Russian travel prep
December 18, 2012 7:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm traveling to Moscow (and likely St. Petersburg as well)! Tell me all your best resources, materials, and hacks!

I'll be visiting Moscow (and possibly St. Petersburg) from March 14-24. Yes I know it's a shitty time of year weather-wise, but it was the best option for all parties involved given schedules and budget. I and my travel partner are visiting friends who live there who are planning on showing us a good time, but we'll be on our own during the days while they are at work. I picked up a Moscow Lonely Planet already and am getting the visa process started this week.

What I seek here are the hive's best resources that I can check out now to be best prepared for my trip. Things like:

iPhone apps:

-For studying the basics of the alphabet and language and basic phrases and vocab over the next few months (no Rosetta Stone please as I find it to me more than I need for this trip and also rather cost prohibitive at this time)
-For help while I'm there (translation/pronunciation kinds of things).
-Transit apps (maps, schedules?)
-other fun apps recommending places to go in the surrounding area (similar to Yelp or Not For Tourists) if such a thing exists.


-best brief histories of Russia.
-I'm already reading Anna Karenina, but contemporary travel writing or the like would be appreciated. For example, I loved reading The City of Falling Angels by Berendt in preparation for my trip to Venice.


-Any local or expat websites to peruse beforehand
-Also, even though it's a crappy time of year to be there, if you know of anything happening during those dates that is not to be missed, please do tell!

I don't really need food or hotel recommendations as most meals will be shared with our hosts and we will be staying with them as well.

Personal details that may or may not be relevant: Two people (m and f, not a couple), early 30s, NYers with the usual cosmopolitan interests, pretty tight budget.

Any other materials or hacks that made your trip easier or enriched are much appreciated!

posted by greta simone to Travel & Transportation around Moscow, Russian Federation (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I went to both cities a few years ago. I found the people to be less welcoming to tourists than in other countries. Take it easy and don't be offended. Make sure you know where you are and how to get back to the place you're staying since it can be difficult to find someone who will be willing/able to help you. I (stupidly) got lost in St. Petersburg and my cell phone stopped working and I had a very difficult time finding anyone who could direct me where to go or to contact a car service.

I still had a lot of fun! It was a great adventure. If you're looking for quirky indoor things to see, I recommend:

-The Polytechnical Museum in Moscow
-The Biology Museum in Moscow
-The House of Cats in Moscow
posted by parakeetdog at 8:06 PM on December 18, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks parakeetdog. I'm not too worried about the attitude of the natives. My hosts have given me the run down, and I have a thick skin :) I'm also pretty good to go on itinerary and places to check out, also due to having previously discussed plans with my hosts.

I'm mostly seeking steps I can take and preparations I can make before-hand to make my travels go more smoothly and things to read or study to enrich my stay. Thanks!
posted by greta simone at 8:27 PM on December 18, 2012

I'm a bit out of touch on the most contemporary material, but you could do worse than reading any of David Remnick's books (Lenin's Tomb, etc.) of reporting from the early post-Soviet days.

Eat Georgian food at least once, and pelmeni, and even though it's winter, try the ice cream which is amazing. Moscow is probably still freakishly expensive, even by New York standards; St. Petersburg is somewhat more reasonable.

Although things have probably changed since I was there (10 years?!?), Petersburg is still probably the more culturally dominant city. If you're mostly doing things during the day, I think that most ballet, theatre, etc., is probably out, and museums are in.

Blow the money on visiting the Hermitage Museum at least once while you're in Petersburg. It is a massive warren of huge and little rooms full of art. The last time I was there I found this hallway, basically, the size of a broom closet chock full of Japanese netsuke. I spent an hour just in that room alone, just to try and see each piece. The whole place is like that.

Here's a listing of museum stuff in St. Petersburg. The comparable Moscow English-language paper has their cultural calendar much less balkanized.

