Moscow: real Russia
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Short Break, Winter Sun, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range
It's the seventh largest city in the world, and it's uniquely, indescribably Russian. To visit Moscow is to experience another world - and you'll need help
St Petersburg has the grace of a European city that can sit comfortably alongside Paris, Rome and Berlin as a cosmopolitan, Western holiday destination, thanks to its stretching boulevards, pastel-coloured buildings and friendly people. Moscow, Russia's capital city, is unapologetically stuck in the past, and proud of it. Hard-bitten, tough and, to the untrained eye, unwelcoming, it can become quite a delight once you fight through the exterior appearances.
In the twenty-first century, where Russian oligarchs collect Western Europe as squares on a real-life Monopoly board, Moscow is the only major city in the Federation where Churchill's famous "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" maxim applies. It's a city that decided it would evolve to the standards of a late-1980s New York, and no further - and it's majestic.
The culture shock can be quite intense, however. The first time I set foot on Russian soil, I was greeted by a faulty neon sign above an unfriendly customs agent. Muscovites try, as you quickly learn, to gain the upper hand by staring at you. It's a control thing. Being characteristically timid, I turned away and saw a couple of policemen smoking unfiltered cigarettes in an interview room off the main customs area. They each had a rifle by their feet. So far, so good.
It's entirely worth the stares, the intimidation and the bitter cold in the winter to visit the city, though. It also just so happens that Moscow is one of the most delightful cities in the world to get around in. Avoid the gritted streets and the thousands of Communist-hangover cars that are all the same shade of brown, and go underground to explore the Moscow Metro system.
Open seventeen-and-a-half hours of the day, each and every station is a decorative delight to take in and snap photographs of. You'll want to avoid sightseeing at morning and evening rush hours - the Muscovites are like any other commuters in the world: unforgiving of people who delay their journey into work - but can spend entire days riding the rails of the system that sees seven million passengers to and from work daily. With tickets a paltry 43p per ride (with even better rates for multiple-ride fares), it can be one of the cheapest, most astounding, and interestingly cultural things to do in Moscow.
Be aware that pickpockets do work on the Metro system, and that they're simultaneously more skilled and more brazen than anywhere else in the world. Keep money hidden away and, if possible, try to keep your hands buried in your pockets at all times. If you're pressed for time, do try to see Komsomolskaya and Mayakovskaya, just two of the most impressive stations in terms of decor.
Moscow's city design is typical of many European cities, using a hub-and-spoke layout to make it easy to navigate. The uncontested hub of the city is Red Square, a huge red-brick fortification which sees military parades and triumphal processions move across its black cobbles regularly. To stand in the middle of the square is one of the must-do moments in Moscow, and it also helps that many of the best tourist attractions are either on or directly next to Red Square.
Lenin's Mausoleum is a macabre attraction that must be visited, an unassuming box on the periphery of the square, where you're marched in by officious guards and can see the embalmed corpse of one of Soviet Russia's most popular leaders glistening under lamplight and a Pyrex case. Don't linger - the on-duty guards are uppity - but do ponder the strangeness of this icon of the USSR being kept on display like an ornament.
As soon as you leave Lenin's Mausoleum, you can't help but notice St Basil's Cathedral, whose huge blooming spires loom large over the city. A festival of colour, it's a symbol of gaudy, pre-Soviet Russia in all its glory, with elegant architecture and bright decoration that was tempered in the more austere recent past.
GUM is similarly decadent: a multi-level department store (which functions more as a palatial shopping mall) where you'll find luxury boutiques aplenty. If you're on a budget, you can do little more than wander around and sup a coffee, before heading to the more proleteriat underground shopping mall a stone's throw to the north of Red Square. Okhotny Ryad is much more modern (and has plenty of Western influences: there's a McDonald's at ground level and, shock horror, a Western food court on the bottom floor) and cheaper. Stock up on shoes, clothes and pretty much anything else you can think of in this one slice of Western culture in Moscow.
Wandering around the perimeter of Red Square, you'll pass the Eternal Flame, constantly guarded by two soldiers, a picturesque park area where Muscovite families go to promenade and will meet the overwhelming walls of the Kremlin. With several churches inside the complex, it's well worth the 350 rouble entry fee. You'll also want to take a look at the Tsar Bell inside the Kremlin, one of the world's most famous failures. Cracked upon casting, the bell, intended for the Ivan the Great Bell Tower was deemed useless, but now stands proud on the ground as a good-luck charm to the city and all who rub it.
While the focus has been mostly on military matters, Moscow does do culture. Visit the Bolshoi Theatre for performances of one of the world's most famous ballet troupes - at a cut price. The cheapest ticket is just £20, and the performances are sure to delight. Once you've come out of the ballet, you'll be just about ready (after stopping off at a couple of Moscow's renowned bars) to go back to your hotel.
Where to stay
Staying in Moscow can be a mixed bag. The Hotel Metropol is one of the grand old dames of the city. Built in the Art Nouveau style, each room is unique and provides a welcoming environment in the centre of the city.
Contrasted with that is the Hotel Kosmos on the outskirts of the city. Built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, this hotel is enormous, cheap and perfectly functional. A big bonus is its proximity to a huge out-of-town market, which pitches up every weekend, providing knick-knacks and rustic snacks from its proud stallholders. The hotel's restaurant, however, is rather disappointing and some guests may find the strip club just off the main lobby a little tasteless. This, though, is the quixotic nature of Moscow: stuck in their own idiosyncratic ways, they make few concessions to the West, and can often badly misjudge it. That's no problem, though: it wouldn't be Moscow if you didn't fear being taken into the interview room for a quick going-over with a sharpened bayonet.