Gorky Park in Moscow is not what you think (probably)

Mama was recently startled to find that despite her best efforts on Instagram, at least two of her UK-specific friends seem to have a very Soviet view of the centre of Moscow. Don’t they know that the monumentally ugly Rossiya hotel was pulled down and is now the most hipster of hipstery parks IN THE WORLD?

For example.

We now have trees and specially widened pavements on what used to be an unrelievedly grim multi-lane highway, Tverskaya Street, barreling down to Red Square.

The massive pedestrianisation project of the rest of Central Moscow is almost complete.

Cafe culture, albeit strictly in the spring and summer months, is a thing (in the winter it’s all outdoor skating rinks, light shows and street parties).

Not only this, but you can hire not only bikes but, god love us all, scooters, the better to idly tool your way round the leafy, flower-infested boulevards, past the restored facades of pre-twentieth century mansion houses, factory buildings and churches, or around the ponds. As well as gasp at the monumental Soviet architectural doorway architecture, constructivist balconies and such like.

At night, it’s all lit up!

And at any given moment you are very likely to find the whole of central Moscow putting on some kind of festival. New Year, spring, jam, history, fish, teachers, singing, war – we celebrate them all.

I’ll grant you that some of the residential tower blocks in the suburbs are a bit grim. But if the Moscow Mayor gets his way, many of these are not long for this world either. Of course, this demolition project has prompted the Guardian to publish a series of articles explaining how these are not monstrous carbuncles with inconveniently small kitchens, out of date wiring, inadequate sewage systems and nowhere to put a washing machine, but charmingly well thought out residencies and one of the pinnacles of communist social and engineering achievements, which all the former Soviet states were lucky to benefit from. Why oh why would anyone think of pulling them down? And rehousing the inhabitants!

Although they are right about the fact that the replacement of the generously sized leafy courtyards and five floor blocks with 24-story high rises and concrete forecourts is less than ideal. And that this has proved a lot less popular with Muscovites than perhaps Sobyanin was expecting. Possibly because in addition to the loss of pleasant surroundings, the developers and city hall have also found a clever dodge so that the city government does not have to keep its infrastructure provision in line with the proposed quadrupling of residents.

However.

As a result, Mama is of the mind that perhaps y’all have entirely the wrong picture of Gorky Park, Moscow’s most famous outdoor space in your heads. Which is a shame.

In the foreground on the left are some spiky palm leaves. On the right some formal flowerbeds made from low clipped bushes and some deep red flowers. In the background is a rectangular white stone structure. Two pillars and six pairs of columns hold up a roof of the gateway to Gorky Park in Moscow. It is a bright sunny day and the sky is blue.

So what is Gorky Park like?

In summer, you can lounge around on the free cushions, benches and other seating admiring the flowers.

Selection of white, pink, yellow and red flowers in close up
A circular flowerbed with a swirly pattern made of different coloured flowers, especially red. In the middle an urn made of a clipped bush rather than stone rises up, with spiky leaves growing out of the top. The flowerbed is surrounded by trees and benches, and there are people sitting or walking around it.

Or you can hire all sorts of modes of personal transport: bikes, scooters, tandems and so on and enjoy a lengthy run along the Moscow River embankment.

A white structure holds bikes for hire. Hanging from the ceiling are some skateboards and scooters. On some shelves to the left are roller skates. Two people are talking to the assistant in the centre. They are dressed mostly in white and the assistant has a yellow T short on. In the background are trees. The sky is blue.

Or get a pedalo and drift around the lakes (there are two).

A pond surrounded by some reeds with some pedalos drifting around it. There is a small arched bridge and trees in the background, as well as a sculpture of white boxes stood on one another in a 3x3 grid

You can take part in other sports too, with a beach volleyball area, and plenty of free outdoor yoga classes and the like.

