Thought Moscow was full of spies, criminals and femmes fatales? Possibly a few… but it’s also got an abundance of art, festivals, nightlife – and a dead dictator to visit. Laura Gozzi paints the full picture.
If you’ve never travelled to Russia, you’re probably struggling to imagine what Moscow is like, and if you know more than one person who has been, the chances are that you have heard extremely conflicting opinions about it. Throughout the Cold War, Moscow used to be the capital of the “other” world, the home of lofty ideals and harsh realities; today, many young Muscovites would rather talk about the city’s craft beer revolution than the Bolshevik one.
But Moscow’s strange charm remains. More often than not, the city doesn’t seem to make any sense: blonde girls in white furs and shiny leather boots stroll around the stalls in neighbourhood markets, buying cottage cheese and honey from old, toothless, dark-skinned Armenian men; the glitzy windows of Western clothes shops reflect the enormous, grey, terrifying façades of old Soviet government buildings. And in the midst of it all there is you, the visitor – the latest addition to a city that has never stopped growing and changing, carrying with it more history than one can imagine.
Maybe that’s why there has never been a better time to visit Moscow: the eclectic mix of old, new and timeless makes it a truly unique destination that is neither Europe nor Asia, but on the cusp of both – retaining an air of chaotic vastness, frenzied life and bustling exhilaration. Moscow is likely to surprise, shock and seduce you. Get ready.
Best of the Beaten Track
Walking around Moscow is not unlike skipping from one century to the next; the walls, streets and homes of the city are soaked in history, translating into a huge variety of attractions that reflect all strands of Russia’s convoluted past.
With its fiery red Historical Museum, the majestic Kremlin, the colourful domes of St Basil’s cathedral and the sparkle of the gigantic, 19th century shopping centre, Red Square is a sight to behold. The Kremlin complex is home to a host of churches, museums and government buildings, but the visit can be expensive and time-consuming because of the infinite queues at the ticket office. An unmissable (and free) sight is that of Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed body in the Lenin Mausoleum that stands outside the walls of the Kremlin; the atmosphere inside the huge marble chamber where the Soviet leader has been resting for 90 years is nothing short of surreal. Absolute silence and respectful attire is required.
The two Tretyakov galleries are swarmed by tourists and art students at all times, but they offer a comprehensive introduction to Russian art from the 12th century until today. The “old Tretyakov” is a shrine to fine arts of the Imperial period; the “new Tretyakov” hosts a huge collection of Socialist Realist art. It’s surrounded by the small Park Muzeon, colloquially known as the “park of fallen statues” home to many derelict statues of Soviet statesman and rusty totalitarian sculptures.
If you’re amongst those who first fell in love with Russia through its marvellously bleak literature, you’ll appreciate the number of writers’ former apartments that have been turned into museums: the old homes of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bulgakov, to name a few, are beautifully preserved, often free of charge, and usually offer English-language tours.
Don’t fail to visit the huge and beautiful parks that offer more than just picnic space – Gorky Park, Kolomenskoe and Sokolniki turn into massive ice skating rinks in the winter and popular festival spots in the summer.
The looks you got when you announced you were going to visit Moscow will have already told you that you’re cool (or mad: even today, few people bother to jump over the visa, language, and Cold-War-misconceptions barriers and travel to Russia) but the stories you’ll bring back from your trip will be the stuff hipster dreams are made of.
Enter the marble gates of the VDNKH (acronym for All Russian Exhibition Centre) park and feel like you are stepping into a different universe. The massive grounds are filled with Lenin statues and elaborately decorated – and now crumbling – pavilions; erected in the 1930s, they each represent one of the former Soviet republics. As a whole, the park was designed to showcase the very best of Soviet manufacturing and agriculture; it became derelict in the 1990s, and today it’s a puzzling and mesmerising collection of derelict architecture, plus a Tupolev and an eerily empty luna park. Worth visiting, for you’ll probably never see anything like the VDNKH again.
Moscow’s tiniest gem is undoubtedly the Museum of the Metro; hidden in the vaults above Sportivnaya metro station, it’s both dusty and charming, and tells the fascinating story of how the sprawling and architecturally stunning Muscovite metro was built. It’s also free.
The Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines is a similarly quirky venue – and it does what it says on the tin particularly well: for 350 roubles, you can use fifteen (out of forty) of the machines in the archaic arcade.
Experience & Events
If your travel dates are flexible, do your best to be in Moscow on the 9th of May, or Victory Day: 70 years after Red Army defeated Nazi Germany (at a cost of 14 million Russian lives), the country still goes all-out with nation-wide military parades and elated, heartfelt enthusiasm (which, as some would say, Russians don’t usually manifest). Expect the major arteries of the city to be filled with cheering crowds, WW2 tanks, teary veterans and children waving red carnations. In the evening, head for Sparrow Hills, at the bottom of the striking, Stalinist building of Moscow State University, and watch the fireworks over the city with thousands of Muscovites.
