Russia is a vibrant, exciting country with a long and varied history, and, despite what you may hear, is an excellent travel destination. All enthusiastic travelers should have Russia on their bucket list. The world's largest country, spanning from the Baltic to the Bering Seas, has something to interest everyone.
That said, if you're from America, you've probably seen a lot of negative portrayal of Russia in the news, and with decades of political tension between the two countries, diplomatic relations could be better. However, after years of being closed-off to tourists during the Soviet Union, Russia's tourism industry is thriving, and with a little pre-travel research, you're sure to have the trip of a lifetime.
All American tourists will need to apply for a visa before entering Russia. Most tourists qualify for the standard Russian Tourist Visa, which are usually relatively easy to apply for, but you will need a letter from either a Russian tourist agency or an invitation from a Russian citizen.
The most common tourism visa applied for by U.S. citizens is a three-year multiple-entry visa, which grants the holder as many visits as they'd like over the course of the three-year period. The fee for a tourist visa is $160.
Sure, in Moscow and St. Petersburg there will be English speakers in most places, but outside major cities, you'll have hard luck finding anyone who speaks a word of it. In rural areas, most people don't learn English because they get few English speakers passing through.
On the other hand, many Russians have a good grasp on the English language but don't rely on it. Practice some necessary phrases — Russians will appreciate that you are trying. And don't forget a phrase book!
We tend to have this idea that Russian weather always resembles Siberia in winter, that Russians go about the day wrapped from head to toe in furs, but that's just not true. Summer in Russia tends to be beautiful, and St. Petersburg is famous for its hot summers. Look up the local weather forecast before your trip, and pack accordingly.
If you are traveling in summer, remember to dress appropriately. In many Orthodox churches, women should cover their heads and wear long skirts or dresses, and men should not wear hats. Sandals are also terribly unfashionable in Russia, so wear some light, closed-toe shoes instead.
Russian tap water is notoriously bad to drink, not only because the quality can be questionable at best, but it also has a heavy, metallic taste. While it's common to order tap water at a restaurant in the U.S., Russian restaurants serve bottled water.
Russian consumer rights watchdog Rospotrebnadzor tests the tap water and says it's safe to drink, but it's still not the best. Minerals in water sources and plumbing in old buildings can lower the quality of tap water, so it's recommended to either buy bottled water or a reusable filtered bottle.
Like the rest of the world, Russia is making the switch from cash to card, but it's a slow process that is going to take years. Familiarise yourself with the ruble, Russia's currency, and take at least a little with you when you go sightseeing.
Major businesses will take card but small shops might not. There also might be fees associated with using your card, especially at ATMs, so exchange some currency before traveling. As with any destination, remember not to carry large amounts of cash on you.
This one is especially important — do not get into political discussions with Russians. They love to discuss politics and will be very eager to hear your opinion about President Putin and the Russian elections, but even if you have one, don't give it.
Russia is a politically charged country with very patriotic citizens, and it could cause tension if you express an unfavorable opinion. Saying negative things about the Russian government could get you in a lot of trouble, and the last thing you want is for your hosts to think you are rude and incompetent.
There's so much more to this huge country than Moscow and St. Petersburg, and though we often joke about Siberia being in absolute isolation, it is actually filled with urban cities and expansive natural landscapes.
Take the famed Trans-Siberian Railway, an adventure in itself, and stop off at the colorful city Irkutsk, in eastern Siberia, which looks like a huge gingerbread village. From there you can visit Lake Baikal, an ancient freshwater lake and the deepest in the world, and get away from the excitement of the big city.
In all of Russia's big cities, public transportation is the best way to get around. Trains and buses are cheap and efficient, and while taxis are sometimes quicker, they can be a more costly alternative to the transit system.
In Moscow, however, the Metro is an art museum, a living piece of history, and a great way to get from Point A to Point B. The first underground system in the Soviet Union, it was opened in 1935 and quickly became famous for having some of the most beautiful stations. And all it costs to see these antique stations is about $1 per one way trip.
In America, the people you interact with on a day-to-day basis are usually overly friendly, always wearing a smile, whether in customer service, at a restaurant, or even the highway tollbooth. Friendliness is something that comes inherent to Americans, whether or not it's necessary.
In Russia, however, you'll find it's the opposite. Russians don't feel obliged to smile every time they approach you when you're sitting in their section of a restaurant, nor will the ticket salesperson at the museum speak in unnaturally chirpy tones. Russians are known to be blunt and straightforward, so don't take it as rudeness, rather, a difference in culture.
Since the Cold War, Americans have been filled with anti-Soviet propaganda, and after decades of the Soviet Union closing itself off from the world, Westerners might have some reservations about the mighty country. But what you hear in the media tends to be exaggerated, and daily life in Russia is a lot more mellow than what you're led to believe.
There's nothing scary about Russia; in fact, it's a beautiful country and locals welcome tourists. It's no more dangerous than visiting any other European country, and petty crime like pick-pocketing is about the worst you'll have to worry about. So relax, arrive prepared, and enjoy your trip to Russia.