Tsars, Communism, Vodka and Kremlin- if these are your first thoughts about Russia, then it is time to re-read, research, re-update and change your thinking about this world’s largest country. With 160 ethnicities, some 100 languages and 29 UNESCO heritage sites, Russia has a plethora of things and experiences to offer beyond the cliche’.
Russia has always been a dream destination for me even as a child. A reading of Russian folktales was staple back then, and, those stories weaved wicker of Russia to me as a fantasy land, an enigma shrouded in mystery of its Tsars. And, I always had an intense secretive desire of having a photograph clicked in front of the onion-domed St.Basil’s Cathedral of the Red Square in Moscow, for some strange reason. Yay…and, I did get one…
With a slump in the value of the ruble (the currency of Russia) and Russia hosting the FIFA world cup last year, its government has relaxed a lot of restrictions on foreign nationals. This has definitely ensured Russia becoming a much sought-after tourist destination again.
As I posted the first photographs from my trip to Russia, announcing our three-week-long family trip across this fascinating country and Central Asia, the queries started trickling in about the hows, whys and itineraries to follow. To be honest, we ourselves were surprised that the trip turned out to be affordable. So, here is the much-anticipated beginner’s guide in two parts, for planning a Russia trip from India: with a comprehensive list of things to know, as well as consider, before that introductory trip of yours to this erstwhile Soviet land. I am just keeping this Russia travel guide- simple and straight, without any flossy words.
Disclaimer: I have tried to provide authenticate and useful information as far as my knowledge goes. Any reliance you place on such information is therefore strictly at your own risk. However, readers are requested to cross-check the information with official websites of museums and organizations for authenticity and correctness.
Content in this article
A practical travel guide for first-timers to Russia
First things first…
Should I be wary of Russia and Russians?
This has been the oft-asked query since my return from Russia. As I said before, the answer is- A BIG NO. There are a whole lot of misconceptions about Russia and its people as such. Russians hardly smile, they are rude and boring, right? Wrong. Russia as a nation is beautiful and enigmatic, while, Russians are friendly and they do smile. This is no aggrandizing
Russians are an affable lot. Extremely polite, helpful and courteous. At least, we as Indians were not treated badly or suspiciously. I still don’t understand this stereotyping about the Russians as if they are humanoids!
Weather in Russia
Russia is vast and stretches across two continents- Europe and Asia, as most of us know. A good chunk is considered as Eurasia. The traditions, customs and the terrain, changes from the east of the country to the west. And, so does the weather. You will always find the Russians carrying a small umbrella in their bags or pockets. The hotels too stock their rooms with at least a couple of these necessities. This said, plan your very first Russia trip in such a way that you get to visit and experience everything possible, especially around Saint Petersburg(SPB) and Moscow. I am emphasizing this because many of the attractions and experiences are closed/stopped during the harsh winters while during the White Nights there are serpentine queues of tourists everywhere in SPB.
I personally suggest September and early October as the right time to plan one’s very first trip to Russia, as a family tourist. However, if you want to experience Russia in all its snowy glory then very well go ahead during the winters! After all, Russia has something to offer for everyone all through the year.
December – March: An off-festive season!
Winters – A dreamy White carpet all over. However, a harsh season to stay outdoors with sub-zero temperatures. Museums are your best bets to stay indoors while many also throw open their doors for free. The working hours at most tourist attraction with are shortened during winters. Cities like SPB and Moscow wear a festive look so do the country-side. Yet, I would suggest avoiding this season to plan one’s very first trip to Russia.
Barring the cities, many places have a hard time coping with the snowy winters, with scarce resources and logistics to cater to the tourists. Except for the Radisson fleet of cruise and boat rides in Moscow, practically all ferry rides of Moscow and Saint Petersburg are shut. Fountains at Peterhof are not functional. While the park itself looks beautiful during White nights and the fall, with its blooming flowers and golden leaves.
If planning further east towards the Baikal, then do remember that the waterbody is beautifully frozen, and a view of the still Baikal Lake is to die for. Also, there are places in Russia from where it is possible to catch the Aurora lights!
April – August: Peak tourist season
Spring followed by the White nights is often when the tourists’ inflow hits its zenith in Russia, especially around Saint Petersburg. Expect serpentine lines at all the attractions, while hotel accommodations are hard to get by and the rates start hitting the roof(expensive). However, it’s also the right season to experience Russia in all its festive mood with prolonged daylight. Read more about the White nights of Russia
September – early October: Awesome season 😀
This is when I deliberately planned our family trip. The season of the golden autumn across Russia. Not too hot nor too cold; easier availability of stay options at reasonable rates, short queues at museums, the streets aren’t crowded and so are the various parks; just perfect to plan a budget trip!
Late October- November: Gloomy and rainy
The rainy season has waved itself into early October and is here to stay in full-swing with dark, gloomy and morbid weather right through the latter half of October until November. So, for all practical purposes, not the right season to plan your very first visit to Russia. Also, make a note that the natural fountains of Peterhof are closed and stop working usually from October 2nd week onwards.
- You will need to mention the exact dates of arrival and departure in Russia while applying for your Tourist Visa. So, plan your trip accordingly, considering the weather.
- Carry light jackets in case you are travelling in summer.
- Carry mittens, gloves, mufflers, scarfs apart from warm clothes and jackets when travelling during late autumn and winters.
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Places to visit in Russia
As already discussed, Russia is a vast country with a lot of sights to visit and experience, extending seven time-zones. So, it is only prudence to chalk out an itinerary while planning the very first vacation to Russia. Decide upon which part of Russia you want to cover on this trip. If travelling with family, then, a little more attention to planning is required, as infrastructure isn’t well developed in the countryside barring the golden ring cities, FIFA cup hosted cities, SPB and Moscow.
Also, you ought to zero in the exact dates of travel- to procure a tourist invitation voucher, for obtaining the visa and to show the immigration authorities in Russia. More on the immigration at Russia, later in the post. For now, remember to research, research, research for where to go, what to see, how many days to stay in each of the places and plan according to your interests. And with the immigration authorities being stricter with Indians of late, it is better to be well planned.
These are a few suggested places to visit in Russia that I read about, during my research, prior to our trip. This is completely based on my interests around heritage, culture, architecture, soft-adventure, things to do with kids and cost-effectiveness. These cities were given a face-lift and tourism-ready during the FIFA 2018 world cup. Of course, Siberia and a ride on the Trans-Siberian train are great options too!
- Saint Petersburg(SPB): a must-visit, more European than Russian. UNESCO heritage site.
- Peterhof: again a must-visit. Opt for a day trip from SPB either by ferry or a bus
- Veliky Novgorod: Beautiful with a lot of history. Supposed to be the oldest Russian town and home to a lot of UNESCO heritage sites. Day trip from SPB by train.
- Moscow: The capital.Well-connected.More Soviet than Russian or European. A contrast to SPB.
- Vladimir and Suzdal: Two of the towns of the Golden Ring with UNESCO sites. Both can be done as a day trip from Moscow by train+bus. An overnight stay in Suzdal is highly recommended.
- Kazan – Cultural capital of Tatarstan. No, you will not need a separate visa to visit this place, but you need to mention it in the tourist voucher.
- Sochi – A touristy city readied for hosting the FIFA matches. Has a beach and a lot of natural attractions. Is slowly drawing tourists with its beautiful landscape.
- Nizhny Novgorod – Historic city that falls mid-way between Moscow and Kazan.
- Murmansk – to catch the Aurora spectacle…the northern lights…and, to camp in glass domes!
Planning a Russia itinerary
- Fix the exact dates of arrival and departure.
- Work on the list of museums and churches you want to visit. There are over 261 museums in Moscow alone while Suzdal has got over 40 churches!
- Also, make sure you are familiar with the working days of tourist places. Many of the attractions are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. While there are some special days when the working hours are extended. So, research …
- If travelling with kids, then, read thoroughly the official websites of the attractions before booking those online tickets. Some of the tickets, when bought online, may cost more. Many attractions have free entry for school students or discounts on the ticket price. However, these need to be collected physically at the ticket counters. So, even if you have bought the online tickets, you may end up in the queue at some of the touristy places.
- If planning during the White Nights, then, blindly opt for online tickets as there are bound to be serpentine queues at almost all the tourist places. I know of travellers who have stood for 5-6 hours in queues only to be disappointed at the end.
