It’s 6am and I’ve just had my first drink – a quick bourbon on the rocks at the airport before I step onto a plane to Moscow.
It’s a suitable start to the trip, given I’m headed to Russia’s capital with one mission in mind: exploring the bar scene.
Many people still have a prejudiced view on the country’s nightlife scene, imagining post-war era tourist joints with music from the 80s or dark underground bars where vodka is drunk like water.
And sure, while these venues do exist, Moscow has evolved with a drinks offering that now rivals that of London and New York City.
The obsession with vodka is real though – as I’m about to learn the hard way.
Day 1: from a luxury hotel bar to a hotel-themed hipster venue
The first thing you will notice about Moscow is the local people’s affinity for real fur (the vegan movement hasn’t hit that hard here) and the gorgeous architecture and royal designs.
We are staying in one such building; Hotel Metropol – which is just across the road from the Bolshoi Theatre, and famous for once having had the late Joseph Stalin and Michael Jackson as guests,
It is here that we have our first proper drink (whisky for me), paired with black coffee and pelmeni, a traditional Russian dish of meat dumplings in broth, and borscht (sour soup made with beetroot) for one of my travel companions.
It’s a very stodgy lunch, but tasty nonetheless. My theory for why Russians eat such heavy meals? It’s in preparation for the onslaught on their livers.
A few hours later, we visit our first hipster venue: Vermuteria in the Tverskoy district. The cocktail menu, created by Andrey Volkov, expert in all things booze, is especially focused on an underrated spirit – vermouth. There are 12 cocktails based purely on this ingredient, with the homemade vermouth infused with flavours like apricot, cocoa and rose.
Andrey, who soon learns that I am passionate about vodka, and prefer to drink my spirits on the rocks, also introduces me to his truffle martini – a delicious, albeit pungent, cocktail.
But wait, there’s more; he chops off a chunk of ice from a block (note – having good ice is everything when it comes to drinking straight spirits, as smaller cubes melt quicker and ruin the taste) and serves me yet another vodka, garlic this time.
That’s seven drinks in one day so far, and it’s only 7.30pm. Russia sure knows how to party.
A quick slice of delicious pizza and we’re off to our next location: the aptly named Do Not Disturb, one of the latest projects from the bar group S.I.D.R.
For a hipster venue, the theme is everything – at DND, it’s all about the ‘hotel experience’. As you enter, you are greeted by a concierge standing in front of a wall of room keys, before being led to a tiny room with a low ceiling and cosy chairs.
You are even offered bathrobe slippers upon entry.
Things to do in Moscow that don’t involve drinking
If shopping is your jam, Moscow will not disappoint.
Avoid the designer shops and head to Okhotny Ryad, the underground shopping mall that is also a station, part of the city’s Metro network.
I highly recommend getting your nails done while waiting for your train (prices are very similar to the UK, if not slightly cheaper).
There’s no shortage of sights either; from the Kremlin but also Lenin’s Mausoleum and Gorky Central Park. Or just walk around the city for an hour or two to discover hidden gems.
Swing by Depo too, the largest food market in Moscow, or one of the many vintage flea markets,
As a whole, the locals are very friendly but be prepared to dig out Google Translate on a regular basis, as very few of them speak English – even in the tourist areas.
It’s the type of place that doesn’t require a sign, because you’re either cool enough to know it exists or you’re not.
There’s a mix of locals and tourists, and the atmosphere is homely with very good service.
The spirit of choice? Vodka, all the way.
Top tip: never tell Russian bartenders that you love vodka. I am once again asked to taste every infusion on offer, including a shot that is served with a side of actual animal fat. Thank you, but that’s a no from me.
But the all-day drinking has gone to my head and I go home in a taxi before the rest of the group around 10pm.
If you want to keep going, there is a plethora of local bars to choose from, including the extremely basic tourist spot Kamchatcka, where the booze is cheap, the vibe is too, but that’s actually reason enough to pop in for a quick one.
Day 2: The Kremlin, bunker bars and cocktails galore
I am suffering, with a hangover that nothing will cure – but the Kremlin is calling.
The historical fortress, built in the 15th century, is very impressive up close with its 20 towers and the nearby Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral.
Later, after a well-earned rest, it’s back to partying, starting with lunch in a traditional Russian tea room, known as Grand Cafe Dr Zhivago. The menu is a feast for the eyes for those who want local cuisine, with cold cuts, caviar, cutlets and crêpes – paired with champagne, of course.
My travelling companions happily dig in, but unfortunately, my sensitive stomach craves something more generic, and so an hour later, I swing by KFC (yes, really). Our Russian hosts laugh at my lack of drinking stamina, but I can’t hear it over the crunch of the fried chicken.
In the evening, it’s time for round two, starting with pre-dinner cocktails at Room 5, an underground war bunker-turned-secret-drinking-spot where head bartender Andrey Kornilov creates molecular concoctions with the help of science.
Try the Greek Salad, a drink that tastes just like its namesake and is served with a feta cheese garnish.
The space is small, with the bar taking up most of the room, but it’s a great place to rent for a private get-together.
And it also happens to be just a few moments from Schrödinger’s Cat. If your Instagram account needs inspiration, this is where you want to go.
The waiters are dressed in lab coats and the menu is laid out like the periodic table. We try glowing drinks served in lightbulbs, fruity cocktails served in ketchup bottles with a side of ‘fries’, alcohol served in boxes and in a boxing glove – the list goes on.
As for the atmosphere, it’s an intimate venue, jam-packed with customers (good old pre-coronavirus socialising). I loved this bar, but something about it also feels a little too try-hard; like the unpopular person in school trying desperately to fit in with the cool kids.
We also stopped into Neon Monkey Bar, a bar and restaurant entirely inspired by Thailand, with a menu featuring Asian street food (thumbs up from me) and tropical flavours across the cocktail range, from lychee and aloe to banana, white rum and salted caramel.
There are dozens of shots to choose from, including my personal favourite, a miniature ‘egg’ in a frying pan that comes with a wooden spoon.
All in all, it’s an excellent night out and I stay until midnight. A bottle of magnum vodka arrives at the table as I exit.
Twenty minutes later, I’m back in my hotel room, munching on a leftover ham and cheese sandwich that I ordered from room service earlier in the day.
It might not be very cool or very Russian, but after 48 hours of alcohol, it’s exactly what I need.
*It should go without saying, but always drink responsibly and have plenty of water in-between cocktails.
Where to stay and how to get here
We stayed at the five-star Hotel Metropol, which is in the centre of Moscow, near most of the big sights.
Prices fluctuate depending on the style of room and time of year, but you can currently book the Executive Room for around £150 per night, excl. tax.
Catch a flight to Moscow from all London airports; we went with Wizz Air via London Luton, with prices as low as £36 for a one-way flight in November.
Be sure to check Covid-19 regulations for both countries before booking your trip.
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