Planning a Trip to Russia: practical advice, health,
customs regulations, and more...
is the largest country on Earth. Sweeping across the eastern part of Europe, from the Gulf of Finland in the north, and across the wide north Asian plain to the Pacific Ocean, it is a land that consists of contrasts that match the great expanse of terrain.
Spanning a total of 17,075,200 kilometers (almost twice the size of the United States), the western and southern parts of Russia consists of rolling hills and flat plains.
To the far south lie the Caucasus Mountains, near the border of Chechnya. A second range of low mountains (Ural) is located near the designated border between the two continents of Europe and Asia. The land between the mountain ranges includes the most heavily populated areas of the country. It is also the most temperate in climate.
To the north and east of western Russia is an area known as the taiga (less vegetation and arable land) and further north, the tundra (permafrost). The taiga and tundra include vast areas of Russia, and much of the land there is unusable for habitation and agriculture.
European Russia stretches from the borders of the states of Belarus
to the Ural
, over 1000km east of Moscow; even without the rest of the
, it constitutes by far the largest country
in Europe. It was also, for many years, one of the hardest to visit. Today
Russia is far more accessible, and although visas are still obligatory and
accommodation often has to be booked in advance, independent travel is
increasingly an option. Nonetheless, Moscow
remain the easiest places to visit, and these are covered below. For the
adventurous, travel further afield can be booked through various agencies in Russia
and abroad, and there are an increasing number of Web sites offering advice and
travel services for the less standard routes.
are mutually complementary. Moscow
, the capital, is hugely enthralling. It is not a beautiful city by any means,
and is a somewhat chaotic place. However, Moscow's central core reflects
Russia's long and fascinating history at the heart of a vast empire, whether in
the relics of the Communist years, the Kremlin
with its palaces and churches of the tsars
, the wooden
buildings still tucked away in backstreets, or in the massive building projects
of the mayor, Yuriy Luzhkov
, which have radically changed the
face of the centre.
By contrast, Russia's second city, St Petersburg
, is Europe at its most
gracious, an attempt by the eighteenth-century tsar Peter the Great to re-create
the best of Western European elegance in what was then a far-flung outpost. Its
position in the delta of the River Neva
is unparalleled, full of watery vistas of
huge and faded palaces. St Petersburg has not been revamped anywhere near as
much as Moscow, which many consider a good thing, and it preserves a unity and
stability lacking in the capital.
You will not be
bothered by the so-called Russian mafia in either city, but, as in any other big
city, you should beware of petty crime.
If you have decided to travel to Russia, read
the information you need to know about public safety, visas, crime, driving,
health care, and more in our next section.
INFORMATION AND MAPS
Russia has few tourist offices
. Most travellers use the information
desks at hotels
, but the best resources are English-language
newspapers, such as the Moscow Times
(daily) or St Petersburg Times
(twice weekly), and free quarterly
magazines available at leading hotels.
in English at very low prices are widely available from kiosks, street vendors and
central department stores. Those maps most commonly found in the West are
produced by Baedeker, Geocenter International and Falk, but often do not take
account of streets which have reverted to their pre-Revolutionary names or of
new metro lines.
Russia has a largely continental
because of its sheer size and compact configuration. Most of
its land is more than 400 kilometers from the sea, and the center is 3,840
kilometers from the sea. In addition, Russia's mountain ranges, predominantly to
the south and the east, block moderating temperatures from the Indian and
, but European Russia
lack such topographic protection from the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans.
