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Once a popular setting for spy movies and Cold War propaganda films, Moscow has emerged as a major tourist destination, helped in part by the easier access provided by river cruising. And justifiably so: For Americans brought up during the pre-perestroika era, strolling through Red Square and exploring the city without the minders that used to be required can be an emotional and exhilarating experience.
If St. Petersburg is the soul of Russia, Moscow is its heart, an international marketplace where business gets done and young people come to work (and play). Capitalism has caught on in a big way, and conspicuous consumption is everywhere, judging by the Ferraris, Maybachs and Porsches seen on the street. Prices are sky high at trendy cafes -- sushi is the current Muscovite cuisine of choice -- and nightclubs. That being said, you can still find bargain eats along the Old Arbat (a pedestrian walkway catering to tourists) and at the chain restaurants that Russians themselves use.
Although Moscow has a well-earned reputation for traffic, it's a greener city than you'd think, with a ring of parks running next to major streets and many others (including the famed Gorky) within the city center. This green belt provides a fascinating opportunity to observe Russians in their daily life; you'll see kids scrambling on playgrounds, young adults reading their iPads and old men competing in chess tournaments.
The Cyrillic alphabet can make getting around a little challenging -- very few signs are in English. But the Moscow Metro, notable for its grand interiors and stunning artwork, offers more than 180 stops and goes everywhere you need to be. (It's also loads cleaner than U.S. counterparts.) Your cruise line or concierge should have maps that have stops in both English and Cyrillic letters.
If you're here on a river cruise, you'll have at least two full days to explore the city -- and you'll need it. Consider coming a day or two early to take it all in. Besides the famed onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin alone contains nine churches and several museums, including the Diamond Fund with its must-see royal jewels. Cultural performances, including those at the world-renowned Bolshoi Theater, take place almost every night. Dive in and be prepared to have your stereotypes shattered.
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Nesting dolls (they come in all themes, from traditional to U.S. football team designs), lacquer boxes and Faberge-style decorative eggs are among the most popular items to bring back. You can also find kitschy Soviet-themed flasks and hats, vodka and icons. (Make sure to buy the latter at a church, not an antique store, to avoid questions from customs; Russia prohibits the export of antiquities.)
Russian is the major language, although in Moscow, some of the vendors and restaurant workers speak a little English, and most signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Local currency is the ruble. Check xe.com and oanda.com for current exchange rates. For better prices, get your rubles at an ATM in the airport or in the city. Otherwise, use a credit card. Just make sure to call your bank and let them know you're traveling in advance; Russia is well known for scams, and transactions there will be noted.
It's about a 30-minute ride on the Metro from the Rechnoy Vokzal station, located at the end of the system's Green Line, to Revolution Square. Tickets are 30 rubles each way and allow transfers. Using the system is much like that in any other city, although you'll want to ask your cruise director or hotel concierge to point out the Cyrillic name of the station (and if you take a taxi, make sure you bring a card with you that has the name of the terminal written out in Russian).
Once you're in the city, you can either use the Metro to get to other attractions or walk; most tourist attractions are within 20 to 30 minutes of Red Square. Taxis are available, but it will help to know the name of your destination in Russian and have it written in Cyrillic.
Watch Out For
As in any major city, Moscow has its share of pickpockets who are drawn to foreign tour groups. Stay aware of your surroundings and invest in a purse or bag that can either be hidden or worn cross-body.
Many churches and museums in Russia charge a separate fee, usually 50 to 100 rubles, to take photos -- or the sites ban them altogether. Make sure you check before you snap.
Long before 20th-century leaders such as Joseph Stalin used Red Square as a staging place for rallies and tanks, it served as Moscow's main marketplace and as the coronation site for Russia's tsars. Contrary to its communist connotation, the word "red" is synonymous for "beautiful" in the Russian language, and the square, flanked by St. Basil's Cathedral on one side and the turreted walls of the Kremlin on another, is certainly that. While tourists take over by day, Red Square comes alive at night with strolling locals who love to see its buildings lit up.
