Russia has long captivated the imagination of generations and generations of travellers. The country's rich and diverse history has shaped the face of the country, from the extravagance of their royal family, the sheer brutality of the Soviet regime, the rich literary pieces and the colourful and unique architecture all leave visitors in awe. Modern-day Russia is shedding it's past and creating a new, more contemporary and luxurious country making it a unique experience for anyone looking to travel there.
Staying in Russia
Hotels in Russia can be rare and expensive, so not ideal for the traveler on a budget, especially for those visiting metropolitan or touristy areas. It's worth learning a little Russian before you go, as it'll come in handy in finding somewhere to stay. People are less likely to recommend good accommodation to people who only speak English.
Also, with a small grasp on the language, it's easier to seek out and rent a room in a private residence- which is ideal and affordable if you plan on staying in the country for longer than a month. Most Russian residents are looking to make extra money and if they have space to spare, will rent it out gladly, especially as they consider foreigners to be more trustworthy and orderly. Expect to pay between £30- £40 a night with a warm and inviting atmosphere - Russian citizens are known for their hospitality.
Another useful idea is a short-term apartment lease offered by smaller companies or individuals. There are certain buildings throughout the country which are constantly being rented out - some are more old-fashioned and some are more recently refurbished but most of the time you'll get a one or two bedroom apartment with your own kitchen, toilet and bathroom, along with household amenities like bedding and kitchen equipment. These sort of leases aren't any more expensive than staying in a hotel, and offer you your own independence and immersion in Russian culture.
'Mini hotels' are a new trend in bigger Russian cities. These hotels usually provide clean and modern rooms with private bathrooms at significantly lower costs than the conventional larger chain hotels (around £30 instead of £90). These hotels are usually located in big apartment blocks and include about two or more floors of rooms to rent out.
Couchsurfing is another option for travellers on a budget and is extremely popular for people visiting the larger cities. There are hundreds of English ex-pats living in the cities who are more than welcoming to travellers, and not only does couchsurfing cut your accommodation costs significantly, but you could also have yourself a great travel guide in your host - who else knows a city better than someone who lives and breathes it everyday?
How do I get around in Russia?
Russia is a huge country (over 6.5 million square miles) and as such, to get between parts of the country quickly and reliably, the best way to travel is by train. With an extensive rail network spanning the entire country and stopping at every single town and city, the train is the most convenient way to travel, even if you plan on getting off the beaten path. For the complete Russian rail experience, the one-week Trans-Siberian Railway equals no other network and offers you a window seat to some of the best scenery you're likely to see.
Short distance trains and long distance (more than 120 miles) trains are completely different and most train stations have separate areas for selling the different tickets. If you're hoping to do all of the major tourist spots within the time of your stay, take the Moscow-Saint Petersburg Express train takes 5 hours and costs around £40. Note that no one in the Moscow train station speaks any English, so make sure you either learn some Russian before you leave, or book your ticket online. It's worth familiarizing yourself with the language anyway as most train station signs are in Russian only.
Most Russian cities and towns have links to other cities and towns as far as 5 or 6 hours away or even further. Less comfortable than the train, buses are sometimes the better option if you're time-conscious. A number of smaller cities aren't served by the rail network, so the bus is the only option aside from a car, and the roads in Russia are infamously dangerous. Aside from regular buses, there are private minibuses known as marshrutka. These have fixed routes but usually have no timetables and no frequent stations. Stop at the roadside and wave a hand, if you're lucky and the minibus isn't already full, it will stop for you. You can then arrange for the driver to stop you at a desired place on his route.
A country of Russia's side makes air travel highly desirable for travellers, especially if you want to visit some of the country's more far-flung attractions. Overnight train rides aren't always ideal and travelling across Russia's terrain by car can take up a lot of time and drain your energy quickly. It's worth knowing that the Russian domestic airline industry has a terrible reputation due to uncertain safety records, unreliable timetables, terrible service, uncomfortable airplanes, and substandard airports. Substantial improvements have been made but it might not be what you are used to.
Russia has a lively hitchhiking culture, with many hitchhiking clubs (there's even an Academy of Hitchhiking). Despite any horror stories you may have heard, it's relatively safe to hitchhike, especially in the countryside, but some hosts may expect a little money for your ride.
Where is the best place to eat?
Russian cuisine derives it's rich flavor from the multicultural expanse of the country. It's foundations are laid by the peasant food of the rural population in what was often a harsh climate. Meals tended to include an abundance of fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries and honey. Rye, wheat, buckwheat and barley provided a stable diet for many workers well into the 20th century. Russia's proximity to Eastern countries has provided a strong spicy influence over the country's favourite meals.
