Tips for travelling solo in Russia – from Pip and The City!
Russia is both fascinating and mysterious in equal measure. It brings to mind stunning palaces, soviet monuments, delightfully stodgy cuisine, winters that freeze your breath and enough history to fill countless storybooks. We know visiting Russia doesn’t always strike people as straightforward, but with the World Cup heading to Moscow in 2018, what better time to get yourself over there!
Travelling solo in Russia doesn’t need to be daunting, so to show you how to make the most of a visit to this stunning country, we sent the delightful Portia from Pip and The City to explore Russia’s great cities – alongside Estonia’s gorgeous capital, Tallinn.
From visas to vodka, here are Pip’s tips for travelling solo in the land of borscht…
Travelling solo in Russia is something that has intrigued me for a while, I have built up quite the imaginary picture of the world’s largest country. In my mind, it is a beautiful but bureaucratic land of imposing Stalinist architecture and stern, humourless people. It both fascinated and daunted me at the same time, so when Euroventure asked me to go and experience Estonia to Russia by train, I couldn’t resist.
I travelled alone from Tallinn to St Petersburg, then on to Moscow by train and spent some time exploring Russia’s cosmopolitan capital and the beautiful port city of St Petersburg. Getting myself around Russia was a fabulous and ever so slightly overwhelming experience. When you travel alone, you are wholly reliant upon yourself, there is no one to check ‘Is this the right train? Is this grey looking soup edible? Will the train guard ever return with my passport?’ You have to survive on your street smarts, common sense and frankly, unshakeable faith in humanity, especially as a solo female traveller.
Despite having almost no common sense, even after over 10 years of solo travel, I managed to travel solo in Russia without incident. I have compiled a little list of top tips so that you can get around Russia hassle free and have the adventure you deserve darling!
Apply for a Visa through a specialist agency
If you’re a UK citizen, applying for a Russian visa is every bit as daunting as it sounds. Unless you absolutely LOVE filling out forms, this is not going to be a particularly enjoyable experience. I would urge you to consider applying for your tourist visa via a specialist agency such as Real Russia, to take the pain out of death-by-forms and to ensure everything is filled out correctly.
Real Russia have a London based office not too far from the Russia Visa Application Centre, where you will have to take your documents and undergo biometric fingerprinting, [it’s nowhere near as excitingly sci-fi as it sounds by the way, a stern woman will just ask you to pop your fingers on a small device].
It is unbelievably helpful to have knowledgeable agency staff review your online form before it is submitted to the Visa Centre. The lovely lady who reviewed mine spotted around 14 mistakes I had made on the form, then triple checked to make sure everything was all in order before I set off to the Visa Centre. If, like me, you are not a ‘details person’, I strongly advise letting the professionals help you with your visa application. You will actually stand a chance of being granted one with their expert help and enduring patience. If you’re thinking of booking a trip to Russia with Euroventure, ask your trip planner about Real Russia and they can point you in the right direction.
When arriving in Russia, make sure that you remind the hostel/hotel/host family that your passport needs to be registered.
Always cooperate with train guards
I travelled from Tallinn to St Petersburg, on what I can only describe as a ‘Soviet throwback’ train. For those of you who are used to trains with plug sockets, Wi-Fi and fuss free travel, prepare yourselves for a wholly different experience.
First off, I had some difficulty locating my carriage and indeed seat. No one on the train, including the guards, spoke English, so I played a train version of musical chairs for the first 30 minutes looking for where I was supposed to sit.
Next up comes the passport checking, the train guard will scrutinize your tickets and passport before taking it away. Ladies, this is not the time to panic and start demanding to know where your passport is going, you are no longer in Kansas doll, this is Russia and if the train guards take your passport, you just have to roll with it, it will be making its way back to you at some point.
On my six-hour journey, I counted 3 passport checks and two rounds of sniffer dogs coming through the carriage. It’s important to comply with request of passports, documentation checks and bag checks, it’s a level of security most of us won’t be familiar with but is pretty normal in Russia.
Pay attention to your personal items
Big cities in Russia tend to be quite safe, I never felt unsafe at any point wandering the tourist areas of St Petersburg and Moscow, as I stuck to well lit, public areas. You will find lots of police officers patrolling streets, in metro stations and security guards manning the doors of shopping centres. That said, when travelling it’s always smart to make sure you keep your valuables safe. Don’t leave purses/phones/expensive sunglasses out on show unless you want to make a pickpocket’s day. Make sure you carry around your passport in case you are asked to produce it by local authorities.
Walking alone at night
Ladies, whilst public areas in Russian cities are largely safe, it’s not a good idea to be mildly intoxicated when walking alone at night. When I was in St Petersburg I got a bit ‘carried away’ with the vodka when I was out having some Pelmeni, [Russian Dumplings]. I found myself wandering around, humming Bonnie Tyler, before then stumbling upon a late-night cat café.
It’s not often I find myself in a Russian city at midnight with a cat on my head, but at least I was safely inside and having a sobering black coffee.
I don’t want to be a killjoy, just go easy on the booze if you are going to walking alone after dark. You want to be fully aware of your surroundings, rather than drunkenly convincing yourself that you could successfully scale a lamppost.
Negotiating the metro
The metro systems of Moscow and St Petersburg are fast, efficient and cheap ways of travelling around the city. However, be aware that signs in the stations are only in Cyrillic, this can cause quite a bit of confusion when attempting to navigate the metro system.
This is where a Russian phrase book, the Google translate app, or a basic knowledge of the Russian alphabet would come in super handy. I managed to get myself lost multiple times whilst trying to get across Moscow via metro. The upside was that I got to see many of the spectacularly decorated stations – almost like underground, hidden art spaces in a busy commuter environment.
Beware rip off taxi drivers
When I arrived in St Petersburg my trusty Euroventure pack stated that a taxi to my hostel should cost around 300 Rubles. At this point, it was midnight, I was very cold, hungry and tired. Approaching a taxi that was right outside of the station, I was informed that a taxi to my hostel was 1500 Rubles. I knew this wasn’t the case and as I walked away the irate taxi driver started shouting varying amounts. I no longer felt comfortable getting in their taxi, so I used Google maps to navigate my way to the hostel. It was only a 20-minute walk.
Russia isn’t the only place this has happened; many European taxi drivers have also quoted me outrageous amounts for journeys I know are around 5 minutes by car. The key here is to do a little research on distances between the airport/train station/bus station and where your hotel/hostel/Air bnb is. This way you can roughly calculate how much a cab should cost. Luckily for me, Euroventure creates travel packs full of local transport information, so I was able to get myself to my destination.
Be careful what you photograph
Whilst there are many beautiful government buildings and uber cool structures in Russia, be aware that there may be photography restrictions in place, especially if the building is used for military or security purposes. Tourists have been imprisoned and fined for taking innocent snaps of official buildings, if in doubt, don’t post to Instagram!
Don’t be afraid to talk to people
Travelling is all about making connections, meeting interesting locals and bonding with other backpackers. Whilst Russians can come across as a bit brusque, I found waitresses, hostel staff and bar staff were happy to chat to me about their country and to recommend local places of interest. Be prepared for all sorts of weird and wonderful encounters when on the road.
I spent around an hour hunting for a particular restaurant, in -10 conditions and when I finally got there, it became clear that it was the wrong restaurant and it was full. The disappointment on my frozen little face must have been evident as a man got up and said I could have his table. I thought this meant that he was leaving the table but as I sat down he said, ‘Hi I’m Stan. So! What should we order?’ That is the short story of how I ended up going on an accidental dinner date with a divorce lawyer in Moscow.
Overall, I didn’t have any negative experiences travelling solo in Russia. Of course I faced the usual travel hiccups: getting lost, missing metro stops, accidentally spilling coffee on my laptop, airport delays and angry taxi drivers insisting that a 5-minute ride was 1500 Rubles. However, I never felt unsafe at any point. Part of me is sure that this is due to my ridiculous over optimism and faith that everything ‘will probably be alright’.
When you take the road less travelled you should always exercise some caution but it shouldn’t stop you from attempting an adventure. Keep your wits sharp, your belongings safe and get out there with a sense of ‘bad ass babe on a mission to explore’ and you’ll be just fine.
Interested in following Pip’s footsteps? Check out our awesome rail trips, taking you through the very best of Russia and The Baltics, or if you fancy combining both trips into one, like Portia, just our custom route builder to create your dream trip!
Words & Images by Portia Jones
Blogger. Foodie. Delight.