Moscow is not as difficult for visitors to find as it may seem at first. Certainly, the city is vast, street names and signs are in Cyrillic, and the traffic can be formidably heavy, especially in the centre. On the other hand, there is an excellent metro system, and passers-by and people working in hotels, restaurants and shops will usually help foreigners. However, it is a good idea for visitors to familiarize themselves with the Cyrillic alphabet in order to decipher signs.
With tourism still a fledgling industry in Moscow, some tourist facilities, such as information services, are fairly basic. The first port of call for visitors wanting information about events and practicalities should be their hotel. Surprisingly, Moscow can be one of the most expensive cities in the world to visit. While public transport is cheap, hotels, restaurants and theatre tickets can cost more than their Western equivalents. It is always worth enquiring about the price before booking something.
There are no conventional tourist information offices in Moscow, so hotels are the main source of guidance for visitors. Concierges in Western-style hotels, such as the Radisson-Slavyanskaya, National, Baitschug Kempinski and Metropol, will provide assistance. All the large hotels, both Western-style and Russian-run, will book theatre tickets, but will add commission. Most also have a flight-booking service, accepting payment by credit card, or will put visitors in touch with a travel agency. The advice of Russian-run hotels on sights and restaurants is often indifferent, but the English-language press, particularly The Moscow Times and The Exile, has details of most exhibitions, events and opening hours.
Hotels can book places on group guided tours and day trips in several languages. Alternatively, agencies offer a wide range of themed tours, including trips around the city and special trips to more out-of-the-way places. Patriarshiy Dom Tours in Moscow organizes tours in English, including trips around the KGB Museum, the Kremlin and State Armoury, as well as hiking expeditions. Tours should generally be booked at least 48 hours in advance.
Many museums and theatres charge foreigners considerably higher admission fees than Russians, although still well within European and North American norms. Those that do include the Tretyakov Gallery, the State Armoury, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the Bolshoy Theatre. Schoolchildren and students are entitled to discounts. Credit cards are never accepted at sights.
The ticket office, recognizable by the kacca (kassa) sign, is often some distance away from the entrance to the sight; staff at the entrance will point you in its direction.
Most museums have standard opening hours, from 10 or 10:30am to 6pm, but ticket offices may close earlier than the museums. The majority of museums close one day a week and one day a month for cleaning. All museums open on Sundays. Some cathedrals and churches are always open, but others only open for services.
Attending an Orthodox church service is a fascinating experience. The most important services take place on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings, and on religious holidays. In general, services run for several hours. Russian churches do not have any chairs, and the congregation is expected to stand. It is acceptable for visitors to drop in on a service for a while, but certain dress rules must be observed. Shorts are not acceptable. Men must remove their hats, while women should cover their chest and shoulders and preferably wear a headscarf or hat. Although acceptable in town churches, women wearing trousers are likely to be refused entry to monasteries.
Cyrillic is the alphabet of the Russian language. It is named after Cyril, the monk who in 860-70 invented the alphabet from which it developed. Various systems for transliterating Cyrillic into Roman characters exist, but they do not differ enough to cause confusion.
Many Russians who regularly come into contact with visitors can speak some English. However, a knowledge of even one or two words of Russian on the part of visitors will be taken as a sign of respect and much appreciated.
Russian manners and attitudes more Westernized, but the linguistic distinction between the formal “you” (vy) and informal “you” (ty) remains strictly in force. On public transport, young men are expected to give up their seats to the elderly or families with young children.
Smoking and drinking are popular pastimes. Frequent toasts are required to justify the draining of glasses. When invited to someone’s home, the toast za khozyayku (to the hostess) or za khozyaina (to the host) should always be offered by the visitor.
Many Russians are superstitious. Most prefer not to shake hands across the threshold of a doorway and, if someone accidentally steps on a friend’s toes, the injured party pretends to step back on the perpetrator’s toes.
Roubles are the only valid currency in Russia. Some large shops and hotels may display prices in US dollars or euros, but all cash payments must be in roubles only. Credit cards are accepted in some restaurants and most hotels, but rarely in shops, except for those selling imported goods at much higher prices than abroad.