Because only small parts of Russia are south
of 50° north latitude and more than half of the country is north of
60° north latitude, extensive regions experience six months of snow cover over subsoil
that is permanently frozen to depths as far as several hundred meters. The average
yearly temperature of nearly all of European Russia is below
freezing, and the average for most of Siberia is freezing or
Most of Russia has only two seasons, summer and winter, with
very short intervals of moderation between them. Transportation routes,
including entire railroad lines, are redirected in winter to traverse rock-solid
waterways and lakes. Some areas constitute important exceptions to this
description, however: the moderate maritime climate of Kaliningrad
Oblast on the Baltic Sea
is similar to that of the
; the Russian Far East
under the influence of the Pacific Ocean, has a monsoonal climate that reverses
the direction of wind in summer and winter, sharply differentiating
temperatures; and a narrow, subtropical band of territory provides Russia's most
popular summer resort area on the Black Sea
In winter an intense high-pressure system
causes winds to blow from the south and the southwest in all but the Pacific
region of the Russian landmass; in summer a low-pressure system brings winds
from the north and the northwest to most of the landmass. That meteorological
combination reduces the wintertime temperature difference between north and
south. Thus, average January temperatures are -8°C in St.
, -27°C in the West Siberian
Plain, and -43°C at Yakutsk
(in east-central Siberia, at
approximately the same latitude as St. Petersburg), while the winter average on
border, whose latitude is some 10° farther south,
is barely warmer. Summer temperatures are more affected by latitude, however;
the Arctic islands
average 4°C, and the southernmost regions average 20°C. Russia's
potential for temperature extremes is typified by the national record low of
-94°C, recorded at Verkhoyansk in north-central Siberia and the record high of
38°C, recorded at several southern stations.
The long, cold winter has a profound impact
on almost every aspect of life in the Russian Federation. It affects where and
how long people live and work, what kinds of crops are grown, and where they are
grown (no part of the country has a year-round growing season). The length and
severity of the winter, together with the sharp fluctuations in the mean summer
and winter temperatures, impose special requirements on many branches of the
economy. In regions of permafrost, buildings must be constructed on pilings,
machinery must be made of specially tempered steel, and transportation systems
must be engineered to perform reliably in extremely low and extremely high
temperatures. In addition, during extended periods of darkness and cold, there
are increased demands for energy, health care, and textiles.
Because Russia has little exposure to ocean
influences, most of the country receives low to moderate amounts of
precipitation. Highest precipitation falls in the northwest, with amounts
decreasing from northwest to southeast across European Russia
. The wettest areas
are the small, lush subtropical region adjacent to the Caucasus and along the
Pacific coast. Along the Baltic coast, average annual precipitation is 600
millimeters, and in Moscow it is 525 millimeters. An average of only twenty
millimeters falls along the Russian-Kazak border, and as little as fifteen
millimeters may fall along Siberia's Arctic coastline. Average annual days of
snow cover, a critical factor for agriculture, depends on both latitude and
altitude. Cover varies from forty to 200 days in European Russia, and from 120
to 250 days in Siberia.
Current Weather Conditions For Moscow,
Current Weather Conditions For Saint
Current Weather Conditions For Kazan,
The official currency
of Russia is the ruble
which is divided into one hundred kopeks: there are 1, 5, 10 and 50
coins, 1, 2 and 5 ruble
coins, and notes to the value of 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 rubles. Only notes
and coins dated 1997 or after are valid.
Despite the end of
soaring inflation, prices
in this guide are given in
, a fairly stable measure of real costs - but in practice they're
charged and paid for in rubles. It is illegal to pay in foreign currency. The
black market offers nothing but risks: always change
in an official bank or currency exchange. Most banks
are open Mon-Sat 10am-6/8pm, or later.
ATMs are now found in plenty, and using your credit or debit card
cash from them is generally a safe way to get money in Russia. Some, however,
have a very low cash limit per transaction, which may make your rubles
expensive. You can also obtain cash from most banks with a card
and Cirrus are the most widely accepted; problems may occasionally
occur with Diners and Amex). Travellers' cheques
time-consuming and expensive to use.
