The world’s largest country beguiles and fascinates with its world-class art, epic landscapes and multifaceted society. You may also find that perseverance and a sense of humour will go a long way in enriching your first-time Russian travel experience. Here are some author tips for avoiding common pitfalls when visiting Russia.
DO apply for a visa early and register on arrival
This is an absolute must for everybody. You can do it at the last moment, but it may cost you a fortune. Start the application process at least a month before your trip and consider using a specialist travel agency to arrange visas and make key transport bookings. Every visitor to Russia should have their visa registered within seven days of arrival, excluding weekends and public holidays. The obligation to register is with your hotel or hostel, or landlord, friend or family if you’re staying in a private residence.
DO check the events calendar
During major holidays – the first week in January (between New Year’s Day and Orthodox Christmas) and the first week or two of May (around Labour Day, or May Day, and Victory Day) – Moscow and St Petersburg empty out. Despite this, both cities are festive during these times, with parades, concerts and other events, but museums and other institutions may have shortened hours or be shut altogether. May to September is the best time to visit St Petersburg but mid-June is when the city is irresistible, with the White Nights revelling at its peak.
DO dress up for a night on the town
We can’t guarantee you’ll make it past Moscow’s ‘face control’, but you can better your chances of getting in to the top clubs by making a sartorial effort – high heels and short skirts for women, all black for men. Russians also make an effort when they go to the theatre or a posh restaurant – you should do likewise to fit in.
DO learn the Cyrillic alphabet
Making an effort to familiarise yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet repays tenfold. Not only will you be able to understand more than you would otherwise, but a knowledge of the alphabet will also help you decode street and metro signs, maps, timetables and menus.
DO expect to spend
Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world and St Petersburg is not a cheap destination either; wallet-thinning shock is common at many restaurants and hotels. As a foreigner you’ll also find yourself paying more than a Russian for some museums – often as much as 10 times the price Russians pay. If you’re a student, flashing your ID can save you money at museums and other institutions. In restaurants, go for ‘business lunches’, which are great value and very filling. The latest fad in big cities are ‘anti-cafes’, where you pay by the minute and can enjoy coffee, snacks, wi-fi or even computer games. Taxi drivers and market sellers sometimes try to charge foreigners more, so you may want to learn a few phrases for bargaining in Russian.
DON’T ask for a mixer with your vodka
Few traditions in Russia are as sacrosanct as the drinking of vodka, and any foreign notions of drinking it with orange juice or tonic are anathema to your average Russian. If you need something to wash it down, you can chase it with a lemon, a pickle or, perhaps, a separate glass of water. Vodka is drunk in swift shots, not sipped. It’s traditional (and good sense) to eat a little something after each shot, so order some vodka snacks too.
DON’T be disrespectful in a church
Working churches are open to everyone but as a visitor you should take care not to disturb any devotions or offend sensibilities.Women should cover their heads and bare shoulders when entering a church. In some monasteries and churches it’s also required for a woman to wear a skirt – wraps are usually available at the door. Men should remove their hats in church and not wear shorts.
DON’T take photos of government buildings
Be very careful about photographing stations, official-looking buildings and any type of military-security structure – if in doubt, don’t snap! Travellers, including a Lonely Planet author, have been arrested and fined for such innocent behaviour.
DON’T forget to check the train timetable
Right across Russia, timetables for long-distance trains are written according to Moscow time. The only exceptions are those for suburban services that run on local time – but not always, so double-check. Station clocks in most places are also set to Moscow time. Note that Moscow and St Petersburg share the same time zone.
DON’T be surprised if you’re stopped by the police
Carry a photocopy of your passport, visa and registration, and present them when an officer demands to see your documents. Russian authorities might expect an unofficial payment to
expedite their service, so always ask for an official receipt.
This article was first published in August 2009 and last updated in April 2015.