Travelling to Russia by train is an incredible experience that should feature highly on every travel bucket list. You can start an interrail trip in Europe and go onwards to Russia for an exciting and memorable train trip through a mix of dreamy countryside and pockets of urbanisation. You can travel from a European city such as Tallinn to Moscow by train and arrive in Russia in style when you travel eastwards by rail. Picture the scene, you are sipping a strong coffee as the train gently rocks, gazing out of the window to see Russian villages and gorgeous pine forests whizz past as a po-faced guard gestures for your passport for the 4th time.
[bctt tweet=”Travelling to Russia by train is an incredible experience that should feature highly on every travel bucket list. You can start an interrail trip in Europe and go onwards to Russia for an exciting and memorable train trip.” username=”pip_says”]
I recently travelled from Tallinn to Moscow by train with Euroventure travel, as part of my role as their travel brand ambassador. I spent six days trying out their Russian interrail trip to bring you some insider knowledge, to help you plan a train trip like no other. Euroventure is a boutique travel company who create bespoke interrailing packages for travellers of all ages. You can tell them where you want to go and when and they will sort you out an itinerary including train tickets and accommodation without prescribing set times and activities, perfect for the independent and flexible traveller.
If you are thinking of taking the plunge and taking the road less travelled to Russia then I would seriously consider booking an organised trip. Especially if you are new to travelling or travelling alone. This isn’t because travelling is dangerous, I actually wrote an article on ‘tips for travelling solo in Russia‘ for Euroventure, for those thinking about travelling alone to Mother Russia. This is about convenience and taking the hassle out of your travels. Especially as travelling to Russia includes added complications like applying for a tourist visa.
I went on a whistle-stop six-day trip from Tallin to Moscow by train, via St Petersburg, with Euroventure and have written a little guide as to what to expect when you embark on a similar journey, so you can be better informed and travel smarter.
Before you travel To Russia
Russian Tourist Visa
If you are a UK citizen planning to travel to Russia then you will need to apply for a tourist visa before you travel. A Russian Tourist visa can be valid for up to 30 days and can be issued for single or double entry to Russia. I’m not going to lie, it is a bit of an ordeal. You have to fill in online forms that will ask you everything from countries visited, to what your father’s occupation is and how much you plan to spend in Russia? You then have to get yourself to the Russian Visa Application Centre, where you will have to take your documents and undergo biometric fingerprinting. I would strongly advise applying for your visa through a specialist agency such as Real Russia. They will guide you through the process and check for any mistakes in your paperwork before sending you off to the Russian Visa Centre. If like me you aren’t exactly a ‘details person’, then I would enlist the help of professionals.
Documents and tickets for Russia
Another little perk of travelling to Russia on an organised trip is having all the necessary information ready to take with you. Euroventure sent me Eastwards with a handy travel pack that included my rail tickets, a copy of my trip itinerary, my train timetable as well as walking directions to my accommodation and public transport information.
I had literally never been so organised for my travels in my entire life. I am very much a ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ kind of traveller, so it was utterly marvellous to actually know where I was going and what I was actually doing on my trip. It meant less time traipsing around working out train times and more time for wine and being fabulous! Remember to also check for flight deals on Skyscanner if you want to fly to your starting point.
Registering your passport in Russia
Another major thing to remember is if you are staying in Russia for more then 7 business days, make sure that you remind your accommodation that your passport needs to be registered with the authorities. The hotel or hostel management is responsible for the registration upon your check-in. As I was leaving St Petersburg the reception staff at my hostel suddenly remembered they had forgotten to register my passport. The sound advice I was offered in broken English was “If the police ask, you stay with a friend, say you can’t remember where, it will be ok.” I’m sure no one has ever gotten into any problems telling straight up lies to the Russian authorities right?
