Moscow is an in-your-face metropolis that can often overwhelm with monstrous-size avenues, unbearable traffic jams, and a 24-hour lifestyle à la New York or London that seems to exclude any peace and harmony. But behind that brash facade is a city that has been built up and knocked down and built up again for centuries and where, with a little guidance, a visitor can find those quiet moments of serenity and beauty.
Muscovites often find themselves in new corners of the city that they have never before seen. Don't be afraid to wander off the beaten track, for the city, despite its disorganized and chaotic edge, is organized in a clear manner. Russians often call Moscow a bolshaya derevnya,
or "big village" and the center itself is a more compact and vital place than many other world capitals.
Moscow's "big" (bolshoi means "big") and oldest theater, formerly known as the Great Imperial Theater, was completely rebuilt after a fire in 1854. Its main building is closed for a renovation and is expected to reopen partly in 2008 with complete renovation finished in 2010. You can still see performances at the Novaya Tsena (New Stage) to the left of it. The building itself is remarkable: its monumental colonnade is topped by a statue of bronze horses pulling the chariot of Apollo, patron of music. Its crimson-and-gold interior is similarly grand. All of this splendor is matched by the quality of the resident opera and ballet troupes—two of the most famous performing-arts companies in the world. If you want to have the pleasure of seeing a performance at the Bolshoi, be sure to book one of its 2,155 seats as far as possible in advance on their Web site, because performances can sell out quickly. An interesting footnote in the theater's and the Soviet Union's history: Lenin made his last public speech here, in 1922. Also to the left of the Bolshoi is the RAMT (Russian Academic Youth Theater), which puts on performances with a talented group of young actors. This is where you'll find the Bolshoi's main ticket office. The plaza, with fountains and fine wooden benches, is a nice spot for a relaxing look at the theater.
World famous for the grand military parades staged here during the Soviet era, this was originally called the Torg, the Slavonic word for marketplace. Many suppose that the name "Red Square" has something to do with Communism or the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, however, the name dates to the 17th century. The adjective krasny originally meant "beautiful," but over the centuries the meaning of the word changed to "red," hence the square's present name. The square is most beautiful and impressive at night, when it's entirely illuminated by floodlights, with the ruby-red stars atop the Kremlin towers glowing against the dark sky. There are five stars in all, one for each of the tallest towers. They made their appearance in 1937 to replace the double-headed eagle, a tsarist symbol that is again an emblem of Russia. The glass stars, which are lighted from inside and designed to turn with the wind, are far from dainty: the smallest weighs a ton.
St. Basil's Cathedral
Although it's popularly known as St. Basil's Cathedral, the proper name of this whimsical structure is Church of the Intercession. It was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible to celebrate his conquest of the Tatar city of Kazan on October 1, 1552, the day of the feast of the Intercession. The central chapel, which rises 107 feet, is surrounded by eight towerlike chapels linked by an elevated gallery. Each chapel is topped by an onion dome carved with its own distinct pattern and dedicated to a saint on whose day the Russian army won battles against the Tatars. The cathedral was built between 1555 and 1560 on the site of the earlier Trinity Church, where the Holy Fool Vasily (Basil) had been buried in 1552. Basil was an adversary of the tsar, publicly reprimanding Ivan the Terrible for his cruel and bloodthirsty ways. He was protected, however, from the tsar by his status as a Holy Fool, for he was considered by the Church to be an emissary of God. Ironically, Ivan the Terrible's greatest creation has come to be known by the name of his greatest adversary. In 1558 an additional chapel was built in the northeast corner over Basil's remains, and from that time on the cathedral has been called St. Basil's.
Very little is known about the architect who built the cathedral. It may have been the work of two men—Barma and Postnik—but now it seems more likely that there was just one architect, Postnik Yakovlyev, who went by the nickname Barma. Legend has it that upon completion of the cathedral, the mad tsar had the architect blinded to ensure that he would never create such a masterpiece again.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the cathedral was closed and in 1929 turned into a museum dedicated to the Russian conquest of Kazan. Although services are held here on Sunday at 10 AM, the museum is still open. The antechamber houses displays outlining the various stages of the Russian conquest of Kazan as well as examples of 16th-century Russian and Tatar weaponry. Another section details the history of the cathedral's construction, with displays of the building materials used. After viewing the museum exhibits, you're free to wander through the cathedral. Compared with the exotic exterior, the dark and simple interiors are somewhat disappointing. The brick walls are decorated with faded flower frescoes. The most interesting chapel is the main one, which contains a 19th-century baroque iconostasis.
By far the easiest and most pleasant way to get around Moscow is on the underground metro. It is considered to be one of the finest transport systems in the world and many of the 150 stations are superbly decorated with sculptures, chandeliers and mosaics. It is inexpensive, very efficient, and easy to use, even considering all signage is in Russian, but it's still a good idea to have the destination written in Cyrillic characters to help identify the correct station. The metro runs until 1am and fares are standard regardless of the distance traveled, allowing unlimited transfers. Strips of tickets
can be bought for numerous journeys and are valid on all forms of public transport. Overland transport is less efficient than the metro, but an extensive network of buses, trams and trolleybuses covers the areas not serviced by the metro until about 11pm. They can get unpleasantly crowded during rush hour. Tickets must be validated in machines immediately on boarding and are valid for one ride only. Alternatives to the bus are the passenger vans called 'marshrutka', which follow the bus routes and stop on request. There are also scores of official metered taxis and unofficial cars that can be flagged down on the street, but fares must be negotiated before entering the vehicle, especially as foreigners are likely to be overcharged. Although taxis are generally safe, tourists should be cautious and single women are advised to avoid them at night. Driving in the city is not recommended.
