Overview

Moscow, Russia, is changing fast. Once-empty shops have become expensive restaurants, designer boutiques and 24-hour convenience stores. Moscow's nightlife, which used to be restricted to cheesy singers at bad restaurants, has exploded into one of the most vibrant party scenes in Europe. Yet the most surprising thing about today's Moscow is its normality—after years of massive upheaval, it has transformed itself into something resembling a typical European capital city.

Moscow still has more than its fair share of unsavory characters, but you're just as likely to see young Russian professionals driving Volkswagens, reading the Russian-language Cosmopolitan and ordering goat-cheese-and-basil pizza on their iPads. Crime—once the most worrisome aspect of the post-Soviet era—has been curtailed, and the notorious mafia has become more subtle in its dress and business methods. Many former crime lords have gone into legitimate businesses or even joined the government.

But a visit to Moscow isn't simple. A lot of bureaucratic red tape remains from the days of the U.S.S.R., and those who don't speak Russian will find communication difficulties—even deciphering the Cyrillic signs can be a chore. Just the same, there's something invigorating about observing Moscow's breakneck sprint toward the future, especially while visiting its famous landmarks of the past.

Geography

Moscow's heart and soul, as well as its geographic center, is the Kremlin—a triangular, walled citadel on the Moskva River bordered by Red Square and Alexander Gardens. Inseparable from the Kremlin as part of the historic and spiritual center of Moscow is Red Square. Surrounding Red Square are such attractions as the Historical Museum, GUM (Russia's biggest department store), Kazan Cathedral, the reconstructed Resurrection Gates, St. Basil's Cathedral and the Lenin Mausoleum.

The Kremlin is circled by three ring roads. The first is the Boulevard Ring, only 1 mi/2 km from the Kremlin—a semicircle of leafy boulevards lined with 18th- and 19th-century buildings. It's charming, dilapidated and a traffic nightmare during business hours. The ironically named Garden Ring, slightly farther from the Kremlin, is in fact an eight-lane, traffic-choked highway lined mainly with massive Stalin-era administrative buildings and apartment blocks. It roughly marks the boundary of pre-Stalinist Moscow—all the buildings outside it date from his rule or after, and most of its route goes along with the Ring line of the Moscow Metro network. (The exact center of the circle created by the three rings is the Belltower of Ivan the Great, inside the Kremlin walls—it was once the tallest structure in the city.) A third ring road exists farther from the Kremlin.

The present outermost ring road is known as the MKAD, or Moscow Ring Road. It is now the approximate boundary of the city of Moscow, although to the south and southwest, high-rise apartment buildings spill out into the surrounding farmland and forest. Major arterial roads radiate from the Kremlin to this outer ring road and then become highways to all the cities of Russia. In the countryside around the city are small clusters of vacation cottages, or dachas, where Muscovites retire to escape the concrete and heat of Moscow in high summer and to plant their vegetable crops for the next winter.

If you plan to navigate Moscow on your own, learning the Cyrillic alphabet is a distinct advantage, even though most metro and street signs are marked in both Cyrillic and Roman letters.

History

Moscow was founded in 1147 by Prince Yury Dolgoruky, and, thanks to its position along some major trade routes, it became prominent among the independent states that battled for dominance in medieval Russia. Ivan III (also known as Ivan the Great) secured the pre-eminence of the region in the late 1400s and built much of the old Kremlin area that still dominates the city's skyline. His grandson Ivan IV (the notorious Ivan the Terrible) crowned himself Russia's first czar, a Russianized version of "Caesar," after conquering the Tartars, who had terrorized Russia for three centuries. In honor of his historic victory, he built St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in 1568—still the city's most famous landmark.

The fortunes of Moscow—and the Russian nation—changed markedly with the ascension of Peter the Great in 1685. Peter had studied shipbuilding in Holland and London; when he returned to his native Moscow, he was determined to bring Russia up to date with the Western world. After a long campaign against Sweden, Russia's powerful northern neighbor, Peter captured a foothold on the Baltic Sea and ordered a vast capital to be built on a marsh on the Neva River. He named the new city St. Petersburg and decreed it the capital of his empire. Moscow, with its associations of backward "old Russia," fell into disfavor among the fashionable new aristocracy.

Moscow suffered further during Napoleon's invasion of 1812. By the time the French conqueror arrived, most of the population had fled, leaving only some partisans who set fire to the city while the French occupied it. The fire burned for three days, destroying the medieval wooden town and leaving intact only stone buildings—mostly churches. Napoleon was forced to retreat from the gutted city through the bitter Russian winter, losing most of his troops to frostbite and partisan raids. In the 1820s and '30s, the city was rebuilt along its present lines: Wide boulevards were laid out, and handsome colonnaded palaces were built.

In the late 1800s, Moscow became the center of a new manufacturing elite. The city gradually filled with grand apartments, gaudy mansions and lavish shops. A flowering of the arts mirrored the city's prosperity. Konstantin Stanislavsky produced Anton Chekhov's then-new realist plays at his Moscow Arts Theatre, and the architect Vladmir Shekhtel pioneered art-nouveau architecture.

In the wake of the bloody Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and with the threat in early 1918 that German troops might occupy Petrograd (St. Petersburg), the nation's capital was moved back to Moscow. The Kremlin was again made the seat of power, and Red Square became a mecca for thousands when the mausoleum to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was built there after his death in 1924. The newly declared political system (socialism on the way to communism) had its triumph in Moscow—with new architecture, new lifestyle, new arts and culture celebrating the new "order of the world," very much expected to be exported worldwide.

Yet with the death of the Russian revolution, Vladimir Lenin and many of his former allies—early revolutioners—found themselves in trouble with the new ruling class and bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, with its new head Joseph Stalin. Thus, a short period of economic freedoms encouraging enterpreneurship, trading, and small and medium business (which got the name of NEP—new economic policy) was overrun by a state model of socialism, a process of nationalization of industry, agriculture and trade—followed by a very violent reform process (especially in the countryside where land, cattle and harvest were taken from small farmers while they were forced to join Kolhoz or Sovhoz—collective or Soviet farming unions).

From the early 1930s Stalin and his team went on with further political cleansing of former party allies, including members of the intelligentsia, critics of the regime and the like, sending millions of people to death or confining them to many years in Soviet concentration camps in Siberia, the so called GULAGs. Most industrialization of that time, especially in remote areas, was carried out with the forced labor of camp prisoners. The system collapsed with Stalin's death in 1953—his successor Nikita Khruschev, who openly criticized the totalitarian system of his predecessor, allowed millions of people out of GULAGs.

The Khruschev and then later Leonid Brezhnev eras led the country into a long period of economic and political stagnation, which came to end with Mikhail Gorbachev coming to power in 1985, announcing the new period of reform, democracy and glasnost (open speech), which not only brought down the Soviet system, but also put an end to the history of the Soviet Union as such—in 1991, the U.S.S.R. fell into 15 independent states.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Joseph Stalin put his permanent stamp on the city by punching large arterial roads through old Moscow alleyways, demolishing city landmarks and erecting ugly skyscrapers. He also set the foundations for the famous Seven Sisters—the distinctive empire-style buildings that dominate the city skyline. During World War II, German troops got within 4 mi/7 km of the Kremlin but were eventually beaten back by the Red Army. The 1960s and '70s saw Moscow disfigured by the heavy hand of Brezhnev-era modernism, which littered the city with dour, drab (and crumbling) concrete buildings.

Since the collapse of communist rule and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow has struggled economically, and its infrastructure has not always been well-maintained. Nonetheless, the city's long-time mayor (1992-2010) Yury Luzhkov oversaw a major program to rebuild and refurbish selected historic areas in Moscow while demolishing structures that stood in the way of development, such as the Hotel Rossiya, a hideous 3,000-room Soviet construction near the Kremlin slated to be replaced by a parking area. It has been named Zaryadye, which was the pre-revolutionary name of the area, but currently developments are in limbo. Luzhkov's wide-ranging financial interests also had a harsh impact on the city: He decreed that Moscow be made "more lively" by the liberal use of neon signs, shopping centers and tasteless monuments. He even mandated that business establishments must decorate for Christmas.

