MOSCOW GENERAL TIPS
Moscow has three international airports: Sheremetyevo (SVO), Domodedovo (DME) and Vnukovo (VKO). Make sure you know which one is yours. All of them have easy and cheap train access to central Moscow via Aeroexpress, each arriving at a different train station. I flew into Vnukovo and tried to get an Uber using the wi-fi provided at Arrivals. It did not work. I was cut off the wi-fi and no car came even after waiting longer than 10 minutes (I tried twice). I took a local cab, whose driver did not speak English but had a badge saying I could use credit cards to pay for the ride and, of course, at the end I couldn’t.
Do not expect extensive usage of English. Not that there is a better language to communicate other than Russian. It is not difficult to get by only in English, but it is not as straightforward as one might expect. Try to familiarize yourself with the Russian alphabet (the capital letters at least). It really helps when trying to identify the main signs, the metro stations, and restaurant names.
Russians love the internet, and social media and almost all places offer free wi-fi. However, to start browsing, you will need to key in your phone number to receive a code via SMS to unblock the service. Sometimes the code never comes or the pre-set window to type the phone number starts with +7 (the Russian code) giving you no option for an overseas number.
Getting around Moscow is fairly straightforward with the metro and bus networks. You can buy a Troika card at any subway station for RUB 50 and load it with money to be deducted from it every time you ride. Walking is the best way to move around as the core of the city is not that big. Most attractions are within the first two ring roads.
You will need Russian money or credit cards to pay for things. It is straightforward to change money and you will find plenty of little windows offering to change your euros or dollars into rubles. They may look dodgy but they work and many are open 24 hours a day. Look out for the neon dollar sign $ and the daily exchange rates on display. By the way, Moscow is not cheap.
Muscovites are very sophisticated and extremely well connected to what is going on in the world. Leave your prejudices at home and don’t be surprised when you realize Moscow is a far better-managed city than London or New York.
Long gone are the days when Russians would line up for hours to buy potatoes. Nowadays in any corner shop in Moscow, you will find food from everywhere, with a vast array of cheeses, fruits, wines, and ready-made meals. There are also a few restaurant chains offering something in between a café and a bistro with English menus to help tourists. SHOKOLADNITSA (Шоколадница) and HLEB NASUSHNY (Хлеб насущный) are my two favorites, especially for breakfast. COFFEEMANIA (Кофемания) is ok too. I would avoid Starbucks because there is no secret nor surprise there.
The cool neighborhood of Patriarch’s Pond is a foodie magnet with cafés, bars and restaurants to fill up your days in the city. Just walk around and you will be tempted by the many options on offer, especially around Malaya Bronnaya Street. My recommended ones are:
Open from early morning to late evening, this is the place to stop by for a latte and avo-sandwich or a glass of wine with parma ham and cold cuts. I had brunch there thrice during my visit to Moscow. It has a rustic interior and an open kitchen with courteous service.
SAXON + PAROLE
From New York to Moscow, this chic restaurant offers mainly steaks and burgers. The menu is incredible, and the quality of the food is top-notch.
For a taste of Russia in a tourist-friendly atmosphere. The place feels like the dacha of Aunt Anastasia, and the menu offers Russian classics such as beef stroganoff and pelmeni dumplings.
If I had had more time, I would also have tried happy-hour at UILIAM’S, Italian food at BOTTEGA VENTUNO or Japanese at CUTFISH. Wander around the area and you will undoubtedly discover many other gems.
Closer to the Red Square there are two very famous Russian restaurants that foreigners seem to love, CAFÉ PUSHKIN and DR ZHIVAGO. If you have to choose, opt for Pushkin because the atmosphere is more authentic whereas Zhivago, even with the large windows facing the Kremlin, is a bit over-the-top. As a friend of mine said: at Pushkin you feel like a tsar whereas at Zhivago you feel like a new-rich Russian oligarch. Make reservations for either one and dress accordingly. Both are open 24-hours a day and if you do not fancy a long Russian meal, try at least the breakfast.
