First Timer's guide to Russia

September 14, 2020

From what to pack and how to pay, to what to drink and how to drink it – here’s all you need to know about your first trip to Russia


It’s safe

There’s always a nervousness that comes with being in a foreign land, however, apart from a bit of petty crime and the universal themes of scamming and overcharging tourists, you are unlikely to find yourself a victim of violent crime. You may be behind what used to be the Iron Curtain, but Moscow and St. Petersburg are now first world cities and with a bit of common sense (just like you would practice at home), you can travel to most places without bother – even as a solo female traveller. As a side note, be careful about taking any snaps next to government or military buildings. In the event of a stolen wallet or passport, hit up your hotel to help you reach out to the local police and your embassy.

Get a local SIM card

The data and roaming are cheap and even if you’re using free WIFI, you often have to sign in by using a local phone number. You will need to show your passport to buy a SIM card.

A busy street in Moscow, Russia.
A busy street in Moscow, Russia.


Get familiar with the lingo

When all the visible text is in an unfamiliar script it can be a culture shock but familiarising yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet will help you adjust – you already know half the letters, anyway. Once you learn that ресторан means ‘restaurant,’ кафе means ‘café’ and такси means ‘taxi’, you’ll find that locating a place to grab a bite is a piece of cake. Learning a few pleasantries and key phrases will also help your stay go smoothly. Translation apps are now at the stage where you can have a stilted conversation with someone you can’t necessarily understand – another reason to get that local SIM card!

Get a metro card

The traffic in Moscow and St. Petersburg is awful, so heading underground to the metro is a must. This is easier and cheaper if you buy a multi-ride card which can be topped up.

The historic Izmaylovsky Kremlin of Moscow, Russia.
The historic Izmaylovsky Kremlin of Moscow, Russia.


Don’t use the metre

Contrary to the conventional wisdom in most destinations, don’t use the taxi metre in Russia – even in an official taxi. Rather, if you know where you are and where you’re going, you can negotiate a fare first. Ask at your hotel for ballpark figures, beforehand. If the driver insists on using the meter, it’s likely to be rigged, so find another taxi. If they do not speak English you could always point to the Cyrillic word in a guidebook or map, and barter through pen and paper. If this is all too much, fear not: the West’s ubiquitous ride app has made it through the Iron Curtain. Uber drivers are plentiful, cars are clearly marked and the app means that speaking the same language isn’t a necessity.

Pack a mac

The Russian weather can be quite changeable, even in the height of summer. Take a small bag to carry a brolly, raincoat or light sweater. Female visitors should also throw in a scarf and a sarong as many visit-worthy religious sites will insist that women cover their heads and wear a long skirt. Men are expected to wear long trousers and take off any hats.

A Russian music festival featuring local music.
A Russian music festival featuring local music.


Book ahead

As tourist hotspots are bustling in the high season and may have a daily limit on visitors, it is essential to buy tickets to some attractions ahead of time. This is especially true of the top-tier sites in Moscow and St. Petersburg, namely the Kremlin, the Hermitage and the Winter Palace.

Papers, please

Always carry a photocopy of your passport as police can demand to see it for any reason and you probably want to keep the original under lock and key back at the hotel. You might have to show it when buying some tickets, too.

Tourists take in the stunning interiors of the Moscow Metro Station.
Tourists take in the stunning interiors of the Moscow Metro Station.


Don’t drink the water

Although it’s safe to brush your teeth and wash your face with tap water, don’t drink it. Bottled water is plentiful, cheap and a must.

Cash out

Even though most places will accept VISA and Mastercard, exchange some cash in advance so you have some on hand for tips. Once frowned upon given that most service staff are salaried, tipping is now expected in restaurants – 10% of the bill is the norm.

The opulent Grand Cascade, in Peterhof, St. Petersburg, Russia.
The opulent Grand Cascade, in Peterhof, St. Petersburg, Russia.


Dress to impress

When Russians go out on the town, they dress up. With this in mind, you should have at least one snazzy outfit in your suitcase. Dressing down will make you stand out (for all the wrong reasons) rather than help you blend into the local scene. Be mindful of your footwear and observe dress codes. You wouldn’t want to be refused entry into some posher, hipper establishments.

Down the hatch

We’re not encouraging you to drink, but when in Russia, you really should learn how to drink like a local. Vodka is never drunk with a mixer. Inhale the fumes over the shot, exhale and then throw it back in one go (sipping is for tea, after all). Then swiftly eat one of the tapas-style snacks atop a slice of rye bread – these will automatically be served with your drink. To say “cheers” in Russian is especially challenging for non-native speakers so opt for za-vas, a formal “to you.”