While there may not be a shortage of trendy new places to drink at in London, there’s something to be said for a good ol’ fashioned pub. Samuel Smith’s is a chain of pubs all over the U.K. (with dozens in London alone) that offers […]
Toronto is an exciting city of incredible skylines, amazing art museums, and terrific food and drink. Check out these 5 fun (and free activities) you should add to your list when planning a trip to Toronto.
Even though Russia was our ‘big trip’ this year, we did surprisingly little planning for it. We’d wanted to do the Trans-Siberian for years, but it had always seemed like a far-off pipe dream. Until, one chilly evening in March, we suddenly decided we’d spend two weeks in Russia come April.
We applied for our visas (and wrote a guide to help you through the process too), bought our plane and train tickets, and booked our hotels. We were set for the trip of a lifetime…but not at all prepared for what a wild ride visiting Russia can be. Which is why we want help you plan your trip to Russia by sharing these 5 things we learned along the way.
English doesn’t come in handy.
As native English speakers, Gaurav and I have become a bit spoiled with how easy it is to travel these days. It seems almost everywhere you go in the world people can speak English, but you should be aware that this is not the norm for Russia. Of course, when you visit tourist attractions or tourist heavy sites in Moscow you’ll find English to be more common, but in other parts of the country, St. Petersburg included, it can be a hit or miss.
You might walk into one bar and encounter staff that speak English, then go next door and find yourself miming your order. And forget about finding English speakers on local transport. We got lucky on the Tran-Siberian because we landed a provodnik (conductor) who spoke a little English, but the rest of the staff only spoke Russian. One evening we spent 10 minutes or so going back and forth with an employee at the train ticket counter using Google translate because she spoke about as much English as we do Russian (aka: not much).
This is why it’s a good idea to learn some basic Russian phrases before you travel. Russia is truly unique in the pride it takes in its culture and language and its refusal to Westernise or cater to the English-speaking world. And we don’t mean this in a negative way at all! It was refreshing to travel to a country that presented amusing challenges and opportunities for communication. We really loved this about Russia.
Airbnb isn’t an option.
We know, we know, it’s hard to imagine a world without Airbnb isn’t it? It’s incredibly rare for Gaurav and me to book hotels these days because Airbnb offers so many lodging choices, and can often be more cost efficient. But Airbnb isn’t really an option when you travel to Russia, and you’ll need to adapt accordingly.
The popular accommodation booking site seemed to struggle to take off in the Russian market and ended up closing down a few years ago. Though it still operates on some levels today, there are a lot of restrictions which translates to fewer listings. That means that these days booking a hotel is pretty much the only way to go when you visit Russia.
Don’t worry though, if you’re willing to invest a little time in shopping around, you can find some reasonably priced hotels. For our stay in St. Petersburg we booked a great 3-star for 2 nights, with breakfast included, for the great price of £75! Look around and avoid the big international names if you want to get decent prices. And staying in the small hotels can be an interesting experience as a lot of them are located in the dilapidated Soviet-era buildings.
Avoid the post office.
Gaurav and I have a little tradition of mailing a postcard back home to ourselves from wherever we’re traveling. We’ve sent ourselves letters from all over the world—Cambodia, Mexico, and even Oman—without a single issue, but Russia was one country where we really struggle with mailing a simple postcard.
Going to the post office anywhere in Russia can be something of a nightmare. Our one attempt in St. Petersburg went something like this: we located the post office in a grim, grey building and entered to find a large group of people sitting or standing, all of them looking incredibly miserable. As we struggled to figure out how to use the machine that dispenses number slips (it was all in Russian, of course), a woman breezed in, reached around us, and got her number.
Let me just say that going to the post office can be stressful enough for locals, which may be why no one was willing to help out these two obtuse tourists who hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on. Post offices also tend to run out of stamps, so even if you do choose to wait an hour for your turn at the counter, it might all be for naught.
The moral of this story, I guess, is ask at your hotel concierge. You might get lucky and find the concierge in a good mood and willing to find you some stamps. Keep in mind that you’ll need to pay a higher fee for this service!