A group of men are bunched under a basket ball hoop, looking up. Another man to the left in green shorts has shot, and the ball is about to go though the hoop. Other players are distributed around the court. A spectator watches from the side. In the background there are people playing beach volleyball in swimming costumes on an artificial beach in Gorky Park.
To the left there is a red stage with Reebock written over it. On stage people in exercise gear demonstrate moves. In front of the stage, some people in aerobics gear are copying them, while others watch. They all have their back to the camera. It is a rainy day, and everyone is dressed for that weather.

There are children’s play areas, which are pretty cool no matter what the weather.

In the Gorky Park playground there is a large wooden blue cruise liner style ship, slighly heeling to one side as if sinking. There are handholds so children can climb the sides and lots of small round portholes because you can climb inside and look out. At the back is a large white sphere, which you can also climb inside and a round red pipe. In the foreground are some wooden steps in the form of waves to climb over or sit on. In the background there are trees without any leaves on.
Behind some bushes there is an area with swings set in a circle suspended from white metal frames. Some of the swings are traditional, some are less so. You can see adults, teenagers and kids in the swinging equipment. In the foreground are some bushes and in the background a concrete building with lots of windows.

Food and drink stalls, cafes and restaurants abound.

There are five food stalls. The signs are all in Cyrillic. The nearest has tea urns with bread snacks a bit like pretzels handing. Stallholders are busy preparing food or standing looking out. One customer is leaning on the stall and chatting to the stallholders. It has been raining and the customers are wearing warm coats, hats and boots.

And! There is a dancing fountain!

In the foreground are spikey blue and white flowers and in the background, out of focus, a fountain arcs water straight up, left and right. A man is looking at it with his back to the camera.

In winter the whole place turns into a giant outdoor ice rink. It’s not quite as big as the one out at VDNKh usually is, but it’s just as cool.

You can also climb on top of the entrance gates to a viewing platform. And visit Gorky Park’s very own museum (it’s on our list. Obviously).

The Gorky Park gateway from underneath. You can se white stone columns on either side and sandy coloured stone above, with large round indentations cur into the stone. The sky is a strong blue colour to either side.

There is even a highly regarded modern art gallery, Garage, to look round.

Delicate blue, purple and white flowers with on tall thin stems with frothy frondy leaves in the foreground. In the background are some trees and grass surrounded by paths, and behind that a silver rectangular building that is Garage art gallery.

And an observatory.

Partially hidden by trees is a small cylindrical red and white building with a shiny silver metal dome that the sunlight is bouncing off. In the foreground there is long grass and a plant with bushy broad leaves. There are some white globe lamps dotted around, close to the ground.

Gorky Park always gets in on any of the big city wide celebrations happening in Moscow, so it’s a definite place to consider going if you want to join in.

Two men and a woman stand around a small forge next to the Moscow River in Gorky Park. The woman is looking down, with her hood up and her hands in the pocket of her coat and operating bellows with her foot. A man opposite her is smiling and holding a long metal rod in the fire. He has on a beanie hat and a cagoule and some gloves. The other man stands between them with his hands in the pockets of his trousers, looking at the fire. He is wearing a hoody and a bodywarmer.
There are a whole bunch of people climbing over tanks parked on the embankment of the Moscow river in Gorky Park
Two large men have picked up a large tractor tire and are carrying them in parallel in a rage. Straw bales mark the area they are racing in. Other people are standing and watching them. It is a wet day.

But you also probably don’t realise how big it is.

Neskuchny Gardens are not boring

The bit with the organised fun, the bit actually called Gorky Park, is really only the start of it.

If you amble further along you get to Neskuchny Gardens, which literally translates to ‘Not Boring Gardens’. These are the remains of the formal gardens belonging to the mansion houses of aristocrats, which after the revolution were commandeered to form the backbone of the new proletarian leisure facility.

This isn’t a mansion house though. It is a library.

A classical looking yellow and white  building with a columned frontage sits on top of a steep hill covered in brown autumn leaves. The trunk of a willow tree leans in from the left, and dangles its thin branches down from the top of the picture.

