Tales of foodie, sports loving Aussie expat in the Netherlands.

Before you go to Russia

November 14, 2017/Russia

There have been a lot of changes in the tourism industry in the last decade. (Well, how is that for the biggest understatement on this blog?) The negative ones get all the press and yeah, I’m known to rant and rave about them too. But today I’m all about the positives. Particularly one big giant positive.

You can now book attractions online, ahead of time.

I know this sounds incredibly simple. You might even be thinking, is that all she’s going to say? I do that already! But seriously, this is huge. It’s changed things completely. And every time I walk right into an attraction, right past a queue that sneaks around the building, I can’t quite believe how few people actually utilise this service.

Well, maybe because the service can be at times, um, confusing. But persistence pays off. So here I am, at the risk of sounding like an advertisement, giving you our recent trip to Russia as an example. I even said at the time, “I’m going to blog about this.” Here we booked a few things before we left home; Kremlin tickets in Moscow as well as Hermitage tickets, ballet tickets and Catherine’s Palace tickets in Saint Petersburg.

Everything else (more museums, a couple of churches and a canal cruise) we figured out when we got there. I want to stress this; you don’t need to book everything. Sometimes it’s a bit of a gamble; we walked right into Saint Basil’s Cathedral without even queueing, for example. Other things you can’t book at all; to see Lenin’s Mausoleum, be prepared to either queue for an hour or be really Russian and cut in just before the entrance (as was the case for us, right under our noses. I was so dumbfounded I applauded them for their efforts).

The Hermitage tickets were the easiest; the website was in English, we could pay in US dollars and we didn’t even have to pick a date. We had six months to use them. Contrast that with the one or two hour queue of people standing out in the rain. Not only that, we had a separate entrance which was an oasis of calm. Tickets are a bit more expensive than in person, but it’s worth it.

The glitz and glamour of the Hermitage.

The Kremlin was the next easiest. Again the website was in English, and here we just had to pick a date for when we intended to use them. Once we were inside (waltzing past the chaos of the tour groups and complicated ticket window/cloakroom madness) we had saved ourselves so much time avoiding the queue that we also snared tickets to the Ivan the Great Bell Tower.

Views of the Kremlin from the Ivan the Great Bell Tower.

The other two attractions necessitated a bit more head scratching and a good deal of Google Translate. I can save you plenty of confusion by giving you the link to booking tickets to Catherine’s Palace already. That took a fair bit of clicking and backtracking. There’s only one hundred tickets available online for each day (you’re looking for the ones saying ‘Historic Interiors’), so these get snapped up pretty quickly in the summer.

Google Translate the ticket they email to you (all in Cyrillic) and you’ll realise that these aren’t actually tickets, but a voucher you need to give a ticket desk to exchange for your tickets, after which you’ll then have an hour to go inside. Not mentioned anywhere is the fact that you’re not allowed in before noon, something I discovered through my online wanderings.

Catherine's Palace, just outside of Saint Petersburg.

And then there’s the ballet. We visited Russia in August, meaning the famous Mariinsky was closed for the summer. So you’re kind of on your own here; I managed to find good old Swan Lake was scheduled for the Alexandriinsky. All the advice I’d gotten was that the Alexandriinsky would just be touristy and you’ll be ripped off unless you buy when you’re there.

I ignored all of the advice and stuck to the Alexandriinsky as it looked pretty awesome in the photos, plus I know zip about ballet so I figured who cares if it’s touristy? I was only going because I was in Saint Petersburg, anyway. I booked tickets on the theatre’s official website, which has the first couple of the steps of ticket purchase in English before descending into solely Russian. But I trudged on, was able to pick where I wanted my seats and ended up snaffling decent tickets for only twenty euro. It sure beat trying to haggle for tickets once there.

If that all sounds like a lot of work, well, that’s Russia for you. Independent travel there can be a lot of work. Figuring this all out before you go means all this confusion happens before you pack your bags, leaving you less confusion when you’re actually there! Don’t you love my positivity? Just remember to look for official websites, as simply Googling these places will often show you tourist operators’ sites first which of course have inflated prices. The easiest way to look for legitimate sites is to look at the URL; most often, you’ll want one ending in .ru rather than .com.

As I realised when in Russia, most non-Russian speaking tourists travel to Russia as part of organised tours. The few of us who travel independently are up for some logistical challenges, to put it lightly (figuring out the right marshruktka van from Catherine’s Palace back to Saint Petersburg has to be right up there). But the shortcuts are there, available, right in your browser. Invest a bit of time planning beforehand, and you’ll have more time to get annoyed at the other tourism developments over the past decade. Yep, ponder that as you get whacked with a selfie stick while admiring that Rembrandt.

Comments (2)

  • Darren / November 16, 2017 / Reply

    Russia is one of my favourite countries! I highly recommend getting some help from a tour company if you want to visit places other than just Moscow and St Petersburg as smaller cities and villages are less tolerant of tourists that don’t speak at least a little Russian. Troika Travel were great for us. They can personalise your trip and even organise tour guides to meet you and take you around for a few hours at each new town at pretty decent prices so you can then feel comfortable to explore. https://arteltroika.com/visit-russia/

    • (Author) Caitlyn / November 17, 2017 / Reply

      Thanks Darren! I remember Amy telling me about you visiting there and learning the language, it must have been tough! Thanks for the head’s up, I think you’re right – if we venture further in Russia we’ll need some help.

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