“What savages! To annoy me they burn down their own cities!” Napoleon is supposed to have said after the Russians razed Moscow to the ground in 1812 rather than hand it over to the French Emperor. This is a useful metaphor for a phoenix city that is at once enduring and constantly being reborn.
200 years later, after cataclysmic wars and revolutions that would break most countries, Moscow stands unbowed. Indeed, given the city’s endless capacity to reinvent itself, even those who last visited a decade ago will be surprised.
Of course the old sights remain, from the epic Stalinist architecture of the “Seven Sisters” to the world famous Bolshoi Theatre, with Red Square, Lenin’s Mausoleum, the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral sandwiched in between.
Many of these are testament to Moscow’s often brutal past, indeed, the architect of St Basil’s Cathedral was, according to legend, blinded by Ivan the Terrible in order that he might never replicate the masterpiece.
A thriving capital
But these eternal features of the Muscovite landscape mask the pace of change. Unlike the rest of Russia, which has experienced an economic crisis over the last few years, with Western sanctions and a falling oil price slowing growth, Moscow has continued to boom. It is Europe’s largest city and also one of its richest.
Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has overseen a transformation of its major boulevards, rebuilt Gorky Park, made the river accessible to cyclists, and installed an “outer ring” metro line, making the sprawling city far better connected. None of this, however, has solved Moscow’s biggest problem – endless, seething traffic.
Moscow is bright, loud, and gaudy. Extravagant displays of wealth, while not as common as they once were, are still noticeable. Watch out for flash cars, immaculately dressed women, and hotel prices that are through the roof.
That said, the city is not too hard on the pocket, the devaluation of the Ruble and plentiful migrant labour has forced wages in restaurants and taxis down, meaning that prices for everything except hotels are much lower than in London or Paris and match those of Milan or Barcelona. The lack of any form of workers’ rights legislation ensures that many restaurants and bars are open 24 hours/day.
Eating and drinking
Nightlife in Moscow can be wild. A proliferation of craft beer and cocktail bars has ensured that drinks lovers will find it almost impossible to be disappointed.
Good quality pubs, bars and clubs can be found all over the city, but as a guide head to Patriarshy Prudiy for cocktail bars with young, rich professionals; Chistye Prudiy/Kitai-Gorod for an indie scene and craft beers; and head to Bolotny Island for more commercial nightclubs.
The so-called “face-control” to enter clubs is legendary. Bouncers are famously capricious and rarely give a reason for a failure to allow entry. Racism is common, with darker skinned or Chinese people commonly targeted by over-zealous doormen.
Despite Kremlin-imposed sanctions, which ban the import of fresh Western food produce into Russia, dining out in Moscow is usually good quality. Almost all tastes are catered for, although good pizza is decidedly difficult to find.
For the fans:
The World Cup fan park is set in the picturesque Vorobyovy Gory (or Sparrow Hills), next to the towering, Stalin-era university and just across the river from Luzhniki Stadium. Moscow’s other World Cup venue – Spartak Moscow’s Otkritiye Arena – is located in the Northwest of the city.
With the city hosting eleven games during the tournament, Moscow really should come to life this June.
Unless you plan to spend the World Cup hot, sweaty and bored out of your mind. Don’t even think about driving around the city during the daytime.
Read before coming:
Master and Margherita – Mikhail Bulgakov