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.
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.
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. Take a private Kremlin tour to skip the lines for the Kremlin grounds and cathedrals.
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. Private guided tours are recommended for art enthusiasts. 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.
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, like on this guided tour. 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
While Moscow's Bolshoy Ballet (also spelt "Bolshoi") is going through uncertain times, plagued by infighting and rivalries (not least the recent acid attack on Artistic Director Sergei Filin), few would deny themselves the chance to see this legendary company. During the season, evening performances start at 7pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at noon; there are no shows on Monday.
You can see what’s on currently and for a few months ahead on the Bolshoy’s website – although the English version sometimes lags behind the Russian one. The ballet company is usually abroad over summer and sometimes also in the autumn, leaving the junior corps de ballet to entertain visitors – although star dancers are certain to be in Moscow for the opening of the new season in September. For more on Russian ballet visit www.for-ballet-lovers-only.com. For those not interested in ballet but more in the historical aspect of the Bolshoy theatre, take a guided historic tour of the grounds.
If you're more interest in Folk Dances, visit the Kostroma Folk Dance show, the most authentic one in Moscow.
Built as a symbol of gratitude to divinity for having aided the Russians’ defeat of Napoleon in 1812, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (daily 10am–6pm), opposite the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts at Volkhonka ul. 15, was demolished in 1931 in favour of a monument to socialism. The project was soon abandoned and years later, under Krushev’s rule, the site was turned into the world’s largest public swimming pool. In 1994 the Cathedral was rebuilt and is now a symbol of Moscow’s (and Russia’s) post-Communist religious revival.
Moscow isn’t a city that goes to bed early. Many venues act as a café by day, restaurant in the early evening, and both bar and club at night. This can cover anything from an arthouse café with a spot of live music to a dance warehouse, or a fancy nightclub with a restaurant and casino. Most cater to a certain crowd, whether it’s creative professionals, students, shell-suited "flatheads" or designer-draped models. While formal dress codes are rare, face control (feys kontrol) is widespread. Russians distinguish between “democratic” face control (aimed at keeping out hooligans and bandits), and the kind that favours the rich (never mind how they behave). It’s unwise to rile club security staff, however rude they might be.
There are scores of trendy bars and clubs on Krasny Oktyabr, a former chocolate factory building located across the river from Kropotkinskaya and now home to some of Moscow’s hippest nightlife.
Learn how to walk, talk, drink and party like a Russian on a small group with Russian spirits.
Moscow's gastronomic scene has improved enormously over the last five years, with hundreds of new cafés and restaurants offering all kinds of cuisine and surroundings, aimed at anyone with a disposable income – from mega-rich New Russians and expense-account expatriates to fashion-conscious wealthy teenagers.
For cheap eats head to a canteen, where you can compile a tray of dishes smorgasbord-style. Take advantage of the great-value business lunches offered by cafés and restaurants during the week between noon and 4pm.
For well over a century, Moscow has been one of the world’s great centres of classical music, opera and ballet, most famously represented by the Bolshoy Theatre but also by its orchestras and choirs. Theatre can be tricky for non-Russian speakers though circus and puppetry surpass the language barrier. Moscow’s film industry and annual international film festival dwarf St Petersburg’s, but at other times most cinemas screen Hollywood blockbusters.
All this can be surprisingly good value, provided you ask for the cheapest ticket available (samiy deshoviy bilyet).
Gorky Park on ul. Krymskiy Val 9 (R100; Park Kultury) is a large park occupying an area of over 700 acres along the river. In the winter the frozen-over paths become one of the city’s largest ice rinks, while in the summer Muscovites stroll the area savouring an ice cream.
Admirers of Bulgakov, Chekhov, Gorky and Tolstoy will find their former homes preserved as museums. Anton Chekhov lived at Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya ul. 6, in what is now the Chekhov House-Museum (Tues, Thurs & Sat 11am–6pm, Wed & Fri 2–8pm; R100, student R60; Barrikadnaya), containing humble personal effects, while the Gorky House-Museum (Wed–Sun 11am–6pm, closed last Thurs of the month; free; Arbatskaya) on the corner of Povarskaya ulitsa and ulitsa Spiridonovka is worth seeing purely for its raspberry-pink Art Nouveau decor. Leo Tolstoy admirers should head to the wonderfully preserved Tolstoy Memorial Estate on ul. Lva Tolstogo 21 (Tues, Wed & Fri 10am–6pm, Thurs 1–9pm, Sat & Sun 11am–6pm; R200, student R60; Park Kultury) where the Tolstoy family lived after moving to Moscow from their country estate in 1881, and where the novelist wrote War and Peace. The Bulgakov Museum at Bolshaya Sadovaya ul. 10 (Sun–Thurs 1–11pm, Fri & Sat until 1am; free; t495/970-0619; Mayakovskaya), is the house where the novelist lived from 1921 to 1924. There are nightly tours (1–6am; R550; phone a week in advance for tour in English).
