Russia Travel Tips
What to Know Before You Go
A little knowledge goes a long way, especially when it comes to traveling around Russia. A few simple measures can make the difference between an exercise in frustration and a tranquil trip. By keeping the following advice in mind, you can avoid some common pitfalls and ensure that your journey is as smooth as possible.
Get Your Visas Well in Advance
American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and European Union citizens all need visas to visit Russia. A recent US-Russia agreement has seen the visa application procedure for US citizens somewhat eased. The main benefit to come out of the new arrangements is that Americans can now receive 3-year tourist visas rather than the previous maximum of 1 month, although individual visits are limited to 6 months. Despite the fact that the need for official invitations has been dropped, a travel voucher or hotel confirmation letter is still required. Other possible requirements include bank or income statements, a travel insurance policy and other such documents. The exact application procedure can vary depending upon the Russian consulate at which the application is made.
Given the relative complexity of applying, using the services of a visa or travel agency is highly recommended. When you finally have the visa in hand, make sure you check such details as its beginning and ending dates (note that Russians write the day prior to the month, e.g. 31.12.2013 for December 31, 2013), the spelling of your name and your sex. Russian border guards don’t look kindly upon people showing up with an unintended sex change.
Look After Your Migration Card
Upon entering Russia, you’ll be issued with a migration card – either already filled in if crossing at one of Moscow’s major airports or otherwise blank, requiring it to be filled in (English is fine). The rather inconsequential-looking slip of paper is more important than you think. You will be need it to register at hotels and to leave the country – it’s valuable, so don’t lose it. Registration is Required Every foreign tourist is required to be registered in Russia within 7 working days of arriving. Normally, this is done automatically at any hotel where you stay, but if you’re staying with friends or family, a trip to the local post office will be necessary in order to take care of this.
Take the Airport Express in Moscow
Do yourself a favor and use the convenient airport express train services that run from all of Moscow’s airports. There are 2 flavors available – regular and business-class – and they speed you directly to one of the intercity train stations, which are located on the ring line of the metro (subway), allowing for easy transfers.
Avoid using the airport taxis if possible – they’re expensive, and Moscow’s traffic jams are legendary. There is still no express service in St. Petersburg, so it’s either the bus or a taxi.
The KremlinSitting on Borovitsky Hill and overlooking the Moscow River, the Kremlin is a historic complex that features 5 palaces, 4 cathedrals and the enclosing Kremlin Wall and towers. While it’s the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation, visitors can access its museums to see Russia’s historic artifacts on display. 960 1280
Red SquareFirst stop on your Moscow sightseeing tour should be Red Square, the heart of Russia and the center stage for many important moments in Russia’s history. Here you’ll find Moscow’s most well known sight, St. Basil’s Cathedral, a masterpiece of Orthodox architecture with its iconic colorful domes. 960 1280
Cathedral of Christ the SaviorThis imposing and grandiose cathedral high in the Moscow skyline is the tallest Orthodox cathedral in the world. The original church was built to commemorate Russia’s victory over Stalin, but it was rebuilt in 2000 after Stalin destroyed it. 960 1280
All–Russian Exhibition CenterTravel back to the USSR with a visit to the All-Russian Exhibition center. This massive complex has it all -- parks, amusement rides, cafes, restaurants and plenty of photo ops with its Soviet pavilions, statues and fountains. The “Friendship of the Nations” fountain (pictured) symbolizes the 15 republics of the USSR. 960 1280
Cafe PushkinNo matter how tired you are after sightseeing, it’s never too late to visit this iconic 5-star restaurant. Open 24 hours a day, Café Pushkin gives its diners a taste of traditional Russian fare, including black caviar, borscht and pelmeni, and best washed down with a few shots of vodka, of course. 960 1280
St. Basil’s CathedralA visit to Moscow won’t be complete without taking in the spectacular multicolor domes of St. Basil's Cathedral. Built between 1555 and 1561 on the orders of Ivan the Terrible, the Orthodox cathedral commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. 960 1280
Novodevichy Cemetery and ConventEscape the hustle and bustle of Moscow, and head to the peaceful churches located in the Novodevichy Convent grounds. Tour the 17th-century convent complex, and see where many of Russia’s most famous public figures, writers and politicians were laid to rest. 960 1280
Mayakovskaya Metro StationRiding the metro in Moscow is like taking a ride through an art museum. You won’t believe you are in a metro station when you see the lavish chandeliers, gilded halls and ceiling murals of skydivers and airplanes. 960 1280
