Well for those of you that followed the How To Plan An International Trip Series, you know that extensive planning went into this trip to Russia, and needless to say it was all worth it! Moscow, Dmitrov, and St Petersburg were amazing experiences that any seasoned traveler needs to look into if they have not been there yet. Once I stepped foot off the metro station from Sheremetyevo ( Аэропорт Шереметьево) amidst a rainy snow and 1,000 other travelers getting off the metro I was completely taken by this country. Russia is the largest country in the world, Moscow is the largest city in Europe, and New Year's Eve is their biggest holiday. I knew this was going to be a more than an above average trip before even boarding the plane, but it was reaffirmed within seconds of being in Russia.
All 3 cities were incredible, their beauty, food, culture, history, art, and people were second to none in my travels. As always as a budget traveler, we rely on the people to make the trip, we are not going to be ushered around in limo's and led by highly paid tour guides. We are going to do it on our own, and the locals and everyday people will be there for us if we treat them right. This was highly the case in Russia, and as always, credit where credit is due. I must gratefully thank my friend Ira in St. Petersburg for all the tour planning and help with the country. Especially also for making the city of St. Petersburg a part of my travels I will never ever forget. Thank you Ira.
So let's go over your essential check list for Russia, here's what helped me so much, and what I would love for other travelers to experience in their journey's:
- LANGUAGE: Ok this must be covered first. Some Russians speak English, but many do not. You may be able to get by with pictures on the menu and sign language, so speaking Russian may not be essential for the budget traveler, but reading Russian (Cyrillic) is a must. Don't be afraid, the alphabet is different from ours but many letters are the same, and the alphabet can be learned with minimal practice. You will need to know Cyrillic for the streets, directions, and metro stations. This is easy to Google or pick up a book from the library, however! If you are going to be in Russia for awhile, or the trip is really important to you as it was to me, I really recommend learning the language as much as you can. I cannot begin to tell you how much Russian's appreciated me for speaking a decent amount of Russian. It also helped with crooked cabbies which we will get to later. As always, the top system I recommend for a budget traveler is the Pimsleur system.
- Where To Stay: Proximity is everything in budget travel, we stayed at The Petrovka Loft Hotel in Moscow, the rooms were a decent size, you share the bathrooms, but they are really well maintained and the staff was great. It is less than a 10 minute walk to Red Square and very central to many of the things to do in Moscow. For St. Petersburg it was The Nevsky Central hotel, right on Nevsky Prospekt, also central to just about everything in St. Petersburg.
- If you are a museum or art lover, prepare to fall in love daily. The Tretakov Gallery and Pushkin Museum in Moscow are fantastic, but nothing beats the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. We are talking centuries of art worth billions of dollars all yours to see for a few hundred rubles. You can easily spend a day here, but if you are on a time crunch as budget travelers usually are a few hours is nice too.
When looking for the Hermitage, you will walk thru Palace Square, if you see this, you found it.
- Heat: Ok everyone knows Russia is cold, especially if you go in winter or over New Year's, but a warning to travelers, when you get in a taxi, a museum, a restaurant a bar, it can get hot! Just like how foreigner's aren't used to American AC, you may not be used to Russian heat, in our hotels we kept the windows opened all night to avoid sleeping in a sauna.
- Russian Bath Houses: speaking of sauna, this is a great way of cultural immersion if you are brave enough. It's sexually segregated, so don't get too hopeful about meeting a girlfriend/boyfriend for your trip here. But if you want to relax your body, and sweat out the vodka you've been drinking, this is the way to go. I went to the world famous Sanduny Banya. It's a little hard to find, there is not even a sign in Russian, but there will be a door man that will lead you in. It's a little expensive, around $65 USD if I remember correctly, but well worth it, and nothing else like it. You sit in the sauna, then can relax in a cold pool or cold bath. For an extra optional fee you can pay to have a Russian beat you with a twig stick, I didn't do this one, it's supposed to help with circulation, let me know how that goes for you!
- The Overnight Trains: This trip originally was going to be the Trans-Siberian Railway circuit, but was changed due to life, budget, etc. However I still did the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Most people budget and non-budget will opt for this over the air route. Since you are a budget traveler, you will travel second or third class. 2nd you share a room with 3 other people, 3rd with 49 other people. I actually loved practicing Russian and wanted to do 3rd class but it was sold out so I had to do second, the tickets go on sale 45-60 days before departure date and you better book asap because they sell out quickly. I'm 6 feet/1.8 meters tall, so also just be ready for tight spaces, I barely fit. It's not the most comfortable ride, but for the adventure and to see what you can see in the darkness as you leave and in the sunrise as you arrive, it's pretty intense. You can also do the day train and see everything but as a budget traveler remember it will save you a night on hotel if you do overnight. Credit where credit is due, no one explains the Russian trains better than this guy.
All aboard at Moscow's main rail station.
