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So you made the decision to go to Russia or, perhaps, somebody made it for you. Either way, now is the perfect time to put some thought into what to do while you are there. There is no shortage of things you can do or see in Moscow or Saint Petersburg but if you find yourself elsewhere in Russia or simply looking for some new ideas, I am going to give you some tips (я дам вам несколько советов).
Русская баня (Russian banya/sauna)
Russian sauna and American sauna are two different things. The intent behind visiting this establishment in Russia is to come out squeaky clean and in good spirits (that is when you bring your own spirits :-), not simply open your pores. Russian banya/sauna can really be an unforgettable experience! Traditional banya is a little wooden hut that has a wood burning contraption that heats up water. Inside you will also find cold water for diluting the hot water, bathing bowls or тазы(тазики); rocks for creating steam; soap and other toiletries, and, of course, веник — a bunch of young tree sprigs (usually birch or oak) tied together for slapping yourself to improve blood circulation and speed up opening of the pores. Modern banyas/saunas are pretty advanced. They typically offer a great combination of an authentic Russian steam room, a pool, ice cold water dunking area and recreational area where you can drink, eat and basically be merry.
There is usually a good variety of banyas in pretty much every Russian city. Some are better, some are worse. I strongly recommend finding a good one and spending a good 3 to 5 hours there. The one we went to in Orenburg cost us $40/hour per party, not per person. A good sauna will fit up to 10-20 people and you usually have the entire place to yourself.
Food and alcohol are optional but they will make the experience a lot more memorable 🙂 Some places offer food and drinks, others do not. Usually, you can bring your own food and alcohol. If you are not planning to cook, you can always bring chips, dry fish and beer (you have to try the dry fish!), salami, cheese, etc. Basically, any appetizers will do.
Русская дача (Russian summer home of sorts)
Дача is a place where Russian people go to get away from city life and grow their vegetables. Your typical dacha does not entice you with its looks but rather the possibility to detach from the humdrum of everyday life and enjoy nature. A gardening area is a big part of any dacha. That is where people plant their cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, herbs, etc. So basically, there is time for relaxation but only after the owner takes care of the garden. In the cold months, dachas are usually unattended but when the gardening season starts, people go there on the weekends. Not everybody in Russia has a dacha. I certainly never did! But if you have received an offer to visit such a place, give it a try! Just remember, it is not a 5 star resort but it can be super fun if you know what to expect!
Кафе (cafe or coffee shop)
Being that I am a tea and coffee junkie, I love these types of places and Russia certainly has no shortage of them. Where America is certainly overrun by chain restaurants and coffee shops, Russia still has a pretty good variety of cute coffee shops and cafes that don’t all look the same. The interior of some of these places is pretty elaborate and unique. Prices will vary depending on where you are but if the place looks decent, don’t expect it to be cheaper than US 🙂
When I go back to Russia, I usually give a call to a massage therapist I know and schedule about 10 half-hour sessions of therapeutic massage. I am not talking about going to salons or spas, those can be pricey, but rather getting in touch with a massage therapist that works at a local поликлиника (an establishment where you go to see your doctor, somewhat similar to general medical practice. People are usually assigned to a specific поликлиника based on where they live). Massage therapists at these places are often open to some extra income and you can schedule a treatment course for about $10-15/session (price is for an average Russian city, in Moscow and St.Petesburg it will probably be more expensive, but you can certainly look into it if you have time). Ideally, this should be arranged by a Russian person you know/staying with unless you feel comfortable doing it yourself 🙂 Keep in mind, however, that you will most likely be in a brightly lit room because you are not in a spa but massage therapists don’t really care, so just go for it. Depending on experience, they may offer you several different massage options depending on your health issues or preferences.
Прогулки по городу (walks in the city)
Unless you live in a fairly large city in America, you don’t really see too many pedestrians. On the periphery, the sidewalks are usually pretty bare. That is not the case in Russia. Whether the city is big or small, there is still a very good amount of pedestrians. The cities are built around pedestrians, not drivers. There is public transportation, of course, but people still walk to the grocery store, post office, school, or simply go for a walk when the weather is nice. I used to walk home from school most days (about 40 min), I always walked to the grocery store (2 min), and in the Spring and Summer, when the weather is nice, I would take 1-2 hour walks with my girlfriends downtown, just to catch up on things and hang out. So while you are out there, feel free to walk around and discover what the city has to offer. Just go with the flow, the pedestrian flow that is (don’t go alone though).
Finally, definitely try these authentic Russian dishes and drinks:
салат «Оливье» (“Olivie” salad, a.k.a. Russian potato salad)
блины (Russian crepes, usually come with a variety of fillings)
беляши (yeast dough filled with meat and fried in oil)
пирожки (similar to беляши but shaped slightly differently, can have all kinds of fillings)
пелемени (similar to ravioli but way better if made right, in my opinion 🙂
квас (а drink made with water, sugar, bread and yeast, квас is usually mildly carbonated with a sweet-and-sour taste)
сушеная рыба (dry fish, usually quite salty, goes great with beer)
чай (tea) – if you are a tea junky, like myself, Russia has a lot to offer in terms of fancy teas, you just have to know where to look. Smaller shopping centers that have many vendors is where you would usually find tea distributors. The distributors I am referring to sell nothing but tea and tea-related products. This is where you will find your fancy loose-leaf teas like these. They are usually sold by weight, a little bag (100g or 3 ½ oz) will cost you about $5, well worth it, in my opinion.
That is it for today. If you already had a chance to visit Russia, please share your thoughts and ideas!