Lenin MausoleumVisit the final resting place of Vladimir Lenin, “The Father of the Revolution,” located in the Red Square. See Lenin’s wax-like, embalmed body on permanent display in his mausoleum. Tourists should take note that it’s forbidden to carry a camera inside, and it’s considered disrespectful to put your hands in your pockets (see more Russian etiquette tips). 960 1280
Gorky ParkFor a look at what’s cool in Moscow, head to Gorky Park, the city’s hipster hangout. In winter, this neighborhood is full of ice skaters when it transforms into one of Europe’s largest ice-skating rinks, and in there summer, there’s an open-air theater. Any time of year, you can take advantage of the neighborhood’s trendy galleries, bars and restaurants. 960 1280
Trans-Siberian RailroadLooking for a bucket-list train adventure? Hop aboard the Tran-Siberian Railroad, the world’s longest train journey that spans 6,000 miles across 2 continents. The Classic Line travels from Moscow to Vladivostok on Russia’s far eastern coast. 960 1280
Moscow's Must-See Sights 13 Photos
Ice HockeyWe love the Russians for their sportsmanship and fan spirit. Here in the US, we’ve adopted their love for ice hockey, but there are other popular sports in Russia, including basketball, football, gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, rugby, skiing, rugby and bandy -- a “cheaper” version of hockey where skaters use sticks to direct a ball into the opposing team’s goal. 960 1280
Moscow Royal BalletRussia is known for its excellence in fine arts. We love watching dancers from the Moscow Royal Ballet, accompanied by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, perform to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” The country has also cranked out several unforgettable artists, including ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and composer Igor Stravinsky. 960 1280
Matryoshka DollsVisit any Russian souvenir shop and you’re sure to find matryoshka dolls, a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other. The first nested doll set was carved in 1890; today, they don’t always follow the traditional peasant girl theme. Some themes vary from fairy tale characters to Soviet leaders, yet artistry in the painting of each doll remains a constant. 960 1280
Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)We love that Russian authors and poets are honored all over the world. In Medellin, Colombia, a statue of Alexander Pushkin was donated by the Russian Writers’ Union to the University of Antioquia. Pushkin was a Russian author of the Romantic era whom many consider the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. Other popular Russian writers include Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. 960 1280
CaviarWhat better place to taste some of the world’s best and freshest caviar than in Russia? Sample sevruga, the least expensive caviar, or beluga, the most expensive, followed by ossetra. We recommend sampling the sevruga caviar served with buckwheat pancakes at Café Pushkin in Moscow. 960 1280
SochiWe love the fact that Sochi, Russia’s largest resort town, located on the Black Sea coast near the border between Georgia and Russia, will be transformed into the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics; it will also be a host city for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. 960 1280
Maria SharapovaWe admire Maria Sharapova’s stamina and competitive edge. Although the Russian pro tennis player has lived in the US since 1994, she is the top Russian player, winning 29 WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) singles titles, including 4 Grand Slam titles. And as of September 2013, WTA has ranked her the third-best woman tennis player in the world. 960 1280
Milla JovovichWe love Russian actors like Yul Brenner for his Broadway performance in “The King and I.” And on the opposite end of the spectrum, we love Milla Jovovich. You may recognize Milla as the take-charge women who kicked butt in the popular sci-fi movie franchise Resident Evil. 960 1280
Alexander OvechkinFans of the Washington Capitals love their Russian hockey winger and captain, Alexander Ovechkin. Prior to playing in the NHL, Alexander played for the HC Dynamo Moscow of the Russian Superleague for 4 seasons. To date, he has racked up several prestigious awards, including 3 Hart Memorial trophies (Most Valuable Player), 3 Lester B. Pearson Award/Ted Lindsey Award (Most Outstanding Player), NHL Player of the Year and the Wayne Gretzky Award (MVP). 960 1280
Saint Basil's CathedralWe love Russia’s unique architecture, as you’ll see when visiting Saint Basil’s Cathedral, located in Moscow’s Red Square. The cathedral, built between1555 and 1561 on the orders of Ivan the Terrible, commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. The building was an influential precursor to the great age of Russian national architecture in the 17th century. 960 1280
Beef StroganoffWe love Russian cuisine, including goulash, chicken Kiev, birsch and kvass, but beef stroganoff is yet another tasty dish we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention. This delicious dish consists of sautéed pieces of beef sometimes served over a bed of rice or noodles with sour cream. 960 1280
The KremlinWe love sightseeing in Russia and visiting Hermitage Museum, Valley of Geysers, Lake Baikal, Red Square, St. Petersburg and the Moscow Kremlin (pictured). Overlooking the Moskva River to the south, the Kremlin is a historic complex that features 5 palaces, 4 cathedrals and the enclosing Kremlin Wall and towers. It is the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation. 960 1280
