Every visitor to Moscow is irresistibly drawn to Red Square, the historic and spiritual heart of the city. The name (Krasnaya ploshchad) derives from krasniy, the old Russian word for beautiful. The Lenin Mausoleum squats beneath the ramparts of the Kremlin and, facing it, sprawls GUM – the State Department Store in Soviet times – and now devoted to costly fashion outlets. At the southwest end stands the incomparable St Basil’s Cathedral. Opposite it you’ll find the Historical Museum, directly behind which a golden circle on the ground marks Moscow’s Kilometre Zero. In front of St Basil’s Cathedral is the fenced-off Lobnoe Mesto (Place of Executions) where Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great presided over public beheadings and hangings during their respective reigns.
In post-Communist Russia, the Lenin Mausoleum, which houses Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov’s embalmed corpse (daily except Mon & Fri 10am–1pm; free; queue at the Alexander Gardens entrance to Red Square), can be seen as either an awkward reminder of the old days or a cherished relic. Descend past stony-faced guards into the dimly lit chasm where the leader’s body lies. Stopping or giggling will earn you stern rebukes. Behind the Mausoleum, the Kremlin wall – 19m high and 6.5m thick – contains a mass grave of Bolsheviks who perished during the battle for Moscow in 1917. The ashes of an array of luminaries, including writer Maxim Gorky and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, are here too. Beyond lie the graves of a select group of Soviet leaders, each with his own bust; Stalin still gets the most flowers.
No description can do justice to St Basil’s Cathedral (daily 11am–5.30pm, winter months until 4.30pm, closed Tues; R150, student R50) – perhaps the most famous symbol of Russia – its multicoloured onion domes silhouetted against the skyline where Red Square slopes down towards the Moskva River. The exterior is far more impressive than the interior, which consists of a stone warren of small chapels and souvenir stalls. Built in 1561 to celebrate Ivan the Terrible’s capture of the Tatar stronghold of Kazan in 1552, its name commemorates St Basil the Blessed, a “holy fool” who foretold the fire that swept through Moscow in 1547.