Hear about travel to Moscow as the Amateur Traveler talks to Alex Block of alexblocktravels.com about his home town and Russia’s capital.
Alex says “These days Moscow is changing a lot. Probably for most of your listeners who haven’t heard about it in the last few years, Moscow is known as a very very expensive destination with unfriendly people with lots of problems with traffic. Lots of things changed in the last couple of years here. Also, Russia is now going through big economic problems, the Russian ruble is going down so it’s a lot cheaper to come here, to live here, probably twice as cheap as a year ago. So for those who wanted to visit sometime, now may be a great time to explore Moscow.”
Moscow has iconic sites like Red Square, The Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb and St Basil’s Cathedral. It has world-renowned culture including the Bolshoi Ballet. It has numerous museums and art galleries.
But Alex also gives us a local’s view. We learn in which department store you should not miss seeing the toilets. We learn how you can get a great view of the city from one of the tallest buildings in Europe… even though it has no observation platform. We learn which holidays are the biggest in Russia like Victory Day and New Year’s Eve. And we learn about a secret cold war bunker that you can now visit as a museum or rent out for parties.
Gum Department Store
The State Tretyakov Gallery
Pushkin Museum (Van Gough)
Saint Basil’s Cathedral
Victory Day (9 May)
World War II casualties of the Soviet Union
VDNKh (permanent general purpose trade show)
Belorusskaya Metro Station (Zamoskvoretskaya Line)
Cold War Museum at the Bunker-42 on Taganka
John (friend of my daughter’s from college at Lehigh) from JohnLikesMovies.com wrote my daughter Liz:
I was looking for a good travel podcast, and through Google, stumbled onto Amateur Traveller. I really like the way it focused on really specific places and regions. I enjoyed hearing about travel to far-flung places, and Katelyn loved hearing different takes on places we’ve been. We’ve become quite obsessed and hardly watch tv anymore because we just listen to old episodes of the podcast instead. We were listening just this afternoon to one from 2010 about Pittsburgh, and the guest on the show said something about Bethlehem, and then YOUR DAD said his daughter went to school in Bethlehem, and Katelyn and I both wondered if it might be Lehigh. Then we realized it was from 2010 and that his last name was Christensen, and we had one of those crazy-eyed, looking at each other in slow motion moments. It was crazy. We’d listened to episodes in the past where he talks about taking trips with his daughter and Katelyn would say, “Wouldn’t that be so great to have Chris as your dad?” hahaha … I swear, we’re literally addicted to the show. I’ve been doing my own podcast about movies and stuff, and I’m really into it, and Katelyn wants us to travel to one random place enough times that we become experts on it and I can be a guest on the show haha.
Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 490. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, the Kremlin, the Metro, and secret Cold War bunkers as we go to Moscow, Russia.
Chris: Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. Don’t forget to check out more information on that Cambodia trip, April of 2016, in amateurtraveler.com/trip.
And now let’s talk about Moscow.
I’d like to welcome to the show Alex Block from alexblocktravels.com, who has come to talk to us about his home city of Moscow, Russia. Alex, welcome to the show.
Alex Block: Hello, Chris.
Chris: So, Alex, why should someone come to Moscow?
Alex: So these days Moscow is changing a lot, though, which is, probably for most of your listeners who haven’t heard about it for the last few years, Moscow is known as very, very expensive destination with a little bit unfriendly people, with a little bit hard to get, with lots of problems with traffic, and lots of things are changed for the last couple of years here.
Also, Russia is now going through big economic problems. The Russian ruble is going down, so it’s a lot cheaper now to come here, to live here. Probably twice as cheaper as, for example, a year ago. So for those who wanted to visit maybe at some time and leave it for some other time, now may be a great time to explore.
Chris: And you say twice as cheap as it was last year, or half as expensive?
Chris: My impression was, Moscow itself was pretty expensive, while the rest of Russia may have been less expensive.
Alex: Yeah. It absolutely is, because Moscow is not Russia, and Moscow is very expensive. For many years it has been on the top of the list for the most expensive places, and most expensive cities around the world, and the hotels, I believe, for five or six years, have been on the top of the list of most expensive to be.
Just to give you a brief idea, the average price of a hotel was around $250 bucks for a night for a double room, and it was an absolute average hotel, not maybe in the very center of the city. It was a really big problem to find something cheaper.
So now things are getting better. Of course, the ruble as not as strong, as I tell you. Just twice cheaper as it was.
Things of course, getting changed a little bit, but still, now is a good time, good value for money in terms of visiting this city.
What kind of itinerary would you suggest for someone who is coming to Moscow for the first time?
Alex: I think I need to mention first that Moscow is really a big and a huge city, so just to give a really nice itinerary, I need to have at least one week to spend here, and will probably spend the first three or four days just discovering very major sites, and just want to mention many of them, or some of them, which probably many have heard about.
Just for sure, one of the first places to stop is the Kremlin, the residence of Russian government, where President Putin is working. It’s not his home. It’s just government buildings, but still it’s very official, and it’s absolutely fine to get inside of it. There are lots of tourists. There is a possibility to go.
So it’s probably first place to be.
The next thing to see is, of course, Red Square, with the UNESCO World Heritage site, Basil’s Cathedral, or the Mausoleum of Lenin, where you can see the body of this ex Soviet… A very famous man. Probably a little bit weird for someone, but still, I believe, interesting to have a look.
Also, there is very beautiful, classical Russian store called GUM. Beautiful to see, beautiful to explore, and maybe not so beautiful to have a shopping, because the prices there are very high, even in terms of the same goods, which you can buy in Europe. The prices are really high.
So luxury stores, very beautiful, and one of the funnest things to do there that I probably can recommend everybody to explore is that, inside of this shop, you can find a classical soviet style toilet, which is absolutely a luxury toilet. it’s just a fun experience, probably. It costs you around two dollars to get inside of it, and it’s very interesting to see. It’s all made with marble, very new, very modern. Just amazing staff working in there, just helping you with everything you can imagine.
