Really want your Moscow recommendations
May 5, 2012 9:13 PM   Subscribe

Traveling to Moscow (the Russia one) for about 9 days, mostly solo.

Very unexpectedly, I've been included in an ABA conference in Moscow. I'll be flying to Moscow on May 19 and returning on May 28 or 29. I'll be doing conferencing for two days (May 24 and 25), but the rest of my time will be vacation.

I will buy some tour books, and I have been reading past AskMe answers. But honestly I am starting from zero.

Here are things that I think I would like to do in Moscow (in no particular order)

Meet people (who speak English, see below);
Go to the "student" neighborhood(s) -- where there are students, artists, bookstores, cafes, pubs, etc.
Go to gay bar or bookstore (though the news out of Russia seems terrible on this).
Cemeteries, museums, churches.
Maybe a bazaar -- I read a recommendation from a mefite for the Izmailovsky flea market.
Bakeries (mmm poppyseeds).
Maybe leave for a two-day (possible?) tour to St. Petersburg.

Also, I am looking for a recommendation for a down-to-earth (but not seedy) hotel for the days where I am on my own.

I am definitely not a seasoned traveler, and I can't go go go all day, but I'd like to get a sense of the history, visit the artsy neighborhoods, meet a few people, and eat great food. (I'll try to use my conference connections to meet some people.)

I don't speak Russian. I studied some in college, and could probably say some phrases, but that's about it.
posted by ClaudiaCenter to Travel & Transportation around Moscow, Russian Federation (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I was only in Moscow for two days. It was for work with meetings and the second day was canceled. The manager of my company's Moscow set my coworker up with a guided tour of Moscow. We spent most of the time at the Kremlin and that was pretty kick ass. As a kid hearing "Kremlin" and "Red Square" was part of the "evil empire." It was amazing to visit it as an adult. The other wild part about Moscow was all the commercialism --- huge billboards advertising things like BMWs, Mercedes. I saw a Maybach for the first time there. Then on the same roads are old Soviet era cars. The division of wealth is pretty wide. Our driver took us to a few other smaller places and one place near Moscow State University that had this commanding view of the city. I did all this in February so it was obscenely cold.

Anyway, I would recommend going to the Kremlin. It is full of churches and museums. One of the places I went to had all these gifts from heads of state to the Russia royals from the Victorian era. There's also government buildings and whatnot. Lenin's tomb in Red Square.

I bought the Lonely Planet Guide for Moscow and recommend it even though I didn't have a lot of time to explore. One of the trips in was a subway tour of the famous architecture of some of the stations.
posted by birdherder at 11:23 PM on May 5, 2012

It's a little naïve to expect extensive tourist amenities in Moscow, or much of anywhere in Russia. Russia is not a subtropical nation that thrives on tourism. It gets comparatively few tourists and doesn't make it easy for them.

Moscow, in particular, is obscenely expensive to stay in, even compared with the other giant cities of the world. Metro (i.e., subway) service is regular and reliable, and the stations really are the eighth wonder of the world, a monument to the ambition of Soviet public works. The city is sprawling, but relatively homogeneous. Outside the historic city center itself, old Soviet housing projects kind of phase into aging single-family houses, hovels, and well-defended compounds of the ultra-rich.

I'm not sure you'll find the "student neighborhoods" you expect to see. There isn't much of a "going out" culture, and a lot of the popular establishments basically serve the new rich. The wide gap between rich and poor means that you see ads for luxury goods and services everywhere — there's less money in advertising commodities for the poor, apart from mobile phones and such.

Random violence against gays (and people from minority ethnic groups, non-Caucasians, etc.) is regular and enjoys widespread tacit support, in particular from members of law enforcement. There is a largely underground gay demimonde, based around clubs, but it's not really a place you want to find yourself as a foreign visitor who doesn't speak Russian. GLBT people have too few social protections in Russia to so much as hold a public pride event.

You may have trouble finding competent English-speakers. Russia is majority monolingual. You may get dismissive or condescending treatment. People will generally not meet you halfway. You may be targeted by frauds and scammers, some of whom may be aggressively assertive.

The Kremlin and the area immediately around it are a huge tourist trap, although there is admittedly quite a bit of stuff to see. The lines are long, and service is brusque. See the English version of the Kremlin site for a preview of the museums and cathedrals. If you want to see gold and jewels aplenty, head to the Armory Museum (Оружейная палата).

In summary, Moscow is not a great place to visit as an inexperienced tourist. It has many rewards, but you may find them hard to find, access, and otherwise appreciate. Please use caution. I hope someone can show up and give more detailed/helpful/positive advice, though.
posted by Nomyte at 11:59 PM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

The New York Times had a Moscow article in their "36 Hours in…" travel series. It may give you some ideas, although it's now out of date.
posted by Nomyte at 12:01 AM on May 6, 2012

My Moscow was trying to find places to buy clothes, as my entire backpack was lost on the flight to the airport.

I ended up going to the local 'stan market ('stan as in Uzibekistan, Kazahkstan, et. al.) and bought the most awesome AC/DC inspired rock 'n roll t shirt ever.

In regards to your question: I didn't get a lot of spare time to tourist the place, but the best use of my time and money was the river cruise. Very low key. I sat beside some guy who was touristing Moscow himself after a winter spent in some mining town up north in Russia. He (being Russian) told me (Canadian) that this is the arena where the Canadian-Russian hockey series was played.

For fun student type stuff I can report that there was dance music in the neighborhood of my hostel that didn't stop until 5 in the morning. But I'll be damned if I could figure out how to get in or what building it was coming from.

If you're the walking around the city type and someone offers you food to buy, take them up on the offer. I found restaurants to be basically non-existent.

Enjoy! It's difficult, but it's completely worth every minute.
posted by sleslie at 12:29 AM on May 6, 2012

And for food: I don't know if it was 'excellent' but the cafeteria at the "communism" museum (properly called the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia) was memorable. I went with a russophile I met at the hostel who said that we had to eat at the cafeteria as it was a throwback to what would actually be served back in the Soviet days. (Borscht!)
posted by sleslie at 12:42 AM on May 6, 2012

This whole 'not speaking Russian' thing is going to be a big problem in terms of getting off the beaten path, and since it's Russia, off the beaten path there are, of course, scammers. Anyway, maybe find one of those 'good people' who's Russian-speaking and have them go with you. There is no 'student neighborhood' (in fact, the idea makes me laugh a bit), no gay bookstores, no... well, it's not a Western country in pretty much any way. I don't think having a McDonald's really puts it on the map, there. Even 'great food'... if you want great food, go to some Russians' houses. Otherwise... well, there's restaurants, but there's no Western culture and thus no expectation of 1) disposable income; 2) foodie tastes; 3) ethnic food interests (unless you count hamburgers as an ethnic food interest). I would say go to a supermarket and/or grocery and they often have deli sections where you may find some yummy food. There's more of a food culture for common folk if you were in a tourist spot for Russians (this would be on the Black Sea).

Anyway, aside from what there isn't (read: anything you're used to, unless it's fast food places, of which there's now plenty), there is other stuff. The artsy area is Arbat street (music, little shops, street artists and musicians). There are many brilliant museums, from the Red Square (for the churches) to the Pushkin museum of art. If you have any real money to spend, try to make it to a theater such as the Bolshoi (though any theater will do, the Bolshoi having opera and ballet means you don't need Russian to get it). The Russian State Library is a beautiful building to visit and has a wide selection in English in the reading room, I'm sure. Moscow is also great for international films, so you may find a beautiful movie theater in the city center with a film in English-- a cool experience. It's odd to say this, but St Petersburg is more of a touristy city, and I'm sure it's got guided tours (just as Moscow does)-- there's a train running from Moscow at 3 1/2 hours, not too bad. There's a great variety of brilliant art to see in St Petersburg, especially the Hermitage and Petergof palace, but there's also a whole number of artists' home-museums. You could go to the Literatorskiye mostki cemetery and pick out names and just see if there is a home-museum for them (there probably is). Moscow has the Novodevichye cemetery but not as much of a home-museum culture. Don't miss the subway in Moscow, it really is amazing.

If it's feasible to stay with a Russian person (using or similar), do that. Moscow is good at two extremes: seedy and criminal, or lavish and criminal (but what do I know, it's been 20 years). One reason you can't expect middle-of-the-road hotels is that no normal Russian would stay in a hotel (or eat out, for that matter, unless it's a big holiday). I would recommend reading some history books for context, rather than just guidebooks. It's kind of hard to explain, but Russia is not like the West and not like the colonized East or the oppressed South. Your expectations may only serve to make you uncomfortable. For example: as far as I know, there is no 'student culture' as such in Russia; college is not seen as a time of freedom and leisure but as the time you take to train for your job. Instead, there is the intelligentsia, and it's not age-specific. Certainly it is not concentrated by geographic area (that would make it too easy to round them all up and sent them off to Siberia). Artists certainly exist, of course, but Arbat has been an artist's neighborhood since the 19th century-- it's just a relic where some people come to busk or do street portraits. For the longest time, Soviet-era artists were either institutionalized (made 'official') or oppressed; now I guess they make money at times, but it hasn't really been long enough to build a whole new culture.

Anyway, do your best to cram as much Russian as you can to really enjoy this visit. Russians are like the French and the Japanese about their language, only more nationalist. It would help to know what the word for 'cheese' looked like, or to read anything in a museum or cemetery, or to avoid being ripped off (your biggest danger). I actually think walking around the center of Moscow would be rewarding (there's lots of parks and squares, like the Pushkinskaya or Mayakovskaya), even without language. You could buy some ice-cream and sit by one of the many fountains. The architecture is amazing; consider one of those books that give you locations for a self-guided tour. Expect lots of old-world culture and architecture and art, few-to-none Western conveniences, attempts to scam you, and a great public transportation system.
posted by reenka at 3:49 AM on May 6, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you, this is super super helpful. Now I'm a little scared, but that's probably okay. I don't really have particular expectations -- I was trying to describe what I like doing in cities, but I can see that some of those things don't exist exactly in Moscow. I will buy the Lonely Planet guide, do a Kremlin/Red Square tour, read the NYT piece, do the river tour, go to Arbat ... keep reading, buy a phrase book. If I had a year or even three months to plan, I would read many many books, but the trip is so last minute that all I can do (as I will be slammed at work until I go) is buy some books to start reading and to continue reading on the plane and make some reservations.

I will ask my ABA contacts if they have recommendations for hotels or even if there is a person I could stay with. Taking the train to St. Petersburg sounds very cool. I wonder if there are any English speaking tours of St. Petersburg, or if I am expecting too much tourist service.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 7:39 AM on May 6, 2012

Novo Deichi Monastery is close to Moscow and worth a visit, particularly if you can go with an english speaking guide. If you do visit Petersburg, consider a day trip to one or more of the nearby palaces.
posted by Area Man at 7:53 AM on May 6, 2012

As noted above there is no student quarter. For student- or intelligentsia-style cafés try Mayak, Kvartira 44 or Zhan-Zhak. All these are in easy walking distance of each other. Close to these: in warm weather gilded youth hang out to the early hours on the outside terrace of Kofemaniya (I think that's the chain) on Bolshaya Nikitskaya, next to the conservatory. Expect to pay 15-20 dollars for a pot of tea. More cutesy eating: Mari Vanna. Posh but v good: Pushkin, pop in maybe for one of their chocolate desserts. All the above reasonably close to one another. No gay bookshops that i know of but there are gay and lesbian clubs. Izmailovo is a big sprawling market. The sapsan highspeed train is a good way to reach st petersburg as suggested. Don't rely on anyone to speak English, or even to be polite.
posted by londongeezer at 8:28 AM on May 6, 2012

Response by poster: Looks like a new hotel Mercure Arbat may be under $200 a night and is near Arbat ... I'll keep coming back here to read.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:35 AM on May 6, 2012

You say that you studied some Russian in you still remember the alphabet and can you recognize and pronounce words? If not, definitely brush up on this. When we traveled to Russia (as non Russian speakers) we found that just being able to recognize words on signs was immensely helpful. We were able to navigate the metro and phrasebooks became much more helpful. We were still severely limited by not speaking the language, but it at least gave us some more options.

That being said, it's perfectly feasible for a non Russian speaker to get on the metro and head downtown. The scale of Red Square, St. Basil's, the Kremlin, etc, is impressive and can easily take multiple days in and of itself. It's touristy, but definitely go do it.

We found that in general, people understood when we told them we did not speak Russian (we knew how to say that in Russian) and tried to work with us. Finding someone who speaks English is often difficult, as noted above.

Getting onto public transportation (airports, metros, etc.) is interesting. People jockey for position getting on a plane in the US, but getting on a plane, for example, in Russia is a bit more physical and "line manners" are interpreted differently. :-) No one seems to take offense to it--it's just the way it is. Don't be afraid of that, but be prepared for it.
posted by jdwhite at 12:37 PM on May 6, 2012

Where did you end up staying in St. Petersburg? I was going to write an AskMeFi query myself, but thought perhaps since your visit was so relatively recent it might be good to ask you if you had any firsthand recommendations.

Planning to be there a few days in August (if convoluted process of getting a visa when you are a permanent resident of a third country comes to fruition....)
posted by squasha at 6:55 PM on June 30, 2012

Response by poster: I stayed at Northern Lights. It was fine -- relatively inexpensive -- but FYI more like a hostel than a hotel and up a bunch of flights of stairs.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:24 PM on June 30, 2012

Response by poster: By the way, if you stay in Moscow, I thought the Mercure Arbat was fantastic -- new rooms, great service, excellent.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:24 PM on June 30, 2012

Thanks so much for the reply! We got not-particularly-good news today where our potential Russian visas are concerned, so we may have to re-route to Estonia, but it does sound like the stairs would dissuade us from the place you stayed. We have one good knee between the two of us.

Ironically, the Mercure Arbat has shown up in every review-based hotel search we have done, even though we are only looking at St. Petersburg at this time. It seems like a much-loved property! Maybe some day we'll actually have time to visit Moscow.
posted by squasha at 5:41 AM on July 1, 2012

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