8 Things That Surprised Me About Russia

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To be perfectly honest, Russia was never high up on my travel bucket list. It's one of those countries that I assumed I would visit eventually, but that I wasn't actively dreaming about like some other places on my list.

But when I was presented with a chance to go to Russia with Viking River Cruises this past autumn, I decided I really couldn't pass it up. Russia is, after all, a fascinating country with iconic cities, a rich history, and cool UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I figured I would suck up the expensive visa fee and just go for it.

The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia
The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg
Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega
A cool UNESCO site: Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega

A lot of Americans have certain preconceptions about Russia. We associate the country with communism and the Cold War, and have visions in our heads of ugly Soviet-era buildings and dour locals. Many even assume that Americans are not welcome in Russia.

I admit that I wasn't immune to these stereotypes. I was expecting fairly ugly cities and unfriendly locals. I was slightly worried that I would be given a hard time at immigration. And I wasn't entirely sure that I was even going to *like* Russia. I was definitely intimidated.

But what I found surprised me.

Smolny Convent in St. Petersburg

Yes, Russia still has plenty of issues (the gap between the rich and poor, for example, is really staggering at times). And no, I'm not really in love with the country's politics. But I liked the Russia I saw much more than I ever expected to.

Here are a few things that surprised me about visiting Russia for the first time:

It's not all Soviet-era apartment blocks

Even though the standard picture most Americans have in their heads when it comes to Russia is of drab, gray buildings from the Soviet days, the reality in many cities is actually quite different. I mean, sure, you WILL find those Soviet apartment blocks. But you'll also find some incredible architecture the far predates the Bolshevik Revolution.

State Historical Museum on Red Square in Moscow

Palace Square in St. Petersburg

In St. Petersburg, for example, the wide streets and Baroque buildings reminded me of Paris. And the canals there reminded me of Amsterdam (which isn't actually surprising, since Peter the Great studied ship building in the Netherlands as a young man).

St. Petersburg, Russia
In St. Petersburg

The churches – all the churches!

Churches are not the first thing I think of when I think of Russia. But let me tell you that they are everywhere in the country. I’m not sure why this was so surprising to me (maybe from the knowledge that religion was banned during the Soviet years?), but I was absolutely blown away by all the beautiful churches, cathedrals, and monasteries that I saw in Russia.

Troitse-Sergiev Monastery in Sergiev Posad, Russia
Troitse-Sergiev Monastery in Sergiev Posad
Moscow Kremlin architecture
Golden domes inside the Kremlin in Moscow

There are the famous ones like St. Basil's in Moscow and the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. There are churches that survived the Soviet years, and others that were destroyed and have only been rebuilt in the last two decades. There are even a handful of churches inside the walls of the Kremlin.

St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow
St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow
Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg
Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg

I'd never been inside a Russian Orthodox church before this trip, and didn't realize how ornate and beautiful they could be.

St. Isaac's Cathedral dome
Inside St. Isaac's Cathedral
Inside the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg
Inside the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

The Metro is incredibly affordable

When I visit a new city on my own, I almost always rely on public transportation to get around. And while I didn't need to rely on it much on this trip since I was on a cruise, I still got a taste of the Metro on a couple walking tours.

The Metro in Moscow especially is almost a tourist attraction in and of itself – the stations dating back to the 1930s are breathtaking, resembling underground palaces more than they do your average metro station. With marble walls and floors, bas-reliefs, chandeliers, and even mosaics and stained glass windows, I would recommend taking the Metro even if you don't need to just to see some of these stations.

Mayakovskaya Metro station in Moscow, Russia
Mayakovskaya Metro station in Moscow

And the best news? The Metro is incredibly affordable. A single ride in Moscow and St. Petersburg costs between 30 and 35 rubles – which is right around 50 cents USD!

And this is a good thing because…

The traffic is insane

Just as I was blown away by all the churches in Russia, I was also baffled by the insane traffic in both Moscow and St. Petersburg (but especially in Moscow). I've never seen so many cars inching along on 6- or 8-lane highways. It's not just rush “hour” here – more like rush HOURS.

