A modern-day enigma with glittering palaces, incredible architecture and epic natural landscapes, a holiday to Russia is anything but ordinary. During your stay in the world’s largest country, you can take in the legendary buildings of Moscow, the ballet of St. Petersburg, the soaring canyons and lakes of the country’s beautiful national parks and one of the greatest train journeys in the world, the Trans-Siberian Railway. Here are some things to note before your stay.
The majority of travellers to Russia head to the shining cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg – each offering a startlingly different, but equally as mesmerising, side to the country. It’s useful to learn a few pleasantries and greetings in Russian ahead of your stay because while there are a few English speakers, it’s not as widely spoken as in most of Europe. Learning the Cyrillic alphabet is also a big pointer – many menus and station stops will only be in Cyrillic and despite its complicated look, it’s relatively easy to pick up and you may be surprised just how many words look and sound familiar to English.
Credit cards are widely accepted in tourist areas and you can withdraw money easily at ATMs. For safety, use the machines in the lobby of your hotel or in a bank. The street is never completely free from risk, just like anywhere in the world. Pickpockets do abound in busy areas of Moscow and other cities. Transport hubs, buses, subways and shopping markets are popular with opportunistic criminals. Avoid wearing expensive jewellery or watches that will draw attention to you, be discrete with electronics like phones, laptops and cameras and if you carry a bag, secure any pockets or openings and keep it close to you at all times.
If you take a taxi, negotiate the price before getting in. There are more taxis than customers, so take your time to negotiate and the price will inevitably fall. Don’t tip drivers – it’s not customary in Russia. In restaurants, leaving 10% of the bill is the norm, and porters and housekeeping staff can expect around the equivalent of £5. As for guides, they will be satisfied with around £8-10 per day. The Russian character tends to be undemonstrative; they’re not intentionally hostile and will certainly make every effort to help you when requested, but Russian nature can be quite solemn, with smiles reserved for friends, family and work colleagues. There’s even a Russian phrase: ‘only fools smile without a reason’.
Crossing the street in Russia can be hairy – always be mindful of cars, even in zones you’d consider safe, like pedestrian crossings. Many motorists consider themselves as having permanent priority simply because they’re stronger. When winter arrives in Russia, it really arrives and the streets are blanketed in sparkling white. Sharp icicles that hang and drop from rooftops cause a number of deaths annually and many pedestrians avoid the pavement altogether during winter, opting to walk on the side of the road instead. The subway is the ideal way to get around Moscow and St. Petersburg. Confirm your journey before stepping onto a train – there are various apps that can help guide you and hotels will also happily offer you directions in English.
If you have the pleasure of consuming caviar and vodka in a restaurant or a Russian’s house, never leave an empty bottle on the table as it’s believed to bring bad luck. Never arrive empty handed either, bring flowers sold on the street by babushkas, preferably an odd number (even numbers are for funerals) and not yellow.
Never drink the tap water. Whether you’re gallivanting in Moscow in the balmy summer months, taking in St. Petersburg in beautiful winter, or witnessing Russia’s glorious nature bloom into life during spring, a holiday to Russia is a year-round display of history and mystery, excitement and wonder all rolled into one.