Going into this I did a ton of research of my own. Russia, of all the places I have ever traveled to, seemed like a place I wanted to have some substantial background knowledge on. Especially, since I went to Russia for a very specific and special purpose (FIFA World Cup 2018) and had a few completely inflexible dates (game days!) on my itinerary. But before I get to that, it is a dream to get to experience a world cup and I want to walk you through the steps we took to turn that dream into a reality. Because contrary to popular belief, it IS possible to do it without spending your entire life savings.
The location for the world cup is announced like a zillion years in advance. TAKE ADVANTAGE!! We decided over a year prior that we waned to do it, looked up direct flights from NYC to Moscow and bought our flights at the super affordable price of $600 round trip. We decided - we’ll figure the rest out as we go, at least we have our flights.
Game tickets are a hot commodity (as expected) and there are many ways to go about getting them. The route we went - since we had plenty of anticipation and time - was to search the FIFA website around November 2017 for ticket purchasing options. At that time we found out about the ticket lottery they do in order to sell tickets at the base price to a fairly distributed number of fans from different origins. We put in all our info (including our nationalities which I think weigh heavily on the lottery selection process) applied for 18 different matches (knowing we’d probably only win a few) and hoped for the best.
Fast forward to February 2018, FIFA emailed us to make sure our payment method was still accurate, and to let us know we had won tickets (for purchase at base price) for two matches, yay! Colombia vs Japan and Colombia vs Poland.
*Around this point I became involved with Copa90 which invited me to be a part of their media capturing team at the matches, to share videos of the fan experience I was living.
At this point in time, having the two dates (and locations) for the two matches we would attend, we proceeded to book accommodations. THIS was super challenging. Being only a few months from the World Cup, accommodations were booked, over priced and difficult to find. Russia was amazing in every way but I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit that Russia (particularly the smaller host cities) were not truly prepared to accommodate (and transport/feed/host) the amount of people that come with a world cup. At a loss in finding hotels, we turned to AirBNB (in Saransk) and solicited help from a local friend (in Kazan)!!! Meet her in my preparing for Russia mini series - @sabina_esthetician.
Some of her and her family’s highlighted recommendations of what not to miss in Russia were:
Food: Soups, caviar, Chak chak (in Kazan specifically), Russian Vodka and river fish
Experiences: Banya, Russian celebrations, Russian family hospitality
We had very limited time in Moscow - the day of our arrival from NY and a couple of days before heading home, but from them I would recommend putting on your list:
St Basil’s cathedral
The National theatre
A walk down Arbat street
A walk across the Mokva river on one of the many bridges
Zaradye Park + Floating glass bridge
Christ the Savior Basilica
In Moscow we had two notable dining experiences, White Rabbit (voted internationally as one of the world’s 15 best restaurants) and Sempre. I will cover both on a following article about restaurants in Russia to come soon.
Saransk was small and non-assuming, not much going on/to see from a tourists point of view. We spent not much more than the necessary 24 hours there in order to watch the game. Colombia lost to Japan but we still had an absolute blast.
Kazan was our next stop, where we had a local friend/guide and had an absolutely awesome experience. Having our friend and her family show us around made all the difference in the world. If you have the opportunity to connect with a local somehow, DO IT! Here are my highlights you should definitely do in Kazan:
Touring the Qolşärif Mosque and Kazan Kremlin - traditional Tatar Citadel
Fabulous Bauman street - Restaurants, bars, dancing, souvenir shopping, street artists
River walk Kazanska River
A day trip on the Volga river
Sviyazhsk Island (on your Volga river day trip)
The cultural heritage/history in Kazan is super interesting and unique, make sure if you don’t take a tour to chat with a local about their Tatar heritage and the peaceful coexistence of Muslim and Christian people there for decades.
Other tips that come to mind about the entire experience are: unless you are fluent in Russian make sure you have Google translate handy, it was a lifesaver on many occasions. The Moscow metro is THE best way to get around that mega city (I much preferred it to sitting in traffic). Beluga vodka is SPECTACULAR don't miss it. Finally, pack a pair of high heels, Russian girls are aaaalways dressed up, having some dressy outfits helped me feel more adequate going anywhere in the evening.
The games were a magical experience. The environment outside the stadiums was electric, the fans wearing their passion, pride and hearts on their sleeve. The matches (both winning and losing) were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I soaked up every moment of them, realizing how immensely blessed and lucky I was to be there and how proud I felt to be waving my COLOMBIAN flag.