Two days in Tallinn
The first stop on my Russian adventure was the beautiful, medieval city of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Tallinn is a vibrant mix of old and new with contemporary hotels and shopping centres next to the impressively preserved, cobblestoned medieval Old Town. It was around -5°C when I arrived at the start of January, the air was bitingly cold but the sky was a gorgeous, clear blue. Visiting Tallinn at this time is year has its plus points, there are few tourists around meaning the old town is gloriously peaceful and you can take uninterrupted snaps for Instagram all day long.
[bctt tweet=”Tallinn is a vibrant mix of old and new with contemporary hotels and shopping centres next to the impressively preserved, cobblestoned medieval Old Town. #Travel” username=”pip_says”]
Guided tour of Tallinn old town
“Tallinn’s Old Town has the accolade of being the best preserved Hanseatic town centres in the world” enthused my guide Aleksandr. “Mmm, indeed” I nodded, immediately making a mental note to slyly google ‘What is a Hanseatic town?’ as soon as his back was turned.
Booking a guided tour of the Old Town is one of the best ways to put this historic city into context, yes the buildings are Instagrammable and the cobbled streets are adorable, but you can get some much more out of a city when you learn about its battles, its architecture and touch upon its politics.
On Aleksandr’s tour, we wandered around the hidden corners of the Old Town as well as learning about the most popular spots. I saw the House of The Great Guild, the Alexander Nevsky’s, the St.Mary’s Cathedral, the oldest cafe in Tallinn and was shown around the oldest, continuously running chemist in Europe. After a few hours of wandering the town, it quickly became clear that everything is old and I mean, really old.
The best part of exploring Tallinn with a guide is that you get that local, insider knowledge. Never was this more apparent than when Aleksandr pointed out a notable person when we stopped for some food. “See that guy over there” whispered Alex, “that’s the Estonian Prime minister, Jüri Ratas”. I was convinced that he was yanking my chain, firstly, because as a British person it would be inconceivable to come across the Prime minister in the local, can you imagine Theresa May sinking a swift one in the Butchers Arms? Secondly, because the gentleman Aleksandr was pointing at, frankly looked more like a darts player than a major political figure.
Obviously, it goes without saying that I had to get a selfie with the Estonian Prime Minister and make my case that I should be a special Ambassador for all future Wales/Estonia relations. You should really put your best people on the job when Brexit is looming right?
Tallinn’s city wall
This fun little walk atop the city walls is not very well publicised from what I could tell. I paid a mere 3 Euros to climb the stairs and to walk a small, covered section of the wall. From there I was treated to fabulous views of the old town and Toompea.
Photograph amazing views from Toompea Hill
Toompea Hill is an oblong-shaped hill that houses many churches, embassies and colourful buildings. There are also several viewing platforms which offer smashing views of Tallinn. As it was January and bitterly cold, I found myself alone on one of the viewing platforms. I sipped my hot wine, which I had bought from a nearby stall and enjoyed the view in blissful solitude.
Train From Tallinn to St Peterburg
The 380km Tallinn to St Petersburg rail route has had a rather haphazard existence over the years with the service being withdrawn and reinstated several times. Thankfully the service is running, for now, so you can experience arriving in Russia by rail! I went to search for my train at the revamped Tallinn Pas train station, located just outside of old town.
Whilst there are a few modern trains in the station, the train to Russia is something of a cold war throwback, stern guards will study your ticket and passport before you enter a basic carriage. If you are expecting tables, plug sockets, wifi and a trendy train cafe, you have boarded the wrong train my friend. On this particular route, you will find second-class coaches with sleeper berths and third class coaches with rigid seating. This ain’t no luxury travel, this is an adventure on the railroad.
Whilst there is a distinct lack of ‘dining car’ on this service, you can buy tea, instant coffee and noodles and then fill your cup or noodles up from an ancient looking hot water tap. It all adds to the retro and slightly surreal experience of Russian train travel. Once you are settled, inevitably next to a large sleeping Russian woman, the guards will check your tickets again and also take your passport away, leaving you in quiet desperation that it will be returned at some point.
