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.
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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.
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.
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.
Food and Drink
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.
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.)