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Travelling to Russia: Panda’s Guide to a memorable trip

April 15, 2021 7 Comments

Have you ever considered travelling to Russia? Not many people have. And even less of them have been women of colour travelling wanting to travel solo. But that’s actually a shame because I think Russia is an incredible must-see destination. Bonus; it’s safe, easy to navigate and very affordable! Spread over two continents and bordering 14 countries, Russia is a unique combination of cultures and influences making it a place everyone should travel to at least once. 

Many people have preconceived notions about travelling to Russia; there’s nothing to see, the people are rude or that it’s not welcoming to tourists. In this blog post I aim to debunk those myths and illustrate to you exactly why you need to consider travelling to Russia as soon as you’re able to!

Note: The flights, accommodation and activities mentioned in this post were NOT sponsored/discounted/gifted.

First it’s time for a brief PPG (Panda’s Progressive Geography) lesson!

In the 1550s, Muscovite ruler Ivan IV became Russia’s first tsar after driving the Mongols out of Kiev and unifying the region. In 1682, Peter the Great became Tsar at the age of ten and for 42 years worked to make Russia more modern.

In 1917, Russians unhappy with their government overthrew the Tsar and formed an elected government. Just a few months later though, a communist group called the Bolsheviks seized power. Their leader, Vladimir Lenin, created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) from Russia and 11 other countries.

The U.S.S.R. fought on the side of the United States in World War II, but relations between the two powers and their allies became strained soon after the war ended in 1945. These tensions led to the Cold War, but in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and many of its member nations declared independence. The remaining area became the country of Russia.

Of course this is a general overview of history and if you want to read more, I recommend this informative link. The currency of Russia is the Russian Ruble and the economy is based on a vast supply of natural resources, including oil, coal, iron ore, gold, and aluminum. Russia is so large that it has 11 different time zones, more than any other country in the world!

Preparing for travelling to Russia

Moscow is Russia’s capital city and it has 3 international airports: Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO), Moscow Domodedovo Airport (DME) and Moscow Vnukovo Airport (VKO). Which one you fly into depends on your airline. You will most likely land in Moscow and transfer to a domestic flight if you’re heading elsewhere.

During this time, Russia has many rules regulating which countries are allowed entry. Please consult this guide I wrote based on my experience travelling to Russia in April 2021 about who is allowed, what the entry requirements are and what documents are needed.

South Africans do not require a visa when travelling to Russia so I am unable to offer any advice or experience on this topic.

Where to stay?

In Moscow I stayed in a centrally located hotel called Senator Hotel chosen primarily for its fantastic location (10 minutes walk to the Red Square) and its proximity to the metro, stores & restaurants. There are cheaper options, I just wanted the convenience of being close to things. 

Cost: 270QAR/74USD/R1083 per night

Closest metro station: Lubyanka (exit 5)

In St. Petersburg, I stayed at the Golden Triangle Hotel which was really lovely. Another great location, helpful staff and close to all major tourist sites but their rooms were tiny.

Cost: 256QAR/70USD/R1026 per night (including breakfast)

Closest metro station: Nevsky Prospekt (exit 1)

How to get around in  the cities?

When travelling to Russia you can count on efficient public transportation systems including underground metro systems which are pretty simple to use (once you get the hang of them). 

St. Petersburg is extremely walkable and if you stay in a central location (where most of the hotels are) you will probably be able to walk to most things.

The Moscow metro is truly one of the most enjoyable things about the city and is an integral part of Moscow’s history. The first subway line in Moscow appeared in 1935. The underground lines were under construction ever since, with no interruption throughout the war period in the 40s when the metro stations served as the safest bomb shelters in the city. Presently Moscow metro has one of the longest and broad networks of underground lines in the world. It consists of 11 lines (over 260 km long) with 160 stations. Daily up to 10 million passengers use the metro trains for traveling around the city. 

Both metros operate from around 5:35 am – 00:00 but check on a day to day basis especially for line closures or delays. Overall though, the trains come every 3 minutes and are very reliable. 

YOU DO NOT NEED TO READ RUSSIAN TO USE THE METRO, all the signs are in Russian and English. Please ignore outdated information on the internet saying otherwise. 

The Moscow and St Petersburg metro systems have 2 different cards but work the same way. If you plan on using the metro a lot (I did), purchase a Troika card. You can transfer as many times as you need to but only pay a set fee per ride (60RUB without the card and 42RUB with the card). The metro is not suitable for those with mobility issues as there are many staircases to climb and extensive distances to be walked. For more information I suggest this website.

What to see in Moscow?

The Red Square

Of course, your first stop will be to admire and marvel at the beauty of the buildings in the Red Square. It’s the images you had in mind when thinking of travelling to Russia. This is where you can take your obligatory iconic photos of St. Basil’s Cathedral. You can also enter The Kremlin and go inside all the churches and buildings in the complex but I elected not to do so due to time constraints. If you want photos without people in them, your best bet is to go around 7:30am before everything opens! The streets surrounding the department store Gum are also very picturesque and they have delicate light arrangements giving the area a magical atmosphere. Look out for murals and installations as you wander around! 

Moscow Business District

An unusual spot to list on an itinerary but if you love a good skyline view then this place in Moscow is the best to view it. All you need to do is disembark at Vystavochnaya Metro Station, walk across Bagration Bridge and you’ll have views for days across the water. It’s quiet here so you can take photos at any time of day!

Izmailovo Kremlin

I loved, LOVED, LOVED this vibrant market with its fairytale themed buildings! Not only is it picturesque, they sell absolutely beautiful crafts here at very reasonable prices. There’s always a place called ‘instastreet’ with different backdrops that you can use for your photos. Did I mention that there is street art too? It’s free to visit Izmailovo Kremlin and you can easily walk there from Partizanskaya Metro Station.

Artplay

This is a cluster of buildings converted from being factories into art galleries, shops, restaurants and exhibition halls. They have many exhibitions and programs that you may want to check out; at the time when I went, I managed to find a Salvador Dali immersive art experience. It’s also a great place to snap photos as there are many murals on the walls. The best way to get here is to take a taxi using the Yandex Go app. 

Arbat Street

A very quirky area with this particular street aimed at tourists. There’s live music, souvenir shops and an abundance of restaurants in the area. The souvenirs here are more expensive than at Izmailovo Kremlin but you can pay with your credit cards in the stores here. A great spot to wander around in the evening to enjoy the atmosphere.

The Atrium

I stumbled upon this by accident when I exited Kievsky Railway station upon getting back to Moscow from St. Petersburg. There are some great art pieces on the side of this mall if you’d like to admire them!

Metro Stations

The metro stations in Moscow definitely deserve their own mention.Lined with marble and decorated with chandeliers, intricate mosaic artworks, heroic statues and gilded trimmings, the Moscow Metro stations are not merely decorated; they are works of art. It’s not a problem to take photos in them either! My favourites were Komsomolskaya metro station, Novoslobodskaya metro station & Arbatskaya Station. Remember that the metro station doubled up as bomb shelters during WW2 so they’re really deep underground and can require a lot of walking to get to the platform. This is a great site to explore more of the most beautiful metro stations in Moscow.

How to get between Moscow & St. Petersburg?

I found the high speed Sapsan train to be the most convenient way to travel between Moscow & St. Petersburg. While domestic flights are inexpensive, the airports are far out of the city whereas the train stations are centrally located so this actually saved me effort and time. I bought my tickets on this website prior to my departure. This website is the official one and can be used in English. This website outlines the different options for travelling between Moscow & St. Petersburg so you can make the decision that is best for you.

What to see in St. Petersburg?

Hermitage Museum

I’ll preface this by saying that I am not and may never be a museum person. I want to be but I just lose interest after a while. However Hermitage is as close as I could get to being converted into a museum admirer (temporarily at least). The Hermitage Museum is home to three million artworks of which just 60,000 are on display to the public. That’s  about 24 kilometres of prestigious artefacts and the world’s largest collection of paintings with 16,000 canvasses such as Rembrandt, Picasso, Cézanne, Gauguin and Matisse. Now don’t worry if you are clueless about art- like me. The museum itself has stunning architecture and is well worth the 2 hours you will spend increasing your step count. If you do nothing else in St. Petersburg, make sure to visit Hermitage! If you’re interested in further reading about the architecture and art pieces, visit this site.

St. Petersburg Mosque

If anything drew me to Russia, it was the iconic images of people standing in front of St. Petersburg Mosque. I don’t know why but this invoked a curiosity in me to see this place that was not known for its Islamice architecture. Now I went to this mosque pretty early in the morning, hoping to catch it between prayer times but when I  got there it was completely shut. I am not sure if there was a way to enter that I missed or it was closed due to the time/covid. Either way you can still take a lovely photo of the impressive exterior! 

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is filled floor to ceiling (and ceiling to ceiling) with beautiful mosaics. While today it serves primarily as a museum or gallery of this mosaic work, it was originally constructed at the end of the 19th century to honor Czar Alexander II whom anarchists fatally wounded on the spot where the church now stands (so now you know whose blood was spilled there). When you go, look up and walk around slowly to take it all in. It’s very impressive! Visiting here shouldn’t take you more than an hour though as it’s extremely small.

Russian State Museum

The State Russian Museum became the first state museum of Russian fine art. It was founded in 1895 in St Petersburg by the decree of the last Russian Emperor Nicholas II. To be honest I only went here because it was a Monday and in winter that meant everything else was closed. But it was a nice way to spend an afternoon, looking at all the impressive and making up funny captions for them in my head. The ceilings are very pretty so if you do visit, remember to look up!

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Despite the unimpressive exterior this is yet another stunning place of worship in Russia. The interior is magnificent with giant columns & gold.  Chandeliers inside illuminate the awe-inspiring Russian paintings decorating the Cathedral and the central dome is captivating when viewed from inside. You can also buy a separate ticket to go to the top of the dome but it was bitterly cold and too windy for me to enjoy this in winter. It’s probably much nicer in summer!

Many people put off travelling to Russia thinking it is too far away, too different from their culture, or is not as welcoming to tourists as other countries.

To entice you to visit Russia, all it takes is a little inspiration. Great reasons for visiting include the rich history, famous art and architecture, and the colourful and fascinating culture. Food & friendly folks were a major bonus for me! I hope that this blog post serves two purposes- to inspire you to put Russia on your travel destinations list and also, to provide you with the tools to plan your trip. 

You don’t need an expensive tour operator. You don’t need a translator. You don/t need to be afraid. Russia is more than the villainous land portrayed in American dramas. Its wondrous, friendly and not that difficult to figure out. 

Lastly, I have a wealth of information on my Instagram especially in the Russia highlight. Do have a look. If you enjoyed this post, please pin it using the pin below:

QUICK QUESTIONS:

HOW LONG SHOULD I GO FOR?

I think you could stay in Russia for months and never scratch the surface! I do wish I had spent more time in St Petersburg as palaces & museums are not open everyday in winter so I didn’t quite get to see all that I wanted to. Spare as much time as you can when visiting!

SHOULD I PURCHASE A SIM CARD?

If you’re planning to take taxis everywhere then I strongly recommend buying a sim card to load data on. This will help you to use Yandex Go (the Uber of Russia). I didn’t buy a sim and just accessed wifi in public areas which served me just fine as well.

DID YOU APPLY FOR A VISA?

I did not require a visa as South Africans are exempt from needing a visa to travel to Russia. Consult your nearest Russian diplomatic mission to ask about your nationality. 

Were people friendly and did they speak English?

Yes, no & maybe! So I found that people were helpful if you approached them politely and asked for help. Although many were not able to speak English, they did try their best to assist me. For the most part, I was able to get by with hand gestures & Google Translate. Many other Russians were excited to see someone so obviously foreign and struck up conversations with me in English which I enjoyed. There were more English speakers in St. Petersburg than Moscow.

DID YOU THINK THIS TRIP WOULD BE SUITABLE FOR KIDS?

I personally have no experience traveling with children so I can’t be sure what they would like. However my itinerary was a lot of museums, art galleries & churches which may not entertain young children. I would advise doing research into family friendly activities if planning to travel with young children. 

Have you visited Russia? Or are you thinking of travelling to Russia? Let me know in the comments below!!

expatpanda

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7 Comments

  • winteroseca April 15, 2021 at 6:18 pm

    Russia is truly an amazing culture! It is a shame though that they are so close-minded

    • expatpanda April 19, 2021 at 5:18 pm

      Seems like a bit of a generalisation… I also don’t think the government is representative of people in Russia 🤷🏾‍♀️

      • winteroseca April 19, 2021 at 5:42 pm

        Actually, my comment comes from the fact I grew up around many different Russians. I became fluent in their language and learned their culture. Some of them openly talked about how racism and homophobia are rampant in Russia and they moved to another country to get away. They said themselves they had a lot of bad habits to unlearn because the culture didn’t allow people to learn what was not acceptable. Other Russians I knew never really got over that close-minded attitude. Just stating some facts I know about the culture

        • expatpanda April 19, 2021 at 6:04 pm

          Thanks for sharing. I do hope that they- like all countries and many cultures- can unlearn and dismantle toxic norms 😔

          • winteroseca April 19, 2021 at 6:08 pm

            Definitely. I mean, there are some things about Russia that are genuinely unique and awesome and I hope that can be harnessed more

  • Shannon April 20, 2021 at 12:37 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post! You’ve put Russia firmly on my must-visit list!

    • expatpanda April 25, 2021 at 11:24 am

      Yay I’m so happy to hear that 💚

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