The Russian capital transforms from gray to glitz.

Traffic-clogged and booming, Moscow—Russia’s epicenter of new wealth oligarchs and conspicuous consumption—is bursting at the seams with new hotels, clubs, restaurants and, of course, luxury shopping.

In fact, changes have rumbled across the city so rapidly that for the uninitiated, it seems impossible to imagine that the metropolis of 12.6 million people awash in petrodollars was ever harnessed with the Cold War Communist yoke.

A full measure of the explosion is quickly ascertained by watching affluent Muscovites at play. Consider the scene at Turandot, a sprawling Chinese-themed restaurant not far from Red Square. The Bentleys, Ferraris, Hummers and Aston Martins arrive so quickly the liveried valets can’t keep pace. Operated by the city’s reigning restaurant czar, Andrei Dellos (who also runs the popular Café Pushkin just down the street), Turandot cost a reported $50 million to build.

Obviously, it was never intended to be an exercise in restraint.

Once past the burly bodyguards hovering at the entrance, you’re overwhelmed by an onslaught of bling: a marble courtyard decked out with statues of Neptune and other ancient deities; a 1.5-ton crystal chandelier dangling from a sky blue dome; frescoes of Baroque fantasies; elaborate Chinese vases, and enough silk damask to do the most fastidious Mandarin proud.

Flamboyance and wealth defines much of the modern Moscow experience (rubles tend to run through your fingers like water, so expensive are many of the restaurants and hotels). But during the past few years, the city has lost some of its brashness and seasoned observers claim Muscovites are, albeit slowly, subscribing to classier (read subtle) standards of taste.

“It’s amazing how much things have changed here in the last 10 years,” says U.S. Ambassador William Burns. “The development is so fast. There’s now a middle class coming up, and the younger generation is so vibrant.”

Even Ralph Lauren, who recently opened two stores in Moscow, remarks how “sophisticated” he found Russian women. “They have a real sense of style,” he says.

While not as obviously picturesque as St. Petersburg to the northwest, Moscow nonetheless has its own beauty, from the elegant onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, perched like a perpetual guard over Red Square, to the so-called Seven Sisters, the imposing Stalin-era skyscrapers that tower like inconsolable watchmen over the city.

Moving around Moscow can be complicated. Traffic snarls from midmorning until late in the evening, transforming a potentially short drive through the city’s wide avenues into a veritable voyage. More adventurous souls venture into the maze of the subways—not least to admire the museum-like stations filled with Communist-era socialist realist art.

The effort, however, brings its just reward. After all, Moscow is a multilayered experience, which can be lived equally on a hedonistic and historical level.

One can spend a happy afternoon, for example, strolling through the rich rooms of the Tretyakov Gallery, examining the more than 130,000 Russian paintings, sculptures and drawings, or the Pushkin Museum, which, while undergoing massive renovation, is still worth a walk-through for its extensive collection of ancient and European art.

Further from the madding crowd, the Novodevichy Convent, founded in 1524, offers a moment of meditative tranquility. The neighboring cemetery is the most famous in Moscow. Nikolai Gogol, Sergei Eisenstein and Anton Chekhov are among its illustrious residents.

Of course, what would a visit to Moscow be without a stop at the Kremlin, where the Cathedral of the Assumption houses the remains of illustrious patriarchs. And Lenin’s Mausoleum, in a granite temple on Red Square, with the great man’s embalmed body on permanent public display, is a surrealistic experience not to be missed.

There’s no shortage of restaurants in Moscow, provided one is ready to pay the price for a table in any one of the trendy eateries. The most enduring, perhaps, is Café Pushkin, a reconstruction of a 19th-century Russian aristocrat’s home with wood-paneled walls and stuffed bookshelves. “I love the ambience,” says Ralph Lauren. “It has an old-world vintage feel—even if I know it was only built six years ago.”

Regulars say it’s chicer upstairs in the first-floor restaurant, but the atmosphere is equally cozy in Pushkin’s ground-floor cafe.

Similarly upper class in atmosphere—it used to be the house of a count—is the Club Restaurant de la Maison des Ecrivans (House of Writers). With its richly paneled dining room, it is a wonderful spot for a dinner of roasted sturgeon. Regional cuisine is an alternative.

U Pirosmani—former president Bill Clinton is a famous patron—serves Georgian cuisine, from grilled eggplants stuffed with nuts to hearty lamb chops.

Trendier spots include the Vogue Café and GQ Café, where local PYTs sample straightforward international cuisine. After dinner, party lovers head to Diaghilev, a hedonistic nightclub, where every girl looks like a model, while the younger crowd is partial to Propaganda.

The grande dame of Moscow hotels, the Metropole, with its Art Nouveau mosaics, is a favorite of the diplomatic set, having welcomed John F. Kennedy during his stay in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. Handily in view of the old headquarters of the KGB, it has been luxuriously modernized.

Newer is the towering Swissotel Krasnye Holmy, a modern glass tower overlooking the Moscova River with a great view over the city from its rooftop panoramic bar. Otherwise, there’s no shortage of luxury hotels, such as the Park Hyatt, a high-end hotel not far from the Bolshoi.

Some Muscovites claim, however, that the Hotel Kempinski, with a view across the river to the Kremlin and Red Square, remains the city’s best, at least in terms of service.

Long gone are the days when Western visitors to the Russian capital were harassed by Muscovites eager to buy their Levi jeans right off their backs, and the only shopping in the city was a tourist must-visit to GUM to see how empty its shelves were.

In the last few years, luxury shops in Moscow have proliferated at a dizzying pace. After all, companies from Cartier to Louis Vuitton claim the city is one of the most vibrant markets in the world. To wit: All the main European players have shops in the city now. Many are packed into GUM, the elegant arcade-cum-department store that borders Red Square.

But the city’s chicest department store is Tsum, a sort of Harvey Nichols à la Russe, which stocks a wide variety of major Western designers. There are other hamlets of luxury shopping, including Tretyakovsky Passage, home to the new Ralph Lauren flagship as well as Gucci and Prada.

Shopping for souvenirs can be trickier, especially during a visit to the flea market, but beware of pickpockets. There are old Soviet watches, icons galore, military knickknacks and all variety of Communist bric-a-brac. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.


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