A lot of people go on tours through Russia because the tour company usually sorts out a Russian visa for you. Although this does save yourself the hassle of obtaining a visa we found it a lot cheaper if you go your own way through Russia. No it’s not that daunting, and it can be very cheap (we did it on $50 AUD a day per person – including accomodation).
Start this process at least a month out before going to Russia.
- Book all your hostels and transport in and out of Russia (it’s a good idea to book your internal transport between cities too)
- Get a visa invitation letter – most hostels have a link to a company they recommend to obtain visa invitations (we went through this company – http://www.bpltech.pro/guest_form/add/a2795e71e93281bb04fd5e93c8bdae94/1/start/english#bplformtopiframewindow)
- Apply for the visa – this requires going to this website – https://visa.kdmid.ru/PetitionChoice.aspx – filling out the lengthy application, then you’ve got to drop that form off or send it into the Russian Consulate or Embassy along with your passport and a passport photo of yourself. If you drop it off in person, you can collect your visa 2 weeks later.
The visa invitation costs around $40 AUD and the actual visa costs $150.
- Probably a bit of an obvious one but the language barrier can be quite difficult. Not so much in Saint Petersburg but in Moscow and other cities and towns not many people speak English. It’s worth even printing off an English translation of the Russian (Cyrillic). Learn a few words (hello, please and thank you) and get used to pointing at things and doing charades.
- Free Walking Tours – They have these in most major cities (including Moscow and Saint Petersburg). Yes they are completely FREE – you usually just have to register online, but even if you don’t it’s alright if you just rock up to the meeting spot at the designated time. The tour guides don’t ask for money but tips (and good reviews!) are encouraged.
- Metro – The easiest way to get around in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. One trip is 50 RUB in Moscow ($1 AUD) and 35 RUB in Saint Petersburg (73 cents AUD).
- Cheap Russian Vodka and Russian Sparkling Wine – need I say more! You’re in Russia, get amongst their ridiculously cheap vodka and sparkling wine.
We caught trains between cities, and definitely recommend it as a good, reliable and mostly comfortable option. We avoided the high speed trains (so handy and convenient, but expensive), and instead opted for the overnight trains, or more basic long distance trains. On the overnight train (between Moscow and Veliky Novgorod) we travelled 3rd class, or Platzkart, which is an open dormitory style sleeper cart. It had good security (in that you can put your bag in a container under your seat/bed, or high above you if you’re in the top bunk), and was pretty comfortable. The biggest thing that you have to get used to is that you quite literally sleep amongst 54 other strangers (but hey, all part of the fun, right?) On the other trains we had seated tickets as they were shorter trips, and we had no problems at all.
- Check out: Free Walking Tour – a great way to see the highlights of this massive city and get a crash course in it’s history. The Red Square – so much to see, lots of photo opportunities. St Basil’s Cathedral – we didn’t go inside, but seeing outside is still amazing. The Kremlin – worth the fee, as there’s plenty to see inside. Lenin’s Mausoleum – it’s free, and very eery. It’s a pilgrimage for many Russian people. GUM Department Store – even the lights outside at night are stunning. Central Children’s Store on Lubyanka (CDM) – we stumbled across this, but it has a fantastic viewing platform from the roof. Gorky Park – on the other side of the river, you could walk for hours through this amazing public space. Stalin High Rises – see how many you can find. Novodevichy Cemetery – we wish we knew the Cyrillic alphabet for this one, as we couldn’t read the headstones, but it is a beautiful cemetery, and there are many famous playwrights, poets, astronauts, etc. buried there.
- Eat at: Tepemok – it’s a Russian fast food restaurant that specialises in Russian Bliny, and was delicious. They also have an English menu, and the staff were helpful. Kamchatka – an awesome Soviet style bar (underground) with a great atmosphere. The waitress was really accomodating – showed us what the Cyrillic text for beer was, and suggested hot dogs for us to try. They even have squat toilets! Stolovaya 57 – located upstairs in the GUM department store. It’s a Soviet style canteen, which is super cheap, and easy to order food because you can always just point at what you want.
- We stayed at: GoodMood Hostel which was in a fairly central location, and was close to lots of fast food style places to eat, and supermarkets etc. The facilities were great – a big modern kitchen, nice and cozy lounge area, and bunk beds which had curtains across them (so were very private). The bedroom (8 bed dorm) was pretty stuffy, but had great storage, and we were generally pretty comfortable. One thing to note, is it is pretty hard to find, because there is only a tiny sign next to the front door. The staff were helpful, but weren’t overly friendly – maybe this is more due to Russian culture/customs, but we really noticed the difference between Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
- Watch out for: – When buying bottled water (we only drank bottled) try and work out which is sparkling, and which is still! (НЕГАЗИРОВАННАЯ – means still water). When buying fruit/vegetables from a supermarket, you need to weigh it and print out a sticker for it before taking it to the counter.
- Check out: The Novgorod Kremlin – it’s not very big and it’s the main attraction in the town. There are interesting stories around the history of the Kremlin, as Novgorod is considered the birthplace of Russia. Yaroslav’s Court – and the surrounding churches are on the other side of the river from the Kremlin.
- Eat at: Cafe At Sennaya – if you want authentic Russian cuisine here’s the place to go, it’s cheap as well.
- We stayed at: Yaroslav Hostel – just across from Yaroslav’s Court so just out of the centre of town. Very basic hostel but fairly cheap.
- Watch out for: The smaller the city/town, the less people speak English and because Veliky Novgorod only has a population of about 250,000 NO ONE speaks English. It was a great place to see a different part of Russia, a different lifestyle to the big cities, and it is a very picturesque little town – however, it’s not a necessary stop if you don’t have much time. Also wouldn’t suggest staying more than one night, unless you wanted some down time. And make sure you allow enough time to get back to the train station for your train out – trains run like clockwork in Russia, IT WILL NOT BE DELAYED.
- Check out: The Hermitage and Winter Palace – beautiful from the outside, even more beautiful from the inside. Be warned though, it is MASSIVE. Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds, and just take in as much as you can. You could spend all day there if you wanted to, the collection is incredible. One thing we didn’t know is that there is a collection of modern art across the Square (and your ticket gets you in for no extra charge). Would’ve loved to have visited there as well if we had known. The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood – If you are going to pay entry to any church in Russia, this is the one to do. The difference is that most of the churches are covered in beautiful painted frescoes (always amazing), but this one is floor to ceiling mosaic. It is breathtaking. I could’ve sat there for hours, but the crowds are also overwhelming. Opening of Drawbridges – the bridges across the river all open at approximately 1:25am. They are lit up, and the edges of the river are absolutely packed with people. It was quite cool to watch, especially because so many people were there – we didn’t quite get why everyone was so excited by it! Kazan Church – this one has free entry, and from the outside is based on the Vatican. Kuntskamera Museum – there is a room in this museum for the “mutants and monsters” that Peter the Great collected. It is weird – interesting and kind of cool at first, but there are so many. We’ll let you decide. The Strelka – the area just across the Neva river, which has a great view back to the city. Nevsky Prospect – the main street of Saint Petersburg. So much to look at!
- Eat at: Stolovaya, near Moskovsky Railway Station – we ate at these Soviet style canteens everywhere. They are so cheap, and great for loading up your plate with pastries, and wrapping them up to take away for a snack/lunch later. Soviet Apartment Restaurant Cafe, on Nevsky Prospect – great, cheap Soviet style food. Must do in Russia!
- We stayed at: Soul Kitchen Hostel – absolutely the most amazing hostel. Where can we begin? This place is out of this world, and we cannot recommend it highly enough. To start with, when you arrive, the receptionists welcome you as though they are so excited that you have come, and they can’t wait to show you around. We felt so welcome, and immediately at ease. We stayed in an 8 bed dorm that had DOUBLE BUNK BEDS! As a couple, we still paid for 2 beds, but when staying in shared dorms for most of our trip, this was like Christmas. Our room also had an ensuite – separate shower and toilet, only shared amongst 8 people. The kitchen was massive and well equipped for self catering, the lounge was super comfy, and had a gigantic movie screen which was often used. There was a separate lounge with computers and an old-school soviet foosbal game, and a beautiful balcony off it – great for taking in the late sunsets over a bottle of Russian sparkling! Soul Kitchen also hosted 2 cooking nights whilst we were there, which were lots of fun – great for meeting new people, and extra great because it’s a free dinner! We absolutely loved this hostel, and now compare every place we stay at to it – they really do set the bar high.
- Watch out for: The Vodka Museum – we were excited to go here, but it’s really not worth it. We paid for an audio tour, but quite honestly it was pretty boring. It’s only two rooms, and basically isn’t worth the price. Do some good research before you decide to go to Peterhoff – from what we heard the best way would be to get the bus there, and the Hydrofoil back. We also heard that you pay for entry to the gardens, and then again for entry to the first area of the palace, and then again for entry to the next area, etc. Watch out for drawbridges opening at 1:25am – if you’re on the wrong side, you’re in trouble! They don’t close again completely until about 5am. On the metro in Saint Petersburg, the cheapest option is to buy the tokens from the ticket window – you don’t save money by buying a card.
A Final Word
Russia was an amazing place to start our trip. If we did it again we would spend more time in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. It is definitely a culture shock and entirely different from Australia – but it is also an incredible experience. It’s not for the faint hearted – the language and cultural barrier is definitely a challenge. Once we got used to it though, we embraced it! Get out of your comfort zone!