Port of Moscow
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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.
Good to Know
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.
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.
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.
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.)