Tackling the Kremlin could take several days; the fortress includes nine onion-domed churches, the Kremlin Palace that serves as the seat of government and several museums. Of these, the best is the Kremlin Armory, which has coronation robes and dresses from Catherine the Great and other tsars, royal coaches, crowns and thrones, gifts from visiting heads of state and -- of course -- the country's collection of Faberge eggs. If you're not with a group, tickets can be bought for set times at 10 a.m., noon, 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. (Closed on Thursdays)
While you're there, pay the extra rubles to gawk at the exquisite and invaluable state jewels contained in the Diamond Fund. Perhaps the most outrageous: The Grand Imperial Crown, made for Catherine the Great in 1762 and used for the coronation of all tsars through Nicholas II. It has 5,000 diamonds and 75 pearls, for a whopping 398.72 carats.
No matter how many pictures of St. Basil's Cathedral's iconic onion domes you've seen, getting up close to this architectural masterpiece is an awe-inspiring experience. Built during the reign of Ivan the Terrible in 1561, the cathedral's interior is unlike those seen elsewhere in Europe; instead of a vast expanse, the church is divided into small rooms connected by a labyrinth of corridors. To avoid confusion, realize that Russians call the structure the Cathedral of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God or the Cathedral of St. Vasily the Blessed. You will need to pay an extra fee to take photos. (Red Square; open daily 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer)
Yes, the lines at Vladimir Lenin's Tomb are long. But how can you pass up the chance to see the preserved body of the founder of communism? Expect cellphones and cameras to be confiscated in a much more thorough procedure than you'll experience at the Moscow airport (and it will cost you to check your items). On the walk to the square-base pyramid mausoleum on Red Square (reopened in 2013 after a renovation), you'll see graves and markers for other prominent Russian leaders and figures, including Stalin and the revolutionary sympathizer John Reed. Show respect on your way in, or you'll face displeasure from the stony guards. (Closed Mondays, Fridays and holidays; visiting hours 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.)
For lovers of classical ballet and opera, a night at the Bolshoi marks a dream come true. Most river cruises have a few tickets for their guests at prices around $200 each. Or you can book tickets on your own through the theater's Web site, although it's a little hard to navigate. Even if you aren't a theatergoer, you'll still want to take a pass by the magnificent building, which opened in October 1856 to mark Tsar Alexander II's coronation day, as it represents the country's commitment to classic culture.
Been There, Done That
Everyone talks about Russia's justly famous ballet and opera. But for a cultural experience of a different sort, you can't beat a performance by a folk instrument orchestra, where balalaikas and domras substitute for violins. While several cruise lines include this as an excursion, ask your hotel concierge or cruise director whether any orchestras are in town, or consult the Moscow Times, the city's English language newspaper, for performances.
Traditionally the hub of Moscow tourism, the pedestrian thoroughfare of Old Arbat, with its fast food and souvenir shops, is looking a little dated these days. It's worth a stroll if you have time to kill, but if your time is limited, visit a museum instead.
If you're shopping for souvenirs such as nesting dolls or Soviet-themed T-shirts, you can find plenty of kitsch in the aforementioned Old Arbat. There's also a tourist market with souvenir stalls between Revolution Square and the entrance to Red Square. Otherwise, try Tverskaya Street, conveniently located for tourists staying in the brand-name hotel chains where book and music stores and boutiques anchor the ground floors of historic buildings. Foodies won't want to miss Yeliseyevsky, an Art Noveau masterpiece of a grocery store where you can buy all kinds of Russian delicacies, including, of course, caviar. Or try the fashionable GUM, the department store off Red Square. The first floor of this building created in 1893 is full of designer boutiques such as Dior, Jil Sander and Louis Vuitton. Even if you can't afford anything, the mall retains its 19th-century layout and -- who knows? -- you might see an oligarch or two.
While traditional Russian food has a well-deserved reputation for heaviness, Muscovites have embraced international cuisine, and you're more likely to find French or sushi restaurants than a piroshky stand on the city's major boulevards. If you are looking for something more exotic, seek out the restaurants that feature specialties from the sprawling country's current and former provinces, such as Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Georgia or Azerbaijan. Keep in mind that Moscow is an expensive city; in the major tourist areas, a restaurant meal can lead to serious sticker shock.
The department store GUM takes up almost one side of Red Square, and its downstairs cafe is the only one that's actually on the square (and it's priced accordingly). Drink in the scenery and have lunch with Arab sheikhs and German families (or save money and go upstairs to the third-floor food court instead).