The explosion of car ownership after the fall of the Soviet Union has led to Moscow's traffic being rated the worst in the world. (And it doesn't help that most locals choose not to use all those beautiful Metro stations…)

Kalyazin Bell Tower in the Volga River
Luckily there wasn't much traffic on the Volga River…

More English than I expected

I didn't expect to find wide-spread English in Russia, and it's true that people outside the cities speak very little of it. But for those worried about not being able to communicate in bigger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, I actually encountered much more English than I expected to – and especially within the tourism industry.

And, to be honest, the Cyrillic alphabet isn't as difficult to learn and decipher as it first seems, either. I would brush up on your Cyrillic and learn a few key Russian phrases before you go, but you don't need to be fluent to visit Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Russians do have a sense of humor

Russians are often depicted as being very severe and angry-looking. And this leads to them being characterized as unfriendly and lacking a sense of humor. But guess what? This is another one of those stereotypes.

Russian folk music in Moscow
This guy at a Russian folk music performance had me in stitches.

Sure, some Russians can be pretty dour. And they won't smile at you on the Metro or on the street. But I actually met quite a few Russians with awesome senses of humor! I even had two separate tour guides tell Putin jokes.

I felt safe the entire time

I wasn't sure what to expect as an American in Russian. Would I be questioned heavily at immigration? Would people be rude to me? Would I feel unsafe?

Well, the short answer is no. I had no trouble at immigration, encountered no anti-American sentiments, and felt very safe the entire time in Russia. There definitely was a security presence at major tourist sites (and I even had to walk through a metal detector to get into the GUM department store), but it actually wasn't much more than what you'd find in bigger cities in the U.S.

The Tsar Canon at the Kremlin in Moscow
The Tsar Canon is a good symbol for Russia: it LOOKS super intimidating, but it poses no threat to tourists.

The media paints a certain (intimidating) picture of Russia here in America, and I definitely don't think it's an accurate one.

It was easier to get a visa than I thought

Lastly, it was much easier to get a Russian visa than I expected it to be. I was expecting a tricky application, and possibly difficultly getting everything approved. But, in reality, it was pretty simple.

Viking suggests a visa company to all its passengers to make things even easier – but since I wasn't able to part with my passport 30+ days earlier this year because of my travel schedule, I decided to get the visa on my own in person. Viking still provided me with the invitation letter that I needed as an American to visit Russia, and I did the rest.

Peterhof Palace fountains in winter

If you want to apply for a Russian visa in-person, you don't do it through an embassy. In the U.S., you go to Invisa Logistic Services (ILS), which acts as the official Russian Visa Center in the U.S. They have a handful of locations around the country, and I decided to get mine in Washington, D.C.

I filled out the visa application (which is a couple pages long), got passport photos taken, and made an appointment at ILS. During my appointment, they looked over my application to make sure I didn't make any mistakes, took my passport and payment, and told me when I could come pick my visa up. That was it!

The application was much simpler than I feared, and the whole process was actually pretty painless. (Except for the price – since I got a 3-day expedited visa, I ended up paying nearly $300… yuck! Regular visa processing starts at $193.)

Inside the Refectory Church at Troitse-Sergiev Monastery
Definitely worth it, though, to see things like this!

So, overall, Russia really surprised me – but in a good way. Visiting on a river cruise was a great way to experience the country for the first time, and I'm already plotting when I might be able to go back to St. Petersburg during the summer for the White Nights and to see some of the palaces (like Peterhof) and gardens in their full glory.

I totally understand the people who won't visit Russia because they don't agree with Putin and his politics – but, just like almost every other country in the world, the government in Russia does not always reflect the sentiment of the people who live there.

If you've ever toyed with the idea of traveling to Russia, I would say go for it.

Is Russia on your travel bucket list? If you've been before, what did YOU find surprising?


Things that surprised me about visiting Russia for the first time


*Note: I was a guest of Viking River Cruises on this trip to Russia, and received a complimentary cruise. As always, though, all opinions, photos, and observations are 100% my own.


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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100 Comments on “8 Things That Surprised Me About Russia

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  1. I would love to go to Russia some time, mostly to see Moscow and St. Petersburg even though the nature there seems pretty interesting too (thinking of Lake Baikal). It’s just not on the top of the list for me either, especially not with that visa price tag..

