The days of Soviet era queues and shortages are long gone. Moscow is a modern city, full of shops, and just about everything that is available in the West is available here. The Arbat and Tverskaya are the main shopping drags, and are filled with shoppers visiting chic boutiques and other meccas of consumerism. However, high import duties, transportation costs and the relative lack of competition can make some consumer goods more expensive than in the West. The colourful Russian arts and crafts available at many locations throughout the city are popular with visitors as are exotic goods from the ex-Soviet Republics of Central Asia and memorabilia from the Soviet era.
Under the Communist regime, Moscow’s nightlife was practically non-existent and those clubs and bars that did exist were for a privileged elite. Today, nightlife in Moscow is booming. Foreign bands, DJs and performers of all types now visit the city regularly, while the quality of the domestic scene has improved markedly. The variety of venues is similarly impressive and ranges from bars where you can see local rock bands to glitzy casinos and late-night clubs playing the latest techno music. The Russian take on modern dance music is noteworthy, as Russians like to party hard and long into the night. Venues can be packed and prices high, but it is an experience not to be missed.
From June until late September most of Moscow’s concert halls and theatres close and the city’s orchestras, theatre and ballet companies perform elsewhere in Russia and abroad. However, for the rest of the year the city has a rich and varied cultural scene. The Bolshoy Theatre, Moscow’s oldest and most famous opera and ballet house, offers an impressive repertoire. Numerous drama theatres put on a variety of plays in Russian, ranging from the conventional to the avant-garde. For non-Russian speakers there is a wide choice of events, ranging from folk dance and gypsy music to classical concerts by top international musicians. Evening performances at most venues begin at 7pm or 7:30pm, while matinees generally start around midday.
Moscow offers many forms of entertainment, from great theatre productions, operas and ballets to a wide choice of lively nightlife venues. Attending a performance at the Bolshoy remains a must for opera and ballet buffs, although the main stage is closed while undergoing refurbishment. Other theatres put on an enormous range of productions, including musicals and shows for children. Moscow has several cinemas screening foreign-language films. They usually show the latest releases only a few weeks after they are premiered in the West. The city also has over 300 nightclubs and many late-night bars, some of which have live bands. In addition, there is plenty of free entertainment from street performers, especially on ulitsa Arbat.
It is easy to find interesting and beautiful souvenirs in Moscow. Traditional crafts were encouraged by the State in the old Soviet Union, so many age-old skills were kept alive. Artisans today continue to produce items ranging from small, low-cost, enamelled badges through to more expensive hand-painted Palekh boxes, samovars and worked semi-precious stones. Other popular items are lacquered trays and bowls, chess sets, wooden toys and matryosbka dolls. Memorabilia from the Soviet era also make good souvenirs and Russia is definitely the best place to buy the national specialities, vodka and caviar.
Russia’s appetite for Western goods means that Moscow now offers most of the shopping facilities of a large, modern Western city. There are supermarkets, department stores stocking imported goods and exclusive boutiques with French and Italian designer clothes and shoes for the new rich. Moscow’s most interesting shopping districts are located within the Garden Ring. The main department stores are clustered around the city centre near Red Square, while the best souvenir and antique shops can be found along ulitsa Arbat, a charming old pedestrian street. For the more adventurous a trip to the weekend flea market at Izmaylovo Park is a must. Here it is possible to buy everything from Russian dolls and Soviet memorabilia to handmade rugs from Central Asia and antique jewellery.
Although eating out was a rare privilege during the Soviet era, and, in the years immediately after “perestroika” (restructuring), an unaffordable luxury, Russia has been experiencing something of a restaurant boom in recent years. New places open and close every week and include anything from cheap student cafes to exclusive sushi restaurants. All the major cuisines are represented including Russian and modern European, Indian and Chinese, as well as restaurants serving dishes from former Soviet Republics, such as Georgia, Armenia and Uzbek. The hungry visitor should have little trouble finding a place that matches his or her appetite and budget. The following will help to locate some of the best-quality food and most exciting cuisine on offer in all price categories.
The hotel situation in Moscow has improved considerably since Russia became an independent state in 1992. New hotels have been built and grand old residences renovated. These works are likely to continue as Yuriy Luzhkov, the city’s dynamic mayor, has made new accommodation a priority. Despite the improvements, there is still a great shortage of hotels of all types in the city. Worse still, as with much in modern Russian life, expansion tends to have taken place at the top end of the market and there is a shortage in the mid-price range. Prices are liable to rapid change so should always be checked. There are websites that act as accommodation agencies and it is possible to make a reservation at most hotels directly online or by phone. The best method, however, is to book through a travel agent in advance.