- Book the Radisson cruise and the canal rides online. There are discounts for online tickets. You could also buy them at the counters but it may turn out costly or may not, depending on the season.
- Free guided walking tours are highly recommended. You can book them online. But remember, although they claim to be ‘Free’, they work on the ‘Tips’ model. The expected tip ranges from $5 onwards/per person. Opt for walking tours on the very first or second day of your trip to a city. This way, you will have an idea as to which of the places you would want to visit again for its interiors.
- Getting an English guide is a costly affair in Russia. Instead, look out for free audio-guide apps and paid audio-guides at the official counters near attractions.
- Finding vegan/vegetarian food outlets may drain out your time. So, again plan accordingly. More on this in the food section down below.
Be ready to walk a lot around these cities to be able to visit all the places and also to soak in the local atmosphere. Chalk out the itinerary in such a way that you don’t end up walking the whole day. May be, walk around a bit in the morning.Post-lunch/coffee break, opt for a museum or a canal ride and then in the evening book that much needed tickets to watch a ballet or folk show.
As promised, here is a sample itinerary of ours. Of course, we did tweak this as the trip went by, to suit our requirements.
- I suggest at least a week in Saint Petersburg if doing Veliky Novgorod, Peterhof as well as Catherine Palace. 5 days are enough for Moscow.
- If applying for a 14 days tourist visa then a lot of Visa formalities becomes easier. Shall explain it under the Visa section.
How to apply for a Russian Visa?
I personally found obtaining a Russia Visa- the simplest, then planning the whole trip! Even simpler than zeroing in on the itinerary. You will just require the following documents if you are a citizen of India to get your visa.
- A valid Indian passport (at least six months of validity and two empty pages).
- Letter of Invitation printed on an A4 sheet (Voucher) – Don’t be perplexed. Will explain to you in a moment.
- Photographs as specified – 3.5X4.5cm against a light background.
- Fill in the visa application form from Official site of the Consular Department, according to mentioned instructions.
- Read the instructions for a Russian Visa here https://india.mid.ru/ru/ and apply for the Russian Visa appointment at Russian Embassy in Delhi. Each person in the family who is travelling should have a separate appointment.
- For people who aren’t in Delhi and for processing and visa fee, please check VFS website
If the stay is for more than 14 days, then the following documents are also needed for issuing of the Visa, along with the above necessities.
- Hotel bookings
- Flight tickets and train bookings
- Insurance papers ( We always use ICICI Lombard )
- A detailed itinerary
I applied directly at the Embassy with a prior appointment. You can also choose to do the same
or its various consulates in Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. Many of them also go through the VFS. The consulates in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata have updated their visa rules on their websites and as of today, you can only use the services of the nearest VFS centre for processing a Russian visa. The embassy in Delhi is accepting the application forms as usual.
What is a tourist voucher or an invitation letter?
This basically is a letter of invitation from an authorized tourist agency that looks something like the one below. I applied for my tourist voucher through Fortuna Travel and their website deconstructs the tourist voucher as, ‘In accordance with Russian law for getting Russian tourist or business visa, you must have an invitation letter. Tourist invitation consists of two parts – the tourist confirmation letter and the travel (tourist) voucher. This document contains the necessary information which is needed to apply for a Russian tourist visa (name of travel organization, its address, reference and confirmation numbers).
From where does one apply for a tourist invitation?
After a bit of search online, we stumbled upon the site of Fortuna Travel and found the rates reasonable. Read the instructions clearly before filling the online form to obtain a tourist voucher. Once the details are filled, you will receive a mail within a few minutes to a few hours, with the voucher delivered online to your email inbox. They charge around $20 for Indians. You need one tourist invitation per person of the family.
Note: Saint Petersburg has introduced an e-visa for Indians from October 1, 2019. Do check the Russian embassy website for further information. Even if you have the Visa to SPB and Leningrad region, and, you intend to visit the rest of Russia, you will still have to apply for a visa separately.
Head onto Part-2 of this exhaustive Russia travel guide for tips and suggestions on where to stay, flight bookings to Russia, how to easily book train tickets in Russia
Photographs shot on: Google Pixel, One Plus and Sony Alpha
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