Russia Tourist Information and Tips
The official currency of Russia is the ruble (ðóáëü) (RUB), divided into 100 kopeks (êîïååê), introduced in 1998 (although all notes and first issues of coins bear the year 1997). All pre-1998 currency is obsolete.
Coins are issued in 1, 5, 10, and 50 kopek and 1, 2, 5, and 10 (uncommon) ruble denominations. Banknotes come in 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, 1000, and 5000 ruble values. The 5-ruble note is not issued anymore and is very rare in circulation. The 1 and 5 kopek coins are of little use, as their value is low; in many stores prices are rounded up to the nearest 10 kopeks and many people refuse to accept these coins. As of April 15, 2009, one US dollar is equal to 33.39 rubles and one euro is equal to 44.45 rubles.
All banknotes have special marks (dots and lines in relief) to aid the blind in distinguishing values.
Rubles only : All payments in Russia are officially made in rubles. It's very easy to find currency exchange offices (called bureaus in Saint Petersburg) throughout Russia. Banks and small currency exchange bureaus offer very good rates; hotels and casinos are generally expensive and thus not recommended. You need to show your passport at banks. Be sure to take your time to count how much money you got - different ways are sometimes used to trick the customer.
ATMs / bank machines also called bankomats are common and convenient in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Other large cities also have them but many times there are restrictions on foreign cards. They usually offer services in multiple languages, and some give out U.S. dollars or local currency. In smaller towns and villages they are often difficult to find or non-existent. Russian ATMs will often limit withdrawals to about USD$1,000 per day. Big hotels are good places to find them.
In Moscow and Saint Petersburg more and more shops, restaurants, and services take credit cards . Visa/MasterCard are more accepted than American Express; Discover, Diners Club and other cards are rarely accepted. Most upscale establishments will accept credit cards, but beyond these it is pure chance.
Museums and sightseeing places take only cash, no credit cards. Have plenty of cash on hand each day to cover entrance fees, photographic fees (museums charge a fee for cameras and video recorders), tours, souvenirs, meals and transportation.
Train Stations outside of major cities only accept rubles also. In Moscow and St Petersburg you can pay by card at some ticket counters - look out for the Visa/Master Card stickers on the windows. The ATM machines at the train station are often out of cash, so obtain your rubles in the city (where ATM's appear on practically every corner) before you go to the train station.
It's better to avoid street ATMs (or at least to be very careful), as sometimes swindlers attach spy devices to them, to get your PIN and card details; the safest option is the ATMs in hotels, banks or big shopping centers.
Russian cuisine derives its rich and varied character from the vast and multicultural expanse of Russia. Its foundations were laid by the peasant food of the rural population in an often harsh climate, with a combination of plentiful fish, poultry, game, mushrooms, berries, and honey. Crops of rye, wheat, buckwheat, barley, and millet provided the ingredients for a plethora of breads, pancakes, cereals, kvass, beer, and vodka. Flavourful soups and stews centred on seasonal or storable produce, fish, and meats. This wholly native food remained the staples for the vast majority of Russians well into the 20th century. Lying on the northern reaches of the ancient Silk Road, as well as Russia's proximity to the Caucasus, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire has provided an inescapable Eastern character to its cooking methods (not so much in European Russia but distinguishable in the North Caucasus). Russia's renowned caviar is easily obtained, however prices can exceed the expenses of your entire trip. Dishes such as beef Stroganov and chicken kiev, from the pre-revolutionary era are available but mainly aimed at tourists as they lost their status and visibility during Soviet times. Russian specialities include:
- Pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings, especially popular in Ural and Siberian regions)
- Blini (thin, savoury buckwheat pancakes)
- Black bread (rye bread, somewhat similar to one used by North American delis and not as dense as German variety)
- Piroshki (small pies or buns with sweet or savoury filling)
- Golubtsy (Cabbage rolls)
- Ikra Baklazhanaya (aubergine spread)
- Okroshka (Cold soups based on kvass or sour milk)
- Schi (cabbage soup) and Green schi (sorrel soup, may be served cold)
- Borsch (beet and garlic soup)
- Vinegret (salad of boiled beets, potato, carrots and other vegetables with vinegar)
- Olivier (russian version of potato salad)
- Shashlyk (various kebabs from the Caucasus republics of the former Soviet Union)
Both Saint Petersburg and Moscow offer sophisticated, world class dining and a wide variety of cuisines including Japanese, Tibetan and Italian. They are also excellent cities to sample some of the best cuisines of the former Soviet Union (e.g., Georgian and Uzbek). It is also possible to eat well and cheaply there without resorting to the many western fast food chains that have opened up. Russians have their own versions of fast food restaurants which range from cafeteria style serving comfort foods to streetside kiosks cooking up blinis or stuffed potatos. Although their menus may not be in English, it is fairly easy to point to what is wanted - or at a picture of it, not unlike at western fast food restaurants.