There are also grottos, statues, pleasant grassy knolls and a continuation of the embankment to continue to stroll along. Somewhere there is also a round pavilion where What? Where? When? is filmed. A quirky and very beloved TV show, it is something like what would happen if you crossed University Challenge and QI, let the participants wear evening dress and had members of the public setting the questions.

And! Mama and Papa came here for their very first date. Which seems to have worked out quite well all told.

Sparrow Hills are quite hilly and might have some sparrows

If you keep going, you will find yourself in the midst of the wooded Sparrow Hills. Through which you can walk and walk and walk, and take in this fabulous building.

It’s the Russian Federation’s Science Academy. Isn’t the architecture just perfect for an academy of sciences? And if you nip across the bridge here you can go to the Moscow Art Deco Museum.

However!

You are still not done and can continue walking though woods, next to the river, past the urban beach, which Mama does not really recommend you swim from, right round to the Luzhniki football stadium, Novodovichiy convent and Moscow City. Although you’ll have to cross the Moscow River to get to them.

Luckily, a brand new method of doing this has just started up – taking a cable car. Which doubles, in winter, as a means of getting to the inner city downhill ski run.

So, Gorky Park. Well worth a visit, especially if you are in Moscow for any length of time, in summer or winter. Not much to get back to the USSR with (you want Muzeon, just over the road, for that) but a lot of other things to see and do.

And for more information about the man behind the name, see this post.

More information

The park has its own website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Terry Pratchett, author.

Address: Krymsky Val, 9, Moscow, 119049

Admission to the park is free.

Opening: 24 hours. Allegedly.

Getting there: For the main entrance, you want either Oktyabrskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) or Park Kultury (red line). But there are a number of other entrance points, notably Vorobyovy Gory (red line), which will give you a walk through the Sparrow Hills wooded area, through Neskuchny Sad/ Not Boring Gardens and on to Gorky Park.

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How and why to get lost at the Russian Forest Museum

Mama once got lost in a forest in Russia (as well as Kolomna).

It was a decidedly worrying thirty minutes, until she and Papa were able to follow the sounds of dacha land back to civilization, popping out of the trees some considerable distance to where they went in to pick a few mushrooms.

This experience was rendered not less freaky by the story their neighbour then told of getting turned around on a similar mission and being stuck in the trees for three days.

Which just goes to show you that Muscovites may know how to fix the central heating system with a bent paperclip and a hammer, but are not at all wilderness ready.

This is a problem because the Russian forest is a wilderness. And huge. And largely left to its own devices.

So Mama was very surprised that the Russian Forest Museum in Moscow is one of the Russian captial’s best kept secrets, which she only stumbled upon by accident.

It’s a bonus that it turned out to be something of a find, and is now one of our favourite museums in Moscow.

Some of this is because of fabulous detailing of the interior, like this traditional wooden window carving.

Undoubtedly more of it is because of the room full off stuffed animals, mimicking a forest glade. Complete with the pleasant sounds of soft bird calls and running water.

The bird calls are recorded, but the water music is because of the actual stream flowing through the diorama. It is CHARMING. We were all CHARMED.

Plus, they have an excellent natural stone floor.

It’s called the Temple of the Forest. Quite right too.

The rest of the Russian Forest Museum is a bit less quirky but no less interesting to poke around, managing to impart all sorts of facts about trees and the other plants and wildlife that you can find among them.

Forest management.

Some tools and other items representing forestry in the Russian Forest Museum Moscow

Fruits of the forest.

Leaves.

Also, Baba Yaga.

The docents in charge of the Russian Forest Museum have also been particularly welcoming and very happy to cater to my and my Sylvan Big Brother’s enthusiasm when ever we pitch up.

They also told us that the Yolka, the children’s show at New Year, is particularly fabulous.

Even the cave where the coats are kept is cool. Noticing the owl is a sign of being a child at heart, the cloakroom attendant explained, because all the kids do, but none of the adults. By and large.

So quite why it is not heaving with interested visitors is a complete mystery to Mama. Although her accompanying Russian friend did point out that if, in fact, Russians want to commune with the silver birches, the ceder trees and the many varieties of fir and wotnot, all they have to do is walk about 200 yards outside of any given town. Even right next to Moscow is a nature reserve which is home to elk and wild boars. Elk! and wild boars!

So, vast expanses of (nature filled) trees, continually on your doorstep. Not as thoroughly exotic as they are to Mama.

Anyway.

It may have been our visit to the Russian Forest Museum which gave Mama the chutzpah to go back into the woods some fifteen years after her first disastrous visit.

Or it may have been the fact that every other tree on the trail to the local swimming hole was marked. Mama’s fellow urbanites may be Russian, but have clearly learned to take no chances.

Since the walk takes about 40 minutes and one tree does start to look much the same as another after a while, at some point the locals have gotten creative, and added signage. There’s only so much excitement to be had from the soft sunlight streaming though the leafy canopy onto the floor of moss and blueberries, the crack of a tree falling over 50 metres away, the smell of damp earth and greenery, and wondering if you will tread on a snake while realising it is more likely to be a frog.

This one says ‘mosquitoes’ and is accurate.

Others hint at the delights of the swimming area ahead.

Swimming costume nailed to a tree

There’s a waterproof visitors book.

And other witty remarks such as ‘sun this way’.

Or, for the way back, ‘your dinner’s getting cold’.

It was fun. But so is the Russian Forest Museum in Moscow. Well worth adding to a walk around the attractively buildinged area immediately south of the Moscow River down from the Kremlin. Which is clearly the subject of a post for another day.

More information

The Russian Forest Museum’s website (in Russian).

Address: Building 4, 5th Monetchikovsky Pereulok, Moscow, 115054

Opening: In summer, Monday – Friday (closed weekends) 10am to 6pm. At other times, the museum is closed Monday and Tuesdays, but open on weekends.

Admission: 150 roubles for adults, 100 roubles for children over seven (under sevens are free).

Getting there: It’s close to Paveletskaya Metro station, on the green and brown lines. You can also walk down from Teatralnaya/ Novokuznetskaya (green, yellow and orange lines) which will take you past a lot of interesting buildings in this older district.

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Suitcases and Sandcastles

The Gorky House Museum, Art Nouveau staircases and the Ryabushinsky Mansion in Moscow

Mama has, over the years, read her way through at least one book by most Russian language writers who are not poets.

I wouldn’t say this has been a hardship, Russian writers are a lot less dour than they are given credit for. Except Dostoevsky. Don’t read him.

But she has read nothing by Maxim Gorky.

Which seemed odd given that he was a writer so famous they named the central park after him.

The thing is, Mama came to Gorky via Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a book about the extensive network of political prison camps, how they came about, what life was like in them, who got sent there and what it did to them.

Gorky pops up in the bit about the building of the White Sea – Baltic Canal, a project notorious for the number of its laborers, the majority of them from the gulags, it killed. Gorky praised it. He also praised one of the original gulags out on the Solovetsky Islands after he went on a visit there. He is supposed to have righted a newspaper, held upside down in protest by a zek (political prisoner) at the fact that they had been cleaned up and given leisure time and so on for the visit, thus showing his understanding of the deception and his sympathies for the condition of the prisoners.

But what he actually wrote about it was… different.

So Mama had got the impression that Gorky’s fame was mostly built on being a Stalin apologist for hire, and didn’t really feel the need to delve much deeper. Because Mama does not approve of Stalin apologists. Whether for hire or not.

However.

During his time in the Soviet Union Gorky was given a house with a very fabulous staircase in it, and Mama has wanted to see this staircase for quite some time. So off, eventually, we popped to have a look a it. The Gorky House Museum came as a bonus.

This house is one of a number of buildings in Moscow built at a time when Art Nouveau (what the Russians call Style Modern, with a decidedly French accent) was all the rage. The Gorky House Museum is a particularly shining example of this.

Ryabushinsky Mansion in Moscow

Of course, it wasn’t Gorky’s house to begin with.

No, it was constructed for the wealthy banker and industrialist, Stepan Ryabushinsky, who among other things started the first car factory in Russia. This was rebranded after the revolution as ZIL, the famous maker of Soviet cars, jeeps, tractors, trucks and so on. It’s been knocked down now, and is being turned into a cultural centre. Very Post Soviet Moscow.

But the name more properly associated with the house is Fyodor Shekhtel, the architect, who had a number of Art Nouveau projects on the go in the 1900s. Most of these now belong to embassies so are hard to get inside.

He also dabbled in some rather fabulous theatre costume designs. As you do.

The Shekhtel House, then, is thoroughly Style Modern from top to bottom, with the possible exception of the hidden Russian Orthodox chapel at the top. Not because Gorky turned out to be a secret Christian in an atheist communist world, but because the Ryabushinsky family were Old Believers, a version of Orthodoxy that was frowned upon in Russia, well before the Revolution.

Secret Orthodox Old Believers chapel at the Ryabushinsky Mansion Moscow

Mama sold Art Nouveau to us by explaining that that artists of this persuasion tried to do is take the natural world, plants, flowers and ANIMALS as their inspiration. She sold a visit to the Ryabushinsky Mansion to us with the challenge of trying to spot as many of these little details as we went round as possible.

This turned out to be a very fruitful pastime. There are animals (and plants) in the mouldings, the lintels, the wall and door panels, in the stained glass windows, as well as tiled areas on the outside.

Th window frames are particularly fascinating. To Mama (no animals for us).

Art Nouveau window at the Shekhtel House in Moscow

But when we were chatting to the cloakroom attendant at the end of our tour, and she had got out the big Shekhtel book to show us more of the animal theatre costumes than were displayed on the walls, she also quizzed us on what we had spotted in the house.

Turns out there are more animals than even my Animal Obsessed Big Brother had imagined possible, even though he had to hang around for quite a long time looking for them while Mama tried to get the perfect photo of the staircase.

Now we know where more are to be found, we will have to go back. Don’t make the same mistake. There is an owl here. Can you see it?

Art Nouveau owl window at the Shekhtel House in Moscow

Anyway. The Ryabushinsky/ Shekhtal mansion is a pretty fabulous one by anyone’s standards, and that’s before you are told it was designed with air conditioning and spot lighting. And the fact that Maxim Gorky was given it moved Mama to perhaps think that she had better find out what the actual deal with was him after all.

‘Gorky’ is the Russian word for ‘bitter’ and is not his original name, which was Alexey Maximovich Peshkov.

It turns out that Gorky grew up in difficult circumstances in Nizhney Novgorod, very nearly committing suicide around the age of twenty. Experiences arising from this childhood as well as extensive travel on foot around the Russian Empire led him into writing vividly angry journalism, vividly angry novels, vividly angry short stories, vividly angry plays and vividly angry essays of gritty social realism about the harsh realities of being poor or marginalised in Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th .

A very sobering contrast to the life of a cultured and fabulously rich merchant able to commission elegant harmonious living spaces from brilliant architects and contemplate the universe from his religious hidey hole in peace.

Door at the Shekhtel House in Moscow

In fact, Mama says as a writer and social commentator he was Charles Dickens on crack. Especially as he spent the (failed) 1905 revolution attempt in St Petersburg constructing home made bombs in some random apartment with a whole bunch of very energetic Marxists. After which he was exiled.

And went to Capri.

Anyway. It was actually Gorky’s pre-revolutionary writings and activities that make him a hero of the Soviet Union, what with the favourable publicity and support that they brought to the cause when they went viral around the world. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature five times.

Obviously he knew Lenin. He wasn’t, apparently, very impressed by Lenin, which is another point in his favour, says Mama, who is also not a Vladimir Ilyich Lenin fan. Although he did agree to front a Bolshevik fundraising drive in America at one point. In the end this was somewhat stymied by him taking along his girlfriend, rather than his actual wife, for the duration. The Americans were not, by and large, impressed by this, despite having much more time for his writing than you would expect given how thoroughly freaked out they seem to be if anyone mentions the phrase ‘socialised medicine’ today.

Mama also says.

Mama is in a decidedly spiky mood today, I see.

Mama also notes that Maxim Gorky seems to have a thing for interesting women, which is probably the best thing about him. His wife, Ekaterina Peshkova, worked tirelessly to advocate for artists, writers and so on caught up first in repressions of Tsarism, work she continued, vigourously, in communist times as one of the most effective members of the Political Prisoners Relief organisation.

And one of his later girlfriends was Moura Budberg. Who was a Soviet/ British double agent. After ending her association with Gorky, she ended up in England, where she repeatedly refused to marry HG Wells, of allegorical time travelling fame. She is also, incidentally, the Half Great (Great?) Aunt of Nick Clegg, which is possibly taking six degrees of separation a bit far, but still amusing to Mama.

What with one thing and another (Lenin didn’t like him any more than he liked Lenin), after the actual revolution, Gorky left and went to Sorrento, along a fairly large household of girlfriends, his ex wife and his children, adopted and otherwise. The reason why he ended up back in Russia again is a bit unclear. Mama, who cannot entirely shake her initial bad impression of Gorky, thinks it is either because he ran out of money, revolutionary writings now being less popular around the world once revolutionary reality had engulfed Russia and the surrounding area, or because he wanted to experience first hand some of the adulation he was nevertheless still getting inside the USSR (being conveniently out of the way).

Possibly both.

He certainly got a very cushy number in the Ryabushinsky Mansion, but his return was definitely also a propaganda coup for the communist regime. It seems he was expected to act, as president of the Union of Soviet Writers, as a sort of cultural ambassador and host to writers and so on from abroad, with the magnificent Art Nouveau staircase and so on as a backdrop. So perhaps one shouldn’t see it as entirely a gift without strings attached. Especially as there is also a suggestion that, along with most of the rest of the Soviet Union inhabitants, fear of what might happen to loved ones, including his children, effectively constrained him from the outspoken criticism of a repressive regime that had characterised his early life.

Here is his place at the table set up with tea things.

Tea set out for Gorky at the Gorky House Museum in Moscow Russia

He himself actually complained that the house was too grand.

Here is his bed.

Gorky's Bed at the Ryabushinsky Mansion Gorky House Museum Moscow Russia

He also said that he was continually watched.

Hence his behaviour, it is said, with regard to the canal and the
Solovetsky Islands .

Sigh, says Mama, who is not one of those people who goes around saying, deludedly, ‘if I lived at the time then I would have DONE SOMETHING’ from the perspective of a comfortable middle class lifestyle.

And Gorky only actually lived for four years after his return the the USSR, dying in 1938 at the age of 68. His son died before him. Rumours that one or both of them were purposefully killed abound. Naturally.

So, it might be better after all to focus on the interior of the house rather than the details of Gorky’s life, and thank our lucky stars that Shekhtel’s architectural masterpiece was, for whatever reason, preserved.

At one point before Gorky moved in, for example, Gorky’s house was a kindergarten. An experimental kindergarten.

!!!!!!!???????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????? Says Mama, worried about her staircase.

Whhhhhheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Say I, and my Obsessed Big Brother has just gone green with envy.

Among the preservees, says Mama, who is clearly determined to cram every last little tidbit of information she knows about this building into this review, was Nadezhda Peshkova, a painter and Gorky’s son’s widow. She lived in the house until 1965 and was then instrumental in having it turned into the Gorky House Museum.

That said, there is a certain lack of fine detail in some of the restoration. Russia, Mama says, is clearly not very used to actually having anything left to preserve and restore, so they do not seem to be doing a very good job of it. Rebuilding whole palaces from scratch in Kolomenskoye and Tsaritsyno parks is really not quite the same. Told you she was in a funny mood.