So it’s very nice to visit it, and very fine to explore.
The next things that you probably want to explore in Moscow is Tretyakov Gallery which is also a famous dealer of Russian art in the city.
Van Gogh’s Pushkin museum, also well known. Museum, probably, you don’t want to have a close look to the main building, but I definitely can recommend you to explore any other parts of this museum. Especially I would like to mark our gallery of the European and their countries. So the ’90s and 20th century. The building, which is located on the left side of the main building of this museum, and it holds a really surprising, very good collection of impressionism.
It’s not very well known, but still, it’s a really great place to explore. So if you love this kind of art stuff, or if you like impressionism, I highly recommend you to go over there. A few years ago I didn’t know that it exists, and there is such a good collection of art there.
So definitely, if you love impressionism, and I know that many people love it, go there. It really absolutely worth.
Chris: Okay. Let’s slow down and go back a bit over some of those in a little bit more detail.
Chris: You started us, not surprisingly, with the Kremlin.
Chris: So what can we see at the Kremlin? How much access do we have? I mean, obviously it’s a working government building. So there’s security measures and all those things in place.
Alex: Yeah. For sure.
Chris: So I don’t know exactly how much access you get as a tourist, or how much preparation..? Do you have to have a tour ahead of time, or can you just walk up and get on a tour?
Alex: It’s totally fine just to walk in to buy ticket, and then go inside. For sure, you will have some security screen up there.
Alex: Of course, you couldn’t get inside of the main buildings, but still, inside, there is opportunity to visit a couple of museums, a couple of churches, to go to the square.
But, absolutely. You can be sure you’re going to visit most of the buildings, because there is a big concert hall, which is used totally during some events.
Chris: You say a couple of museums and a couple of churches. I see a number of different churches. Are there ones that you recommend? You shouldn’t go to the Kremlin and to visit, what?
Alex: I definitely couldn’t say that I wouldn’t recognize something. So, definitely, just go explore the area. There’s alto to see. It’s very, very beautiful. It’s very classic. I think there’s nothing to miss.
Chris: Is there something that a lot of people do miss when they go?
Alex: Probably. There is just a well marked tourist trail inside of the Kremlin, and you cannot go outside of it. But you still can miss something. So there are some objects inside of it. I think you need at least three or four hours to explore. I think that would be enough, but still, it’s hard to miss something. But it’s easy to find everything.
So nothing particular I can recommend inside of the Kremlin.
Chris: Okay, and the Kremlin buildings are going back, I know, for centuries. I don’t know how old the oldest part of the Kremlin is. I don’t know if you know off the top of your head. It looks like it’s 1300s.
Alex: Yeah. It’s kind of this. Moscow was founded in the 12th century, and the Kremlin was built, I believe, in a couple of centuries after Moscow was founded. Still, of course, it doesn’t look like while it was built.
But still a lot left, and it’s held in a very good way.
Chris: Okay. Excellent.
So when we get onto Red Square, the visiting of Lenin’s tomb, you have lived in Moscow your whole life?
Alex: Yeah. My whole life. But still, I have been in mausoleum just maybe when I was just very, very young, when it was obligatory to visit this kind of stuff.
Alex: So when I was young it was still just the last years of the Soviet Union. Yeah.
Chris: Well, and I’m curious that you have seen… Even today there are changes going on politically in Russia, and we’re not gonna get into the politics of Russia.
Chris: An American in Russia arguing politics just doesn’t seem like the best use.
Chris: On this show,we’re more about exploring and forming lines of communication on this show. But for the Russian people, how has this experience changed in your lifetime? Obviously, in the later stages of the Soviet Union, visiting there was very different than it would be today.
Alex: Yeah. Sure. Soviet Union, it was just an obligatory place to go, whether you like it or whether you not.
Chris: Well, and you certainly wouldn’t say you didn’t like it.
Alex: Yeah. For sure.
Now it’s a little bit controversial. Some of the people think that it’s just a huge part of Russian history, and it should be left as it was. Many people think that it’s not very good to leave the body laying and just crowds of people looking at it. It’s a little bit weird, of course, to have a look and to go inside. But still, it’s probably, in some ways, a very interesting place in terms of history, in terms of culture. Absolutely one of a kind.
As for me, I didn’t have my own opinion about it. It’s a little bit hard question, but still, the body is there. A lot of talks are about it. Still, I believe, every couple of years someone suggests to bury it. But still it’s up there. You can have a look.
Chris: Okay, and then you mentioned Saint Basil’s Cathedral there as well.
Alex: Yeah. Saint Basil’s cathedral. Of course, it’s one of the major places in Russia, and one of the most iconic places to have a look.
Alex: It was listed as UNESCO World Heritage site, and I think most of the people are dreaming to get inside of it, and they are dreaming to have a look at it. It is very beautiful, for sure. It is absolutely stunning, absolutely iconic.
Chris: And known for its very colorful onion domes.
Alex: Yeah, which have gone through big restoration, I believe, five years ago. Now it looks shiny, very bright. Very good.
So just for making, of course, especially on bright days, it’s an amazing place. It’s possible to get inside of this church. There’s nothing special inside. You wouldn’t find any very important artifacts. Still, probably, if you are interested you can go inside, but the most impressive, of course, from outside.
Chris: And Red Square itself, a very, very large, open square. Are there other things that are going on there normally? I mean, I grew up in the days where we would just see Soviet parades and missiles and such parading through that square. But I don’t know what happens there today on a daily basis.
Alex: Of course. What you have seen, of course, is just some celebrations of some kind of parade.
Chris: Sure. Right.
