The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts 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 Dubrovnik. 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
An entry-level Standard Park Room at the Ararat Park Hyatt is excellent value, especially if you book Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights when rates are half the weekday rate. These rooms have a stunning view of the Bolshoi Theater, which is just steps away (the more expensive Deluxe Park rooms are slightly larger, but don’t have this view). My guests at the Ararat Park Hyatt get one free night if staying over a weekend. The hotel also has a rooftop Conservatory restaurant with panoramic sight lines over Moscow.
Restaurants the locals love
Moscow has some extraordinary restaurants, but if I had to pick one, it would be the Grand Café Dr. Zhivago. An immediate success since it opened in 2014, this restaurant has it all: a perfect location close to Red Square; stylish décor; and excellent Russian food with a contemporary twist. Popular with Muscovites from all walks of life (and open 24/7), this is one place where it’s essential to make reservations at least a week in advance. Try the housemade pelmeni (Russian ravioli) as an appetizer and the beef stroganoff for an entrée.
Best spot for a drink
With the fairy tale–like St Basil’s Cathedral, the spires of the Kremlin, and the incredible medieval-style Historical Museum, Red Square truly is an awe-inspiring location. Directly opposite the Lenin Mausoleum is Café Bosco; there really isn’t a spot to rival it anywhere in Moscow. The café is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the best tables are on the outside terrace. Enjoy a full meal, or come for a drink and a light snack.
What to See and Do
Everyone associates palaces more with St. Petersburg than Moscow, but just on the outskirts of Moscow are some exceptional estates that belonged to Russian nobility. My favorite is Kuskovo, which was the summer home of the Sheremetev family. The palace is completely original and the gardens and summer outbuildings are gorgeous—they even include a grotto made completely from seashells.
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 instead—you can probably walk there from your hotel—where you’ll find not only tourists but also plenty of Muscovites shopping, enjoying cafés, and having dinner before the theater. Likewise, skip the GUM department store unless you are interested in Prada, Gucci, or Loro Piana. The only uniquely Russian outlet there is the food hall.
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 $2,500 for one to 18 people to enter, but it will truly be your most memorable experience in Moscow.
On the day you arrive in Moscow, a walk to Zaryadye Park is a must. Newly created by Diller Scofidio + Renfro—the architects who designed New York’s High Line—this 32-acre park is astonishing. The concept is “wild urban”: The park is right in the center of the city and merges historical streets with nature. All of Russian geography is showcased here, with the steppe, tundra, forest, wetlands, and even an ice-cave that is maintained year-round. Perhaps the most striking feature, though, is the extraordinary floating bridge. By far the best way to explore Moscow is on foot; take an architectural stroll through central Moscow with a top guide who knows the history of just about every building in the city. Your guide’s stories take you back to different eras of the city’s significant history.
April, May, June, September, and October. 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.
July and August, when the city is full of tourists and temperatures climb. In 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 Monday through Thursday is when many museums close (the Kremlin locks up on Thursdays, most other museums on Monday), and hotel rooms offer less value due to high business demand.
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, with mediocre wines starting at $50 a bottle, and a good one easily costing $100 or more. Do as the locals do and order vodka with your meal.
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. Download the Yandex Taxi app (Yandex merged with Uber in 2018). Alternatively, use a hotel car. 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.