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Moscow is finally warming to budget tourists

Moscow’s underground opened in 1936 and carries millions of Muscovites every day to more than 180 stations, some as elegantly appointed as this one.

MARY ELLEN MONAHAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Moscow’s underground opened in 1936 and carries millions of Muscovites every day to more than 180 stations, some as elegantly appointed as this one.

MOSCOW — On a recent visit here to Europe’s most expensive city, I was surprised to find affordable hotels in the capital’s center, new English-language ticket kiosks in subway stations, and even those “Free Tours” and Hop-On, Hop-Off buses ubiquitous throughout Europe. I also found good $3 lattes (and left the many sleek cafes serving $10 lattes to businessmen).

It seems Moscow is warming to independent budget tourists.

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This is nothing short of a revolution. While Russia has welcomed package tourists since the days of Mark Twain, independent tourists are still a relatively new phenomenon 22 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse. (And Moscow tied London last year for “least friendly cities” among Trip Advisor users.) Unlike kinder, gentler St. Petersburg, which can be visited visa-free on cruises from nearby Finland, even Russians consider Moscow a different planet — much like Manhattan for many Americans.

All that is changing, thanks partly to a series of high-profile events scheduled to begin with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi in February through World Cup soccer in 2018. In addition, British budget airline EasyJet began flying the masses from London to Moscow in March.

The good news begins with lodging. Once confined to grim, Soviet-era behemoths on the outskirts, new budget options proliferate such as Sleepbox Hotel on fashionable Tverskaya Street (opened in February). Uber-chic rooms the size of train compartments start at $85 a night; the Marriott nearby starts at $400.

My double at the newly renovated Gallery Avenue Hotel cost $113 a night on Booking.com, which offers dozens of inexpensive options. The more adventurous can try www.airbnb.com , a website allowing travelers to rent rooms from locals starting at $60 a night. Officially launched here last year, it offers a great way to meet Muscovites.

As for transport, the stunning Moscow Metro whisks the proletariat around in style. Many stations resemble museums with crystal chandeliers, mosaics, and sculptures, and a ride costs only $1. Visitors can press a British flag for English instructions at new ticket kiosks. Also, train reservations made online can be retrieved at kiosks inside many train stations, although they’re less user-friendly.

When two teachers visiting from Spain told me they paid $25 for two orange juices near Red Square, I pointed them to a nearby Brothers Karavaevi cafe, an expanding French-inspired chain offering good coffees (from $3), pastries, salads, and sandwiches (from $4) in trendy surroundings. Other tasty budget eats like cafeteria-style Moo Moo (look for the cow decor) and Teremok, Moscow’s cheapest and possibly best bliny (thin pancakes stuffed with sweet or savory fillings from $2) abound.

But let’s not get too carried away. The visa process still appears designed to introduce visitors to the concept of suffering. The Cyrillic alphabet can be daunting. A good map is essential as English-language signs beyond Red Square and the Arbat are rare. I spotted a few inside the Mayakovskaya Metro station, and some central street signs are in English. Russians will generally try to help and many young people speak some English. But hotels remain the best source for local information as tourism offices are few and far between.

While visitors may encounter an incidental shove on sidewalks or in the Metro as the city’s 12 million inhabitants rush about, knockout attractions such as the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, and the Bolshoi Theater don’t disappoint.

Mary Ellen Monahan can be reached at maremonahan@gmail.com.
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