Russia is a fascinating country to explore, but it can definitely be intimidating as a first-time visitor.
While travel in Russia was easier than I expected, there are quite a few things that I wish I’d known about Russia before my trip. So now I’m sharing those things with you!
Here are my top Russia travel tips, including useful information about how to prepare and plan for your trip, what to bring, and dos and don’ts once you’re there.
Things You Need to Know About Russia
Apply for Your Russian Visa Well in Advance
Visa requirements vary depending on your nationality, but most people will have to jump through a few hoops to be able to visit Russia. It’s totally doable and definitely worth it, but you do need to plan in advance.
Generally, it takes about 10 working days for Russian consulate authorities to issue a visa. You may be able to get expedited processing for an additional fee, but don’t count on it.
In most cases, the authorities have outsourced the visa processing to a private company. This means that, instead of going to a Russian embassy or consulate, you will go to the visa company’s office and submit your papers to them. You will also have to pay them a fee as the middleman in addition to the usual consular fees.
Some of these offices do not accept walk-ins; you must make an appointment. And they might only accept appointments on two or three days of the week, which means that appointment slots could be booked out for weeks in advance. Start planning early!
The maximum length of a tourist visa is 30 days, and in most cases you must apply for it in your home country or in a country where you have legal residency.
As for which documents you’ll need, requirements vary from country to country, so it’s best to check with your local consulate.
For example, European Union citizens must show proof of travel insurance, but since I applied on a US passport I didn’t need this, even though I applied in a European country. We were also not allowed to apply more than one month in advance.
One document that you will definitely need is an invitation letter. Luckily, this is easy to obtain. I recommend getting one from tourist invitation letter in just 30 minutes., who will process your
Interestingly, they also offer business invitation letters for an extra charge. If you want to make an extended visit to Russia, this could be a good way to get around the 30-day limit on tourist visas.
Get a Migration Card (and Don’t Lose It!)
When you enter Russia, the immigration officer should give you a little slip of paper called a migration card. Don’t lose it! You will need it when exiting the country, and some hotels in Russia will not let you check in without it.
A few years ago, you would have had to fill out this card by hand, but now it’s completed automatically based on the information in your passport.
In fact, I wasn’t even aware that I had the card, because the immigration officer just slipped it into my passport without saying anything about it. And Nick, who arrived separately from me on a different flight, was not given a migration card. Which turned out to be a big problem!
The staff of the hotel we had booked in Kazan absolutely refused to check him into the hotel without a migration card. We had to go to the police station and try to explain the situation to a police officer who spoke zero English and who had a poster of Stalin hanging up behind his desk.
In the end we got the card, and while most of the hotels we stayed in after that didn’t ask for it, we did need it to exit the country. You will also need it for the police registration process, as explained below.
Register With the Police
Having a visa and a migration card is still not enough to make your stay in Russia legal. If you are staying in the country for seven working days or longer, you also need to register with the police.
The hotel or apartment where you are staying will do this for you, although they may charge an extra fee for this. Anytime you stay in a city for seven days or longer, you will need to re-register in that new city.
These are the general rules, but certain regions may have their own rules that differ from these. In Kazan, for example, which is the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Tatarstan, our hotel insisted on registering us even though we were only staying for two nights and had already been registered in St. Petersburg
Learn Some Russian
Learning at least a few words in Russian will really go a long way. This is especially true if you are venturing beyond St. Petersburg and Moscow.
I was actually surprised by how many people did speak English in those two cities. English speakers definitely become fewer and further between the further East you go, though.
While I do speak basic Russian, I am far from fluent. Before this trip I was worried that people would get frustrated and impatient with me when I butchered their language, but in reality the opposite was true.
When people saw that I was making an effort to speak Russian, it really broke the ice and made them more willing to help me.
At the very least, I recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet. That way, you’ll be able to read street signs and train timetables and identify menu items that you already know the Russian names for, like borscht.
If you're looking for a fun and effective way to learn the baics of the Russian language, I recommend the Lingodeer app. You can read all about my experience learning languages with Lingodeer here.
Lingodeer is generously offering 15% off membership for Nomadic Vegan readers. Just go to the Lingodeer website and use the promo code NOMADICV when checking out!
Book Armoury Tickets in Advance
A visit to the Kremlin is a must when you’re in Moscow, but it’s best to decide beforehand which parts you want to visit. There are different types of ticket, and each one is sold at a separate ticket window, so it can be a bit confusing.
If you just want the general ticket to the grounds and the cathedrals, you can get that on the day of your visit. I’ll explain more about this in the next tip.
However, if you want to visit the Armoury Chamber, which has been converted into a museum with the tsars’ crowns and many other royal treasures on display, you should buy those tickets online ahead of time.
In the high season, they can sell out up to two weeks in advance. Check the official Kremlin website to see what slots are available.
Buy Your Own Train Tickets
There’s no need to pay commissions to any third party when buying Russian train tickets. You can do it easily by yourself directly through the official Russian railways website, which is in both Russian and English.
[UPDATE June 2020: The Russian railways site appears to be down at the moment, so I have removed the link. If and when it comes back online, I will add the link here.]
Tickets do sell out, though, so buy them in advance as soon as you’ve decided on your travel plans.
You’ll be given many different options, which can get a bit confusing, but it also means you’ll know exactly what type of train, carriage and seat you are choosing. You can choose whether you want a seat facing forward or backward, with a table or without, at a window or not, etc.
For overnight trains, you can generally choose one of three classes. Third class, known as platskartny, is an open-plan carriage with upper and lower bunks and no individual compartments. Second class, or kupe, has four bunks to a compartment - two upper and two lower. And first class has just two bunks per compartment.
I don’t mind the open-plan aspect of platskartny, as it provides an opportunity to meet your fellow travelers and experience life on the train as most Russians experience it. The biggest disadvantage, in my view, is the lack of headroom in the upper bunk.
On 3rd Class Trains, Get the Lower Bunk
Speaking of trains, if you’re going third class sleeper (“platskartny” in Russian), I highly recommend getting the lower bunk. This is because the upper bunks have very little headroom.
Normally I prefer the upper bunk, so that’s what I booked when I purchased all our Trans-Mongolia train tickets before our trip. Well, hindsight is 20/20.
In 2nd class sleeper (“kupe” in Russian), there’s enough room to sit up fully on the upper bunk, so in that case I would still choose upper.
But in 3rd class, there’s a luggage shelf that basically cuts your headroom in half, so you’re forced to lie down the entire time. And let me tell you, on a 53-hour train journey from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, you’ll get sick of lying down after a while.
If you are traveling with a friend or partner, one of you can take the lower bunk while the other one takes the upper bunk direclty above. That way, during the day you can both use the lower bunk as a seat if you want.
Wondering what there is to do when you finally make it to Mongolia? Lots! Here are my suggestions on top things to do in Mongolia.
Plan Around Russian Holidays
Traveling in Russia during major holidays has advantages and disadvantages. The most important holiday in Russia is the New Year.
While I’m sure it would be fun to be in Red Square watching the clock on the Spasskaya Tower count down to midnight, keep in mind that many businesses, museums and other attractions will be closed or work shortened hours around this time.
The week between New Year’s Day (January 1st) and Christmas (celebrated on January 7th in Russia) is a time for families to stay at home and spend time together. On the bright side, public transportation won’t be very crowded during this period.
Another very festive week is the first week of May, between Labour Day (May 1st) and Victory Day (May 9th). In Moscow, the famous Victory Day military parade takes place on Red Square.
If you arrive just in time for the parade, this could be a lot of fun to witness. In the days leading up to the parade, however, you will find your view of the Square marred by all the temporary grandstands being set up. You also won’t be able to visit Lenin’s Mausoleum, which sits in the middle of the Square.
Get Small Banknotes Whenever Possible
Small change can be hard to come by in Russia, and if you try to pay with a large bill (note) it may be rejected. Credit cards, on the other hand, are widely accepted, and shop attendants and restaurant staff often suggested that we pay with card instead of cash.
We tried to avoid this when possible, though, since our bank charges us annoying fees when we pay for anything abroad with a credit card.
When withdrawing cash at ATMs, don’t ask for a multiple of 5,000, or else you may end up with a handful of 5,000 ruble bills. For example, instead of withdrawing 15,000 rubles, withdraw 16,000. That way you’ll be sure of getting at least one smaller bill.
Buy a Local SIM Card
If you have an unlocked phone, buying a Russian SIM card with a data plan is cheap and definitely worth it if you want unlimited Internet access.
There are several phone companies in Russia, and they all have shopfronts at the Moscow and St. Petersburg airports. This means you can buy a SIM as soon as you arrive; all you need to do is show your passport.
All the companies have reasonably priced plans, so don’t waste too much time shopping around unless you need something specific. I went with Beeline, which offered one month of unlimited data for 900 rubles. A pretty great deal!
