Although the U.S. Soccer team pre-planned a patriotic boycott by not qualifying for the international games, some futbal friends of mine who see themselves as children of the world, or at least the World Cup, will head to Moscow this June. They could search dependable travel sites, but instead they asked me for tips. It's been eight years since I called Moscow home, but while there I didn't see much change, for example the country has had the same president for eighteen years. This 250-year-old city's riches run as wide as the river on which it sits, here are few of my favorite things about the city.
Moscow’s drama will unfold as soon as you step off the plane, which means unless you arrive at 4 am, will be in a super slow mo two-hour, mind-numbing drive in airport-to-city traffic. Try to take the metro, which costs a dollar to go everywhere really fast. Marvel that when you look at the metro map, you are seeing maybe half of what was built, the rest is secret. I've gotten lost on the metro (and lots of other places in Moscow) because when we were there, there was a tax on English signage. Hopefully they've improved this for the games and made it less user-abusive.
When you visit Red Square, lean forward and have the person taking your photo squat down so they block out all the other people on the square for the photo.
After the photo in front of St. Basil's visit GUM, the only department store they had in Soviet times, which at the time took anything but rubles. The ground-level grocery store is filled with beautifully designed little packaged things that will be fun to sample later or give as gifts. Eat on the 4th floor at Stolovaya 57, a Soviet-style cafeteria.
This is a country with 99.9% literacy and a deeply rich literary heritage. Russian soccer fans will be able to discuss Tolstoy and Tergenev. Bring a paperback of Chekhov's short stories to carry around with you. Read one while sitting outside his darling apartment near Patriarch Ponds. Also read A Gentleman in Moscow and then have a drink at the Hotel Metropol. N’astrovia!
Russians are crunchy on the the outside, creamy Alioshka milk-chocolate inside. However, the nesting doll aspects of their personalities translates to a long, somewhat complicated journey to the soft center. While figuring this out, have fun buying a selection of wrapped Russian candy, the iconic designs on the wrappers are tiny cultural lessons on architecture, folk tales and fine art.
Guys, if you are a six at home, you are a ten in Moscow. (It's not so much the candy as the vodka and cigarettes.) Women under 25, if you are a ten at home, in Moscow, unless you've been walking in six inch heels on ice since you were fifteen, have three cosmetologists in your coterie of "most recents" and have Slavic genes, you are a five.
The sign looks like it says Crapdog, but it actually says Stardog. Eat a hotdog on the street and splurge later on Cafe Pushkin.
Cafe Pushkin serves the best, most velvety borsht ever, and the rest of the food is almost as dreamy. Unless your favorite team wins, this might be the best part of your trip. Guys, wear a jacket.
Visit Izmailova, the huge outdoor market. Stroll along the wooden Christmas-market-style kiosks to buy nesting dolls, painted boxes, fur hats, amber jewelry and a million other things you never knew you needed. I still regret not buying more Gzhel pottery and a taxidermied hedgehog. Follow the smoke and scent of bbq'd meat to the open-air shishleek stands. The kabobs, both pork and chicken, served sizzling with an onion salad and fresh bread taste amazing. You are supposed to eat this with the cheapest plastic fork you've ever used, and it will break. They also serve beer, vodka and tea.
If you open a bottle of vodka, it’s bad luck to not finish it. This is why they come in so many sizes and why the men look the way they do. The brand Russian Standard is recommended, Beluga is even better. Avoid over-doing and order mors, a fresh cranberry-like fruit juice. (Russians never mix alcohol with fruit juice, and you can’t out drink them so just let them win this one.) In spite of how much the Russians drink they frown upon obvious drunkenness. You'll see a drink sold on the street that looks like beer called kvass. This slightly alcoholic fermented drink is made of dark bread. It tastes like it sounds, but maybe you'll like it.
Besides drinking on the streets, what Russia does best: music, theater, wars. If World War II (in Russia The Great Patriotic War pretty much currently defines the country) interests you, historical museums on this topic will fill up your extra time between games--the outdoor Borodino is a good place to start. The Bolshoi doesn’t normally perform during the summer. It’s not, as Anna Karinina would have called it, “the season” but I’m sure they will have lots of performances of every kind everywhere anyway. Even the street musicians in the metros and on the Old Arbat can be heart-breakingly good.
Do take a stroll down the pedestrian-only Old Arbat, one of Moscow's oldest streets. Like 1400's old. Souvenir shops and artists selling mostly questionable artwork line Pushkin's cobblestone street. Still, you'll find something you have to buy. Maybe you'll see Steven Tyler join a busker covering "Don't Want to Miss a Thing." It really happened.
Stroll around Patriarch Ponds (there is only one, but the name is plural) and you'll see Margarita Bistro, named after Bulgokov's banned Master and Margarita. Try to read it, I couldn't. The cafe serves classic Russian fare in a charming setting with live folk music by darling musicians every night.
Wander around, drink tea, enjoy the perfect blue skies, which I'm sure they will have since they control the weather there. This whole World Cup things strikes me as another opportunity for national funding to be put into private hands, but enjoying the games and the city at its best may be the best revenge.