By 2010, light shed on the corruption spearheaded by Luzhkov and his also-billionaire wife had become too bright to be ignored. In September 2010, then-president Medvedev fired Luzhkov, and the big clean-up was declared under his successor, Sergey Sobyanin, who won snap elections in 2013.

Travelers will find that the city overall has moved pleasantly upmarket. It is cleaner than it has been in years, and there is plenty of construction—refurbishments are taking place, and a large number of new cafes, bars and restaurants are opening.

Sightseeing

The best way to introduce yourself to the capital of Russia is to head straight for Red Square, in the very center of Moscow. There you'll find three of the most enduring symbols of Russia: onion-domed St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin (the centuries-old seat of Russian rulers) and Lenin's Tomb, in which the embalmed body of the Soviet Union's founder lies.

Be sure to visit the 16th-century Novodevichy Convent, especially the shimmering, gold-roofed chapel of Smolensky Cathedral. Another must-see is Christ the Savior Cathedral, which was totally rebuilt. (Stalin had the original destroyed.)

The city's top museums include the Pushkin Museum and the two Tretyakov Galleries—the old one as well as the new one on Krymsky Val. The old Tretyakov shows the rich collection of Russian art from ancient icons until the 19th century, and the new one contains art from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. A tour guide is useful if you do not speak Russian—few museums cater to English speakers. Note: Most museums charge extra if you take photographs.

Nightlife

Moscow's nightlife has undergone a dramatic revolution throughout the past few decades: It's now one of the wildest, most decadent cities in Europe with a wide range of clubs, discos and bars. It's also surprisingly sophisticated. There still are a few strip joints around that are worth a visit for their historic interest, but the real style gurus hang out at excluzivny techno clubs and yuppie bars, students go to pulsing rave clubs, and the bohemian crowd flocks to underground squats and smoky dive bars. At the trendy clubs, be ready for heavy-duty "face control"—beautiful people are let in, and others are turned away.

For live music, try B.B. King's (blues). If you want to dance, check out Propaganda (bar-cum-disco) or the trendy Garage Club.

Most nightspots are open during the day but don't get busy until midnight or 1 am. Many don't close until sunrise.

Dining

Finding a good restaurant in Moscow used to be difficult—but not anymore. Moscow now has a wide selection of restaurants in all price ranges, though dining out is still relatively expensive compared with other countries. Also expect restaurants offering Italian or French cuisine being affected by the recent import ban on food from countries of the European Union. Fortunately, the popularity of super-high-end restaurants appears to be ending, and moderately priced eateries have been springing up regularly.

Traditional Russian cuisine is hearty and straightforward (Russians like meat and potatoes). The bread and ice cream, however, are excellent, and sweet and sour pastries taste similar to those found in other parts of eastern Europe. While in Moscow, be sure to try pelmeni (dumplings), sturgeon and—of course—the Russian delicacy, caviar.

The former Soviet Republic of Georgia (now an independent nation) was renowned for its cuisine during the communist era, and there are several good Georgian restaurants in the capital. Moscow also has a variety of French, Italian and Asian eateries. The European imports tend to be better than the Asian ones.

Restaurants are usually open daily. Lunch is served noon-3 pm, and dinner is 7-11 pm or midnight—many restaurants are open 24 hours. Full breakfast is usually available only in hotels, but light breakfasts are served in European-style cafes. Be aware that not all restaurants have everything that's listed on the menu. Russian is the only language spoken at most midrange establishments, so you may want to ask your hotel's receptionist to make reservations for you. Smoke-free restaurants are more the exception than the rule.

In recent years, a good selection of coffeehouses and traditional Russian bistros have appeared all over Moscow. Visit one of the Pirogi Cafes—the chain has expanded all over Moscow.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 750 rubles; $$ = 750 rubles-1,200 rubles; $$$ = 1,201 rubles-2,500 rubles; and $$$$ = more than 2,500 rubles.

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