Vodka, imported liquors (rum, gin, etc), international soft-drinks (Pepsi, Coca- Cola, Fanta, etc), local soft drinks (Tarhun, Buratino, Baikal, etc.), distilled water, kvas (sour-sweet non-alcoholic naturally carbonized drink made from fermented dark bread) and mors (traditional wild berry drink).
Beer in Russia is cheap and the varieties are endless of both Russian and international brands. It is found for sale at any street vendor (warm) or stall (varies) in the center of any city and costs (costs double and triple the closer you are to the center) from about 17 Rubles (about 50 US cents) to 130 Rubles (about 4 US Dollars) for a 0.5l bottle or can. "Small" bottles and cans (0.33l and around) are also widely sold, and there are also plastic bottles of 1, 1.5, 2 liters or even more, similar to those in which soft carbonated drinks are usually sold - many cheaper beers are sold that way and, being even cheaper due to large volume, are quite popular, despite some people say it can have a "plastic" taste. The highest prices (especially in the bars and restaurants) are traditionally in Moscow; Saint-Petersburg, on the other hand, is known for the cheaper and often better beers. Smaller cities and towns generally have similar prices if bought in the shop, but significantly lower ones in the bars and street cafes. Popular local brands of beer are Baltika, Stary Mel'nik, Bochkareff, Zolotaya Bochka, Tin'koff and many others. Locally made (mainly except some Czech and possibly some other European beers - you won't miss these, the price of a "local" Czech beer from the same shelf will be quite different) international trademarks like Holsten, Carlsberg, etc. are also widely available, but their quality doesn't differ so much from local beers. Soft drinks usually start from 20-30 Rubles (yes, same or even more expensive than an average local beer in a same shop) and can cost up to 60 Rubles or more in the Moscow center for a 0.5l plastic bottle or 0.33l can.
In most cities, quality hotels are really scarce: most were built in Soviet times decades ago and are recently renovated in decor, but rarely in service and attitude. Even for a local, it's quite a problem to find a good hotel without a recommendation from a trusted person. For the same reason, it may be really hard to find a hotel during mass tourist-oriented events like StPete anniversary.
Hotels in Russia may be quite expensive in metropolises and touristy areas. If you do speak a bit of Russian and are not entirely culture shocked, it is much smarter to seek out and rent a room in a private residence. Most Russians are looking to make extra money and, having space to spare, will rent it out to a tourist gladly. Native Moscovites or residents of Saint Petersburg would rather rent out to tourists than their own countrymen: foreigners are considered more trustworthy and orderly. Expect to pay 60-70 USD a night (usually with breakfast prepared by your host), and the accommodations will certainly be very clean and proper if not modern. When it comes to home/family life, Russian culture is very warm and inviting.
Another useful option is short-term apartment rental offered by small companies or individuals. This means that certain flats in regular living buildings are permanently rented out on a daily basis. The flats may differ in their location and quality (from old-fashioned to recently renovated), but in any case you get a one- or two-room apartment with own kitchen, toilet, and bath. Additionally, the hosts provide bed linen as well as cups, plates, and other kitchen equipment. The apartment rental provides great autonomy and flexibility (e.g., there is no strict check-out time). On the other hand, you do not get certain hotel facilities, such as breakfast, laundry service, etc. The price for the daily apartment rental normally does not exceed the price for the hotel of similar quality, so it is a very useful options, especially in large cities. The negotiations are usually quite official: the host collects the data from your ID, while you get a bill and a rental agreement.
A new phenomenon has been the development of "mini-hotels" in large Russian cities. Such hotels usually (but not necessarily!) provide clean modern rooms with private baths at far lower costs than conventional large hotels, approximately $60 vs. well over $150. These small hotels are located within existing apartment buildings and include one, two, or more floors located a story or two above street level. They also often serve breakfast. Saint Petersburg has quite a few with more opening all of the time and some are appearing in Moscow.
Russia has a long-standing tradition in high-quality education for all citizens. It has also one of the best mass-eduction systems in the world, with excellent results at international educational competitions.
Basic general education lasts for nine years. Graduates of this level may continue their education at senior high school to receive secondary general education. They may also enter an initial vocational school or non-university level higher education institutions.
Higher education is provided by public and non-public (non-State) accredited higher education institutions, of which Lomonosov Moscow State University and Saint Petersburg State University are the most famous.
