Quick Guide: Plan your trip to Mother Russia

2018-05-21 13:51
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Moscow at winter night

Moscow at winter night (Photo: iStock)

Russia, the world's largest country offers travellers and visitors an experience of a lifetime. From vodka-soaked nights in historic urban centres to days spent appreciating art and idyllic countryside landscapes, from train rides through Siberia to detoxifying steam bath, from ski trips in the Caucasus to great hikes around the deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal - Mother Russia has it all.

With a country as huge as Russia, travellers can expect an incredible amount of diversity in landscapes, cultures and activities. Straddling Europe and Asia, Russia is a rich, unique country that exhibits the confluence of continental influences in its architecture, culture, foods and beyond.

The average, fairly well-informed traveller will be aware of Moscow and St Petersburg as being some of the premier attractions the country has on offer but there is so much more on offer. If you are after European Russia then you have a lot to look forward to, from swirly-spired, onion-domed churches and buildings, ancient fortresses and glorious, gleaming palaces to the seats of political and military power.

If you’re searching for inspiration and culture then Russia will deliver in spades. The home of literary giants including Pushkin and Tolstoy, the world-renowned Bolshoi (Moscow) Ballet and famed artists Ivan Argunov, Dmitry Levitzky, Vladimir Borovikovsky certainly does not lack for sources of inspiration.

Check out our handy quick guide for you to enjoy this wonderful, enigmatic country. Na Zdorovie!

READ MORE: Cool things to do in Russian cities you didn't know existed 

Here's what you need to know if you go:

  • Visas: As of April 2017, holders of valid South African passports, by mutual agreement, are exempt from visa requirements for a period not exceeding cumulatively 90 days for holiday and business visits.
  • Passport validity: You require passport validity six months
  • Costs: Not applicable
  • National Carrier: Aeroflot
  • Airport Hub: Moscow, Sheremetyevo International Airport. See the full list of airports here 

Useful app to download: SVO (iOS, Android) app for flight and related information.

  • Flight Route Access:

An average economy class ticket starts at about R6 500. South African have access to Russia via its two major port-of-entry cities: Moscow and St Petersburg. The most affordable flights to Russia are often stopover flights, operated by airlines such as Emirates, Etihad Airways, Lufthansa, Swiss Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways and British Airways.

  • Flight time: Moscow (14 hours and 46 minutes long) and St Petersburg (14 hours and 46 minutes long).
  • Currency: Russian Ruble 
  • Medical and health:

No vaccinations are required to enter the Russian Federation. However, it is always advisable that one is immunised against hepatitis A and hepatitis B before departure from South Africa. In Moscow, immunisation against hepatitis A and B, is available at the British Clinic located in the British Embassy for citizens of all Commonwealth countries. Costs for an injection is about $52 (R653,28 at $1/R12,56). Influenza is common.People who are to stay longer than 3 months in the Russian Federation should present an Aids Test Certificate together with their visa application when applying for a visa to the Russian Federation.Don't skimp on travel and medical insurance either as it is always good to be prepared for any eventuality.

READ: Magical St Petersburg is Russia's wanderlust charm 

  • Religion: Predominantly Russian Orthodox Christianity. Russia is, in no small part due to its Marxist-Leninist history, also home to a substantial atheist community.
  • Travel Adapter: Yes - 220V, 50Hz (Type C and F)
  • Country code: +7
  • Time Zone: (UTC+2 to +12) Russia extends over many time zones. For simplicity, Moscow is an hour ahead of South Africa while Vladivostok in the far east is 8 hours ahead. 
  • Emergencies: Dial 101 for the fire brigade, 102 for police and 103 for an ambulance.
  • Public Transport:

Equal parts sightseeing destination and efficient mode of public transport, the Moscow and St Petersburg metros are the best way to get around.Russia is fortunate that it has good public transport systems that combine bus, trolleybus and tram in addition to the metro systems mentioned above. In the main, public transport is cheap and user-friendly, but you’ll save yourself a lot of stress if you plan ahead and prepare to translate some Cyrillic. If you’d prefer taking a cab consider downloading Gett Taxi, Yandex Taxi. Uber works in Moscow. Unless you’re fairly confident speaking in Russian or you don’t mind being ripped off - avoid the cabs, they’re just not worth the trouble.

Useful App to download: Gett Taxi or Yandex Taxi for getting around.

  • Climate:

Russia is extremely cold in winter (Dec-Feb) with temperatures ranging from -1 degrees centigrade to -40 degrees centigrade.

Summer (June-August) is relatively warm. 

Due, in no small part, to the colossal size of the Russian Federation and The enormous size of Russia and the dislocation of many areas from the sea have resulted in the dominance of a humid continental climate, which is prevalent in all parts of the country except for the frigid tundra and the extreme southeast.

The country is vulnerable to influences from the cold Arctic and Atlantic. Northern Russia and Siberia have subarctic climate which sees the regions experiencing severely cold winters that have reached record lows as extreme as -71.2 °C.

The coastal part of the country between the Kuban River and the Black Sea, noted for the resort town of Sochi, possesses a humid subtropical climate with mild and wet winters. Russia really only has two distinct seasons - summer and winter - where winter runs from December through February and Summer runs from June through August. These periods are marked by massive, distinct shifts in weather from very high temperatures to extremely cold ones.

  • Best time to go: 

Depending on the what kind of activities you are looking to partake in while in Russia, the best time to go varies.

The high season - from June through September - is the warmest time across the country. This is also the peak season for locals to go holidaying so prices are likely to rise for most things. From late spring the country is awash in the natural shades of seasonal change seen in the greenery. This is also the perfect time for some of the more culturally-enthusiastic travellers as major events such as the Victory Day parade and others take place. 

The low season is the coldest time in Russia running from November through April. Snow is falling as fast and hard as the temperature. This is the perfect time, however, if you’re looking to enjoy Russia for its vast assortment of ski resorts, museums and galleries.

  • Language: Russian

Useful phrases to know:

Do not expect anyone to speak comprehensible English in Russia. Even in the major cities (though you may encounter exceptions) English is rarely spoken outside of specifically tourist-oriented spaces such as international hotels or hostels. Learn a few key phrases to make your stay more enjoyable.

Useful app to download: Duolingo makes learning a new language easy and fun.

  • Greeting – khoroshiy den' dlya tebya (good day) or Dobryy vecher (good evening) or Zdravstvuyte (hello) and Proshchay (goodbye).
  • Meenya zavoot… (my name is…)
  • Da  (yes)
  • Nyet (no)
  • skol'ko eto stoit (how much is this)?
  • Spasibo (thank you)
  • Krasivaya (beautiful)
  • Vkusno (delicious)
  • Ya plokha gavaryoo pa rooskee (my Russian is bad)
  • Vi gavareetye pa angleeskee? (Do you speak English)?
  • Bozhe moy (oh my goodness )!
  • izvinite menya, gde…. (excuse me, where is ...?)
  • privetstvuyu vas (cheers to you)!
  • vodka pozhaluyst (vodka please)

 Practical Tips:

  • Need cash? Look out for the sign/word “bankomat” and you should find yourself an ATM.
  • Credit cards are fine and commonly accepted in major areas but don't expect them to be accepted far off the beaten path.
  • It is expected that you will tip in restaurants and cafes, but, in the main, it is not expected elsewhere although it would likely be appreciated.
  • Russia is an orthodox, deeply conservative country so blatant displays of homosexuality are largely frowned upon. While it isn't illegal, the promotion of an LGBT lifestyles is. What constitutes promotion is not quite clear so keep the displays of affection for your private time.
  • While informal dress is fine in the main, Russians are noted for their formality especially when going into finer establishments. Dress formally like a local and never feel uncomfortable or out of place.
  • Russia is also a superstitious country. When visiting homes, never shake hands until you have crossed the threshold and you are fully inside. It is considered unlucky to do otherwise. Also, when visiting, always bring a gift.
  • When you shake someone's hand make sure you don't have a glove on as it is frowned upon.
  • The stereotypes are sometimes true. You should expect to take some shots of vodka when eating with Russians as toasts are common and traditional.
  • Referring to the above point - don’t refuse the shot, it’s seen as rude.
  • If you invite someone out to eat you should expect to pay for the entire bill.
  • Don't walk around smiling at strangers you'll just end up looking insane. Russians reserve their smiles for moments that genuinely warrant them.
  • Be modest when visiting religious sites - shoulders, torsos and thighs should be covered out of respect.
  • You can expect to do a lot of walking so comfortable, slip-proof shoes are a good idea. 

Top attractions in Russia: