What should I know before travelling to Moscow in about 40 days? Any tips? What are the must-see places?
Moscow moves extremely fast, and in different ways than you're used to. A lot of foreign tourists go to Russia and find the city and its people to be somewhat unpleasant, but usually they're reaching that opinion because they don't understand The Rules.Though it's common to get to Moscow and wonder just why in Hell you'd choose to be there, especially in the early hours of your first trip, everyone eventually figures out just how unbelievably awesome Moscow is, unfortunately for some folks this doesn't happen until the last days of their vacation. So my friends and I came up with this list of rules to help new visitors. This list is not exhaustive, but it'll get you a long way.1. Be prepared to walk. A lot. A typical day in Moscow can include several miles of walking, much of it up and down stairs.2. Be prepared to use the Metro. Moscow may have Europe’s worst traffic, but it also has the world’s finest public transportation system. With a rudimentary ability to read a map and recognize station names in Russian you can get anywhere in town, almost always faster than you could get there in a car.3. Be prepared to read some Russian. Speaking the language takes a lot of time and practice, but sounding out words in Cyrillic letters and recognizing a few key words is easy with some practice and absolutely necessary if you’re going to go anywhere by yourself.4. Be prepared to surrender your passport from time to time. Most Russians don’t drive, so the driver’s license that you use as identification in the United States just doesn’t exist in the same way here in Russia • for identification, everyone uses their passport. You will have a police officer, hotel clerk or a museum audioguide clerk insist on having it in their hands at some point, and you will have to hand it over or even leave it for a while. This is normal.5. Realize that getting to and from the airport is an enormous pain in the ass. There are certain days and times when we can guarantee you that traffic will absolutely suck, but virtually no day or time when we can guarantee that there won’t be a problem getting out there • a simple trip out to the airport and back can take one of us or our drivers a full half day or more. Your best bet is to count on taking a cab for approximately $30-40 each way, or taking the express train, which is both prompt and cheap if you can struggle through the Russian language signs. The more adventurous among us take the express train (or bus sometimes) to one of the nearby Metro stations and go the rest of the way by subway for less than $2.6. When you’re coming in to the country, don’t be an idiot at Passport Control. Despite the signs, there is seldom any order or civility • people will do nearly anything to get through the line short of directly cutting in front of you. If you follow what you think the rules are, you could very well be there all day. If you’re smart enough to fill out your customs form while you’re still on the airplane, you’re smart enough to line up at the Diplomatic Passports booth (to the left) and go right through.7. No domestic air travel. We know that it looks easy and cheap, but it’s often neither. Moscow has three airports, all of which are a fair distance from the center (and a great distance from each other) through either a great deal of bad traffic s any sort of user-friendly public transportation link, getting out there is bad enough, suffer one minor delay or itinerary change and you really could end up in trouble. Trains, on the other hand, depart and arrive in stations that are located on the edge of downtown and attached to Metro lines. So long as you need any help or advice from us on how to get in and around Russia, you’ll be on the train. If you’re thinking about going to St.Pete for a couple of days, you’ll be going on the train. In our opinion, unless you’re on a business trip with a tight schedule the night trains from Leningradsky Vokzal really are the only way to go.8. Know what it is that you want to see. There are a few things that every visitor wants to see in Moscow • Red Square, the Kremlin grounds and museums, and the souvenir market at Izmailovsky Park • but there are also thousands of other places. Having no real idea of what you might enjoy, we suggest that you buy the most current edition of the ‘Eyewitness Travel Guide• for Moscow from DK Publishing and take a long look at it before you leave home, and that you grab a copy of Patriarschy Dom’s current schedule either on-line in the States or at the Starlite Diner once you get to Moscow. There are also terrific apps for Moscow tourism, like the Lonely Planet app.9. Keep some rubles on hand. Credit cards are accepted in many places, but certainly not all, and dollars are nearly useless outside of a money exchange booth. ATM’s and currency exchanges are like policemen and taxicabs • exceedingly common, except when you really need one. We also suggest calling your bank before you leave home to let them know that you’ll be in Russia and that you may need to withdraw more than $400 per day.10. Keep moving, unless you’re absolutely certain that you’re not in the way. Muscovites are, for the most part, very nice people • but they tend to move in ways and manners unfamiliar to you making you somewhat uncomfortable • and completely obviously lost • in a crowd. Hesitate on a Metro platform, for example, and you’re likely to have someone bump you just trying to get by. Until you’re able to move around like they do, just remember not to stop where people are walking.11. Be prepared to buy stuff. Some souvenir items are common and only really vary in terms of pricing from place to place, others really are unique items that you won’t see anyplace else • it can take years of living here to know the difference, so don’t be afraid to ask. But don’t be afraid to buy, either. Too many of our visitors over the years have waited to buy things that were in their grasp early in the trip, only to run out of time later and return home empty handed. Izmailovsky Park on weekends is your best overall bet, and planning a shopping trip there can save you from ever having to look at stuff anywhere else.12. Be prepared to feed and water yourself. Getting around town can work up a fierce hunger, and you’re going to have to figure out pretty quickly how to find and purchase food and drink, we’re all for eating and drinking, but sometimes the coordination with our schedules is difficult. The tens of thousands of kiosks and street vendors in town offer a wide variety of choices, but, for the uninitiated, we suggest sticking to items that you recognize and can point to like bread, pastries and bottled drinks. When all else fails, McDonalds is better in Russia than it is at home and most of the titles are the same in both languages.13. ‘No Photographs• doesn’t always mean ‘No Photographs.• Sometimes it just means that you shouldn’t take a photograph directly in front of one of the attendants, sometimes it means that you’re going to get your ass handed to you for trying. Russians like their cameras and their bad snapshots as much as we do, so watch the locals • if they’re taking pictures, it’s OK. If they’re not, then you really should think twice.14. Large numbers of policemen or protesters are not a good sign. If you’re walking up on a square or a park and you notice an unusually large number of policemen or protesters there, you need to go somewhere else. Seriously. Sure, you might get to see some colorful people assembling peacefully to show their patriotic pride or demand a redress of their grievances, but you may also get to see just how well tear gas works as the OMON troops arrest and beat down everyone in sight.15. Accomodations are problematic. Western-standard hotels are available in Moscow, but they’re really expensive. Reasonably priced rooms are available in Moscow, but they’re not even near western standard and may be far from the center. Essentially you have a choice • put up with some degree of privation, or pay one hell of a hotel bill. If you're not going to scour the internet for a hotel deal before you go, our suggestion is that you consider an early reservation with a hostel, hoping to get a single or double room, or that you rent a short-term apartment, both options are reasonably priced, but both options come with beds and bathrooms and service levels well below what you’re used to at home.16. Toilets. Contrary to popular belief, the worst toilets in the world are not found in Russia. Between the three of us, we’ve seen way worse. You probably have, too. The worst we’ve found are in Africa, the border stations between Latvia and Lithuania, and a particularly foul vegetarian restaurant in Berkeley, California. Here in Moscow, you’ve got to be prepared to either lower your standards for where you’ll relieve yourself, or learn to hold it long enough to find a hotel lobby. If you’re going to be traveling on trains or venturing away from the very center of the city, we suggest that you keep some napkins or a pocket pack of tissues handy, too.17. Guns. Get used to seeing them. Though there are more individual gun owners in the United States, the Russians who are either required or allowed to have guns tend to carry them all the time. This means that every day will include coming face to face with a cop carrying a fully loaded, fully automatic Kalashnikov rifle with his finger firmly wrapped around the trigger and at least one gaggle of sweaty security guards with low-end handguns. Be polite.18. Lines. Gone are the Soviet-era days when lots of lines for lots of things stretched around lots of blocks, but it’s still important to know just how to wait in one. Generally cutting a line is treated like a cardinal sin, but anything else generally goes - you will see Russians jump ahead of others to a freshly available cashier booth, gently push others out of the way before previously placed orders have been filled, allow friends into the front of the line with them and have others hold their place. Feel free to be aggressive. Remember, also, that many businesses still require you to order what you want in one line, pay for it in another, and then return to the first line to get whatever it was you wanted.19. Street traffic. Moscow has but one law when it comes to pedestrian traffic - once you step off the curb, you’re on your own. This isn’t a problem on side streets where gridlocked traffic and poor road maintenance usually keep speeds to a comfortable minimum • but the major bulvars and prospekts and naberezhnie are an entirely different story. Many vehicles are going far too fast to stop for you, and many Muscovite drivers won’t even try. Use the perekhods (pedestrian tunnels) when you can, watch your ass when you can’t.This list is not exhaustive, but it's served me and my friends well for more than 20 years now. If you have any suggestions for things to add, please let me know.The truth is that Moscow is awesome. It is unlike any other place in the world, and if you just accept that you have to accept what you cannot change and look past what you think you can't accept, you're going to have a great time.