5 Risks and 5 Rewards of Travelling to Russia
Travel light, travel safe, and have fun! Russia’s culture, its history and its landscapes make it one of the most fascinating, intriguing places in the world. If you’re prepared beforehand, you’ll make the most of your time and come back safely with some wonderful tales to tell.
The palaces, museums, art galleries and cultural activities in Russia are amazing and highly recommended.
The magnificence and opulence of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg bring the might and power of Imperial Russia to life. The green and white façade with its Rococo-style decoration and the magnificent Staterooms have entranced visitors to the palace since its restoration in the 1950s.
Russia is famous for its classical ballet companies, but there are many other fascinating dance forms as well – like the colourful traditional folk dances of the entrancing Moiseyev Dance Company or the incredible excitement and fire of the folk dances of the Georgian State Dance Company; by turn ceremonial, working, lively or comic. Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow and The Russian Museum in St Petersburg have two of the country's finest collections of Russian art, with over 400,000 artworks covering the complete history of Russian art.
Participant in the Georgian Autumn Folk Festival in Tbilisoba
A trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway is a wonderful way to venture right into the heart of Russia, if you have a spare couple of weeks and are up for a long adventure. If you’re pushed for time or not up for a long trip, travelling on the Moscow Metro is a must, not just because it is extremely efficient but also because some of the older stations are absolutely beautiful and architectural gems in their own right. Mosaics, magnificent stained-glass windows, beautifully painted ornate ceilings, and crystal chandeliers all make for an unforgettable train stop, wherever you’re headed.
For something different from your average day spa, try an authentic Russian banya (bath) - a sauna, followed by a dip in the freezing snow and ‘pushing’ - a 10-minute lashing with scalding hot birch branches. Guaranteed to raise the circulation, if not the temperature! Degtyarniye Banya (Degtyarniye Baths) in St Petersburg is one that the locals frequent, but also caters for tourists. Not many people speak English but the staff are very helpful. Many hotels also offer banyas.
Russia has a colourful and tragic history – from the Tatar period to the Imperial Tsars, the Revolution, the post-war Soviet regimes and the present day – the narrative of the strength and endurance of the Russian people is legendary. There are many wonderful monuments to the unique struggle of this country – Lenin’s tomb, the Kremlin, Red Square, Kazan Cathedral and many others.
Russia has beautiful artefacts quite unlike anything you will see elsewhere. Try the Izmailovsky Open-Air Market near Moscow to experience the atmosphere of a small Russian village as well as purchasing a beautiful piece. They are not antiques but have been painted referencing traditional Ikon techniques that have been used for centuries. Ikons can be purchased from church and museum shops – bought this way they should be authentic and you should pay the market price. Or consider a Pavlovo Posad shawl – these beautiful tapestry-like shawls form part of traditional dress. Russia is also famous for its beautiful amber – do not expect a bargain price for the real thing, and buy from reputable jewellery shops to ensure you are purchasing genuine amber. A speciality of the St Petersburg area is Khokhloma - wooden household objects decorated with vivid flower patterns painted in traditional red, gold and black.
Not everyone will speak English and people are not always as ready to help as in other more conventional tourist places. In many places, English is negligible. TIP: Take a phrase book (in case there is no wi-fi) and learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet so that you can match street signs to maps (you cannot do this with Roman letters) – this also helps when asking locals for directions.
There are often three sets of prices: American (most expensive), other foreigners (closer to the local price than the American price) and the price for locals. TIP: Learn to say "Nyet American" very quickly, and dress like the locals so that you don’t stand out as a tourist – no sneakers or puffer jackets! Alternatively, take a local shopping with you.
If you’re a female, most of the churches and cathedrals, which are really beautiful and worth seeing, will not admit you unless you have your head covered, so take a scarf with you that you can whip out if needed.
It is considered rude not to drink a shot of vodka when offered, unless you have a medical or religious reason for abstaining. Also, once the bottle is open, it is the custom to finish it.
Health and medical
Health risks include tick-borne encephalitis, rabies, giardia (from tap water), infectious diseases such as typhoid, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, diphtheria, measles and tuberculosis, among others. Visit your GP before you go for vaccination advice. Find out more about vaccinations at The Travel Doctor.
Public medical facilities in the cities in Russia are well below Australian standards and quite primitive in the regional areas. Private facilities may require upfront payment or proof of travel insurance before they treat you, no matter how ill you are. You might need medical evacuation if you are injured or catch anything more serious than a cold.
Avoid using taxis from the street. There are no taxi metres and all fares are negotiated (usually in Russian) before you start the journey. As well as paying a huge fare, you could also lose your bags or even be harmed. Get the concierge from your hotel or restaurant to order a car for you so you pay a fair price.
There is an ongoing risk of terrorism in Russia, which is expected to increase around the time of the Olympics, with potential attacks on transport systems and public places where there are foreigners.
Avoid public protests or gatherings where there is any hint that things could escalate, as gunfire is quite common in these situations.
Need more information on Russia? Check out our Ultimate Travel Guide or Top 11 Facts on Sochi. Need travel insurance? Ask Worldcare.