it.

Contributor: Denise Foley

Company: denise-foley.com

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#3 Carry around small bills

Stores and vendors do not like giving you change, especially not for big bills, and appreciate the exact change.

Contributor: Milana Perepyolkina

Company: gypsyenergysecrets.com

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#4 Be prepared to buy water

Tap water is not safe to drink and it is not given out for free in restaurants.

Contributor: Milana Perepyolkina

Company: gypsyenergysecrets.com

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#5 Have your passport on you for significant purchases

Have your passport on you for significant purchases such as internet routers or cell phones. Copies are not accepted.

Contributor: Milana Perepyolkina

Company: gypsyenergysecrets.com

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#6 Learn the Cyrillic alphabet

I found that a number of Russian words sounded similar to English words when I was able to convert the Cyrillic alphabet into the Roman alphabet. Only the Metro system and the signs for street names in St. Petersburg had dual Cyrillic/Roman placenames. Destinations and station stops on the mainline rail system were Cyrillic only. For example, when visiting Peterhof we needed to get the train travelling to Oranienbaum which was written as Ораниенба́ум on the departures board.

Contributor: Hazel Joy

Company: arrivalshall.com

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#7 Fast-food chains in Russia CHARGE for ketchup packets

Fast-food chains in Russia CHARGE for ketchup packets and you have to ask for them. They only tend to give one at a time. A notable exception is TGI Friday's (they have bottles of Heinz ketchup on the tables).

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#8 Visit the parks!

The Soviet government was very interested in the way its citizens spent their leisure time so the parks in Moscow and St. Petersburg are amazing. You can zip line, walk around fountains, see amazing architectural details, and landscaping.

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#9 Try to be there on one of the days that Lenin’s tomb is open

If you can schedule your time in Moscow, try to be there on one of the days that Lenin's tomb is opened. It's not open every day to try to slow Lenin's body's decomposure (he's in formaldehyde). Also no talking in the tomb.

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#10 If you are vegan, eating in Russia will be very difficult

If you are vegan, eating in Russia will be very difficult, but if you eat cheese and dairy, you'll be fine. Tolstoy was a vegetarian.

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#11 Make sure you have appropriate travel insurance

Make sure you have appropriate travel insurance and that you've read the small print! Some fun holiday activities, like hiring a moped, jetskiing or bungee jumping, are not covered and if something goes wrong you can face medical bills of thousands of pounds.

Contributor: Bethany Torvell

Company: safetravelsmagazine.com

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#12 Book your tour/hotel before applying for a visa

You need an invitation letter from your tour/hotel in order to apply for a visa. Some hotels may charge extra for the invite letter. You must also forward a copy of travel insurance with your visa application. Visa prices depend on your nationality.

Contributor: Hazel Joy

Company: arrivalshall.com

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#13 Be mindful of Russia's harsh weather

Be mindful of Russia's harsh weather. The higher latitudes get 24-hour daylight in summer but in winter the temperatures plunge below zero from October onwards.

Contributor: Hazel Joy

Company: arrivalshall.com

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#14 Is Russia a safe place to visit?

Whilst I found St. Petersburg a safe place to visit - with helpful and friendly people - check with your country's foreign ministry regarding areas of Russia they recommend to avoid.

Contributor: Hazel Joy

Company: arrivalshall.com

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#15 Smiles. Russians are extremely warm, passionate, friendly people…but not at first glance

Smiles. Russians are extremely warm, passionate, friendly people...but not at first glance. They do not smile at strangers, or for politeness. You may feel they are being morose, but this is just the way they are. Don't take it personally, take things slow and watch them defrost as you get to know them. Here's a good article on that.

Contributor: Joe Wareham

Company: strawberrytours.com

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#16 Trains in Russia

(a) Overnight trains are great in Russia - even in the lowest class carriages you will get a proper bed. This is a great way to experience travel 

(b) Trains are also very warm so in winter it will be -30C outside and +30C inside - take clothes for warm weather and even flip flops so you can strip down for comfort! 

(c) Get to the train station and there are no more seats on the train you wanted to take? Not that I would recommend making a habit of bribing, but if you can't miss it, just head to the platform and have a friendly conversation with a carriage steward (each carriage has their own steward). 