Alex: Until these days, there are a few days in a year in which these kind of big huge parades are held in the Red Square, and especially, to name a few, or one of the most important is, on the ninth of May. This is a huge celebration of commemorating the end of World War II. So Russia, their victory… It’s a little bit of a controversial question. This parade celebrates the end of World War II, and it’s a really huge celebration. On this day it’s probably a little bit political, just to show the wealth of the country, to show how good the army is, to show what we have. Probably to show it to the entire world.
It’s really a very interesting place to see, and a very interesting time. Of course, a lot of military tactics are going through the Red Square. Definitely, you couldn’t get inside the Red Square during this parade. It’s absolutely official. Usually our president, this day president Putin, he looks at this parade. There are lots of veterans there, lots of navy, and one of the most beautiful and interesting thing is the street close to Red Square, it’s called Tverskaya street. It’s full of navy tactics, which is preparing to go through the square, and also, the last few years, also some air forces, show what they’ve got.
So they will literally air navy planes, which are going through the city, and they are going as low as possible, absolutely low. So it’s a very beautiful show. It’s very, very expensive.
Chris: And you said it’s controversial. Is that the part about it that’s controversial?
Alex: For Russia, it’s not controversial. Russia thinks of itself as the victor of World War II. Not everybody thinks that this is the same, probably. Yeah. As far as I know, there’s even a little story that, in American schools, it is told that America was the winner of World War II.
Chris: Oh, no, no.
Alex: No? It’s not right?
Chris: No. I think, at least when my history teacher taught it, it was quite clear that a whole lot more Russians died in World War II than Americans by an order of magnitude or two. So, no. We will give you that.
Alex: Oh, okay. That’s great.
Chris: Now, usually the way that we hear it is that it was English brains, American production and Russian blood, was what won Word War II.
Alex: Yeah. Probably it’s more of the people’s work, more of the country’s work. It was a very hard occasion. Still, a lot to celebrate. So big celebrations in Moscow in the nine of May, and if you will be here at this time of year, it’s a gorgeous time of year to visit. It’s a lot to see on the ninth of May. If you wouldn’t get on the Red Square, you would see it around the city.
Chris: Well, I think the other thing… It’s important for those of us who are not Russian to understand is that so much of the controversial history of what has happened in Russia since then. You know, the Cold War and some of those things. Even Putin and some of the politics now, so much of it goes back to the tremendous losses in World War II, and what an incredibly painful time that was.
Alex: For sure.
Chris: And so much that Russia didn’t want to do that again. So I think it’s very important for people, as they are going to Moscow, as they are going to Russia, just read up a little bit about that time. It puts a lot of things in perspective. It makes you understand things a little more from a Russian point of view.
So part of the question was, if I’m not there on the ninth of May, will I see street performers? Will I just see a big empty square, and pigeons? What will I see there normally?
Alex: Usually it’s just a big, big square. Not that much pigeons, but lots of tourists on it. There’s a lot of security on the square. So you couldn’t maintain yourself just in a very, very few way… Of course, you can make selfies. You can take pictures. There’s nothing about it. But still, this square is very public, and sometimes some people want to say that they are against something.
Alex: So there’s lots of security to check it, of course.
Chris: Okay. Then you moved on to a department store, oddly enough, as your third choice, which I thought was interesting. Our big three here being, the Kremlin, the Red Square, and then a department store.
Alex: Yeah. I think better to do it your first day.
Chris: Okay. Why a department store?
Alex: The department store is very historic in terms of Russia. It has been built even before the Soviet Union. It was just a big, big thing during Soviet time. It was the shop, where you can find some rare stuff, some rare clothes, maybe some rare food.
Chris: So this is where the party’s elite would shop during the Soviet times?
Alex: Probably. Yeah. Probably.
Chris: So it was the one that was really stocked?
Alex: But still, it wasn’t fine for this elite people to have such public [inaudible 00:16:03], so probably there were a lot of things for just major people, because it was just in the very center, in the very heart of the country. So just a lot of things they could find there that are just very rare. For example, in the ’60s, Russian leaders were just mad about French [inaudible 00:16:18] so this was the place to find them, maybe just by occasion. Maybe just with huge lines, maybe just a couple times a year, but still, it was a place to find that kind of stuff.
Very funny to remember.
So this is a private property, but still, we’re well maintained. A little bit of nostalgic flavor inside of it. You can find very, very good… gastronomic shop inside of it, where you can find very expensive stuff, but still very quality stuff. You can buy some classical Russian, Soviet style ice cream for some nostalgic feelings.
Chris: And what is Soviet style ice cream? I have no idea what that would be like.
Alex: It’s nothing special.
Alex: There’s just ice cream, which is very tasty. It’s really good. But still, it’s just simply ice cream.
Chris: Okay. You threw me on that one just a little bit.
Cool. Then you moved on to some of the galleries and museums. So let’s go back to those in a little more detail.
Alex: Yeah. I believe the two best places to have a look at some art in Moscow is Tretyakov Gallery, which is a gallery showcase in Russian art. There is only Russian art.
Chris: For those of us who don’t know Russian artists, do you have a couple of favorites that we really can’t understand Russian art unless we’ve appreciated the works of..?
Alex: Many major names, like Kandinsky, Malevich. You can find it there. There are lots of Russian artists, probably very, very classical images for Russian culture. But still, they are not very famous outside of Russia.
Chris: Sure. Well, I think that’s true. Yeah.
Alex: Just like [Morning in a Pine Forest], which is a member of Russian folk tale, just three bears, which is very classical paint in terms of, it was very famous because it was just on the back of a very classical Russian sweets. Every kid knows from their early childhood.
So there are many such nice stuff, which is really very important.
Chris: And the art in that museum, is it mostly the classical art, or does that also cover, for instance, the very stylized art of the communist period as well?
Alex: There is a little bit of communism period. I think it’s not very good, from my point of view. Probably this museum is best for very classic Russian art.
