I am not lost! I know exactly where I am!
Each one of us these days can make this statement fairly confidently, regardless of how far away from the beaten path we may find ourselves.
After all, we all carry in our pockets amazing supercomputers that connect us to the world, take brilliant pictures and—yes!—can always be counted on as GPS devices.
Once you learn to say “Excuse me, where is the bathroom?” in the local language, it feels as if your smartphone will get you from point A to point B in all other cases, right?
That may be so, and yet asking for directions remains one of the easiest means of striking up a conversation with a stranger in a foreign land, even when you have no intention of going anywhere.
And when you really need to find your way around, local knowledge always beats the smartphone app algorithm in my experience.
So, if you are studying Russian and you want to master this topic, this post is for you. It will help you with key vocabulary and essential phrases to ask for and understand directions.
The Trailblazer’s Guide to Asking for Directions in Russian
A note on language formality: In the Russian language, you only use ты (singular, informal “you”) when speaking with children, friends or relatives. Everybody else gets Вы, which sounds and acts like a plural “you” but is capitalized in writing to represent the singular formal word.
A vast majority of interactions that involve asking for directions are going to occur between people who have never seen each other before, so it follows that you will be mostly using formal Russian in these situations.
Asking for Help in Russian
Let’s start with a few options you can use when addressing an unfamiliar person.
Извините, Вы не подскажете… — Excuse me, would you be able to tell me…
The closest literal translation of this construct is “Excuse me, would you not give me a hint…” Of all of the polite ways of asking for assistance in Russian, this is the most polite.
Извините, Вы не знаете… — Excuse me, would you know…
Very similar to the above, this phrase also uses the “would you not” construct to express your hope that the other person has the answer that you are looking for.
Вы не могли бы мне помочь? — Could you help me?
This is a good opening that engages the other person without immediately telling them the nature of what you are asking. You can also use Вы можете мне помочь? (Can you help me?), but just as in the prior two examples, using the “not” form adds an additional layer of politeness to your intrusion into somebody else’s day. Using “excuse me” at the start or “please” at the end also helps.
Скажите, пожалуйста… — Tell me, please…
The simplest approach is also the most direct one.
Russian Question Clauses
Any of these options will act as an invitation for the other person to give you step-by-step instructions for getting to your destination.
Где находится …? — Where is… located?
Как мне добраться до …? — How can I get to…?
В какую сторону …? — Which way to…?
Как далеко до …? — How far is it to…?
Как мне пройти к …? — How can I get [on foot] to…?
This last option implies your awareness that the destination is within walking distance from where you are.
Modes of Transportation in Russian
We will leave aside trains, planes and boats since it is not very likely that you will be asking for directions while traveling long distances. The most common local modes of transportation are:
автобус — bus
машина — car
такси — taxi
Some cities in Russia retain a network of minibus taxis that are called маршрутное такси, or simply маршрутка. They stop on demand along a defined route and sometimes provide a convenient way to reach certain destinations.
However, a first-time visitor with limited command of the language will find them a bit more adventurous to use than the other modes of public transportation, so if someone suggests that you take one, you may want to ask for alternatives.
трамвай — tram
троллейбус — trolleybus
The routes of rail-less, electric public buses are more common in Russian cities than they are in Western ones.
метро — subway
Less than a dozen of the largest cities in Russia have subway systems, and only two—in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg—boast extensive networks. But since visiting Russia invariably involves spending time in both, you will certainly need to learn how to navigate subways. Besides, the Moscow Metro is an unmissable work of art all in itself.
пешком — on foot
Words for Landmarks and Establishments
Whether you need to get to one of these or someone is using them as signposts on your route, you need to be able to recognize these common places.
парк — park
музей — museum
стадион — stadium
театр — theater
банк — bank
церковь — church
памятник — monument
магазин — store, shop
аптека — pharmacy
больница — hospital
гостиница — hotel
вокзал — train station
ресторан — restaurant
торговый центр — shopping mall
автобусная остановка — bus stop
Остановка is generally applicable to all modes of public transportation, except the metro.
станция метро — subway station
Words for Navigational Markers
A set of directions is likely to include these common elements of topography.