Tipping is a matter of choice, but baggage handlers at the airport and train stations may ask exorbitant sums. Visitors should simply pay what they consider to be appropriate.
Russian addresses are given in the following order: post code, city, street name, house (dom) number and, finally, apartment (kvartira) number. If a flat is part of a complex, a korpus (k) number will also be given to indicate which block it is in. When visiting a flat, it is useful to know which entrance (podezd) to the block to use.
After the Revolution of 1917, many streets were renamed to avoid imperial connotations or to commemorate new Soviet heroes. Since perestroika most streets in the centre have officially reverted to their pre-1917 names. This initially caused confusion as people would use the Soviet names, forgetting that street signs now show the original ones. However, such post-Soviet confusion is now a thing of the past.
Visitors from almost all countries will need a visa. Only those from CIS member states (excluding the Baltic states) are exempt. All visitors travelling to Moscow should check their requirements before departing. Visa formalities are confusing. There are three types: business (for visitors who have been invited by an organization), private (for those who have been invited to stay at a private address) and tourist (for those intending to stay at a hotel or hotels).
For those on package tours tourist visas will be arranged by the tour companies. For independent travellers, the easiest way to obtain a visa is to pay a modest fee and get a specialist agent to arrange it.
Alternatively, apply to the Russian embassy. Independent tourist visa applications must be supported with appropriate documentation (be sure to find out exactly what this is) as well as proof of pre-booked hotel accommodation. Holders of a private visa have to show an invitation endorsed by OVIR, the Visa and Registration Department, at their host’s local police station.
Visas normally take around 6-8 days to process but, if speed is important, express service for an extra fee is available. The cost of a visa depends on the length of its validity as well as how soon it is required. Overstaying, however, can lead to a hefty fine or having to remain until an extension is obtained. More information is available at our “Russian Visa Guide” section.
Passports and visas are thoroughly checked at immigration desks. All visitors have to fill out a customs declaration form on arrival, which is available in various languages (some airlines hand them out on the plane). On the form you are asked to state how much currency you have and any valuables you may have with you. The form is rarely checked, but should be kept for the duration of your stay and handed back together with another declaration form at departure.
It is illegal to take roubles out of Russia (nor are they allowed in). There are no limits on how much foreign hard currency may be brought in, but visitors will be expected to have less when they leave (to prove they have been buying rather than selling). Valuables such as jewellery and computers should be declared on the customs form on entry, otherwise duty may be levied on them on leaving. Departure customs are generally stricter then in other countries, particularly in regard to art and antiques.
Officially, all foreigners are supposed to register with OVIR, the Visa and Registration Department, within three days of their arrival. Hotels can do this for guests. Non-registration is rarely a problem, but sometimes people are fined or ordered to get their paperwork in order, if the authorities become suspicious of them.
Every country that has diplomatic relations with Russia has an embassy or consulate in Moscow. Anyone intending to reside in Russia for longer than three months is advised to register with their own one. Should a visitor be robbed, hospitalized, imprisoned or otherwise rendered helpless, the embassy or consular officials will then be able to help, for instance with interpretation, or at least to give advice. They can reissue passports and, in some cases, provide emergency money.
Moscow has few facilities for the disabled. Public transport is difficult to access; steps and narrow doors are everywhere and lifts are rare. It is advisable to phone in advance to check if a tourist sight has full disabled access.
Russians adore children, and those accompanying visitors to Moscow are likely to attract plenty of compliments. On the other hand, it is not unknown for Russian grannies (babushki) to be overly inquisitive and even to offer critical, though well-meaning, remarks on the way they are dressed.
Children under six travel free on public transport, but older ones pay the full price. Museums are free for toddlers and babies, and offer concessions to schoolchildren.
Few cafes and bars have facilities, and public toilets on the street are not pleasant. It is often best to find the nearest foreign hotel or a pay toilet in, say, a department store. These are usually very cheap. Though the lady who takes the money also hands out rations of toilet paper here, it is always a good idea to carry your own.
