Navigating Through The Moscow Metro On Your Own

Updated: May 13, 2019

If you're one of the more adventure-seeking tourists, or just someone who's mindful of Moscow's notorious traffic; at some point you'll realize that using local subway system is a great idea. Indeed, over 6-7 million people use it on an average weekday, something that big and popular can't be bad for you.

Although you might've heard or read some warnings by other travelers about how challenging it might be for a foreigner who doesn't read Russian doing it alone.

Well first, to calm you down right away, those warnings usually are either very outdated or slightly exaggerated. The metro has significantly improved its tourist friendliness over the years and made navigation inside easier not just for foreigners but for local people as well.

And second, if you go inside and still find that it isn't really that much translated or straightforward, then know that this is already the maximally improved version of it. The Sochi Olympics and the World Cup have already happened, and all the major changes were done before them. So congratulations for coming after. Because if you had arrived before 2018 or even 2014, up to 90% of all the signs inside would've been only in Russian.

So, today they should be relatively helpful. And if you happened to get to the metro without any preparation whatsoever, if you look at them long enough, eventually you'll find how to get where you want to be. But even then, some additional advise can make your ride even smoother.

Before you go in

Make sure you have your Russian or any other SIM-card with internet connection, just in case. Or at least, that you have downloaded one of those two apps for your phone before going in: Yandex Metro (download for iOS, download for Android) or MosMetro (download for iOS, download for Android).

95% of all the stations today have great 4G coverage by all 3 major mobile operators. Metro trains also have perfectly working Wi-Fi inside. But you wouldn't even need to use it if you have functioning regular mobile internet.

Those apps are the best digital maps of the metro available today. One is from one of the biggest Russian tech giants Yandex, and the other is the official app from the metro itself. Both are equally great, have well-translated interfaces, always have the latest maps, and both show you the exact station that you're at if you have your location services enabled on your phone.

How to find out where you are?

This might seem like something you would only need to ask after a night of partying or 'negotiating' with your Russian partners. But the question is actually one of the first things that'll come to your mind whichever station you take, and is one of the most frequently asked questions by foreigners in the metro.

Thanks to the World Cup improvements, finally, after over 80 years of existence the metro put some additional signs telling you the name of the station right away as you get in without asking to use your investigative powers to figure it out. These are the signs that will now tell you where you are:

See the name there highlighted in the same color as the vertical line next to it? That's your station. And the color is the color of the line you're at right now.

They are normally on columns separating the central part of the platform from the side parts where people wait for trains (just like on the picture). Those signs also show you other stations that you reach on that line by taking a train on this particular side of the platform, and can be generally quite useful to figure where are you going.

But... what if you happened to get to a rare station that doesn't have them? Then just like in the good old days the only place you'll find the name of the current station is behind the rail tracks (behind the trains). So if you descended to the platform at the moment when both of the trains are there, you're just not going to find it at all.

The best advise in that case is to wait until at least one of the trains leaves. The not-so-best advise, if you're in a real hurry, is to use your ninja skills: get close to a train, listen to the announcement inside and, if it sounds like the station or direction you need to be going, jump in at the last second as the doors are closing.

The main station title behind the tracks on 95% of all stations is written in Russian. Like here:

But again, thanks to the Cup, additional signs where you can find a transliterated version of that name have been added as well. Just like this one:

The name at the right side of this line highlighted with the same color as the line itself is the name of your current station.

Alternatively, you can just use the aforementioned app on your phone that'll correctly show you your location in the system 99,5% of the time (if location services on your phone function correctly).

How to get where you need?

After you've figured out the name of your station, find any map of the system at the platform. Again, thanks to all the international events up to 99,9% of all maps are now translated.

Normally, you can find one at one of the platform's ends, next to the escalators like this:

Or there's always one on each side of the special red and blue information/emergency plank right in the middle of every platform like this one:

Build the route to the station you need in your head. Most importantly, remember: how many times you need to change lines, what's the color of the line that you'll be switching to first, and the name of the station where you first need do that change. The rest you can always figure as you go.

All the interchanges on the map are shown like this:

All the stops on each of those interconnected nods are at the same place geographically, only each pertains to a different line and might have a different name.

Stations are connected in the exact way you see on the map. A nod like this will mean that each station is directly connected with each other.

Like this - that they are connected, but you can only reach the blue line by going through the green one.

Alternatively, just use the app that'll show you the quickest route possible immediately after you type in your destination station.

Side note: Sometimes stations on the same junctions are all called the same, sometimes one of them differently from the rest, sometimes all have different names. Sometimes (in 2 particular instances) stations have the same names, but they are not connected. Don't try to find logic there.

