5 tips for solo-travel in Russia
It’s not a secret, there are at least hundreds of blogs about it. Every day over thousands of people travel by themselves, and many of them love it. Still I surprised people at home whenever I would travel alone. Others knew about the fun of solo-travel, but didn’t think of doing it in Russia. What draws me (born in ‘88, Dutch, now living in Moscow) to this way of travel is the newness: you have new experiences and meet new people. And I have had plenty of amazing experiences and encounters while traveling solo in Russia. But before deciding to go on a solo-adventure in Russia, there are some things to be aware of.
1 Stay in hostels, but pick wisely
Hostels can be a great way to meet people. But pick wisely where to stay, especially in Russia. There are plenty of hostels in Russia catering to local students or Russians traveling for work. They can be affordable, but people might frown upon you if you’d start a conversation. If you stay in hostels hoping to meet other people, I’d suggest you’d stay in backpacker hostels. These hostels are popular among independent travelers, and have a more social atmosphere. There are plenty of great backpacker hostels in Russia as well, with some of them organising events and tours. You can find out if a hostel is backpacker-friendly by looking through reviews on booking.com or hostelworld.com.
2 Use Couchsurfing for events and meetups
If you’d like to meet locals or fellow travelers in Russia, I’d suggest you use “Couchsurfing”. It was originally built as an online platform for locals to host travelers. Later people started using it for social events as well. Nowadays the site has an app which allows you to find hosts or events. I have used couchsurfing on my travels to get food, explore cities, go out and do road trips with both locals and fellow travelers. You can also try “hangouts” on the Couchsurfing app. It allows you to share an idea, for example to explore the city or get food, which locals or other travelers can apply to.
Couchsurfing is popular among Russians, making it doable to find someone to meet up with. There are quite some Russian users who speak English as well. You can contact other “couchsurfers” in advance by publishing an invitation to users in a certain destination or to text users directly. Further you can look for public events. Every week there are events organised in Moscow, though events are more rare elsewhere in Russia. Users in Russia might reply when you share an idea for a hang-out near your current location, with a higher chance of replies in cities. When someone responds to your invitation you can always decline, for example when you feel unsure because of the user’s messages or profile.
3 Know how to be alone
As with solo-travel anywhere, you will have to be able to be alone. Some people can’t handle being alone very well. To figure out whether you can travel alone I advice to first try a short trip by yourself. Years ago I tried it by spending a weekend in a hostel in Stockholm. Since I enjoyed meeting people at the hostel and felt comfortable exploring the city alone as well, I did longer solo travels after this.
4 Avoid uncommon destinations if you don’t know Russian
The major tourist destinations in Russia are St. Petersburg and Moscow, followed by Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude as the most popular stops on the Trans-Siberian. These are suitable for solo-travelers who don’t speak Russian, as there are plenty of other foreign travelers and since some English is spoken here. I encountered few foreign travelers and English speakers in the arctic north and in the Caucasus in the south, making these parts less comfortable for non-Russian speakers traveling solo. That said, some cities here have good hostels and active couchsurfing communities.
5 Think about what you want to experience
People have many different reasons to visit Russia, and therefore shouldn’t all do the same thing. Still travelers tend to follow the beaten path, which implies walking from landmark to landmark - mostly churches in Europe, and mosques and temples in Asia - amongst other hordes of tourists. This can be boring after a while, especially when done solo (unless you are really into religious buildings of course). Try something else. Imagine you like hiking and you’ll pass Irkutsk in Summer. Then you might prefer hiking the nearby Great Baikal Trail over joining a guided tour by van, even when everyone in your hostel seems to choose the tour.
My girlfriend and I moved to Moscow in 2018. Dutch and Irish friends who visited showed us in how many ways you can enjoy this city. One of them is fond of Russian literature and culture. Therefore he loved watching live on the streets and exploring the local architecture. Another, a chef, was less bothered about architecture but became excited about Moscow’s world famous restaurant “White Rabbit”. A friend who shoots as a sport went to a shooting range and brought back impressive results on paper after trying several Russian-made rifles. So think about what you want to experience in Russia before going here, and it will make your travels more rewarding.