In a recent survey of world cities based on Tripadvisor user reviews, Moscow was rated the third worst for tourists. Even its most staunch defender would have to admit that the Russian capital is expensive, bewildering and entirely indifferent to visitors. But, given the right attitude and a bit of insider knowledge, you’ll be laughing all the way to the Kremlin. Here’s 10 Moscow tourist Dos and Don’ts.
1. Do: avoid the following places
Unless you’re indulging in extreme 1990s nostalgia tourism, or have a penchant for stuffy, crowded malls, leave the Okhotny Ryad shopping experience undisturbed underground. Arbat too is not the storied thoroughfare it’s billed as, just an army of overpriced matryoshkas huddling for warmth between fast-food restaurants and artistically dubious statues. And finally… in case it wasn’t glaringly obvious, avoid any nightclub with free entry for women, a disco ball on the flyer, or more than three black 4x4s parked outside.
2. Do: learn to love bad service
Tourist (in passable Russian): “Hi, hello, could I, do you think, possibly, please have some chewing gum, if you have any, please?”
Russian shop assistant: *Finishes long text message. Sighs loudly. Stands up. Silently slams chewing gum down on counter.* “30.”
You will, without fail, experience some eye-wateringly bad service in Russia. No amount of charm or bolshiness will deter your server from their chosen path of surly intransigence. Just go with it. Relish it. They’re not nice to you and you don’t have to be nice to them. Free yourself from the burden of superficial pleasantries; revel in the functional purity of your new dialogue: “Give me gum.”
This won’t, unfortunately, save you from the aeon-long wait for your bill. Take a book or threaten to leave.
3. Don’t: drive
Outside of the hours of darkness and weekends, avoid travelling by car at all costs. Thousands of political prisoners slaved away to build the world’s finest metro system: a beautiful, speedy reliable urban transport solution. Use it, don’t stew for hours in one of Moscow’s legendary traffic jams. That said, unlike in London or Paris, the distance between metro stops is calculated in light-years, not metres. You can’t walk between them. Plus, speeding along Moscow’s deserted mid-town motorways at 2am is one of life’s great pleasures — a joy best experienced in the back of a random old Lada you’ve flagged down, to a soundtrack of Armenian house music. (Exercise caution when travelling in unlicensed taxis: haggle, don’t travel alone, don’t talk about politics, pretend to know about football.)
4. Don’t: stay in a hotel
There are only are about five of them, they’re ludicrously expensive and, with the exception of the service (see point 2), they’re as bland as blancmange. If you’re a genuine tourist, not a business visitor with the company credit card, go for an Airbnb apartment; it’s cheaper and you’ll get a bit of a feel for Russia’s unique flair for interior design.
5. Do: make friends before you go
It’s truth-in-stereotypes time: Russians are brusque and indifferent to strangers, but lump-in-your-throat lovely to their friends. So, make some friends. That doesn’t mean, however, ambling over to a vertiginous blonde with a drink in your hand and a smile on your face. Choose one of your interests (craft beer, Kraftwerk, witchcraft, whatever), reach out online to the relevant, impossibly dedicated Moscow subculture and, by the time you’ve swapped a few emails, you’ll have a friend for life and a tour-guide/drinking buddy for the weekend.
6. Don’t: come in November or March
As both Napoleon and Hitler would tell you, when planning a trip to Russia, don’t forget about the weather. November: freezing, driving rain tearing your umbrella to shreds before collecting in lake-sized puddles on the streets. March: the snow melts, revealing dead grass polka-dotted with tramp corpses and dog shit, before collecting in lake-sized puddles on the streets.
7. Don’t: mix business with pleasure
If you’re a suit-clad go-getter in town to “optimise multi-platform strategic learning opportunities” or to snaffle your slice of the giant carbon and corruption pie that is Russia, don’t be tempted to extend your stay. Doing business can in Russia can be a thoroughly dispiriting adventure — one that doesn’t sit well with a relaxing city mini-break. After familiarising yourself with the Muscovite fondness for working nights, texting during meetings and disregarding contractual obligations, you’ll have no appetite for 18th-century ecclesiastical architecture. Come back later, without your business cards, and enjoy the city.
8. Do: steal wifi
You’re sad because your faithful smartphone has been castrated by the lack of mobile data. But fear not: every third building in Moscow is home to either a Shokoladnitsa or a Coffee House, soulless and expensive coffee chains overflowing with delicious free wifi. Only enter if you need the toilet or a $10 cup of tea; instead prop yourself up under the eaves and browse to your heart’s content, or (see point 9) go back on Google Maps.
9. Don’t: assume knowing the address is enough
The naming and numbering system of Moscow streets is as sporadic as it is incomprehensible. No 15 Mificheskaya Street, Building 7a may be located hundreds of metres from the road itself, behind two guarded checkpoints and a florist. No passers-by will have ever heard of it. To ensure you get where you want, spend at least two hours trawling through Google Streetview or demand that you only meet people at easy-to-find landmarks like the Pushkin statue on Tverskaya Street or the Lenin impersonator by Red Square.
10. Do: get ill
Every building in Moscow that is not an overpriced coffee shop or a cut-price sushi trough is a pharmacist. Russians are fabled hypochondriacs, meaning that their drugstores offer a cornucopia of powerful over-the-counter meds served up with an intimidating frown by a woman in a white coat. Your fever will flee for the hills in the face of a chemical barrage that’s probably banned in the EU.
Sing or dance in a church wearing a balaclava; attempt to hold free and fair elections; or run an independent media outlet — but, hey, you’re on holiday, relax.
For more hard-to-find spots in Moscow and other Russia cities download our New East Travel Guide app. For recommendation on where to stay in Russia and beyond, check out our edit of amazing hotels and hostels across the New East.