Moscow's most astute restaurateur is Arkady Novikov, and the city's professionals flock to his establishments, which number more than 50 different iterations. Tourists might want to try his mid-priced chain Yolki-Palki (a Russian buffet with 40 branches around town); Uzbekistan, an old restaurant that he updated for modern tastes (29 Neglinnaya Ul.); or -- for serious trendies -- Chips, a nightclub/lounge located near the TsUM Department Store and Bolshoi Theatre (Kuzneskiy Most 7). Dress to impress when you go upscale; Moscow doormen are notorious for their "face control," allowing in only those they deem wealthy, pretty or sophisticated enough.
If you aren't up for facing the doormen, Cafe Pushkin is another upscale restaurant that's known to be friendly to international visitors. Located in an 18th-century mansion along Tverskoy Boulevard and founded by another Moscow mega-restaurateur, Andrey Dellos, the establishment features Russian dishes, including an impressive choice of dumplings, seafood and meats. Expect to pay up to $100 per person for a full lunch.
All kinds of Western fast food joints lie along Old Arbat, and while it's fun to see Starbucks and Wendy's spelled in Cyrillic, it's hardly adventurous. A better choice: Moo Moo, a Russian fast food joint (noticeable by the cows out front) that sells blinis (thin pancakes), chicken shashlik (grilled, skewered meat), turkey in juniper sauce and beetroot. We enjoyed flatbread-wrapped kebabs and khachapuri (a Georgian cheese bread) at a restaurant on the Arbat; look for decor that is more Middle Eastern than Russian for this and Azerbaijani cuisine.
If you're really famished and need a quick snack, a lineup of fast food options, including McDonald's, a sushi restaurant and a British pub are located in the underground mall in Alexandrovsky Square, near the fountains just outside the Kremlin.
Hotel Metropol. Moscow's grande dame has been around since 1901, and its location -- steps from Red Square and across from the Bolshoi Theatre -- can't be beat. Even if its stratospheric rates are well out of your price range, you can still stop inside for a look around, or maybe enjoy a drink in its historic bar.
Radisson Royal. While its location on a bend of the Moscow River isn't the most convenient to the city center, its building -- one of the "Seven Sister" skyscrapers created by Stalin -- is a fascinating example of Soviet-era architecture. Some river lines, including Viking, have used this as a base for pre- and post-cruise tours.
Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel. Located on the city's main thoroughfare, Tverskaya Street, this hotel -- another that is occasionally used by river lines, including Vantage -- provides a central base for city explorations. A bonus for hot summer days: The hotel features an indoor pool. There's also on-site laundry.
Staying in Touch
Just as they do in the States, many of Moscow's coffee shops and restaurants, including those Western stalwarts Starbucks and McDonald's, feature free Wi-Fi.
While river cruises include most of their excursions, the longer stay in Moscow allows passengers to pursue interests beyond the basic bus tours. A typical itinerary includes a visit to Red Square, certain parts of the Kremlin, a ride on the city's famous Metro, a stop at Sparrow Hill for a view of the Stalin-built Moscow State University, and possibly a chance to see Moscow at night.
Best for Culture Vultures: Moscow has its share of world-class art museums. Many cruise lines offer optional tours to the Tretyakov Gallery, which features a vast collection of pieces from Russian artists dating to the 11th century. Art lovers seeking European masterworks should go on their own to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, which contains a significant collection of paintings by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse. (Note: The 19th- and 20th-century works are housed in the annex, not the main museum; buy your tickets there.)
Best for Space Nostalgia: For those who grew up during the space race, a visit to the Cosmonautics Memorial Museum, with its collection of Soviet space memorabilia (including space suits, space craft and satellites), will provide a blast to the past. Best to take your cruise line's optional excursion, rather than go independently, as the exhibits are mostly in Russian.
Best for Romantics: Although Moscow's skyscape isn't dominated by historic buildings to the same degree as St. Petersburg, a night cruise along the Moscow River and other waterways -- which some lines include in the price and others offer as optional -- allows you to witness gems like the Kremlin Palace, St. Basil's Cathedral and several of Stalin's Seven Sister skyscrapers lit up. Bonus: Most cruises leave near Luzhkov Bridge, where newlyweds attach colorful signed locks to iron "trees" designed for that purpose, before throwing the keys away into the water.
For More Information
On the Web: Moscow Tourism, Moscow Info and Visit Russia
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Baltic and Northern Europe
Independent Traveler: Russia Travel Guide
By Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor