The largest city in the largest country in the world offers seemingly endless opportunities for first-time visitors. This handy guide for beginner travellers will help you to make the most of your time and travel budget by offering curated tips and tricks.
VISAS AND FLIGHTS
Apply for a visa as early as possible. While last-minute express visas are available, they’ll cost you much more. To get the best price, get your application in a month or more in advance of your trip.
There’s a choice of three international airports in the Moscow area. While your destination on the other end of the flight will influence which airport you need to use, trains run from all three, making it easy to get into the city. Train stations can be less than secure, however, and taxis are pricey for solo travellers, with the added disadvantage of highly variable pricing. Uber is currently an excellent alternative.
Once you’ve arrived, your visa needs to be registered within seven business days by your accommodation provider, whether that’s a hotel or the owner of a private residence.
Moscow hotels are on the pricey end. For budget stays, there are lower-end hotels and hostels, but you can also look for alternative solutions to get better deals, such as Moscow short stay apartments.
The Moscow metro is world-renowned and the absolute best form of transport within the city. Gridlocked traffic shuts down the streets, so opt for a pre-loaded metro ticket and plan your routes accordingly. Outside of the city, long-distance trains are usually written in Moscow time, but suburban trains may sometimes be in local times, so double-check all times to be sure. While planning your trip, double-check your scheduling – Russia doesn’t use daylight savings time.
FOOD AND DRINK
Food is generally expensive, but you can look for ‘business lunches’ on signs to get a filling and affordable meal. Growing in popularity, ‘anti-cafes’ charge by the minute and offer coffee, light food, WiFi, and sometimes other features such as computer games. Learn a few phrases in Russian ahead of time so you can bargain, as some vendors, particularly in markets and taxis, may try to upcharge foreigners.
Try the caviar. It’s illegal to export, so think of it as a cultural experience, and indulge while you’ve got the chance.
Vodka: be prepared. It’s considered rude to turn down a toast or try to mix it, so be aware of the situation and your limits – financial and physical – going in, and load up on the caviar for extra ballast. Snacking between shots, which you are expected to drink straight in one go, is traditional and encouraged, so take full advantage and order some small plates.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
Red Square is a scenic, beautiful, renowned and historically significant location at the centre of Moscow that is not to be missed – but plan ahead and try to visit early in your trip to avoid disappointment. Since many cultural events take place in the square, it can be closed off to visitors. Other grand historic sites include the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb, the stunning St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Tretyakov Gallery, home to the art of the Russian Old Masters and Russian Orthodox icons.
Check ahead for any holidays or festivals during your trip. These can provide a wonderful opportunity to experience local flavour, but may also reduce access to other activities or sights. Search by the specific dates you wish to visit to make sure that attractions are open on the right schedule. Major holidays include the first week in January and the first couple weeks of May; coincidentally, these are also some of the best times to visit for either a mild late spring before the summer heat sets in, or a proper Russian winter.
Museums charge higher rates for foreigners; expect to spend big on admission if you want to see the historic sites. Student pricing is sometimes available, so be sure to bring relevant ID if you’re currently enrolled in education.
Depending on your preferences, Moscow’s nightclubs, ballet and opera are all world-class – with the prices and dress code to match. For a less expensive evening diversion, try a jaunt down the Old Arbat, a traditional tourist stretch known for the famous writers and artists who used to reside along it.
PLACES OF WORSHIP
The churches are some of the most impressive historic buildings in Moscow, but take caution to be respectful in these locations. Women are expected to cover their head and shoulders, and sometimes to wear a skirt. Men should avoid shorts and remove their hat inside churches. In working churches, take care to avoid disturbing worshippers by moving quietly and unobtrusively through the space and avoiding conversation and shutter sounds.
Avoid taking photos of government buildings, including stations, and public and military structures; this can result in fines and/or arrest.
Pick up as much Russian as you can ahead of time, and download a translation app before you go. English is not universally spoken, and relying on English-speaking services will limit you to pricier options catering to foreign travellers. The ability to read street signs, navigate and complete simple transactions will allow you much greater flexibility and freedom.
Dress up and avoid casual wear, though do strive for a degree of comfort, as the traffic is bad enough that you’ll want to travel by foot and public transit as much as possible. Nightclubs in particular, but also restaurants, music and cultural venues, will turn you away at the door if your dress code isn’t up to their standards, and they may turn you away in any case at their discretion. Avoid trainers and aim for low-heeled boots or nice flats for women during the daytime or heels and a short skirt at night, and a black outfit with dress shoes or boots for men.
The Russian authorities may stop you. Photocopy and carry copies of your passport, visa and registration at all times. If pressed for any sort of payment, possibly framed as incentive to wrap up the check quickly and with a minimum of fuss, be sure to ask for an official receipt.