A month in Russia isn’t a very long time given it’s the biggest country in the world. But we thought we’d sum up our latest handful of blogs by summarising our top ten things to see or do and our top ten tips to know before you go. So here they are and not surprisingly, they feature craft beer.
Top 10 ways to spend your money and time
1. Saint Petersburg
Just…all of it. Visiting in winter was great but we’d love to go back for the famous White Nights. The best time to experience eternal daylight is from June 11th to July 2nd and we can’t think of a better city in which to experience it.
2. The Hermitage and Winter Palace
Yes we know it’s in Saint Petersburg but it deserves special mention for it’s outstanding examples of opulent Russian interiors, art collection and historical artifacts. Don’t miss the lower floors where you’ll find excellent displays of Siberian and Eurasian antiquities, and rooms covering Central Asia and the Caucasus.
3. Visiting Kazan in the Republic of Tatarstan
Europe’s largest mosque, architecture that wouldn’t be out of place in Europe, the eclectic, brightly painted and never finished Temple of All Religions and the best Kremlin we saw in our entire time in Russia. Not to mention the local Tatar people who we found super friendly.
4. The Epiphany
Taking the opportunity to prove you’re as crazy as the Russians by jumping in a frozen river for the Epiphany, celebrating the baptism of Jesus from the 19th to 21st January each year. Ask the locals where it’s going down and if you’re lucky like us you’ll be invited along for the ride. The cold only lasts a little while before the post swim vodka takes effect.
5. Kalyazin Flooded Belfry
There’s something beautiful about standing alone on a frozen river as the stars disappear and the sun rises to reveal the belfry of a long ago submerged church spearing through the ice. A unique experience to say the least, especially when it’s -25C degrees.
6. Soviet Canteen style dining
If you’ve read any of our Russian blogs you’ll know we’re suckers for a bit of Stolovaya otherwise known as the Soviet Canteen. From soups to salads, meat, veggie dishes, cakes, desserts, everything laid out for you to pick and choose your perfect meal. Our favourites were My-My, a chain found all over Moscow, Cafe Alan Ash (ul. Vladimira Kulagina, 1, 2 этаж) in Kazan and Stolovaya #1 (Izmaylovskiy pr., 5) in Saint Petersburg. Or just keep your eyes peeled for a Stolovaya sign and eat your fill for just a couple of dollars. Bargain.
7. Indulging in Russian craft beer
Russia, like most of the world, is experience a craft beer revolution. We tried our fair share and our favourites for both selection and atmosphere were Beer Geek (ul. Rubinshteyna, 2/45) in Saint Petersburg, Rules Taproom (Starovagankovskiy per., 19) in Moscow, Drink Craft (Bauman St, 25) in Kazan, Hophead (Rozhdestvenskaya St, 8Б) and Bukowski Bar (Ilyinskaya St, 53) in Nizhny Novgorod and Nora Craft Beer Pub (Myasnitsnitskaya ulitsa 47) in Volgograd.
8. Moscow’s extravagant metro stations
While it sounds very cliché Moscow’s metro stations are amazing. Some of the best can be found along the Circular Line including Novoslobodskaya, Komsomolskaya and Prospekt Mira.
9. Riding Plastkart on the overnight/long distance trains
While most people will suggest you ride in a second class 4-berth cabin we found them too stuffy with the door closed all night. Instead we preferred to ride in the 3rd class open carriage. Booking a top and bottom bunk as a couple (or a bottom as a single) will usually allow you to store valuables in a closed box beneath the lower bed. Bedding is provided, hot water is free and people will know you’re not from here and will mostly likely invite you to drink, smoke or chat with them. A great way to meet the locals and travel as they do while saving some money along the way.
10. Christmas lights
If there’s something the Russian’s know how to do well it’s Christmas lights. Visiting in winter might not be enticing for everybody with it’s subzero temperatures but there’s something romantic about taking an afternoon stroll down the brightly lit Nevsky Prospekt as snow blankets a festive Saint Petersburg or walking through a tunnel of lights along Moscow’s Tverskoy Boulervard.
Top 10 tips to stop you losing your mind
1. Free WiFi on the go
McDonalds and Starbucks, like everywhere, have free WiFi though you’ll need a vaild phone number, which we don’t. Making one up didn’t work either as most of the ones we tried were already registered. Your best bet is a WiFi zone, found in some cities, or an independent coffee shop or bar.
2. Long distance and overnight trains
Polstkart (or 3rd class) is open, cheaper and less stuffy, though beds are shorter. If you’re tall (like Matt) this can mean you get your feet bumped by people moving along the corridor during the night. You can avoid this by choosing a corridor bed though you’ll get less privacy. As noted above we found 3rd class to be absolutely fine and much more sociable. It can get uncomfortably hot in 2nd class and 1st class can be very expensive though beds are longer as there are no beds along the corridor. Take your own cup, spork tea and coffee as hot water is free.
3. Money money money
If you’re on a short trip bring as much money as you think you’ll need in EUR, USD or other hard currency and exchange it. Russian banks will only give foreigners cards a max of 10,000 Rubles a hit (GBP£100 at time of writing). If you can use you credit card for all purchases to avoid a plethora of ATM fees.
4. Metro cards
Get a prepaid metro card in Saint Petersburg and Moscow when you arrive. It will save you queuing for paper tickets or tokens every time. Most of the time one card will be topped up and can be used by more than one person at a time. They’re easy enough to purchase though we didn’t use all of our trips in St Petes as we walked almost everywhere.
5. Winter dress sense
Pack so you can double or triple layer if visiting in winter. Thin socks under thick ones, thermals under jeans, thin gloves under thick ones, singlets under tshirst under jackets etc. It got to -25 while we were in Moscow and by layering you allow room to peel layers off if the mercury rises. You can buy cheap wool innersoles in a lot of the underpasses in most of Russia’s cities, these are great if your shoes have thin soles as they’ll put another layers between your feet and the frozen pavement.
6. Learn the Cyrillic alphabet
Learning at least some of the alphabet will make your life a little less complicated. You can print off a cheat sheet from the internet or if you’re travelling for a longer period of time buy a phrase book (even a second hand one!). Being able to write down your destination city in Russian to hand to the bus or train station ticket desk rather than try to pronounce long winded names helps everybody, including the ticket lady!
7. Choosing accommodation
Do be aware that in many Russian hostels there are longterm dwellers that can be hit or miss, sometimes much older men living in dorm rooms. In Moscow we had two men between 45 – 55 in our 10-bed dorm that were so bad we had to ask to change rooms. They tend to act like they own the place. This can create a strange and unwelcoming vibe that’s best avoided. Do your research and read other travellers recent reviews.
8. Be nice to the right people
It pays to be nice to the security and front desk guys at your accommodation. They will swap rooms for you if you’re not happy (see above), discount you on washing and help you with your bags, etc. Take the time to learn their name and have a chat, especially if you’re staying more than one night.
9. Security checks
Allow time for x-raying of your baggage at all metro and train stations. Russia have increased their security due to terrorist threats and we were scanned every time we entered a station.
10. Buy your train tickets ahead of time
Tickets are generally cheaper if booked before the day of travel. You can either buy online on RZD’s website or at the ticket counter at the departing train station.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our Russian top 10, there’s plenty more great things to see, experience, eat and drink in Russia but these were our favourites. Feel free to leave a comment or question below about your top tips for visiting Russia.
Check out some of our Russian blogs for more info on the cities we’ve visited or click on any of the images above to view our photos on Flickr.