Coverage is good in the cities, but if you’re traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway there will be long stretches when you don’t have service. I imagine this is true with all providers.
My only issue with the Beeline SIM card was that it stopped working a day or two earlier than I had expected. I was in Russia for 30 days and thought my card was valid for one month, but it stopped working around day 28.
This probably means it was valid for four weeks rather than a full month, so you might want to ask about this when purchasing.
If being connected all the time is not important to you, then you can probably get by on free WiFi connections. Almost all the hotels and guesthouses we stayed in had good WiFi, and it was often available in cafés and restaurants too.
Don’t Take Photos of Government Buildings
Think twice about taking photographs of official-looking buildings, especially military ones, as it could land you in trouble.
I must say we never had any problems with this, but enough people have complained about it that I think the advice is worth repeating. You could be fined or even arrested if you get caught by a guard who’s having a bad day. Keep an eye out for any signs saying photography is prohibited.
Taking photographs of Moscow’s famous metro stations shouldn’t be a problem, however. They are one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, and you’ll even see stickers on the floor showing you where to stand for the best photo opp! And speaking of the metro...
Double Check the Names of Metro Stations
The St. Petersburg and Moscow metro stations are much easier to navigate than they used to be. There’s plenty of signage in English, and even the announcements of the stops over the loudspeaker are bilingual.
There’s one thing that still trips foreigners up, though, which is that a single metro station often has multiple names. For example, there’s a station right in the center of Moscow where lines 1, 2 and 3 all intersect.
Even though the three lines are all connected via pedestrian tunnels underground, the station goes by three different names. On line 1 it’s known as Okhotny Ryad, on line 2 it’s Teatralnaya, and on line 3 it’s Ploschad Revolyutsii.
This can be really confusing if you think you know the name of the station where you’re getting off, but the announcement says a completely different name. Check the metro map carefully at the start of your journey.
Don’t Rely Too Much on the Weather Forecast
A few days before our flight to St. Petersburg we started checking the weather forecast, and it didn’t look good. At one point, we even considered taking the train straight down to Moscow and then doubling back to St. Petersburg a few days later to avoid the bad weather.
In the end, it was a good thing we didn’t do that, because it turned out to be completely unnecessary. The weather was very changeable throughout our trip to Russia, and when we did get rained on it usually didn’t last very long.
Most of the time, the weather forecast was not very accurate, and the reality was significantly better than what had been predicted. Do be prepared for all kinds of weather, though, and pack some warm clothes even if you’re visiting Russia in the height of summer.
Try Georgian Cuisine
Georgian has to be one of the most underrated cuisines in the world. At least, it’s underrated in Western countries. In Russia and some other former Soviet nations, it’s highly revered.
You’ll find Georgian restaurants throughout Russia, so don’t pass up the chance to taste this delicious and unique cuisine. In my personal opinion, it’s much tastier than traditional Russian food.
It’s also much more veggie-friendly! If you or your travel companions are vegan or vegetarian, you’ll find many more options on a Georgian restaurant menu than in a traditional Russian restaurant.
Pkhali, lobio and adjapsandali are just a few of the plant-based Georgian dishes that you should try.
Dress Up to Go to the Theater
A night at the ballet or the opera is on many people’s bucket list when visiting Russia, even people who are not really into ballet or opera at home.
There’s no doubt that Russia has some of the best ballerinas in the world, so if you’re only going to watch one ballet performance in your life, this is a good place to do it.
But if you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb, pack some nice clothes and a pair of dress shoes. Russians like to dress up when they go to the theater, and wearing jeans or tennis shoes will definitely out you as a tourist.
Be Selective at the Hermitage
Speaking of bucket list activities in Russia, visiting the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is most definitely one of them. The Hermitage has one of the largest art collections in the world, which means that you have no chance of seeing everything in a single visit.
Before you go, look at the Hermitage website to see what’s there, and decide which rooms you want to prioritize. There’s even a handy feature on the website called a “trip planner”, but unfortunately I couldn’t get this to work the way it’s supposed to.
Keep in mind that the upstairs rooms featuring European painting and sculpture are the most crowded. On Wednesdays and Fridays, the museum stays open until 9pm, so consider arriving in the late afternoon on one of these days to avoid the worst of the crowds.
Use the Ticket Machines
Even if the Hermitage is really crowded on the day that you visit, you don’t need to worry about wasting time waiting in line to buy tickets. And there’s also no point in buying expensive “skip the line” tickets.