The electrical current in Russia is 220 V. Two-pin plugs are needed, but some of the old Soviet two-pin sockets do not take modern European plugs, which have thicker pins. Hotels all have modern sockets. Adaptors are best bought before travelling, but those for old-style plugs are found only in Russia. US appliances need a 220:110 current adaptor.
There are no longer any serious restrictions on what visitors are allowed to photograph (unless you want to take aerial pictures). Expect to have to pay for the right to take photos or use a video camera in museums.
Moscow time is three hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Russia has recently come into line with the rest of Europe, putting its clocks forward by an hour at the end of March, and back again in October.
Despite lurid worldwide reporting on the mafia, crime in Moscow is no worse than in any big city. Petty crime should be the visitor’s only concern, but even this can usually be avoided if sensible precautions are taken. For language reasons, it is a good idea to have a card with your Russian address written on it for use in taxis and emergencies. Medical insurance is essential. Although many medicines are readily available, local healthcare compares poorly with Western care and English-speaking services and medical evacuation are very expensive.
Every visitor should take out travel insurance. Once in Moscow, visitors can avoid pickpockets by not carrying money in open pockets or displaying large sums of money in public; bags should be kept closed and roubles kept apart from foreign currency and credit cards. It is advisable to cary a small sum of money for purchases, and to keep the rest separately or at the hotel.
It is best not to stop for gypsies who sometimes frequent Tverskaya ulitsa and the central metro stations, apparently begging. Hold tight to valuables and walk determinedly on without aggression.
Travellers’ cheques have the advantage that they are insured against loss or theft. However, if they are stolen this should be reported immediately to the issuing company as they can easily be “laundered” in Russia.
It is absolutely essential to report thefts to the police in order to obtain certificates for insurance claims. It is best to report first to hotel security staff who can usually provide interpreters or deal with the whole matter. Embassies will deal with serious situations.
The greatest danger for visitors comes from thieves who might become violent if they encounter resistance. As in any country, it is advisable to hand over belongings if they are demanded with menace.
The mafia, though widespread, has scant contact with foreigners, particularly tourists, who are generally much poorer than Russian businessmen.
Women on their own may be approached by kerbcrawlers, who are best ignored, and may be propositioned if alone in bars and restaurants. At night, it is safer to use taxis booked in advance rather than those hailed on the street. The metro is also safe.
Other threats come from local drivers, who see pedestrians as a nuisance, and from manhole covers, which have a tendency to rock wildly or collapse when stepped on.
Several kinds of police operate on Moscow’s streets. They change uniform: according to the weather, wearing fur hats and big coats in winter. The normal police or militsiya, who always carry guns, are the most frequently seen. The riot police or OMON (otryad militsii osobgo naznacbeniya) are rarely seen on the streets anc dress in camouflage. Totally separate are the traffic police, or GIBDD (gosudarstvennaya inspekcia bezopasnosti dorozhnovo dvizhenia). Recognizable by their striped truncheon, they may stop any vehicle to check the driver’s documents. Both the militsiya and GIBDD supplement their incomes by picking people up on minor offences, such as jay-walking. It is usually best to pay the “fine”, which is about the equivalent of five or ten dollars.
Pharmacies in Russia are all signed by the word “Apteka” and usually have a green cross hanging outside. The best ones are on ulitsa Novyy Arbat, Tverskaya ulitsa and Kutuzovskiy prospekt. These sell many imported medications, some with the instructions still in the original language. Prescriptions are not necessary for any purchase, and antibiotics and other strong medications can be purchased over the counter. All the assistants are trained pharmacists and can suggest a Russian alternative to visitors who name the drug they are seeking. However, visitors with specific requirements, particularly for a insulin, should bring enough with them for their whole stay. Moscow has a number of all-night pharmacies.
Most hotels have their own doctor and this should be the first port of call for anyone who falls ill. There are several companies, notably the European Medical Centre and the American Medical Center, that specialize in dealing with foreigners. They can provide everything that travellers are likely to need, from basic treatment where they are staying to dental care, x-rays, ultra-sound scans and even medical evacuation home. Their charges are very high, but they are all used to dealing with foreign insurance policies.
Slightly cheaper is Assist-24, which has English-speaking Russian doctors who are well able to deal with minor medical emergencies. US Dental Care provides a full range of dental treatment.