Be warned that Moscow
is an expensive city, and the daily cost of life there is up to three times that
of St Petersburg. In the provinces, life becomes ridiculously cheap
Time zones of Russia
The Moscow Standard
Time Zone is 3 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time: GMT+3. All Russian cities Time Zones are specified relative to
|Arkhangelsk 0||Anadyr + 9||Astrakhan + 1
|Abakan + 4||Barnaul + 4||Blagoveschensk + 6
|Belgorod 0||Bryansk 0 ||Birobidjan + 7
|Vladikawkaz 0 ||Vladimir 0||Vologda 0
|Volgograd 0||Voroneg + 1 ||Gorno-Altaisk + 4
|Grozny 0 ||Dudinka + 4||Ekaterinburg + 2
|Ivanovo 0 ||Irkutsk + 5 ||Igevsk + 1
|Yoshkar-Ola 0||Kaliningrad - 1||Kaluga 0
|Kirov 0 ||Tver 0 ||Kemerovo + 4
|Kostroma 0 ||Krasnodar 0 ||Krasnoyarsk + 4
|Kursk 0 ||Kurgan + 2||Kazan 0
|Kyzyl + 4||Lipetsk 0 ||Maikop 0
|Mahachkala 0 ||Magadan + 8||Moscow 0
|Murmansk 0 ||Nalchik 0||Narian-Mar 0
|Novgorod 0 ||Nignyi Novgorod 0 ||Novosibirsk + 4
|Omsk + 3 ||Orenburg + 2 ||Orel 0
|Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky +9 ||Petrozavodsk 0 ||Penza 0
|Perm + 2 ||Pskov 0 ||Rostov-na-Donu 0
|Ryazan 0 ||Saint-Petersburg 0 ||Saratov 0
|Samara + 1 ||Salekhard + 2 ||Saransk 0
|Smolensk 0 ||Stavropol 0 ||Syktyvkar 0
|Sochi 0 ||Tambov 0 ||Tomsk + 4
|Tula 0 ||Tymen + 2 ||Ufa + 2
|Ulan-Ude + 5 ||Ulyanovsk + 1||Khabarovsk + 7
|Khanty-Mansiysk + 2||Chelyabinsk + 2 ||Chita + 6
|Cherkessk 0 ||Cheboksary 0 ||Elista 0
|Ujno-Sakhalinsk + 8 ||Yakutsk + 6 ||Yaroslavl 0
Communications in Russia have improved greatly in recent years. Most post offices
are open Mon-Sat 8am-7pm. All district
post offices have poste restante
( do vostrebovaniya
) services. Both Moscow and St
Petersburg have excellent express-letter post companies, such as Post
International and Westpost, which despatch mail via Finland or the US for
Street phones are good for local and
international calls. To use them you need a phonecard
(available in 25, 50, 100, 200, 400 and 1000 units from newspaper kiosks and
post offices). Moscow's public phones
are less numerous and
less efficient than those in St Petersburg. Phone booths in airports and major
hotels aren't always run by the city phone network, and are much more expensive.
You can buy cards for these phones on the spot or use your Amex or Visa card. By
far the cheapest option in St Petersburg (with off-peak discounts) is the
Telephone Service Card
, usable from any tone-dial phone
(available in 300, 600, 1200, 3000 and 6000 units). Mobile phones
abound in both cities, and GSM users will
have no trouble plugging in to the local system. Email
and Internet access is offered cheaply in a
number of Internet cafes.
Petty crime , which presents itself mostly as pick-pocketing, is all that should worry you in
Russia. Sensible precautions include making photocopies of your passport
, leaving passports and tickets
in the hotel safe, and noting down travellers'
cheque and credit card numbers. Do not carry large sums of money around with you
and use a money belt if possible.
) can be
recognized by their blue-grey uniforms; some may be armed. If you do have
something stolen , report it to the militsia
: try the phrase " Menya obokrali
("I have been robbed
"). It's unlikely that
there'll be anyone who speaks English, and even less likely that your belongings
will be retrieved, but you'll need a statement detailing what you've lost for
your insurance claim.
Visitors to Russia are advised to get booster-shots for
diphtheria, tetanus and polio. If you are on prescribed medication (particularly
insulin), bring enough supplies for your stay, although high-street pharmacies
) offer many familiar medicines over
the counter. Foreigners tend to rely for treatment on private clinics , which
charge excessively high rates, so it's a good idea to take out insurance.