You can skip the line for free just by purchasing your tickets at one of the eight ticket machines in the museum courtyard. The machines work in both Russian and English and are easy to use.
I honestly have no idea why more people don’t use them. The photo above is of the huge line that had formed at the ticket booth the day I visited, and yet there was no wait at all at the ticket machines.
This same trick also works when visiting the Kremlin in Moscow, as long as you just want full-price adult tickets for the grounds and the cathedrals. For discounted tickets, and for tickets to the Armoury Chamber, the Diamond Fund Exhibition, the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, the New Kremlin Square or any temporary exhibitions, you will still need to line up.
Eat at Vegan Restaurants
Russia has a reputation as being a vegan’s worst nightmare. I’ve traveled as a vegan long enough to know that it’s always easier than people say it’s going to be, but even I thought Russia would be a major challenge. Nope!
Russia has become much more vegan-friendly in recent years, not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg but in smaller cities as well, including the Golden Ring town of Vladimir. Most of the cities we visited along the Trans-Mongolian Railway had at least one vegan or vegetarian restaurant.
Compared with what guest blogger Victoria wrote about being vegan in Russia just a few years ago, it’s quite a contrast. I’ll be publishing an up-to-date guide to vegan food in Russia soon, but in the meantime here are a few of my top restaurant recommendations:
Call a Yandex Taxi, Not an Uber
In Russia, the most popular and common ridesharing app by far is Yandex Taxi. This is one app that’s definitely worth downloading before you get to Russia.
It works just like Uber, and if you’re not comfortable with entering your credit card details you can also pay in cash. Prices are much cheaper than hailing a cab on the street, and it’s probably safer too.
Yandex is a huge corporation in Russia and runs much more than just the ridesharing app. It started out as a search engine and is basically the Russian equivalent of Google.
Even though Google is not banned in Russia like it is in China, it’s not widely used. Other Yandex apps that you might consider downloading are Yandex Transport (for public transport routes) and Yandex Eda (for food delivery, like Uber Eats).
Don’t Rely on Google Maps
Google Maps is normally my map app of choice, but in Russia it’s just not that reliable. This is partly because not many Russians use it, so you don’t have many users making additions or corrections.
And it’s actually pretty important to have a good map app in Russia, because restaurants and accommodations can be ridiculously hard to locate. Often, the guesthouses we booked on Booking.com were very poorly signed, or not signed at all.
It was a similar story with restaurants that we learned about through HappyCow. The first time we tried to eat at Holy Bali in Kazan, we gave up because we couldn’t find it. We eventually made another effort, this time with Apple Maps, and that time we were successful.
Holy Bali turned out to be one of our favorite vegan restaurants in Russia, so our persistance paid off. Apple Maps and Yandex collaborate with each other, so if you have an iPhone it’s probably your best bet in Russia.
Don’t Drink the Water
Tap water is not considered to be potable anywhere in Russia, so don’t drink it. Some hotels and guesthouses will have drinking water available, usually in the form of a large water cooler.
Definitely bring a reusable water bottle that you can refill, and you may also want to bring a water purifier or sterilizer. Some of the places we stayed in did not provide drinking water, or their cooler had run out when we wanted to fill up.
On those occasions, we used our Steripen Ultra water sterilizer. We’ve been sterilizing our own water for years now when traveling and have tried several different systems. The Steripen Ultra has been the easiest by far and is something I would never travel without.
Dress Appropriately in Churches
There are some beautiful Orthodox churches in Russia, and you will probably want to visit a few of them during your trip. The churches inside the convents and monasteries of Suzdal are a good example.
Visitors are welcome, but just remember to cover yourself up so as not to cause offence.
The most important part of the dress code is that women should cover their hair. Ladies, consider carrying a scarf or shawl in your bag for these occasions, although most churches will have scarves at the entrance that you can borrow.
If you have a jacket or sweatshirt with a hood, that’s also acceptable. Technically, women should also wear skirts instead of pants in Orthodox churches, but this is not usually enforced in Russia.
However, shorts worn by either sex are definitely frowned upon. If you show up in shorts, you will probably be given a wrap-around skirt to wear inside the church.
These rules only apply to active churches, though. During Stalin’s reign, many churches were either destroyed or turned into museums, and some of them have still never been reconsecrated.
In St. Petersburg, for example, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is classed as a museum, so the usual dress code does not apply.
Know Which Day Attractions Are Closed
A general rule of thumb when traveling anywhere in the world is that, if a museum is going to be closed one day of the week, that day will probably be Monday. In Russia, however, closing days seem to be more random.
