Travel to Russia

St Basil's Cathedral

Before I could consider any travel to Russia, I first had to get through the visa application process. When I went to the Russian Embassy, they handed me an iPad. One part of the form requested that I enter all countries that I had visited in the past 10 years. I started to do so and it had been about 45 minutes when the iPad crashed. The lady then instructed me to just “list a few countries” and that would be fine. It was a funny and frustrating start to my travel planning!

Luckily, my friends Fred and Katia were living in Moscow at the time. They were a great source of advice, helping me to figure out the required letter of invitation and plan my trip. I also stayed at their apartment in Moscow and they showed me around. It was a lot of fun and made the trip so enjoyable! Otherwise, I may have found Moscow a bit intimidating. People did not seem very friendly and it is a large city to navigate.

In contrast, Saint Petersburg seemed a lot more tourist-friendly. I was on my own there and it was easy to get around. In fact, I even took the public train to visit a palace outside the city. I do recommend visiting both cities for the contrast in architecture and atmosphere.

This post is a short guide based on my travel to Russia, and a whirlwind visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg over five days.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow
Inside the Hermitage
Inside the Hermitage

Highlights

  • St Basil’s Cathedral
  • Red Square
  • The Kremlin- book a ticket in advance
  • Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the Kremlin
  • Gum Department Store
  • Tomb of Lenin
  • Look out for interesting commemorative plaques and statues in residential areas
  • Bolshoi Theatre
  • TACC building from the 1960s
  • Fountains in Alexander Gardens
  • Patriarch Pond
  • Karl Marx Statue -solid rock
  • The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
  • Gorky Park
  • State Tretyakov Art Gallery
  • Seven Sisters, a group of seven skyscrapers in Moscow designed in the Stalinist style
  • Wander around the canals of Saint Petersburg
  • The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood- be sure to go inside
  • The Hermitage
  • St. Isaac’s Cathedral- climb up for the view
  • Peter and Paul Cathedral and Fortress
  • Peterhof Palace and fountains
  • Catherine Palace with the Amber room

Before you go

  • Most likely you will need a visa to visit Russia so read your country-specific guidance. Also leave plenty of time for the process
  • You will likely also need a letter of invitation or tourist voucher, which can be ordered from a company such as Just Go Russia
  • Alert your credit card company of the dates you will be in Russia, otherwise you may find that your credit card gets blocked quickly due to potential fraud alerts
  • Most writing is in Cyrillic so it is useful to have a translator app to hand such as GoogleTranslate. The camera you can point at signs and menus is especially helpful! Many people, especially in Moscow, do not speak English.
  • There are many typically Russian foods, and I suggest you try a mix of the casual and more formal types of restaurants. You can get dumplings and blinis (pancakes, some that come with caviar) as fast food. Then dishes such as beef stroganoff can be found at many restaurants.
Admiralteyskaya Metro Station, Moscow
Admiralteyskaya Metro Station, Moscow
Suburban train from Saint Petersburg to Stantsiya Tsarskoye Selo
Suburban train from Saint Petersburg to Stantsiya Tsarskoye Selo to see Catherine Palace
Hydrofoil boat to Peterhof Palace
Hydrofoil boat to Peterhof Palace

Transport

  • From Paris to Moscow, I flew on Aeroflot despite friends warning me that it may not be the safest airline. Surprisingly, the flight was less than four hours. All went smoothly and I arrived in the middle of the night in Moscow. Luckily, my friend arranged a taxi to pick me up with a sign at the airport, and deliver me to their house. The driver did not speak English but was friendly and helpful.
  • Getting around Moscow was easy on foot and also using the metro. I just had to get used to reading the station signs in Cyrillic.
  • From Moscow to Saint Petersburg, I flew on the one hour Aeroflot flight. Travel time by taxi to the city centre is about 30 minutes.
  • In Saint Petersburg, I also walked a lot and took the metro, which had signs in English and Cyrillic. I also took the hydrofoil boat to Peterhof Palace and the commuter train 2 to Stantsiya Tsarskoye Selo to see the Catherine Palace.