So Pushkin museum I mentioned earlier. It’s a museum with lots of international art, but still there’s days, I believe half of the time, it is closed for just special exhibitions. For example, these days, exhibitions from Vatican Museum is held in Pushkin museum, and Pushkin collection now is exhibits in the Vatican.
But still, there are a few more buildings inside of this gallery. There’s a lot to see there, and, for me, I can highly recommend you to have a look at the impressionism, located in the gallery of the European American countries. There’s a huge collection, a big number of paintings, you can find there. So if you like this kind of stuff, absolutely worth…
Chris: And that’s gonna be the international artists?
Alex: Yeah. Absolutely.
Chris: Okay. I didn’t know if they were Russian impressionists that I should or didn’t know.
Alex: I believe I couldn’t name any.
In terms of major sites that are recommended by tourists, or that tourists go to, is there any site that all the guidebooks are gonna tell me to go to that you would just skip, that you don’t actually think is that interesting?
Alex: I believe I wouldn’t recommend you to go to VDNKh. It’s a very classical and kitschy place, which was built during Soviet times. The main purpose of this complex… It’s a big number of pavilions, which showed what the best every republic of the Soviet Union got. It’s a very, very kitschy place.
Chris: Okay. So almost like a Soviet version of the World’s Fair.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely true.
So it was made just to show how good the cows are in some region, probably.
Chris: Sure, sure.
Alex: Probably to sure which was built in some republic, what is good. So the [purpose] is just to show how good the country is. These days it was reconstructed. It’s still probably nice to have a look at it, but it’s located far away from the city center. It’s a little bit tricky to get inside, and really, nothing much to have a look at this place, probably, if you’re not into this kitschy kind of style.
Chris: And you mentioned kitschy. That sort of leads me to… I hear talk of the nostalgia for the Soviet days, or the things that were in the Soviet days, and I want to use the term ustalgia. Is that the right term to use, or do they use that only in more east Germany, and not as much in Society Union?
Soviet Union? Russia.
Alex: I believe these days there’s a little bit of nostalgia for some nice Soviet Union style things, which were absolutely killed during first years of Russia. They were 20 years ago, of course. It’s usually such things that happened when government is changing. Everybody says that everything that was before…
Chris: Throw everything out.
Alex: …Yeah. Just throw everything out. But still, probably these days, a lot of things are getting re-thinked. Some interesting stuff now cause probably many people are thinking of the ice cream from their childhood.
Alex: From the beers, from the candies, and many people, well, they work with it. Even one of the popular milk in Russian stores, it is styled with a tetra pack which was used for many, many years during Soviet Union time.
Chris: Is there a good place that people can go, or a beer that they should try to get in touch with some of that nostalgia?
Alex: There’s no any particular place, probably. I didn’t know what to recommend you. Probably GUM would be a nice place for it, because they work with it. It’s part of their brand. It’s part of their community.
Still, there are lots of many other things, which I wanted to talk about.
So another, UNESCO heritage site inside of Moscow is Novodevichy monastery. It’s located a little bit out of the city center, but still quite close to the center. Worth going to. It’s very classical Russian style monastery. It’s very well maintained, of course, due to donations. It’s good to explore some Christian art up there, some Christian architecture up there. Absolutely worth visiting place.
Another place, which I also can recommend to visit is, of course, Moscow metro, which is very famous around the world. This day Moscow metro system is one of the busiest metro systems around the world. It is very interesting that due even to this fact to this fact, there’s till a lot to see there. But still, I can’t recommend anybody couldn’t want to ride on this metro, to go inside of it in a working day, because there are absolutely huge crowds, especially peak hours, the rush hour. It’s absolutely packed.
Chris: You’re talking about going to see the metro as a site, and I’m not sure that everybody is getting this. So I want to stop.
What you’re saying, as I understand it is, because this was the capital of the Soviet Union, and because they were celebrating a lot of things, that each of the stations themselves are really a work of art.
Alex: Yeah. Absolutely.
These days, when metro was built in Moscow, it was absolutely a unique place. It just was kind of place to show how wealthy the country is, how good it could maintain. I believe there was huge, huge amount of efforts put inside of it, and the major architectures made the design of the stations, and many of the stations in the center of the city have unique design, and very monumental design. It could be dedicated to some Soviet art, maybe some workers, maybe some farmers. There’s a metro station, which, one of the most beautiful is Belorusskaya metro station, which was built to show the friendship between Russia and Belorussia. There’s a lot of this beautiful, beautiful stuff, which is very nice to explore.
Also, Moscow metro just got a lot of history inside of it, just got a lot of little secrets inside of it. It goes in many, many major places.
Chris: Wait, wait. You see little secrets inside of it, and you didn’t give us any. You need to give us at least one secret there.
So there are some secret stations in the metro, which now are closed. Probably, if you have arrived from metro station Kurskaya to Baumanskaya, you can have a closer look at the window, and while arriving you will find closed metro station. You will see it from the windows. You will pass it through. There is no light inside of it, but still, you can find a lot there.
Also, there are a lot of myths about metro in Moscow. There’s the myth and probably nobody knows for sure, but still, there are even a few books about it, which said that there is parallel metro system in Moscow, which leads through the major places, and is used only for government, for security reasons and so on.
Later, I will tell you about it.
Chris: And you’re neither confirming nor denying this myth
Alex: There is no proof, but there is nothing. I’m sure it’s not true.
Chris: When you’re mentioning the metro system too, my understanding is, if we’re trying to get around Moscow, not only is the metro system beautiful, but also practical, because Moscow traffic is not great.
Alex: Yeah. There’s a really big problem with traffic in Moscow, and it’s absolutely working day and rush hour recommend to use any taxis or cabs, because it can take you ages to get from one point to another, maybe even if they are two kilometers away from each other. It’s a hard thing that I think has happened because Moscow is quite a wealthly city, and there’s a lot of business here. There’s a lot of money here, and it has concentrated the money from all over the country.
