I’ve always dreamt of visiting the city of Moscow, ever since I first played Tetris and saw St. Basil’s cathedral on the startup screen. Russia is one of those places, the media scares the living daylights out of us and surly makes us wonder if we should even visit. Well, I'm here to tell you Russia is nothing you expect and everything you want. Moscow is an old soul steeped in history yet her modern European outlook is upbeat, with amazing culture, fashion and of course shopping.
It may be daunting to travel behind the former iron curtain but don’t worry, here are some amazing tips to help you navigate the beauty of Moscow and its many facets.
Here are our top tips for first-timers to Moscow:
1. Change your money in Russia if you can’t do it locally
In most countries, it won't be hard to change your home currency to rubles before leaving for Russia and fees may be higher but it's a matter of choice. I prefer to bring my foreign currency with me and exchange it once I get to my destination. The two easiest currencies to exchange are U.S. Dollars and Euros. The last thing you have to know is that the exchange rate at the airports is poor but that is with airports all over the world.
I suggest changing 50-100 USD/Euros or draw some Rubles at the airport via an ATM. It's best to have cash on hand for small purchases or an emergency. Once you are in the city, you will be able to find a lot of currency exchange services! The rates are pretty decent. When we were there in August 2019, we got 65 Rubles for $1 at currency exchange kiosks and 62 rubble for $1 at the bank. The kiosks open from early morning till about 11 pm. Banks open as per business hours.
Note: From here on out when stating prices I will be using American Dollars (USD) as they are the most common currency used while traveling.
We found that USD100 (~6400 rubles) went a long way and would last for a day or two if we didn’t shop. Food is similarly priced to most major cities we have visited, such as Singapore, Tokyo, and Seoul. I'd advise trying to eat in less touristy spots, which will cost less but since we are all on vacation, we will spend a bit extra on food, right? An average meal at the halal restaurants we visited was 680-1000 rubles for a meal for two people. The fancier you go the more it will cost of course but your average 3-star restaurant will cost as mentioned. Touring and visiting famous sites can cost a lot but you can save by buying tickets online in advance. We did a boat tour that cost USD13 at the pier, but our online tickets cost us just USD6.50. It pays to do your research and find deals on the things you want to do and see.
Finally, you can pay with Apple Pay and with most major credit/debit cards. You can go all day without using any cash. I prefer this form of payment as it helps me minimize the risk of my money being pickpocketed or losing my belongings.
2. Research before buying a SIM Card or Wi-Fi Router
In Moscow, like with most places these days, Wi-Fi is easy to come by. Weather at coffee shops like Starbucks or restaurants it is quite easy to just ask for the password. Most, if not all hotels, also have free Wi-Fi as well. So if you don’t want to pay for a sim card with data you can certainly get by without spending the USD15 to USD25 on the data package.
I personally always get a sim and data package as soon as I can. I prefer being connected in case of an emergency and to find my partner, Fatima, if we get split up. We normally get one sim and then we hotspot each other. It keeps us connected and helps split the cost. In Moscow, we got a data package at the airport and we paid 3,000 Rubles which is about USD47, at the time it didn’t seem a lot as we split the cost. This was not the best as we overpaid and looking back now really got taken for a ride. They told us it was unlimited and covered all regions but ran out on our last day (it was only for 10 days).
Credit: Hashim Abdulla
So here is my tip which has been hard learned: research the packages for the major mobile companies before you go. Check what specials each company is running. A quick search of the major networks will yield great results. Even though the website may be in Russian, a quick translation of the page will give exactly what you need. I’d also make sure it works in every region and that it works for as long as you are in Russia.
P.S. That being said, throughout the trip, the sim and data package was perfect as they helped us navigate Russia in the way we like - which is always convenient. Having data means we can use our apps such as google translate which is is god sent and the metro app which is a must when navigating the underground. Google maps also become invaluable which is perfect for navigation or locating the next best restaurant or subway station.
3. Public transport and taxis are the most convenient
Getting around Moscow was pretty simple as it has an amazing public transport system. It has buses, trains, subways and if you are feeling touristy you can use the hop-on-hop-off bus and boat.
The troika card is your ultimate pass to using Moscow’s public transport, it’s much like the T-money in Korea, the EZ-link in Singapore or the Octopus card in Hong Kong. The card is available at ticket offices for a 50 rubles deposit which is refundable once the card is returned. I didn’t return mine as I kept it as a souvenir.
Credit: Hashim Abdulla
The biggest advantage of using the card is that you pay less for trips. A single ride on the subway without the card is 55 rubles but with it, that drops down to 35 rubles on any public transit and changing from the metro to any of land transports or vice versa is 54 rufles. The only catch with the transits is that the transfers have to be within 90 min of the last one.
