Destination of the week: Moscow
Inside this giant city are impressive parks, a fledgling organic scene and world-class subways and railways.
Thu, Apr 07 2011 at 9:55 AM
MARVELOUS METRO: The Mayakovskaya Metro Station is worth a visit even if you don't plan to ride the train. (Photo: Boris SV/Flickr)
Moscow does not have the best image among tourists. It is known as an expensive city with chaotic traffic. The prevalence of drab buildings and the often-overcast, foggy, smoggy skies do not earn it many accolades from visitors.
But Europe's largest city (with a population of more than 13 million) does have positive attributes. Moscow boasts a deep sense of history. Though most non-Russian people today remember it as the former heart of the Soviet Union, the city's narrative goes back much further — nearly 1,000 years. It's easy to come face to face with this lengthy past, if you know where to look.
Despite its pollution problems, Moscow has a green side. There are huge parks and gardens, as well as markets with local vendors and a fledgling organic eating and shopping scene. Moscow's Metro is world-class in more ways than one; it is known for its museum-like stations as well as its usefulness in getting to virtually anywhere in the city.
So while Moscow won't earn any rave reviews for its green scene, there is more than enough in and around this huge metropolis to build a green-themed itinerary.
Unfortunately for frugal travelers, hotel rates can be prohibitively expensive in Moscow. While this is one of the reasons there has never been a real tourist boom here, reasonably priced places can be found. The same goes for finding green hotels. Major chains, like Holiday Inn, have nominal “going green” programs. However, the best choice is to either find a cheap hotel in central Moscow (to limit your commutes) or a smaller place farther away — perhaps near one of the city's large parks or botanical gardens.
For younger travelers who don't mind a more “communal” hotel experience, the city has plenty of hostels. One of the most centrally located is the Trans-Siberian Hostel. This shared-room venue has a fully equipped kitchen for guests and a smoke-free policy in its public areas. There are well over a dozen similar small-scale sleeping options around central Moscow.
The Maxima Zarya is a newly renovated historic hotel that offers both reasonable prices and a great location away from the smoggy heart of Moscow. It is located near one of the city's largest botanical gardens (see below).
A few Indian restaurants are among Moscow's vegetarian restaurant options. The most popular is Jagannath, a large Indian-themed vegetarian eatery with some international dishes on the menu. An adjoining shop sells vegetarian-friendly foods and other natural products. Avocado is another all-veg restaurant, featuring international vegetarian dishes, cooking classes, seasonal menus and fresh juices.
Bio Market is one of the only organic-focused shops in Moscow. It is not cheap, but is one of the best places in the city to get organic foods (known as “bio” in Europe).
The train is the easiest way to get around in Moscow. The Metro system is expansive and is fed by bus and tram networks that spread out over all the areas of the city that are not covered by the rails. Unfortunately, this is not a very user-friendly network for those who are unfamiliar with Russian or with the Cyrillic alphabet. But for travelers who plan ahead, the subway can prove useful. Multiple trip passes make it the most affordable way to get around. Several stations have artwork, chandeliers and mosaics. Some sightseers head to these stations, especially the Mayakovskaya Station, even if they aren't planning on riding the train.
Moscow is not a pedestrian-friendly city, especially during the wintertime. Fortunately, there is one place where foot travel is easy: The old section of Arbat Street and its mile-long pedestrian-only thoroughfare. It became prominent in the 15th century and was rebuilt after being burned in the Napoleonic wars. Despite recent gentrification, Arbat is a great tourist attraction because of the historic buildings and local arts scene. It is arguably the best place for foot-powered sightseeing in the city. Of course, Red Square is another popular sightseeing spot. This expansive (and walkable) city square is surrounded by Moscow's most notable sites: the Kremlin, St. Basil's Cathedral and Lenin's Tomb.
Gorky Park is another of Moscow's major outdoor attractions. However, it is as much an amusement park as a green space. That said, natural landscapes can be found around the park. Wooded areas and flower gardens offer a bit of the urban-oasis feel that many people, especially nature lovers, seek out when they visit a huge metropolis. Other features include a sculpture garden and ice skating rink. Sokolniki Park is a better option for urban nature-lovers. The wooded areas and gardens are more expansive and the outdated carnival features that are (unfortunately) found at most major Moscow parks demand less attention than at Gorky. The paths inside Sokolniki are laid out in between the trees, creating a labyrinth-like network of trails. A few miles outside the city center sits Kolomenskoye, a former housing estate inhabited by Russian royalty. There are structures and artifacts from as early as the 1500s, and plenty of greenery with magnificent oak trees, endless lawns and expansive flowerbeds. This is an important site for Russia's building conservation. Historic structures from elsewhere in the country have been sent to Kolomenskoye and reassembled.
There are several botanical gardens in Moscow, the most impressive, by far, being the Russian Academy of Sciences Main Botanical Garden. The nearly 900-acre venue has long been a haven for Russian botanists. As early as the 1600s, gardens in the area were used to grow medicinal plants. Over the years, plant life from throughout Russia and from around the world was brought to the garden. There is now a large rose garden, a greenhouse with tropical plants, an arboretum and a Japanese rock garden. Entry into the main garden is free, though there are small entrance fees for the greenhouse and arboretum.
Moscow is the terminus of the famous Trans-Siberian Railway. This is one of the world's most epic train routes, stretching all the way to Beijing. In addition, the far-reaching Russian Railway lines stretch out throughout northeastern Europe and Asia, with all lines converging on Moscow. This makes Moscow one of the best places in the world to start a long-haul rail journey.
Summer bike tours are possible in the Golden Ring (the greater Moscow area). Cars and buses can be used to travel this route through the Russian countryside, but there are also regular bike tours. These are not cheap but it is possible to go it alone with a decent amount of planning.
There is no escaping the pollution and urban nature of modern Moscow. However, the city has many redeeming features, and more than enough nature attractions to fill an itinerary for a few days or more.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
Thumbnail photo: Tanya.K./Flickr