You’ve got to check your coat.
Russia seems to operate by some older, more traditional rules, and the expectation to check coats and bags is one that really caught us off-guard. When you go to the theatre or the museum, it’s bad form to take your coat with you inside. In fact, at the museum we weren’t even allowed to enter the display area until we checked our coats!
It is a bit of hassle to check your coat, but on the bright side the service is free. It’s also respectful of employees and other patrons—especially when at the theatre. When we went to the Mariinsky Theatre to see a performance on our second day in Saint Petersburg, we naively removed our coats once we were seated and draped them over the back of the chairs. This looks messy and, in the winter when everyone is wearing bulkier items, can get in the way. The theatre attendants also don’t want to wait for people to put on their layers at their seats, as we learned when we were rushed out into the corridor by a slightly cranky lady who wanted to tidy up the box.
Russians might seem rude (but they’re not).
Russians are generally shown as being blunt and to-the-point and this was one stereotype we found to be accurate. In Russian culture small talk tends to be avoided and smiling isn’t the norm. Some of this may tie back to Russia’s history, which has been chaotic enough that you can see why Russians have developed a grim, hard exterior.
The reality is, Russians are quite kind and friendly, but it just might not be in a way you’re used to. For Russians it would be rude to waste someone’s time with small talk as opposed to getting straight to the point, and don’t be put off if people don’t smile back. They’re not being mean or rude, it’s just not the norm to be overly expressive.
You should also take note that staring isn’t always considered rude in Russia, and Gaurav and I sometimes found ourselves subjected to some pretty intense looks. This may not be the case for everyone, but it happens every now and then because we are an interracial couple. It seemed more common in Russia because I tended to be mistaken as someone of Russian descent and people were curious about how I’d ended up with an Indian partner. We kept reminding ourselves that these stares were probably not intended as aggressive—though it’s hard when the culture encourages such stone-faced expressions!
Hopefully you have a better idea of what to expect when visiting Russia! Are you planning a trip to Russia? Leave us a question below. Have you already been? Leave us a comment below and tell us about your experience!
Indian families are close-knit in ways that can be hard to understand, and it’s always fascinated me how Indian adult children juggle expat life with the needs of aging parents living on the subcontinent.
Oman is a small country with a lot of soul, and a road trip here is a once in a lifetime experience! From breath-taking sunrises in the desert, to hot lazy days by the sea, read on for all the facts on renting a car in Oman, and more.
Renting a car should be high on your to-do list when you’re visiting Oman. Not only does it offer you the independence to go where you want, but it’s also necessary if you really want to explore the country. Outside Muscat public transportation is scarce, so a car is definitely best if you’re planning a trip here.
Where to rent
In the majority of cases you will probably fly into Muscat’s international airport, which means renting from a company on location is the best, and easiest way to go about it. We recommend booking your rental ahead of time online, but especially if you’re traveling during high season which runs from June to September.
Employees at Muscat International Airport speak English and the rental process is fairly straight-forward. Once you get your rental docs settled at the airport kiosk, you’ll be escorted to the parking area where the rental cars are. There are a few well-known companies like Hertz, Sixt, and Europcar at the airport, but as always we did our price comparisons through Kayak first, then settled on a mid-sized 4×4 Mitsubishi SUV.
What to rent
There are multiple rental options you can choose from depending on your price range, but we think a the mid-size 4×4 car is the best way to go. I (Katie) am the only driver in the relationship—I’m beginning to suspect Gaurav doesn’t get his license because he likes being chauffeured around—and I struggle with driving larger cars. Large SUVs were a bit out of our price range anyway, and you should only go with a larger size if your travel group is more than 2 people. If you’re a solo traveler or a couple like us, mid-size 4×4 comes at a reasonable price and still allows you the possibility of exploring Oman more extensively.
The reason for the 4×4 vs. a regular car is that some areas of Oman will require that 4-wheel drive. For example, when you start to drive up Jebel Shams, one of Oman’s most famous mountains, you will be stopped by police at the start of the track up so they can check that you have a 4×4. I don’t know if they would turn you away in a regular car, but why risk it?
