Moscow, Russia, is changing fast. Once-empty shops have become expensive restaurants, designer boutiques and 24-hour convenience stores. Moscow's nightlife, which used to be restricted to cheesy singers at bad restaurants, has exploded into one of the most vibrant party scenes in Europe. Yet the most surprising thing about today's Moscow is its normality—after years of massive upheaval, it has transformed itself into something resembling a typical European capital city.

Moscow still has more than its fair share of unsavory characters, but you're just as likely to see young Russian professionals driving Volkswagens, reading the Russian-language Cosmopolitan and ordering goat-cheese-and-basil pizza on their iPads. Crime—once the most worrisome aspect of the post-Soviet era—has been curtailed, and the notorious mafia has become more subtle in its dress and business methods. Many former crime lords have gone into legitimate businesses or even joined the government.

But a visit to Moscow isn't simple. A lot of bureaucratic red tape remains from the days of the U.S.S.R., and those who don't speak Russian will find communication difficulties—even deciphering the Cyrillic signs can be a chore. Just the same, there's something invigorating about observing Moscow's breakneck sprint toward the future, especially while visiting its famous landmarks of the past.

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