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.

And do yourself a favor and pick up a Russian phrasebook. At least learn to sound out the Russian alphabet, which helps make simple words like "telephone" and "metro" become decipherable.

Another good resource is Russia specialist Eastern Tours (800/339-6967, traveltorussia.com), which will arrange any combination of discounted airfare, lodging, and private guides. The company also sells package deals to Moscow that start at $999 (including flights from New York City, seven nights' hotel, and guided sightseeing). If you want a fully escorted tour, Gate 1 Travel's six-night program visits St. Petersburg, Novgorod, and Moscow (800/682-3333, gate1travel.com, from $1,649).

Resting your feet

Once a pathetic showcase of Soviet goods, GUM (it stands for State Department Store) is now a glitzy example of Russians' new wealth and, sometimes, strikingly bad taste. The hard-to-find Bosco Café (011-7/095-929-3182)--it's reachable through the Marina Rinaldi store on the southeast side of GUM's first floor--is a prime people-watching spot: Thousands of Red Square visitors pass by the windows. Borscht is $9.50, so stick with a soft drink (from $4).

Changing money

A deep distrust of the Russian banking system has made the U.S. dollar the unofficial second currency; some $70 billion are in circulation. You'll find restaurant prices are often quoted in dollars, and there are plenty of places to change dollars for rubles. (Money changers, however, only accept crisp, new notes.) And while ATMs are prolific, many have fallen prey to scammers. Stick to the ones that are operated by Alfa-Bank, Sberbank, and Citibank.

Getting around

Simply put, every vehicle is a potential taxi--even ambulances and buses have been known to stop. Two important rules: Never get into a car that already has a passenger, and always negotiate a price before you set off. The same rules apply for "official" yellow cabs and their notoriously capricious meters. During rush hour though, the superb metro, with its museum-like stations in central Moscow, is almost always faster than surface transport. Best of all, it's just 45¢ a ride.

Bringing stuff home

No matter what the salespeople say, antique carpets, samovars, icons, and paintings require permission from the Ministry of Culture for export. Make sure the necessary paperwork is included with the purchase, or you will get busted at the border.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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