Russia. It stretches from mainland Europe to the farthest reaches of Asia and covers more than 6 million square miles, which makes it the largest country in the world, which in turn makes planning a trip there slightly daunting.
My friend and I quickly realised that we couldn’t do it all, so decided to focus on the two best known and most visited cities: Moscow and St Petersburg.
Advice for Backpacking in Russia
Getting permission to enter Russia
We found that the first problem about visiting Russia is getting permission to do so; visas are notoriously difficult to obtain.
In order to apply you need to have a letter of invitation, in Russian, from an approved body.
This letter consists of two pages, a tourist voucher and a reservation confirmation, both of which are required to be submitted, and which state the dates you will be in the country along with details of where you are staying.
The invitation letter can be obtained from various hotels and tour operators, usually for a fee of around £30-50.
However, be aware that a hotel will often only provide a letter for as long as you will be staying with them, a pain if you are planning to travel to a few places, whilst a tour operator would require you to be booked onto their trip, thus no longer allowing for independent travel.
How to get around this?
Well, there are also various companies who will provide the letter for you. Some will also complete the entire visa application process for you. Look into companies such as Way to Russia or Real Russia.
Pay attention to the details these companies give you. They will have “booked” you with certain hotels and it is these hotels that you will need to list on your visa application form. Don’t worry – no one expects you to actually stay in these hotels, you are free to stay wherever you want.
Your visa will be valid for the specific dates printed on your invitation letter. This means that you need to think carefully about how long you are going to be staying.
If in doubt, make sure your letter of invitation has a longer date range on it. If entering the country by train, especially overnight trains, pay careful attention to the date your train will cross the border. If it is a day earlier than the day the train arrives at your chosen station, ensure your visa will still be valid. Likewise for the date of departure.
Once you have your letter of invitation you can complete the application form. This can be found online at www.ru.vfsglobal.co.uk and is a detailed form, including requests like: “List all the countries you have visited in the last 10 years along with entry and exit dates.”
Hint: they can only check against what is in your current passport so you only need to list as far back as your passport has been valid.
The form will also ask you details about your planned itinerary and where you are staying. These details need to match the ones in your letter of invitation. The form will need to be printed out as part of the submission process.
You need to ensure that your passport has 6 months validity on it, at least two blank pages and you will need one further passport photo.
You can then submit your application to either the Visa Application Centres in London or Edinburgh or you can apply by post.
Applications take one working week but allow an extra week if applying by post. A single entry visa will cost you £50 plus a £32.40 service charge, although a next day service is available for £100 plus the £32.40 service charge.
Travelling around inside Russia
As mentioned earlier, my friend and I were only visiting Moscow and St Petersburg and so had to work out how to travel between them. We decided to take the train so that we could see some of the country en route. There are a number of overnight trains between the two cities which take around nine hours, but we went for the super-fast Sapsan trains which hit top speeds of 200kph and do the route in just over four hours.
Buying a train ticket outside of Russia can be interesting as many of the websites are in Russian but we bought ours using russiantrains.com. They sent us an e-ticket which we printed out and took to the station. However, the ticket is largely in Russian so we had to deduce which were our reserved seats!
You’ll need your passport details when buying train tickets as these are listed on the ticket itself and your passport will be checked when boarding the train. You also need to check which station your trains departs and arrives at as the big cities all have multiple stations.
Plan to arrive at the station around 45 mins before departure, as it will take a while to find the correct platform and you can begin boarding from 30 mins prior to departure. Announcements on the train are made in both Russian and English.
Once in the cities it was far easier to get around. Largely we walked! However, both cities have extensive metro networks. Lines are colour coded and stations are listed on the platforms. In St Petersburg, these station names are written both in English and in Russian. In Moscow, they are only written in Russian.
Announcements are only made in Russian so make sure you are aware of how many stops you need to go before getting off. Trains are frequent, clean and safe, and the stations are well lit – often with elaborate chandeliers. In St Petersburg, we also caught a hydrofoil to get out of town a little in order to visit the stunning Peterhof Palace. These hydrofoils have English signs and conveniently drop you at the entrance to the Palace gardens.
St Petersburg is generally regarded as the more tourist friendly of the two cities.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that English is more widely spoken. As previously mentioned, Moscow doesn’t have any English on its metro and you will only find limited English spoken at ticket booths and in restaurants (though menus often have an English translation). Hostel staff generally have sufficient English.
St Petersburg has a lot more English spoken and written and you’ll generally find it easier to ask questions at ticket booths. The second reason is that St Petersburg has far more tourist attractions – from the Hermitage, Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, St Isaacs, Peter and Paul Fortress, Peterhof Palace, Catherine Palace, Mariinsky Theatre, river cruises and much more. In Moscow, most people don’t venture far from the Kremlin and the Red Square with St Basils and the Bolshoi Theatre.
All in all, Russia was a fantastic place to spend a few days and worth the visa hassle. The palaces were absolutely stunning, the churches exquisite and the food delicious. And if you want to spend longer here there are plenty of options for extending your trip; the most popular is to take either the Trans Siberian Express to Vladivostok or the Trans Mongolian through to Beijing.