Russia is one of the most underrated travel locations for Americans. Due to biases left over from the Cold War, many Americans are apprehensive about travelling to a country they think of as hostile, cold, and scary. Russia is actually really wonderful, full of fascinating history, beautiful culture, and great people. Before you go–and I highly recommend you do!–here are ten things you need to know.
1. You Need A Visa
Travelling to Russia takes more planning and preparation than your typical beach vacation, but I promise you, it’s worth it. In addition to a valid passport, you’re going to need a travel visa. I highly suggest applying for this visa 6-9 months in advance just to be safe. This article explains how to acquire a visa easily and inexpensively.
While you’re in Russia, you’ll need to have your passport and visa on your person at all times. Store your papers someplace safe and secure, such as the inner pocket of your backpack.
I also recommend exchanging around $50 for rubles at an American bank before you go and exchanging the rest once you get to Russia. If you’re there for a longer trip, I would recommend exchanging half your cash once you get there, and waiting to exchange the rest until you run low on rubles. You’ll be surprised at how far your money goes in Russia–food and souvenirs are cheap, as are tickets to public attractions (especially if you get student discount and/or pass as a Russian citizen). The most expensive part of travelling to Russia is the plane tickets to get there.
2. Don’t Expect Everyone To Speak English
3. Food Is Different, But Good
4. Water & Alcohol
Make sure to have some rubles with you at all times, as you may have to pay to use the restroom in places like public parks.
Also be sure to check the inside of the stall for signs about what you should do with your toilet paper. In many places, the plumbing is very old, and clogs very easily, so you may be directed to dispose of your toilet paper in a trash can provided in the stall. Although many of these signs are written in Russian, English, and Chinese, you may want to learn the relevant vocabulary just in case. It might sound weird and gross, but no one wants to be the tourist who overflowed a toilet in public.
6. Don’t Be Rude On Public Transportation.
7. Summers Are Warm
Despite the stereotype that Russia is a frozen wasteland, Russian summers are positively lovely. When I was in St. Petersburg last July, the temperature stayed mostly in the ’70s and ’80s (Fahrenheit), but there were a couple days that got all the way into the nineties! St. Petersburg in particular gets a lot of precipitation, so be sure to have an umbrella or rain jacket on you every day in case of sudden rain.
It’s so far north that summer days are very long and winter days are very short. They even get a couple of white nights each summer, in which the sun doesn’t go down at all! As a tourist, this gives you even more time to explore and see the sights!
Even though it’s warm in the summer, Russians don’t usually wear shorts, so wearing your favorite jorts will be a dead giveaway that you’re a tourist. Be sure to pack a jacket or sweatshirt, because it can get cold at night!
8. Churches, Palaces, & Museums
Russia has something for everyone. I highly recommend visiting multiple cities. Whether you want to see the tomb of Lenin in Moscow or the separation of bridges in St. Petersburg or the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Veliky Novgorod, each city and town is lovely to explore. No matter where you decide to go, you absolutely must go see the churches, palaces, and museums.
From the preserved apartments of famous writers, to art museums with wall-sized paintings by Aivazovsky, to military museums with everything from swords to tanks, museums are where you’re going to see some of the coolest art and artifacts in Russia. If you’re planning to go to a more popular one, like the Hermitage, try to get there as early as possible to avoid long lines. You’ll realize after your first one how much you’d be missing out on if you stayed away.
I don’t know what I expected palaces to be like, but I was completely unprepared for how overwhelmingly magnificent they are. Pictures are completely inadequate to communicate what it feels like to be surrounded by a three-dimensional work of art, each room more mind-blowing than the next. In St. Petersburg, at least, there are palaces everywhere; I stumbled into my first one almost on accident, looking for information about beef stroganoff. If you’re planning on going to one of the more popular ones, like the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, I highly recommend getting there as early as possible.
Whether you’re devoutly religious or a staunch athiest, I promise you, Russian Orthodox cathedrals are one of the most breathtaking things you will ever see. At a loss for how to describe these places of worship, I turn to the words of the envoys who convinced St. Vladimir to make Eastern Orthodoxy the state religion of Russia. “For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men….For we cannot forget that beauty.”
9. Be Aware, Respect Cultural Differences
Due to the long-lasting effects of Cold War animosity, Americans tend to have a lot of misconceptions about Russians and their history & culture. Do some research in advance so you know what to expect and you know how to behave respectfully.
A couple of examples are that Russian men don’t wear beards, so male members of your party should be sure to shave, and women are expected to wear head coverings inside churches. There are superstitions you’ll want to follow as well (for example, if you whistle indoors, you might find yourself dealing with a worried-and-well-meaning babushka who thinks you’re going to lose all your money.)
Your research will also prime you for a greater appreciation of the things you’ll encounter on your trip. World War II memorials in particular are moving and humbling beyond description once you’ve learned about the heroism and sacrifice of Russian soldiers and civilians on a truly staggering scale.
10. Don’t Be Afraid!
A. A. Ford is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri. She is currently a student majoring in English and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. In addition to her articles for Society 19, Ford is known for her poetry and fiction, which can be found at https://aafordstories.wordpress.com/. In her free time, she loves directing stage theater, spending time with her friends and family, and trying her best to glorify God by her life.