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Moscow is the capital of the world's biggest country, situated in the centre of the European part of Russia. At the very heart of the city, and indeed the country, is the Kremlin, the Russian place of command for almost eight centuries, and the religious centre.
Red Square and the exquisite, colourful domes of Saint Basil's Cathedral, and the jewelled, Fabergé Easter eggs of the Tsars are images that have long been associated with the Soviet Union in the minds of Westerners.
The city of Moscow is a fusion of both splendour and ugliness that is evident in the massive concrete slabs and high-rise apartments of the Stalinist era, and in the ornate churches, beautiful neo-classical houses, and the impressive architecture of the old city.
Wide grey thoroughfares give way to narrow winding inner city streets, and golden church domes gleam between the looming skyscrapers. It attracts not only those eager to embrace new business and free enterprise, but also the poor from across the country, and the extremes of affluence and impoverishment are evident everywhere.
Since the fall of communism Moscow has been injected with a sense of urgency to change the face of the 'Mother City', embracing capitalism and shaking off the years of communist-imposed atheism, with flashy shop fronts housing western franchises, new restaurants and glossy hotels, and the restoration of lavish Orthodox churches.
The once dreary streets are now a vibrant commotion of life with markets and eager vendors offering an assortment of goods that were unavailable during the Soviet years.
It is also a city of entertainment, with theatres and the renowned Moscow Circus, museums and art galleries. It boasts the world's largest and most efficient metro system with gleaming stations deep underground, astonishingly decorated in elegant marble, glittering chandeliers and gilded works of art and magnificent mosaics. It is the soul of the new Russia and an intriguing mix of history and politics, business and culture.
Moscow has a continental climate, typified by exceedingly cold, long winters and hot summers. In mid-summer, during July and August, temperatures are pleasantly warm, with occasionally hot spells, and humidity tends to be high. Winters differ drastically, with only about six hours of daylight in the middle of the season and temperatures recorded at way below freezing point. Winter snows start in October and the snow blanket persists well into spring. Moscow has little rainfall, most of its precipitation falling as snow.
Eating out in Moscow is a warm and gratifying experience. There are ample Moscow restaurants serving traditional Russian cuisine such as caviare, beef stroganov and chicken kiev, as well as a many offering international or seafood menus. The best Moscow restaurants specialising in local fare can be found in the Garden Ring and Kitai, or near Poklonnaya Hill.
There are excellent seafood restaurants in both Red Square and Kiev Station Square, while international cuisine is available from restaurants in Pushkinskaya and Tverskaya, and on Teatralny Proezd (city centre). While there are some Moscow restaurants that even stay open 24 hours a day, most establishments require reservations. Some restaurants add a service charge to the bill and if not, 10% gratuity is acceptable.
Russian is the official language. Some people speak English, French or German.
The official currency is the Rouble (RUB), which is divided into 100 kopeks. Most major credit cards, like Visa and Mastercard are accepted in the larger hotels and at places that deal with foreign tourists. Currency can be changed at banks, currency exchange booths and hotels.
Travellers cheques are difficult and expensive to cash, but if necessary it is advised to take them in US Dollars or Euro. ATMs are widely available in major cities. It is hard to get rubles outside Russia and travellers are advised to take good condition US dollars or Euro notes to change once there. It is illegal to pay for goods or services in hard currency, though it is often accepted.
Moscow's notorious nightlife features an amazing selection of bars, clubs, bowling alleys, billiards rooms, casinos and concert venues. The most popular party scenes can generally be found in and around Kitai Gorod, Arbat and Garden Ring. Bars like Piramida and Nightflight have prime spots near Red Square, the Hungry Duck has been popular for years and Propaganda is another renowned bar/club.
Authentic jazz venues include the likes of Forte or the more upmarket Le Club, while Dolls is a classy Moscow strip club. For a full-on club night, Fabrique is the place to go, and Mio is also quite trendy. B2 and the Chinese Pilot are not to be missed for live music.
Moscow's casinos include Carnival and Casino Desperado, and bowling alleys like Bi Ba Bo can also be good fun, as is the Onyx Billiard Room. Luzhniki Stadium hosts massive international music concerts, while Hermitage Garden is good for open-air performances and contemporary electronic concerts, and also has the Novaya Opera Theatre and an ice-skating ring.
