Pleasantly surprised by Moscow

Posted on October 6, 2011

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Before I came to Moscow I found out that everyone who has been here has an opinion. And those opinions vary massively. I am not sure whether I have just had a five star experience, or whether everyone else was exaggerating.

Yes, traffic is hideous and there is a reason that  many taxis charge by the hour rather than the distance, but only in rush hour and no worse that Bucharest. The funniest thing is that in my wonderful 5 star hotel they give you advice on taxis: potentially any car is a taxi in Moscow.  Raise your arm and someone will stop. Agree the price before you get in (trips are usually 400-600 rubles in the city centre) and if you don’t feel comfortable, wait for the next one.

I have a couple of pieces of advice on getting around:

1. get the airport express train to the city centre. It costs around 6 euros and you bypass all the traffic on the way into town.

2. get organised. Make sure you know where you are going in advance, ideally with a Google type map and an address written in both English and Russian. If you are taking taxi’s from your hotel, book well in advance and if you are having a meeting, ask them to call a taxi before the meeting starts as it may take an hour to arrive.

2. agree the price before you get into a taxi and if you don’t feel comfortable with the price, or the driver. Wait for another car. A Russian phrasebook, or a pen and paper work wonders to agree a price when negotiating in a different language.

And at least visit the metro stations – they really are quite something. Built in the Soviet era they are palatial in order to thank the population for their contributions. They are huge and people often hang out there meeting friends. I wasn’t brave enough to explore them myself but my friend who lives in Moscow showed me around and said that with a map it’s not too daunting (leave plenty of time just in case though…)

And onto the important stuff: food.

Actually, let’s start with drinks. Much to my surprise my biggest drink discovery in Moscow has been tea. Облепиха/Oblepiha to be precise. Or sea buckthorn as Google translate tells me it is called. A delicious yellow berry that is stirred into boiling water, sieved and served. Try it, it’s divine (and apparently very good for you)

Secondly of course is vodka which is often served by the gram. Best drunk in shots and followed by herring  or other salty food. I have to admit, I’m becoming quite partial to the stuff.

I experienced a few good restaurants in Moscow too, the first two shouldn’t be missed if you come to town.

Strelka, institute for Media, Architecture and Design is in a converted chocolate factory and has a wonderful terrace for summer overlooking the river. In winter there is a cosy restaurant and bar with art installations that change frequently (so I am told by regular visitors). They run a professional course from Oct to May and then in summer months there are free courses for the public. They have also helped with the renovation of Gor’kogo park which now has free wifi and new shops and restaurants are starting to appear in what was a run down neighbourhood.

Cafe Pushkin is an institution and a great place to go for Russian food. Servings are rich and hearty so order sparingly. The Borsch was amazing and I opted for the Russian Degustation which included classics of Beef Stroganof, Chicken liver in a creamy sauce, dumplings, mushrooms and chicken Kiev. Almost everything is covered in cream so I was pleased to be walking it off in the afternoon.

They also had a beautiful cafe next door which reminded me of La Duree. Further along the same strip is restaurant Turandot Palace which is worth going to, not for the European and Asian food, but for the total opulence of the room.

Vanil is delicious and was recommended by Russian Tatler’s food critic as I was having lunch with her husband, a prominent editor in chief who appeared to know many people there. A definite place to be seen and the food was cooked perfectly.

For nightlife, head to the old Chocolate Factory at the Western tip of the island in Moscow. There are many bars and clubs and the whole area comes alive at night. Strelka makes fantastic cocktails (around 10euros each) if you are in the mood.

Hotels are expensive in Moscow so do some research to get somewhere good and central. I stayed at the Hotel Baltshug Kempinski which not only has a wonderful location overlooking St Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin, but also has the best hospitality that I have experienced for a long time. Thank you head concierge Michael!

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