Police- 02; Ambulance- 03; Fire-
When to Come & Where to Go in Russia? If you want to come to Russia, your main consideration
might be the weather, because there's always something
happening in cities, multitude of outdoor activities for any time of the year
and there are not so many tourists yet, so don't worry about tourist crowds.
Here's when it's better to come, depending on your needs.
Going Out (Partying) - |
| The best place to come is Moscow or St.
Petersburg. The best
time to come is May, June, September,
December to March. People are still (or already) in the cities, many
things are happening, everybody is happy (May, June - the summer is
starting; September - all the locals come back in the big cities from the
vacations and they are happy and
nice). At this time many things are happening at the clubs:
famous Russian and foreign musicians
and djs are invited, theater season is opened, there are many outdoor
festivals and activities.|
something off the beaten track try Barnaul
(3 hours from Novosibirsk) in Siberia. This small town seems
to have a lot of fun, discos, and is not far from picturesque Altay
mountains. Besides, there are a lot of beautiful girls there.
Outdoor Activities - |
|Any time of the year is good, because there are many
things you can do in
Russia: camping, hiking, trekking, rafting in Summer, early Autumn and late Spring; and skiing, snowboarding, and trekking in Winter.|
The best weather for outdoor activities is during
July and August (Karelia in North Russia
- rafting, trekking, Baikal lake
- swimming, trekking, camping, Sayan, Altai mountains
- rafting, hiking, Elbrus mountains (Caucasus) - snowboarding ).
Also, there are many great place just outside Moscow
and around Novgorod region that are
interesting to visit at any time of the year.
|Purpose: Visiting Russian
|Any time is good, but try to go to some remote
village areas. We recommend Novgorod
region and the Golden Ring towns.|
|Do you want to understand the strange Russian
character and to know why so many people here are addicted to vodka?|
The end of October, beginning of November: the time
of the first cold, when you just don't understand why it's so cold and
there's even no snow! It's cold, the sky is clouded, it's wet and boring,
so that you might have no wish to go outside of your house. The only thing
that's left is to sit at home, broom, and drink vodka... but... not
everything is so bad... the big cities are still full of life and if you
are looking for indoor entertainment (clubs, restaurants, musems,
exhibitions), then it is a good time to come.
|Purpose: Trying Something
|Russian winter (December, January, especially the
second half of January and February). Try to see as many places as
possible: walk around Moscow, go to some remote area, and snowboard in
OPENING HOURS AND HOLIDAYS
Most shops open Mon-Sat 10am-7pm or later; few close for
lunch. Department stores, bars and restaurants stay open on Sundays.
Opening hours for museums are 10am-5/6pm. They are invariably closed at
least one day a week, and one further day in the month will be set aside as a
"cleaning day". Note that ticket offices always close one hour before the museum
itself. Churches tend to be accessible from 8am
until the end of the evening service.
Russia's official national holidays have at last settled down, now that
those associated purely with the former Soviet regime have gone, often to be
replaced by traditional religious holidays. The current public holidays are: Jan
1; Jan 6/7 (Orthodox Christmas); March 8
(Women's Day); May 1 and 2; May 9 (Victory Day); June 12; Nov 7. Russians also
celebrate the unofficial Old New Year on
13/14 January - according to the Julian calendar.
…What is the Russian
? One can say that Russian food is what Russians originally eat.
However, the lunch of a person who lives in Moscow varies much from the lunch of
a person who lives in Siberian
countryside. The cities are
always in a hurry and the fast food is the permanent leader there. Meanwhile,
nobody will like the taste of a hot dog in villages.
Russians eat various dishes and traditional
meals aren’t the only ones we like. So, Russian food
is a set of traditional meals
, which most Russians eat
not too often.
Moscow and St
Petersburg now abound in cafes and restaurants
offering everything from pizza
and Chinese food
. Many cater to the new
rich or foreign businessmen, but cheap and middle-range establishments are
plentiful, serving food with a local flavour. Credit cards
are increasingly accepted, particularly in Moscow, but not in the
Despite the increasing popularity
of fast food and foreign cuisine, Russians remain
loyal to their culinary heritage, above all to zakuski - small dishes consumed before a meal with
vodka, as a snack or as a light meal in themselves.
Herring is a firm favourite, as are gherkins, assorted cold
meats and salads. Pancakes (
bliny ), served with
caviar ( ikra )
are to be recommended; red caviar is very cheap and a worthy rival to the
Most Russians take breakfast
( zavtrak ) seriously, tucking into calorific
pancakes or porridge ( kasha ), with curd cheese (
tvorog ) and sour cream ( smetana ). Hotels usually serve a "Continental"
breakfast, probably just fried egg, bread, butter and jam; ritzier hotels
provide a buffet. The main meal of the day is lunch
( obed ), eaten between 1 and 4pm, while supper ( uzhin )
traditionally consists of just zakuski and tea. Restaurants , on the other hand, make much more of the
evening meal, often staying open as late as 1am. Menus are usually written in Russian only, but an
increasing number of places now offer a version in English (not always regularly
updated). You can always ask what they recommend (" shto-by vy porekomendovali? ").
After the zakuski , the menu
continues with soup . Cabbage soup ( shchi ), served with a generous dollop of
sour cream ,
has been the principal Russian dish for the last thousand years. Zelyonye shchi -
green (or sorrel) soup is a gourmet version of this. Beetroot
soup, or borshch ,
originally from Ukraine, is equally ubiquitous, while ukha , fish soup, has become synonymous with pressing
Russian hospitality. Russians don't regard even large meaty soups ( kharcho or solyanka ) as a main meal.
Main courses are overwhelmingly based on
meat ( myaso
), usually beef, mutton or
pork , sometimes accompanied by a mushroom, sour cream or cheese sauce.
Meat also makes its way into pelmeny , a Russian
version of ravioli. Most cafes now offer some alternatives however, and Georgian
restaurants always have interesting vegetarian
dishes, such as bean stew or stuffed aubergines. Marinated fish is a popular starter (try selyodka pod shuboy , herring "in a fur coat" of
beetroot, carrot, egg and mayonnaise), while fresh fish - usually salmon,
sturgeon or pike-perch - appears as a main course in all self-respecting
Pastries ( pirozhnoe ) are available from cake
shops ( konditerskaya ). Savoury pies ( pirozhki ) are often
also on sale - the best are filled with cabbage, curd cheese or rice; steer
clear of the deep-fried ones at all times and of meat pies if buying from street
Desserts ( sladkoe ) are not a strong feature of
Russian cuisine. Ice cream and jam pancakes ( blinchiki s varenyem ) are restaurant
perennials (Russian ice cream is outstanding and is eaten even on the street
when the temperature drops to -20°C). Caucasian
restaurants may offer the flaky pastry and honey dessert pakhlava . There
are many varieties of cake ( tort ), but all tend to have an excess of butter-cream.
) is still the national drink, normally served
chilled and drunk neat in one gulp, followed by a mouthful of zakuska
. Highly popular are flavoured vodkas such as
(hot pepper vodka
vodka, with juniper berries, ginger and cloves) and Zubrovka
), although the hard drinker sticks to the straight stuff.
Beer ( pivo ) is increasingly threatening
vodka's domination of the market. Russians drink beer in the morning to
alleviate a hangover, or merely as a thirst quencher, and in recent years the
country has begun to understand the term "lager lout". For specialists, the
numerous local brands (in bottles and on tap) have an excellent fresh taste,
with fewer preservatives than imports.
Wine ( vino )
comes mostly from the vineyards of Moldavia, Georgia and the Crimea. Georgian
dry and semi-sweet (such as Stalin's favourite, Khvanchkara) wines can be
excellent, but Moldavian dry wine is more consistently reliable. The Crimea
produces mainly fortified wines ( kheres or sherry
and Madeira) from Massandra.