So lots of business here, and people here have the opportunity to buy cars. I believe there are more cars here in Moscow than people, and many, many people use these cars. But still, unfortunately, our roads are not made for this, though Moscow is a city that was built long ago. It wasn’t made for this. A lot of people, they work in the central city. So they want to ride there each morning, and it’s a big problem. The traffic could be very terrific.
You can spend hours getting from one point to the other, if you use taxis.
But, still, these days things are getting a little bit better. This was made by points. There are now huge restrictions by using car in the city center.
Chris: Similar to what London has had to do.
Alex: Yeah, probably. There’s no free parking inside of the city center, so people just couldn’t go here without thinking, “Oh, I need to pay for this. I need to pay for this.”
This really works. Also, there are some streets in the very center of the city, which were closed for traffic, where the traffic now is hugely limited. For example, there was a street, which had four lines of traffic and only one left, just going only one way. Of course, nobody can use it. It’s just very high restriction, and just people simply didn’t have an opportunity to go in their car, whether they want to.
The thing is that the government of Moscow is trying to present other ways to get inside of the city. So now there is a huge number of public transport, though it’s fine to use buses. They have a separate lane for buses, for trolly buses.
Chris: Oh, that’s good to know. Interesting.
Alex: Yeah. Also, it’s a good thing, also, at warm time of the year, now there is a big bike system in Moscow, so you can rent a bike. You can make it. For example, in London, it’s absolutely the same here as in London. You buy a day pass, which costs you around two and a half dollars these days, and you can use this bike for 24 hours, or without no limits.
The limit, that you try it no more than 30 minutes, and if you want to ride more, you need to pay half a buck for each half an hour.
It’s very handy, though there’s only one little problem. Not many people on the streets are used with this bike traffic, and it’s a little bit tricky to get on the busy streets on a bike, probably maybe just like many other places. But, still, there are some separate bike lanes, and things are getting better with this stuff. I think we need a couple more years for people to get used to it. Sometimes you need to stop right on the street very urgently, because people didn’t want to give you away.
Sometimes people walk right on the bike lane. I don’t know why. They simply walk. So you need to stop, not crash into them. But, still, it’s really, really great. It was impossible to imagine this kind of thing maybe two or three years ago. There was no bikes inside of the city, and now it’s a big deal. It’s really working good.
Chris: And you mentioned, when the weather is warm in Moscow. Now, Moscow is known to have some cold winters. Russia is known to have some cold winters, a fact that apparently escaped both Napoleon and Hitler, much to their demise.
But when would you recommend we go to Moscow, in terms of the best weather, or for the best time of year? Not necessarily best weather. Best time of year to see Moscow.
Alex: Definitely the period between mid April and early October, the best time of year to go here. It’s nice weather here. The rest of the year, it could be not as good. Probably not the question about the temperature, but the question, because of the dust on the streets, dust from melting snow on the streets. Sometimes it’s really hard to go because of it, and also, it’s a very gray time of year. So there’s not much sun. There’s not much blue sky. It looks a bit boring on the street, and the only thing that you want when you go to the streets, you want to go to some place.
It’s a little bit hard. So, at this cold time of year, you will miss many, many great things, and I cannot recommend you to go from November til April. Probably the only time, which is interesting, is time during New Year’s holidays, because a lot of things are going on here. For example, if you want to experience some beautiful things like skating right on the Red Square, it’s very beautiful, very epic. There is renting, so you just can go. Just enjoy it. Very fun.
Lots of people. Very beautiful.
Chris: Do they set up a really large skating rink, then?
Alex: Yeah. There’s a large skating rink. There is some fair, a New Year fair with lots of goods, with just some [inaudible 00:30:51], probably some mulled wine and so on.
Chris: So similar to some of the European Christmas markets?
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. It was just copied from the European market. The only thing is, that Christmas is not such a huge deal.
Alex: We celebrate it, and to celebrate it on the seventh of January, not on the 24th of December.
Chris: Right. Celebrated on what we would say is epiphany, when the wise men came, is the orthodox way to do it.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely.
So New Year is much more bigger celebrations. In Moscow, there’s lots of things going on. It’s a very nice time, probably, to visit it. Probably the rest of the cold time of year I can’t recommend.
Chris: Excellent. Now, we kind of did some of this in the middle of you talking about things to go and see. Are there other places that you would recommend we see in Moscow?
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. I’m still on the middle of my list of the places.
Chris: Well, we’re talking about a large city, a city of over 12 million people.
Alex: Absolutely. Even more. These days, official statistics, it’s around 15 million, and it’s believed that it is around 20 million. So there’s really a lot of things to do.
So the next thing I want to mention is, of course, Bolshoi theater, which is one of the major theaters in the world. Russia is very well known as the ballet capital of the world. So, absolutely, if you want to go and you want to see a little bit of ballet, Bolshoi theater is the place to go in Moscow for it. It’s absolutely classical. A very famous building, which is located right in the city center, and the best thing about it… For the last, I believe around ten years, it has one through a very big renovation. I believe I wouldn’t be much wrong if I would say that it was half rebuilt, at least from inside.
The whole infrastructure of it was rebuilt. They got new scenes, but still, every historic element of it, every decoration element of it, was left. It was a really big work, which enrolled years of working, which enrolled to a lot of financial support from it. But still, now, Bolshoi theater is on its best. It’s really shiny. It’s amazingly beautiful experience, and not long ago I visited by myself. It’s an absolutely stunning thing to do and an absolutely stunning thing to see.
The hardest thing about Bolshoi theater is that it’s a little bit tricky to get inside of it, because you need to buy tickets, for sure. Russia wouldn’t be Russia if many people wanted to get inside of it, and someone will sell tickets not on original price. So a lot of people just trying to use it, and they are trying to resell these tickets. The administration of the theater is doing big work to prevent it. But still, they are not very good on it, to be true.