Actually riding somewhere

Choose the right track

Now, the first thing you need to do to start your trip is to find the right track. Take a look at one of those signs on the walls behind the rails.

They can look slightly different. This type means that you got lucky, and it'll be a smooth ride:

The one like this means that you've probably wandered somewhere, where they didn't expect to see any tourists:

Or there could be both types at the same time. Luckily, almost all of the old ones have long been replaced with something new and translated. But it's still better be prepared for everything.

Both have the same idea behind them. They show you the chunk of the current metro line that this particular train, departing from this side of the platform will cover, stations where you can switch lines along the way, as well as the current station you're at at the moment.

On the picture below, for example, the color of the horizontal line is the color of your current metro line, the station at the far right end of this line highlighted in the same color is your current station, and all the stations on that line from right to left are the stops and inter-crossings with other lines that you can reach by taking a train on this side of the platform.

It's the same concept on the older one. But in this case the station that you're currently at is always written in red font, while the color of the current line is bit more evasive. You have to look at the color of those tiny rectangles in between names for that. And additionally, here you can see not only other lines that you can change to on certain stations, but also lists of all the stations on those lines for some reason.

Get off at the right stop

While inside the train you'll see one of the 3 types of signs above every doorway showing you the map of that line with the names of all its stations and where train is currently riding on it. Depending on how ancient the train is, that map can be more or less useful. From the newest to the oldest:

On the first two the flashing station is the one that you're currently riding to. Once it stops flashing, you've arrived.

Some of the signs, as you might've noticed, still don't have any Latin letters there. You see them less and less often, but there are still some. If you get one of those, just try to remember the first 2-3 letters of the name of the stop that you're going to and find the same name on the sign.

There are also, however, some signs (not on the pictures) so ancient that they not only don't have any translations, they also don't show you the train's current progress. In those cases you'll have to listen to announcements. Fortunately, all the trains today have English announcements along with Russian ones.

You can also try look out the windows at every station, and see if you can spot its name to keep track of where you are so far.

Or, as always, you can just use those magic metro apps and track your location on the screen of your phone in real time.

Change lines if needed

When you need to change lines, just follow the station's signs. Today there are plenty of them all over the place, all brand new and translated, especially if you're in the city center or at one of the new stations. But I still find the most useful ones to be on the floor like this one that's pointing where the change to the green line (a.k.a. line #2) is:

There are usually not that many ways to go to on any given station. There can be up to 4 stairs or escalators leading to/from the platform. 2 at each of its opposite ends and 2 somewhere in the middle of the platform. Next to each of them you'll always find a sign on the floor like the one on the picture above saying whether it leads outside or to a different line.

In my personal experience only 2-3 times in over 10 years of using the system those signs turned out to be slightly misleading and made me go out instead of leading to another line as I expected. But in all fairness, that's only possible if you're auto-piloting somewhere and listening to a podcast at the same time. Paying attention to everything around you along the way should bring you where you need 99% of the time. Even if you happen to accidentally go outside instead of a different line, just go back try again. The tickets are only 55 RUB.

Get out through the right exit

Now, this part can be tricky even for local people sometimes. If its a big junction of several different lines, there can be up to 6-8 different exits. And sometimes if you want to get through a particular one, you have to change lines before exiting.

It should be relatively easy to find the right one if you're going to a famous place or building (Red Square, big shopping mall or a museum). As they'll always have a couple of signs with names of those places next to the exits leading there. Or a couple of signs hanging in the center of the platform will always say which side of the station leads where.

It's all very clear when the choice is between TsUM on one side and Red Square on the other. You've heard of those places, and you know which one do you want to get to.

But sometimes instead of names of famous sights there will be just names of streets you've never heard of.

In this case, first of all, look at the website of the place you're going to. In the section 'directions' they would usually name the exact exit of the exact platform that you better take to reach them quicker.

If that's not available, you can use Google Maps to try to make sense of those street names yourself. Regular Google Maps (not special metro maps) show you not just the location of every metro station but also of every single entrance leading to it.

But since that can quickly turn unnecessarily complicated and not always be helpful, my best advise for the worst cases with too many exits will be to just go outside through the first one you see and then use the same Google Maps app to walk the remaining distance. Thankfully, 'Way Out' signs are usually the most ubiquitous and easiest to find.

In some cases, yes, distances between the farthest located exits can be around 1 kilometer. But there's a big chance that you'll spend much less time just walking it than trying to figure out which exit is the closest.

And... that should be enough for you to navigate through the metro with confidence and to reach any station you want.

If non of the above solved it, and you're still not sure about something in the metro or already so frustrated with it that you want to scream at people; just go outside and catch an Uber. As I said 'Way Out' signs are the easiest ones to find, they certainly won't let you down if it comes to it.

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