Traffic, shashlik and craft beer: what World Cup fans can expect in Russia
There are three ways out of depression, goes the joke: Domodedovo, Sheremetyevo and Vnukovo. In Moscow, you’ll be arriving at one of these airports. Be careful of overpriced taxis and get thee to the Aeroexpress, high-speed trains that will spirit you to the city centres in Moscow and Sochi. Elsewhere, try a taxi app (see below) or look for an official taxi booth. For a ride from the airport, 1,500 roubles, or £18, is more than a fair price, with figures lower in the regions.
Make sure you have your fan ID and tickets with you. Also don’t lose any little pieces of paper they give you at passport control: you’ll need them to get out!
There was a time when you’d hail a passenger car by the side of the road and haggle over a fare, but these days most Russians use taxi apps instead. At least one of Uber, Yandex. Taxi and GetTaxi will work in most World Cupcities. You can pay by credit card and type addresses in English.
Post-Soviet metros run like clockwork, with trains every few minutes. Six of the World Cuphost cities have undergrounds and there are tours of the ornate stations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. With road closures and mammoth traffic jams expected, the metro is a good bet for getting around quickly.
City centres are generally safe to walk around in Russia. Do take care at night if drinking or around others who have been. Dodgy areas tend to be on the city outskirts. As gentrification spreads across the country, every downtown is now required to have a burger shop, a craft beer bar and at least one hipster hair salon advertised by a man brandishing an axe.
Do yourself a favour and try Georgian food: cheesy khachapuri (adjaruli has a fried egg in the middle), shashlik, and khinkali (giant soup dumplings). Dry red wines, such as Saperavi, can be quite good. Georgian whites made in giant clay pots called kvevri are also worth a taste.
Russian cuisine inspires less of a cult following but this is a good time to try golubtsy (stuffed cabbage) and borscht. There are several buffet-style chains that serve Russian cuisine and some innovative restaurants that are reimagining traditional staples. Russia has some excellent craft breweries, as well as century-old enterprises such as the Zhiguli beer factory in Samara.
If you watch the news every day, you may know more about the controversies in Russian cities than what’s appealing about them. England’s three matches will send you to Volgograd, which voted to be called Stalingrad six days a year; Kaliningrad, a Russian military stronghold on Europe’s borders; and Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial hub on the Volga river.
Each city is worth exploring. In Nizhny, take the cable car across the Volga and gaze upon the mother of all rivers (tamed by the Soviets’ hydroelectric works). In Volgograd, climb Mamayev Kurgan, the site of one of the second world war’s deadliest battles, and take in The Motherland Calls, the tallest statue in Europe at 280ft. In Kaliningrad, visit the Museum of the World Ocean and board the Soviet submarines (“One ping only, Vasily!”).
Locals will know their cities best but heading for the golden-domed Orthodox churches (or minarets in Kazan) is always a good bet.
Russians have a good sense of humour about the national side’s chances. “Who are you going to support after the group stages?” the joke goes. Talk politics at your own risk.
Very rarely police can request to check your documents on the street. In those cases, make it clear you don’t speak Russian and comply. Also, if you find yourself at a political demonstration, avoid placing yourself between police and the protestors.
When you give a toast, don’t say “na zdorovie,” a phrase that means “to your health” but is not used with alcohol. Instead try “za vstrechu!” meaning “to our meeting!” to kick off the evening, and then let your imagination run wild. A good rule of thumb is to keep your toasts fun and short, so don’t be that guy rambling on under the influence.
Be forewarned. At some point during your visit a Russian will needle you: “What were you afraid of? A bear playing balalaika and drinking vodka?”
“No,” you’ll retort. “I was afraid of a paunchy man in a tracksuit named Vasya throwing me in his trunk and driving to Mordovia.”
“You know Vasya?” your new Russian friend will reply with a hint of deference.