My Moscow impression
The Rubles drop a few years back has many tourists saved a lot on their travel expenses to Russia. While the weather still freezing cold with occasional flurries at the beginning of April, I finally hopped on the flight to my next destination – Russia!! Russia is the largest country in the world that straddles across both Asia and Europe with a rich and unique tradition and culture.
We flew to Russia with Aeroflot, and it was my first time, this Russian airline whose tickets are always a tag lower than any other fellow carriers. When I was on board, I was pleasantly surprised that the flight was not bad at all! The cabin was clean and passengers were offered a nice pillow, disposable slippers, eye masks, and a bunch of simple toiletries. Most importantly, the meal was better than some of the American airlines …
We flew from Hong Kong to Moscow directly. Surprisingly, for a carrier full of Hong Kong Locals, they were just going there for transfer, almost the entire “flight-pool” rushed towards the transfer gate to continue their European quest as we got off from our 10-hour flight, left us the only few that went through the customs for the Moscow journey.
We visited Saint Petersburg and Moscow and we stayed in Moscow for a few days. If you want to know more about how to plan your trip, what to see, and the highlights of Moscow, check out How to Spend 4 Days Discovering Moscow’s Best with the City Pass. One tour that I recommend is the Moscow Free Tour. The walking is free, and registration is not required. The free tour departs two times a day, and what you need to do, it to be at the starting point before the tour starts.
Moscow Free Tour
For the Moscow Free tour, which I bet should be very well-known among tourists as I saw a big group at the waiting spot in the morning when we arrived. The tour guide did give us an in-depth and interesting introduction to the most important sites and attractions in Moscow around Red Square. We kicked start at a statue in the Varvarka Street, and then we moved on to the Romanovs Chambers, arrived at the Red Square, and then the guide gave a nice narration for the St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin Mausoleum, the Senate Palace, and so on. The walking tour is only about 2 hours and it does not include entrances to these key locations (and you must enter the Kremin and Saint Basil Cathedral). Our journey continued after a short break in GUM the shopping mall and we walked towards the Kazan Cathedral to the Kremlin entrance where the tour ended.
The key takeaway from our guide at the end of the tour is that there are three “must-sees” in Moscow, I have to say my itinerary covered a little bit more than these three, but I do agree that these are the most impressive.
1. Kremlin 2. Moscow Metro 3. Moscow Free Tour
All in all, this tour covers a great deal of Moscow classics, and travelers should (like us) definitely explore them one by one afterward! Visiting the metro station could take a day and I have some tips about how to design your own subway tour in Moscow. Here are some of the key places not to miss in the area:
Red Square is the centerpiece of Moscow as it’s surrounded by landmarks and important sites.
When people were asked why the square was named “Red”, the idea of the red bricks on the Kremlin Wall, the red State Historical Museum, or even communism came up. In fact, the square was named ‘red’ because in Russian, ‘красная’ means either ‘red’ or ‘beautiful’. Of course, how could it not be? The square is entirely surrounded by significant Russian architecture – monuments, Lenin’s Mausoleum, prestigious department store, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, State Historical Museum, and the Kremlin … there were events and concerts held in the square sometimes!
St Basil’s Cathedral
Of all the ‘onions’ that existed on earth, I believe Saint Basil’s onions were the most iconic and memorable. Although basil typically tastes the best with tomatoes, the St Basil’s is shined with 8 flamboyant onions popping around the tallest church in the center. and it is one of my top cathedrals in the world!
The uniqueness of its beauty was based on a legend that Ivan the Terrible, the Tsar who ordered the build in 1555, gorged out the architect’s eyes in order to prevent him from re-creating the masterpiece elsewhere. Truth be told, I think even the finest artists would find it impossible to replicate anything like this – it’s like Gaudi couldn’t even finish Sagrada Familia with his whole life, and da Vinci could only paint one Mona Lisa.
Now, the cathedral is not a cathedral anymore, it is a museum. I am not sure if it was the Kremlin or GUM that looked so massive, or it really was true; my first impression of the Saint Basil’s Cathedral was kind of …. tiny. Once I got into the museum it didn’t have a grand hall that most cathedrals had and instead, there were passages that connected us to different rooms of different churches. Each tower is a ‘church’ and technically, there is a total of 9 churches in Saint Basil’s (the churches actually consisted of eight churches around the central core.). Anyway, the small size was made up of amazing frescos and valuable artifacts on display. The museum has 2 floors – the ground floor is the foundation of the building and the churches are on the second floor.
Interestingly, though, the layout of the cathedral was in perfect symmetry – a core in the center, four middle-sized churches built on the four compass points, and other smaller churches diagonally placed between the middle-sized churches. With multiple colors, sizes, and careful placements, the architectural wonder looks great and different from any angle and distance.
The onion domes are a distinct feature of Russian architecture and check out What You May Not Know about the Magnificent Onion Domes in Russia.
GUM, (The Russian looks like “rym” to me, all the time), is the department store located right on the opposite of the Kremlin, and it has been nothing but enlightened the beautiful square. The entire department store is big and it has an impressive interior. The building is in 4 rows, and the staircases connected each row and floor like a maze. We didn’t spend much time shopping around the international brands, but we did have some quality time looking around in the higher-end supermarket on the ground floor, and a café lunch in one of the thousands of cafés in the mall.
GUM is outlined with lights like a Moulin Rouge. It looks completely different during the day.
Travel tips in Moscow:
- Getting a data pre-paid sim card in Moscow is easy and cheap! There are two main airports in Moscow, SVO and DME (and as I know DME is actually the bigger one). Anyway, we landed on SVO (Sheremetyevo International Airport) and it has 6 terminals already. Once we got through the luggage claim, we spotted money exchange and phone card booths right at the entrance. We told the service people that we wanted pre-paid data cards. We showed our passports and we had a local high-speed LTE connection in 5 minutes (for 400 rubles!)It is more than enough for a week in Moscow Instagram-ing, Facebook-ing, Google mapping, Google Translate, and lots and lots of web browsing. Note that Saint Petersburg is in a different data zone and the data rates are different. We had an excursion to Saint Petersburg and our data used up pretty fast. Get a new sim card in Saint Petersburg if necessary. Actually, stores are everywhere and it opens late, we stayed in a hostel and the lady was very nice to show us where to find an ATM machine nearby to recharge our phone cards. Get a new sim card in Saint Petersburg if necessary. Actually, stores are everywhere and it opens late, we stayed in a hostel and the lady was very nice to show us where to find an ATM machine nearby to recharge our phone cards.
- There are lots of money exchange booths at the airport, and more could be found in the city center or around train stations. The rates fluctuate quite a lot and they are different in and out of check-in zones at the airport. Money exchange places in the city offer a better rate. In general, the exchange rates in Moscow were better than in Saint Petersburg. Get some cash at the airport but look for a better deal in the city later. It’s better to use Euros but those street stores would inspect your dollar bills and they DO NOT accept Euros with any kind of markings or writings on it.
- Taxi ride in Russia is generally cheap as compared to other western European cities. Don’t forget to negotiate. We used mobile apps to get an idea of the taxi fare to our destinations before hailing a cab. My experience was to start bargaining from half the price the driver offered you (I have also met some pretty honest drivers and didn’t need to bargain, though). Just follow your guts and don’t be afraid to say no. They will usually cave after you close the car door – unless you ask for an unreasonably low price.
- The language barrier exists.
The local service people I met are struggled with speaking English. Sometimes they just say ‘No’ – so be prepared to hear a lot of ‘No’ on the way. Russians are, in my view, actually friendly and willing to help. They just don’t smile. Just be patient, use body language and Google translate, it will be fine in a lot of situations.
- I have heard a lot of stories about Russian policemen and safety in Moscow. In my experience, it looked the same to me as any typical European city. I didn’t feel dangerous walking in the streets day or Just taking the usual precautions and behaving normally you are generally safe.
C.D.L. – Dine with the Writers
It was our last traveling night in Moscow and we were looking for a nice place for dinner. We finally chose C.D.L.; and with a little help from the Google map, we found this place with ease. C.D.L. is called the “Central House of Writers”. It was built, according to the website, in the year 1887 by the order of Prince Boris Svyatopolk-Chetvertinsky.
When I heard of “House of Writers”, it sounded a little out of reach. Looking at the classic and elegant mansion and its list of clientele – former U.S Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush… it sounded harder for me to imagine this is an affordable but classy high-end restaurant in the center of Moscow.
C.D.L. though truly welcomed any guests, and one could also enjoy a traditional and elegant Russian cuisine, with good value. The house once served as the headquarters for Moscow’s Freemasons in the 19th century. Now, the interior décor is mindfully renovated to capture the old glamour with some modern touches. The windows were installed with stain glass, old paintings were hanging on the wall, and a chandelier with glistening crystals was on the ceiling – a sneak peeks of the Russian’s history and tradition; the partition, however, was in modern and minimalistic geometric shapes, and the light fixtures were silver and shiny.
The house has been an important meeting place for writers in the year of communism while novelists like Leo Tolstoy mentioned this very place in “War and Peace”; and it does make it special, that the restaurant has kept a few private spots for celebrities or VIPs to gather. The waiters would offer guests a tour of the restaurant if necessary while they could speak fluent English with the interesting story and history of the place.
The dishes in the restaurant were tasty and delicate; the plating was modern and mindful; happily, the price was not high at all! I couldn’t drink, and interestingly the manager came over with a cart later in the meal and offered us a treat of their homemade wine. They were chilled and it has a really special taste. ~ We chose the wine that was made of Serbia nuts to go with my beef. I wonder how to make wine with nuts?