Russia travel guide
Russia is at once breathtaking and baffling. Winston Churchill’s much-quoted line that the world’s largest nation represented “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” is as true today as it was back then.
Monumental in every respect, it’s a land where burnished imperial splendour coexists with icy Siberian tundra, where timeworn Soviet-era monuments backdrop uber-hip urban cultures and where everything from the ruling party downwards functions in its own, impenetrably Russian, way.
The west of the country draws the most visitor attention, thanks to the presence of two extraordinary cities. St Petersburg and Moscow serve up sweeping postcard sights by the dozen. Moscow is the rapidly beating heart of the “New Russia,” where Asia and Europe combine to create a boisterous, enigmatic metropolis on a grand scale. St Petersburg, meanwhile, with its living film-set of palaces, cathedrals and waterways, is the grandest and most European of Russia’s cities, yet still retains a deeply complex character.
Exploration beyond these two main hubs, however, is well advised. The Golden Ring, a collection of ancient towns northeast of Moscow, still has plenty of period architecture and is easily accessed from the capital. By cruising along the mighty River Volga, meanwhile, it’s possible to travel south towards the Caspian Sea and see the country beyond its increasingly westernised veneer. And those heading east, into Siberia, will find a land of varied, often sublime natural beauty. From Lake Baikal to the old imperial city of Irkutsk, and from the mountains of the Altai and the shamans of Tuva, Siberia has many secrets.
A combination of the above is drawing an increasing number of tourists to the Russian Federation – that it remains as obscure and mysterious as ever is all part of the charm. As the poet Fyodor Tyutchev once said: “Russia cannot be understood.”
17,075,400 sq km (6,592,849 sq miles).
143,439,832 (UN estimate 2016).
8.3 per sq km.
President Vladimir Putin since 2012.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev since 2012.
220 volts AC, 50Hz. Russia uses a standard European plug with two round pins.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Most visits to Russia are trouble-free, but petty crime does happen in cities. Be alert to the possibility of mugging, pick pocketing and theft from vehicles or hotel rooms. Be wary of groups of women and children who beg.
Drink-spiking leading to robbery, violence and/or abuse does happen. Unconscious victims are often left outside, which can be life threatening in the winter months. Buy your own drinks and keep sight of them at all times.
In St Petersburg there have been reports of street crime where tourists have been specifically targeted. These crimes are carried out by well-organised gangs. Be aware of pickpockets in the main tourist areas and around the main railway concourses. Bogus police officers have harassed and robbed tourists. If you are stopped always insist on seeing identification.
Avoid openly carrying expensive items, or anything that might easily identify you as a tourist. Avoid walking about late at night alone. Incidents of violence in major cities are usually linked to criminal/business activities and are not usually directed against foreign visitors.
Look after your passport at all times, especially in major transport hubs and busy areas. Passports have been reported stolen or lost from British nationals when in the airports in Moscow. Be particularly vigilant when passing through the airports, particularly in the baggage collection area and outside the arrivals hall.
Most visitors experience no difficulties but racially motivated attacks do occur. People of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent may attract some unwanted attention in public places and should take care, particularly when travelling late at night. You should follow security precautions as you would in any other big city.
Take care if you are using a dating service. A number of British nationals have been the victims of fraud. Be wary of sending money via untraceable transfer services. There have been instances where British nationals have lost money by sending money to an unknown recipient without checking they were genuine.
The North Caucasus remains an unstable and potentially dangerous region. The Russian authorities take a particularly strict attitude towards security, as well as compliance with visa and registration rules. Short-term travel restrictions are sometimes applied in relation to ongoing security operations. These are publicised at very short notice, if at all. Cross-border traffic with Georgia and Azerbaijan is also subject to restrictions.
If you travel to these parts of Russia against FCO advice, you are taking a serious risk. The ability of the FCO and the British Embassy in Moscow to help in the case of an emergency would be severely limited due to the security situation.
You can drive a car in Russia using your UK driving licence. If possible get a notarised Russian translation. If you need to get a Russian driving licence or exchange your foreign licence into a Russian one (eg for stays over 6 months) you must also submit a medical report confirming that you’re fit to drive and free from certain medical conditions as specified by Decree N1097 of 24 October 2014 and categorised by the World Health Organisation. Medical Report forms must be issued by a registered doctor in Russia.
In order to drive a vehicle into Russia you will need to provide the following documents:
- car registration
- valid insurance document
- your driving licence
You will need to declare the vehicle with the customs authority at the port of entry. You can bring a vehicle into Russia without paying import taxes for a maximum period of 1 year.
Contact the Russian Embassy in London if you have more detailed questions about bringing a vehicle in to the country. The British Embassy is unable to offer help to those attempting to bring vehicles into Russia without the correct documentation.
Road conditions are often poor, especially outside the major cities. The standard speed limit for built-up areas is 60km/h (37mph), outside built-up areas 90km/h (55mph) and 100km/h (62mph) on motorways (Brest-Moscow). Visiting motorists who have held a driving licence for less than 2 years must not exceed 70km/h (43mph). It is common practice for traffic police to stop motorists for spot checks. There is a zero tolerance policy towards drink-driving.
Road safety is poor. According to statistics published by the Russian Main Directorate for Road Traffic Safety there were over 198,000 road traffic accidents in Russia in 2014, causing over 26,000 deaths and over 250,000 injuries. You should be vigilant when driving, take account of weather conditions, and consider limiting or avoiding driving at night.
Official looking taxis can be unlicensed. Don’t share a taxi with strangers or flag down what may appear to be an official taxi. Where possible ask your hotel to get a taxi for you, or ask for the telephone number of a reputable taxi company. You should agree the fare before getting into the taxi.
If you are travelling by overnight train in a sleeping compartment, store valuables in the container under the bed or seat. Don’t leave your sleeping compartment unoccupied as some compartments only have a simple lock on the sliding door. On some trains there may be an additional security device, which can be attached to the fitted handle/lock unit. There may also be a steel switch at head-height on the door panel which, when pulled down, prevents the closed door from being slid open.
Don’t agree to look after the luggage of a fellow traveller or allow it to be stored in your compartment.
The volume and quantity of liquids, gels, aerosols, creams or pastes you can carry in your hand luggage when going through airport screening facilities throughout Russia is limited. For more information, please refer to the Federal Air Transport Agency website (in Russian), or consult your airline.
A list of recent incidents and accidents including the location, type of aircraft and operator can be found on the website of the Aviation Safety network.
The FCO can’t offer advice on the safety of individual airlines. However, the International Air Transport Association publishes a list of registered airlines that have been audited and found to meet a number of operational safety standards and recommended practices. This list is not exhaustive and the absence of an airline from this list doesn’t necessarily mean that it is unsafe.
Travel by helicopter is often used in more remote areas of Russia. In recent years there have been helicopter crashes with multiple fatalities. Be aware of the increased risk of travel by helicopter and satisfy yourself of your tour operator’s safety record.
The latest audit of the Russian Federation’s Civil Aviation Authority by the International Civil Aviation Organisation in 2015 found that the level of implementation of the critical elements of safety oversight in the Russian Federation was above the global average.
According to the Russian migration authorities, in 2015 around 65,700 British nationals visited St Petersburg on sea cruise ships organised by foreign tour companies. Volga river cruises between St Petersburg and Moscow are also popular. Use recognised cruise operators with established safety records.
Political rallies and demonstrations occur in large cities across Russia, usually with notice and permission from the authorities.
Check media for the latest information, be vigilant, and avoid any demonstrations.