31 useful tips to travel in Russia (by a Westerner)

31 useful tips to travel in Russia (by a Westerner)

Village in the Barguzin valley in Siberia, Russia

Russia, the world largest country is fascinating yet very intimidating for first time travellers.

Its portrayal by Western medias, the SMO started in February 2022 and the warnings of governements only show it as a very dangerous ennemy to be avoided at all costs.

Obviously, it is not. And if you are reading this, you think so too.

I have travelled many corners of Russia on different trips for over a year in total (including in the summer 2022).

Backpacking, hitchhiking, couchsurfing from Chechnya to Buryatia, during the four seasons and here is a list of 31 tips to travel in Russia.

Last updated : 21/04/2024

Moscow in Russia at sunrise
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It’s mandatory to have an insurance to travel in Russia and apply for a russian visa (including the e-visa)

I recommend Attollo Assistance (24/7 assistance, medical expenses up to 35 000 €, repatriation)


1 – Learn the Cyrillic alphabet + basic phrases

You will often hear “Russians don’t speak english”. Actually, the young ones totally can, but they choose not to and would rather a thousand times that YOU speak your 10 words of broken russian.

Why? Because #1 they are shy/not confident enough with their level and #2 related to the first one, they think you might make fun of them.

Also, people will highly appreciate you trying, it will open you doors of overheated russian apartments, babushkas will give you Soviet sweets and you might even get a smile !

2 – Don’t smile at strangers

You have a natural b*tch face ? Good ! You will fit very well in Russia !

Smiling is a display of happiness, and hapiness is private there. If you smile at strangers, they probably won’t smile back, they will just think you’re a weirdo.

Note : it really depends where you go. People are much warmer outside big cities and in the South of Russia.

3 – Buy a local SIM card

Buy a local SIM card on your first day in the country. You can get a lots of data for less than 10€/month. It will be very useful to get around in public transports, call a host or book a taxi.

Megafon and Beeline are the most popular, but make sure to get the appropriate one depending on where you are heading. Megafon works great in big cities but Beeline has more coverage in the southern villages of Russia for example.

The 3 best SIM cards to get in Russia

4 – Don’t skip Moscow or Saint Petersburg

Of course this blog is all about “off the beaten track” Russian destinations but still. These are the “two capital cities” of Russia : So much architecture, art, food and more to discover and experience !

The 19 essential places to visit in Moscow
The 19 essential places to visit in Saint Petersburg

Exterior view of the Ermitage palace in Saint Petersburg in Russia

5 – Book your taxi online

Don’t hail a taxi in the street, you will most likely get ripped off. Instead order it directly on Yandex Go, the russian version of Uber.
In Crimea, Yandex Go doesn’t work, instead locals use maxim.

6 – Don’t be afraid to use buses & marshrutkas

Russia has buses and marshrukas going absolutely everywhere. I mean, almost. Don’t be afraid to jump in one.

Check Yandex maps, find the right bus number, ask the babushka waiting next to you at the bus stop if you’re not sure.

In many smaller towns you can still find a “ticket lady” (most of the time, but might be a man) collecting money from passengers.

However, if you don’t see any, DON’T seat in the front. You will end up passing the money from passengers behind you up to the driver if the bus is packed …

And people telling you things in russian you probably won’t understand. Been there, it can be awkward.

The price of the ride is written near the bus driver and you can also pay by card if you own a MIR one.

7 – Download Google translate

Or Yandex translate or any translation app. You can totally have a whole conversation through that. Young and middle aged people are comfortable with it.

I would advice you to download the offline languages, there might be no phone signal during your train journey, and chances are if the old man sleeping in the top bunk bed above you finds out you’re a foreign tourist, you will have a new buddy in 10 minutes !

8 – Travel in Platskart

The platskart aka the third class in russian trains is in my opinion safer as it’s all open, cheaper and let’s be honest, you are going to Russia for new experiences, right ?

Well that’s the ultimate and most authentic one for sure !

9 – Get a russian MIR card

If you plan to travel all across Russia for weeks, then open a bank account and get yourself a local MIR card.

(Pointless if you only stay a week in Moscow or Peter in my humble opinion)

Following the 2022 Western sanctions, Visa and Mastercard aren’t operating in the country anymore but it is super easy to obtain a russian MIR card.

You will be able to easily book your train tickets or accomodation online with it.

How to open a Tinkoff bank account and get a MIR card

A woman's hand holding a Tinkoff enveloppe with bank cards in Russa=ia

10 – Eat like a local

Of course, nothing new here. It goes for any country around the world. It’s also true in Russia.

You will pay triple for pelminis in a touristy restaurant instead of going one street away in a less fancy café for the exact same pelminis.

Stolovaya, a sort of canteen are available everywhere in Russia. Cheap and very popular, you will find the most common russian food there.

11 – Don’t drink tap water

Unless you are in the middle of the Altai mountains, don’t. Russian people will all tell you not to.

Many buildings are old and Soviet pipes haven’t been replaced.

You will often find large gallon of water in hotels/hostels’ corridors to refill your own bottle, and any little shop sells bottles of fizzy or still water.

12 – Keep your hands OUT of your pockets

If you travel in winter obviously. You might not even notice the ice under the snow until your a** is on the ground.

It hurts but if your hands are out, you might have a chance to make it less painfull.

13 – Don’t greet someone across the threshold

It is considered impolite and believed to bring bad luck. One of the many Russian superstitions …

14 – Count your flowers

Numbers matter. Odd numbers of flowers are for happy occasions, even ones for funerals.

So if you have a date with a pretty Slavic girl, make sure to give 13 flowers and not 12 (or more : the bigger the bouquet, the better), or you won’t get a second date.

A russian woman holding a large bouquet of pink roses

15 – Take your shoes off when entering someone’s home

Take off your outdoor shoes and enjoy your pair of most likely oversized tapochki, aka slippers.

Every Russian home has plenty extra (oversized or undersized, depending on your luck) slippers for guests !

16 – Use Couchsurfing

There are so many people across the country registered on Couchsurfing. Wether you just look for someone to hang out or an actual host, many young people are very excited to meet foreigners !

I got hosted in various places across Russia, from an isba in Siberia to a village house in Dagestan (actually there, a “CS request” is done right in the street).

You will meet amazing people and get to experience “real Russia”.

17 – Carry your passport

It is actually mandatory by law in Russia to carry your passport with you at all time.

They check your ID before boarding a train, or you might need to register at a checkpoint in the Caucasus for example.

18 – Don’t bribe the police

Firstly, because you’d only be feeding the already badly corrupted system, and also because you could get caught and end up in HUGE troubles (remember you are the foreigner in Russia).

So whether a bad cop is annoying you to get some money or you want to go somewhere and thought about giving out extra cash to get a quicker and easier access : DON’T.

Lower body of an armed russian soldier at a military post in the mountains of Ingushetia in the North Caucasus

19 – Chivalry is not dead

If you’re coming from Europe where in my opinion chivalry is dead and buried, you will be very surprised : in Russia is it absolutely not !

Ladies, men will help you to carry your backpack above your bunk bed in a train without even you asking for help.

Guys, give your seat away in the metro or bus to an elderly or pregnant woman. Uncomfortable stares will make feel you so awkward that you will anyway.

20 – Be aware of prices

In touristy places you better be aware of prices and check your change. Overcharging a foreign tourist is not uncommon in the Red Square or on Nievsky Prospekt …

21 – Taste food from former Soviet countries

If you wish to get a taste of Uzbekistan or Georgia for example, you can easily find restaurants in big russian cities (and even smaller towns) to eat their national food.

Don’t miss out the opportunity because the cooks are most likely from these countries living in Russia.

And honestly Georgian khachapuri and Uzbek plov are probably some of the best food ever ! (I’m a picky French person so trust me on that).

Close up view of a georgian khinkli

22 – Dress appropriately

I’m not just talking about Orthodox churches here. The second largest religious community in Russia are Muslims.

Guys, don’t wear shorts above knees in the middle of summer nor ladies show too much skin in any muslim majority region such as the North Caucasian republics. Be respectful and aware of local customs.

If you travel in winter, layer your clothes. People will tell you “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing”.

23 – Don’t drink only vodka

It’s so cliché and you might be surprised to learn that many young people don’t even drink vodka.

However, the beer scene is growing huge in Russia !

There are also so many other alcoholic AND non alcoholic beverages to try. To name a few : kvass, medavukha, cognac, samagon (watch out for that one!), kefir, compot, mors etc

24 – Be aware of national holidays

Trains and planes might be fully booked as well as hotels/hostels in popular destinations. It is also good to be aware of them so you can take part of the celebrations !

For example New Year’s eye is HUGE in Russia and Maslenitsa is not to be missed if you’re in a Slavic populated region.

There are also tones of regional celebrations across the Federation.

Russians people swinging on handmade swigs in the forest near Moscow during the winter festival of Maslenitsa in Russia

25 – Be prepared, you might be yelled at

Yep. I have experienced it a couple of times at least.

It can happen in busy environement, in Slavic regions mostly (never happenned to me in the more laid back Caucasus for instance).

It can happen because you’re on someone’s way or you didn’t understand that the bus made its last stop and you have to get the hell out of it …

What to do if it happens to you ? Either yell back in your mother tongue (this is me not taking my own advice) or just don’t pay attention and move on.

However don’t yell at a babushka, they respect elderlies overthere. And she will probably yell louder than you anyway.

26 – Don’t compete with russians at drinking

You will end up in a hospital before them. They won’t stop until they can’t stand.

Plus, there are many more ways to have fun in Russia, trust me.

Row of Smirnoff vodka bottles in a russian supermarket

27 – Experience the Banya

A trip to Russia is not complete if you don’t experience the russian sauna named Banya.

To sweat out half of the water your body countains and get smacked with venik branches by a stranger or a recently made Russian friend is a must do !

28 – Be prepared for limited personal space

Wherever you are in Russia, your personal space is going to be reduced. From crowded metro to queueing, people will be a lot closer to you than you expect from “cold and unfriendly looking people”.

29 – Don’t leave too much space while queueing

If you do leave too much space (say 50 centimeters) between you and the person standing before, somebody will overtake you thinking you are not actually queuing … I am not kidding you.

30 – Be spontaneous

Because russians in general are. So if you meet friendly locals and they want to take you to some place, you can be sure to be on your way within the next five minutes !

31 – Don’t be afraid to go to “uncommon destinations”

Russia is huge and most of it is quite unknown to foreigners. But that doesn’t mean you have to stick the the main cities and tourist attractions.

Contrary to popular beliefs, Russia is a safe country for tourists (yes even with the current events, just avoid being near the Ukrainian border).

You saw a great and weird sounding name on the map? Go for it and ask locals on the spot, you will discover a warm and friendly whole new world away from the clichés !

A winter forest road covered of snow in Russia
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