I was extremely curious to visit Moscow’s little Manhattan, the new Business District (Москва-Сити) with the skyscrapers that make the city look like Chicago. The metro line 15 that took me there was impressive with brand new large trains that circle Moscow clock and anti-clockwise. However, the area feels like Dubai (without the sand), a bit disconnected from reality. But, since I was there to see the gleaming glass towers, I took the opportunity to go up to SIXTY and have a glass of champagne and some caviar to toast Lenin and Stalin on their dead communist dreams.
If you are looking for something not as formal as a restaurant and not as basic as a coffee shop, there are two other recommendations. One is MOLOKO at Bolshaya Dmitrovka, near the busy pedestrian Kamergerskiy Pereulok and the Bolshoi Theatre, a fancy coffee shop cum restaurant and cocktail bar with the in-crowd looking like Vienna. Another great tip for a quick cheap Russian meal is STOLOVAYA 57 on the upper floor of the glamorous shopping mall GUM. My Russian friend Delyan recommended and it was one of those places I visited quite often. The food is very good and the model very simple, like a college canteen. You grab a tray and select the food you want from the displays paying at the end of the line and moving to a cozy table.
After these past recommendations, I have kept three in my pocket which are the real gems. One is WHITE RABBIT, the main reason for my trip to Moscow. After watching the episode about chef Vladimir Mukhin on Netflix Chef’s Table, I made my reservation and bought the tickets to Russia. And it was well worth it. Instead of going for dinner, when the place is quite full, I had a late lunch with the chef’s menu that lasted around three hours. Normally I am a vegetarian, but when I go to such restaurants, I relax and eat meat. Read all about my White Rabbit experience by clicking here. I also have to recommend UGOLËK and SEVERYANE , both at Bolshaya Nikitskaya, a few blocks from massive Lenin’s Library (can’t go in) and the Moscow Manege (don’t go in if the exhibition is not of your interest).
Ugolëk is very informal and has a tapas-focused menu. The atmosphere is very cosmopolitan and it is one of those feel-good places. However, Severyane defied all of my expectations. Their concept is a wood-fired grill and they also use ashes to season dishes. In terms of taste and surprise, it equals the White Rabbit. Think of burnt camembert and glazed carrots on the fire. I sat at the bar (great drinks on offer), had Russian red wine and directly went to Heaven with the food after having spent almost three hours watching the opera Turandot at the Helikon Opera. Don’t miss the chance to eat at Severyane and White Rabbit.
To keep up with what is new and hot in the Moscow dining scene, have a read at SNC Food portal using Google Translate.
There is no shortage of drinking spots in Moscow, and many of them offer commanding views of the city’s skyline. Here are a few recommended ones:
TIMEOUT ROOFTOP BAR
At the Soviet looking Peking Hotel. Reserve a table close to the windows for sunset. Some of the best views in the city even though the place looks strange.
This is the Ritz-Carlton Moscow’s rooftop bar offering nice Kremlin views at a price.
To hang out with Moscow’s intelligentsia and hipsters head to Dom 12, a mix of club, bar, cultural center and café open from 12noon to 6am.
In summer and spring, Strelka’s veranda, facing Christ the Saviour’s Cathedral, is a must-hang-out place. Strelka is a cultural center with a cozy bar on the ground floor. But the veranda during the warmer months is the real drawcard here.
Hip, trendy and tiny, this speakeasy is by far Moscow’s nicest drinking den.
Even though I am not a bit shopper, there is no way to avoid Moscow’s great shopping galleries, shopping streets, markets and food halls. Russians love brands so that you will find all of the big names around. However, it is the Chinese tourists who will be in a shopping frenzy. Not the Russians (who seem to go to Milan or Paris for that). GUM (ГУМ) is by far one of the world’s most beautiful department stores with a caviar restaurant, the Gastronome 1 food hall, and brands galore. Its location is also the best in Russia, right in front of the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
Not far from Red Square there is TSUM (ЦУМ), resembling more a Parisian store like Printemps or Lafayette. For a very contemporary Russian twist in the department store, head to TSVETNOY CENTRAL MARKET (Универмаг Цветной) just to marvel at the building and wonder how come Russians lived so long under drab Soviet fashion when they really love style and glam. For Russian fashion designers like Gosha Rubinchinsky head to SVMOSCOW. As for indie brands, head to the WINZAVOD Centre for Contemporary Art.
