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Planning a Trip to Russia: practical advice, health, customs regulations, and more...

Map of Russia

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     Russia is the largest country on Earth. Sweeping across the eastern part of Europe, from the Gulf of Finland in the north, and across the wide north Asian plain to the Pacific Ocean, it is a land that consists of contrasts that match the great expanse of terrain. Spanning a total of 17,075,200 kilometers (almost twice the size of the United States), the western and southern parts of Russia consists of rolling hills and flat plains.
   To the far south lie the Caucasus Mountains, near the border of Chechnya. A second range of low mountains (Ural) is located near the designated border between the two continents of Europe and Asia. The land between the mountain ranges includes the most heavily populated areas of the country. It is also the most temperate in climate.
   To the north and east of western Russia is an area known as the taiga (less vegetation and arable land) and further north, the tundra (permafrost). The taiga and tundra include vast areas of Russia, and much of the land there is unusable for habitation and agriculture.
   European Russia stretches from the borders of the states of Belarus and Ukraine to the Ural mountains, over 1000km east of Moscow; even without the rest of the Russian Federation, it constitutes by far the largest country in Europe. It was also, for many years, one of the hardest to visit. Today Russia is far more accessible, and although visas are still obligatory and accommodation often has to be booked in advance, independent travel is increasingly an option. Nonetheless, Moscow and St Petersburg remain the easiest places to visit, and these are covered below. For the adventurous, travel further afield can be booked through various agencies in Russia and abroad, and there are an increasing number of Web sites offering advice and travel services for the less standard routes.
    Moscow and St Petersburg are mutually complementary. Moscow , the capital, is hugely enthralling. It is not a beautiful city by any means, and is a somewhat chaotic place. However, Moscow's central core reflects Russia's long and fascinating history at the heart of a vast empire, whether in the relics of the Communist years, the Kremlin with its palaces and churches of the tsars, the wooden buildings still tucked away in backstreets, or in the massive building projects of the mayor, Yuriy Luzhkov, which have radically changed the face of the centre.
      By contrast, Russia's second city, St Petersburg , is Europe at its most gracious, an attempt by the eighteenth-century tsar Peter the Great to re-create the best of Western European elegance in what was then a far-flung outpost. Its position in the delta of the River Neva is unparalleled, full of watery vistas of huge and faded palaces. St Petersburg has not been revamped anywhere near as much as Moscow, which many consider a good thing, and it preserves a unity and stability lacking in the capital.
    You will not be bothered by the so-called Russian mafia in either city, but, as in any other big city, you should beware of petty crime.  
    If you have decided to travel to Russia, read the information you need to know about public safety, visas, crime, driving, health care, and more in our next section.
   Russia has few tourist offices . Most travellers use the information desks at hotels and hostels, but the best resources are English-language newspapers, such as the Moscow Times (daily) or St Petersburg Times (twice weekly), and free quarterly magazines available at leading hotels.    High-quality maps in English at very low prices are widely available from kiosks, street vendors and central department stores. Those maps most commonly found in the West are produced by Baedeker, Geocenter International and Falk, but often do not take account of streets which have reverted to their pre-Revolutionary names or of new metro lines.
Hostel Search:


