A comprehensive Russia travel guide for first-timers : Part 1

Putting together this Russia travel guide for first-timers encompassing the best time to visit Russia, a detailed Russia itinerary and practical information on planning a trip to Russia, has been a heavy-duty three months of hard work.

Yes, I had planned our budget family trip to Russian destinations all by myself, by gathering information from various sources, both online and offline.

We wanted to avoid the hassle of running around travel agencies to save money, and, rather spend it on our travels exploring the beautiful places in Russia for 14 days.

This Russia travel guide for first-timers lists experiences and places off the beaten path, apart from practical information like planning a Russia itinerary, applying for a Russia tourist Visa from India and the best time to visit Russia.

Russia beyond the cliche'
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’.

A comprehensive Russia travel guide

Russia has always been a dream destination for me even as a child. A reading of Russian folktales was a staple back then, and, those stories weaved wicker of Russia to me as a fantasy land, an enigma shrouded in the mystery of its Tsars.

And, I’ve 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…

A beginner's travel guide to Russia - Russia| Europe | Asia | Eurasia | Saint Petersburg | Moscow | Travel Tips | Russia Guide #Europe #Russia #Asia #travelguide #moscowguide #saintpetersburg|

When is the best time to travel to Russia?

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 especially Indians. This has definitely ensured Russia becoming a much sought-after tourist destination again.

And, now it’s a cakewalk to plan a travel to Russia from India, provided one does some research beforehand. This is where our Russia travel guide comes handy to you!

Is this Russia travel guide required to plan a trip?

As I posted the first photographs from my trip to Russia, announcing our three-week-long family vacation 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 our Russia trip turned out to be affordable.

So, this much-anticipated beginner’s Russia travel guide in two parts, would definitely be handy for planning a trip to Russia from India.

This Russia travel guide has all the 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.

Note
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.

russia-travel-guide
Going crazy in Moscow!

First things first, before we move ahead discussing our Russia travel guide.

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!

A beginner's guide to planning a Russia trip
An orthodox church in Russia

Best time to visit Russia: 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 and every place 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 St Petersburg.

Russia guide
By Peter Fitzgerald – Own work based on the map of Russian subjects by Fremantleboy and Lokal_Profil, and PD USG maps: [1], [2], CC BY-SA 2.5

My suggestion for the best season to visit Russia

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.

A beginner's guide to planning a Russia trip

Visiting Russia in Winter — December to March 

Russia in Winter is a dreamy white carpet all over. However, Russian winters are considered harsh, and not a season to stay outdoors with sub-zero temperatures.

If visiting Russia in winter, then museums are your best bets to stay indoors while many also throw open their doors for free.

The working hours at most Russia attractions are shortened during winters. Cities like Saint Petersburg and Moscow wear a festive look so do the country-side. Yet, I would suggest avoiding Russia in Winter season to plan one’s very first trip to Russia.

Barring the cities, many places across Russia 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!

White Nights in Saint Petersburg — April to August

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 Russia attractions, while hotel accommodations are hard to get by and the rates start hitting the roof(expensive) during the White Nights in St Petersburg.

However, it’s also the best season to experience Russia in all its festive mood with prolonged daylight. Read more about the White nights of Russia

A beginner's travel guide to Russia - Russia| Europe | Asia | Eurasia | Saint Petersburg | Moscow | Travel Tips | Russia Guide #Europe #Russia #Asia #travelguide #moscowguide #saintpetersburg|
Russian homes!

The best month to visit Russia — September to early October: 

This is when I deliberately planned our Russia trip. The season of the golden autumn across Russia.

Neither too hot nor too cold; easy 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 family Russia trip! For us, this was the perfect time to visit Russia.

Not the best month to visit Russia — Late October to November

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 they stop working usually from the second week of October onwards.

Suggestions and recommendations in planning a Russia trip

  • You will need to mention the exact dates of arrival and departure in Russia while applying for your Russia 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.
  • Do follow these winter tips and tricks that easily applies to even a country like Russia

 

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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, St Petersburg and Moscow.

Also, you ought to zero in the exact dates of travel — to procure a tourist invitation voucher, for obtaining the Russian visa and to show the immigration authorities in Russia upon arrival there. More on the immigration at Russia, later in the post.

For now, remember to research, research, research on where to go, what to see, how many days to stay in each of the places and plan your Russia trip according to your interests.

And with the immigration authorities being stricter with Indians of late, it is better to be well planned.

A beginner's guide to planning a Russia trip
The Great Moscow State Circus

Best destinations in Russia

These are a few suggested places to visit in Russia that I read about, during my research, prior to our Russia trip. This is completely based on my interests around heritage, culture, architecture, soft-adventure, things to do with kids and cost-effectiveness.

These Russian cities were given a face-lift to be tourism-ready for the FIFA 2018 world cup. Of course, Siberia and a ride on the Trans-Siberian train are great options too!

  1. Saint Petersburg(SPB): a must-visit, more European than Russian. UNESCO heritage site.
  2. Peterhof: again a must-visit. Opt for a day trip from SPB either by ferry or a bus
  3. 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.
  4. Moscow: The capital.Well-connected.More Soviet than Russian or European. A contrast to SPB.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Nizhny Novgorod – Historic city that falls mid-way between Moscow and Kazan.
  9. Murmansk – to catch the Aurora spectacle…the northern lights…and, to camp in glass domes!
A beginner's guide to planning a Russia trip
The Neva river @ Saint Petersburg

 How to plan a Russia itinerary?

  1. Fix the exact dates of arrival and departure.
  2. Work on the list of museums and churches you want to visit on your Russia trip. There are over 261 museums in Moscow alone, while Suzdal has got over 40 churches!
  3. Also, make sure you are familiar with the working days of tourist places in Russian cities. Many of the attractions are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. While there are some special days when the working hours are extended. So, research.
  4. 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 in Russia.
  5. If planning your Russia trip during the White Nights, then, blindly opt for online tickets, as there are bound to be serpentine queues at almost all the tourist places across Saint Petersburg and Moscow. I know of travellers who have stood for 5-6 hours in queues only to be disappointed at the end.
  6. 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.
  7. Free guided walking tours are highly recommended while in St Petersburg and Russia. 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.
  8. 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 various Russian attractions.
  9. Finding vegan/vegetarian food outlets may drain out your time while in Russia. So, again plan accordingly. More on this in the food section down below.
  10. Be ready to walk a lot around the Russian cities and towns, to be able to visit all the places and soak in the local atmosphere. Chalk out your day-to-day Russia 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.
Suzdal
The picturesque Suzdal
VDNH A beginner's guide to planning a Russia trip
VDNH @Moscow
A beginner's guide to planning a Russia trip
Moscow @night

Russia Itinerary – A sample

As promised, here is a sample itinerary of our Russia trip. 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 Russian tourist visa then a lot of Visa formalities becomes easier. Shall explain it under the Visa section.
A beginner's guide to planning a Russia trip
A view of Saint Petersburg along the shores

Russia Tourist Visa for Indians – How to apply?

I personally found obtaining a Russia Tourist 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 Russia tourist visa.

  1. A valid Indian passport (at least six months of validity and two empty pages).
  2. Letter of Invitation printed on an A4 sheet (Voucher) – Don’t be perplexed. Will explain to you in a moment.
  3. Photographs as specified – 3.5X4.5cm against a light background.
  4. Fill in the visa application form from Official site of the Consular Department, according to mentioned instructions.
  5. Read the instructions for 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.
  6. For people who aren’t in Delhi and for processing and visa fee, please check VFS website.

If the stay in Russia is for more than 14 days, then the following documents are also needed for issuing of the Russia Tourist Visa, along with the above necessities.

  1. Hotel bookings in each of the towns and cities of Russia, you are visiting
  2. Flight tickets and train bookings
  3. Insurance papers ( We always use ICICI Lombard )
  4. A detailed Russia itinerary

I applied directly at the Russia Embassy in New Delhi 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.

Updated information : 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 Russia tourist voucher or an invitation letter?

A Russia tourist voucher 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).

Tourist voucher for Russia

Where does one apply for a Russia 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 for every person in the family who is going on the Russia trip.

Note
St 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.

A beginner's guide to planning a Russia trip

Additional Reading
You may want to read the Part-2 of our Russia travel guide for tips and suggestions on where to stay in Russia, flight bookings to Russia, how to easily book train tickets in Russia and other such practical information.

I hope you now have a fair idea based on this Russia travel guide (Part-1), as to how to go about planning your Russa trip and the sort of Russia itinerary you need to put together to apply for the Russia tourist visa(for Indians) per se.

