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’.
I had earlier covered the following topics in the first part of my Russia travel guide.
- The perfect season to visit Russia
- Places to visit in Russia
- Planning a Russia itinerary
- How to apply for a Russia visa
- All about Russia tourist voucher
Here is the second part to the comprehensive Russia travel guide, put-together for planning a self-curated trip to the land of Kremlins!
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.
Hotels and Accommodations in Russia
You will require confirmed receipts of hotel accommodations if applying for a Russian tourist visa, with a stay that extends 14 days. Else, you may go ahead and do it later, once the Russia visa is approved.
I used both Booking.com as well as Airbnb for our entire trip. And, this also includes for our stay at Almaty in Kazakhstan. The cost of accommodation for one night starts from as less as 400rubles and could reach up to 15k-20k rubles and beyond. We chose something around the parameters that I’ve mentioned under ‘Tips for booking accommodation’ a little further, and, also our budget. The apartments that we chose ranged between 3000 rubles to 3500 rubles per night that came with a fully functional kitchen, a washing machine and other facilities.
Where to stay?
When searching for accommodations in Saint Petersburg, try to be as near to the Hermitage as possible. Or at least make sure to opt for a property that is walkable from the metro( indicated by blue M on map). Otherwise, you would end up wasting time, in just commuting from one place to another. Properties on Fontanka embankment and Nevsky prospect are again well-connected and are great locations for stay. In fact, a lot of backpackers stay in the hostels around the embankments. I opted for a quieter place just beside The Hermitage Museum on the Moyka river embankment, a bit away from the pubs and bawdy crowd.
Try to look for stay options inside the brown circle that I’ve marked on the SPB map.
In Moscow, try to stay near the Brown Line of the metro. It literally encircles the touristy part of Moscow. Arbat is a great place to stay, however, I found it a bit expensive. Prospekt Mira and Basmany district are relatively considered family-friendly areas. We tried staying nearer to the railway station as well as the metro, as we had planned a couple of day trips from Moscow.
Tips for booking accommodations in Russia
- Check if the property has a centralized heating system which is a must during Autumn and Winters.
- Confirm if the property has airconditioners, as Russia can actually get pretty warm in summers. Most of the properties do not have ceiling fans.
- If you are a vegetarian like me and are travelling on a budget, look for accommodations with a small kitchenette. Check if the price is inclusive of using the gas, electricity, all rooms and the kitchenette. There are properties with private rooms as well as the whole apartment open for rent. So, do explore this aspect.
- Most importantly, make sure if the apartment or hotel has hot running water, depending on the month of travel.
- Kindly verify on the number of beds and sofas. I remember finding an apartment very close to the Hermitage which had absolutely no bed. The owner did not reveal unless I asked him about the availability of beds and their count. Finally, he informed that they had two single narrow sofa beds. But we were three people!
- Make sure, the apartment building has an elevator/lift if opting for anything more than a first floor. I found a lot of stay options on the fourth floors or the loft of heritage buildings without an elevator.
- The nearest metro should be at a walkable distance, say 10mins!
- Also, verify if there is at least a departmental or grocery store around. You will need them to buy those coveted bottles of drinking water and needed groceries!
- Many apartments/hotels may not provide WiFi.Double-check on this.
- You may have to get yourself registered once in Russia. Do gather more information on this aspect and discuss it with your host. We did not go through the registration process and no one ever asked us either.
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Here are the links to the accommodations where we stayed at. All of these were trust-worthy. The owners are friendly, and helpful while the properties are exactly as in the photographs without any discrepancy. Of course, this is from my experience and I am not certifying them in any way. Stay at your own discretion.
And, no, these aren’t affiliate links.
For SPB: Moyka River Embankment
For Moscow: NYC styled apartment
and we stayed at Irina’s home in Suzdal. A beautiful blue cottage. Check the property on Booking.com
You may also use my link to get a credit when you book your first stay with Airbnb: PolkaJunction’s referral credit
Flight bookings to Russia from India
Book your flight tickets at least 2-3months in advance. The airline ticket pricing is quite dynamic and an early booking helps you save almost 10k-15k INR on every ticket. There are two airlines with direct flights to Russia from India – Aeroflot and Air Astana. We flew Air Astana and the experience was excellent. I wouldn’t personally recommend Aeroflot, as I am not very happy with either their customer care or response of the Delhi office. However, I know many who have had a great experience with Aeroflot and not with Astana. So, I leave it to you.
I also know people who opted for a dummy booking of tickets/ opting for fully-refundable tickets only to cancel them later once the visa is obtained. We did not do anything of that sort, so I have no clue about it. We took a chance, by booking partially refundable tickets through the official site of Air Astana, even before our visas were sanctioned. Do this only if you are damn sure of the dates of travel and have a lot of time prior to your travel. Because you never know why a visa may be rejected, though, the chances of rejection are minimal if all the required documents are in place.
Recently, airline companies have sent circulars and emails, asking customers to book their round trip tickets too with the same airlines. Which means, if you are flying out of India to Russia on a tourist visa by Air Astana, then, your return tickets should also be booked with Air Astana. So, do confirm this before booking your flight tickets.
While booking tickets through Air Astana, also verify if there is a StopOver Holiday Package on offer, and book accordingly. For example: When we were planning our Russia trip, there was this 1$ stop-over package for Almaty and Astana in Kazakhstan. And, we opted for it to visit Almaty. Another country to explore!
Getting around / Transport facilities
The best mode of transport in Russia to commute from one city to another is the train. And, to commute inside the cities, the options are either to walk or catch a bus or Marshrutka ( a shared taxi sort of thing) as most of the touristy places are often concentrated in one area as a cluster. In the case of larger cities like Saint Petersburg and Moscow, blindly trust the metro. Trams are slow and sluggish, so I suggest you to steer clear of them. Maybe take a one-off joy ride in them instead.
Purchase of metro cards
Metro is the best mode of transport, both in SPB and Moscow. There are metro cards especially handy for tourists, called Podorozhnik in Saint Petersburg, while in Moscow they are known as Troika.
You can buy them at the ticket offices of the subway stations by paying a small fee that gets refunded once you return the card. Top these cards with the amount of money you intend to spend in commuting through metros wither at the counters or at the kiosks or online. However, note that the un-used amount left in the card isn’t refundable.
Check this information as well to understand Troika: https://www.mos.ru/en/news/item/31475073/
Booking of train tickets in Russia
The trains in Russia are super-efficient and some of the routes are catered through bullet trains called SAPSAN and LASTOCHKA. And, of course, who doesn’t know of the famed Trans-Siberian train?
Almost all the destinations in the earlier suggested list of places to visit have airports except Veliky Novgorod and Suzdal. However, if you are on a budget, then the most economical thing would be to fly into either SPB or Moscow from your destination and then use the train to commute from one to another. For example, we flew from Delhi to SPB with a stopover at Almaty. From SPB we reached Moscow by the very efficient SAPSAN train. And, then flew out of Moscow to Delhi.
Do not fall prey to other unofficial sites for booking. Always book your train tickets, be it the bullet trains or the passenger ones through the official website in English of Russian Railways: http://eng.rzd.ru/
The website’s first page in English should look similar to the one below. Create an account on this and then you are ready to start with your booking.
Tips to book train tickets in Russia
- Although the website is in English, once we log in, the sub-pages may show up with Cyrillic font. Use the ‘Google Translate’ app to read these pages.
- Ticket pricing is dynamic and differs from seat to seat. Hover the mouse on the seating plan and it should show the price. Choose accordingly.
- Different classes of coaches have different pricing. Also, there are trains where just a few of the coaches are equipped with a restroom. You may want to consider this if travelling with kids.
- There are coaches where pets are allowed too. So, if you are Pet allergic like me, do keep this in mind while choosing the coach.
- Express trains provide a refund after booking, while some do not. And, the refund process in the latter case is quite a tedious affair, I heard. So, again keep this in mind while booking the tickets. Read the rules and regulations thoroughly so that you don’t incur a loss.
- There are numerous train stations in both Moscow and SPB. Make sure, you check the boarding point of the train, calculate the distance from your accommodation and then book the time slot as per your convenience. Dedicate a buffer time of at least 30-40 mins for boarding the train, and, another 30-60 mins for travelling across the city to reach the station.
- Take a print-out of the tickets and carry a copy along.
SIM, network connectivity and adapters
- There are four popular mobile network companies in Russia – MTS, BeeLine, Tele2 and Megafon. Almost all of them have the option of a tourist SIM. You can choose according to your requirements as each of them vary in their prices by a 100rubles or two.
- You can also purchase a SIM at the airport itself as we did. We opted for one Tele2 SIM at the airport. And, an MTS SIM later at a railway station. It cost us 600 RUB each and came topped with 40-80 minutes of free talk-time+ unlimited network data. You will need to show your passport and they themselves get the photocopy done.
- Make sure, you insert the SIM and get it activated at the outlet itself. There have been incidents when the activation has failed later.
- Also, it is advisable that you have international roaming activated on the mobile number connected to your international travel card or credit card so that you get your OTPs in case of any issue and also for receiving transaction SMSes.
- The network connectivity of both Tele2 and MTS is good. However, in smaller Russian towns, network connectivity is still an issue.
- Russia uses power plugs and sockets of type C and F. The standard voltage is 220 V while the standard frequency is 50 Hz. If the power adapter with the right pin reads “110-240 volts”, then the adapter is compatible.
By Chameleon, bran & plugwash – This file was derived from Schuko (CEE 7-4) rewirable. Wikimedia
There definitely was a language barrier with us being Tamilians and a majority of people in Russia conversing in Russian. Wondering what happened to the conversations in English? Well, you can’t expect the whole world to converse in a foreign language, isn’t it? Actually, we did use English as and when we could. However, we managed quite well with Google translate and also by communicating with signs.
Availability of Vegetarian/Vegan food in Russia
Russia is predominantly a meat-eating nation. Hence, vegetarian/ vegan dishes aren’t widely available. Steamed rice, mashed potatoes, soups made of vegetable stock, bakery products and salads are your best bet. SPB and Moscow do have vegetarian restaurants, however, it is quite a tedious task to search for that perfect resto that always seemed so elusive to us. Also, we noticed that even the MCDs do not serve a vegan/vegetarian version of their burgers there!
Look out for kiosks and push-carts selling an oval-shaped/ boat-shaped fried potato-filled buns called Pirozhki. They are usually priced between 25- 50 rubles. These are often sold alongside their meat-filled versions. So, ask for the potato-filled ones from the seller.
Indulge in flavoursome vegetarian soups and buckwheat porridges. There are a few vegan joints run by Jews. And, they make really filling and tasty falafel wraps. Also, are a handful of Indian vegetarian restos run by ISKCON devotees.
Often bakery products come loaded with fish and meat. As vegetarians, you may want to stick with egg-less pancakes, wheat blini loaded with sour cream and varenye ( a delicious fruit preserve).
If you’ve no qualms with eggs in your cakes and muffins, then there are a lot of options. Russia has its own version of doughnuts sans any filling or topping. They are made with just a hole and dusted with powdered sugar. It is known as a pyshki in Saint Petersburg and the places specializing in them are called pyshechnaya. Muscovites ( people of Moscow) call them ponchiki and the cafes that sell them as ponchikovya.
- I suggest carrying instant poha(an Indian delicacy) packets, ready-to-eat meals, instant noodles to supplement your food requirements. We prepared our breakfast and dinner on almost all days at our apartment while opting to have pastries and pies outside. This definitely helps a vegetarian to save time as well as money! Of course, we did taste plant-based Russian delicacies while travelling by trains.
- The departmental stores and supermarkets do stock fresh loaves of bread, cheese slices and farm-fresh vegetables. Buy them to prepare your own cheese sandwich and keep it handy to satisfy your hunger on-the-go.
Budget for a Russia trip
A two-week-long family trip to Russia is very much doable on a budget. It usually comes to around INR 65,000- 70,000 per person and even lesser for a solo traveller. While for a family of three, be prepared to spend close to 2.2 lakh INR to 3 lakh INR. You can save approximately 15K INR on flight tickets and another 30K INR if staying in hostels.
Here is an approximate break-up of our expenditure for two weeks in Russia. All the values are in INR.
ATM and money exchange
I suggest you opt for an international travel card to save on mark-up fee. ATMs are available almost on all streets of Moscow, SPB and are often concentrated around the tourist areas in the country-side. Certain banks do charge a currency mark-up and this gets shown on the kiosk screen once you insert the ATM card. Avoid those bank ATMs.
Carry dollars instead of rubles. And for emergencies, some amount of rubles in hand, around 3k rubles for each person, is recommended.
Digital money is not very prevalent in places like Suzdal, Vladimir and other smaller cities when compared to SPB and Moscow. So, do keep some change in the form of rubles at hand.
Nowadays, the immigration authorities at SPB want to make sure that visitors have enough money in their bank account. So be ready to show them the account details online. Anything above 2.5 lakh in your account should be a green signal for a smooth entry( for couples). Also, be ready to be interrogated on this and verification of hotel details for at least an hour.
Shopping in Russia
Shop for Russian chocolates, Matrushka dolls(nested ones), woollen wears, colourful Easter eggs and the ubiquitous souvenirs- magnets and key chains. In SPB, Nevsky Prospekt is the best area to shop while in Moscow either Arbat area or Izamaillovsky market would be an ideal place to shop for souvenirs.
- As in any country, be wary of picket-pocketers and fake guides.
- Do not buy museum and boat ride tickets from unknown sellers.
- Take care of your belongings when in markets and trains.
- Definitely, do not pick up fights.
- Above all, listen to what your instinct says…the gut feeling rules when travelling on your own. Use it to your max!
Apps to be downloaded for a Russia trip
- Google Translate – A must.
- Yandex maps – because google maps aren’t accurate most of the times in Russia.
- Yandex taxi – Uber does not work in many places.
- Download the apps of Booking.com and Airbnb in case you have booked your accommodation through them.
- Holy Cow app for Vegan and Vegetarian restaurants.
- Gismeteo to know accurate Russia weather.
Hope this Russia travel guide is comprehensive enough to plan your budget travel to Russia. Feel free to get in touch with me through the contact form for clarifications and assistance with your trip to Russia.
Photographs shot on: Google Pixel, One Plus and Sony Alpha
Pin Edits: Canva
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