It is also essential to download the Yandex.Metro app (iOS
) as it contains subway maps and information. It will become indispensable as you navigate the subway. Plus since the world cup is approaching, many of the apps are now in English, yay!
Taxis (Gett or Yandex.Taxi)
One thing to be wary of is taxi drivers who will try to inflate the fare so you’ll have to pay more. Moscow is no exception and I can’t state this enough, don’t use the taxis you find parked around, with the 'for rent' signs. Trust me, I say this from experience. we had this happen to us from our hotel to the airport. The standard fare is about 850~1200 rubles but when we got to the airport the driver told us it would be 4500 rubles. Of course, we initially refused to pay the fare as it was not fair. After arguing with the driver and coming to a decision, we still had to pay about 2000 rubles.
Your best bet is to download the taxi apps Gett (iOS
) or Yandex.Taxi (iOS
). This way you can compare fares and pick the best option for you. We also used the apps to negotiate fares with normal taxis (the yellow ones) by using Gett or Yandex's prices as a starting point to lower the price. Always have the price fixed before you get in the cab or you may end up sitting with a high bill.
4. Learn some basic do’s and dont’s
There are some universal dos and don’ts we should all try to follow while traveling. They are mostly common sense and we all know them. That being said, there are some do's and dont's to be observed while traveling in Russia.
Do’sLearn some basic Russian
Russia like so many countries around the world it has its languages and knowing just a few basics will help you connect with locals and help get around. Here are some we learned beforehand and during the trip which helped us so much:
- Да (Da) - Yes
- Нет (Nyet) - No
- Привет (Pree-vyet) - Hi/Hello (Informal)
- я прошу прощения (Ya Pra-schu Pra-schin-ya) - I'm sorry
- я не понимаю (Ya ne poni-mayu) - I don't understand
- До свидания (Da svee-da-nee-ya) - Goodbye (Informal)
- Спасибо (Spa-si-ba) - Thank you
- Сколько это стоит (Skol'ko eto stoit) - How much is it?
- Это еда халяль? (Eh-to yeda khalyal) - Is this food halal?
It's important to know that the bold letters in each sentence are where you stress the sound. For more info and examples you can look for phrasebooks or free websites online. We did use Google Translate a lot and it works great so don't worry if these phrases seem too difficult to learn. Download the google translate app and you will be good to go!
Here are some phrases that are useful when taking a taxi:
Show great respect to your elders.
In Russia, elderly people command a lot of respect and power. Giving up your seat on a train or bus for elderly people is a sign of respect and will endure you to the Russian people. It's common to see babushkas carrying heavy bags and if she asks you to help her – do so. Better yet, if you see her ask her if you can help her.
Russians enjoy dressing up whether it’s to go shopping, school, work or just hang out with friends. Seeing ladies dressed up or men in suits are common so don’t be afraid to join in on the party. It’s amazing to see everyone taking care of their appearance and makes for an interesting experience as you can do the same and pretend it’s Moscow fashion week.
For us as Muslim dressing up is more modest, which includes longer tops and less tight-fitting clothes. Don't worry about wearing headscarves or dressing modestly. There are a lot of Arab brothers and sisters travelling with their families as well so we saw many of the sisters wearing their hijabs or niqabs. But apart from the odd curious stare, they were free to enjoy the city like everyone else.
P.S. There is no need to overpack or overdress because you will be travelling and touring. I'd say always dress per the activity you are going to be doing and take it from there. Some long dresses or slacks that can go from day to night are useful. One or two nice outfits won't hurt for those fancy dinners or a night at the Bolshevik Ballet. ?
Dont'sDon't leave your hotel without your passportCredit: Giphy
Never leave your hotel without your passport as you may need it to enter tourist sites, buy tickets, for the tax refund on shopping or if the tourist police stop you. For the most part, it's just so you can have a form of identification on you in case of an emergency.
Don't wear your shoes inside homes
If you have lived in Asia as I have, this custom won’t be strange to you and is a major part of any household. When entering anyone's home, immediately taking off your shoes is one of the most respectful things you can do. You will find house shoes at the entrance or the Host often provide some. It may seem weird to you, but this tradition is centuries old. My tip is always to wear good socks in case you have to remove your shoes.
Don't smile at strangers without a reasonCredit: Giphy
Russians have a reputation for being unfriendly but after visiting the country I have come to learn why this is so. They don’t smile at strangers and reserve smiling for their family and friends. There is a Russian saying, “To smile with no reason, is a sign of a fool.” So don’t smile at them in public transport or while shopping in Moscow. I found this hard as I naturally always smile as a way of being friendly and it wasn’t met with a welcoming smile back as it was in other countries we have travelled to.