Not long ago, they opened up opportunities to buy these tickets in advance on the theater’s website, and usually they start selling tickets around two months in advance before a performance.
But still, it’s a little bit hard to get good priced tickets, because they are selling very, very quickly.
I want to give you a little idea of what could happen if you want it in advance.
There’s a very nice New Year’s tradition. We talked about New Year’s, so I’ll go back to it. There’s a nice New Year, a very classical Russian tradition to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The thing is that you will dress very well, and on the 31st of December you will go to Bolshoi theater, and each year, for many, many years, they show the same ballet, Nutcracker, which is very beautiful Christmas New Year ballet. Absolutely.
Chris: Well, it’s very popular here as well, and since it’s a Russian composer.
Alex: Yes, sure.
It’s absolutely a classical thing to do, to see this ballet and then go probably home. New Year, for many people, celebrating New Year is a home holiday. But probably someone will go to restaurants or to some friends after the show.
So many people want to do it, of course. Of course, the number of tickets is limited. Once I want to get there, I specially marked the day of the starting of the selling of the tickets. I didn’t have an opportunity to go to the ticket desk in the early morning, when they were opening. I only can get there from five years after it was opened, and as you can understand, there were no tickets left.
So five hours after the starting of the sale, there were not tickets. But, still, it’s a very, very highly demand performance. On the average day you definitely can find a ticket. The thing of that, it’s a quite pricey thing. Average price for the tickets is $150. I think, without any problems, you can get a ticket for the price of around $1000. But I’m not sure you would want to pay that much.
Chris: $1000? Wow. Yeah. That would be a little pricey for me.
Alex: Yeah, that’s a price for a good place. But, still, it’s a luxury event.
I believe it’s worth it, but still, you need to be prepared for it.
Alex: Another very classical Moscow thing to do for tourists, and probably for locals because it’s very enjoyable, is to have boat ride on Moscow river. It’s a large river going through the whole city. It connects the major places around the city. It’s a beautiful thing to do. The best thing is that now, this day, there’s an opportunity to have this ride not only on the warm time of year. But, still, it’s open to wintertime.
There are lots of different boat companies, which have this ride. Usually it goes from Moscow business district to Kremlin. It’s really epic ride, with beautiful views. You can see Moscow State University. You can see Kremlin. You can see huge skyscrapers of Moscow city. We’ll talk about them a little bit later.
You can see a lot of other different stuff, like monumental Stalin architecture. Some of the Stalin skyscrapers, and of course it’s all surrounded with just beautiful atmosphere and relaxing time. Absolutely worth it, just like I believe in many festivities around the world which have got river is absolutely worth doing.
The thing that I can recommend you is using the boats of Radisson Hotel. There’s a huge Radisson property in Moscow, and it’s located to one of the Stalin skyscrapers. Their boats are a little bit more expensive than other boats. They cost you around $15 for a ride. But, still, it’s very comfortable, very good boat, and absolutely worth having a little bit more luxury experience. They have some restaurants inside of it. Some viewing decks. They have very beautiful boats, and they are all year around.
So I highly recommend you to do, if you would spend your time in Moscow.
Chris: Excellent. Yeah. I don’t think I had ever heard that. That’s one of the advantages of having somebody who actually knows Moscow.
Alex: Yeah. So the next spot, which is interesting to talk about and to mention, Moscow is not very well known as a modern city. But, still, there is a huge modern business district in Moscow. It’s called Moscow city. It could be a little bit surprising for many of your listeners. Probably not.
But four of the five tallest buildings in Europe are located in Moscow, are located in this building.
Chris: I did not know that.
Alex: Yeah, and this day the tallest building in Europe, also located there. Three years ago, 2012, The Shard in London was the tallest building in Europe. Now it’s only the fourth place, and the three first places are of the buildings of the Moscow city.
The tallest building now is Federation of Vostok tower. It’s 300… Almost 74 meters tall. Not as tall, probably, as northern America or just Dubai, and so on. But still quite tall for Europe. It was finished just in 2015.
Still, it’s very, very modern. This district in Moscow has got a big history. The process of building was started in the early ’90s, and it involved a lot of dream and a lot of politics, and a lot of money. The first plans were that the work should be finished in 2006, but still it’s in progress. But a lot of things are done now, and there’s a chance that the works will be finished in 2018. Still, even now, though, huge construction works are going on.
There’s a lot to see there. It’s very, very scenic.
The funny stuff about this, though, the tallest building is there, but still, there’s no viewing platform on any of these buildings.
Chris: Oh really?
Alex: Yeah. Almost all of there have got just got some office or flats inside of it, but still, Russia wouldn’t be Russia if there wouldn’t be a way to do it. I didn’t know exactly the history of it, but I’m sure that it’s done in such a way. As I mentioned, there are some apartments up there. Some of the owners of these apartments, they use these apartments as an opportunity for someone to go there and have a look at Moscow from there.
So, absolutely, just regular apartments. Nobody live there. They just probably rent, or they are just owners. I don’t know, exactly. They just give advertisement. They just gather groups. They just have a little walk around the district. It’s quite huge. There’s a lot to see.
If you are into photography, you can make very, very scenic pictures there. Until you can go and have a look to the Moscow from the top, it is not, probably, the top of the building. But still, it’s quite high.
I believe it should be quite secure, but still, it’s not legal, it’s not officially. They are simply doing their job. Nobody says, “No, you cannot do it.”
Chris: Capitalism at work.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely.
But still, there’s nothing to do, like just with viewing platform at [inaudible 00:40:34] here you need to preserve your tickets in advance and pay a lot of money, but still have good services. You won’t find it there. But still, it’s not wild, just funny. Probably some students doing it.
Chris: How would you find something like that, if you wanted to do it?
Alex: There’s some advertisement on the internet. So just information desk at Moscow city will give you some results of these companies… So what else you can see in this district? Around 15 skyscrapers, which are located in a quiet little area.