Feel free to drop in your feedback and queries in the comment section below or use the Contact form to direct your queries on this Russia travel guide.


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A beginner's travel guide to Russia - Russia| Europe | Asia | Eurasia | Saint Petersburg | Moscow | Travel Tips | Russia Guide #Europe #Russia #Asia #travelguide #moscowguide #saintpetersburg|

A beginner's travel guide to Russia - Russia| Europe | Asia | Eurasia | Saint Petersburg | Moscow | Travel Tips | Russia Guide #Europe #Russia #Asia #travelguide #moscowguide #saintpetersburg|

A beginner's travel guide to Russia - Russia| Europe | Asia | Eurasia | Saint Petersburg | Moscow | Travel Tips | Russia Guide #Europe #Russia #Asia #travelguide #moscowguide #saintpetersburg|

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12 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice post! Your travel guide post will help me explore Russia. Thanks for sharing such valuable information.

  2. Deloris Lara says:

    Thanks for the sharing this useful list.

    Deloris Lara

  3. Yukti Agrawal says:

    I have been to Ukraine recently and after seeing some ex-Russian side there, I got interested now to visit Russia too. Your guide is very helpful and good for planning our first time visit to Russia. Though it can be visited all time the year, I would prefer summer and want to see that prolonged daylight and festive mood. It must be very cheerful this time. Russian circus is famous and therefore watching that Great Moscow state circus in Moscow must be very fun thing to do here. Very informative, especially the visa part as on other websites, it is very confusing.

  4. Quite a useful post with all practical tips one needs to know for planning a trip to Russia. My dad spent considerable time in Russia and he has such fond memories of the place. Your post echoed his thoughts. As you said, the Russians are very warm and there’s nothing to worry about them. I really wanna visit Russia in Autumn.

  5. This is a great guide for visiting Russia! I come from the neighbourg country Finland, and have known Russian for all my life. I think being a little more reserved is a cultural thing. We are the same way. But when you get to know a Finn, you have made a friend of a lifetime and the hospitality is endless. Same in Russia. Such a beautiful country.

  6. I know it can be cold in the Russion Winters but I quite like that, great tips on what time of year to go. Riding on the Trans Siberain train is on my list but you have suggested many places I’d never heard of such as Murmansk and Petrhof. Very useful tips on visa application too!

  7. Just like you — it is my dream to visit Russia ever since I was a child after watching the movie, Anastasia. I have always been interested in their history and after reading your post, I realized there is so much to see and do.

    Thank you for sharing this post. My husband would be thrilled to watch a FIFA game in Sochi.

  8. Although I have stopped at Moscow twice to catch connecting flights, have never spent a holiday there till now. Am going to use this post of yours to plan whenever we plan to visit. Most likely next summers.

  9. Thank you so much for putting in the piece about being nervous to be around Russians. My husband is from Russia and so are many of my friends. Even STILL, I was always nervous to visit the country. Many people share this ideal that Russians are rude and cold. I’m so glad to hear from a travel writer that the people are polite and helpful. We are hoping to visit soon and take our infant son with us. This article is so thorough and makes me feel more confident about tackling such a vast place as Russia. I can’t wait to get to St. Petersburg.

  10. I am impressed by your guide. It is so helpful for planning trip, so detailed info. Russia is on my bucket list. I dream of seeing Sankt Petersburg and Moscow. So, I like your itinerary. It is significant that you also give directions on how to get a visa to Russia.

  11. Russia has been on my list for years but the hassle of applying for a visa and generally never being in the UK long enough to apply has put me off!! Your trip though looks amazing and makes me want to get the visa arranged to go in September. I few of the places i havent heard of such as Kazan but there are many places on your list I definitely want to go to. Fingers crossed I can get my visa this year and go.

  12. We had our first experience in Russia on a cruise ship. Two days in St. Petersburg hooked us. And we definitely want to return. So it was interesting to read this blog post is we plan a return visit on our own. I am sure winter would be a fascinating time to visit. But I would not want to be limited by the weather. Early fall sounds perfect for me. Moscow is high on our list to visit. But catching the northern lights in Murmansk would be dreamy. Good tip about booking canal cruises online. Getting the tourist voucher may be the thing that will take the longest. But I will check for any updated information for Canadians. Thanks for this thorough post.

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