The journey to St Petersburg took around 7 hours, and this included the time spent when the train stopped at a remote station for sniffer dogs to board. ‘Ooohhh doggies, how lovely’, I naively thought, until one grabbed ahold of my rucksack and started shaking it violently. Needless to say, I went into a blind panic that unbeknownst to me someone had stuffed my bag full of drugs and I was about to be carted off to Russian jail. As the steely faced guard made me empty the entire contents of my bag in the middle of the train as bemused passengers looked on, I reassured myself that at least I would be able to write a book about my Russian Imprisonment. Maybe it would be a bestseller? Maybe Phil and Holly would interview me on ‘This Morning’ and I could laugh about the state of the prison toilets and my 2 stone weight loss? Luckily it was a false alarm, there turned out to be a half eaten biscuit in the bottom of my bag. The thing to remember about Russian train travel is that anything could happen, so kick back, have a coffee and try not to worry too much.
Two days in St Petersburg
The grandeur and culture of St Petersburg are sure to dazzle you, from the moment you arrive, you are surrounded by a mixed bag of unique architecture including Baroque-style buildings and imposing Soviet-era structures. There is so much to see and do here, so if you have limited time in the city, I suggest trying to hit a few of the highlights as well as the charming off-beat places.
[bctt tweet=”The grandeur and culture of St Petersburg are sure to dazzle you, from the moment you arrive you are surrounded by a mixed bag of unique architecture including Baroque-style buildings and Soviet-era structures.” username=”pip_says”]
Visit beautiful churches in St Petersburg
There are many gorgeous churches in St Petersburg and the prettiest and most popular has to be Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. The elaborately decorated Russian orthodox church has a whimsical exterior and ornately decorated interior, with fabulous mosaics.
Entrance to the Church is a very reasonably priced RUB 250.00 [About £2.80] for an adult ticket and if you want an audio guide to learn more about the varied history of the church, it is a mere RUB 100.00. It’s a definite must see in the city for history, art and of course, enviable Instagrams!
Have a coffee in a cat cafe
Cat lovers should definitely seek out the at Cafe (Кото Кафе) in St. Petersburg where you pay for time spent in the cafe, to sip a coffee and chill out with a wide range of cuddly cats.
After a particularly boozy dinner of vodka and Russian dumplings, I messaged long-suffering husband Luke to assure him that I would message him to let him know when I had arrived back at my accommodation safely. I then spotted a small cafe with cats in the window, obviously, I had to go and investigate.
That is how I ended up drinking coffee with a cat on my head at almost midnight. Only in Russia. Inevitably when husband messaged to asked if I was alright, he was sent a barrage of cat selfies. Perhaps being married to me isn’t quite the treat I think it is? One of the most popular cat cafes in St Petersburg is ‘Cats Republic‘, the largest and most vibrantly decorated!
Explore Peter and Paul Fortress
The Peter and Paul Fortress was one of the first places to be built in St Petersburg and has had a wildly varied history, from housing government buildings to serving as a prison and a military base. This is a ‘must see’ place for history fans and photographers with a keen eye for architecture.
Today you can enjoy the stunning panoramic views from on top of the fortress walls and visit the various buildings, such as the Trubetskoy Bastion and the Cathedral. There is also a little riverside beach you can walk on and take dreamy photographs of St Petersburg from.
Train from St Petersburg to Moscow
Taking the train from St Petersburg to Moscow can be a minor ordeal if you aren’t fully prepared. One of the main things to be aware of is that the entire Russian Railway operates on Moscow time, meaning the Russian rail timetables usually show Moscow time throughout. Make sure you factor this in when working out when to arrive for your train.
There appeared to be several trains running to Moscow when I arrived bleary-eyed at 7:30 am, meaning I had to try and work out the correct train to be on with a severe lack of caffeine in my system. I then realised departures are also shown in Russian and English, which made things a little easier. There are a few key Russian words that will aid you in your quest to navigate the train station: Вокзал [or Vokzal] meaning Station, Поезд [or Poyezd] meaning Train, Касса [or Kassa] meaning Ticket Office. Look at the departures board carefully to work out which platform your train will be leaving from.
