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Moscow is an in-your-face metropolis that can often overwhelm with monstrous-sized avenues, unbearable traffic jams, and a 24-hour lifestyle à la New York or London that seems to exclude any peace and harmony. But behind that brash facade is a city that has been built up and knocked down and built up again for centuries and where, with a little guidance, a visitor can find those quiet moments of serenity and beauty.

Moscovites often find themselves in new corners of the city that they have never before seen. Don’t be afaid to wander off the beaten track, for the city, despite its disorganized and chaotic edge, is organized in a clear manner. Russians often call Moscow a bolshaya derevnya or “big village” and the center itself is more compact and vital a place than many other world capitals.

The Kremlin is the heart of Moscow, encircled twice, first by the Bulvarnoye Koltso or Boulevard Ring, a leafy greeny boulevard, split into 10 sections with different names. The next embracing ring is the Sadovoe Koltso (Garden Ring), a huge road that unfortunately holds no resemblance to its name. Moscow’s downtown proper, and most of the city’s famous sights, are within the Boulevard Ring.

Despite their destruction during Soviet times, numerous churches remain in the center, and the sound of church bells resonates on the deserted streets on Sunday morning. If you want to go inside some churches, most are generally open from 8 AM to 8 PM, with exceptions for early or late masses. You can walk most of the areas below on foot, but to be efficient in your tour of the city, especially if you have only a few days, familiarize yourself with the metro system.

Moscow Sights

As you move out from the center of Moscow you’ll encounter historic neighborhoods no longer known by their names, but referred to by main streets or the nearest metro stations. Northeast of the Kremlin-Red Square area is Kitai Gorod, the historic center of the city, rich with palaces and churches. North of the Kremlin is Bely Gorod, or the White City, named after the white-stone ramparts that encircled the area in the 16th century. This neighborhood runs in a semicircle between Kitai Gorod and the Boulevard Ring north of the Moskva River (approximately between the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art and the Yauza River to the east). Bely Gorod includes the first half of Tverskaya ulitsa, Moscow’s main street; Kuznetsky Most, a street famous for its designer shops and the sights around the Tchaikovsky Conservatory on Bolshaya Nikitskaya.

The next main neighborhood is Zemlyanoi Gorod, or “earth city,” historically a humbler area that encircles Bely Gorod running north of the Boulevard Ring to the Garden Ring. The term Zemlyanoi Gorod is never used by locals, who refer to parts of this area by what metro station is closest. Within this neighborhood are the second half of Tverskaya ulitsa, the pedestrian Arbat area, ever popular for strolling, and the U.S. embassy.

South of the Moskva River, the main area of interest is the Zamoskvorechye neighborhood. Among other sights here are the Tretyakov Gallery and several beautiful churches.

Most of Moscow’s major sights, hotels, and restaurants can be found within the above-mentioned neighborhoods. Two other notable neighborhoods are Krasnaya Presnya and Taganka. The former lies to the west and contains the Bely Dom, Victory Park, and, in the southwest, New Maiden’s Convent. Taganka lies in the east and has some beautiful churches.

Moscow Restaurant Reviews

The Moscow restaurant world is slowly growing into the dining scene that a metropolis deserves. Restaurants of all classes and styles are opening every week, with imported foreign chefs battling it out for Moscow’s upper and middle classes. There’s a new breed of restaurants serving Russian fare as the fad for Western food loses some, but by no means all, of its glamour. Ethnic restaurants have arrived as well, and you can sample Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, Latin American, or Turkish any night of the week. Be warned, however, that chef turnover is high in Moscow and that a restaurant can swiftly go downhill or uphill.

Reserve plenty of time for your meal. In Russia dining out is an occasion, and Russians often make an evening (or an afternoon) out of going out to eat, especially at those Moscow showplaces replete with gilded cornices, hard-carved oak, and tinkling crystal. An unhurried splendor is definitely the order of the day.

Prices at high-class restaurants are more expensive than what you’d expect to pay in the United States, although they’re probably comparable to London prices. Almost all the expensive restaurants serve a Sunday brunch, when you can enjoy their haute cuisine and elegant surroundings at greatly reduced prices, usually between $30-$90. Restaurants generally post their prices in conditional units though payment is expected in rubles. Most restaurants link the units to the course of the dollar although linking their prices to the euro is becoming much more common. Some even fix it to their own imaginary course somewhere between that of the dollar and the euro. It’s best to check before you order.

Moscow Hotel Reviews

You might think that a world capital with a population of more than 10 million would have a large number of hotels, but this is not yet the case in Moscow. As Russia comes in from the cold, the city’s hotel scene is expanding slowly, with on average one new major hotel opening a year. A Ritz-Carlton is under construction (scheduled to open in spring 2006) on Tverskaya ulitsa on the site of the former landmark Intourist hotel, demolished in 2002. Another icon of Moscow, the Moskva hotel featured on the label of Stolichnaya vodka—was torn down in 2003. A deluxe hotel is to rise on the same site with a replica facade of the original by 2006.

For travelers able and willing to splurge, Moscow’s top hotels offer a level of amenities and pampering that were unavailable a decade ago. Fine restaurants, business centers, cafés and cocktail bars, health clubs, and attentive service are now the norm at hotels geared to business travelers. Mid-level establishments are improving their facilities and service, too. For example, most now have card keys, and it’s rare to find rooms that are not clean, even if they are a bit tattered.

That noted, the city suffers from a dearth of decent mid-range hotels, and old-style hangovers are still evident at many of these lodgings. Some mid-range spots retain their Soviet decor—mouse-brown carpet, tarnished gold-patterned polyester upholstery, and plywood furniture. Competition among hotels is slowly leading to improvements, but be prepared for a lower level of service than you might expect at home. When reserving, it really pays to ask for a room that has been renovated; the cost is usually the same and the difference can be startling, particularly in the lower-price hotels. If it matters, you should also ask whether your double room has twin beds or one large one; either is possible.

The city’s best hotels can—and do—charge high rates that are mostly paid by travelers with expense accounts. Many of these hotels often offer steeply discounted weekend rates. Budget properties are available, though they generally have few amenities and are some distance from the city center. Hotels generally list their prices in conditional units (linked to that day’s dollar rate).

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