For sandwiches: Buterbro
The word 'sandwich' didn't exist in Russian for a really long time, and Russian versions of sandwiches were called 'buterbrod' for ages. 'Buterbrod' consists of bread with a piece of 'doktorskaya' sausage or with butter and salt. In this sandwich café Buterbro, the best sandwiches in Moscow are served to willing clients. Young guys from the Buterbro team bake their own bread, prepare smoked ham and cod, salted salmon and cook wonderful soups. Typically, a meal here costs about 200 rubles (£3.92)
For authentic falafel and sabich shakshuha: The Hummus
Falafel is a deep-fried ball made from ground-up chickpeas and served with either pitta, salads, pickled vegetables and hot sauce, and shakshuha is a warm dish of eggs poached in tomato and spicy vegetable sauce influenced by the close proximity of Russia to Kazakhstan and Armenia where dishes like this are common. The Hummus is a cheap restaurant which even delivers these across Moscow.
For an amazing burger: The Burger Brothers
In a small room which was once used as a dressing room of a popular Moscow club, The Burger Brothers furnished the kitchen and began to sell takeaway food from the window leading into the alley. At first, the menu was just soft drinks and burgers, but now the restaurant and it's menu has expanded to suit all tastes. The All-American, with American sauce, fresh red onion and tomato is a classic, the Ginger burger - a patty with ginger and tomato sauce, onion rings and spinach is also popular, along with the Cheddar burger - a beef patty with cheddar cheese and red onion marmalade. The restaurant also sell soups, at a reasonable price also, with mint, young green peas and cream, tomato with lime and cilantro. All burgers are served with fries and each one costs around 300 rubles (£5).
Similarly, in St. Petersburg, the City Grill Express offers that little something extra to customers just looking for a juicy, beefy garnished burger. Never frozen, the beef is grilled fresh on a toasted burger bun with about every trimming and topping you could hope for - including 28 sauces. It's budget prices mean that although the food is made in front of you, fresh, and therefore isn't necessarily the quickest, you can get a decent meal for about £8.
What can I do on a budget?
The Kremlin in Moscow is well worth a visit for any budding traveller. Although it might sound sinister and boring, the building is actually one of the most famous throughout Russia. The Moscow Kremlin is one of the largest museums in the world and is said to be a fortress, too. Open from 10-5 every day except Thursdays, it offers information on local historical sites, architectural wonders, museums, walking areas, Government Buildings and landmarks. You can explore the incredible interiors and gardens - something which is well worth the modest entrance fee.
Claustrophobia is the perfect place to visit in Moscow if you're travelling with your older friend who enjoy a scare and thrill. This is not suggested for families with younger children or those who are sensitive or easily offended. There are a set of games for each group to play after paying an initial fee. You will be locked in a dark room and provided with clues for the door key. Within 60 minutes you must escape the room and move on to the next challenge. A fun experience for little money.
The Bolshoi Theatre is the most famous historical theatre in Russia. Performances of famous operas and ballets each year are performed to adoring audiences and tickets sell out fast due to the theatre's unique charm. There's great views to be seen from both the inside and out, so take a tour for between 100 and 1000 rubles and you're sure to be given a few great photo opportunities.
Dvortsovaya Ploschad (the Palace Square) is the sport where the Nevsky Prospect meets the Neva River, and the square is a huge plain surrounded by beautiful archaic architecture which remains from more extravagant times in Russia's past. Walk through the triumphal arch from Bolshaya Morskaya Street and you'll be able to see the Winter Palace of Peter the Great and the rest of the stunning decorated Hermitage Museum. The column in the centre of the square commemorates the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812.
The bridge of kisses cross the Moika River and offers an incredible view of Saint Isaac's Cathedral, especially at sunrise or sunset. More importantly, it's name means it is known as the official bridge for lovers in the city, so it's an ideal place to visit with that special someone. Modern myth dictates that lovers who kiss on the bridge will be happy together and the longer the kiss, the great the happiness that awaits them in the future - so expect to see a few locked lips if you pass by.
Strelka, the Arroe, is located on the eastern tip of Vasilyevsky Ostrov. Visit if you want to see an incredible view of the city for free - a perfect photo opportunity. This was one of Peter the Great's favourite spots, and for good reason. It is now decorated with two large columns and depictions of Russia's four largest rivers. If you visit in the summer, you'll be able to see fountains 'dancing' to loud classical music, which is a spectacle worth seeing.
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