Moscow is one of those truly dynamic, diverse, cosmopolitan cities where the options of how to spend your time are virtually endless. The city is world-renown for its classical theater and especially ballet, but there are also countless museums and galleries for art connoisseurs, sprawling parks for nature lovers, concerts big and small, dancing, bowling, karaoke, circuses, zoos, aquariums, poetry readings, movies from every country, scientific exhibits, great food and shopping to rival most European capitals. Here are my top picks for how I’d spend my Moscow leisure:
1. Moiseyev Ballet performance
This is no ordinary ballet – neither classic, nor modern, but completely unique and enchanting. Founded in 1943 by famed choreographer Igor Moiseyev (who was a recipient of more than 35 honors from USSR/Russia and abroad), it became world famous for character dance – per Wiki, a “stylized representation of a traditional folk or national dance.” Moiseyev Dance Company places folk dances of the peoples of Russia at the front and center of its program, complete with lavish local costumes.
The spectacle is breathtaking. As much as I love classical ballet, I had never seen a dance performance more exhilarating, more fun and touching at the same time, than the classic Moiseyev program. I had only watched one show live and I think I held my breath the entire time. Seriously, my body learned to receive oxygen through osmosis for those two hours. My then-boyfriend, who was visiting Russia for the first time, actually cried by the end of it. If you are only in Moscow for a short period of time, and can catch only one performance, make it this one: while the Swan Lake and the Nutcracker have become part of the global cultural heritage, the Moiseyev ballet remains a truly Russian experience.
The must-see opening number!
For more on Igor Moiseyev and his dance company’s some really fascinating history:
2. Moscow River Boat Tour
Every year my family would kick off the True Spring* season with a Moscow River boat journey. The route marked the Novospassky Monastery, near which we lived, as one of its end-points. We would get round-trip tickets and spend the next 3 hours bundled up on the open deck eating ice cream – Russians’ favorite snack in cold weather.
Moscow River winds through the city center past many of the capital’s main landmarks: the Moscow Kremlin, the Red Square, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, churches, parks, important residences and so forth.
Today there are many companies offering many different excursions, some high-speed, some with dinner and a show, and some even year-round, plowing right though the river’s ice cover. My favorite is still the simple, slow and steady ride from the Novospassky Monastery to the Kiev Train Station, only now with beer instead of ice cream. Oh yes – while there’s a café on board, you are free to bring your own food and drink, which makes the trips extra fun.
Boats run every half an hour or so from around 11am till 9pm April through October. A one-way ticket for an hour and a half ride costs RR450 (~$13), there are also round-trip and all-day passes available. More details here.
*There are four stages of Spring in my family, three of which apply to Russia at large: March 1st, which is the first calendar day of spring (we don’t bother with the equinox stuff); March 8th – International Women’s Day that’s full of spring flowers like tulips and mimosas; April 14th – my Dad’s birthday when we’d go on the year’s first hiking trip in the countryside; some time in late April or early May when the snow has finally melted, at least in the city = True Spring.
3. Catching an opera at the Stanislavski Theater
While most opera and ballet lovers flock to the landmark Bolshoy (Big) Theater or to the Big Kremlin Palace, which boasts a truly massive stage, I prefer a much more intimate Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, tucked away on a side street right off of the Boulevard Ring. By the way, that is the same Stanislavski who developed method acting as training approach for drama students.
This “musical theater’s” repertoire is made up almost exclusively of classics, both Russian and European. While I think this theater’s stage is somewhat small for grand ballet productions the likes of Swan Lake, it lends itself perfectly to classical opera. Cozy – but not cramped – theater creates an illusion that you are watching a private performance in your own home theater – assuming your home is a modest palace. I’ve caught the classic production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia at SND at least three times (there is now a modern stylistic interpretation). It remains my hands-down favorite production of my favorite opera.
4. Eating shashlik outdoors
I love food. I love being outdoors. So naturally, a Caucasus-style open-air barbecue is a perfect pairing for me. Now, shashlik, which is a variation of a shish kebab, can be found on many restaurants’ menus, but the best way to enjoy it is at an outdoor table at a park café. Luckily, Moscow has dozens of parks, and most, if not all of them, have shashlik stands. I really like the little faux-village at the Kolomenskoye estate, it does ‘being out in Nature’ in a very civilized manner. Izmailovo Park is a little more wild, a bit more like a forest – there you can set out a picnic blanket on a glade or under a tree somewhere and grab fresh shashlik from the park’s central square that’s not even 5 minutes away.
Those delicious skewers of pork, lamb, chicken and salmon are always calling my name. I usually go for pork. A skewer of 4-5 big chunks of meat, a small side of tomato, onion and cucumber salad, some roasted potatoes and bread, and a couple of pints of Russian beer will run you around RR600, or $17. Not a bad deal for such a hearty meal with two drinks! Oh, and shashlik is a year-round experience. In the winter just substitute beer for mulled wine or medovukha (mead) get yourself a table with an umbrella and some wool blankets, and enjoy this sizzling-hot dish as the snow falls around you.
5. Riding the Metro at night
Especially late at night on a weeknight, close to midnight. The crowds have thinned but there are still plenty of people for it to feel safe. It’s become kind of a relaxing, almost zen experience for me – the stations are always so shiny and so brightly lit, contrasting with the nighttime darkness outside. I work odd hours and luckily avoid both the morning and evening rushes; my after-work ride home has become more of a wind-down than just a commute.
And of course late evening is the best time to enjoy the Moscow Metro’s glorious underground pavilions. You can take in all the sculptures, murals and mosaics without anyone bumping you, and take all the photos you want without anyone getting in your shot. Completing the entire route of the Circular Line, while getting off – and then on again – at every stop, is a feat worth undertaking even if you’re not going anywhere.
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