Furthermore, some areas of Oman are still not overly developed, so it helps to have a 4×4 to get over those rocky, steep roads. A mid-range 4×4 will also give you the option of being able to sleep in the car, which we’ll talk more about below!
Camping in your car
One of the truly great things about independent travel in Oman is that you are allowed to camp in your car almost anywhere. This means you can cut back on the cost of accommodation and put it towards the car rental instead!
Go shopping at Carrefour in Muscat before hitting the road and pick up a few supplies. You can find cheap blankets, foam mattresses, and other camping gear there and you can do your grocery shopping here too. Stock up on food and water so you’re set if you accidentally get stranded somewhere or have trouble finding places to eat.
Once you’re away from the main city, it’s fairly easy to go off the main roads and find quite shoulders where you can park your car and sleep. Oman tends to be quite safe and Omani are very friendly people so the worst that can happen is you might be woken in the early morning by goat herders taking their livestock out.
The only accommodation Gaurav and I booked ahead of time was our stay in Muscat and our night in the desert. Otherwise we winged it. One evening we drove up Jebel Sham, one of Oman’s famous mountains, and saw plenty of cars pulling to the side of the road for a night of camping. And it’s not just tourists doing this, most of the people we saw were local couples! We ended up spending the night in our car too and got to see a beautiful sunrise over the mountains. We’re not usually ones to rough it, but this was totally worth it and we highly recommend you give it a try. Camping in your car can provide some fun and memorable experiences, and you’ll get to see things other tourists won’t because they’re tucked away in their hotels.
Oman is developing quickly in order to accommodate tourism, so you’ll find a host of brand-new highways criss-crossing the country. This can make traveling to main hot spots a breeze, however, if you want to go off the beaten track things can get a bit tricky.
While there are a lot of big highways, some major parts are still under construction which can mean slower travel in certain areas as well as bad roads. It’s impossible to avoid driving on bad roads in Oman, because most times the route isn’t paved yet to the wadis or desert camps.
On top of that, signage can be scarce and Google Maps doesn’t always work very well in Oman. It might be an issue of connectivity, or some other reason, but we really struggled to find good directions with our map apps. This was how we would end up driving down tiny dirt roads in search of a wadi or a lookout, only to discover that it led nowhere or we’d passed the right turn off.
The thing to keep in mind when travelling in Oman is that you need to be patient and relaxed about getting lost. It can be a challenge, but it can also be an adventure! Gaurav and I ended up on the road less traveled a few times and had some delightful experiences. It can also be scary sometimes, like when we were driving up a mountainside on a dangerous and abandoned track and I realized that no one knew where we were and if we crashed it might be days before anyone came looking for us.
I guess the key is, be smart and safe, but also open to adventure. I know, I know, cheesy, useless advice isn’t it? You’ll just have to find that fine line for yourself when you’re in Oman! But don’t let fear keep you from exploring the country. It’s safe and the people are wonderful, so it’s highly unlikely you’ll have a bad experience.
When you think of excellent vegetarian food, Lisbon is probably not a place which comes to mind. After all, Portugal is a nation known for its meaty dishes—we’re talking about the famous Francesinha and the Portuguese seafood medleys—and not a mecca of vegetarian and vegan food.
You shouldn’t pass up the chance to visit St. Petersburg when creating your Russia travel itinerary. This charming city is an amazing mix of cool and traditional and it will add a new dimension to any trip to Russia. That’s why we’ve made up a St. Petersburg itinerary of places to see and places to drink! This is a great mix of a few touristy spots mixed in with drinking holes tried and tested by yours truly. Read on to check them out!
While this might seem like a cheesy, touristy thing to do, you’d be doing yourself a huge disservice if you skip the Church on Spilled Blood while in St. Petersburg. The church was built in memory of the death of Alexander II and actually stands in the very spot where the great Russian tsar was assassinated! You can probably cast an educated guess as to why it’s called on Spilled Blood.