      The good news (well, for any non-Russians) is that the ruble has dropped in value recently, making the rest of the country much more affordable to travel than it was a few years ago!

    I’m with you — Russia has pretty much never been on my travel wish list. Your pictures are tremendous, though … I may have to rethink that!

      I’m definitely re-thinking some of my thoughts about Russia after this trip!

    While it’s not at the “very” top of my bucket list, Russia has always been a country I’ve wanted to see. I’ve always been fascinated by the look of Eastern Orthodox churches, they’re so striking and exotic looking compared to Protestant/Roman Catholic ones.

    I had previously read that Moscow’s underground stations are beautiful but I had no idea about how cheap it is to ride on it! I think that price even beats Mexico City’s which is also quite cheap (but not as cheap 🙂 ).

      Yes I was so surprised by how cheap the metro was in Russia – and even more surprised to learn that so few people use it! (I wonder if they make it so cheap to try to entice more locals to use it?)

        >> so few people use it!

        9,5 millons peopes per day!


          Yes, but the ridiculous traffic would definitely be made better if even more people used public transport!

            It’s bad idea, because in rush hour you don’t enter in mertotrain.
            I recommended take some trip from Pyshkinskaya station to Vykhino station at 7 p.m. in workday. Its very interesting experience.

    Russia is one of those countries that I have always wanted to visit – I think it’s because it takes up so much space on maps, yet is so very much unknown to me and many others! I do am a bit intimated about the logistics of visiting Russia, though, so your post has soothed some of my concerns (especially regarding the whole visa process!) while your pictures have now bumped up this country on my list of places to visit even more! If you could only visit either St. Petersburg or Moscow, which city would you recommend more for first-time visitors?


      I actually feel kind of guilty filling in Russia on my “where I’ve been” map. Even after spending 2 weeks there and visiting a handful of cities, I’ve still seen such a small part of it!

      As for your question, I think St. Petersburg would be the best place for first-time visitors. I really enjoyed Moscow, too, but St. Petersburg is even more “European” and tourism is the easiest there. (Also, you can get a free 72-hour visa if you arrive in SP by cruise ship/ferry!)

    Russia does have a long history of kings before the soviet era so it’s natural that you’ll find many palaces and other beautiful historical buildings:)

      Yup! I guess I never realized that so many of them survived the Bolsheviks, though – or that so many have been restored since then.

    This was a great review, Amanda. I always wanted to go to Russia as a young kid, but had been leery of it in the past few years. I think you were able to curb some of those fears. Love your photography, too — those photos alone are enough to make me book a river cruise.

      Thanks, Leah! I’m glad I went. It’s definitely one of those places where you can’t believe everything you hear (or let the media scare you away). Russia still has plenty of issues and I certainly am not a fan of a lot of the things that go on there – but then again I can say that about my own country, too!

    I commented on your FB post the other day saying that Russia is a country I wouldn’t go to… but the problem is, it looks pretty nice there and its history is pretty fascinating! Really interesting post, I can’t believe your visa cost that much though! :O

      The Russia conundrum! I love history and architecture a lot (two of my favorite things when traveling), and those definitely nudged me to give Russia a go. But yes, the visa is the most expensive one I’ve ever had to get!

    Thanks for breaking a few common sterotypes about Russia. Very important read, for people who would want to visit.

      I can only write about what I personally experienced, but if it helps people, that’s great!

    I’m Scottish and have been travelling to Russia for over 30 years – since it was the USSR. I have always travelled independently. It has always been a welcoming country with friendly people. The trans siberia railway is a fantastic journey.
    I’ve never understood the suspicion Americans have for Russia.

      It’s almost entirely media-driven. The U.S. has never really had a great relationship with Russia (well, at least in the past century), and media coverage of the country definitely reflects that. I’m really glad I went, though! It was much different than the American media leads us to believe.