While many museums and attractions do close on Mondays, others close on different days. The Moscow Kremlin is the one that really catches visitors unawares; it closes on Thursday.
And the Lenin Mausoleum, which stands just outside the Kremlin, is closed on Mondays AND Fridays. Even on the days that it opens, it only does so from 10am to 1pm.
Bring an Eye Mask
This tip applies most of all to anyone visiting St. Petersburg during the White Nights, but it’s worth keeping in mind if you’re traveling anywhere in Russia in the summer.
During the White Nights, from the middle of May to the end of July, the sun never fully sets, which means that the sky never becomes completely dark. If you are a light sleeper or need darkness to fall asleep, I highly recommend bringing a sleep mask.
This will also come in handy for sleeping on trains at any time of year, as the lights may be turned on when you are trying to sleep. I personally use my Buff as an eye mask, among other things.
It’s one of my favorite pieces of travel gear, and I never leave home without it. If you're not familiar with the Buff, it's a type of multifunctional headwear and is very versatile.
Things That Suprised Me About Russia
The following are not necessarily must-know things about Russia that will make or break your trip. They are, however, things that I did not expect when I arrived in Russia. Some of them were pleasant surprises, and others were just odd.
You May Have to Make Your Own Bed
This will probably only come up if you’re traveling in Siberia, but it happened to us so often there that I think it’s worth mentioning. In budget-friendly guesthouses in Siberia, don’t be surprised if you are handed a set of sheets at check-in.
At almost every place we stayed at in Siberia, we had to put our own sheets on the bed. It wasn’t a big deal, but we certainly thought it was strange the first time it happened.
By the way, the same rule applies on Russian overnight trains, not just in Siberia but across the country. Sheets cost a bit extra and are technically optional, but if you don’t pay for them you won’t be allowed to use the pillow or mattress, so you’ll have a fairly hard bench to sleep on.
If you do shell out for the sheets, the train attendant will hand them to you when you board, and you will need to put them on yourself.
Many Websites Are Banned in Russia
The situation in Russia is not as bad as in China, where you will need a VPN to use Facebook, Instagram or any Google service (Gmail, Google maps, etc.).
Nevertheless, quite a few websites are banned in the country. And if it’s a website that you use regularly, or, God forbid, your own website or blog, it could cause you a lot of hassle.
Most of the bans seem to stem from the Russian government’s attempt to ban the Telegram app. It turns out, this is more easily said than done, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying.
In the process, they have banned millions of IP addresses associated with Amazon Web Services and the Google Cloud Platform. Any sites hosted by Digital Ocean, for example, will be inaccessible in Russia. LinkedIn is also banned.
Lemonade Is Not What You Think It Is
Lemonade is very popular in Russia, and you will see it on almost every restaurant menu. The trouble is, it rarely contains any lemon juice.
Instead, you will see all different kinds of flavors ranging from strawberry to tarragon. Yes, tarragon!
The latter is apparently a Georgian specialty, which we tried in one of the many Georgian restaurants where we ate in Russia. I wasn’t sure about the flavor at first, but it really grew on me after a couple of sips.
When ordering lemonade, be sure to ask if it is homemade. If it’s not, you might be served a carbonated, fruit-flavored beverage in a bottle, which will be mostly sugar.
Flowers Are a Big Deal in Russia
It was in Nizhny Novgorod that I saw my first 24-hour flower shop in Russia. I would see several more during the course of our trip.
Confused, I messaged a Russian friend to ask what the deal was. I mean, who could possibly need flowers at 3am?
Well, apparently Russian women do. My friend was not surprised at all and said that it was a common sight in Russian cities. “Girls need flowers!” were her exact words.
Some Restaurants Offer Discounts at Lunch
When the total on the bill that our server brought us was significantly less than what we were expecting, I thought someone had made a mistake.
I could see that 20 percent had been deducted from the total, but I had no idea why. Later, I saw several restaurants advertising a 20 percent discount during lunch hours, and it all made sense.
If you are traveling on a small budget, this is definitely something to keep an eye out for!
Russian People Are Friendly
I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I didn’t expect Russian people to be friendly, but I really didn’t. My preconceived notion was that customer service was not valued in Russia, and that people working in service jobs were universally rude.
The reality I experienced in Russia was very different, though. As I’ve mentioned before, I suspect that this was partly due to the fact that I was making an effort to speak Russian, however badly.
I felt very welcome in Russia, and I honestly can’t wait to go back!