As we woke up the first morning of our late September city break Moscow and opened the curtains at our Penta Hotel room’s window we saw a quiet, empty street below.
The golden-onion domed Savior of the Christ glimmered in the morning light not far away to the left. One of the famous Russian gothic and baroque style skyscrapers, “seven sisters” was visible to the right hand direction. This landmark at the end of Old Arbat Street is Ministry of Foreign Affairs (see photo below).
Moscow’s buildings have the most interesting stories to tell, the ones we were looking at are no exeptions. The original Savior of the Christ, for example, was destroyed in 1931 by Stalin. One more Stalinist monolith, in the style of the seven sisters, had been planned on this site, but the project was never finished. Instead, the area was converted to an open-air swimming pool, the largest in the world. The current church was opened in 2000.
In 2012 the punk band Pussy Riot put up a guerrilla performance at this particular church, not far from the mighty Kremlin. Criticizing the Orthodox church and the government wasn’t tolerated well. All three members were arrested and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.
City Break Moscow: The Arrival
We arrived Moscow Sheremetyevo International airport, one of the three International airports within the city, from Helsinki, Finland. It takes less than two hours to fly from Finland to Moscow, but depending on the traffic jams the drive to city can take an hour and a half, even more.
It’s something we like to do, take a taxi from the airport even in the cities where we’d have other more convenient options. The taxi drive let’s us see the suburbs, highways and industrial areas surrounding the actual city.
Looking at the map of Moscow we noticed the history of the urban development can be traced following the ring roads. Outside central Moscow, around and in between the ring roads, we could see numerous massive suburbs. The colossal high-rises are built as groups that form somewhat cheerless concrete forests.
We tried to count the number of the buildings, but lost count. If one ends up there, the ”Stranger in Moscow” by Michael Jackson should be the soundtrack.
Moscow these days is an urban juxtaposition of a modern metropolis over a historical, woven city pattern. A real, omnipresent mashup. There’s the Medieval layer, the Soviet era monoliths and the 21st century glass ceiling sky scrapers. And everything in between. Moscow is like an onion. Or the famous souvenir, Matryoshka.
The actual center of history, culture, science, power, diplomacy and fashion is on a relatively small area, with Kreml and Red Square as the historical heart. What really surprised us was how familiar so many architectural elements felt everywhere in Moscow. There is, of course, a number of good explanations that can be traced back to our own country’s history next to and under the rule of the neighboring nation.
Arbat, a perfect location
To make sure we would not have to start the days by hunting for something to eat first, we had booked our three-night stay with breakfast for everyone in our group (us two + two of our associates).
Penta Hotel buffet was a combo of local and western breakfast items. From the Russian kitchen there was for example a collection of different types of cold fish, baked specialities and porridge. A real treat were the sweet cottage cheese pancakes, syrniki, made with quark that had raisins added for subtle, extra flavor. A common way to enjoy these staple breakfast items seemed to be combining them with rasberry jam or sour cream.
We sat enjoying our Tuesday morning breakfast at the breakfast room, before heading to World Food, the largest international food & beverage trade show in Russia, and talked about our previous evening.
As we arrived Moscow it was freezing. Much colder than the temperatures indicated. The bone chilling, cold wind made sure we wouldn’t spend hours walking outside. Fortunately, our hotel at the New Arbat was only steps away from the pedestrian area of the historic Old Arbat.
After taking our luggage into our rooms we had our first drinks at the lobby of Penta Hotel. They have this fun 3rd floor combo of the hotel reception, lobby bar with a pool table and a restaurant that are all open 24/7. The lobby staff surprised us positively with their language skills. If you are looking for the Moscow old school glamour and glitter, this is not your hotel. But if a combo of a great location and youthful design push your buttons, book a stay.
Old Arbat for Night Owls
The first evening we walked around the Old Arbat, mapping ourselves and checking out bars, something we had decided we want to do during our city break Moscow. We tried to come in terms with the Cyrillic alphabet, something that is actually not that hard to master. Bit by bit we could form words as we looked at the texts in signs and menus. It was, however, a pleasant surprise for us, illiterate foreigners, that many of the places we ended up had an English menu as well. That helped us even more at our Cyrillinc alphabet quest.
After bar hopping and taking photos of famous landmarks, like the baby blue Pushkin House, we ended up having dinner at Hard Rock Cafe (Arbat St, 44/1, Moscow). This was a strategic move as we wanted to buy a collectible teddy bear and ending our evening at the Hard Rock meant we wouldn’t have to carry anything around.
The next evening, we decided, we’d eat at the Zinger Grill Bar (Arbat St. 12, b 2). We had some drinks there earlier the first evening and admired the restaurant kitchen working full steam behind the bar’s glass wall. Food was prepared over an open fire of a specially designed, quirky grill and 90% of the food items go through some degree of grilling at this restaurant. Interior here has an industrial feel, combined with steampunk details and fun antique finds.
Our tip: Come to Old Arbat for early in the morning if you want to take photos of the pastel colored houses in morning light. Come early evening for souvenirs, drinks and dinner.
Moscow traffic is a nightmare
”My boss Italian, from Verona. He has Maybach, he private driver. Taxi driving is no good here in Moscow. London good, Berlin good, Moscow no good.” Our taxi driver was a weather-beaten and wrinkled, elderly man who cursed the local traffic (which is a nightmare) and the low income. However, he didn’t try to charge us extra, the city is notorious for wild pricing and visitors being overcharged. And trust us, this is not just an urban legend.
As we were standing in one of the endless jams on our way to Crocus Expo, the driver drew a picture of a car and wrote 4 500 000 under it. ”Moscow car, Finland?” It took us a moment to understand we were not talking about the prices of cars, but the number of cars in Moscow.
We didn’t have statistics for Finland (in 2018 3 130 640 cars in traffic use), but caused a stunned reflection on our driver’s face as we told we have a population of only about 5,5 million people. Just before leaving us in front of the gigantic convention center and mall combo he said ”You take metro back, OK?”
Our tip: Use the metro, it is efficient and cheap. Plus the stations are works of art. Or book your taxi at the restaurant/hotel reception or use an app. Hailing for a taxi can become expensive. Also, if you don’t know the distance, negotiating a price is useless as there are different kind distance/time combos the different companies use.
However: we like to hire taxi drivers for city tours when possible. Sometimes the language barrier is a problem. Sometimes not; read about our post from Mexico: Cabo San Lucas With a Taxi Driver
Winds of Change in Moscow
The Scorpions have a catchy song of Moscow, a song where they sing about the wind of change. The particular song tells about the end of the Soviet era, but in Moscow, the winds of change have blown constantly in a way or another for hundreds of years.
As we only had a limited time in Moscow and the weather was both freezing and rainy on our third day, we opted for a city hop on-hop off double-decker bus tour instead of walking around. In many big cities the tours have helped us at getting a better understanding of the city structure, historical layers and the modern development and Moscow was no exception.
In Moscow the tour bus earphones and the English audio commentary worked perfectly. We heard numerous interesting stories of Moscow’s winds of change through the centuries. During our tour we heard of the city’s landmarks, onion domes, two headed eagles and the red stars, the famous people (good, bad & ugly), historical events and so on.
We hopped on the first bus at the stop just opposite Arbatskaya metro station, the nearest to our hotel, and hopped off at the same stop. Later we took another line to the Red Square.
Our tip: If you have a tight schedule, we don’t recommend these tours. The traffic doesn’t actually help the buses follow their given schedule.
After the first bus tour we just had to find a place to warm up at and ended up at an Old Arbat food market, serving lunch time diners. Wind of change has obviously brought the international cuisine to Moscow big time, something we had read about quite a lot. Of course, Moscow has got influences from different directions through the centuries, but the international cuisines enjoyed by the ruling class and nobility have been out of reach for most of the Muscovites.
As we sat there, drinking Vietnamese beer from cans, we saw locals carry bowls of spicy Pho, Moroccan tagine dishes, Caucasian rice specialities, and artisanal slices of brick oven pizza.
Later that day we headed to Zinger Grill Bar for dinner and saw how beautifully history and trends were combined: a traditional beet root borshch with grilled beef sirloin, hearty beef stroganoff, home made gourmet burgers, spiced chicken shawarma, tender meat skewers, Georgian khatchapuri bread and fresh hummus were all prepared in the same kitchen. Food is a great indicator of changes.
Kreml and the Red Square: like a moment in a movie
Heart of the city are Kreml and the Red Square on the Borovitsky Hill, on Moskva River left bank. This area that is real eye candy architecturally amplifies everything about the history.
Kremlin and it’s surroundings show traces and echoes of trouble, conspiracy, espionage, revenge, chaos, death and torture. Mayhem has certainly been on the agenda through the centuries. The area is made famous by the real personalities of past and present, but several movies have used this place as a filming location, as well. Standing at the Red Square felt more than a little surreal.
On that freezing September afternoon the Red Square was surprisingly quiet. We took photos of the magnificent buildings surrounding the square, grinned at a group of elderly Chinese ladies posing as marching Soviet soldiers and then made our way to Cafe Bar Bosco by the Red Square, inside the stunning, upscale 19th century shopping mall GUM.
This classic Grand Café with marble top tables and servers in white jackets matched the movie-set kinda experience perfectly. We sipped our hot, spiced glühwein topped with candied apple & orange and listened the pianist play old Russian songs and famous musical tunes.
Yes, it was surreal: opposite the café there’s the Lenin’s mauseleum, where the deceased, preserved dictator can be visited free of charge. A macabre, yet a very real place of interest. At the other end of the wide square the Alice in Wonderland kind of a creation, the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, Saint Basil’s Cathedral. The symbol of the country.
And behind the walls of Kreml the priceless treasures and works of art ranging from the largest collection of imperial Fabergé eggs and crown jewels to detailed swords, armour, elaborate dresses, insignia and royal carriages. We would have not been surprised if James Bond had walked in.