- Dog Sledding! Ok, this is not quite budget travel, my buddy also complained that is was too short, you drive for about 2 hours to the forests outside Dmitrov and sled for about 15 minutes. It's around the same price as bungy jumping in New Zealand though which only last 15 seconds. The couple that runs it actually really just love dogs, the tour is a bonus, the dogs are friendly, and you can also tour where they breed them. Our tour guide was also awesome, we had lunch with her and learned so much about Russia you can't learn from tour books or the net. For those of you who are animal lover's, or animal right's activist, do not worry, these dogs don't like to run, they LOVE TO RUN. You will know when you get there! You also get a good look into the suburban and rural areas (Dacha houses!) of Russia that the typical traveler may not see. Book it here. Oh and remember you are a budget traveler, this involves a little bit of driving off road in the snow, be ready to help push the vehicle out of snow as we did!
- Night Life: Ok.... Deep breath... if you like to drink and party, you better really like to drink and party in Russia. Firstly, don't stereotype, Russian's love vodka, but most Russians we met drank whiskey coke. The vodka is great though and so is Baltika beer (the American PBR equivalent for the budget traveler). Let me give you a little idea of the night life, for New Year's Eve we went to this bar Gogol (named after a famous Russian writer not the web giant Google I love for hosting this site). The bar didn't open till 1am. I don't know what time it closed (I heard 11am from the grapevine), but I got home at 7:30 a.m. Best hangover ever! There is no shortage of bars in Moscow or St. Petersburg, and there is just about every type of bar you can think of. If you happen to get in to a bar fight as we did, not my fault or my friends by the way, after the rumble: good news, you don't get kicked out! They just make you guys sit in separate areas and you can have a vodka and laugh about it after. Drink prices are on par with any big European or American city. They also have face control in Russia, if you are ugly they don't let you in. I'm not kidding, but my wrecked mug got in everywhere so I'd really just worry if it's crowded and you like to hang out at douche bag places.
Hell yeah! Take a good look at this picture for memory, this will be your field of vision on the way home.
- Taxi's: suck. As they do in most countries. Agree on the fare before you get in, and very different from USA, I recommend taking unmarked cabs, I think the marked ones have an app called "American Tourist" which rapes your wallet. Big warning on your way to St. Petersburg airport, the terminals are MILES away from each other, like different airports practically. We screwed up and went to Terminal 1, with minimal time to our departure we had to take a taxi between terminals. This was the only time I had to use the Russian curse words I learned to yell at the driver. We ended up paying him half the fare which was still a huge rip off, around $30 for a 10 minute ride.
- While some of the best things in Russia are free, walking to Red Square, the GUM if you don't buy anything, Palace Square, a stroll on Nevsky Propekt, many historical churches, walking on the embankments of Moscow or canals or St.Petersburg, some things have little charges that you may not typically have in USA or other countries, water, salt, ketchups, etc. Whenever you order anything you may want to double check if there is a fee if it is normally free in your home country. "это бесплатно?"
- Speaking of Churches, it would be a sin to skip St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, or the Church of Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. You will have no trouble finding either.
Along the canal to the Church Of Spilled Blood, St Petersburg
- No one does ballet like the Russians, unfortunately a trip to the world famous Bolshoi Theater in Moscow or Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg is quite expensive. If ballet is your thing, by all means save some money and go, now for those of us that are budget travelers and just want a taste of Russian Ballet, there are many small theaters that with minimal knowledge of Russian you can Google or use Google translate to help find tickets, or an even better option, the Mariinsky Theater understands us budget travelers well, they built the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, an alternative to theater and much cheaper! For an amateur viewer of ballet, I was extremely impressed and had plenty of rubles left afterwards to do more!
- Free ice skating: You can rent a pair in Gorky park, or just have fun cruising anywhere in Moscow, I don't know what the laws are on shoveling but ice was everywhere, so watch your step!
- Food: Russian food is incredible! They serve pancakes with everything, the soup is the best I've had in my life, not just Borscht, every soup, and if you are a carnivore, you are in for some good meals! Prices are similar to any expensive city in the states, but if you go to restaurants in basements or off the main streets you will find better deals.
- I went to more museums than I can remember, but the top ones especially if you are short on time that have not been already mentioned, the Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg (Woolly mammoth skeletons!), the Erotica Museum in Moscow for you adventurous types, Peter And Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, and of course The Kremlin in Moscow (long wait usually, but well worth it, you will be admitted into several places with one ticket).
- Souvenirs: if you are going to get vodka, I'd get it on the way out, it's fairly cheap and you won't have to deal with carrying it around the whole time, and you won't be tempted to have more when you get back to your hotel toasted. They have mini bottles in the airport as well if you are buying for other people. Little gift shops are all over as well with typical tourist souvenirs you won't have any difficulty finding them!
Going over New Year's was so exciting, plus summer is Russia's peak tourist season so it was even better to be there in the off season, avoiding lines, and getting a little taste of Russian winter. There is so much to see and do in this country for every type of traveler, so you will have no trouble having a great time and experiencing everything Russia has to offer you.If you are ready to journey to Russia, just be ready for everything, because that is exactly what Russia is going to give you.Enjoy my video of this trip: