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Traveling to Russia

We are thinking of traveling to Russia next year - we would like to see the Hermitage. Is there a better time of the year weather-wise to go? What about crowds there - any time to avoid because of crowds? I haven't started researching any of this yet. We are thinking of going on our own - not with a tour. Thanks.

Posted by
178 posts

The only thing I know about is the extremely detailed information required for a visa to visit Russia. Be sure to allow enough time to do this.

BTW,there is a very active thread on this topic at the Fodor's site.

Posted by
20597 posts

And the visa is expensive - in the range of $200 to $250. The one advantage to a tour is the visa is taking care of by the tour operator.

Posted by
1417 posts

We went in July a few summers ago and it was cool. We wore slacks or jeans and a light raincoat. We were off a cruise so we didn't have to worry about the visa but we did hire a private guide for the 2 days. St. Petersburg is worth the visit.

Posted by
6542 posts

We went to St. Petersburg a year ago on a cruise, and toured the city for two days with a gov't. approved tour guide. We had 10 people in a Mercedes van with a driver. The tour guide was like having a history professor, and we had passes to get into the Hermitage before the crowds. We also took a hydrofoil about 15 miles out to the Summer palace. We found the underground stations are unbelievably ornate--and named after soldier heros.
St. Petersburg is simply one of the most beautiful cities we've ever been to. I would be hesitant to go to Russia by my self, despite being a seasoned traveler. They don't use the same alphabet lettering we're used to, and a tour guide every day would really be required to see everything you want to see.
The cruise ships are the best bang for your buck to see the region, and you need to go no later than the first of September.

Posted by
1386 posts

Thanks for all your comments. Very helpful. I think I'd better purchase the Rick Steves' book and start studying up. We've traveled to Europe a lot but never to Russia, and I feel a bit intimidated by it. Learning more will help I'm sure.

Posted by
1386 posts

One other thing (maybe I'll figure this out once I research more), but I have relatives in Sweden and was thinking of visiting there and then heading over to Russia. Where have you all flown from?

Posted by
7165 posts

Been to Russia twice (Moscow & St Petersburg both times) so I've been through the Visa process twice. Don't waste your time doing it yourself - the process is filled with an unbelievable amount of red tape and that famous communist work ethic. We used this place both times (after first attempting to do it ourselves)

http://cibtvisas.com/

We visited both times in July and were met with an intense sweltering heat wave on the first visit and cool crisp temperatures on the 2nd visit. We hooked up with Dan Petrov for Moscow to take us around and for St Petersburg we hired a toursbylocals.com guide to take us to Catherine's Palace in Pushkin.

Hopefully if you go all the way to Russia you'll visit more than just the Hermitage :-)

Posted by
2933 posts

We spent three weeks in St Petersburg last September , it was an absolute joy . We obtained the visas ourselves after numerous suggestions that it would be a fools errand to attempt it . If you can fill out an application and provide required documentation , you should not have any difficulty . We flew from New York , and it was no different than any of our other transatlantic flights . The visas are now valid for three years ( same price as a one year visa , $160 USD , about $250 USD , if you process the application via ILS , as the Russian Consulate recommends ) Since we dealt directly with the Russian Consulate in NYC , the fee was $160 / person . We are returning to Russia next Autumn to visit Moscow and St Petersburg again . Visiting independently is our preferred way to travel , and we found Russia no different than any of our other destinations in the past .

Posted by
1386 posts

This is all so helpful!! Thanks. I'm wondering if you found the people friendly when you visited? Any problems with that?

Posted by
2933 posts

We found that the people we encountered were like those we have met in other countries . Naturally , there is a language issue , but I found that it was no different than anywhere else ( While my wife and I can manage French to some degree , we were no more handicapped in St Petersburg , than we were in Budapest or Prague , for example . Sign language , learning a few key words , and a surfeit of smiles ,accomplished a great deal . One of the day trips that we took from downtown was to an island twenty five miles out in the Gulf of Finland to see a stunning Orthodox cathedral . We managed without a hitch , and were able to communicate with the bus driver where we were headed . He kindly alerted us to our stop .

