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. Hi Amanda!
    It’s nice to read you had good trip to Russia.
    As St-Peterburg’s local inhabitant I could give some advice’s for you (if you will visit StP again) and other travelers, who read your blog and plan to visit StP.
    At first, StP is quite a big sity 🙂 StP’s agglomeration consists of not StP and Petergof only, but some small towns – Lomonosov, Strelna, Kronshtadt, Pushkin, Pavlovsk, etc.
    There are a lot of impressive artefacts too – palaces, gardens, forts of the Kronshtadt Fortress e.t.c.
    There are a lot of interesting and nice-looking places in the StP too, but part of them are far from typical tourists routs 🙂
    But it seems to me, you hardly able to visit all this due 2-3 days if you have voyage like you described – you just have not enough time for this.
    To be more familiar with StP needs 1-2 weeks at seems to me.
    So, if someone is a traveler like I am – lazy a bit, who don’t like travel on the run and cross the checkpoints off the checklist, then fly to next city, place, country and the next checklist – it seems to me, StP is the good place for such traveler 🙂

      I definitely only saw the highlights on my first trip to St. Petersburg – so I would certainly love to visit again sometime!

    Thanx Amanda.
    Well, what you see in Russia in many ways depends on what you want to see and where you go. Yes, there are many churches, theaters, museums in good condition, good roads, beautiful architecture and nature, golden autumn, etc. But if you want, then you can find also mouse grayness of industrial house-building, fallen plaster, collapsing wooden houses, a rural toilet, puddles instead of roads, few chaos and a ruthless bureaucracy etc . And the second is not an excuse to give up the first.
    And yes in the Moscow metro there can be human traffic jams.
    http://ru-open.livejournal.com/ publised your post in russian

      Of course! You can find sad and ugly parts of every country in the world – but you’re correct that those parts don’t mean you shouldn’t see the more positive aspects of a place.

    Amanda, thank you for such an amazing story about my country.

    Hi Amanda, I’m from Russia!!! Thanks for the sketch, very nice. All that you have written is true. We are nothing you are no different. Live , work, raise children. Thank you, it was interesting to read. With love from Russia. Come again!!!

      I certainly do hope to return to Russia! I would especially love to visit St. Petersburg again in the summer.

        Come to Kazan! It`s a very beautiful city! ))

    Hi, Amanda!

    It was a great fun to read your post as a Russian 🙂 It gave me an idea of how it feels on the other side. I had a similar feeling when I went to Bosnia, probably my preconceptions were even stronger. I expected to see a dangerous country where I may step on a mine or be robbed at any minute but in fact it is totally safe and welcoming.

      Funny how our preconceived notions about places are often totally wrong!

    Really interesting (and positive!) to read about your experience in Russia. I’m hoping to go next year for the World Cup, albeit some hesitance, but your post has helped calm some of that!

      It surprised me – but in a good way! I think going for the World Cup could be really fun.

      You probably wouldn’t believe the hesitance Russians feel about going abroad to, say, Europe or USA. Like, shops that don’t work 24/7? Ambulance that doesn’t have a real doctor aboard? Dangerous districts that aren’t often visited by police? Political correctness that may have legal consequences if you say something wrong? American gun control?

      I’ve seen people coming to Russia with a safe belt containing their documents and money under their clothes, as if it’s still 1990s. I’ve seen Russians departing with similar precautions. If you ask me, in the latter case it’s far more justified.

    Fantastic share—I love all the highlights of gold you captured!

    Hi Amanda! Thanks for your article, it was really interesting to discover how you guys see Russians from the outside:) I didn’t know those stereotypes of being unsafe or about the ugly buildings were so strong! Being grown up in Moscow I always admired our amazing architecture and kinda got used to the idea everyone knows about it:) Now I live in New Zealand and stereotypes are different, but still there ARE some. Good, that travelers like you share their experience and make the world look a bit more close tot he truth:)


      We get a lot of biased information (or sometimes MISinformation here in the US). Thankfully traveling to see places for myself helps separate the myths from reality!

    wow very nice blog.I will go Russia on February with my husband.I don’t know that much deatils about russia.but your articles give me so much information that i can now easily expore russia without any hussale.And one thing your picturs are very nice.It’s described all things

    I’ve wanted to visit Russia forever, but I never really thought about doing it via river cruise. I’ve always wanted to do the Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Moscow. But maybe doing both is in order, because as you said it’s a big country!

      It’s such a huge country. Exploring by train would be amazing, but I’m not sure I’d be confident enough to tackle it on my own since I don’t speak any Russian!

    Russia was not on my bucket list until your first last post, about the cruise! Now it definitely is. That metro station really puts Chicago’s train stations to shame!

      I’ve never seen metro stations quite like the ones in Moscow! Glad to hear I’m changing some minds about Russia with my posts!

    The church ceiling photos are definitely working to convince me that Russia should be on my bucket list.

      I kept vacillating between taking way too many photos and just standing there with my jaw dropped, staring. Some seriously amazing work in those churches!

    Like you, it’s not high on my bucket list, but I’m open to getting there at some point. I think the cruise option is a good one since it provides you with more of an introduction to the country. Definitely on the list!

      I definitely liked the cruise option, and think it helped lessen the intimidation value a lot since I didn’t have to worry about any of the details. It was also a good way to see many different parts of the country in one go.

    I had no idea there was so much cool architecture in Russia! I’ve wanted to go for a while, but now I definitely want to sooner than later!

      The churches are basically works of art with all those onion domes! Even in the smaller cities you’ll find lots of pretty buildings (and especially churches).

    Wow! The buildings in your photos are stunning! Russia wasn’t on my bucket list at all, but I was recently in Amsterdam and went to the Hermitage Museum. I found their Catherine the Great exhibit fascinating! Even learning just a little bit about Russian history was enough to make me want to go see the original Hermitage!

    I really liked this post and the angle you took with it. I think we need more media like this that dispels the myths and fears we have about other countries and their peoples.

      Oh wow, I didn’t even know that museum in Amsterdam existed! I like dispelling myths about travel when I can – there’s a lot of misinformation and fearmongering out there!

        Apparently the Russian Hermitage has SO many artifacts that aren’t on display that they built two satellite Hermitages. One is in Amsterdam, and I don’t remember where the other one is.

          Cool! And yeah, they have a TON of stuff that isn’t on display. Some people from my cruise went on an extended Hermitage tour, where they got to go to the warehouse in St. Petersburg and see a bunch of the stuff not on display.

            Oh wow! That’s so cool!! I wish more museums did that!

          Great article! I’m planning to go in September. I was having second thoughts but after reading your article, I am convinced I must. Looking forward to it.

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