All roads in Moscow lead to Red Square, with its centuries of history and echoes of Soviet military parades. But while Russia’s central square and the adjacent Kremlin may be where the tourists come to pose next to Lenin’s tomb and gawk at the psychedelic onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, it’s worth looking a little further to make sense of this sprawling metropolis of almost 12 million people.
A city of culture and commerce, communist legacy and capitalist caprice, Moscow both puzzles and enthrals. Its sheer size and the general sense of flux, both social and political, mean it’s hard for even long-term residents to get their bearings, let alone tourists. The lack of any real tourist infrastructure — incredibly, Moscow still has no tourist information centres — also presents challenges to the first-time visitor.
The Russian capital might not be an easy place to fall in love with, but its vibrancy is addictive. A city that genuinely never sleeps, Moscow bustles at all hours, as busy locals visit 24-hour shops, cafes, cinemas — and even hairdressers and florists.
For a taste of that unmistakable Moscow energy, explore the central Tverskaya Street and the nearby pedestrianised Kuznetsky Most district, with their buzzing cafes and restaurants, as well the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre. Spend an evening in the area cafe-hopping, or just kicking back and people-watching.
For a glimpse into the dark history of the city, follow the road away from Tverskaya, past the Bolshoi to the imposing former headquarters of the KGB, now home to its successor, the FSB security agency.
Another pedestrian zone, the 19th-century Old Arbat offers yet more cafes and a host of souvenir shops, as well as — in the warmer months at least — a chance to check out some of Moscow’s best street performers.
To move away from big city life without travelling too far, pay a visit to Gorky Park, transformed in recent years from a soulless Soviet-style ‘park of culture’ to a modern, happening hangout, complete with cafes, open-air cinema and free wi-fi. In summer, boats and bikes are available for hire, while in the winter months it’s all skis and skates.
Moscow is, fortunately, blessed with an extremely efficient metro system. And it’s more than just quick and cheap — the majority of the older stations are sights in their own right, featuring elegant chandeliers, Soviet-era murals and statues of Communist heroes. There’s no escaping history in Moscow, even underground.
Food glorious food
It’s true that no one comes to Russia for the food, but the national cuisine has plenty of surprises in store for adventurous palates. The ubiquitous blinis (pancakes) come with sweet or savoury fillings, including surprisingly affordable red caviar. Be cautious if ordering one of Russia’s filling soups to kick off a meal — some, such as solyanka, a thick meat or fish-based soup, are enough to fill you up before you’ve even made it to the second course. For a high-quality (if expensive) tour through Russia’s culinary history, head to Café Pushkin or Staraya Bashnya, both just a short walk from the Kremlin. For a less bank-breaking experience, Cafe Mu-Mu offers good value.
If the distinct lack of spices in Russia’s national dishes leaves your taste buds crying out for flavour, head to one of the city’s popular Georgian restaurants for spicy lobio (bean soup) and garlicky kebabs. In the cavernous Genazvale on the Old Arbat, which feels like something out of a fairytale, you’ll find many of Moscow’s Georgians reminiscing over a glass of their homeland’s famous red wine.
Moscow is very much a meat-eater’s city, so vegetarians will appreciate Jagannath, a short walk from the Kremlin. Serving good, veggie Indian food, its on-site shop offers an impressive range of spices, teas and vegan food. It’s also one of the few entirely non-smoking restaurants in Moscow — at least until June 2014, when a nationwide ban on smoking in public places comes into force.
Russians are great internet users, so you’ll have no problem finding a cafe with wi-fi. Most of the usual international-chain suspects are present, but if you want to go Russian, you can spend the afternoon checking up on news from home at Shokoladnitsa, which does salads, cakes and, yes, blinis.
But the very best place to experience real Russian food is, of course, in someone’s apartment. If you’re lucky enough to get an invitation, don’t turn it down. For all their apparent public gruffness, Russians turn on the charm for guests, and you’ll be encouraged to ‘kushai, kushai’ (‘Eat, eat’) by your eager hosts until your stomach groans.
Café Pushkin: Tverskaya Bulvar 26a. T: 00 7 495 739 0033. www.cafe-pushkin.ru/e
Staraya Bashnya: Teatralnaya, Ploshchad Revolyutsii. T: 00 7 495 698 4008. www.oldtower.ru/doc/34
Cafe Mu-Mu: Ulitsa Arbat 4. T: 00 7 495 691 8588. www.cafemumu.ru
Genazvale: Novy Arbat 11. T: 00 7 495 697 9453. www.restoran-genatsvale.ru
Jagannath: Ulitsa Kuznetsky Most 11. T: 00 7 495 628 3580. www.jagannath.ru/jagannath-1
Shokoladnitsa: Ulitsa Arbat 29. T: 00 7 495 241 0620. www.shoko.ru
Moscow might have calmed down since the wild 1990s, when a generation suddenly freed from Soviet staidness partied like there was no tomorrow, but you’ll still have no trouble finding a good night out. You will, of course, be able to find vodka, and plenty of it, but Moscow is also a big beer city.
For live music, good company and reasonable prices, check out Kitaysky Lyotchik Dzhao-Da (Chinese Pilot), an old favourite with the arts crowd. Located in a spacious cellar, this happening club/cafe is where Russia’s underground rock groups hone their acts.
If dancing to beats and bass is more your thing, then Moscow also obliges, with big-name DJs regularly flying in to the Russian capital. Propaganda is the granddaddy of the scene, but has lost none of its edge over the years. For a younger, cooler crowd, head to Solyanka, where the beats are hard and the cafe stays open until the early hours.
For encounters with Moscow’s intelligentsia, check out Mayak and Jean-Jacques, both European-style bars/cafes. Popular among many of the young, liberal journalists, students and professionals who inspired recent mass anti-Kremlin protests, both places are ideal for meeting some of the city’s more interesting residents.
A much more down to earth drinking experience can be had at Kruzhka, a chain of cheap and cheerful bars serving their own beer, as well as a large selection of snacks (try the herrings with onion). It’s so noisy at times the conversation suffers, but it’s fun.
Although some local bands are well worth watching, Moscow isn’t exactly a mainstay of the international concert circuit. Well-known groups that do make it this far east — mainly rock dinosaurs, unfortunately — usually play at Crocus City Hall, a vast entertainment complex in the west of the capital.
Chinese Pilot: Lubyansky Proezd 25. T: 00 7 495 624 5611. www.msk.jao-da.ru
Propaganda: 7 Bolshoy Zlatoustinskiy pereulok. T: 00 7 495 624 5732. www.propagandamoscow.com/en
Solyanka: Ulitsa Solyanka 11. T: 00 7 495 221 7557. www.s-11.ru
Mayak: Bolshaya Nikitskaya 19/13. T: 00 7 495 691 7449. www.clubmayak.ru
Jean-Jacques: Nikitsky Bulvar 12. T: 00 7 495 690 3886. www.jan-jak.com
Kruzhka: Myasnitskaya Ulitsa 32/1, Bdlg 1. T: 00 7 495 363 2404. www.kruzhka.ru
Crocus City Hall: 65-66 km Mkad. T. 00 7 499 550 0055. www.crocus-hall.ru
Culture is a serious business here, with infighting, scandal and even violence — culminating in January in an acid attack on the artistic director of the world famous Bolshoi Theatre — marring the city’s arts scene. But this ‘soap opera’ usually remains behind the scenes and has no discernible effect on the quality of performances.
It may be a cliche, but a visit to Moscow really isn’t complete without an evening at the newly restored Bolshoi. There’s no official obligation to dress up, but the locals do, and while tourists do sometimes turn up in shorts and T-shirts, it’s generally considered impolite. Make an effort!
The other big ‘must-dos’ in Moscow culture-wise are the Tretyakov Gallery and Pushkin Museum. The Tretyakov houses a jaw-dropping collection of Russian art, from icons to pre-revolutionary paintings, while the Pushkin Museum is packed full of European art treasures by the likes of Van Gogh and Picasso.
If you’re after something more cutting-edge, make your way to east Moscow’s Winzavod, the city’s hippest — and most controversial — arts and cultural centre. Housed in a former winery, its free exhibitions and shows are frequently picketed by Orthodox religious activists.
Some of the world’s finest writers have called Moscow home over the years, and there are house museums devoted to a number of them. But by far the best is the Bulgakov House-Museum, in honour of Mikhail Bulgakov, the author of the Soviet-era classics The Master and Margarita (rumoured to have been the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ song Sympathy for the Devil) and Heart of a Dog. Housed in the building where the writer lived, the museum features period exhibits and some of Bulgakov’s personal items, as well as an atmospheric cafe. When you’ve finished in the museum, head just around the corner to Patriarch’s Ponds, the setting for the opening scene of The Master and Margarita.
Bolshoi Theatre: Teatralnaya Ploshchad 1. T: 00 7 495 455 5555. www.bolshoi.ru
Tretyakov Gallery: Lavrushinsky Pereulok 10-12. T: 00 7 495 951 1362. www.tretyakovgallery.ru
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts: Ulitsa Volkhonka 12. T: 00 7 495 697 9578. www.arts-museum.ru
Winzavod: 4 Siromyatnichesky Pereulok 1, Building 6. T: 00 7 495 917 4646. www.winzavod.ru
Bulgakov House-Museum: Ulitsa Bolshaya Sadovaya 10. T: 00 7 495 970 0619.
Top 10 local tips
01 Hotels are expensive, so consider renting a flat. www.moscow-star.com
02 However, the metro is extremely cheap, so make the most of it. Buy tickets in blocks of 10 for convenience. http://engl.mosmetro.ru
03 UK citizens must obtain a visa. Apply online at least one month in advance. Fees start from £50 plus a service charge. http://ru.vfsglobal.co.uk
04 Safety-wise, the Russian capital’s reputation is a lot worse than the reality. But keep your wits about you, and avoid walking around the suburbs late at night.
05 Bribe-hungry police have been known to shake down tourists for imagined visa infringements, although this is a lot less common of late. You are required, however, to have your passport with you at all times.
06 English isn’t spoken much here, especially by the older generation. But some fluent English speakers can be found at chic cafes such as Jean-Jacques and Mayak.
07 Pounds can be harder to change, so bring dollars or euros.
08 Market traders are more reluctant to haggle than in the past, although you may be able to knock a small sum off.
09 If you give flowers, give odd numbers: even numbers are only given at funerals.
10 Don’t whistle indoors — it’s considered to bring bad luck!
With no tourist information centres in Moscow, it’s best to do some independent research — read DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Moscow. RRP: £16.99.
For up-to-date news on the capital, tune into the new English language radio station Moscow FM. www.moskva.fm
There are also two free English-language newspapers, The Moscow Times and The Moscow News.
An amusing account of the trials and tribulations of an English father in Moscow, as well as some tourist tips, can be found at www.englishdadinmoscow.com
Published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)