Keen to avoid experiencing Moscow as a regular tourist? Then get the inside track on this historic capital by living with a Russian family during a rewarding and authentic homestay
I didn't expect to be dancing at the Sheremetevo Airport luggage carousel at midnight - but then Moscow is a city full of surprises.
After a delay in bringing the bags over from the plane, the jetlagged new arrivals were lazing on top of their hand luggage when an ancient stereo suddenly blasted out some Russian folk music. Everyone in the arrivals hall fell about laughing as two middle-aged local men showed off their finest folk dance moves. Pretty soon, we were all grooving along with them.
After being reunited with my luggage my host family drove me to their home - an old-fashioned apartment just 10 minutes from the Kremlin.
Looking at moving family photos depicting life in Russia during the last century made me eager to explore the city's famous sites for myself. In the vast Red Square I saw Lenin’s embalmed body and the famous St Basil’s Cathedral (nearest Metro stop - Ploshchad Revolyutsii). It was fascinating to explore the modern city by day before sitting down with my host family at night to hear stories about the harsh realities of life in the last century.
The most informative - and delicious - way to learn about a new culture is through its food. Most mornings I tucked into a traditional Russian breakfast of black bread and the most wonderfully creamy white cheese. I was also particularly fond of borscht, a rich soup made of beetroot, and pirogi, a cabbage pie that tastes far better than it sounds.
Georgian food is particularly popular in restaurants. In fact, it is admired across Russia and central Asia as much as Italian food is in western Europe. Madam Zoya, a boat-restaurant on the Moscow River near Gorky Park (Metro Stop – Park Kultury) dishes up a huge menu of delicious food at reasonable prices. I particularly enjoyed the adzhapsandal, an aubergine and tomato based meal. The kebabs are tasty too, particularly when washed down with a glass of Georgian red wine.
Of course my host family knew all the popular (and cheapest) places to eat, so I always checked with them first. While out sightseeing I often opted for a simple packed lunch. Local supermarkets have lots of basic products like bread, sausage and cheese to make a delicious meal.
The Moscow Metro
My host family was very helpful when it came to sightseeing, insisting on driving me around the city in their seen-better-decades car. But even they couldn't beat the incredibly beautiful Metro train system.
Stations have stunning marble carvings and mosaics on the platforms. The most opulent is Komsomolskaya station, with its mosaics of Russian military leaders. Ploshchad Revolyutsii station has 76 bronze statues of the labourers who created the new socialist order after the Russian Revolution. Among the most popular statues is a dog. It's considered lucky to rub its nose.
Staying with a host family was particularly beneficial when getting money changed. Being locals, they were able to negotiate the best exchange rates. And more money in my pocket meant more shopping possibilities!
There are so many places to spend money. One of my favourites was Izmaylovo Market, where my hosts' bargaining skills came into their own. This huge market is full of traditional hand-crafted items, including matrioshkas (Russian dolls), chess sets, unusual craft pieces and rugs from central Asia. I was driven there, but if you are going by Metro the nearest stop is Partisanskaya (formerly Izmaylovsky Park).
Here are some helpful politeness tips to ensure you get on with the locals:
If a Russian helps you out, it is a good idea to show your gratitude openly. Compared to British people, they speak quite directly and people compliment each other often. Women are usually complimented on their appearance.
Locals tend not to smile at strangers so don't feel offended if the person you get directions from is quite serious with you. Of course foreigners are not expected to know everything – but simply making an effort it is certain to be appreciated.