        I find it so odd that Americans never remember why Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. – because the two countries got along so well, so the Russians felt comfortable with us so close to their back door. And, here in RI, between 1895 and 1910, in Newport, society pages had at least four big socialite weddings with well-heeled American girls marrying Russians . . in fact, one of the concerns here in the U.S. at the time of the Revolution was the safety of the many Americans in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Sadly, it was the post-WWII era and the dying off of those who remembered the good relations (and the ridiculously bad history classes we make children go through) that has erased the past good relations while power politics insists on promoting stereotypes developed in the 1950s.

          Zee Piers – excellent points! One should always remember that the general public knows very little about the details of history. Like the author of this blog says, our opinions are sadly media-driven, rather than fact-based. And yes, as you point out, the history classes we attend at US schools does not provide enough facts to form rounded, informed opinions either.

          Amanda – thank you for your excellent writing, photography and observations! I don’t know why we Americans are so prejudiced against the “Soviet Era Block Apts” though! You note the massive disparity between the poor and the rich in Russia now; in the Soviet Era, most were treated as equals and most had their basic needs met. To me, this is a much fairer, juster world. So what if the architecture is drab – it’s what provided massive quantities of people previously living in poverty, a clean, simple home! Churches, on the other hand, cannot feed or house people. The money spent on restoring/maintaining all those churches could go a long way in helping that massive gap between the poor and the rich!

    It looks so beautiful! It’s never been high on my list either, but maybe… It should be! What an incredible architecture – and those churches!! Gorgeous! Thanks for this post!

      The churches blew my mind. I expected to be “churched-out” before the end of the trip, but I never got tired of them!

    Interesting post! Russia is a country that has never really appealed to me, despite the massive size it takes up – but I do LOVE the look of their churches and some of their other buildings, so I do think it is a place I should visit one day!

      If you like history and architecture (I’m obsessed with both), then I think Russia is definitely worth a visit at some point.

    This is great timing for me. I have my Russia visa and leave on my next long trip next week. I will get to Russia in June and plan about 4 weeks there. I am glad to hear there is some English speakers around. I look forward to exploring the metro in Moscow.

      Awesome! The cities will be more crowded in June, but you’ll have such long days – especially if you go to St. Petersburg! And yes, spending time underground in the Metro in Moscow is a must.

    Amazing insight, Amanda! I’ve been meaning to go to Russia for a long time but was always put off by the stereotypes (unfriendliness, difficult to get visa, etc.). I clearly see that I was in the wrong!

      I mean, you can certainly tell where some of those stereotypes come from. But I found exceptions to every single one of them and enjoyed Russia a lot more than I expected to.

    We traveled through Scandinavia several years ago; one of the stops was for a day in St Petersburg… LOVED IT! But, the Hermitage was absolutely overwhelming. SOOO much there, so much to see there (It’s impossible to do this all in 1 day) And we only visited two of the buildings of the Hermitage. The churches & cathedrals are also incredible and spectacular (loved the Church Of Our Savior On Spilled Blood and the canals beside it).. If I could, I’d go back in a heartbeat. A definite must see for a trip through Scandinavia.

      St. Petersburg is great to pair with a Scandinavia trip! And there’s also a way you can visit the city for 72 hours or less without having to pay for a whole visa, which is even better news!

    I love this! It is really helpful to hear about the abundance of English in the bigger cities. It certainly is good to know that you can still ask for help in English if you need it- though it is important to at least TRY to communicate in the national language. I think the cost of the visa for US citizens is the only thing detering me from visiting Russia…

      Yeah, getting a Russian visa isn’t cheap. Even if you live in a city with an ILS office and can do the normal 10-day processing, the cheapest you can get it is for $193.

      But yes, especially in St. Petersburg and Moscow, a lot more people spoke English than I was expecting, especially those working in the hospitality/tourism industry.

        Well, the visa price is more or less on par with the American visa for the Russians. In the June, 2017 I’ve paid ≈$160 (9600 RUR) for the B1/B2 (business/touristic) American visa.

        Certainly it would be better if it was cheaper, but unfortunately for all us, nowadays, with the current state of the official relations, it’s almost unbelievable :(.

        Anyway, I’m pleased to hear that you’ve enjoyed your stay and, well, welcome again 😉

          I think it was definitely worth the price of the visa! I really enjoyed my two weeks there.

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