With the huge attention it garnered from hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup along with the tens of thousands of fans that flocked to the largest country on the planet, a trip to Russia does not hold quite the mystery (or fear ) as it once did for many.
I can't say that Russia was on my must see list when I travelled there in February 2016, however, when one of my good mates and his partner who were working there, offered an invitation to visit one of Europe's great cities, I didn't have to think too long or hard for an answer.
So why should you go to Moscow?
Have a look about
Simply amazing. Most people will have seen Red Square on TV but its true magnificence can only be fully embraced when you are standing in the middle during a 360 twirl. I visited in February so the Christmas market was still on the go and you can go skating in the rink that was constructed - I chickened out.
Lenin's body is also something history buffs cannot miss. However, the Bolshevik leader is displayed only for four hours a day and with it being free to see the leader of the Russian revolution, the queues are continuous. Also remember not to talk in the tomb - the guards get rather tetchy about it.
Being Red Square, you will be searched by security when going into any building so the less stuff you have on your person the better.
Churches and cathedrals
You do not need to be a devout believer in the Lord above to appreciate churches in Moscow; they are stunning feats of architecture, Saint Basil's in Red Square and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour are the perfect shots for your Instagram. But show respect inside - no talking is allowed, if you can overcome being dumbfounded by the sheer scenery that is in front of you. The Kremlin is also awesome and a must see.
Capitalism has taken a hold in Russia. All the huge fashion brands such as Dior, Gucci, Victoria's Secret and many more are present in Moscow. If you love shopping, Moscow is the place for you. Even if going round the mall for a deal is not your thing the shopping centres are feats of architectures themselves.
Take a trip on the metro
Train stations in Russia are famed for their architecture and Moscow's metro is probably the finest. There are great works of art as well as sculptures dotted all around the stations. There are also the longest elevators in the world. For any Bourne Trilogy fans, the station that is in the film is well worth a shot. The metro is a cheap and efficient way of getting round Moscow and the ticket can also be used on the bus.
But remember to get off at the right stop especially at night. After a few jars, I decided to wander off the train at the wrong station away from my friend. Needless to say, I sobered up fast.
A night out on the town is a good one in Moscow. I must admit my preconceived ideas of what of Russian pub would be - an old foul smelling cabin was blown out of the water. The bars and clubs are funky, cool, and most importantly, lively. The rouble was weak when I travelled, so eight one litre beer bottles and four pizzas cost the grand total of €20 - cheap as chips. Shisha is also freely available for those who wish to indulge in flavoured smoke. My favourite spots were Papa's Place and Eric The Red, and Yan Primus.
Booze wise the Russians seem to be into their craft beers, Eric The Red is definitely a spot to hit. Of course, trying the vodka is compulsory - superior to your naggin from the local offie.
Russian cuisine is not famous around the world and to be honest I stuck with what I knew - good old burger and chips. There are plenty of American style diners as well as Japanese and Georgian style restaurants to fill the gap. But give a bit of leeway for the service, as you may have finished your main course before your friend has received his/her starter.
But don't worry, if in doubt, there are plenty of McDonald's about to fill any empty rumbling stomachs.
Always be sure to ask for bottled water. What comes out of the tap is well, anything but water.
Where to stay
I stayed in my aforementioned friend's apartment for most of the trip, but with a lot of leftover roubles which I wouldn't be able to exchange back home, I decided to stay for a night in the five-star Golden Ring Hotel. Bed robes, slippers, attendants carrying your luggage to and fro, I have admit I felt out of place but hey, when in Moscow.
But with the rouble being weak, it was not as expensive as it probably should have been. For anyone, looking to treat themselves, then stay here.
How to get there
I flew with British Airways via Heathrow but Aeroflot now provides a direct service from April to October which takes in the region of four hours.
But it is not as simple as booking a flight and packing your bags; you have to obtain a tourist visa before getting on the flight so once you buy your plane ticket, you must apply for a welcome letter and travel voucher from an authorised Russian travel agency or a hotel. Then the real fun begins with the application form from http://dublin.kdmid.ru/en.aspx?lst=en&it=/Applying%20for%20a%20visa.aspx and the trip to the embassy where you will receive a small hint of what it will be like going through border security.
You are in this small shed like building with no pictures or TV. The office workers must have all practiced on keeping stoic faces because they aren't any smiles to be found in there. Also keep in your phone in your pocket as one poor visa applicant nearly had his face chewed off by one of the women working there for taking it out. If all is ok, you are then provided with a receipt and date when you can come back and collect your passport and visa (yes, they do not post back out to you ).
What to expect at the airport
Going through passport control is not a pleasant experience in Russia. Although you might not speak a word to the person behind the glass, he/she is giving a real grilling with just the eyes alone. Eventually the 'questioning' process is finished and you are handed two immigration cards which you sign. You are given one to keep for the duration of your holiday. This card or piece of paper is needed for registration at a hotel and when leaving the country. Losing it is not worth thinking about.
But once there, those minor inconveniences will fade away as Moscow is definitely a place everyone should visit.