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.
If you want to get a sense of the the Russian soul, take a pass on the dry State Historical Museum, with its frescoes of early Russians eating raw mammoth meat. A far better option is a Russian bathhouse. The city is dotted with public bathhouses--called banyas--but two of the more venerable are the ornate Sandunovskiye Bani (Ulitsa Neglinnaya 14, 011-7/095-925-4631. Metro: Kuznetsky Most) and the humble, hard-core Seleznyovskiye Bani (Seleznyovskaya Ulitsa 15, 011-7/095-978-9430. Metro: Novoslobodskaya). Admission at the more authentic of the two--Seleznyovskiye--is $14 for women and $17 for men for a two-hour weekend session. Pay another $5 or so to rent slippers and sheets for sitting on and drying off. A few things to know: Men and women steam in the nude, and separately; the upper reaches of the steamroom are hot enough to scorch bald pates, while the dipping pool is frigid; groaning patrons can beat each other with birch branches. At the end of it all--feeling clean, reinvigorated, and a lot closer to the Russian soul--be sure to leave with a parting "S lyogkim parom," which translates roughly as "May the steam be with you."
Finally, the two famous circuses are typically jammed with screaming children--and really, wouldn't you rather spend an evening at the Kuklachyov Cat Theater? A cast of cats and a few dogs perform highly abridged Russian classics, such as Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. The dialogue, as one would expect, is nonexistent--which means you don't have to worry about a language barrier. Not only is the cat theater a cultural institution unique to Moscow, it also lacks the undercurrent of violent domination that colors most Russian circus acts. Stick around after the show has ended, when the actors come out and mingle with the crowd. Tickets start at $13 (popcorn and cat-shaped balloons are extra). Kutuzovsky Prospekt 25, 011-7/095-249-2907. Metro: Kievskaya.
Where to find crafts and kitsch
Sprawling Izmailovsky Market is the leading place to find Soviet memorabilia, icons of Russian saints, fur hats, matryoshka dolls, and more. (Metro: Izmailovsky Park. Just follow the crowds or ask for the "vernisazh.") Prices are usually the lowest in the city. Admission to the warren of outdoor stalls is 35¢. Most of the hundreds of vendors speak a smattering of English, accept dollars, and are ready to knock down prices by up to 25 percent for those spending over $30 on multiple items. One notable exception to the deals is amber jewelry, which is significantly cheaper in the kiosks of the pedestrian underpasses in central Moscow.
Beyond city limits
As the truism says, "Moscow is not Russia." Sergiev Posad--a 60-minute, $9 express train ride away--is a medieval town built around a monastery, the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, that's one of the holiest sites in the Orthodox Christian world. Pilgrims from across the former USSR come to kiss the coffin holding the 600-year-old remains of Saint Sergius of Radonezh, sip a bit of holy water, and attend services. The city itself is a blend of bland Soviet architecture and fetching low-rise buildings in the 19th-century neoclassical style still evident in regional cities across what was the Russian Empire. People are poorer and life is slower, but there's also a kindness and hospitality that Moscow lacks. Trains for Sergiev Posad leave from Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station (metro: Komsomolskaya) at least once an hour all day long. Stay at the ski lodge--like Russky Dvorik Hotel (Ulitsa Mitkina 14/2, 011-7/096-547-5392, $67), where the room rate includes an ample breakfast. Opposite the monastery's main entrance, a restaurant also called Russky Dvorik has an interior like a pre-revolutionary tavern and a kitchen that outclasses many a traditional Russian restaurant in Moscow, at a fraction of the price (Prospekt Krasnoy Armii 134, 011-7/096-547-3852, baked sturgeon $7).
Help from the experts
A one-month tourist visa issued by the Russian consulate is $100, and you need at least two blank passport pages. Look over the rules at russianembassy.org, then do what everyone else does and hire a pro ($40--$50) to get the visa. Most tour companies that specialize in Russia will handle the paperwork; others hook you up with a service like Travel Document Systems (800/874-5100, traveldocs.com) or Travisa (800/222-2589, travisa.com). Visitors must register with authorities within three days of arrival. Although your hotel is legally required to do it, you may be charged $20 for the "courtesy." Carry your passport at all times, and if you have problems, contact the nearest Russian Passport, Visa and Registration office (OVIR or PVU) for help. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has a list (011-7/095-728-5000, usembassy.ru).