The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Russia: Greg Tepper of Exeter International.
Soon after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Greg established himself as a leader in high-end, hassle-free travel to Russia and Eastern Europe. Today he has offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Prague, and London. He and his team troubleshoot everything for you—they even pre-book all museum visits so you can skip the lines—and negotiate upgrades and other perks at the best hotels in the country. Thanks to his extensive connections on the ground and friends in high places, he can also get you inside Russia’s most exclusive venues that are off-limits to the general public. Think the Grand Kremlin Palace, where Russia’s president entertains visiting heads of state, and the Hermitage’s storerooms, which contain four-fifths of the museum’s possessions, including not-to-be-missed imperial carriages and Romanov treasures.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
A Club Room at the Ritz Carlton is worth the price, especially if you book Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights when rates are half the weekday rate. With connections, you may get one of the six top-floor rooms with floor-to-ceiling views of Red Square. At a minimum, you’ll have the Club Lounge from which you can enjoy this view, along with unending cocktails, snacks and treats all day long (and this goes a long way in a city that offers plenty of $40 cocktails). Exeter guests at the Ritz Carlton often get upgrades at check-in and unbeatable rates, especially on the weekends.
Restaurants the locals love
Everyone recommends Café Pushkin for a reason. It’s beautiful inside, and while not authentic, it does envelop its diners in eighteenth-century Moscow. Open 24 hours a day, Pushkin is always buzzing with locals. It’s walkable from most top hotels, so you don’t have to deal with the notoriously unscrupulous cabdrivers. Order the pelmeni (dumplings), handmade daily.
Best spot for a drink
O2, the Ritz Carlton’s rooftop bar, has sweeping views of the Kremlin and Red Square. Order a local vodka on ice and sip it at sunset when the crimson stars light up on the Kremlin walls and the golden-domed cathedrals inside sparkle their brightest. Not exactly cheap but worth the $40 investment.
What to See and Do
The rural village of Suzdal is one of the most beautiful sites in the Golden Ring, the circuit of medieval towns northeast of Moscow. A monastic center during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, Suzdal has a magnificent collection of twelfth- and thirteenth-century public and religious buildings. One of my favorite things to do here is to have dinner with a local family, where we sit on the porch overlooking their organic garden. This is a taste of Russia that you can’t experience in the big cities.
Before the Soviet era, Arbat Street was one of the most desirable addresses in Moscow; today it is a gauntlet of chain restaurants (McDonald’s, anyone?), overpriced stacking dolls, and pickpockets. If you want to stroll, go to Kuznetsky Most—you can probably walk there from your hotel—where you’ll find not only tourists but also plenty of Muscovites shopping, loitering in cafés, and having dinner before the theater. Likewise skip the GUM department store unless you are interested in Prada, Gucci or Loro Piana—you’ll find nothing unique inside.
Enter the Grand Kremlin Palace, the no-go section of the Kremlin, used by the president to sign treaties and entertain foreign dignitaries. Built for the tsars, this palace is overwhelming in its opulence and has never looked better after a total restoration in the early 2000s. Access is allowed only with permission of the commandant of the Kremlin—in other words, you need connections and financial power. Expect to pay approximately $4,500 for one to 18 people to enter, but it will truly be your most memorable experience in Moscow.
Once-tawdry Gorky Park has been reborn, thanks to a recent overhaul, and is now an inviting green space along the Moscow River. If the weather is nice you’ll find locals and tourists here year-round, skating, sunbathing, strolling the riverfront, and checking out the latest exhibit at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. In summer, take a picnic on one of the river cruises.
Take an architectural stroll through central Moscow with a historian. I like to do this with a friend of mine who is the leading expert on the Moscow metro system. He knows the history of just about every building in the city, and his stories turn the city into an unforgettable step back in time. If you have a small group, we can arrange for a private tram to use for your historic romp.
October through May. Time your visit to take advantage of weekend perks: Every museum is open on Saturday and Sunday, but because Moscow is primarily a business city, hotels at all levels drop their rates to half-price as Russian guests leave for the suburbs, and the epic traffic jams subside.
June through August, when the city is full of tourists and temperatures climb. In July and August, the Bolshoi Theater is dark, and you’ll miss the opera, ballet, and symphony that are among Moscow’s main attractions. Whatever the season, be aware that midweek is when many museums close (the Kremlin locks up on Thursdays), and rooms are dear since every hotel is overbooked, especially in spring (May–June) and fall (September–October).
Ordering a cocktail or wine with dinner. Cocktails start at $20 and easily go to $40 at most restaurants. Imported wine is many times more expensive than it is at home. Do as the locals do and order vodka with your meal. Springing for the black caviar. In most restaurants it’s contraband, of shaky quality and horribly overpriced. The days of cheap black caviar in Russia are long over, so enjoy it at home after your trip.
During your rooftop Ritz Carlton drink at sunset, whip out your camera and get the whole family with Red Square in the background.
I love the traditional hand-carved wooden toys that hail from the Bogorod region. Each represents a different Russian fairy tale harkening back to a time before Xbox and television cartoons. You will see these in many tourist shops, so look for themes that interest you, especially the bears.
Never hail a taxi on the street, as the drivers are universally scam artists. The industry is completely unregulated and unpoliced in Russia, and you will be overcharged or worse. Use only a hotel car or one of the local car services that are booked online or by phone. If you are working with a tour operator, use a car that it provides when necessary, but remember that the Moscow metro system is the best in the world and easy to use with a guide by your side (most signage is still only in Cyrillic).
This is not a tipping city, so tip no more than 10 percent at restaurants and always in cash. If you leave the tip on your credit card slip, your server is unlikely to get it.