Spend an afternoon at the circus: but first, make sure you pick the right one. A few have been going for decades and pride themselves on their authenticity… you can expect bears on bicycles, clowns and acrobats. Others, like the absolutely bonkers Cat Theatre, only feature one species of actor. Both kinds are memorable for their quintessentially Russian madness.
For budget travellers, there are plenty of hostels, such as Napoleon and Godzillas. They can be a little gritty, though they tend to be wonderfully located and mostly clean and welcoming. If you can afford it, the Hotel Metropol is probably the closest you’ll get to feeling like a Tsar. Situated next door to the Bolshoi Theatre, it is a grand, Liberty-style building that has to be seen to be believed. Another historical luxury hotel is the Ritz-Carlton – equally stunning. Homestays are also catching on, and the majority of hosts speak good English and will go out of their way to help you have a good stay. Prices are similar to those of mid-range hotels (Izmailovo Delta, or Katerina City) due to rent in Moscow being astronomical.
Avoid the below-average Italian, Japanese, and French chain restaurants, and head straight for the mouth-watering Russian, Central Asian and Caucasian specialties. Mari Vanna has excellent, fresh and traditionally Russian food. Alternatively, the ubiquitous chain Elki Palki offers a vast choice and great value. GUM’s Stolovaya n. 7, situated at the top of the shopping centre on Red Square, has been refurbished but preserved as the popular Soviet proletarian canteen it used to be. Jolly Kazakh chefs hand Central Asian shashlik – skewers – out on paper plates, covered in onions and spice, at their stalls in the huge souvenir market Izmailovo. And do not leave Moscow without having tried the exceptional Georgian cuisine: cheese bread (khachapuri) goes with tasty dips and sauces, then wash down the gigantic meat dumplings, khinkali, with some sweet Georgian wine. (Try Khachapuri, Vai Me!, and Batoni.) A note of merit goes to one of the world’s few North Korean restaurants; this one, situated in the south of Moscow, offers Pyongyang specialties in an unintentionally retro setting. It’s hidden away at the back of a petrol station, but worth spending a while looking for – it really has to be seen to be believed.
Muscovite nightlife ranges from unassuming, cheap bars to oligarch-filled glitzy nightclubs. The latter are almost inaccessible thanks to the infamous “face control” (door policy), but speak English to the bouncer and he might let you in. Try Rolling Stone or Gipsy for a glimpse of Moscow’s gilded youth, or Solyanka for a hipster, artsy vibe. Otherwise, Krizis Zhanra, Gogol’, Kamchatka and Proekt O.G.I. are the go-to places for affordable, unfailingly fun nights with live music. They’re filled with locals who are almost guaranteed to become your best friends after several large vodkas (or, in the case of Proekt O.G.I., several five-litre teapots of beer); don’t blame us if at 7am you’re still dancing in the sweaty and legendary techno club Propaganda.
EasyJet are now offering cheap flights from London to Moscow, but, if booked in advance, British Airways also offer decently priced return flights from Heathrow and other parts of the UK. Aeroflot and United fly straight to Moscow from the US, but prices can be steep. Travelling to Moscow by train across Europe is possible but expensive; sleeper trains run regularly from most major cities in Germany, with the Berlin-Moscow journey lasting about a day. Do remember you need a visa to visit. If you’re willing to pay extra best to get an agency to sort this out, unless you fancy queuing up at the Russian Embassy at 8am for an appointment with their willfully unhelpful staff. Once you’re in town getting around is cheap and easy thanks to probably the best metro system in the world… every station is a work of art.
Time Out Moscow and Afisha are comprehensive free publications with listings, events and addresses that can be found around the city, but they’re only in Russian. The Moscow Times – look for it at the airport, in expat cafés, and in hotel lobbies – is a free English-language daily newspaper with full events listings; their website is constantly updated, too.
Tolstoy’s War and Peace depicts the aristocratic Moscow of the Russian Empire. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita paints an otherworldly picture of the capital during the Stalin years, whilst satirising the regime. Today, Boris Akunin’s detective stories are hugely popular both in Russia and abroad, and are more often than not set in a long-gone, mysterious Moscow (try She Lover of Death and The State Counsellor). The thrillers Gorky Park and Snowdrops are full of Western cliches about Russia but great fun… best to read them once you come back though or you might not go. For practical non-fiction travel info, including the much needed advice on how to deal with the bureaucracy of obtaining a visa, check Rough Guides.
Moscow Doesn’t Believe In Tears won an Oscar in 1980 and is a lot more fun than the title suggests. It is rumoured that US President Ronald Reagan watched it several times in an attempt to understand the “Russian soul”. The Cranes Are Flying (1957) tells the heartbreaking story of Muscovite couple torn apart by war. The 1997 crime film Brat is partly set in Moscow and is a crude depiction of life in Russia after the fall of the USSR. For something more modern the “urban fantasy supernatural thriller” Night Watch from 2004 is a stunning and captivating piece of cinema, comparable in style and brilliance to The Matrix.