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.

By Frank Brown, Tuesday, Aug 16, 2005, 10:59 AM

The State Historical Museum in Red Square; it's decorated to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Russia's World War II victory (Emily Nathan)

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.

Named after a resort community on the Latvian coast, Apshu is decorated like a Soviet cottage circa 1960. The prices are retro, too: Soups start at $1.60, salads at $3.40. Most people don't come here for the food alone, though. The restaurant has local bands playing folk and jazz nightly, often with no cover. Klimentovsky Pereulok 10/1, 011-7/095-953-9944. Metro: Tretyakovskaya.

The Yolki-Palki chain of family restaurants features dishes that a babushka (grandmother) would deliver; they're filling but not fancy. Russian cooking leans heavily on meat but Yolki-Palki also has a well-stocked salad bar. A full meal with a local beer runs about $15. Ulitsa Bolshaya Dmitrovka 23/8, 011-7/095-200-0965. Metro: Chekhovskaya.

Where to sleep like a bear

Moscow has a severe shortage of hotel rooms for individual tourists on a budget, because city development authorities have focused their energies on the more lucrative business travelers. Below are four of the safest and best values in the city. Less expensive options exist but they typically cater to traveling merchants and itinerant workers and would offer little assistance to the non-Russian-speaking visitor. Prices quoted are for a basic double room including a private toilet, TV, and phone. Male guests should prepare to field at least one call from a friendly female voice offering "companionship." Hint: Politely decline.

One of the city's best-kept lodging secrets is Alexander Blok, a cruise ship anchored just west of the city center, in the usually waveless Moskva River. It caters to locals who party and gamble on the ship and don't want to schlep home. The 30 rooms go fast, so reserve well in advance. Krasnopresnenskaya Naberezhnaya 12A, 011-7/095-255-9278, doubles $75. Metro: Ulitsa 1905 Goda.

A 10-minute walk from southern Moscow's Universitet metro station, the high-rise Hotel Universitetskaya is operated by the Russian Orthodox Church. Rooms are small but neat, and they have views of the sprawling Moscow State University. Michurinsky Prospekt 8/29, 011-7/095-939-9663, doubles $69.

Quaint it's not, with a capacity for 10,000 guests spread over five high-rise buildings. But the simple rooms at Izmailovo Tourist Hotel Complex are well-kept and the location can't be beat: The city's best souvenir shopping (Izmailovsky Market) and the metro (Izmailovsky Park) are a three-minute walk away. Izmailovo was built for the 1980 Olympics and still has a Soviet feel, fostered by endlessly long, poorly lit corridors. Specify the Delta building, where the staff speaks English, when booking. Izmailovskoye Shosse 71, 011-7/095-737-7055, izmailovo.ru, doubles $56.

With breakfast included, Hotel Molodyozhny is a superb deal. The drawback is the location, in northern Moscow and a 10-minute walk from the nearest metro station (Timiryazevskaya). The least expensive rooms haven't been significantly refurbished for at least a decade, so it's best to think of a stay here as a kind of urban camping. Still, the staff is friendly. Dmitrovskoye Shosse 27/1, 011-7/095-782-9001, hcm.ru, doubles $68.

Or take a pass on the hotels altogether and rent yourself an apartment. City Realty has a collection of 25--30 in downtown Moscow and charges a flat fee (from $85) for up to four people. With fully equipped kitchens and discounts kicking in after the first night, this is a clever way to sidestep the hotel crunch. Note: The company also has flats in St. Petersburg. 011-7/095-517-9846, cityrealtyrussia.com/moscow_apartments.html.

What to skip (and what to do instead)

Once billed as a bohemian artists' quarter, Stary Arbat was an obligatory stop for tightly chaperoned Soviet tour groups. Today the pedestrian walkway more closely resembles a relatively sober Bourbon Street populated by an eclectic mix of sketch artists, souvenir hawkers, and mediocre restaurants. A more refreshing outdoor activity is a 90-minute cruise on one of the small boats that ply the Moskva River from April through September, 11 a.m.--9 p.m. The route starts at the pier opposite Kievsky train station (metro: Kievskaya) and ends at the Novospassky Monastery (metro: Proletarskaya), with four stops in between; you can go either direction. The boats, which depart about every 20 minutes, offer some of the best views in the city--including ones of St. Basil's Cathedral, Gorky Park, and the towering gothic Moscow State University building--and a feel for Moscow's sheer size. The operator, Capital Shipping Company, has a Russian-language site that's worth checking out for a pictorial preview. 011-7/095-257-3484, cck-ship.ru/ru/main/, $7.

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).

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.