While the outside is remarkable in and of itself, the interior will certainly take your breath away. It contains stunning floor to ceiling mosaics—many of which were created by some of Russia’s greatest artists. If anything, the church stands as a testament of resilience. Since the completion of its construction in 1907, the Church on Spilled Blood has been damaged in multiple wars, was closed down under the Soviet regime, and at one point was even used as a potato storehouse. Its varied and colorful history only makes this landmark even more awe-inspiring.
Drinks at Beer House
Beer House is a popular local chain so you’ll find multiple throughout St. Petersburg. Why do we suggest this joint? Well, it’s a great way to delve into local beer and the bars aim for an old-school pub vibe which is really enjoyable.
It’s common for pubs to be located at basement level in St. Petersburg, so as you walk along the street you may notice signs with promises of cold beer and tasty snacks pointing to steps that lead down another level. No, this isn’t an attempt at kidnapping you to sell your kidney, these are actually the coolest bars and pubs!
The first Beer House we went to we were quite amused to find the bartender using Guinness glasses to serve up everything but Guinness. We recommend trying the local Vasileostrovskoe brand (quite a mouthful, I know). This comes in light beer and dark stout and they’re both amazing! We’ve been trying to hunt this brand down in London ever since.
The Hermitage used to be a huge palace complex that housed some of Russia’s famous tsars, but these days it’s been transformed into a massive museum that holds everything from art to Egyptian relics. After the Louvre, the Hermitage is the biggest museum in the world and is definitely worth popping in to see.
You can buy tickets on the day at the museum itself, though if you are going during peak season (July-September) you may want to purchase your tickets online in order to avoid waiting in a lengthy queue. We recommend buying the basic 600 RUB ticket which gives you entry to the main museum complex. This museum is so huge that it’s impossible to see it all and you’ll have trouble processing what you’re seeing after too many hours inside anyway, so unless you plan on devoting multiple days to the Hermitage, the main complex should offer more than enough fascinating things to see in a single trip!
Drinks at Dead Poets
When Gaurav and I talk about the most memorable parts of our trip to St. Petersburg, Dead Poets always gets a mention! This is a cool bar with a hipster vibe that serves literary-themed cocktails. Each drink is based on a famous writer and they’ve got cocktails for everyone from Hunter S. Thompson to Gabriel García Márquez!
Dead Poets was actually recommended to us by two friends who were born and grew up in St. Petersburg, so it’s got the local seal of approval which makes it a must. When you go, take a seat at the bar and ask for Mikhael. He’s one of their wonderful bartenders and knows how to shake up a damn good cocktail using plenty of flair and panache. He’ll give you some great recommendations and might even offer you a shot of the house berry-infused gin! Though he might not remember us (I’m sure he talks to hundreds of people every week), we’ll always remember him as one of the best interactions we had in St. Petersburg.
Sunset at the Palace Square
If you’re in St. Petersburg during peak summer, you may witness what is called White Nights. These are the long summer days where the sun never truly sets. But, outside these few weeks a year, you can usually find the best sunset at the Palace Square which sits directly opposite the Hermitage Museum.
The Palace Square is truly a great place to end the day and you’ll find a very laid-back family-friendly vibe here in the evenings. Children will be running about playing, teenagers will be hanging out with friends, lovers will be catching the occasional discreet kiss as they wander dreamily through the square. Take a seat facing the Hermitage and watch the sun as it sinks beyond.
The best thing about this? Sunsets are free!
Drinks at Ivan & Maria
After a long day of sightseeing and walking about the Venice of the North, we recommend popping into Ivan & Maria for a nice drink. They offer beer tasting paddles—each with 5 different beers in them.
You’ll have a range of light to dark, bitter to sweet, and you should definitely try the cherry beers here! The flavor is really hard to describe as it’s not sweet the way cider is but not bitter either. Basically, it has all the trappings of a beer with just enough tart sweetness to make it worthwhile.
Also, Ivan & Maria is open late, until 1am, so it’s perfect for those late-night cravings before you head back to your hotel!
Are you ready to begin planning your trip to Russia? Leave us a comment below and let us know what you’re looking forward to!