Tverskaya Ulitsa is very famous and large thoroughfare dotted with shops on both sides. Have a look at MOSCOW BOOKS, with an antique books section and the gourmet ELISEEVSKIY STORE with crystal chandeliers and rococo interiors. If you are into street markets, head to VERNISAZH MARKET on Saturdays and Sundays, part of the IZMAILOVO PARK.
When it comes to culture, Moscow is hard to beat. The city has numerous theatres, an enviable collection of museums and art galleries and architectural gems abound. From Tsarist Russia to Soviet Brutalism and Contemporary Architecture, Moscow is art-lovers galore. For a comprehensive list of all of Moscow’s art offerings, check the ArtMap by ARTGUIDE. One other tip is Russian culture portal Colta. Brace yourself for these recommendations:
NEW TRETYAKOV GALLERY
The city has broken Tretyakov’s collection in two, with the modern and contemporary collection now housed by the river, inside the Muzeon Sculpture Park. The building is already a masterpiece. Enjoy Kandinsky, Chagall, Malevich and more.
MUZEON SCULPTURE PARK
The park around New Tretyakov Gallery is filled with trees and sculptures that make a stroll around it one of Moscow’s most pleasant activities on a sunny day.
GARAGE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Since you are on this side of town, cross the Soviet gate housing the Gorky Park Museum into Gorky Park and walk to this contemporary gem by starchitect Rem Koolhaas. Rotating exhibits of global art, a top-notch bookstore, and a café to have you well rested and fed to go on your explorations.
STATE TRETYAKOV GALLERY
Russian art of the 11th through the 20th century. An enormous collection spread chronologically over 62 galleries. Some colossal masterpieces on display showing Russian conquests into Central Asia and the Far East. A feast for the eyes!
PUSHKIN MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
The Pushkin is Moscow’s version of an encyclopedic museum with ancient artifacts from Egypt and Greece, Italian and Dutch masterpieces, sculptures, vases and more. Whoever is not Russian is housed here, so expect Van Goghs, Cezannes, Renoirs, Picassos as well. The area around the Pushkin will be Moscow’s Museum Village and is going under renovation with a project by Meganom Architects.
MMoMA MOSCOW MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
The Moscow MoMA is spread over four venues and there is a rotation of temporary exhibitions.
MULTIMEDIA ART MUSEUM MOSCOW
Another fantastic building dedicated to the Arts, inaugurated in 2010 and heavy on film and photography.
Think of the Soviet Union and those ginormous buildings, the fairgrounds, the steel sculptures, fountains, the banners and the likes. Yes, it survives in VDNH, an enormous area north of the center of Moscow (but quite easy to reach by metro). The Museum of the Cosmonautics is right at the metro’s exit and get ready to walk and explore. Even though the attractions are very spread out, this is an ideal place to take the kids.
Not as famous as the Bolshoi, Helikon Opera is a magnet for classical music. It was the reception hall of an old rich family, and nowadays the roster of concerts is astonishing. I could not pay for the tickets online with a foreign credit card though but was very happy to pass by and get hold of tickets to watch Turandot, by Puccini. They have subtitles on the stage, in both Russian and English, which helped a lot.
The Gogol Center is Moscow’s avant-garde cultural center, where controversial plays go on stage, indie movies are shown and the minds speak more freely (so much so that Gogol’s director has been detained by Putin’s friends). Some of the plays have English subtitles. When I went there, there were none, but I survived the show (for the first hour and a half though). Would go again, for sure.
And, and, and, of course, the KREMLIN MUSEUMS and the BOLSHOI THEATRE, both needing advance reservations, so make plans in advance. The Kremlin is best visited in the mornings while the Bolshoi can be visited on a guided tour or, of course, during a performance.