Posted by
10 posts

And the visa is expensive - in the range of $200 to $250.
I/m not sure about it... I bought my visa more chiper. At about 15$ for invitation letter

Posted by
11153 posts

You may have gotten the invitation letter for $15, but that's merely one step in the process. The visa fees themselves are much higher than that, as Steven posted.

The visa process changes regularly. I was able to do it myself in 2001, but gave up in frustration in 2010 and used a service. Be sure you familiarize yourself with the latest procedures to avoid problems; you must follow all the rules exactly to get a visa.

If you are going to Russia on your own, you can manage by yourself in Moscow and St. Petersburg, provided you are comfortable in very large cities and that you learn the Cyrillic alphabet. I used the book Teach Yourself Beginner's Russian Script; it's out of print, but here are some newer editions with cheap used copies: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=teach+yourself+beginner%27s+russian+script

This book made it easy by breaking it down into components: letters that are the same in English, letters that look the same but sound different, etc.

If you won't be learning Cyrillic, you will be miserable trying to go on your own. With Cyrillic, I was able to read subway stops and make my way around. I found enough English speakers and enough English menus in Moscow and St. Petersburg for my needs. However, I took a side trip with my Russian-speaking sister to the Golden Ring towns of Vladimir and Suzdal, and this would have been absolutely impossible without her help; almost no one spoke English.

And while the Hermitage is great, it has paintings by artists you can see in other museums. Be sure to see the Russia Museum, with artists you can't see outside the country. In particular, The Wave by Aivazovsky is breathtaking, and alone justifies the trip. Of course, there's lots of other great things to see in St. Petersburg. Look at Lonely Planet or Rough Guide (whichever has the newer edition).

Posted by
2933 posts

Take what Harold says about Cyrillic to heart . We obtained the book he recommended , and it was a great help . Current consular fee per person is $160 USD .

Posted by
10889 posts

If I were there I would leave a day or two free to take a drive down to the borders with the Baltic States about 150km. I understand the Russian troop build up is spectacular. I read someplace that they had more tanks on the borders of the Baltic States right now than the total number of tanks that existed in all of WWII. I cant see how that's possible but I bet its enough to be an amazing sight! Well, maybe not if you live in the Estonia or Latvia or Lithuania.....

Posted by
22 posts

This is bit late, but in case you're still curious...I've been to Russia a few times in the past 3 years for work...

Weather - anytime except early/mid spring when the snow's melting. It's dirty and cars splash the dirt everywhere, it's pretty bad. My favorite things in St. Peterburg - fountains at Petergof and river tours - are best in late spring/early summer. White nights are from middle of June to early July. Summer has the benefit of lots of daylight hours - its gets dark at 9 and light by 4am.

I took a tour of St. Peter's palace (lets you skip lines and get group pricing). You can ditch them once you get in, just let them know.

Get a Russian sim card - US plans are $$$ for Russia and local plans are dirt cheap. I paid 330 RUB ($5.50) for 1000 minutes and 6GB from MTC - less than what you'd pay per minute with Verizon. SIM was free and worked fine with my iphone (they set it up for you if you ask).

Get a cab phone# from your hotel/airbnb host - they're not expensive with the RUB/USD rate and public transport is often late. Cabs stand outside major tourist locations, but calling one via phone to the same place is half the price. Plus they send you a text with the car type and license plate # - good to have if you lose something in the car. Cabs are regular cars with a taxi light on top.

Locals are ok. There is some anti-Americanism due to sanctions...it's focused on the US govt, not Americans people. Unless you plan on standing on Red Square screaming Putin sucks...you should be fine :) In big cities you can speak English, in more remote areas it's harder. Schools in Putin's time (2000+) have English from 1st grade...so younger people and bank workers speak at least some English.

I'd avoid American food - the ruble's drop made it expensive - so it's probably old. Americans (that I know) see cheap Russian food and think it must be bad, it's too cheap... Russian made food is cheaper bc it's local and it's often fresher due to turnover. It's normal to go to a restaurant and spent $15 for two people or to see: Napoleon (local) 300 RUB, tiramisu (imported) 750 RUB. The latter is just an exchange rate/sanctions adjustment.

