I’ve now spent nearly 50 days living in Moscow in the last calendar year. Having spent so much time there, and seeing how much information I’ve come across in research that either didn’t help me, was inaccurate, or just plain didn’t exist, I present to you my top 7 thoughts about traveling to Moscow, Russia. Some of these topics could easy become their own post (such as food!).
- Learn Russian (even just basics) or know a Russian. If you taking a vacation/holiday to Moscow, you’ll most likely be just fine getting by with little to no Russian. But the more you learn, the better off you will be unless you spend time with a friendly Russian (of which there are many!). The best experiences are always had with natives who know their way around, can save you from getting ripped off (see #2), and with those who can help you make the best of your stay. Don’t be afraid to speak English if you’re not sure what to say, but speak more slowly and enunciate your words.
- Bring too many crisp, new currency bills. Although you shouldn’t have any problems exchanging your money, go to your bank and ask for new, crisp bills. I was denied twice to exchange my bills because of either a tear or heavy crease in my bill. That said, and especially for United States citizens, bring too much money with you. Credit cards get you everywhere in the USA, but it’s not as common in Russia. If you run out of bills, you should be fine since there are banks and ATMs (cashpoint, hole-in-the-wall, cashline, banklink) and you can get money out of your account. However, you will lose a lot more money from ATM fees and currency conversion fees. This brings us back to tip #1. Moscow is ripe with places to convert your currency to rubles. However, while many of these places post a certain ruble amount for conversion, there might be a hidden transaction fee (around 3%) for exchanges under $1,000. Make sure you ask before you exchange if this concerns you or you’ll lose an additional 3% on top of the exchange rate. I’d also advise to skip on those traveler’s checks. They will be more of a pain to convert than safe.
- Don’t drive on Moscow roads. If you can help it avoid the roads! There are hundreds of thousands of people driving to and from Moscow every weekday (and increasingly on a weekends and even at night). The worst part is that not all Russians driving on the roads actually passed a driver’s test. There’s talk that some people will just buy their license without even taking the driver’s test and/or without any practice. Think about driving on a road where a percentage of people have poor or no experience taking a driving test, don’t really know the rules all that well, and with recurring weather problems (slick, wet, frozen roads) more than half the year. It quickly and easily becomes a driver’s hell, where traffic wait times can be up to 6 hours (we spent 2+ hours driving maybe 9km/6mi). And I thought traffic in LA was bad!
- There’s no peanut butter in Moscow. Although there technically might be somewhere, it’s a very uncommon food. We Americans enjoy our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but this food item is relatively unknown to Russians. That seems so weird to me. Other food differences: Milk starts at 1.5% (you can sometimes find non-fat but not often), fruits and vegetables are much more seasonal, blins are more popular than hamburgers, caviar is not just a delicacy, fried bread with meats, potatoes or fruits inside is very common, vodka is generally cheaper to purchase than anywhere else. Don’t be afraid to try something you haven’t before, there are some really good Russian dishes!
- Going out to eat isn’t cheap. Drinking tap water almost anywhere is not recommended or allowed. Although there are places that might serve filtered tap water, you are almost 100% guaranteed to pay for your drinks, even water. If you need to save money, your best bet is to drink soft drinks (soda, pop, coke, or carbonated beverage with sugar). Expect to receive a small glass full, about .2 liters, for about 60-75 rubles. Oh, and no free refills unless you go to IKEA (and this is one of the only places I saw with free refills, cheap hot dogs and soft serve ice cream). Most restaurants at where we dined usually charged between 300-500 rubles per main dish. Soups were on average 150-200 rubles. One of the biggest differences, however, was portion size. I grew in Texas where portion sizes at restaurants are pretty big. Even in California you can get a lot of food for relatively decent amount of money. Not at the restaurants I visited in Russia!
- White shoes will get dirty. If you’re there during the summer, you might be fine since it’s a lot more sunny in July, August and September. In the winter, however, I’d recommend leaving the white shoes at home or expect to come back somewhat dirty. Which, If you are about to enter someone’s residence, it is custom to take your shoes off and/or change into slippers.The subway (tube, metro, underground, rapid transit) is very packed with people most of the time its running. If you take a look down at people’s shoes, you’ll see a majority of black and other dark colors. With all these people walking everywhere, your shoes are likely to be stepped on or come into contact with dirty walls. Go to a shoe store and take a look at what is being sold. It’s mostly leather or shiny black shoes that can be cleaned easily. These people are used to it!
- Blin is the new Big Macs. Although McDonalds is becoming more popular Since the introduction of McDonalds in 1990 it has become overwhelming popular amongst Russians and foreigners. In fact, while in America it’s mostly taken for granted and very often run down, you’d be hard pressed to see a McDonalds in Moscow that isn’t heavily packed during the day. Despite its immense popularity by all social classes, the standard fast food is the blin (blintz, crepe, pancake, bliny). These are thin pancakes that are stuffed with different foods like butter, jelly and fruit, beef, chicken, potatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, or sour creams. They are very quick to make and easiest to find compared to hamburgers or fried chicken. If you embrace the bliny, you’re gonna be just fine. Otherwise, you’ll have to settle for a good ‘ole American fast food meal at McDonalds. Oh, and the Big Mac tasted like a Big Mac in the states: No difference in my opinion.
Here’s a an extensive resource filled with many more suggestions. Some of these suggestions are a little extreme or written as though the author is writing out of paranoia, at least according to my own experience. But, taken with a grain of salt, many of these are good suggestions. http://www.rach-c.org/pages/dos_donts.htm