улица — street
площадь — square
угол — corner
светофор — traffic light
перекрёсток — intersection
квартал — street block
здание — building
дом — house (often used as a substitute for “building”)
дорога — road
мост — bridge
центр города — city center, downtown
Words for Distance and Time
When you ask for directions, the answer is likely to include the approximate length or duration of the trip.
час — hour
Similar to in English, time is often used as a measure of distance in Russian. Около часа (about an hour) is a valid response to “How far is it?”
минута — minute
Short trips may be estimated in minutes, and каждые пять минут (every five minutes) is the commonplace way to describe the frequency of the public transport schedule.
километр — kilometer
With distance, for destinations that are not within immediate reach, the kilometer is the most common unit that you will hear. One kilometer is about two-thirds of a mile.
метр — meter
A meter is a bit longer than a yard, and not surprisingly, “a few hundred meters” has the same meaning as “a few hundred yards.”
Prepositions and Adverbs Related to Directions
далеко — far
близко — close, nearby
направо — [turn/go] right
налево — [turn/go] left
прямо — straight ahead
справа — on the right
слева — on the left
перед — before, in front of
после — after, past
мимо — past by
возле, около — near, close to
рядом с — next to, by, beside
напротив — across from, facing
по направлению к — towards
через — over, across, through
Через is also the preposition to indicate the expectation of time or distance: через десять минут (in ten minutes), через два километра (in two kilometers).
I doubt that you will use cardinal points in a situation that does not involve finding your bearings via a compass, but it feels strange to leave them out in an article about directions.
восток — east
запад — west
север — north
юг — south
Verbs Related to Directions
Common actions to perform in the process of reaching your destination may be conjugated in the imperative or in the future tense, or with a modal verb preceding the infinitive.
повернуть — to turn
проехать — to get to, to drive or ride past, to drive for (units of distance/time)
This is a versatile verb that can replace добраться in a question clause or indicate various actions along the way. Проедете мимо театра means “[you will] ride past the theater;” проедете три остановки is “[you will] ride for three stops.” When you are on foot, пройти—we have seen it in the questions section—has the equivalent versatility of meanings.
попасть — to reach, to get to
This is another synonym for добраться. The other meaning of this particular verb is “to hit the target,” which is quite apt for describing the action of reaching a destination.
пересечь — to go across
увидеть — to catch sight of, to see
сесть на — to take a seat on
In most situations when someone tells you to make use of public transport, you will hear a directive to take a seat on it.
Putting it all together, here is a small sample of what you might use or hear when asking for or receiving directions in Russian. You can substitute the various building blocks discussed above to construct phrases for all kinds of ways of getting from point A to point B.
Извините, Вы не подскажете, где находится ближайшая станция метро? — Excuse me, would you be able to tell me where the nearest subway station is?
Как далеко отсюда до стадиона? — How far is it to the stadium from here?
Мне нужно попасть на Красную Площадь. — I need to get to Red Square.
Вы не можете мне показать на карте? — Can you show me on the map?
Как туда лучше всего добраться? — What is the best way to get there?
Туда можно дойти пешком? — Is it possible to walk there on foot?
Вам лучше всего сесть на трамвай. — Your best option is to take the tram.
Слева от остановки Вы увидите вход в парк. — To the left of the stop, you will see the park entrance.
Вы не знаете, когда будет следующий автобус? — Would you know when the next bus arrives?
Пройдёте мимо церкви, затем повернёте направо, и через два квартала на углу будет аптека. — [You will] Walk past the church, then turn right, and in two blocks there will be a pharmacy on the corner.
And here are a couple of idioms that express how near or far your destination is:
Это в двух шагах отсюда. — It is very close by.
Literally, this means “it is a couple of steps from here.” Or, you may hear the more straightforward это совсем рядом (it is quite near).
Это чёрт знает где. — It is very far.
Literally, it means “it is the devil knows where,” which is a very colloquial way in which someone may imply that you should rethink your plans to go there on account of the effort it would take. The direct translation of “it is very far”—это очень далеко—is perfectly usable if far less colorful.
And finally, do not forget to express your gratitude at the end of the conversation:
Огромное спасибо! — A huge thank you!
Well, you are prepared now! Even if you are lost and your phone battery has died, you have all of the necessary tools to ask a local for directions in Russian.