The Moscow restaurant world is slowly growing into the dining scene that this metropolis deserves. Restaurants of all classes and styles are opening every week, with imported foreign chefs battling it out for Moscow's upper and middle classes. There's a new breed of restaurants serving Russian fare as the fad for Western food loses some, but by no means all, of its glamour. Ethnic restaurants have arrived as well, and you can sample Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, Latin American, or Turkish any night of the week. Be warned, however, that chef turnover is high in Moscow and that a restaurant can swiftly go downhill or uphill.
Reserve plenty of time for your meal. In Russia dining out is an occasion, and Russians often make an evening (or an afternoon) out of going out to eat, especially at those Moscow showplaces replete with gilded cornices, hard-carved oak, and tinkling crystal. An unhurried splendor is definitely the order of the day.
Prices at top restaurants are higher than what you'd expect to pay in the United States. Almost all the expensive hotel restaurants serve a Sunday brunch, when you can enjoy their haute cuisine and elegant surroundings at greatly reduced prices, usually between 750R-2,250R.
Imagine traveling back in time to when Pushkin strolled the boulevards of 19th-century Moscow. That's what the designers of this high-class Russian restaurant intended when they created a replica mansion not far from the statue of Pushkin. Staff members dress like 19th-century servants; the menu resembles an old newspaper, with letters no longer used in the Russian alphabet; and the food is fit for a tsar. All the favorites can be found here—blini, caviar, pelmeni—and there's a fine wine list. Prices rise with each floor (there are three) of the restaurant. Open daily, 24 hours, Pushkin is popular among the business elite and the golden youth who come for breakfast after a night of clubbing. In summer you can dine on the rooftop patio.
Inside this elegant mansion is one of the city's most beautiful dining rooms—and one of the best places to sample authentic Russian cuisine. In the 19th century the house served as the headquarters for Moscow's Freemasons; more recently it was a meeting place for members of the Soviet Writers' Union. Crystal chandeliers, rich wood paneling, fireplaces, and antique balustrades place CDL among the warmest and most sumptuous eateries in Moscow. The food is extremely well prepared; try the ukha (fish soup) or pelmeni for starters, and move on to the beef Stroganoff. If you're feeling adventurous, cleanse your palate between courses with kvas (nonalcoholic bread-beer). There's also a less luxurious Italian restaurant here.
Recalling the splendor of prerevolutionary Russia, the opulent interiors of the Metropol hotel's grand dining hall are a stunning memorial to Russian art nouveau. The nearly three-story-high dining room is replete with stained-glass windows, marble pillars, and a leaded-glass roof. Among the famous guests to come here are George Bernard Shaw, Vladimir Lenin, and Michael Jackson. French and Russian delicacies are served here, such as the popular fried duck with wild-cherry sauce and a baked apple. Cap your meal off with wine from the extensive list and cheese. There is also live music at breakfast and in the evenings.
Shopping in Moscow is surprisingly rewarding. This previously deprived nation loves shopping and Moscow's city center has numerous malls and upmarket boutiques, offering all the big name brands and some pricey local produce. The GUM building in Red Square hosts Hugo Boss, Dior and Calvin Klein. Tverskaya Ulitsa, running north from Red Square, is Moscow's most trendy shopping street. More modest, high-street fashions such as Benetton, Guess, Nike and Reebok, are available from Okhoktny Ryad, under Manezh Square. Izmailovskii Park has a market at the weekends, selling traditional Russian arts and crafts (such as nesting dolls) as souvenirs. Eliseev Gastronome was an 1880s palace and retains many of its original features, such as curling marble pillars and candelabras, but is now an exclusive supermarket where visitors mights find the finest Russian vodka or caviar; the Cheremushinsky Rynok market also sells fresh local produce. Warehouses in the suburbs sell cheap electronic goods, DVDs and software, as do vendors at the Gorbushkin Dvor market. Shops are generally open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 6pm; some larger retailers stay open till 8pm, many smaller shops are closed between 1pm and 3pm. Ensure that all necessary export permits are in order, and beware of purchasing illegally manufactured/pirated goods.
Moscow's notorious nightlife features an amazing selection of bars, clubs, bowling alleys, billiards rooms, casinos and concert venues. The most popular party scenes can generally be found in and around Kitai Gorod, Arbat and Garden Ring. Bars like Piramida and Nightflight have prime spots near Red Square, the Hungry Duck has been popular for years and Propaganda is another renowned bar/club. Authentic jazz venues include the likes of Forte or the more upmarket Le Club, while Dolls is a classy Moscow strip club. For a full-on club night, Fabrique is the place to go, and Mio is also quite trendy. B2 and the Chinese Pilot are not to be missed for live music. Moscow's casinos include Carnival and Casino Desperado, and bowling alleys like Bi Ba Bo can also be good fun, as is the Onyx Billiard Room. Luzhniki Stadium hosts massive international music concerts, while Hermitage Garden is good for open-air performances and contemporary electronic concerts, and also has the Novaya Opera Theater and an ice-skating ring.