Due in great part to demands of the international educational organizations, the system of education in Russia began to adopt a system similar to that of Britain and the US: 4 years for the Bachelor's degree and 2 years for a Master's degree. The universities are still in the process of these changes; some of them offer the new system and others still work according to the prior 5-year system, particularly in programs such as law.
Largely because of the transition from state socialism to market capitalism, Russia did experience a rise in criminal activity during the 1990's. As those that controlled capital through the state had to reconfigure their business operations towards a free enterprise rationality, profiteering and scams have increased. The truth is that crime was greatly exaggerated in the media, and for the average tourist Moscow, Saint Petersburg and the rest of Russia are actually just as safe as most major European cities. The "Russian Mafia" make for fun movies, but are absolutely not a threat to tourists—at best they and their girlfriends are a tourist attraction themselves, as they often dine in foreigner-friendly establishments. Foreigners are disproportionately targeted by pickpockets; foreigners of a non-white complexion may also be more likely to be harassed by street youths or corrupt officials. But provided you take sensible precautions, nothing bad should happen to you. Keep in mind that the majority of foreigners who do "find" trouble do so while drunk.
However, racially motivated crimes are on rise in Russia, and it may present problems to people with non-Slavic/Northern European appearance, including people from the Caucasus and people of African, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and Asian descent.
Note that everyone in Russia must carry state-issued identification papers; foreigners should carry their passport and visa at all times and present it to police officers if asked. Be sure to keep a photocopy in a secure location just in case. If a police officer stops you, they normally salute you and ask for your passport (listen for words that sound like 'paspart' for a passport request and/or 'veeza' if asked for a visa) and papers (generally in Russian). Hand these to them, they will look at it, hand it back and salute you. This can be an odd and frightening experience on the train into Russia in the middle of the night.
It is sadly a common practice for the police to claim that there are problems with your documentation (passport, immigrations card and residence registration), and to demand a fine (bribe). You have two options: politely, friendly, and firmly explain that actually everything is fine, there is no problem with your documents, and you are willing to go to the police station to clear things up; or give in and fork over the bribe they are demanding. The first option is difficult without some Russian proficiency (and solid nerves), but the police in question will probably back off. The second option works, but it also encourages the corrupt to continue harassing travelers. In tight situations, a 300 ruble bribe is really the most you should give in metropolitan areas. However, it has been known that getting out a mobile phone and threatening to call your embassy can work, and police may well back off at this. Then again, you choice will probably depend on how brave you are feeling at the time.
Russian driving is wild . Drivers attack their art with an equal mix of aggressiveness and incompetence. Guidelines are lax and rarely followed. As a pedestrian, take great care when crossing the roads, as pedestrian crossings are widely ignored. If you are thinking of driving yourself, bear in mind that the Russian traffic police is the most notoriously corrupt institution in the country.
Ensure that all of your vaccinations are up to date, and you have sufficient amounts of any prescription medicine you may be taking. Pharmacies are common in major cities and carry a large supply of quality western medications.
Quality of tap water varies dramatically around the country, and even may be very different within one city. Especially in old buildings, tap water can be non-potable. In the big cities of European Russia, the water is clean of biological contaminants, but often suffers from the presence of heavy metals, due to outdated city plumbing. If you can't buy bottled water, boil water before drinking, or better yet use a special filter for tap water, which you could buy in any supermarket. But normally price for bottled water should not be an obstacle: bottled water costs only about 20-30 rubles ($0.8-$1.1 USD) for 2 liters, but watch out for scam bottled tap water.
Besides local doctors (generally good quality but often working in poor facilities) there are several Western-run medical centers in major Russian cities. These all have different policies for payment (some take credit cards, some require payment in cash up front, even if you have insurance) so make sure you know what you are paying for (and when and how) before you agree to any services.
Smile at a Russian in the street and most likely they will not respond in kind. Smiling in Russia is traditionally reserved for friends; smile at a stranger and they will either think you're making fun of them and there's something wrong with their clothes or hairdo, or that you must be an idiot. Furthermore, an automatic Western smile is widely regarded as insincere, as in "You don't really mean it". While that tradition is slowly changing as Russia is becoming more Westernized, smiling is still very rare in customer service as sales assistants, public servants and the like are expected to look serious and businesslike. Hence the very common misconception about Russians that they are a very grim folk and never smile - they do, once they get to know you, and become very welcoming and kind. When approaching a stranger with a question, attempt to use Russian at first and ask if they speak english, Russians are very proud of their language and people will be noticeably more aloof if you approach them speaking English. Even just using the Russian equivalents of 'please' and 'thank you' will make a noticeable difference to people.