For those in need of immediate attention, without the time to contact any of the above, the casualty department of the Botkin Hospital is the safest bet. The staff can give injections and stitches and carry out general first aid, but no English is spoken.
Anyone waking up in a local hospital should contact their embassy or one of the above medical centres. They can arrange a move or oversee care.
Visitors should not drink the tap water in Moscow, but stick to bottled water and avoid fruit and raw vegetables that may have been washed in tap water. Food in a foreign country often unsettles the stomach and eating the meat and sausage pies (pirozhki) sold on the streets is a sure route to a stomach upset. In past years diphtheria has increased among the local population. It is advisable to be inoculated against this before going to Russia.
Mosquitoes (komari) are the bane of everyone’s life between June and late September. Plug-in chemical mosquito coils are available and are particularly good at night. Alternatives are sprays, or oil repellants used in vaporizers or burnt in candle form. In the woods or countryside, some sort of repellent is also necessary and not all of those available locally are effective. It is best to bring repellents and anti-histamine cream, for treating bites, from home.
Moscow is slowly moving into the credit card age and major Western cards can now be used to pay in hotels, top restaurants and some shops. Everywhere else, however, cash is the norm, and roubles are the only legal currency. The city is well provided with exchange points where visitors can turn their currency (US dollars still being the most popular), travellers’ cheques or credit cards into roubles. Rates of commission vary. Since bank exchange rates are so good, money should never be changed on the street. Apparently “better” offers from private individuals will lead to visitors being cheated.
Roubles cannot be obtained outside Russia, but there are numerous exchange offices all over Moscow, including at the airports. Some offices are open 24 hours a day. A passport has to be shown when changing money. Any defect on foreign bank notes, especially vertical tears or ink or water stains, makes them invalid in Russia and they will be refused at the exchange. Make sure that all notes brought into Russia are in good condition and that any US dollars were issued after 1990. On completing a currency transaction, an exchange slip is issued. All slips should be kept as they must be attached to the customs declaration filled in on arrival in Russia and presented at customs on leaving the country.
There are only a few foreign banks in Russia and they mostly do not offer over-the-counter services. Most Russian
banks, however, do have on-the-spot exchange services. They take a variety of currencies, credit cards for cash advances, and some take travellers’cheques. Alfa-Bank and Sberbank offer the best rates. For anyone wishing to have money sent to a bank in Russia, these two banks are also the most reliable. It is always advisable to check other banks’ reliability. Western Union will transfer money to Russia for you through Alfa-Bank, Guta Bank, Bank Moskvy and American Express, but they are expensive and primarily of use to businesspeople. Many independent exchange offices in Russia accept only US dollars and euros.
It is now possible to obtain cash, both roubles and US dollars, with a credit card through the larger banks and from automatic cash dispensers at some banks and in major hotels. The local commission is between 2 and 5%, plus whatever the card company charges. The most commonly accepted card is VISA, with Diners, MasterCard, Eurocard and American Express much less widely recognized. The cash dispensers at Alfa-Bank take MasterCard, Eurocard and VISA and charge no local commission, making them a popular option with visitors. Lost or stolen credit cards should be reported immediately to the credit card company in the home country. No local security service is offered.
Banks charge at least 3 per cent to cash travellers’ cheques. Only large banks, such as Alfa-Bank and Sberbank, offer this service. The cheapest alternative is American Express cheques, with a 2 per cent commission if cashed at the American Express office. Travellers’ cheques can only be used as payment for goods or services in a few large hotels, and are acceptable only in US dollars and euros, or sometimes British pounds. In most cases euro cheques are usually preferred.
The Russian currency is the rouble (or ruble). The higher denominations of roubles are currently available in banknotes, which all bear images of well-known Russian cities, the lower denominations in coins. The kopek, of which there are 100 in a rouble, is issued in coins. In 1998 the rouble was re-valued owing to its stronger value and lower inflation rate. Values were divided by 1,000 (with 1,000 roubles becoming 1 rouble).
There are five denominations of banknote, with face values of 10, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 roubles, and they have the same designs as their pre-revaluation equivalents. When changing money check that the notes correspond to those shown here.
The revaluation of the Russian rouble in 1998 led to the revival of the long-redundant but much-loved kopek. Traditionally, the rouble had always consisted of 100 kopeks. In addition to coins for 1, 2 and 5 roubles, there are now coins valued at 1, 5, 10 and 50 kopeks. Any coins issued before 1997, prior to revaluation, are essentially valueless. Visitors should therefore always examine change they receive and refuse to accept any of these old coins.
Much of Moscow’s antiquated phone system has been brought up to date in the last few years and there is now a good city-wide service. Many hotel and public phones have direct dialing all over the world, but phones in private homes may not have this facility. The same period has seen an explosive increase in the number of magazines, newspapers and television channels. Sadly, Russia’s postal system has not improved at the same rate.
Comstar satellite phone boxes, which are blue, are installed at airports, in business centres, in most hotel foyers and in some restaurants. They accept credit cards or phone cards on sale in major hotels, restaurants and clubs, but calls are expensive Moscow’s local system is much cheaper. It is possible to call abroad on a direct line from one of the Moscow State Tele-phone Network (MITC) blue and white cardphones, located on streets and in some metro stations. Cards for the phones come in 25, 50, 100, 120, 200, 400 and 1,000 units, and are available from kiosks and post offices. To make an international call, at least 100 units are needed. International and inter-city calls are cheaper between 10pm and 8am and at all hours at weekends. The Central Telegraph Office has rows of local and international phones and calls are paid for at the counter.
At present, local calls from private phones are free, as they are covered by the cost of the line rental. This system may well change in the future, however, as there is increased pressure from the phone network to introduce a charge-by-the-minute system for calls. Comstar phones work in the same way if used with a phonecard. The instruc-tions automatically come up first in English. If using a credit card with a Comstar phone, insert it into the top left-hand slot and remove it again in one action. Wait 15 seconds for card verification before dialling For non-card local phones, lift the receiver and dial the number. When someone answers, drop the token into the slot.
Post offices such as the Main Post Office and those in hotels sell ordinary and commemorative Russian stamps, postcards, envelopes and phonecards. The smaller post offices are marked рпшуб (pochta), and are most plentiful in the centre of the city. They generally have big glass windows and have blue post boxes outside. International post is often slow and is probably best avoided except for postcards. Post International, which also offers poste restante, provides the same service as courier companies. American Express nans its usual poste restante service for card holders. Use a courier service for important documents, such as DHL Worldwide Express, Federal Express and TNT Express World wide. Anything other than paper, especially computer discs, is checked by customs, which can delay dispatch by an extra day or so.
Many hotels and the Main Post Office offer fax, telex and telegram services. Telegrams in foreign languages can also be sent from the Central Telegraph Office. In addition to postal services, Independent Postal Service offers fax and e-mail services, while Internet cafes such as IMetland and Time Online allow you to browse the Internet and send e-mails.
Hotels have long offered Eurosport, CNN, BBC World Service TV and NBC channels. Russian-language television is dominated by Imported soap operas, which are generally dubbed into Russian rather than subtitled The best national news in Russian is on NTV, and the best local news on TV-Tsentr. For English-language radio broadcasts the best are still the BBC World Service and the Voice of America, which are broadcast on medium and shortwave. Ekho Moskvy provides an excellent news service in Russian. Good pop stations include Radio Maximum (103.7 FM) and Local Europe Plus (106.2 FM) both of which play Western music, and Russkoe Radio (105.7 FM) which plays Russian music. Orfey (7214 FM) plays classical music without adverts.
Moscow has one major English-language daily newspaper, The Moscow Times, published from Tuesday to Saturday. It covers both domestic and foreign news and has listings of exhibitions and events in its Friday edition. The Saturday edition has weekly television listings. The Exile, also in English, is a satirical weekly, and has good entertainment and restaurant listings. The English language version of The Moscow News is also a weekly and has listings. All of these papers are free and can be found in airports, clubs, restaurants and other places where foreigners gather. There is also a Russian language version of the UK listings magazine Time Out, which has extensive listings as well as articles. It can be bought at most newsstands.