For my 5th semester at university, I’ve decided to do a foreign semester in the capital of Russia, Moscow. Every time I would tell someone this the response was always a bit of a confused smile followed by the question, “but why Moscow?” and to be honest, I can’t really blame them. It’s not exactly a common destination for German/English students but that’s one of the reasons it was an interesting choice for me.
I’ve been lucky enough to have travelled to so many amazing places and in most of them people have spoken pretty good English making it quite easy or at least easy enough to communicate at almost all times. With that in mind, I wanted to pick somewhere far enough away from home for it to be an experience and with a completely different feeling to most countries I’ve been to so far. Moscow seemed to meet pretty much all these criteria. I have a few friends who are originally from Russia and I feel like in western society we see Russia only from one side of the issues which just kept making it a more attractive and interesting country to visit.
In the end, I did some research, did a beginner’s Russian class and signed up for one semester at the MSU (Moscow State University).
As I expected, there are a lot of cultural differences between the western world and Russia. I’ve been here for about a month and a half now and thought it might be a good idea to give you some insight into what differences or generally interesting things I’ve noticed so far. Maybe I’ll even be able to give you an insight into what life (especially as an exchange student) is like here.
When it comes to communication even the basics can be a big issue in Russia if you don’t speak Russian. Most people don’t even speak a little bit of English and a lot of Russians tend to avoid gesturing while the older generation also struggles with Google and/or Yandex translate. A smile and even just the slightest attempt at speaking Russian can already make the people a lot friendlier. Even if all you can say is “I’m sorry, I don’t understand Russian.” Most places have at least caught up on the written side and now often things in the city center are written down in Cyrillic and in Latin letters (usually in English) or phonetically if it involves a name but not everywhere – particularly not menus in restaurants or cafés.
I’d recommend downloading Yandex translate for your trip. Google translate can be ok but Yandex translate is much better when it comes to taking pictures and then translating the writing. I use a combination of Yandex translate for pictures and writing and Google translate if I’m trying to translate something from English to Russian when trying to communicate that way. This can be particularly helpful as on Google you can download the so-called Russian packet and then also translate things while you’re offline.
Getting around in Moscow is one of the easier things to do here. Option number one is public transportation which is mainly based around the underground metro system. It’s really cheap to use (about 50-60 Rubles (so about 0,70€) per trip or you can buy passes for more days or a “Troika” card) and the metro itself is certainly a sight to see. There are many stops around the city that are beautiful and amazing to visit in comparison to the underground in most cities where you just want to get from A to B as quickly as possible to spend as little time there as possible. Additionally, there can be a lot of traffic in the center of Moscow, particularly during the day and in rush hour, so using the metro is often the quickest way to get around. The metro runs from about 5/5.30 am until about 1am.
If you’re out late or want to go a bit further, then Yandex go is the taxi app you want to use. It’s really cheap, you know the price of your ride in advance and in most cases it’s easy enough to connect your Apple Pay account or alternatively you can pay in cash. It works pretty much like Uber but in Russia. There is also the possibility to get the app “Gett” but I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as Yandex is much better and a lot more reliable.
Moscow is generally really well set up when it comes to the infrastructure of public transportation but sometimes it’s a nice idea to simply take a bit of a walk around the city. There are so many beautiful buildings and statues all around the city, so if the weather isn’t too bad and the walk isn’t much longer than using public transport, wandering around for a bit is certainly worth it.
Food and drink
The food in Moscow was an interesting realization for me. Russian food doesn’t seem to be quite so popular amongst the Russians in Moscow as they regard it as quite plain and simple. Most nice restaurants therefore tend to serve Italian, Indian, or Georgian food. The traditional parts of Russian cuisine you need to try are particularly pelmeni (which is basically Russian tortellini filled with beef that is traditionally served with a cream cheese sauce called “smetana”), blini (which is basically a crepe) and borscht (a beetroot and beef soup). If you’re looking for a quick spot of Russian food, Teremok is a Russian fast-food chain that serves pretty much all the classics and is very cheap – plus, they’re pretty much everywhere.
The cafés in Moscow are usually really sweet and reasonably priced. The coffee is also usually barista style and you can tell as it tends to taste great! If you’re in a very popular and frequented spot, there’s a high chance that the café will serve alternative milks like almond or coconut but this trend hasn’t quite reached the not so touristy areas, which could be important to keep in mind depending on your diet.
All in all, buying food and drink when you’re out in Moscow is generally much cheaper than in larger European cities. Of course, the prices will vary depending on the standard but even in more high-end locations you’ll be spending much less than you would for the same standard in many other cities.
Moscow is a very large city with various different areas. One quite notable area is called “Moscow City”. This isn’t the main touristy or sight-seeing part of the city but the more modern high-rise district. The vibe in this part of town is completely different to areas like Arbat or Tverskaya which tend to be more traditional or even old school. Moscow City is a great area for some high-end fine dining, rooftop bars and cafés as well as activities like bowling or going to the cinema. I’d recommend going there for dinner at least once, as there are many great restaurants there and some bars really offer fantastic views of the Moscow City and/or even the traditional Moscow area. Check what your budget allows and if one of the restaurants meets your preferences and style, because if so, a visit to Moscow City for dinner would certainly be worth it.
There are so many things to see and do in Moscow that I will certainly be dedicating a future article to my top 10 but for now, I’ll just give you a few insights into the sights in general. Most of the main sights are outside (or at least partly) making many sights very cheap to visit. This includes the Red Square, Gorky Park, VDNKh and most of the Kremlin. The buildings as well as the parks all around the capital are fantastic and full of interesting history. Make sure to look at some of the details in the architecture as you can see some great insights into the country’s past. If you’re a student in Russia, be sure to take your student ID to all attractions as this could get you a significant reduction. Sometimes an ISIC card is also valid but not always. Museums tend to cost 200-900 Rubles (about 3-10€) per ticket depending on your ticket class, the museum and/or the exhibition on show.
Another main attraction in Moscow are the various sports arenas and events that they show. Especially sports such as football, ice hockey and ice skating are particularly popular.
Further good things to know
One of the most important things I realized after my first visit to the center of Moscow is that the city basically has no pedestrian crossings. If you want to cross the road, you have to use the underground metro passages. What’s the catch? Not every station has a passage to every other side of the road. Google maps is pretty well set up when it comes to telling you where you can cross (under) the roads and it can take some getting used to. One way to avoid this problem at least sometimes is simply to make sure you exit the metro at the right exit and avoid a lot of above ground complications.
The currency in Russia is called rubles. Most places will generally accept credit cards but it’s always handy to have some cash ready just in case. The exchange rate for foreign currencies and rubles is always in flux, so try and stay up to date the best way you can.
Russians only really have one form of identification, their passport. In case when buying alcohol or entering clubs you try showing an ID card instead, this will usually work but you have to try and explain that it is just as valid as your passport.
Generally, Moscow is an interesting and wonderful city to visit. It’s full of unique cultural points and historical landmarks. There’s so much to see and do, all whilst having the special challenge of trying to communicate with Russians in Russian or general. If you plan on staying in Moscow for a longer time, I can certainly recommend the Lonely Planet city guidebook on Moscow. It has so many interesting pieces of information and an insight into various places to stay and eat in all areas of the city.
If you’re interested in more destinations, packing tips or general travel advice, check out some of the other articles and stay tuned for more! In case your questions aren’t answered here, or you have any comments or personal experiences you’d like to share, don’t be afraid to get in touch, comment and let me know.
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