Once you have found the correct train and your correct coach [look for Вагон or Vagon] you go through the usual process of showing a grumpy guard and ticket and passport. They will then scrutinise your documentation in a manner that suggests they are expecting you to be a double agent before allowing you to board a much more modern train than the Tallinn to St Petersburg route. Here you will find tables, plug sockets, a train cafe and much more plush seating. You can then settle and gaze at forests and adorable Russian Towns whizzing by. The journey took around 4 hours and was a rather pleasant train experience, there’s nothing nicer than a lovely little coffee looking out to pretty scenery.
Two days in Moscow
Russia’s cosmopolitan capital is rich in history, culture, art and architecture. It is a breathtaking city, especially at night when many of its grand buildings are beautifully lit. When I visited in mid-January there were still lots of Christmas trees and decorations around, this is due to the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas around January 7th, though the Christmas date can vary a little amongst churches.
The Red Square
The Red Square is surely Moscow’s most famous landmark and is at the very core of its history. Here you will find the state history museum, the glorious St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s Mausoleum.
If you are visiting near the Orthodox festive period you will find a Christmas market, rides and Christmas decorations in the Red Square. It’s quite a sight to see the square lit up by twinkling lights, whirring rides, stalls selling Russian dolls and giant, illuminated Santas. You can release your inner child by riding on a carousel, skating on the outdoor rink, or sip hot coffee as you admire the dazzling lights.
Go shopping in incredible malls
There are some incredibly ornate and glittering shopping malls in Moscow, including the GUM department store on the east side of the Red Square. This incredibly stylish mall has several floors connected by bridges, a stunning glass ceiling, as well as pretty hanging decorations.
This shopping mall looks more like a regal palace than a place where you might come and buy some trainers. There are numerous shops, cafes and restaurants to look around and you will spot many famous brands selling their wares here. Anyone who knows me is fully aware that I am not a shopping fan, but it is hard not to be impressed with the gorgeous architecture, sleek shops and beautiful decor at GUM.
Adjacent to the GUM mall is Nikolskaya street, which has a stunning array of hanging lights around the Christmas holidays, we are talking serious Instagram goals here. Spend some time after your shopping trip snapping away to get some incredible festive photos.
Feast on Russian Cusine
Hearty Russian cuisine should keep you warm and full with its emphasis on meat and potatoes. There are lots of places to eat in Moscow, from fine dining, grand cafes and cafeteria style dining. Some traditional Russian dishes you should try are Borscht [beetroot and cabbage soup], Shashlik, [roasted meats or fish on skewers] or Pelmeni [Russian Dumplings].
Some of the best foodie places you should try out in Moscow are Cafe Pushkin, a fine dining establishment with a traditional Russian menu. Grand Cafe Dr Jhivago, an ultra-modern restaurant serving Russian cuisine and Grabli, a popular self-serve canteen with very reasonably priced Russian and European food.
At the end of your trip, you can either take the train back to your starting point or fly back home. Remember to download the Skyscanner app to find the best flight deals to and from Russia.
I had an amazing six days travelling from Tallinn to Moscow and I would really recommend travelling to Russia by train. There is something rather grand about pulling into a Russian railway station, especially as there was an actual trumpet fanfare over the station tannoy as our train arrived at St Petersburg. Whilst this trip does have perhaps complications and difficulties you might not find travelling in European countries, everyone should experience the majesty, breathtaking architecture and indeed, absurdities of Russia at least once in their lives. I would definitely book a trip with Euroventure if you are new to travelling or you want to take the hassle out of Russian Train travel. What did you think of my guide to Tallinn to Moscow by train? Let me know in the comments below!
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Massive thanks to Euroventure Travel for organising my trip.