To Westerners, Moscow (Москва) may look European, but its chaotic spirit is never far beneath the surface. Far removed from its beginnings as a humble wooden town in 1147, today Moscow is Russia’s New York City – its residents brash and opinionated, and its glitzy, cosmopolitan heart catering to a well-heeled elite, with the odd pocket of extreme urban poverty. Like its American counterpart, the city never sleeps; you can get anything you want around the clock. Above all, Moscow is an assault on all the senses: a relentless crush of people on the subway, cliquey nightspots, designer shops, any cuisine you can think of, heavy traffic, endless queuing, golden-domed churches and historical treasures. Visiting Moscow is a heady experience.
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Travel in Moscow is easier than you might think: the city’s general layout is a series of concentric circles and radial lines emanating from Red Square and the Kremlin, and the centre is compact enough to explore on foot. Moscow’s sights can also be mapped as strata of its history: the old Muscovy that Russians are eager to show; the now retro-chic Soviet-era sites such as VDNK and Lenin’s Mausoleum; and the exclusive restaurants and shopping malls that mark out the new Russia. A CityPass is a good bet if you plan on seeing several of the city's heavyweight attractions.
What to do in Moscow
Despite its size, Moscow's concentric layout is easier to grasp than you'd imagine, and the city's famous metro ensures that almost everywhere of interest is within fifteen minutes' walk of a station. Red Square and the Kremlin are the historic nucleus of the city, a magnificent stage for political drama, signifying a great sweep of history that includes Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin and Gorbachev. Here you'll find Lenin's Mausoleum and St Basil's Cathedral, the famous GUM department store, and the Kremlin itself, whose splendid cathedrals and Armoury Museum head the list of attractions. Immediately east of Red Square lies the Kitay-gorod, traditionally the commercial district, and originally fortified like the Kremlin. Stretches of the ramparts remain behind the Metropol and Rossiya hotels, and the medieval churches of Zaryade and the shops along Nikolskaya ulitsa may tempt you further into the quarter, where you'll find the former headquarters of the Communist Party.
The Kremlin and Kitay-gorod are surrounded by two quarters defined by rings of boulevards built over the original ramparts of medieval times, when Moscow's residential areas were divided into the "White Town" or Beliy Gorod, and the humbler "Earth Town" or Zemlyanoy Gorod. Situated within the leafy Boulevard Ring that encloses the Beliy Gorod are such landmarks as the Bolshoy Theatre and the Lubyanka headquarters of the secret police – with its "KGB Museum" – while the Zemlyanoy Gorod that extends to the eight-lane Garden Ring is enlivened by the trendy old and new Arbat streets, with three Stalin skyscrapers dominating the Ring itself.
Beyond this historic core Moscow is too sprawling to explore on foot. Krasnaya Presnya, Fili and the southwest describes a swathe which includes the former Russian Parliament building (known as the White House); Tolstoy's house and the Novodeviche Convent and Cemetery; Victory Park, with its war memorials and Jewish museum; and Moscow State University in the Sparrow Hills – the largest of the Stalin skyscrapers.
Across the river from the Kremlin, Zamoskvorechye and the south are the site of the old and new Tretyakov Gallery's superlative collection of Russian art. Here too you'll find Gorky Park, the Donskoy and Danilov monasteries that once stood guard against the Tartars, and the romantic ex-royal estates of Tsaritsyno and Kolomenskoe – the latter known for staging folklore festivals and historical pageants. If folk art is your thing, get hands on with a True Russian Matryoshka Workshop. Taganka and Zayauze, east of the centre, likewise harbour fortified monasteries – the Andronikov, Novospasskiy and Simonov – and the erstwhile noble estates of Kuskovo and Kuzminki, but the main lure for tourists is the Izmaylovo art market. Inside the Izmaylovo Kremlin, a cultural centre, there are also a range of attractions, from the Bread Museum and the Vodka History Museum to the fascinating Museum of Russian Toys. Moscow's Northern Suburbs cover a vast area with a sprinkling of sights. Foremost is the Memorial and Museum of Cosmonautics and VDNK. For anyone interested in the glory days of the space race, and its monumental landmarks and propaganda, a visit is a must – tours can be booked by clicking here and here. In the vicinity are the Ostankino Palace, Moscow's Botanical Gardens and TV Tower. West from here, the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines will appeal to visitors with an interest in Soviet social history, too.
Outside Moscow there's scope for day-excursions to the Trinity Monastery of St Sergei, the Abramtsevo artists' colony, Tchaikovsky's house in Kiln, Lenin's estate at Gorki Leninskie, and the battlefield of Borodino, where the battle is re-enacted every September. You can also head out to the village of Aksakovo for a beautiful two-hour troika ride. Further afield, the historic towns of Vladimir and Suzdal are graced by splendid cathedrals and monasteries attesting that they were the seat of a principality when Moscow was merely an encampment. Suzdal is one of the loveliest towns in Russia, and definitely merits an overnight stay. It's also possible to visit the Aviation Museum at Monino air base, en route to Vladimir, if you take the trouble to get permission ahead of time.
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Top image: Komsomolskaya metro station © Gubin Yury/Shutterstock