Update: since the invasion of Ukraine I no longer feel comfortable supporting Russia so I won’t be traveling there again any time soon. Of course, Russian people are not Putin and I continue to love my Russian friends as much as always.
I just got back from a fabulous week in Moscow. We were there for my brother’s wedding and quite a few things surprised me about the city and Muscovites in general. Here are some of them.
- Muscovites are incredibly friendly. OK so they may greet you with a icy stare, but crack through the chilly veneer with a joke or a few words of Russian and you’ll be amazed at their genuine warmth. It’s amazing how far a smile can take you.
- It’s not as expensive as you think. OK so the visas set us back around £430 for our family of four but once there, it’s not so pricey as you might expect. The exchange rate swung slightly more in our favour than on my last visit and a simple lunch away from the tourist zones cost around £10 ($13 USD) per person, excluding drinks. Even a swanky supper with (exceedingly good) vodka and wine in a good neighbourhood didn’t compare to London prices.
- It is beautiful. Everyone harps on about how incredible St Petersburg is, and they may well be true. But it’s like comparing one supermodel with another. They are both stunning in their own ways.
- You need to speak Russian. Yes it’s a capital city and while more signs are now in Latin script compared to my last trip in 2008, it still helps to have a local on hand. If you don’t have a sister in law who is happy to translate for you 24/7 then prepare for some charades, ask for help at your hotel and keep a hotel business card to hand in case you get lost.
- The city is child friendly. We visited with our one and three year old boys and with wide streets, clean pavements and lots of park playgrounds, Moscow isn’t just for adults. The only issue for us was navigating the metro steps with a double buggy (there are ramps but our massive double monster was a little too wide). Thankfully people always offered to help us.
- Your phone may not work. In a group of five, only one of our phones worked. While mine did work in some areas, it lost coverage most of the time and I had to rely on internet calls. If you are staying for any length of time, buy a local SIM.
- Don’t rely on WiFi. I heard rumours that there is a regulation banning free WiFi without registration, and cafés which do offer free internet mostly ask to input a special code which is only accessible via a Russian phone number. Make plans like it’s 1990 (i.e. confirm meeting venues in advance).
- Russia is not all about the bling. OK so I did spot a few blondes tottering on diamenté heels, but on the whole Moscow is elegant not crass, refined not fake, hip not conservative. My advice? Dress a little smarter than you might back home.
- The food is awesome. Not once in our week did we have a bad meal, including on random forays unaided by my go to Russian guide (aka my sister in law). Russian food is good, but what is most surprising is the quantity of great international places for brunch, light lunches, cocktails. Barcelona, listen up you have competition…
- The weather is amazing. Russia is not all about dog sleighs and furs. I’ve been in May and August and each time my husband has returned with a sickening tan (I wear factor 50 and the closest I get to a tan is a freckle). Check the weather before you travel – you may well need your Ray Bans, not your Monclers.
- Not all Russians are baddies. Read a newspaper and you’d be forgiven for thinking that all Russians are political prisoners / oligarchs / war criminals. Yes, Putin is a psychopath, but not all Russians are. Get to know a few locals and you’ll realise that like most places, the average Muscovite is just doing their thing and it’s not all about the politics.
- Grocery shopping is easy. My son has a lactose intolerance and I was warned that I might not have access to dairy free produce in Moscow. Maybe we just landed lucky, but our local minimarket stocked enough almond milk, coconut butter and soya spread to keep even the fussiest vegan content.
And finally not so surprisingly:
Russian girls are ALL beautiful. If there are any ugly girls they must be kept under lock and key as I certainly didn’t spot anyone below average attractiveness in the city. If you don’t want to stand out like a stumpy country bumpkin, wear heels, dress up and stand tall.
Russians can drink. Beware of cute looking 82 year old vodka toting grandads. They will drink you under the table. Trust me.