Tea ( chay ) is traditionally brewed and stewed
for hours, and topped up with boiling water from a samovar (cafes have
discovered the convenience of teabags). Russians drink tea without milk; if you
ask for milk it's likely to be UHT.
Coffee ( kofe ) is readily
available and often of excellent quality. Smaller cafes often offer Turkish
coffee - served strong and black. Tea and coffee often have sugar already added
unless you specifically ask for them without.
Juices and soft drinks from the usual market leaders -
Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Schweppes - are available, but Russians love the
and carbonated Baikal . Local mineral waters , with or without gas, can be
Russia is a beautiful country and you
will enjoy your trip. At the same time it's quite different from other tourist
destinations and you should plan your visit carefully.
question that you will face when starting to plan your trip - what is the best
season to come to Russia. There are no doubts, you'd better go in summer.
Summer in Russia lasts from June to
August. July and August are the warmest months and the main holiday season. If
you are going to Siberia or Far East, the most beautiful weather there is in
September. Winter travels have
their special charm, but you'd better
don't try if you are not used to subzero temperatures.
Russia are usual for any season, except winter, so take an umbrella
with you. Even in summer the temperature sometimes is only +3...+5 degrees C,
and warm clothes (jacket and sweaters) are necessary. Russians are not fond of shorts, you'd better take
Russia is a vast and diverse nation that continues
to evolve politically and economically. Travel and
living conditions in Russia contrast sharply with those in the Europe
and North America. Major urban centers show tremendous differences in economic
development compared to rural areas.
westerners, Russia is associated with its European
cities- Moscow, St. Petersburg and
Murmansk. This is the heartland of Imperial Russia, and these great and ancient
cities often become the focus for most tourists. However there is much more to
Russia, a country that spans eleven time zones and two continents, ending less
than 50 miles from North America. Within this vast expanse lie the largest
freshwater lake in the world, rivers and forests teeming with fish and wildlife,
awe inspiring volcanos, and towering mountains. Russia is the largest country on
earth, with enormous tracts of land that have been opened to travellers only in
the last few years.
Just as Russia's rich
cultural heritage has once more come to life, its natural heritage too is a new
country waiting to be discovered.
extensive and relatively efficient network of trains and (shaky) buses, you'll
have few problems getting around the most populated
parts of Russia. Regular Eurolines buses now connect major cities with the rest
of Eastern and Western Europe.
Trains and buses Buying tickets for long-distance and international trains is
easy these days. Hundreds of agencies can help you avoid queues at train
stations, for a minimal commission, and foreigners no longer pay more for
tickets than Russians. A dozen trains leave Moscow's Leningrad Station within an
hour or so of midnight for the 8hr journey to St Petersburg, the most historic
being the Red Arrow (#2). Many prefer the day train, the Aurora, which takes 6
hours, or the new evening train, at just 4 hours. All trains are generally safe
and reliable, and cheap.
Most of Moscow's and St
Petersburg's outlying sights are accessible from mainline stations (separate
ticket office for suburban trains). Suburban
buses and efficient minibuses from the end of a metro line often go
straight to the tourist attraction. Fares are also low, although state-run buses
are often packed
Driving and hitching
Traffic in the cities is heavy and many
Russian motorists show a reckless disregard for pedestrians and other cars. Driving , therefore, requires a fair degree of skill
Unless otherwise specified,
speed limits are 60kph in the city and 80kph on
highways. Few car rental agencies offer cars without
drivers, except for extremely high prices.
Many Russians hitch , especially after the public transport system
closes down, when you'll see people flagging down anything that moves. If the
driver finds the destination acceptable, he'll state a price, which may or may
not be negotiable; if you're not happy, wait for another car. Russians will
usually pay the ruble equivalent of a dollar or so to ride several kilometres;
foreigners are likely to be charged more. Don't get into a vehicle which has
more than one person in it, and never accept lifts from anyone who approaches
you, particularly outside restaurants and nightclubs: instances of drunken
foreigners being robbed in the back of cars have been known. Single women should
stick to official taxis.
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