_ Moscow, Russia, is no secret to the world. It isn’t a city devoid of known sights, nor is it the unapproachable destination of thirty years past. Moscow is full of stuff, all the stuff people travel to see: grand halls, sprawling parks, historical churches, cobblestone squares, military relics, thrifty markets, posh shopping, statuary and monuments and distinct culture. It’s a great place to be a tourist, stocked with the biggies—the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, and Arbat St.—but not without its nooks and crannies.
However, one of the most ironically wowing aspects of being a foreigner in Moscow is that, even standing in Red Square, you are still a minority. Visit the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall, or the Statue of Liberty and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a local inside the line of the coin-operated telescope, but here, Russians still largely dominate their iconic symbols. Take a picture of St. Basil’s Cathedral and a fur-clad Russian will likely be doing the same next to you. Though chockablock with souvenir shops, Arbat still bears way more Cyrillic than English.
Every other major destination I’ve visited, the ones people travel great distances to reach, is overrun with well-fed, neatly groomed tourists fumbling with maps or following guides in yellow jackets with bullhorns blazing. In the corners, backpackers seethe at those tourists wanting to see the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids of Giza, as if hostels, infrequent haircuts, and overnight bus trips should be a prerequisite to beholding the wonders of the world. Moscow, undoubtedly a global curiosity, has never come off this way to me.
The potential is there, but the ease lacking: Getting here is too time-consuming, step-oriented, processed, and daunting for even your fat-pocketed, five-star travelers or brass-ed and salty hostel-hopper to endeavor. The Red Curtain may have been drawn a long ago, but the red tape required to get into Russia hasn’t exactly left an open door. Invites, police checks, and registrations are but quick stops on the visa adventure, which, for me, was wrought with missing puzzle pieces, backpedaling, and praying to get it all before the departure date. Who needs the stress?
However, for those who do manage the gauntlet, the spoils are great. There is a feeling of authenticity here that has long been muddled in the world’s blockbuster cities. Sure, tat stalls bulge with fur hats, but unlike the French berets, the London bowlers, the Mexican sombrero, the Russian ushanka is kitschy but not completely inaccurate: People—nearly everyone—still wear them. As you giggle and put on your silly hat at the souvenir kiosk, you’ll turn around to find that you actually do fit in better this way. It’s not as though you’ve gone to Berlin in lederhosen.
That said, the outside world has invaded: There are three Starbucks on Arbat, a McDonald’s outside of Red Square, and Subway stands throughout Gorky Park. Similarly, many contemporary Russians have grown wary of the vodka-bears-and-blondes perception of their country, which will eventually wean some of the personality out of the place. For now, though, Russia is still Russia, and I love that about Moscow, how, while modern, sophisticated, and international, an element of the stereotype, what you come to see, still breathes true.