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Independent Travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg

My wife and I have traveled independently to many European countries and, after reading many of the comments in this forum, feel like we may be able to do so in Moscow and St. Petersburg as well, although we feel somewhat less comfortable than the other countries where we have traveled in Europe.

My biggest question is how much we will miss by visiting the main sites without a tour guide. In the other European countries we have visited on our own we have been comfortable and satisfied with the level of knowledge we have gained by studying and visiting on our own, although we believe a tour guide or tour company in any country would normally be able to provide greater insight than visiting a site on our own, but about in Moscow and St. Petersburg?

Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Posted by
4637 posts

Unless you speak at least some Russian and read the alphabet it would be difficult without a guide. Very few signs in English especially in Moscow. Also not too many people speak English there.

Posted by
3460 posts

I visited St Petersburg last Autumn for a protracted period , and did not find it anymore daunting than any other European city . As Ilja says , learning the Cyrillic alphabet is a big plus . I also found that it was fairly easy to grasp . It will , among other things , enable you to read signs with relative ease . I would answer the main part or your question ( about tour guides ) thus - I am not enamored of tour guides or tours. While I only use a tour under duress ( A sites rules prohibiting an independent visit - ie Glasgow School of Art , Municipal House in Prague , etc ) . Doing your own preparation and homework is the best way , in my opinion . My wife and I ventured through St Petersburg with nary a concern ,and made two day trips outside of the central district ( one was twenty five miles away , and no English speakers in sight ) Figuring out the logistical details , did not present any difficulties . While I never use tours , I am an inveterate eavesdropper , have done so many times , and find , that on balance , the information that they impart is fairly elementary . If you want greater detail , they are unlikely to supply it . I also prefer to go at my own pace , not being rushed and being able to dwell on things that most other visitors barely give a passing glance . If you are interested , let me know . I would be happy to provide you with information that will enable you to travel independently

Posted by
14 posts

Thank you, Steven. I am encouraged by your comments and feel the same way you do about tour groups. We are very much willing to prepare in advance and learn the basics of the Cyrillic alphabet to help us have a better experience.

I would be very interested in learning more about your experience in Russia and receiving any additional information you can provide on independent travel there, starting perhaps with obtaining the visa.

I am not opposed to hiring a private or small group guide for a specific site or for a day trip outside St Petersburg and Moscow, but, like you said, I much prefer the freedom of staying at places as long or short as I want and seeing the sites that interest me most. For example, neither my wife nor I are big into shopping, yet most tour itineraries leave afternoon time for just that. Not interested!

Please provide whatever you may feel would be helpful for us.

Posted by
439 posts

Having always traveled independently, we thought we could do a better job than any tour. How misguided (pun intended) we were. Now that we have had the experience of having someone native to the area walk us around and explain things through a personal perspective we realize how much we missed. For St. Petersburg I highly recommend http://www.peterswalk.com/tours.html. This is not a traditional guided tour, but an opportunity to receive some orientation to the area as well as insight into the "Russian soul". I think if you did this upon arrival the rest of your time would be much more meaningful.
We really liked the http://www.pushka-inn.com. The location is superb (just around the corner from the Hermitage square), the rooms lovely, the included breakfast at the restaurant next door ample and overall an excellent value.
We used this company to get our visa:https://www.passportvisasexpress.com/site/san_francisco_customer_service Note that it costs about the same for a 3-year visa as a one-year, and you never know if you might want to return within that more extended window of time. It is not cheap, so factor that into your planning.

Posted by
11288 posts

If you like traveling without a guide in other countries and find this satisfying, the same will be true in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Of course it's not either/or - you can certainly take a guided walk or boat tour, for instance.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning Cyrillic if you're going on your own. The book I used was Teach Yourself Beginner's Russian Script, which was great. It breaks down the alphabet into letters that are the same as English, letters that look the same but are pronounced differently, etc. It's out of print, but you can get used copies on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Teach-Yourself-Beginners-Russian-Script/dp/0071419861/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1459701143&sr=8-2&keywords=teach+yourself+russian+script

Russia is indeed a bit more "foreign" than say, Italy. However, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I found enough English to be able to get by. Many restaurants had English menus and/or English speaking staff, for instance. This was most emphatically not true in Vladimir and Suzdal (two cities in the Golden Ring outside Moscow). I went with my sister, a Russian speaker, and if she hadn't been there, I would have been in big trouble. So, if you want to see places outside these two big cities, use a guided tour (even if just for that part). Also, Moscow and St. Petersburg are huge cities. Coming from New York, I wasn't intimidated, but those not used to a megacity may not be so cavalier (even I found them overwhelming at times, especially Moscow).

I found both Lonely Planet and Rough Guide to be helpful, and both to have various errors. Look at both, buy whichever one has a more recent edition, and then be prepared to have to discard some of the advice therein. Also, these places change more quickly than places in Western Europe. Be very careful of outdated advice. For instance, I was there in 2001 and 2010, so I won't give you any specifics on getting a visa - that changes constantly.

Just as a teaser, two things I saw and loved that I doubt would be included in any escorted tour are the Gorky House in Moscow (an Art Nouveau wonder) and the Sheremyetov Palace in St. Petersburg (it's now a museum of musical instruments, and the decor is amazing, particularly in the Etruscan Room).

Posted by
14 posts

Thanks for all the good advice. Any additional thoughts are welcomed.

Posted by
6628 posts

This is about you and not about Petersburg. Do you like guided tours? We don't and didn't find that a guide added to our experience in China where we did hire private guides mostly for the logistics; it was easy to have someone drive us places. But once at a site, we didn't need the guide. I felt the same way about our 9 nights in Petersburg. We did hire a guide for the trip to the Catherine Palace again for the ease of logistics for us Olds. Here is our visit: https://janettravels.wordpress.com/2016/01/23/an-easy-trip-to-the-catherine-palace/ There are also snapshots of the Church on Spilled Blood in this photo journal. Having someone pick us up at the apartment and get us in without line ups and shepherd us through the palace steering clear of the tour groups was lovely. But we didn't need commentary because we can read and prepare.

You certainly don't need a guide for the Hermitage (we spent 4 days there), the Russian Museum, the Kazan Cathedral or Church on Spilled Blood or the Faberge Museum. We enjoyed a number of self guided walking tours including a couple from Rick Steves guidebooks. We took the canal cruise suggested by RS that had an English commentator. I would not take one without that as you will be totally clueless. The commentator was not all that good but at least we had some idea what we were seeing. So for people like us who like to do our own thing and can read a guidebook and don't particularly like to be led about, a tour is not needed. If you enjoy tour groups, then go for it. Petersburg is easy to negotiate. It helps if you can read the cyrillic alphabet and it is also useful to have the google translate ap on your phone. We found ourselves translating packages in grocery stores with it and the occasional museum sign or menu. I have one food I need to avoid and so it was handy to have the translator to talk with waiters (I could either show them the sentence, or play it for them or play it to myself and then repeat it to the waiter -- that all worked well)

Posted by
104 posts

Dear Russ,
I cannot help you with Moscow, but about four years ago, my husband and I went to St Petersburg on our own. But, we did use a private guide for 4 half days. We both feel that our guide absolutely made our trip (we stayed 6 or 7 nights). We used a company owned by Tatyana Chiurikova, www.tour-stpetersburg.com I cannot say enough good things about her and our experience. I emailed her and we worked out a schedule/ sights that was tailored to our interests. She also offered some recommendations, which we took. The guide will meet you at your hotel. And frequently, at certain places, with the guide, we were able to skip the long entrance lines. We had an half day driving tour of the city (car, driver, & guide). You are taken to & go in places such as Peter & Paul Fortress, some of the cathedrals, etc. We had a half day with the guide at the Hermitage which ensured that we would see the major sights there. And, of course, you can stay after your guide leaves or return another day. Also, we had the guide for Peterhof (a must & go by boat) and Catherine's Palace. I hope that you will go to the website. As I said, our guide made our trip. I am positive that we would have missed quite a bit on our own everyday. And I'm sure we would have wasted a lot of time trying to get to various place.This was the best of both worlds, a guide where needed and plenty of time on our own. Whatever you do, I'm sure that you will love St Petersburg! Ashley

Posted by
6628 posts

I am curious about the lines as we encountered no lines on our trip -- but it was in September. We got tickets for the Hermitage at machines and skipped those lines and our guide for the Catherine Palace which was our only guided experience (as noted before, chosen for the logistics of getting there) had arranged tickets and we didn't have a line, but then we also didn't see lines. We did not find lines at any other site.

Posted by
2487 posts

Both Moscow and St Petersburg I've done on my own, that is together with the Dear Partner. I can't remember any problem getting where we wanted to go. The Metro systems are well signed, and with a little exercise and patience you can recognize the station names. With a good map and a good guide - we had the Rough Guides - that part of the logistics is solved. The language is a major problem, but the usual tricks of pointing, looking helpless, and making a joke of it all do wonders.
I would hate to be led by a guide, but for others it is a comfortable thought.

Posted by
1730 posts

We also did both cities on our own. I found the DK Eyewitness guide for Moscow has the best map. I used the one from our library (kept the book at home). Took the smaller RS book for St. Petersburg ( his book on northern cities). His map and restaurant ideas were all good. We also downloaded the Google maps in our Android Samsung tablets/phones for both cities and then could get directions to any place we typed in. The blue ball guided us everywhere. I'm sure we missed somethings by not having a guide, but we just enjoy walking around and getting a sense of a place. If you like art, The Hermitage is great. We went 3 times and still missed alot. In St. Peterburg we stayed at the 3 Mosta which we loved (quite and not far from the Church of Spilled Blood.) We also loved the Georgian food in both cities. There's a great Georgian restaurant near the 3 Mosta hotel. We're now in Belarus- very scenic. Enjoy your trip!!