A quick link (right click translate): http://speterburg.biglion.ru/ Russian groupon. In Moscow 2 mo ago, beauty salons were booked with Italians/Greeks getting facials/botox/massages/etc. at the low RUB price. Quality was good in my experience, often better than here (NYC) - Russian women are big on beauty, the most god forsaken nail salon has 6 options for a French manicure.

Posted by
10889 posts

We visited Moscow for Orthodox Christmas one year. I think it was 2012, because I know it was after the Russian invasion of Georgia but before the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Getting old and my mind is going I guess. Anyway, the people were “okay” and I guess since we weren’t there long it would be unfair to characterize them one way or another. What surprised me were the glorious subway stations that Moscow is so famous for. They were filthy, full of homeless and vomit. Stunk to high heaven.

Still, it was an amazing trip. For someone of my generation to walk Red Square was sort of a rush. Still, never been so cold in my life (Orthodox Christmas in January 5th). For public transportation we “hailed” illegal cabs (had a Russian speaker with us). Also an amazing experience.

My wife just reminded me it was January of 2013, the same year Russia passed the anti-gay laws. We attended Mass at Kazan Cathedral. A new and very special experience. I say we “attended” this was an event that went on all day long. People walk in for a period of time then leave. We spent 2.5 hours. The devotion was moving. We stayed at the Hotel National a 5 star hotel at reasonable prices cause no one in their right mind goes to Moscow in January.

Oh, and despite the warnings, the food was pretty decent. Not amazing, but absolutely nothing to complain about.

Posted by
22 posts

Subways sounds about right, full of homeless people in the winter (they're better in the summer). They're worth a look because of the (IMHO) beautiful decor, but they close for the night at 12 or 1am. I prefer cabs to actually get places, or driving (but that's an adventure of its own - I'd discourage it unless you're a great driver). Cabs are half price now thanks to the exchange rate. Hailing is (last few years I guess) discouraged, so I ordered via the phone - that way they have your name and you have all their info just in case.

If you want to save $$, you can get an apartment on airbnb. I've tried (not a fan of hotels in general) and worked out fine for me.

Anti-gay law is (again IMHO) greatly exaggerated. It prohibits teaching gay lifestyles in schools. There are gay show business people in Russia. I think it's some kind of dare thing for people to kiss a same sex person on Red Square ...saw it a few times recently...people stopped and looked and laughed. Nobody was arrested/shot/sent to Siberian gulag/etc. like some US media would have you think.

Posted by
10889 posts

Actually I think it's broader than that. But i wont argue it cause im no expert. Just a heads up if you enjoy an alternative life style and are planning on going to Russia. Worth investigating so you know what to expect. Also worth noting if you have gay friends, you might not want to tell them that you are doing business with ..... It ticks me off when I have to skip a perfectly good vacation so I don't seem to be supporting these attitudes and actions.

I am going to try and get to the Baltic States before I have to spend hundreds of dollars on a Russian Visa to get in.

I think the company that got my visa was CIB and it was worth the money. Quick and easy. But expensive.

Posted by
5700 posts

Tour operators generally don't provide visas; they provide the invitation letter but you are required to then get the visa which is simple to do with the application available to download on line, but requires a lot of information (like the contact information for our last 3 jobs/bosses by name, every country you have visited in the last 10 years (I am lucky that I kept the old passport or i would have been clueless there) all the schools you have attended yadda yadda. It takes awhile to get and is expensive; go ahead and get a 3 year visa -- it costs the same as a 5 day one entry visa. We went to St. Petersburg for 9 days last year and spent 4 nights in Moscow and 5 in St. Petersburg this fall. I highly recommend late summer and early fall -- we have been in August and in September and had really good weather for both. If you are not in a city with local consulate then you have to do the process by mail and it costs another hefty amount for that processing.

Posted by
1386 posts

I'm amazed at all the good experience and suggestions people have about traveling to Russia. Thanks so much.

Posted by
31 posts

We had a private guide for the Hermitage, and it was well worth it. I would suggest visiting in warmer months. We had gone in November, it was a bit cold. City is gorgeous but massive. As with anywhere, brush up on the language and understand your maps very well.

Posted by
10889 posts