Also, there’s a huge mall there. It’s one of the largest central located malls. So if you want to do some shopping, now is a good place to do it in Moscow. So, probably, I wouldn’t recommend you to make shopping in the centrally located shops, but go there.
This district is not right on the center of the city. It is located on the banks of Moscow river. But still a little bit outside. So I believe it’s around five kilometers from Kremlin.
Chris: Okay. The other thing I’m curious about is nightlife in Moscow. You talked about Moscow being a modern city. Where would people find night life? Where would you recommend?
Alex: There’s a lot of things going on. Still, nightlife in Moscow is a little bit closed.
Chris: For tourists, you mean?
Alex: Not for tourists. Even maybe for locals. The thing about Russian mentality, I think that Russians think of themselves as very unique persons, and everybody wants to be VIP. It’s absolutely the thing, and the best places you can find in Moscow that probably call themselves the best places would be the places that have some limitations of entrance. So probably most every fashion place just dress controll just got face control. So you need to dress well. You need to look gorgeous to get to some fashionable place.
But still there are lots of just simple, friendly places to chill out, to enjoy.
Chris: Do you have one or two that you would recommend for our listeners?
Alex: I think I couldn’t recommend any particular, especially for those who came outside… As though I am not sure about the security of the stuff. I believe it’s good, but still, there are almost no tourists there. Probably just some expats who know exactly what they are doing. So I believe I wouldn’t recommend any particular place to go for clubbing for nightclubbing, for dancing.
There are some popular brands like Pacha, which is located very close to Kremlin. Just seen Pachas all over the world. I have been in many clubs around the world, and absolutely the same. So it’s good stuff, but definitely I wouldn’t recommend any particular place. Although there are some things, the mentality of Russians, where you need to be absolutely sure what you are doing, and probably the best thing you can do if you want to explore some nightlife, I would recommend you to have someone to guide you, definitely.
Chris: You bring up security. Safety is an issue that I did want to talk about.
Moscow was probably scarier in the days of the Soviet Union for those of us who are from the West to travel to, but probably safer than it may be since. What kind of recommendations would you give in terms of safety? Anything specific that people should know?
Alex: Moscow is a relatively safe city, especially city center. I definitely would not recommend you to go outside of city center at night. Some of the district could be not very good, I think just like in many big cities… Not every district is good. But, still, city center is well lit. There are almost no dark places up there. There are some police. There are lots of cameras on the streets, security cameras, I mean, on the street. So I think you could be relatively fine.
Of course, there are such stuff as pickpockets. You need to be aware, and just take general precautions, especially in the tourist area, and one of these tourist areas… I read some youth just today that… A very famous Arbat street in Moscow, which is now simply a tourist street in the city, also it is called one of the most unsecured streets in the city. I believe it is connecting you to this tourist stuff. A lot of people go there. There are huge crowds.
To be sincere, as for me, I try to avoid the street. On every occasion, I try to go another way, but not best in street, because it’s very busy and not very interesting.
Chris: So you say less secure? So that’s just, there are more pickpockets there? It’s not that I am physically at risk, but I just need to watch my valuables, like I need to in any big tourist spot?
Alex: Absolutely. Yeah. Probably there are a little bit more drunken people up there, which could be a little bit aggressive. It doesn’t mean that everybody drinking vodka on the street, but still, a little bit of strange people, which is, I believe, absolutely normal stuff this day for very popular places with lots of people.
I believe nothing unordinary, but still, I couldn’t recommend you this street as a great attraction. Nothing to do there, from my point of view.
Chris: We have now one of the longer episodes of the Amateur Traveler, so we need to start winding this down.
Alex: If you want to. [laughs]
Chris: I know you could go on for hours, and we’ll link people over to your website too who want to have more information on Moscow. But before we get to our last save four questions, anything else that we can’t leave without mentioning, this other spot?
Alex: Okay. I would like to recommend you the place that is absolutely not on a tourist spot, usually. But still, it’s a tourist place. This place is called Cold War museum at the Bunker-42 on Taganka street. It’s a very interesting place with a very interesting history. Bunker-42, it was the place which was constructed right in the center of the city in the ’50s. Around 7000 square meters, the depth of 65 meter below the ground. It was built during Cold War period. It was built to protect from atomic explosion. It was built for navy. It was built for Soviet politiks.
This place, it shows all the danger and all the preparations to the Cold War, which were made during that period. The interesting and very unique thing about the progress of building, this place was stopped due to the lack of financials. Bunker was opened, and it was sold to the private owner. Now this bunker is privately owned.
The owner made it a museum. It’s not an average museum, so it’s a little bit tricky to get inside of it. Absolutely, I recommend you to make a reservation in advance, because the visiting are limited. But, still, there are lots of things going on.
There is a museum. There’s some exhibition. Also, this place is used for some corporate events. So if you’ve got a company which wants to celebrate some occasion, you can rent a place there. But, still. Even paintball games are held there. It’s a little bit hard to find this place.
The interesting thing that, on top of this bunker, there is a building. This building an absolute fake, although it looks like an average building, there’s nothing inside of it. There are just some windows, and nothing inside to look. But, still, you go down, and you go to this bunker.
As I said, reservation is very recommended. There are opportunities to visit that place. The one opportunity… The major opportunity, we’ll go just with the main floor, with the tourists, which are going there, and I need to say there are not as much people going there. Still, you will see just major renovated places up there. You will see just some Stalin’s cabinet. You will have a look at some movie, which will tell you the history of the cold war, and why this place was built.
Chris: The movie is in Russian, I assume?
Alex: I believe they have an opportunity to show it in English, but I’m not sure on that. Still, you will see some documentary, and I think you will understand the main things.
There’s no big deal.
Also, they show some simulation of nuclear danger, just with some alarms, with some lights and songs. It’s just funny thing for tourists, but still, just for fun.
