Saint Petersburg, Russia
On the 16th-century side streets of Moscow it is still possible to glimpse centuries-old golden domes squeezed between drab Soviet housing complexes and countless Lenin statues. Visiting Europe’s largest city is a thrilling, intense experience, flashier and costlier than St. Petersburg, and undeniably rougher too. Very slowly, Moscow is re-creating itself as one of the world’s most urbane capitals, embracing innovation with the same sense of enterprise that helped it command and then survive history’s most ambitious social experiment.
A series of concentric rings spread outward from the Kremlin (Кремль; Kremlin) and Red Square (Красная Площадь; Krasnaya Ploshchad). The outermost Moscow Ring Road marks the city limits, but most sights lie within the Garden Ring (Садовое Кольцо; Sadovoe Koltso). Main streets include Tverskaya Ulitsa (Тверская), which extends north along the Metro’s green line, as well as the Arbat (Арбат) and Novyy Arbat (Новый Арбат), which run west, parallel to the blue lines. Some kiosks sell English-language and Cyrillic maps; hostels and hotels also have English tourist maps for those who don’t want to rely on a GPS. Be careful when crossing streets, as drivers are oblivious to pedestrians; for safety’s sake, most major streets have an underpass (переход; perekhod).
Moscow’s sights reflect the city’s interrupted history; because St. Petersburg was the seat of the tsardom for 200 years, there are 16th-century churches and Soviet-era museums, but little in between. Though Moscow has no grand palaces and 80% of its pre-revolutionary splendor was demolished by the Soviet regime, the city’s museums house the very best of Russian art and history.
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Russian cuisine is a medley of dishes both delectable and unpleasant; tasty борщ (borshch; beet soup) can come in the same meal as сало (salo; pig fat). The largest meal of the day, обед (obed; lunch), includes: салат (salat; salad), usually cucumbers and tomatoes or beets and potatoes with mayonnaise or sour cream; суп (sup; soup); and курица (kuritsa; chicken) or мясо (myaso; meat), often called котлеты (kotlety; cutlets). Other common foods include щи (shchi; cabbage soup) and блины (bliny; potato pancakes). Vegetarians and kosher diners traveling in Russia will probably find it easiest to avoid rural cuisine and to eat in foreign restaurants. On the streets, you’ll see a lot of шашлики (shashliki; barbecued meat on a stick) and квас (kvas), a slightly alcoholic dark-brown drink. Beware of any meat products hawked by sidewalk vendors; they may be several days old.
Kiosks often carry alcohol such as imported cans of beer, which are warm but safe. Beware makeshift labels in Russian—you have no way of knowing what’s really in the bottle. Усский Стандарт (Russkiy Standart) and Флагман (Flagman) are the best vodkas; the much-touted Stolichnaya is made mostly for export. Among local beers, Балтика (Baltika; numbered 1-7 according to brew and alcohol content) is the most popular and arguably the best. Baltika 1 is the weakest (5%), Baltika 7 the strongest (7%). Baltikas 4 and 6 are dark; the rest are lagers.
Many restaurants offer “business lunch” specials. For fresh produce, head to a market. Some of the best are by the Turgenevskaya and Kuznetskiy Most Metro stations. To find grocery stores, look for “продукты” (produkty) signs or look for big pictures of produce, bread, and sausages on the walls of buildings.
If you have an extra several thousand rubles handy, you also have the chance to try perhaps the strangest gastronomic experience to hit Moscow since the creation of okroshka, a soup flavored with kvas (a weakly alcoholic drink). Chef Anatoly Komm has introduced Russians—the people of hearty meals—to tiny creations in the form of molecular cuisine.
With four high-class restaurants in Moscow, Komm holds tasting events with such suggestive titles as “The Alchemy of Taste” and “Frost and Sea Molecular Spectacle.” Diners are asked to turn off their cell phones, to leave cigarettes behind, and to keep their minds open before being presented with between 10 and 20 courses of visionary taste treasures.
The basic principle behind Komm’s meals is purely scientific: by breaking food down into its smallest components, one can later put these particles back together in combinations that will excite the tastebuds in new ways. For a fistfull of rubles, you can try a Russkaya Zakuska (Russian Appetizer), a liquid combining the tastes of every traditional Russian appetizer—a thought that is at once disturbing and intriguing.
From September through June, Moscow boasts some of the world’s best ballet, opera, and theater performances. Tickets are often cheap if purchased ahead and can be bought from the theater kassa or from kiosks in town. Bolshoi Theater (Большой Театр), Teatralnaya pl. 1, is home to the opera and the ballet company. Though the main stage is under renovation, and not due to reopen until November 2009, performances continue on the secondary stage. The Moscow Operetta Theater, Bolshaya Dmitrovka 6, stages operettas.
Moscow’s nightlife is the most varied, expensive, and debaucherous in Eastern Europe. Many clubs flaunt their exclusivity, but the city’s incessant insomnia and love of house music make finding a full dance floor easy.
The country that perfected the “workers’ rally” may have lost Communism but still knows how to Party. The Russian Winter Festival is celebrated in major cities from late Dec. to early Jan. with folklore exhibitions and vodka. People eat pancakes covered in honey, caviar, fresh cream, and butter during Maslyanitsa (Butter Festival; end of Feb.).