Red Square-Moscow-Russia
   Russia has a largely continental climate because of its sheer size and compact configuration. Most of its land is more than 400 kilometers from the sea, and the center is 3,840 kilometers from the sea. In addition, Russia's mountain ranges, predominantly to the south and the east, block moderating temperatures from the Indian and Pacific oceans, but European Russia and northern Siberia lack such topographic protection from the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans.
   Because only small parts of Russia are south of 50 north latitude and more than half of the country is north of 60 north latitude, extensive regions experience six months of snow cover over subsoil that is permanently frozen to depths as far as several hundred meters. The average yearly temperature of nearly all of European Russia is below freezing, and the average for most of Siberia is freezing or below.
   Most of Russia has only two seasons, summer and winter, with very short intervals of moderation between them. Transportation routes, including entire railroad lines, are redirected in winter to traverse rock-solid waterways and lakes. Some areas constitute important exceptions to this description, however: the moderate maritime climate of Kaliningrad Oblast on the Baltic Sea is similar to that of the American Northwest; the Russian Far East, under the influence of the Pacific Ocean, has a monsoonal climate that reverses the direction of wind in summer and winter, sharply differentiating temperatures; and a narrow, subtropical band of territory provides Russia's most popular summer resort area on the Black Sea.
   In winter an intense high-pressure system causes winds to blow from the south and the southwest in all but the Pacific region of the Russian landmass; in summer a low-pressure system brings winds from the north and the northwest to most of the landmass. That meteorological combination reduces the wintertime temperature difference between north and south. Thus, average January temperatures are -8C in St. Petersburg, -27C in the West Siberian Plain, and -43C at Yakutsk (in east-central Siberia, at approximately the same latitude as St. Petersburg), while the winter average on the Mongolian border, whose latitude is some 10 farther south, is barely warmer. Summer temperatures are more affected by latitude, however; the Arctic islands average 4C, and the southernmost regions average 20C. Russia's potential for temperature extremes is typified by the national record low of -94C, recorded at Verkhoyansk in north-central Siberia and the record high of 38C, recorded at several southern stations.
   The long, cold winter has a profound impact on almost every aspect of life in the Russian Federation. It affects where and how long people live and work, what kinds of crops are grown, and where they are grown (no part of the country has a year-round growing season). The length and severity of the winter, together with the sharp fluctuations in the mean summer and winter temperatures, impose special requirements on many branches of the economy. In regions of permafrost, buildings must be constructed on pilings, machinery must be made of specially tempered steel, and transportation systems must be engineered to perform reliably in extremely low and extremely high temperatures. In addition, during extended periods of darkness and cold, there are increased demands for energy, health care, and textiles.
   Because Russia has little exposure to ocean influences, most of the country receives low to moderate amounts of precipitation. Highest precipitation falls in the northwest, with amounts decreasing from northwest to southeast across European Russia. The wettest areas are the small, lush subtropical region adjacent to the Caucasus and along the Pacific coast. Along the Baltic coast, average annual precipitation is 600 millimeters, and in Moscow it is 525 millimeters. An average of only twenty millimeters falls along the Russian-Kazak border, and as little as fifteen millimeters may fall along Siberia's Arctic coastline. Average annual days of snow cover, a critical factor for agriculture, depends on both latitude and altitude. Cover varies from forty to 200 days in European Russia, and from 120 to 250 days in Siberia.

Current Weather Conditions For Moscow, Russia

Current Weather Conditions For Saint Petersburg, Russia

Current Weather Conditions For Kazan, Russia

Russian Culture

Money and Banks

Russian Trip Advisor
   The official currency of Russia is the ruble, which is divided into one hundred kopeks: there are 1, 5, 10 and 50 kopek coins, 1, 2 and 5 ruble coins, and notes to the value of 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 rubles. Only notes and coins dated 1997 or after are valid.
   Despite the end of soaring inflation, prices in this guide are given in US dollars, a fairly stable measure of real costs - but in practice they're charged and paid for in rubles. It is illegal to pay in foreign currency. The black market offers nothing but risks: always change money in an official bank or currency exchange. Most banks are open Mon-Sat 10am-6/8pm, or later.    ATMs are now found in plenty, and using your credit or debit card to obtain cash from them is generally a safe way to get money in Russia. Some, however, have a very low cash limit per transaction, which may make your rubles expensive. You can also obtain cash from most banks with a card (Visa, Mastercard and Cirrus are the most widely accepted; problems may occasionally occur with Diners and Amex). Travellers' cheques are time-consuming and expensive to use.
   Be warned that Moscow is an expensive city, and the daily cost of life there is up to three times that of St Petersburg. In the provinces, life becomes ridiculously cheap

  Time zones of Russia

   The Moscow Standard Time Zone is 3 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time: GMT+3.  All Russian cities Time Zones are specified relative to Moscow Time:

Arkhangelsk 0Anadyr + 9Astrakhan + 1
Abakan + 4Barnaul + 4Blagoveschensk + 6
Belgorod 0Bryansk 0 Birobidjan + 7
Vladikawkaz 0 Vladimir 0Vologda 0
Volgograd 0Voroneg + 1 Gorno-Altaisk + 4
Grozny 0 Dudinka + 4Ekaterinburg + 2
Ivanovo 0 Irkutsk + 5 Igevsk + 1
Yoshkar-Ola 0Kaliningrad - 1Kaluga 0
Kirov 0 Tver 0 Kemerovo + 4
Kostroma 0 Krasnodar 0 Krasnoyarsk + 4
Kursk 0 Kurgan + 2Kazan 0
Kyzyl + 4Lipetsk 0 Maikop 0
Mahachkala 0 Magadan + 8Moscow 0
Murmansk 0 Nalchik 0Narian-Mar 0
Novgorod 0 Nignyi Novgorod 0 Novosibirsk + 4
Omsk + 3 Orenburg + 2 Orel 0
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky +9 Petrozavodsk 0 Penza 0
Perm + 2 Pskov 0 Rostov-na-Donu 0
Ryazan 0 Saint-Petersburg 0 Saratov 0
Samara + 1 Salekhard + 2 Saransk 0
Smolensk 0 Stavropol 0 Syktyvkar 0
Sochi 0 Tambov 0 Tomsk + 4
Tula 0 Tymen + 2 Ufa + 2
Ulan-Ude + 5 Ulyanovsk + 1Khabarovsk + 7
Khanty-Mansiysk + 2Chelyabinsk + 2 Chita + 6
Cherkessk 0 Cheboksary 0 Elista 0
Ujno-Sakhalinsk + 8 Yakutsk + 6 Yaroslavl 0
Vladivostok +7


Russian vacations

   Communications in Russia have improved greatly in recent years. Most post offices are open Mon-Sat 8am-7pm. All district post offices have poste restante ( do vostrebovaniya ) services. Both Moscow and St Petersburg have excellent express-letter post companies, such as Post International and Westpost, which despatch mail via Finland or the US for moderate sums.
   Street phones are good for local and international calls. To use them you need a phonecard (available in 25, 50, 100, 200, 400 and 1000 units from newspaper kiosks and post offices). Moscow's public phones are less numerous and less efficient than those in St Petersburg. Phone booths in airports and major hotels aren't always run by the city phone network, and are much more expensive. You can buy cards for these phones on the spot or use your Amex or Visa card. By far the cheapest option in St Petersburg (with off-peak discounts) is the Telephone Service Card, usable from any tone-dial phone (available in 300, 600, 1200, 3000 and 6000 units). Mobile phones abound in both cities, and GSM users will have no trouble plugging in to the local system.  Email and Internet access is offered cheaply in a number of Internet cafes.


   Petty crime , which presents itself mostly as pick-pocketing, is all that should worry you in Russia. Sensible precautions include making photocopies of your passport and visa, leaving passports and tickets in the hotel safe, and noting down travellers' cheque and credit card numbers. Do not carry large sums of money around with you and use a money belt if possible.
   The police ( militsia ) can be recognized by their blue-grey uniforms; some may be armed. If you do have something stolen , report it to the militsia : try the phrase " Menya obokrali " ("I have been robbed"). It's unlikely that there'll be anyone who speaks English, and even less likely that your belongings will be retrieved, but you'll need a statement detailing what you've lost for your insurance claim.
   Visitors to Russia are advised to get booster-shots for diphtheria, tetanus and polio. If you are on prescribed medication (particularly insulin), bring enough supplies for your stay, although high-street pharmacies ( apteka ) offer many familiar medicines over the counter. Foreigners tend to rely for treatment on private clinics , which charge excessively high rates, so it's a good idea to take out insurance.
Emergency numbers:
Police- 02; Ambulance- 03; Fire- 01
  When To Go Russia

   When to Come & Where to Go in Russia? If you want to come to Russia, your main consideration might be the weather, because there's always something happening in cities, multitude of outdoor activities for any time of the year and there are not so many tourists yet, so don't worry about tourist crowds. Here's when it's better to come, depending on your needs.

Purpose: Going Out (Partying) -
   The best place to come is Moscow or St. Petersburg. The best time to come is May, June, September, December to March. People are still (or already) in the cities, many things are happening, everybody is happy (May, June - the summer is starting; September - all the locals come back in the big cities from the vacations and they are happy and nice). At this time many things are happening at the clubs: famous Russian and foreign musicians and djs are invited, theater season is opened, there are many outdoor festivals and activities.
   For something off the beaten track try Barnaul (3 hours from Novosibirsk) in Siberia. This small town seems to have a lot of fun, discos, and is not far from picturesque Altay mountains. Besides, there are a lot of beautiful girls there.
Purpose: Outdoor Activities -
Any time of the year is good, because there are many things you can do in Russia: camping, hiking, trekking, rafting in Summer, early Autumn and late Spring; and skiing, snowboarding, and trekking in Winter.
The best weather for outdoor activities is during July and August (Karelia in North Russia - rafting, trekking, Baikal lake - swimming, trekking, camping,  Sayan, Altai mountains - rafting, hiking, Elbrus mountains  (Caucasus) - snowboarding ).
Also, there are many great place just outside Moscow and around Novgorod region that are interesting to visit at any time of the year.
Purpose: Visiting Russian Province:
Any time is good, but try to go to some remote village areas. We recommend Novgorod region and the Golden Ring towns.
Purpose: Getting Depression:
Do you want to understand the strange Russian character and to know why so many people here are addicted to vodka?
The end of October, beginning of November: the time of the first cold, when you just don't understand why it's so cold and there's even no snow! It's cold, the sky is clouded, it's wet and boring, so that you might have no wish to go outside of your house. The only thing that's left is to sit at home, broom, and drink vodka... but... not everything is so bad... the big cities are still full of life and if you are looking for indoor entertainment (clubs, restaurants, musems, exhibitions), then it is a good time to come.
Purpose: Trying Something Really Different:
Russian winter (December, January, especially the second half of January and February). Try to see as many places as possible: walk around Moscow, go to some remote area, and snowboard in Khibiny mountains.


    Most shops open Mon-Sat 10am-7pm or later; few close for lunch. Department stores, bars and restaurants stay open on Sundays.
   Opening hours for museums are 10am-5/6pm. They are invariably closed at least one day a week, and one further day in the month will be set aside as a "cleaning day". Note that ticket offices always close one hour before the museum itself. Churches tend to be accessible from 8am until the end of the evening service.  
  Russia's official national holidays have at last settled down, now that those associated purely with the former Soviet regime have gone, often to be replaced by traditional religious holidays. The current public holidays are: Jan 1; Jan 6/7 (Orthodox Christmas); March 8 (Women's Day); May 1 and 2; May 9 (Victory Day); June 12; Nov 7. Russians also celebrate the unofficial Old New Year on 13/14 January - according to the Julian calendar.

Food and Drink
   Russia vacation tripadvisor   Russian foodWhat is the Russian food? One can say that Russian food is what Russians originally eat. However, the lunch of a person who lives in Moscow varies much from the lunch of a person who lives in Siberian countryside. The cities are always in a hurry and the fast food is the permanent leader there. Meanwhile, nobody will like the taste of a hot dog in villages.
   Russians eat various dishes and traditional meals arent the only ones we like. So, Russian food in general is a set of traditional meals, which most Russians eat not too often.

   Moscow and St Petersburg now abound in cafes and restaurants , offering everything from pizza to Indian, French and Chinese food. Many cater to the new rich or foreign businessmen, but cheap and middle-range establishments are plentiful, serving food with a local flavour. Credit cards are increasingly accepted, particularly in Moscow, but not in the cheaper establishments.

Despite the increasing popularity of fast food and foreign cuisine, Russians remain loyal to their culinary heritage, above all to zakuski - small dishes consumed before a meal with vodka, as a snack or as a light meal in themselves. Herring is a firm favourite, as are gherkins, assorted cold meats and salads. Pancakes ( bliny ), served with caviar ( ikra ) are to be recommended; red caviar is very cheap and a worthy rival to the black.
   Most Russians take breakfast ( zavtrak ) seriously, tucking into calorific pancakes or porridge ( kasha ), with curd cheese ( tvorog ) and sour cream ( smetana ). Hotels usually serve a "Continental" breakfast, probably just fried egg, bread, butter and jam; ritzier hotels provide a buffet. The main meal of the day is lunch ( obed ), eaten between 1 and 4pm, while supper ( uzhin ) traditionally consists of just zakuski and tea. Restaurants , on the other hand, make much more of the evening meal, often staying open as late as 1am. Menus are usually written in Russian only, but an increasing number of places now offer a version in English (not always regularly updated). You can always ask what they recommend (" shto-by vy porekomendovali? ").    After the zakuski , the menu continues with soup . Cabbage soup ( shchi ), served with a generous dollop of sour cream , has been the principal Russian dish for the last thousand years. Zelyonye shchi - green (or sorrel) soup is a gourmet version of this. Beetroot soup, or borshch , originally from Ukraine, is equally ubiquitous, while ukha , fish soup, has become synonymous with pressing Russian hospitality. Russians don't regard even large meaty soups ( kharcho or solyanka ) as a main meal.
     Main courses are overwhelmingly based on meat ( myaso ), usually beef, mutton or pork , sometimes accompanied by a mushroom, sour cream or cheese sauce. Meat also makes its way into pelmeny , a Russian version of ravioli. Most cafes now offer some alternatives however, and Georgian restaurants always have interesting vegetarian dishes, such as bean stew or stuffed aubergines. Marinated fish is a popular starter (try selyodka pod shuboy , herring "in a fur coat" of beetroot, carrot, egg and mayonnaise), while fresh fish - usually salmon, sturgeon or pike-perch - appears as a main course in all self-respecting eateries.
   Pastries ( pirozhnoe ) are available from cake shops ( konditerskaya ). Savoury pies ( pirozhki ) are often also on sale - the best are filled with cabbage, curd cheese or rice; steer clear of the deep-fried ones at all times and of meat pies if buying from street vendors. 
   Desserts ( sladkoe ) are not a strong feature of Russian cuisine. Ice cream and jam pancakes ( blinchiki s varenyem ) are restaurant perennials (Russian ice cream is outstanding and is eaten even on the street when the temperature drops to -20C). Caucasian restaurants may offer the flaky pastry and honey dessert pakhlava . There are many varieties of cake ( tort ), but all tend to have an excess of butter-cream.

Vodka ( vodka ) is still the national drink, normally served chilled and drunk neat in one gulp, followed by a mouthful of zakuska . Highly popular are flavoured vodkas such as Pertsovka (hot pepper vodka), Limonaya (lemon vodka), Okhotnichaya (hunter's vodka, with juniper berries, ginger and cloves) and Zubrovka (bison-grass vodka), although the hard drinker sticks to the straight stuff.
   Beer ( pivo ) is increasingly threatening vodka's domination of the market. Russians drink beer in the morning to alleviate a hangover, or merely as a thirst quencher, and in recent years the country has begun to understand the term "lager lout". For specialists, the numerous local brands (in bottles and on tap) have an excellent fresh taste, with fewer preservatives than imports.
    Wine ( vino ) comes mostly from the vineyards of Moldavia, Georgia and the Crimea. Georgian dry and semi-sweet (such as Stalin's favourite, Khvanchkara) wines can be excellent, but Moldavian dry wine is more consistently reliable. The Crimea produces mainly fortified wines ( kheres or sherry and Madeira) from Massandra. 
   Tea ( chay ) is traditionally brewed and stewed for hours, and topped up with boiling water from a samovar (cafes have discovered the convenience of teabags). Russians drink tea without milk; if you ask for milk it's likely to be UHT.
   Coffee ( kofe ) is readily available and often of excellent quality. Smaller cafes often offer Turkish coffee - served strong and black. Tea and coffee often have sugar already added unless you specifically ask for them without.
   Juices and soft drinks from the usual market leaders - Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Schweppes - are available, but Russians love the bitter kvas and carbonated Baikal . Local mineral waters , with or without gas, can be recommended.

Best Of Russia  
   Russia is a beautiful country and you will enjoy your trip. At the same time it's quite different from other tourist destinations and you should plan your visit carefully.
   First question that you will face when starting to plan your trip - what is the best season to come to Russia. There are no doubts, you'd better go in summer. Summer in Russia lasts from June to August. July and August are the warmest months and the main holiday season. If you are going to Siberia or Far East, the most beautiful weather there is in September.  Winter travels have their special charm, but you'd better don't try if you are not used to subzero temperatures. 
   Rains in Russia are usual for any season, except winter, so take an umbrella with you. Even in summer the temperature sometimes is only +3...+5 degrees C, and warm clothes (jacket and sweaters) are necessary. Russians are not fond of shorts, you'd better take jeans. 
   Russia is a vast and diverse nation that continues to evolve politically and economically. Travel and living conditions in Russia contrast sharply with those in the Europe and North America. Major urban centers show tremendous differences in economic development compared to rural areas. 
  For most westerners, Russia is associated with its European cities- Moscow, St. Petersburg and Murmansk. This is the heartland of Imperial Russia, and these great and ancient cities often become the focus for most tourists. However there is much more to Russia, a country that spans eleven time zones and two continents, ending less than 50 miles from North America. Within this vast expanse lie the largest freshwater lake in the world, rivers and forests teeming with fish and wildlife, awe inspiring volcanos, and towering mountains. Russia is the largest country on earth, with enormous tracts of land that have been opened to travellers only in the last few years.
   Just as Russia's rich cultural heritage has once more come to life, its natural heritage too is a new country waiting to be discovered.

Things to do in Russia

   Select one of our most popular destinations

Moscow attractions - Central Russia
St. Petersburg attractions - North-West Russia
Novgorod attractions - North-West Russia
Sochi attractions - South Russia
Vladivostok attractions - Far East Russia
Kaliningrad attractions - North-West Russia
Petrozavodsk attractions - Republic of Karelia
Volgograd attractions - South Russia
Arkhangelsk attractions - North-West Russia
Vologda attractions - North-West Russia
Ryazan attractions - Central Russia
Samara attractions - Privolzhsky
Tula attractions - Central Russia
Vyborg attractions - North-West Russia
Krasnodar attractions - South Russia
Kazan attractions - Republic of Tatarstan
Vladimir attractions - Central Russia
Murmansk attractions - North-West Russia
Irkutsk attractions - Lake Baikal
Khabarovsk attractions - Far East Russia
Getting Around Russia 
     With an extensive and relatively efficient network of trains and (shaky) buses, you'll have few problems getting around the most populated parts of Russia. Regular Eurolines buses now connect major cities with the rest of Eastern and Western Europe.
    Trains and buses    Buying tickets for long-distance and international trains is easy these days. Hundreds of agencies can help you avoid queues at train stations, for a minimal commission, and foreigners no longer pay more for tickets than Russians. A dozen trains leave Moscow's Leningrad Station within an hour or so of midnight for the 8hr journey to St Petersburg, the most historic being the Red Arrow (#2). Many prefer the day train, the Aurora, which takes 6 hours, or the new evening train, at just 4 hours. All trains are generally safe and reliable, and cheap.
   Most of Moscow's and St Petersburg's outlying sights are accessible from mainline stations (separate ticket office for suburban trains). Suburban buses and efficient minibuses from the end of a metro line often go straight to the tourist attraction. Fares are also low, although state-run buses are often packed

Driving and hitching
   Traffic in the cities is heavy and many Russian motorists show a reckless disregard for pedestrians and other cars. Driving , therefore, requires a fair degree of skill and nerve.
   Unless otherwise specified, speed limits are 60kph in the city and 80kph on highways. Few car rental agencies offer cars without drivers, except for extremely high prices.
   Many Russians hitch , especially after the public transport system closes down, when you'll see people flagging down anything that moves. If the driver finds the destination acceptable, he'll state a price, which may or may not be negotiable; if you're not happy, wait for another car. Russians will usually pay the ruble equivalent of a dollar or so to ride several kilometres; foreigners are likely to be charged more. Don't get into a vehicle which has more than one person in it, and never accept lifts from anyone who approaches you, particularly outside restaurants and nightclubs: instances of drunken foreigners being robbed in the back of cars have been known. Single women should stick to official taxis.


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