The other way to visit this bunker, it’s a private tour. They made it for a group up to ten people. They have got fixed price for it. It will cost you around $150, and it’s really a rare opportunity. If you will get this tour through the hidden parts of this bunker, they will show you the not reconstructed parts of it. They even didn’t have light there, so you will need to wear some special clothes just to protect your clothes from some dirt, which is just historic dirt from probably time. You will need to wear helmet. You will need to wear some lights, but still an absolutely unique opportunity to see the Moscow below the ground, which is really very rare, and there’s almost no legal opportunity to do it.
Although the hidden part of the underground Moscow is a big deal here.
So you can go there and explore Moscow from this point of view. Probably you couldn’t make great photos there, but still, even, you can hear some metro station. So there are some metro tunnels, which surround this bunker. Even when this bunker was built, everybody thought that it was just metro tunnels. But still, it was just separate parts, which were made just for nuclear.
So I absolutely can recommend… Once I did it with my friends, and that was a unique experience. But still, absolutely, you need to make reservation prior to visit, and probably even pre-pay for them to fix your time. But still absolutely worth your efforts. It’s unique and nothing like else. I think not many people do it.
Chris: Excellent. I am absolutely glad that you included that.
Last four questions.
Chris: I know we could go on. I know I am cutting you off here.
I’m standing in the most beautiful spot in all of Moscow. Where am I standing, and what am I looking at?
Alex: The bridge not far away from Kremlin. It connects two banks of Moscow river. On one side there will be huge Christ the savior cathedral, which is quite modern and was rebuilt. Buts till, it’s a pedestrian bridge. There’s a beautiful view to the Kremlin, a little bit of the Kremlin from the top, and there’s a very beautiful view to the Moscow river, where you can see just some historical places. You can see some beautiful places. You can see a little bit of skyscrapers from one side of view, and Kremlin from another side of view.
And also, I can recommend you to go there just around sunset, because the sun goes down from the site of the church, which is a very huge building. It’s a beautiful time to see, to go there, and if you are looking for some scenic pictures to do in Moscow, that’s definitely a place to go.
Chris: When I go to Moscow, one thing that’s gonna make me laugh and say, “Only in Moscow.”
Alex: Probably you will laugh if I will tell that you have a chance to go sunbathing in Moscow, and it’s a huge, huge thing now the last few years. The parks have been renovated a lot in Moscow, and lots of parks with the opportunity, in the warm time of year, to lay in the sun, to relax, even to have some free yoga classes. One of the funnest things for me was that right on the banks of Moscow river, which, for me, in my imagination, is more a river of ice… This year they put just some sunbeds around the banks of this river, and absolutely many people enjoy this. It was great.
Chris: And then, last two questions.
Finish this sentence. You really know you’re in Moscow when… What?
Alex: When you have an opportunity to have a beautiful walk around the city, on one of Moscow’s circle lines, which is Boulevard line, and you have a beautiful walk surrounded with beautiful people, and maybe just go and take some chip and dish at some monastery, which could be some Pierogi, which is classical Russian dish. You feeling yourself relaxed, and you’re feeling yourself like you have a little walk to the 18th or 19th century it’s a little bit old all this stuff.
Chris: And if you had to summarize Moscow in just three words, what three words would you use?
Alex: Powerful, slashing and innovated
Alex: I mean, that it goes just in a very, very, very fast way… Probably the things are getting changed in a very big way, and probably a lot of things are going on, and you even didn’t know where to look sometimes, which directions to look around. So that’s why probably slashing.
Chris: Alex, thank you so much for coming on the show. Where can people read more of your travels
Alex: You can read more about my travels at my English blog, which is alexblocktravels.com. Also, probably if you have any Russian audience, I have another Russian blog, which is alexblock.ru, and also I have an Instagram where I am AlexBlock.
Chris: Excellent. Is there one particular article about Moscow that you would recommend that we send people to on your blog?
Alex: Yeah. I think these days, my English site, no recommendations. So I didn’t make it. The English site is more pick of the day, So no articles. Only pictures.
Alex, thank you so much for coming on and sharing with us your love for Moscow
Alex: It has been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
Chris: In news of the community, I received an email last week that really entertained me and made my whole week. It wasn’t from a listener of the show. It was from my daughter. She wrote that a friend of hers from school, John and his wife Caitlyn, wrote her and said, among other things, “I was looking for a good travel podcast through Google and stumbled onto Amateur Traveler. I really like the way it focused on really specific places and regions. I enjoyed hearing about travel to far flung places, and Caitlyn loved hearing different takes on places we’ve been. We have become quite obsessed, and hardly watch TV anymore because we just listen to old episodes of the podcast instead. We were listening just this afternoon to one from 2010 about Pittsburgh, and the guest on the show said something about Bethlehem. Then YOUR DAD,” all in caps, “said his daughter went to school in Bethlehem and Caitlyn and I both wondered if it might be Lehigh. Then we realized it as from 2010, and that his last name was Christensen, and we had one of those crazy eyed looking at each other in slow motion moments. It was crazy. We listened to episodes in the past where he talks about taking trips with his daughter, and Caitlyn would say, ‘Wouldn’t that be so great to have Chris as your dad?’ Hahaha. I swear, we’re literally addicted to this show. I have been doing my own podcast about movies and such, and really like it. Caitlyn wants us to travel to one random place enough times that we become experts on it, and I could be a guest on the show.”
Thanks so much, John. Anybody who can make me look better to my daughter or my son really gets bonus points from me, and John’s podcast, by the way, is Johnlikesmovies.com.
With that, we’re gonna end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com. If you want to encourage my daughter or son to listen to the show, drop me an email. I will tell you their addresses.
Don’t forget the Amateur Traveler trip to Cambodia, April 2016. You can find more information at amateurtraveler.com/trip, which is the closed Facebook group.
And, as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.