City Guide to Moscow

Russia's Capital City - Home To The Tsars, The Kremlin And The Iconic - Red Square

25. Jun 2021
by Punita Malhotra

Face-control nightclubs and flashy cars, glasses of bubbly and black-gold caviar, gilded-dome churches and palaces of the Tsars - Moscow’s obsession with opulence has roots in antiquity when the might of the Russian Empire radiated from the hilltop heart of the city. Centuries later and the area continues to be the country’s biggest magnet, thanks to the assemblage of resplendent jewels that deck the Red Square.
Big, bold and beautiful

Nothing is insignificant in Europe’s most populous city. An illustrious legacy glitters like a diadem with sparkling rocks in the league of Ivan the Terrible, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Gagarin, Pushkin, Lenin and Stalin. Medieval fortresses remind of the tyrannical days of the despotic Tsars. Soviet monoliths bear witness to the turbulent times of the radical communists. With the subjugation gone and staid being passé, the Russian capital city is in the throes of a 21st-century renaissance. A cult of excessive capitalism is writ large in extravagant hotels, super-cars, high-end brand stores and swanky skyscrapers. Ambitious and affluent, cosmopolitan and cultivated, dynamic and decadent, inspiring and intriguing, modern Moscow is busting every misnomer with new-found pluck.

The new Moscow

Harley-Davidson bikers zip past babushkas in faded headscarves, craft beer flows in Soviet-style canteens and edgy street murals compete with the golden church cupolas. But the timeless appeal of the city still lies in the winding back streets where orthodox Russian and Byzantine influences melt in melodic harmony. It calls out from historic neighbourhoods where stately museums overflow with priceless treasures. It tiptoes delicately through ballet performances, whispers through the legacy of literary masters, smiles on faces of Matryoshka dolls, glistens on polished lacquer boxes and threads its way through fine Vologda lace. Ready to be ravished by retrograde, starting from the Red Square, perched at Borovitsky Hill above the curved contours of the Moscow River.

The Kremlin

Ravished by retrograde

Stepping onto 75,000 square meters - eleven full-size soccer pitches - of the gigantic Red Square, you are acutely aware of the tense drama of yesteryears frozen in the air. Epic events have unfolded here to carve out the history of a formidable empire and the fate of a world super-power. Even in its original avatar as a medieval market-cum-shanty town for mobsters, criminals and society scum, this was a symbolic centre of city life, as it remains even today. Communiqué to celebration, parade to procession and rallies to retribution – visitors have been flocking to Red Square for centuries.

Red Square

The crowd-puller here is also an unquestionable emblem of Moscow and the pride of the Russian Orthodox Church, the outrageously psychedelic, castle-like Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Eyes wander, linger and wander to process the vibrant swirls of the eight flared cupolas, which broke the proverbial mould and went on to become the archetype of Russian Orthodox architecture. Built by the first Tsar to commemorate the capture of the city of Kazan from the Mongols, it is shrouded in a dark legend of architects being blinded to prevent them from an encore. Chew on that while you adjust to the stark contrast at Lenin’s Mausoleum, where his macabre mummy is on display for onlookers, dressed in the latest fashionable garb, re-outfitted every few years. The homage theme continues at the memorials of Maxim Gorky, Yuri Gagarin, and Stalin.
Attempts at minimalism acre inevitably discarded at GUM, Moscow's oldest department store, where pricey designer goods retail under a skylight ceiling made up of more than 20,000 panes of glass.

Saint Basil's Cathedral

Slip through the ancient gate of the crenellated red walls into 275,000 square metres of the triangular-shaped Kremlin (citadel). Since the 14th-century, this elevated fortress has been a throbbing power-centre of the country’s rulers, from the Tsars to the Soviet government and the Russian Federation. Within the 2.4 kilometres of walls that are up to 6.5 metres thick, there is enough conspiracy-laden history and eye-candy architecture to keep the curious mind engaged. Lost stories lie plastered within bricks of ancient ecclesiastical, Romanov imperial classicist and Soviet modernist buildings. Exquisite gold-domed cathedrals glint in the warm sun at Cathedral Square, where Russian Tsars were coronated and laid to rest forever. Giant cannons and mammoth bells claim pride of place in vast courtyards, and echoes of momentous milestones cling to the cobbles.

Archangel Cathedral at The Kremlin

The sinister-looking Soviet-era State Kremlin Palace plays the deception card with élan. Behind the cold marble, glass and concrete facade, lies a popular concert and theatrical venue, which has also been hosting fun-filled children’s celebrations for years. Laughter and love float inside, as Father Frost and Snow Maiden meet little visitors and shower them with gifts. The 20,000 square metres Grand Kremlin Palace, the official ceremonial residence of the Russian President, may be out of bounds, but there is a promise of payback at the Diamond Vault in the Armoury. Gape all you want at State Jewels, imperial regalia, solid blocks of gold, the world’s largest collection of Fabergé eggs, the world’s largest sapphire and the Orlov diamond - the world's fourth-largest. Snob value, smug smiles.
Neighbourhood hop

There is a vibrant world waiting beyond the Kremlin. For a flash of futuristic, head to one of the new symbols of the city. There is a surprise embedded in the first large scale urban park to be built in Moscow in the last fifty years, just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. The city’s creativity climaxes at Zaryadye Park, an ecological flight of fantasy, where you can encounter Tundra, Taiga, Steppe zones, an Arctic cave, a Philharmonic Hall, a weather-resistant amphitheatre and an underground entertainment city. The piece de resistance is a floating glass bridge, from where 3,000 to 4,000 people can ogle at the Kremlin from a 70-metres cantilevered projection.

A space-age future for The Kremlin

Then backtrack to the most atmospheric and historical area of the city, Old Arbat. Evolved from a garrison to a settlement for artisans, aristocrats and intelligentsia over time, it offers a peek into life as it was in old Moscow. Find dimly lit jazz bars, charming theatres and Tsarist-era merchant mansions hidden in secret alleys. Bump into street musicians, local poets and experimental artists. Chalk out a literary pilgrimage route starring heavyweights, including Pushkin, Chekhov, Gorky and Leo Tolstoy in wonderful house-museums, all within walking distance of each other.

Colourful Moscow streets

Art fix

New-age art galleries, art festivals, and a vibrant art culture have transformed the Russian capital into a compelling destination for the artistic at heart, where choices abound. Moscow Museum of Modern Art – Mmoma - leads the way with three floors of avant-garde exhibits by Russian artists. The Tretyakov Gallery’s collection of pre-Revolutionary Russian art takes on a trail through to the late 19th-century, while the New Tretyakov Gallery continues the legacy through 20th-century Russian art to contemporary artists. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts reserves a spot on every avid art connoisseur’s list for its European paintings, including Italian High Renaissance, Rembrandt and Impressionist, but also for the gold treasures of ancient Troy that Russia kept hidden for half a century.

The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts 

Continue your treasure hunt into what Stalin visualised as ‘Palaces for the Proletariat’, the 330-kilometre long Moscow Metro network of 200 stations. In this Baroque-style subterranean world, stations morph into museums, astonishing you with mosaic murals, grand chandeliers, majestic sculptures, fine stained glass and exotic marble columns. The stations worth prowling around for hours are Komsomolskaya, Kievskaya, Novoslobodskaya and Taganskaya.

Moscow boasts the most impressive and imposing metro stations in the world 

Soviet nostalgia

Slip into Russia’s shadowy past at the secret fortress once code-named Bunker-42. The monument-cum-museum buried under the Taganskaya metro station reveals Cold War-era trivia about the time when the world shivered with terrors of nuclear annihilation. Those keen on a deeper dive can explore The Museum of Modern History at Tverskaya, where a Communist past comes alive through Soviet propaganda posters and photographs. Another fascinating pitstop is the Muzeon Park of Arts, displaying a collection of over seven hundred Soviet sculptures, including a massive steel sculpture of the Soviet world.

Muzeon Park of Arts - the Park of Fallen Heroes


For a change of perspective, stop at the Monument to the Conquerors of Space. The focal point here is a massive titanium obelisk saluting Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 orbit of Earth and the Soviet Union’s pioneering stint in outer space. Consider spending time for the Memorial Museum of Astronautics, an interactive museum celebrating the Soviet space program. An astounding 85,000 items cover space technology, astronomy, space travel and even taxidermy space dogs, Belka and Strelka.
Muscovite mode

Take a break from hectic sightseeing in Moscow's prime green enclave, Gorky Park, spread over 280 hectares along the river. In the winter, you can even join ice-skaters over the frozen paths, which turn the park into a massive ice rink. Alternatively, hang out at the elite neighbourhood of Patriarch’s Ponds or simply “Patriki,” as locals call it. Luxuriate by the two hectare pond immortalised in Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, admire the elegant architecture and chat with strangers at an iconic cafe or bar.

Gorky Park

Pamper your senses like the Muscovites, ideally in the grandiose 19th-century Sandunovsky Baths. Sweat out the grit in the Banya, a furnace-powered heated hut, succumb to a vigorous thrash with birch twigs and dare a nerve-tingling ice-water plunge. End the day with rainbow colours, dancing animals, tightrope walkers and exuberant spirits at the Old Moscow Circus. For a more sophisticated nightcap, dress to impress for the Bolshoi Theatre. Lyrical waves of tragedy and romance, flawlessly synchronised gliding and twirling, whisper-soft tulle and satin shoes - glide spellbound through Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece Swan Lake to a poignant finale.

The Bolshoi Theatre

Where to eat and drink

Be seen at the White Rabbit. Moscow’s celebrity chef Vladimir Mukhin invites you to experiment with Russian flavours in an elegant setting. Classics like borscht, rabbit pâté and kidneys, up-cycled with unexpected ingredients like dandelion and beer, presented inventively in seashells and stone slabs, make it a gourmet experience to satiate all the senses.

White Rabbit

At Café Pushkin, you will be taken on an extravagant journey back in time in an antique-adorned dining room of an 18th-century Russian aristocrat’s mansion. Traditional Russian dishes with a French twist. Feast like a Tsar in the grand brasserie and splurge on caviar, dumplings, stews and beef stroganoff, paired with an impressive vodka menu. Do not skimp on the house special dessert featuring layers of pistachio and raspberry sorbet draped in chocolate and shaved almonds.

Café Pushkin

Ottepel is a Soviet-era canteen-style located in a restored Soviet-era silk industry pavilion dating back to the 1950s with vista-full windows, charming colonnades and exquisite interiors. The ingenious menu has modern Russian and European dishes with unusual combinations and unique flavours. Consider the ‘Buterbrody’ sandwiches with sprats and herring toppings or the 'Sosiska v Teste' - hotdog served with bacon, pickles and crispy onions. For a more filling meal, try chicken in Georgian "satsivi" sauce with fried polenta and cheese.
Indulgent accommodation options

From the contemporary to the classical, Moscow offers visitors a choice of luxury hotels.

The Ritz Carlton, Moscow

Staying within Moscow

Be within walking distance of all city sights and attractions by staying in Kitay-Gorod, the oldest and most central neighbourhood, which borders the Kremlin and Red Square. Those who prefer access to nightlife spots can choose Tverskoy, a trendy area littered with clubs, bars and fine restaurants. Arbat is another good pick for its old-world atmosphere and abundance of cafes and eating joints. On the east side of Moscow, the district of Basmanny is an alternative for those who want a quieter base to explore the city.

Read our guide to the best hotels in Moscow


Navigating the city

Airport to downtown is a breeze – instruct the hotel to send a car. It really is the easiest way to travel. Within the city, the best way to get around is undeniably the Moscow Metro. Extensive coverage, fast commute time and more convenience than buses and trams afford, it also gives you the chance to drool over opulent ornamentation while you are getting around to your stop. Renting a car is not advisable, not only because of the traffic congestion but also because all street signs are in Russian.

The stunning Komsomolskaya Station searches hundreds of travel sites at once to help you find the best premium travel offers for both flights to and from the city and accommodation in Moscow. 

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