Accommodation

  • In Moscow, I stayed with my friends at their apartment so am unable to recommend a specific hotel. However, I would recommend to stay somewhere central so you can walk to see the sights and use the metro. I was staying near the Patriarch’s Ponds, which was a 30 minute walk to Red Square. There are lots of things to see on the way and the streets are easy to follow.
  • For St Petersburg, I found accommodation on Booking.com at Mini-Hotel Pride. It is now called Guesthouse Pride. Staff were friendly and welcoming. The room was spacious and clean, with an ensuite bathroom. The location is very central and walkable to many of the main sights. In general, the area also felt very safe for walking.
Catherine Palace
Catherine Palace
One of the Seven Sisters buildings, Moscow
One of the Seven Sisters buildings, Moscow
Cathedral Square in the Kremlin
Cathedral Square in the Kremlin

Currency

The currency is the Russian ruble. As of February 2022, one British pound is equal to more than 103 rubles.

I recommend to check the currency conversion just before you leave as this fluctuates

Russia Rubles
Russia Rubles
View of the square from the Hermitage
View of the square from the Hermitage
Peterof Palace and fountains
Peterof Palace and fountains
Gorky Park
Gorky Park
Lunch at the Literary Cafe, Saint Petersburg
Lunch at the Literary Cafe, Saint Petersburg- Aubergine caviar and Pelmeni (dumplings)
Dinner at Palkin - Goose pie
Dinner at Palkin – Goose pie
Moscow Mule at Delicatessen
Moscow Mule at Delicatessen
Borscht (beetroot) soup and bread at Taras Bulba
Borscht (beetroot) soup and bread at Taras Bulba
Dinner at Palkin - sorbet with an impressive cloud of liquid nitrogen
Dinner at Palkin – sorbet with an impressive cloud of liquid nitrogen

Food

Luckily I was staying with friends in Moscow so I had breakfasts there and also tried some local salted fish!

My first meal out was for lunch at Ugolek, a trendy industrial themed restaurant-bar. The menu had a variety of European food and everything was tasty.

We had a fun dinner underground at Delicatessen. The entrance would be easy to miss. I don’t remember what we ate but I do remember having the Moscow Mule cocktails! Every time you order one you can ring a bell.

Taras Bulba Russian Restaurant was very traditional in its decor and food. I enjoyed trying kvass, bread with fat spread, borscht and cabbage rolls. Kvass is a type of malt drink and borsct is the well-known beet soup. Lots of food!

My first meal in Saint Petersburg was at the Literary Cafe. It is a very classy yet still informal restaurant. I tried that Aubergine caviar and Pelmeni (dumplings) which were delicious. The service was very attentive and smooth.

The fanciest meal of my trip was at Palkin. It is classy and traditional, with excellent food and service. I felt like I was at a Michelin-star restaurant but the prices were very good value. The meal started with an amuse bouche caviar and cream, followed by herring mousse. The palate-cleansing sorbet was served in an impressive cloud of liquid nitrogen. Then, I had a goose pie for the main course, with beautifully decorated pastry. Finally, the impressive dessert was white chocolate and rooibos cream served with pink pepper ice cream. An excellent culinary experience!

Of course I had to try beef stroganoff, which originated in 19th century Russia. The Stroganoff Steakhouse was a great find and the portions were huge!

Next time I visit I will definitely try the Russian Salad. I forgot to try that while in Russia, but now I’ve made it at home from a recipe sent to me by a friend from Moscow.

Cabbage rolls at Taras Bulba
Cabbage rolls at Taras Bulba
Dinner at Palkin - white chocolate and rooibos cream served with pink pepper ice cream
Dinner at Palkin – white chocolate and rooibos cream served with pink pepper ice cream
Beef Stroganoff at Stroganoff Steak House
Beef Stroganoff at Stroganoff Steak House

FAQs

Q: Do I need a tour guide?

A: No, not for the big cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg. However to explore sights outside of the city, a tour guide and transport would be useful.

Q: Do people speak English?

A: In Moscow, I found that many people did not speak English. Also, most signs are in Cyrillic so I suggest you use a translator app such as GoogleTranslate. In Saint Petersburg, more people spoke English because there were many tourists around.

Q: Can I travel solo?

A: Yes it is possible to travel solo. You should stay alert as there can be some scams that target tourists for thefts.

Q: How easy is it to send postcards? It was easy to find postcards in tourist shops. For the post office, I luckily had my Russian-speaking friends with me. However, I think I could have managed with a translator app. The post boxes are very colourful!

A: See Sending Postcards from Abroad for details on cost and the time it took to reach the USA.

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