Russia is a country with a very deep-rooted history, glazed with classic European architecture and a remaining hint of a militant authority system. Moscow is certainly one of Europe’s many hidden gems. I believe the city has so much potential and life, but people are deterred from visiting because Russians haven’t figured out the best way to respond to or accommodate tourists.
In fact, anyone who makes the effort to visit Moscow (and Russia in general) automatically forms a close-knit family, bonding over the everyday struggles and delights of the city. Welcome to the 2nd [and last] chapter of my thoughts on Moscow. Read the 1st chapter here.
If you ever choose to visit Moscow, here are my 3 proposals for getting around the city:
(1) Travel with a friend or companion. Simply to have company and satiate the craving for conversation in your native tongue, bring along a friend with whom to conquer the city. It can feel less daunting when you have someone by your side who is trying to figure everything out at the same time you are.
(2) Go it completely alone for immersion and force yourself to learn the language. For me, I found this to be the least ideal situation although it did force me to read Russian Cyrillic quicker merely because I felt my survival depended on it. As I’ve started traveling on my own, I’ve realized that’s the best way to do it and meet friends along the way. However, Moscow is the one city, I wish I had company the entire time.
(3) Hire a translator or a tutor. When you get to Moscow, I’d suggest finding a translator or a tutor who may be interested in fair trade. By that, I mean someone who would be willing to teach you Russian and you teaching them your native language. Spend a few hours a day with them, and use the rest of the day to practice the language on your own with the locals.
When I left for my trip, the hostel experience was new to me. I had heard many travel bloggers rave about their stay in various hostels, how cheap it is, and what a great way it is to meet new people. Well, they’re not wrong. Especially in a city like Moscow where very few foreign languages are accommodated, I found that staying in a hostel was pertinent to meeting like-minded travelers, exchanging tips and advice with others and being in the company of those who speak the same language. Let’s not forget about the hostel staff who can be extremely helpful when it comes to finding cheap food, the best route to/from the airport, and the best tours/ways to see the city.
Couchsurfing is another great way to live more like a local. Choosing someone who speaks English can be extremely beneficial, and you’ll have immediate company as you make your way around the city not to mention a personal tour guide.
I wouldn’t recommend that young travelers and backpackers stay in hotels simply because there isn’t any atmosphere or community. If you need a night or two of privacy and a good night’s sleep, fine, but don’t spend your entire stay in a hotel. It’ll make you feel even more isolated in a city that already isn’t very welcoming so don’t set yourself up for a lonely few days.
During my stay, a fellow hostel roommate and I came up with a drinking game. Whenever you go out exploring, buy a beer for every Russian you can get to smile. As stern and uninviting as Russians may seem, many of them are harmless (sidenote: they have amazing jaw lines as well), but just like anywhere you go, be aware of your surroundings and valuables.
You may get the urge to smile at them to try and make nice but it can be misconstrued as mischievous and un-genuine (is that a word?). Trying to give them unwelcome hugs might set the police off on you so leave your “free hugs” shirt at home. Other things to take into consideration include that they walk at a slower pace than what many big city Americans are used to, and they have a tendency to stare. All of these things take some getting used to, but don’t let it discourage you.
Many of the women have dark hair so at least I fit in, in that regard, but when it comes to fashion, they give the likes of NYC and Paris a run for their money. Young women, in particular, always look dressed to the nines in skirts, dresses, sheer blouses, and high heels. As a foreigner, they suggest not to wear low-cut shirts or short skirts, yet the locals do exactly that. It’s very strange. Needless to say, compared to Russian women, I look like a hobo in my t-shirt and jeans.
As a solo female traveler, I felt safe walking around Moscow on my own, and in doing so, I learned a few interesting tidbits.
Although I didn’t encounter any problems with the police, it is advised to carry a copy of your passport and visa with you at all times instead of your actual passport. Every once in a while, you’ll hear a story about how a cop will approach someone requesting to see their passport, holding it ransom, and charging a fine to get it back for no other reason than they need the money. The chances of this happening today are slim, but you should be carrying your passport with you like you normally would with your driver’s license back home.
They don’t recycle which is quite unfortunate. In addition, you’ll come to find that their metro cards aren’t refillable so people are always buying new ones throwing the old ones away. A bit wasteful, if you ask me.
Restaurant service is poor. I understand that in several parts of Europe, a meal can be a 2 hour affair, but that paired with rude service can make for a bad dining experience. It’s important to consider that it may be a cultural thing so don’t be surprised when service is slow and unfriendly.
It is custom to take your shoes off at the front door of a hostel or someone’s home because it’s impolite to walk around in them.
Almost everywhere you go, you have to pay a small fee (usually 15-30 roubles) to use public restrooms. By public restrooms, I mean borderline port-a-potties on street corners.
In a city like Moscow, it’s intimidating to just go out and be confident. There’s no avoiding looking like a tourist so embrace it. You’re going to make a fool of yourself but who cares? Just enjoy it and know you’ll be okay. Above all, have compassion for those who are foreign to your country. You know what it’s like to be in their situation so help them and pay it forward.