By far the easiest and most pleasant way to get around Moscow is on the underground metro. It is considered to be one of the finest transport systems in the world and many of the 150 stations are superbly decorated with sculptures, chandeliers and mosaics. It is inexpensive, very efficient, and easy to use, even considering all signage is in Russian, but it's still a good idea to have the destination written in Cyrillic characters to help identify the correct station.
The metro runs until 1am and fares are standard regardless of the distance travelled, allowing unlimited transfers. Strips of tickets can be bought for numerous journeys and are valid on all forms of public transport. Overland transport is less efficient than the metro, but an extensive network of buses, trams and trolleybuses covers the areas not serviced by the metro until about 11pm. They can get unpleasantly crowded during rush hour. Tickets must be validated in machines immediately on boarding and are valid for one ride only.
Alternatives to the bus are the passenger vans called 'marshrutka', which follow the bus routes and stop on request. There are also scores of official metered taxis and unofficial cars that can be flagged down on the street, but fares must be negotiated before entering the vehicle, especially as foreigners are likely to be overcharged. Although taxis are generally safe, tourists should be cautious and single women are advised to avoid them at night. Driving in the city is not recommended.
It might seem like a daunting task finding attractions and activities that kids on holiday in Moscow will enjoy, but look a little closer at this fascinating and historic city and you'll find there are a few things that will spark interest for children.
The Obraztov Puppet Theater features performances for children during the day, while animal lovers should head to the Moscow Cat Theater where domestic cats perform a multitude of acrobatic tricks.
The Moscow Dolphinarium will delight with dolphins, whales, seals, and sea lions performing tricks, balancing balls and jumping through hoops, while older kids may take interest in the historic value of the Kremlin, but even younger children will delight in the sheer size of the Tsar Cannon and Tsar Bell, which makes for a great attraction while out and about in the city.
For something a little more soothing, enjoy a boat ride through the city where the kids can't run out of sight and the constantly changing architecture and landscape will show them a side of Moscow they'd never see.
Shopping in Moscow is surprisingly rewarding. This previously-deprived nation loves shopping and Moscow's city centre has numerous malls and upmarket boutiques, offering all the big name brands and some pricey local produce. The GUM building in Red Square hosts Hugo Boss, Dior and Calvin Klein. Tverskaya Ulitsa, running north from Red Square, is Moscow's most trendy shopping street. More modest, high-street fashions such as Benetton, Guess, Nike and Reebok, are available from Okhoktny Ryad, under Manezh Square.
Izmailovskii Park has a market at the weekends, selling traditional Russian arts and crafts (such as nesting dolls) as souvenirs.
Eliseev Gastronome was an 1880s palace and retains many of its original features, such as curling marble pillars and candelabras, but is now an exclusive supermarket where visitors mights find the finest Russian vodka or caviar; the Cheremushinsky Rynok market also sells fresh local produce. Warehouses in the suburbs sell cheap electronic goods, DVDs and software, as do vendors at the Gorbushkin Dvor market. Shops are generally open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 6pm; some larger retailers stay open till 8pm, many smaller shops are closed between 1pm and 3pm. Ensure that all necessary export permits are in order, and beware of purchasing illegally manufactured/pirated goods.
For the most part, Moscow attractions are testament to the city's turbulent past, but there are also a number of cultural and religious venues to enjoy in the city. Sightseeing in Moscow is best during the summer, from May until late August, when it is warmer and the days are longer.
The foremost Moscow attractions are the Kremlin, a fortress dating back to the city's foundation in 1147, and the multicoloured domes of St Basil's Cathedral, both iconic Russian landmarks. Red Square is another must when sightseeing in Moscow.
The Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre is home to Moscow's famed performance arts, while the Tretyakov Gallery exhibits traditional Russian masterpieces. Historic Moscow attractions include Poklonnaya Hill, which highlights Russia's military strength against both Napoleon and Hitler, and the Borodino Panorama Museum which has interesting artefacts and displays from the Napoleonic wars. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour commemorates the soldiers who died defending Russia in the early 19th century.