Good luck!
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:55 PM on December 18, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the recommendations. I pretty much already have an idea of things I will see and eat. I'm more looking for things that will help me during my trip that I can do in the months leading up to it (downloading of useful apps or other learning materials). Thank you for the reading suggestion though.
posted by greta simone at 5:50 AM on December 19, 2012

Good idea on learning some of the language. If nothing else, learn enough to recognize words on maps. Everywhere we went, we found people who could speak enough English to help us out, but that doesn't help with maps or street signs.

Will/can you travel far from either city? It's been a few years since I've visited those cities and my memory is hazy, but there are some great places not too far, accessible by train. I'll dig through my notes and ask my family where all we went. During the days we had personal tour guides in both places who really made the traveling easy for us, but I realize that could stretch your budget.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:12 AM on December 19, 2012

Response by poster: Again, thanks, I don't need recommendations about where to go or what to do, I pretty much have that worked out. If you have any recommendations for apps or programs or books that you used before-hand to familiarize yourself with the language or anything like that I'd love to hear them.
posted by greta simone at 10:59 AM on December 19, 2012

The Moscow Times and the Saint Petersburg Times are English newspapers for those cities. They will include lots of things to do in terms of plays, operas, exhibits at the museums, etc.

Be advised that there will be different rates for tourists than for residents to most events. I was a student in Saint Petersburg and considered a student for rates purposes, so I could get into the Hermitage for free and see an opera at Marinsky for $6 but non-student tourists have to pay near US prices on such things ($20-$25 at Marinsky for the cheap seats), etc.

As for learning the language, in Saint Petersburg, unless you know the language well, most people will immediately begin to speak English to you because they'll know you don't understand. Most people I encountered in Saint Petersburg had better broken English than tourists had broken Russian. All that said, I'd recommend anything AUDIO. Inflections are incredibly incredibly important in Russian and messing up an inflection on a single word can change the meaning of the word considerably as well as make you unintelligible.

A quick google search brought up this site: and it seems to be remarkably good.

Russian was my college major and I spent a year in Saint Petersburg. It's a fabulous city, and people there are far nicer and friendlier than in Moscow. But Moscow is probably more Russian.
posted by zizzle at 2:07 PM on December 19, 2012

Check out RussianPod101. Do you know about Livemocha?
posted by barnone at 6:57 PM on December 19, 2012

There is a Google Translate app for iPhone.
posted by vidur at 8:32 PM on December 19, 2012

As far as history of Russia books, may I recommend Richard Pipes (Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime).
posted by mattbucher at 7:26 AM on December 20, 2012

Oh hey, it looks like you will be in Russia for Maslenitsa! The city of Veliky Novgorod puts, or used to put, on a great celebration for this - it's a couple of hours from St. Petersburg by suburban train or bus. There are probably good celebrations elsewhere, and I highly recommend finding one and checking it out. Basically, people eat pancakes in the street and get really drunk; in Novgorod, they had a traditional half-naked-men-climbing-a-greased-pole-to-win-a-suckling-pig contest! For the best historical look at a traditional Maslenitsa celebration, check out the (extremely strange and kind of weirdly nationalistic) movie "The Barber of Siberia." Actually, here is the Maslenitsa scene (badly dubbed but partially subtitled) so you don't need to see the rest of the movie unless you really like weird movies.

For reading material, I'd recommend Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, which is hilarious and beloved and will give you some sense of the Soviet system; it's also a novel that's very strong in place and it's set in Moscow so, if you would like to, you will be able to visit places in Moscow that you've already seen through the characters' eyes. Most comprehensive nonfiction books I can think of are pretty thick; W. Bruce Lincoln's The Romanovs does cover three hundred years of pre-revolutionary Russian history while remaining fairly readable.
posted by posadnitsa at 6:22 PM on December 20, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so much guys! These are excellent suggestions. I'm getting so excited for my trip already!
posted by greta simone at 9:57 PM on December 20, 2012

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