Kizhi IslandTake a boat ride to explore Kizhi Island. Located on Lake Onega, Kizhi has become part of an open-air museum with more than 80 historic wooden structures, moved from parts of Karelia for preservation purposes. Dating back to the 17th century, Kizhi Pogost is the most famous historic site, built only of wood. It includes 2 large wooden churches and a bell tower inside a fence. Kizhi Pogost is a UNESCO World Heritage site; it’s also listed as a Russian Cultural Heritage site. 960 1280
VodkaWe love vodka! We couldn’t have our tasty cocktails like a bloody Mary, screwdriver, white Russian, Moscow mule or a vodka martini without this distilled liquor and the proper mixers. According to legend, a monk named Isidore from Chudov Monastery, inside the Moscow Kremlin, made a recipe for the first Russian vodka in 1430. Some popular Russian brands of vodka include Russian standard and Stolichnaya. 960 1280
Doctor ZhivagoWe love the forbidden love story that unfolds in the 1965 movie Doctor Zhivago, starring actors Omar Sharif (right), Geraldine Chaplin (left) and Julie Christie. Based on the novel by Russian author Boris Pasternak, the movie follows the life of a Russian doctor/poet who, although married, falls for a political activist’s wife and experiences hardships during the Bolshevik Revolution. 960 1280
Why We Love Russia 16 Photos
VarenikiA Ukrainian contribution to Russian cuisine, vareniki are square- or crescent-shaped dumplings filled with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, cheese, cabbage, meat or hard-boiled egg, or a combination of those ingredients. They're typically served smothered with butter and fried onions. What could be better? 960 1280
Russian AppetizersTraditional appetizers found on the Russian dining table include (clockwise from top): blini with red caviar; a variety of smoked fish, including salmon, butterfish and paddlefish; and Olivier salad. Moscow’s Ermitage Hotel is the birthplace of the famous Olivier salad, which is made of boiled potatoes with some combination of pickles, capers, peas, carrots, celery, egg, chicken, fish or ham, and sometimes caviar. The tang and crunch of the salad is embraced by a smooth mayonnaise dressing, adding a creamy texture. 960 1280
Russian CakesWhich of these 3 Russian cakes will soothe your sweet tooth the most? Will it be (clockwise from bottom) medovnik, a traditional Russian honey cake; a spongy cake with vanilla cream, apricots, prunes, raisins and nuts; or Napoleon cake, which layers flaky puff pastry with cream and nuts? 960 1280
Russian PastriesBreakfast, dessert and special holidays call for pastries in Russia. Among the popular varieties are (clockwise from top) traditional poppy-seed rolls; sochnik, a puff pastry filled with sweet cheese and raisins; and tiny pechenie cookies with fruit filling. 960 1280
PelmeniThese small, minced-meat-filled dumplings are a staple of Russian cuisine. Sometimes served in a broth, pelmeni are also eaten plain with sour cream or melted butter on top. Fillings include veal, pork, lamb or Siberian meat (a combination of veal and pork). Their thin shells set them apart from other Russian dumplings, as do their always-savory fillings. 960 1280
Taste of Russia 15 Photos
Ride the Metro
Take the metro to get around. Both in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the subway system is the most convenient – and inexpensive – means of transportation. What’s more, in Moscow the metro is a must-see tourist attraction in its own right, with stations that more resemble palaces than public transportation halls. One word of advice is to try to avoid using either metro system during peak hours (8 am-10 am and 5 pm-7 pm) when the crush can be somewhat overwhelming.
Use the Pedestrian Underpasses and be Careful on the Zebra Crossings
Just a few years ago, zebra crossing (aka crosswalks) were more of a suggested crossing point than a spot were cars were obliged to stop. Things have changed for the better, but nonetheless watch out for cars that fail to give way – there are still plenty of them around.
Fortunately there is help at hand in the form of pedestrian underpasses, which can be found at just about every major street corner and along most busy roads. Just keep an eye out for the blue sign depicting a stick figure walking down a flight of stairs.
Don’t Drink the Tap Water in St. Petersburg
Avoid drinking the tap water in St. Petersburg – while the water leaving purification plants is fine, the aging water-pipe system can let the purified water become contaminated with dirty city ground water. People have become sick with the water-borne disease Giardia after drinking St. Petersburg’s tap water in the past. In most places, water comes out of the taps in every color of the rainbow and with a decidedly “swampy” smell. Best to skip it in all but the most upmarket hotels where serious additional filters are installed.
Learn the Alphabet
If you’re coming for more than a couple of days, do yourself a favor and get acquainted with the Russian alphabet. It’s really not that hard. Besides being practical, it’s fun to sound out the names of dishes on menus – you’ll be surprised at how many you recognize.
MORE: Anthony Bourdain's Trip to Russia