Being a Russian guide I always answer questions from travelers who are planning a visit to my country. And people have a lot of questions! Over the years, I've recognized the most common ones - and here they are:
Top 5 questions about Russia
1. I am going to Russia for one week to visit Moscow and Saint Petersburg. How many days do you recommend us to spend in Moscow and how many days to stay in Saint Petersburg?
I was born and grow up in Moscow but I live in Saint Petersburg: I love both cities very much. What is better: Los Angeles or New York City, Barcelona or Madrid, Venice or Rome? Moscow is an enormous and overcrowded city full of ancient history, Soviet past and capitalistic present. Hundreds of churches, great Kremlin grounds, fantastic Stalin's skyscrapers, modern Putin's business centers.
If Moscow is a city of churches then Saint Petersburg is a city of palaces. It is nice just to walk there enjoying its small gardens and elaborate decorations of facades. There are more must-see highlights than in Moscow. The Hermitage, including famous Winter Palace is the biggest and the most important museum of Russia. The breathtaking Amber Room of Catherine's Palace in Pushkin is the 8th Wonder of the World. Peterhof with dozens of fountains is definitely the best park of Russia! Moscow and Saint Petersburg is like New York City and Paris: both are great but Paris has more must see highlights to offer. So, if I were a tourist I would spend 3 days in Moscow and 4 days in Saint Petersburg.
2. Is it safe in Moscow? Is it safe in Saint Petersburg?
Moscow and Saint Petersburg are absolutely safe cities for travelers. Of course everything can happen in 13-million Moscow and 5-million Saint Petersburg, but generally both are safe. The only real problem is pickpockets, especially near and even inside the main highlights of Saint Petersburg, but it is typical for all tourist cities of Europe. Use common sense, don't put money in the back pocket of your jeans, and don't leave your cameras unattended.
You can walk wherever and whenever you want. There are no ghettos in Russia: we have dangerous towns but not dangerous districts. Russians usually don't speak English very well and they don't smile a lot, but they will do their best to help you if you are in trouble!
3. What is Visa-free disembarkation in Russia?
It is the easiest way to visit the country! If you come to Saint Petersburg by a cruise ship, you can spend in Russia up to 72 hours (three days). But it is a tricky thing: you are not allowed just to cross the border whenever you want and do whatever you want. Otherwise it wouldn't be Russia! You cannot travel by yourselves, you must be with a guide. Your guide must send you some papers to be printed and shown at the passport control with your itinerary and timing. Each experienced guide of Saint Petersburg can provide you with your visa free disembarkation.
4. Should I have Russian Rubles before arrival? Can I pay using my credit card in Russia? Can I pay in USD? Are there ATMs available?
In the main cities of Russia you can use VISA and MasterCard almost everywhere. Almost all shops, cafes and museums of Moscow and Saint Petersburg accept credit cards. ATM machines are everywhere. But you should know that it is really difficult to find a place that accepts American Express, Diners Club, etc. Actually, if you are a cruiser who is going to spend in Russia not more than 72 hours you don't need Russian money at all. You can pay using your credit card and tip in any other currency! But of course you cannot pay in dollars or euros as I cannot pay in rubles in the USA.
5. Is it crazy to skip the Hermitage?
Not crazy to skip it if your plan is visit it by yourself!
The Hermitage is the biggest and the most important museum in all of Russia, located in Saint Petersburg. The famous Winter Palace is one of the buildings of the Hermitage. There are also canvases by famous artists such as da Vinci and Rembrandt, etc. You cannot even imagine how big it is! It is like a huge maze where it is very easy to get lost or to miss the most important rooms. An audio-guide will not help.
If you are with a tour guide who can provide you with skip-the-line tickets, you can spend there one or two hours to see the best of it! Believe it or not, it can take you up to 8 years to see everything in the Hermitage! But if you prefer to travel without a guide it is probably better to skip the Hermitage as it can be a really stressful travel experience. Saint Petersburg has so much to offer even without this beautiful but huge museum!
I have finally some great advice: send a message to your guide to create an amazing customized tour, and your guide will do his best to make you fall in love with Russia!