Forget the outdated stereotypes – Moscow has shaken off its dowdy old Soviet image. Now the Russian capital is a glitzy metropolis that’s more bling than bread lines. A huge, sprawling city, it has history and sights galore – and great distances to traverse if you want to see it all.
The population of 12 million always seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere, so your sightseeing might be slowed by the crowds on bustling streets, hectic subways and round-the-clock traffic jams. Narrowing the sights down is no easy task, but here’s a list of essentials to put at the top of your list.
The place to start is Red Square, a sight you simply have to see even if don’t have time for anything else. Get some shots of St. Basil’s Cathedral with its swirly multicolor onion domes. Shopaholics can browse through the GUM department store on the side of the square, while history buffs can check out the all-star graveyard of the Kremlin Wall necropolis. For a weird experience, pay a visit to Lenin’s waxy embalmed body on permanent display in his mausoleum.
2. Taste the Cream of the Kremlin
Your next stop should be the Kremlin, a short walk through Alexander Garden (stopping on the way to watch high-kicking soldiers perform the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). It’s worth going inside the Kremlin walls even if you don’t have time to visit the museums – the Armoury and Diamond Fund could take a whole day on their own. There’s plenty more to see – Cathedral Square is spectacular, and you can climb up Ivan the Great Bell Tower for a bird’s-eye view. Tip: The most awesome Kremlin views are from the 2 bridges crossing the Moscow River beside it, and from Sofiyskaya Embankment on the other side.
A river cruise is a great way to see Moscow, minus the crowds and traffic jams. From May to October you can take one of the Capital Shipping Company’s regular routes, the most popular being from Kievsky railway station to Novospassky Bridge, passing many of the city’s must-see landmarks along the way. Any time of year – even the middle of winter – is great for cruising in style on the Radisson Royal’s flotilla of icebreaker ships, drinking and dining as you sail by the city.
More than just a subway, Moscow’s metro is like a museum in its own right. Ride around the ring line for a medley of majestic stations with lavish chandeliers, over-the-top ornamentation and a hefty dose of hammers and sickles, not to mention the odd Lenin. One of the most spectacular stations is Komsomolskaya – you may pass through its gilded halls on your way to Leningradsky station if you’re taking the train to St. Petersburg. Outside the ring line, other stations worth visiting include Mayakovskaya, with ceiling murals of skydivers and airplanes, and Ploshchad Revolyutsii, where statues along the platform include a dog whose nose shines thanks to a tradition of commuters rubbing it for good luck.
Take the metro’s orange line northwards and hop out when you reach the station called VDNKh – that’s ВДНХ in the Russian alphabet, pronounced “vee-dee-en-HA!” A stunning array of Soviet monuments awaits – the Cosmonautics Museum shaped like a soaring rocket (displaying taxidermied canine cosmonauts Belka and Strelka), the iconic Worker and Collective Farm Girl monument (that heroic pair holding a hammer and a sickle above their heads), and the All-Russia Exhibition Center, or VVTs, a massive complex combining parkland, amusement rides, cafes, restaurants and a jaw-dropping ensemble of Soviet pavilions, statues and fountains.
Escape the hustle and bustle with a trip to beautiful Novodevichy Convent. Founded in 1524, it contains well-preserved 16th- and 17th-century cathedrals and other monuments within imposing red-and-white fortifications. The attached Novodevichy Cemetery (accessible through a separate entrance) contains monumental graves of such greats as Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, and countless cultural luminaries (Chekhov, Gogol, Bulgakov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Eisenstein and many more). Outside Novodevichy’s walls is a picturesque park with a duck pond and American sculptor Nancy Schön’s “Make Way for Ducklings” statue, a gift from Barbara Bush to Raisa Gorbachev.
7. Check Out Gorky Park’s Hip Neighborhood
Gorky Park has had a makeover and is now Moscow’s premier hipster hangout, complete with beanbags and hammocks, Wi-Fi, an open-air movie theater, bookstores and cafes. It fills up with roller bladers in the summer and ice skaters in the winter, when it transforms into one of Europe’s largest ice rinks. Check out some cutting-edge art exhibitions at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, or cross the road to Muzeon (aka Fallen Monument Park) and the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val. From there, it’s just a short stroll to the former Red October chocolate factory, now a cluster of trendy galleries, clubs, bars and restaurants. Finish up with drinks at fashionable Strelka Bar, soaking up views of Christ the Savior Cathedral and the towering Peter the Great statue.