Moscow Made Easier
The city may not be as impenetrable as it once was, but that doesn't mean it has become a cakewalk. Moscow will always be a little difficult, a little tempestuous, a little dramatic. We wouldn't have it any other way.
Most of the stereotypes about Moscow aren't true anymore. Sure, there are lines--outside nightclubs. Street crime is insignificant. The mafia is too busy planning its next weekend in Monte Carlo to bother with tourists. In architecture and people, gray and staid are in a slow but steady retreat. This is a fast-changing city awash in oil money, a magnet for those with talent and ambition from all over the Russian-speaking world. In short, today's city of 10.6 million bears little resemblance to the Soviet capital of 15 years ago--much less to its 1147 origins as a hunting lodge on the banks of the Moskva River.
The attractions you really must see
Red Square, where St. Basil's Cathedral rises from the cobblestones like a mirage, is one of the most spectacular sights in the world. It also offers a quick course in the contradictions that are today's Russia--the near-absolute power behind the high-walled Kremlin, and the obscenely expensive shops in the GUM department store across the square.
The Kremlin itself is the brick fortress, dating from the 12th century, where tsars were married and buried, where Soviet leaders mapped out Cold War strategy, and where Russia's president works. Tourists enter the Kremlin through the western Kutafya Tower, buying tickets for the museums and cathedrals within. Foreigners have to pay extra but the prices are still reasonable: The Armoury, at $12.25, is the most expensive. (Don't be tempted by scalpers offering Russian tickets to foreigners.) The Armoury, with its tsarist treasures dating back beyond the time of Ivan the Terrible, displays more of the Russian emperors' accumulated opulence than any other museum in the world. Such extravagance makes the Russian Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the tsars, a bit more understandable. The Kremlin is open every day except Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 011-7/095-202-3776 (in Russian only), kreml.ru. Metro: Aleksandrovsky Sad.
Upon exiting the Kutafya Tower, turn right and walk 100 yards to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where an eternal flame burns for the more than 20 million Soviets who died in World War II. The scene is especially moving on weekends as dozens of newlyweds lay flowers at the national shrine, a monument to the one Soviet achievement that all Russians still embrace. The cult built around the victory in WWII helped fill a vacuum created by the near extinction of the Russian Orthodox Church. During Soviet times, few weddings were church weddings, and a visit to an eternal flame--which almost all cities still have--was a way of satisfying religious urges without threatening the state.
Lenin's Tomb is just that: a squat granite mausoleum holding the mummified body of Vladimir Lenin, who founded the Soviet state following the revolution. Lenin's waxen features, tended to by embalmers, are holding up well 81 years after his death. Many visitors have come out of respect; more than a few others, out of macabre curiosity. It's free and the lines require a wait of minutes--not, as they used to, hours. The tomb is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. (except Mondays and Fridays, when it's closed). Those are also the hours when access is granted to the graves of Communist leaders buried nearby in the Kremlin wall. Judging from the number of red carnations left daily, dictator Joseph Stalin is hands down the most popular. His admirers, most of them elderly or historically ignorant, yearn for a return to the time when Russia was a great power and crime was nearly nonexistent.
Hearty, filling food--for less
Long gone is the time when Western prison fare compared favorably to the food at Moscow restaurants. Flush with oil money, Muscovites are demanding the best--and paying for it. You can easily drop several hundred dollars on dinner for two at places specializing in Thai seafood or Argentinian steaks. Fortunately, that's not necessary, especially at restaurants serving regional cuisines (which are often much more appealing to Westerners).
Once shoehorned into the basement of a central Moscow apartment building and favored by foreign journalists and mid-level diplomats, Mama Zoya's recently expanded and moved to a barge anchored in the Moskva River across from Gorky Park. There's nothing Russian about the restaurant: It features spicy, healthful Georgian cuisine--the lobio bean salads, $3.50, are the best value--and guitarists from the Caucasus region. Waiters will guide the uninitiated through the labyrinthine menu to the gems, including sturgeon tsatsivi in walnut sauce ($7) and khachapuri, Georgian cheese bread ($2.80). Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya 16D, 011-7/095-242-8550. Metro: Park Kultury.
Upscale Guilly's becomes quite affordable every weekday afternoon with a "biznes lanch" menu. Quiet, dimly lit, and with superb service, the restaurant is way off the beaten tourist path but is a superb intro to Russian cooking done right. The chefs have mastered Russian staples like pelmeni (dumplings, $7) and blini with red caviar ($9.50). It's on the northern edge of one of the city's restaurant districts, around Ulitsa Tverskaya, so, after lunch, do some exploring and plan another meal. Stoleshnikov Pereulok 6, 011-7/095-933-5521. Metro: Pushkinskaya.