Bustling and energetic, Moscow is a vibrant 24-hour city with a captivating and chaotic spirit that blends Western and Eastern cultures. Grand palaces and pretty onion-domed cathedrals sit cheek-by-jowl behemoth Soviet buildings that are relics of years of Communist rule. At night, the city morphs into one of the world’s liveliest, offering a decadent nightlife scene that easily rivals that of European capital cities.
Recent heightened political tension between Russia and the West has regrettably shed a negative light on the world’s largest country, yet Moscow’s pulsating and frenetic energy will almost certainly win you over. With the World Cup, Russia – and in particular Moscow – are attracting even more attention on the world stage. Here’s everything you need to know before your trip:
Why should I go?
A city that never sleeps, Moscow is an assault on the senses. On its traffic-choked thoroughfares, battered Ladas rumble alongside snazzy Mercedes, crumbling grocery stores neighbour exclusive nightclubs, and brash residents push and shove their way onto the city’s spectacular marble-clad metro, in itself a work of art.
The city’s past comes alive at every corner, with history and culture inescapable for visitors. Moscow is an extraordinary introduction to the country and its past, with priceless tsarist riches, an impressible literary inheritance and a varied food scene offering no shortage of stylish restaurants to choose from.
Moscow’s chaotic spirit – and the language barrier visitors encounter – may initially intimidate, but with a sense of adventure and a good dose of curiosity you will learn to find your way around and discover more of what is undoubtedly one of the world’s most exhilarating capital cities.
Moscow's marble-clad metro © Gubin Yury / Shutterstock
Which sights shouldn’t I miss?
Visitors are inevitably drawn to Red Square, a vast quadrangle dominated by St Basil’s Cathedral, a lovely 16th-century building with colourful onion domes that is probably the capital’s most recognisable symbol. Flanking the square is the Kremlin, the political heart of Russia that is home to the country’s Duma, or parliament. Within the Kremlin, don’t miss the Armoury Chamber, harbouring a glittering display of riches, including jewellery, armour and Fabergé eggs. In the Diamond Fund, marvel at the Orlond Diamond that once belonged to Catherine the Great, made with the world’s largest diamond.
Walking west along the river from the Kremlin you’ll reach the impressive Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a vast and magnificent building that was demolished during Communist rule; it later became the site of the world’s largest swimming pool, and was subsequently rebuilt in 1994. Across the river lies the Tretyakov Gallery, a must for any art lover. It houses one of the world's finest collections of Russian art, while its sister museum, the New Tretyakov Gallery, displays 20th-century works.
With one of the richest literary heritages in the world, the Russian capital is a delight for book lovers. Don’t miss the city’s many literary spots and house museums, including the wonderful Tolstoy Memorial Estate where the novelist wrote War and Peace. Admirers of Bulgakov can take a stroll around Patriarch’s Ponds, where the opening scene of The Master and Margarita unfolds.
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow © Valeri Potapova / Shutterstock
What should I eat?
Moscow bursts at the seams with cafés and restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets. Among the nation’s most loved dishes are borscht, a delicious beetroot soup traditionally prepared with beef, and pelmeni, meat dumplings served with smetana (sour cream); another favourite is beef stroganoff, made with sautéed pieces of beef in a mushroom and cream sauce. For a memorable meal, head to elegant Café Pushkin, which serves historic dishes of the Russian nobility in sophisticated wood-panelled interiors. For a more laidback experience, try Mari Vanna, set out like a 1960s Soviet flat (ring a bell upon arrival to enter).
Hugely popular is the cuisine of the ex-Soviet republics, including Uzbekistan and Georgia. Plov is the signature dish of Uzbekistan, a delicious main course made with rice, meat, carrots and onions. Georgian food is hearty and excellent, with plenty of fresh greens, cheeses and meat. Don’t miss khachapuri, stuffed bread oozing with melted cheese, and khinkali, succulent meat-filled dumplings. For a taster, try Khachapuri, a lively café and restaurant serving excellent Georgian dishes in a laidback and welcoming setting.
If you’re craving some comfort food or some good old sushi, Italian and Japanese cuisine are both hugely popular, with scores of pizzerias and sushi restaurants at every corner.
A selection of Russian dishes © Fascinadora / Shutterstock
What experience shouldn’t I miss?
A highlight of any trip to Russia is a banya, which is similar to a sauna. An age-old tradition, a Russian banya traditionally features a wooden hut heated with firewood that produces hot steam that aids to sweat out toxins. Invigorating banya sessions feature venik, bundles of birch twigs that are used to beat the body, a treatment said to relieve stress and tension and boost blood circulation.
Sessions are followed by dips into a plunge pool, as sudden changes in temperature are believed to have highly beneficial effects on the body. If you can’t face jumping into freezing cold water, pull the rope of one of the oak buckets on the walls – you will be drenched in ice-cold water in a matter of seconds.
Banyas are more of a ritual than a quick fix, with sessions lasting a few hours. People traditionally take a break from the scorching temperatures over countless teas and long intimate chats. For a real treat, head to Moscow’s sumptuous Sanduny, the oldest public bath house in Russia, where you can enjoy authentic banya sessions in one of the capital’s most elegant baths.
A traditional banya experience in Russia © Alhim / Shutterstock
Explore more of Moscow with The Rough Guide to Moscow and St Petersburg. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Top image via Andrey Bayda / Shutterstock.