They won't speak much English, so you can just make it clear you want to get on the train, say no ticket, and then offer an amount reasonably over what the ticket would have cost if you'd bought it at the station. Pay attention to whether it's a first (coupé) or second class carriage - the costs and comfort/privacy will vary. They will have conveniently saved a place for you.

Contributor: Joe Wareham

Company: strawberrytours.com

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#17 Make sure you have a guidebook

Make sure you have a guidebook that gives you the transliterated names AND names in Cyrillic. Most signs in Russia are only in Russian so the transliterated names will only help you ask for directions but not recognize the word in Russian.

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#18 Russians have very little concept of personal space

Russians have very little concept of personal space. When standing in line, you want to be almost on top of the person in front of you. If you stand farther away, people will think that you are not in line and will go in front of you.

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#19 CHECK THE EXPIRATION DATES ON EVERYTHING

If you go to the supermarket CHECK THE EXPIRATION DATES ON EVERYTHING Packaged. Grocery stores DO NOT remove past-date packaged foods. I've seen products more than 2 months over their expiration date sitting in refrigerated sections of the supermarket.

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#20 Food, but especially fruits and vegetables can be very expensive

Food, but especially fruits and vegetables can be very expensive. I've heard of $45 salads (US dollars); I have spent $8 on two nectarines; and $60 on pho and a pot of tea not even from a fancy restaurant. Kiosks are inexpensive but sit-down dinners tend to be pricey.

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#21 If you can afford it, book a private guide to the Hermitage

If you can afford it, book a private guide to the Hermitage. They have tours in English and the guide will show you all the highlights of the museum, including the TWO Leonardo Da Vinci paintings so you can maximize your trip and not get lost in the palace.

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#22 The metro stations are totally beautiful. They’re works of Soviet art.

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#23 Sign up for State Department alerts in Russia.

The State Department will send you an email to notify you of particular days to be aware of, for example, VDV Day (it's sometime in July and Russians from the special forces get together in Gorky Park and get very drunk and beat up/kill foreigners).

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#24 Hotels toilets have toilet seats; however, many public restrooms do not.

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#25 St. Petersburg is much more north of Moscow and so it is MUCH colder

If you're going to both Moscow and St. Petersburg, know that St. Petersburg is much more north of Moscow and so it is MUCH colder. It was 90 F in Moscow and when I got to St. Petersburg it was 60 F in JULY.

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#26 If you visit churches, you cannot show your shoulders

If you visit churches, you cannot show your shoulders (no tank tops for men or women), no skirts or dresses above the knee, shorts can be questionable.

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#27 You have to go through three security checks at the airport

Allot plenty of time when you are flying out of Russia for an international flight: you have to go through three security checks and one more before you get on the plane.

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#28 Currency exchange

Some foreign tourists are sure they can pay in USD or euros in Russian stores, restaurants etc, but it's not true. Only Russian roubles or cards are accepted. Make sure to bring at least some cash (roubles) to pay for a taxi or public transport from an airport to the city/town, you can change more money when you are in the city center.

Use only exchange offices or banks. Moreover, bring only banknotes in good condition, because worn out, torn, crumpled paper money or banknotes with any marks (stamps or smth written on it) are not accepted. It can be changed only in particular banks (Sberbank) but on lower rate (minus 20%)

Contributor: Christina Koroleva

Company: interpreterspb.com/services/saint-petersburg-guide

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#29 Taxi & Uber

There're many private drivers offering their services at airports and railway stations, I won't recommend using it, because it can be 3 times more expensive than ane city taxi service or Uber. I/d recommend using Uber or Gett or ordering a taxi via official airport/railway station service (there're stalls or booths with Taxi sign).

Contributor: Christina Koroleva

Company: interpreterspb.com/services/saint-petersburg-guide

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#30 Don’t miss a chance to try some street-food

Russia is famous with borsch soup and vodka, which are nice of course, but don't miss a chance to try some street-food. For instance shawarma (kind of a kebab), you can buy it from one of the numerous stalls in every city of Russia. It's one of the most popular snacks.

Contributor: Christina Koroleva

Company: interpreterspb.com/services/saint-petersburg-guide

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