In this guide we will tell you all about travelling in Russia on a budget, including what to see, where to stay and how to get there.
Before visiting Russia, most of us have certain preconceived ideas based on Western media and film, and perhaps a few horror stories about grumpy Russian tourists from fellow travellers. But once you arrive, Russia will defy all of your expectations. The architecture and museums are some of the best in the world. The scenery is wonderful and the people surprisingly friendly. Your stay will be even more rewarding if you learn the Cyrillic alphabet and a few basic phrases.
Moscow is about as ‘Russian’ as it gets. Along with gorgeous pre-revolutionary architecture and attractions are a few ugly Soviet monstrosities, and an eerie government presence. The wealth in Moscow will stun even the most seasoned travellers, with designer shopping malls and luxury cars on almost ever corner in the city centre. A visit to the opulent GUM shopping mall is a must – even if you can’t afford to buy anything. Moscow is where you’ll find the bulk of Russia’s big attractions including the Kremlin, Satlin’s Mausoleum, Gorky Park, St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square and the Bolshoi Theatre.
St. Petersburg is far more ‘European’ than Moscow, and has more of a liberated student vibe. For a moment, you could mistakenly think you are wandering the streets of Vienna or Paris. No visit to St. Petersburg would be complete without a visit to the stunning Hermitage Museum, or the Winter Palace. Other top attractions include the Church of the Saviour on Blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, Peterhof Palace and St Isaac’s Cathedral. Make sure you have a night out on the vodka in one of St. Petersburg’s student dive bars too – the service might be a bit frosty but the students will love trying out their English!
Irkutsk is a great stop-over for those travelling the Trans-Siberian railway. While it doesn’t have the same show-stopping attractions as Moscow and St. Petersberg, it is a beautiful riverside city that is perfect for strolling. There is a great tourist walking guide marked throughout the city centre (follow the green line!) which will take you to all of the main attractions. The Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God and the War Memorial are highlights. The locals are very friendly, and the upmarket 130 Kvartal area is a great spot for dinner and a few drinks.
Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest and deepest lake, and holds 1/5 of the world’s drinking water. Those statistics should be enough to make you want to tick this one off your bucket list. A popular holiday spot for local and foreign tourists alike, Lake Baikal is a great spot for sitting back with a book and appreciating the serenity. There are some great hiking opportunities too, particularly the Great Baikal Trail. We stayed in Listvyanka, which is only a short 50 minute minibus ride from Irkutsk and offers a good selection of places to stay and eat.
If you need to break up your Trans-Siberian train journey Omsk is a great place to stop for a couple of days. It’s has a bit more of an industrial vibe than Irkutsk, but work is underway to beautify the city. Lenin Street in particular is undergoing a major facelift, and will soon be lined with trendy shops and bars. A stroll along Lenin Street will lead you to the Omsk Drama Theatre and Fine Arts Museum, which are also top attractions. The Assumption Cathedral is simply stunning, and there a few hidden parks and public spaces that are great for a stroll.
TRAVELATOR TIP: Omsk has a surprisingly awesome coffee scene! If you are in need of a great coffee, head to Kaffee Berlin, Edison Cafe or Skuratov.
Where To Stay
You will find that Russian hostels (particularly in Siberia) are pretty quiet – you won’t find many party hostels here. However, the hostels usually have great self-catering facilities, comfy beds and clean rooms. Our most recent trip was to Siberia so we have stuck to recommendations for cities in that area:
- Irkutsk – Dostoevsky Hostel – About a 20 minutes walk from downtown, this quiet and clean hostel offers great value private rooms and piping hot showers.
- Listvyanka – Olga’s Guesthouse – Olga is the highlight of staying at this guesthouse. She is incredibly welcoming (but still has a touch of that Russian sass you will learn to love), and cooks an incredible breakfast every morning for guests.
- Omsk – Hostel Central – Only 4km from the Omsk train station, this hostel is spotlessly clean with great kitchen facilities. The beds are comfy and the rooms are spacious.
Pelmeni are a staple menu item in Russia, and are cheap and delicious. Pelmeni are bite-sized steamed dumplings stuffed with pork and beef. They are usually served with sour cream and a sprinkle of dill – delicious!
No trip to Russia is complete without a few serves of borscht, a beetroot soup that often comes with tender pieces of beef. It is usually served with sour cream and rye bread, making it a tasty starter or lunch dish.
A creamy beef stroganoff served on buttery mashed potato is pretty hard to beat. Wash it down with a delicious Russian beer (or two).
Potato pancakes (draniki)
We have heard these are actually a Ukrainian dish, but you can find them on pretty much every Russian menu. Mashed potato is flattened into a pancake, then fried until crispy and served with (you guessed it…) sour cream. Yum!
Most people heading overland across Russia will be doing so via the Trans-Siberian railway. Despite the long travel time, the trains are surprisingly comfortable and relaxing. We purchased our tickets before we arrived from RealRussia, who we would highly recommend. However, you can also purchase tickets a few days in advance from the train station ticket desks without having to pay commission. In peak season you may have to wait a few days to board as trains can book out.
Short journeys (such as Irkutsk to Listvyanka) are usually done by minivan. Just head to the local bus station and ask around for your destination. Fares are very cheap, but you may have to pay a nominal fee for your luggage.
For day trips to locations such as St. Peterburg to Peterhof Palace, minibuses are the go again – ask your hostel for some information including the number of the van as it can change. It also helps to have the destination name written in Russian as it is highly unlikely any of the drivers will speak any English. There will usually be a sign in the window of the van (in Russian) indicating the destination.
There are a number of domestic airlines operating within Russia – check out Skyscanner for fares. We will leave you to do the research on Russian airline safety records….
Getting In and Out
Russia is a ridiculously huge country so there are obviously plenty of entry points. We have stuck to the most common ones below. Make sure you get your visa organised well before your departure date – we got ours in Seoul after a failed attempt in Hong Kong. The bureaucracy can be infuriating!
By air, Moscow and St Petersburg are obvious entry choices. There are usually good value flights from Europe (including Germany, Hungary, Italy and the Czech Republic) and Asia (including China, South Korea and Hong Kong). Most major airlines will connect both of these cities to the rest of the world.
From Mongolia, most travellers enter Russia by rail. As mentioned above, we purchased our tickets with RealRussia before arrival but you can also buy tickets from the Ulaanbaator train station directly.
From Estonia, LuxExpress offers cheap buses from Tallinn direct to St Petersburg.
USD$90 (for a couple) will get you an excellent private room in a hostel, decent meals in cheap to mid-priced restaurants, train journeys between major cities and all the vodka you can drink!
Best Time To Visit
This can be a point of contention! While many travellers prefer to visit during summer (June to August), a few Russians have told us that winter (December to February) is actually the best time to visit. Russia becomes a snow-covered winter wonderland with plenty of skiing and ice skating opportunities. However, temperatures can plummet to below 30 degrees Celsius so a winter visit is not for the fainthearted.
Yay for transparency! This page contains some affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation through a link on this page, we get paid a small commission. Don’t worry – you don’t pay anything extra! And we promise that we only recommend places that we have truly enjoyed staying at.