Don't talk politics or criticize Russia
We all love to talk about politics, and we love to point out what our government and our politicians can do to make life better for us or their people. We consider ourselves to be patriots for sure but we all have our views on the world. When in Russia don’t talk politics as it can lead to heated and hostile debates and can be seen as an insult on Russia and its people. as a rule of thumb always steer clear of topics such as politics and religion.
Don't take pictures with performers or with people asking to be in your picturesCredit: Hashim Abdulla
This is one of the biggest scams we came across in Russia. There are these random people dressed up as the tzar and animals, who will approach you to take a photo with them and ask you for money afterwards. We found that some random locals also did that so please be aware of this. If you do happen to take pictures and are asked to pay just politely decline and show them you are going to delete the pictures. The busking performers mostly have someone coming around with a hat, asking for money. If you do take photos or videos and you want to give something you can but if not you don't have to.
5. Stick to some basic safety tipsCredit: Giphy
As far as I could tell and the way it felt in the major cities we visited, Russia is a safe country. The streets of Moscow didn’t feel unsafe at any time and it had tourist police in many of the major areas we visited, especially in the center of Moscow. It's not uncommon for police to request documentation from foreign tourists but it all adds to the safety of the city. Tourist police in Moscow help to support foreign tourists in case of any problems you may run into.
That being said, there is always petty theft and areas to avoid in every country and city. Moscow, like most major tourist cities, has problems with petty theft and sketchy areas. Here are some recommendations you can use as a rule of thumb:
- Pay attention to your belongings especially in crowded places, like markets, subways, and buses.
- Avoid travelling away from the centre of the city (to outlying areas), especially at night.
- Always carry your passport and immigration card in a safe way. They must be original, not photocopies.
6. Stay in Arbat Street for the best halal food
As we all know finding halal food is a challenge while travelling and in most parts of Moscow it was no different. That being said, when we booked our hotel we decided to stay on Arbat Street. It is one of the most famous pedestrian shopping streets in all of Russia. This turned out to be perfect as there are many halal restaurants!
Credit: Hashim Abdulla
This helped us with having a great dinner every evening. We have a sort of set way of travelling and having food around works out great. It has to be said the restaurants have halal signs, Muslim waiters and as far as we could tell are Muslim owned. They, however, didn't have halal certification on display as far as we could see. So we advise you to dine at your discretion.
There are many Turkish kebab places but in my experience of asking, we found that they are not halal or Muslim-owned. Do ask the stall owner to clarify any questions about the menu before dining.
We usually have standard breakfast by trying out little coffee shops and cafes, we then do our sightseeing and also have a very light lunch (unless we find a special stop) but for dinner, we normally do spend the extra on a very nice place to eat. This routine worked out perfect for Russia as it was not the cheapest of places to visit. On average we spent about USD20 to USD25 on our dinner. Here are two restaurants we ate at often:
1. Taj MahalCredit: Hashim Abdulla
Despite having an Indian name don’t mistake this for an Indian restaurant. They serve European, Japanese, Italian and Indian food. The proximity to our hotel, the location on Old Arbat Street and shisha are what kept us coming back here. The fact that it is halal was also a major reason. As for the service, it was average and the food arrived slower than most would like but for us, chilling after a long day of sightseeing while also enjoy the vibe of the busy street, the basking, and our shisha made it very much worth it.
Muslim-owned. Do note that this eatery serves shisha, we did not see any alcohol but we recommend you dine at your discretion.
Average Price: 300-800 Rubles
Opening hours: Open daily;
10AM - 5AM
Address: Arbat St, 6/2, Moscow, Russia, 119019
Contact: +7 495 107-91-70
Website | Facebook | Instagram2. MesopotamiaCredit: Hashim Abdulla
This restaurant was our favorite place to eat while in Moscow. It has a wonderful menu filled with Turkish, Russian, Mediterranean and Arabian food. They have both inside and outside seating which is great for the different seasons and they are halal. The outside seating was wonderful the summer weather was amazing and the fact that it is in the heart of the walking street means there’s a lot to enjoy while we ate. We could also order a great shisha and mocktail and enjoy the vibe as the buskers arrive to entertain the tourist walking the Arbat Street.
Muslim-owned. Do note that this eatery serves alcoholic drinks and shisha. We recommend you dine at your discretion.
Average Price: 300-800 Rubles
Opening Hours: Open daily; 10AM - 1AM
Address: Ulitsa Arbat, 4str1, Moscow, Московская обл., Russia, 119019
Contact: +7 967 212-00-04
7. Finding prayer spaces
Moscow is not the most Muslim-friendly place in terms of finding places to pray but they do have one of the most beautiful mosques in all of Europe.
