WHEN I FIRST TOLD my friends I was going to Moscow, the most common question I got was a blunt, “But why?” My honest answer at the time was that I really didn’t know. Moscow (and Russia in general) had always been shrouded in mystery to me, peering at me from behind the remnants of an Iron Curtain, and to me this was part of its appeal.
What I found was a city and culture much more nuanced than our spy movies let on. The unmistakable sense of Russian reverence for the country’s rich history and culture is everywhere, but it exists alongside Moscow’s globalized, cosmopolitan sensibilities. The Muscovites I met were just as curious about me as I was about them and I found that if I opened up enough to let Moscow surprise me, it would, in the most delightful and unexpected ways.
1. Russians will invite you over to their house, even if they just met you.
“Russian hospitality” is not really a phrase, but it should be. While some Russians, like people everywhere, tend to exercise a certain amount of caution around foreigners, I found that a friendly comment or compliment about their city goes a long way and will soften even the hardest exteriors. Strike up a conversation with a stranger over a drink, and you’ll be invited over for dinner before you know it. This is no empty gesture, so if you feel inclined to accept, do so graciously and enthusiastically, knowing that your host is sincere in his or her offer.
2. Pizza, sushi and burgers are everywhere… and often at the same restaurant.
I came to Moscow in search of blinis and borscht, and while those two quintessentially Russian items were more or less ubiquitous, it was surprisingly difficult to find an “authentic” Russian restaurant. Instead, the streets were peppered with eateries that serve a variety of world cuisines, sometimes combining them all together. I don’t think I’ve ever seen spaghetti and sashimi on the same menu anywhere else, but as one restaurant proprietor explained to me, “when you have everything in Russia, why go anywhere else?”
3. Forget “cheers”… Russian drinking toasts are an art form.
Contrary to common belief, the famous “nostrovia” is not actually a drinking toast, though it may be said in response to or thanks for a meal or drink. More often, Russians toast “to” something. It may be as simple as “to our health,” as abstract as “to love,” or as winding and poetic as a Pushkin verse. Out of ideas, or not feeling very creative? Try asking your waiter for inspiration. Most I asked lit up at the chance to offer a Russian toast.
4. There is a Cold War-era nuclear bunker that has been converted into a nightclub.
Bunker 42 sounds like it could be the hot new nightspot on the Upper West Side, but it’s actually the name of a real underground military compound that has since been converted to a museum by day (which is itself fascinating), and club by night. While there is something undeniably eerie about this, I couldn’t ignore the significance of young people from all over the world dancing the night away, filling this historically sinister space with light and music.
5. When it comes to Russian churches, photos just don’t do them justice.
The Kremlin’s churches are simply astounding — and I say that as someone who is not particularly interested in churches. Steps away from Red Square and Lenin’s tomb, the churches (except for the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral) often take a back seat to the city’s main attractions. However, from the tsars’ tombs in the Cathedral of the Archangel to the gilded iconostases of the Cathedral of the Annunciation, each church is in itself a profound piece of both art and history. Russian Orthodox churches in the Kremlin area are truly incredible.
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