A visit to Russia’s capital is a full-on experience that leaves nobody indifferent to the city's unique atmosphere
Everyone seems to have an opinion about Moscow and most of them are negative: it’s cold, it’s expensive... So, having made the place my home for the past two years, I think it’s time to set the record straight.
Climate and costs
OK, it is a bit nippy in the winter. But how many other major cities offer the chance to go skiing - outdoors, downhill or cross-country - in your lunch break? Unlike Britain’s shivering stop at the first hint of snow, Moscow ploughs on through the worst of the weather. Parks become winter wonderlands, streets are swiftly cleared of slush and the metro keeps going regardless. All in all, not a problem. And if you prefer your winter breaks in the Alps, summer in the city sizzles - 30°C+ as you laze by the fountains in VDNKh or outside Okhotny Ryad. The climate is no excuse to miss out on one of the world’s great cities.
But what about the money? OK, it’s not cheap. But it’s hardly worse than any major Euro-city, and if you know where to look it’s much better. The obvious lures of Red Square, the Kremlin, the Tretyakov Gallery and the souvenir stores along Arbat will empty your pockets with aplomb, but part of the city’s charm is teasing out the bargains that make a visit more than just a Lonely Planeteers box-ticking exercise. So after pounding the tourist beat all day, while the locals are at work, where will you find them at night?
Sounds and sport
The young, cool crowd flocks to bars and cafes in search of music. Forget the superannuated Western guests clawing back one last payday in an atmosphere-free aircraft hangar, and seek out one of the many cut-price underground venues hosting local acts from the sublime to the ridiculous. Whether it’s pagan folk metal at Relaks, perky electro-pop at Kitaisky Lyotchik, world music at Dom or avant-garde experiments at Aktovy Zal, there’s always something worth hearing.
It’s not just rock music either. The renowned Bolshoi Theatre may be closed for repairs (the company continues to play on a smaller stage next door), but the likes of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre continue to put on top-notch opera and ballet in sumptuous surroundings - and ticket prices won’t break the bank. Seats in the stalls barely top £20 - at Covent Garden you’d be lucky to get into the back row of the upper tier for that.
Top class sport is also cheap: when Aston Villa played at CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Cup, tickets were £8 (400 rubles). Domestic football and hard-fought, fast-paced ice hockey matches can cost as little as 150 rubles. And if you're feeling adventurous, the Aerograd dropzone in nearby Kaluga offers ultra-cheap parachuting, starting from about £12 a jump.
Away from the tourist traps there are some bargain sights to see as well. Literature-lovers may enjoy contrasting the homes of Gorky and Bulgakov, within walking distance of one another from Mayakovskaya Metro. Gorky, the scribe of socialism, was rewarded with a large Art-Deco mansion ‘nationalised’ in the revolution; the surrealist fantasies of Bulgakov were composed in the far more prosaic surroundings of a tenement apartment. Both are impressive in their own way.
And don’t miss the parks - from VDNKh’s shrine to Stalinist architecture to the medieval hunting forest of Izmaillovsky, complete with a souvenir market offering every imaginable Russian-themed gift, and quite a few unimaginable ones as well. Kolomenskoye, by the river, is a great spot for walks whatever the weather - beautiful wintry sunsets or balmy summer strolls, depending on the time of year. Meanwhile, when the weather warms up, the city’s buskers get in on the act. Impromptu performances in the gardens at Chistie Prudy or on the pedestrianised Old Arbat draw the crowds, and the laws banning people from drinking in public are discreetly ignored except in extremes.
Another one of Moscow’s more impressive bargains, and one that is hard to avoid, is the metro system. Unfortunately, seven million passengers a day take their toll, but with tickets costing less than 50p for a single trip, it’s worth braving the crowds if only to explore the underground maze of palatial stations, decorated with socialist-realist artworks. Go for a simple spin round the circle line, or a quick stop off at the likes of Ploschad Revolutsii. And if the people’s art of the 20th century inspires you, travel one stop to Kurskaya and visit the Winzavod contemporary art gallery - it's at the cutting edge of eastern European modern art, in a converted winery, with regular gigs, festivals and performances. There’s nearly always something worth seeing, and it’s become a popular ‘first date’ spot for the city’s culture vultures.
Visas/info: the Russian National Tourist Office on Piccadilly, in London, is a good starting point for arranging visas and can advise on flights and accomodation.
Getting there: BA and Rossiya have scheduled services between London and St Petersburg.
Where to stay: hotels are expensive in Moscow, but the Izmaillovo complex offers a reasonable compromise between price and location.
Local listings: for what’s on details, look for the Moscow News (weekly, Fridays) or Element (fortnightly, Thursdays), both available free in cafes and bars around town.