The Moscow cathedral mosque is known as home to the Muslims of Moscow. The mosque minarets are 72 meters tall and its central dome is 46 meters high. One of the most amazing features of the architecture is that the dome and pavilions are covered with 12 kg of gold leaf. They also have an observation deck that offers a panoramic view of both the centre and north of Moscow. The mosque also boasts a museum which contains old Quranic manuscripts, a lock of hair of Prophet Muhammad SAW, a piece of the Kaaba, and a replica of the house of the Prophet. Slotting this into your itinerary means you can do your prayers and see some rare artifacts of Islam too.
8. Don’t miss these top attractions for a memorable trip
Russia has so much to offer and it's hard to pick from the many sights and sounds but I will give you 3 I feel you have to see, do and visit.
1. For the history buff: the Kremlin and Red Square
Even those that have never dreamt of traveling or leaving home know the colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the high red walls it sits in front of. The Kremlin is the symbol by which Russia is known and has been the seat of its power for more than 1000 years. There is no way you can visit the Russian capital and forgo a trip to the home of the Tzars and Putin. It is so much more than just a walled fortress, it is the home to palaces, rare diamonds and a magnificent museum of all things royal.
I speak of the armory which is within the Kremlin walls and has some of the most amazing weapons, armor, and guns from all historic periods. It is also home to so many of the gifts received by the Russian royal family and has some of the most amazing carriages I have ever seen. There is also an amazing Dimond exhibit which is home to the royal diamonds as well as some of the most fantastic specimens of rubies, emeralds, and gold in the world.
Credit: Hashim Abdulla
Buy your tickets online
and well in advance. The lines are ridiculous and we spent 3 hours in the queue to get tickets. Their system is very outdated because you have to stand in different lines for different tickets. But for the armory, I would suggest going into the ticket office and getting the ticket at the kiosk in the corner. Once you have all your tickets, walk towards the river away from the main Kremlin entrance and you will find a less used tourist entrance which is right at the armory. you'll thank us later ?
2. For the luxurious shopaholic: the GumCredit: Hashim Abdulla
The Gum is a luxury shopping centre in the very heart of the Red Square. It’s a must-see for every tourist visiting the Kremlin as it is luxury personified wrapped in architectural Chanel. Its beautiful design and sky roof make it a favourite spot for many Moscovites as well. It's a place to shop, admire amazing Neo-Russian architecture, enjoy a typical Russian lunch at an affordable place, or dine at a fancy restaurant with views towards the Red Square.
Credit: Hashim Abdulla
Try to go at night as they have fantastic star-like lights down the back street. Also, look for the sale periods on the website to save some money on big brands!
3. For the hipster: Izmailova marketCredit: Hashim Abdulla
The market is located very close to Partizanskaya metro station and should be on your list of where to buy your souvenirs. It also gives you a sense of what genuine life in the city is like. The market itself looks like a Tatar Kremlin and has many alleys and some very cool cafes and food (Do note that none of the shops are halal-certified. We recommend you dine at your own discretion.). They sell all kinds of souvenirs from Russian fur hats to hand-made items such as Matryoshka dolls, clothing articles, leather purses and
so many other unusual objects.
Credit: Hashim Abdulla
Wondering around this market is a glimpse into an old Russian market. we found a wonderful and friendly seller and we decided to get all our souvenirs from him. If you can go on the weekend it is way better as more of the stalls are open and haggling will be much more fun. I can’t stress this enough - don’t haggle if you not going to buy the items but also don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t get the price you want. Please remember this is not Asia so you can’t expect Asian prices.
4. For the classic tourist: boat cruiseCredit: Hashim Abdulla
The central Moscow River cruise is a two-hour route around the center of the capitals waterway. The boat will glide past the city’s major landmarks including the Kremlin, St. Basil's Cathedral and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. You will see Moscow in a whole new light as the beauty unfolds before your eyes. It is great if you want to make a date night or a celebration of some sort. It is amazing and the boats are pretty awesome too. They are modern and well maintained with a top and rear deck. You can also enjoy a variety of snacks and some food (do note there are no halal-certified items. We recommend you dine at your own discretion).
The cruise is a hop-on-hop-off style so you can use it as a 'taxi' from one pier to the next. We looked at this company
as one place to get our tickets. I also suggest you do it around 30 minutes before sunset so you get to see the city by day and how it changes by night. The lighting up of major attractions is very special.
Russia is nothing you expect and everything you want. I fell in love with Russia and Moscow from the 1st moment. Its history and culture run deep and are amazing. It has fashion, youth culture, and all things modern which are amazing to see in a place presented to us as harsh and cold. Moscow is a city growing in all areas of herself and for a brief moment, we all get to go on that journey with her. I hope that these tips help you in navigating your 1st trip to Moscow. If you have been to Moscow or Russia and you think we missed anything drop us a comment and let us know. If this guide worked for you share it and help others!