The Museum of Modern History at Tverskaya ul. 21 (Tues, Wed, Fri 10am–6pm, Thurs & Sat 11am–7pm, Sun 10am–5pm, closed last Fri of the month; R100; Tverskaya) brings the Communist past alive with striking displays of Soviet propaganda posters, photographs and state gifts, although there’s a frustrating lack of English translation.
Opposite the entrance to Gorky Park at Krymskiy Val 10, the New Tretyakov Gallery (Tues–Sun 10am–7.30pm; R360, student R220; Park Kultury) takes a breakneck gallop through twentieth-century Russian art, from the avant-garde of the 1910–1920s to contemporary artists. Full and illuminating commentary in English is a bonus.
A cluster of shining domes above a fortified rampart belongs to the lovely Novodevichiy Convent (daily 10am–5pm; closed Tues & last Mon of month; R150; Sportivnaya), founded by Ivan the Terrible in 1524. At its heart stands the white Cathedral of the Virgin of Smolensk. In its cemetery lie numerous famous writers, musicians and artists, including Gogol, Chekhov, Stanislavsky, Bulgakov and Shostakovich.
One of Moscow’s most exclusive neighbourhoods, Patriarch’s Ponds is a pleasant spot (there’s actually just one pond) for a summer stroll or an ice-skate on its frozen waters in the depths of winter. The area is also known for being the location of the opening scene of Mikhail Bulgakov’s magical realist novel The Master and Margarita.
Founded in 1898 in honour of the famous Russian poet, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts at Volkhonka ul. 12 (Tues–Sun 10am–7pm; R150–300, separate fee for Impressionist wing; Kropotkinskaya) holds a hefty collection of European paintings, from Italian High Renaissance works to Rembrandt, and an outstanding display of Impressionist works.
Get the city grit out of your skin at the exquisitely elaborate Sandunovsky baths (Neglinnaya ul. 14 bldg 3–7 wwww.sanduny.ru; Teatralnaya), patronized by Muscovites since 1896. Join Russian businessmen and socialites in the banya, a wooden hut heated with a furnace, where you are invited to sweat out impurities, get beaten energetically with birch twigs, and finally plunge into ice-cold water. Men’s and women’s baths are separate, with the women’s section more like a modern spa. A three-hour session costs R1000. Daily 8am–10pm.
Founded in 1892 by the financier Pavel Tretyakov, the Tretyakov Gallery at Lavrushinskiy per. 10 (Tues–Sun 10am–7.30pm; R360, student R220; Tretyakovskaya) displays an outstanding collection of pre-Revolutionary Russian art. Russian icons are magnificently displayed, and the exhibition continues through to the late nineteenth century, with the politically charged canvases of the iconic realist Ilya Repin and the Impressionist portraits of Valentin Serov, including The Girl with Peaches, one of the gallery’s masterpieces.
To see Soviet triumphalism at its most prolific, visit the Exhibition of Economic Achievements, or VDNKh (Prospekt Mira; VDNK/Prospekt Mira), with its statue upon statue of ordinary workers in heroic poses. Adding to the scene is the permanent trade-fair-cum-shopping-centre housed in the grandiose Stalinist architecture of the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition of 1939, and the People’s Friendship Fountain, flanked by Soviet maidens, each symbolizing a Soviet republic. One of the most hubristic Soviet monuments ever built is the Space Obelisk, which bears witness to Soviet designs on the stratosphere. Unveiled in 1964 – three years after Gagarin orbited the earth – it’s a sculpture of a rocket blasting nearly 100m into the sky on a plume of energy clad in shining titanium. Moscow’s giant Ferris wheel, small amusement park and numerous food vendors help to create a fairground-like atmosphere. For a fantastic view over the VDNK, take the lift to the 25th floor of Hotel Cosmos across Prospekt Mira.