Still.

The staircase, in particular is TOTALLY worth it.

Art Nouveau staircase at the Shekhtel House where Gorky lived Moscow

Although we really preferred the jellyfish lamp.

And if you go up the stairs and look down, be sure to notice the turtle styling from above, this being another of the little secrets given to us by our connection in the cloakroom.

More information

The Memorial House Museum of Maxim Gorky’s official website.

Address: 6/2 Malaya Nikitskaya, just up from Tverskoi Boulevard, and across the road from the very church where Alexander Pushkin got married to the most beautiful woman in Russia.

Opening: Wednesday to Sunday, 11am to 5.30pm. Every third Thursday in the month Gorky’s house is also closed.

Admission: Adults are 300 roubles, kids are 100 roubles and if you are very obviously foreign like Mama you pay 400 roubles. Don’t forget to add the photo pass for 100 roubles.

Getting there: The nearest metro stations are probably the three connected ones of Pushkinskaya (purple line), Chekovskaya (grey line) and Tverskaya (green line), although see also Arbatskaya (both blue lines) and their connectiong stations on the red and grey lines, and also Barrikadnaya/ Krasnopresnehskaya (purple/ brown lines). It’s a good ten to fifteen minutes walk from any of these.

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The main reason to visit the Gorky House Museum Moscow, otherwise known as the Ryabushinsky Mansion, is the fabulous staircase. And the jellyfish lamp.
The main reason to visit the Gorky House Museum Moscow, otherwise known as the Ryabushinsky Mansion, is the fabulous staircase. And the jellyfish lamp

The Moscow New Year Street Party on Tverskaya

‘What, again?’ said my Jaded Big Brother when Mama suggested going into the centre of Moscow to see what was occurring at the Moscow New Year street party at the beginning of January.

By this time we had already thoroughly investigated the winter sports theme on Tverskoi Boulevard. We had wandered down the Arbat, and across Manedzh and Red Square to admire the lights.

We had seen the fairytale arches outside the Bolshoi and walked up Nikolskaya Street to the particularly fabulous set of trees on Lubyanka. We had even been inside Detskiy Mir and GUM, and eaten the obligatory ice cream in each.

What was left?

Well, New Year being the biggest holiday of the year in Russia, a three-day street festival, starting on 31st December and ending on 2nd January. Tverskaya Street, the road leading down to Red Square, was closed off. Stages and other decorative items were erected. Interactive opportunities were dreamed up.

Kremlin and Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

Which of course was alongside all the existing stalls and festive lights which were part of the ongoing New Year (and Christmas) celebrations in Moscow.

Mama caught some of the preparations. This tree, and there were a number of them up and down the street, took all day to decorate. Much to Mama’s amusement, the whole operation was enacted by men, but organised by a woman shouting at them through a megaphone. She felt that this was an art installation of unsurpassed satirical accuracy.

Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Festival

And it was all free.

We arrived towards evening, as Mama feels that enjoying winter festivals and their light shows should be done in the dark, if possible.

Of course, in Russia, in winter, that means about starting at about 4pm.

Things you can expect to find at the Moscow New Year street festival?

People wandering around on stilts. Which makes a lot of sense as you can see them above the crowds.

Stilt walkers Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

Groups of costumed dancers. You may or may not wish to join in with them. We saw angels. Or possibly snowflakes.

Dancing angels on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

Candy canes (not a Russian tradition as such, but hey). Plus band.

Band on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

And Mama’s personal favourite, cosmonauts (definitely something Russians get as much mileage out of as possible).

Dancing cosmonauts on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Festival

There were some chill out zones and covered pop up cafes.

Grotto on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow Journey into Christmas Festival
Warming up on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Festival

And stages. Not sure if early evening on the last day meant that the programming had run through all the obvious candidates already, but it turns out that Russian rockabilly is a thing. Mama enjoyed this band, Fire Granny, immensely, and insisted on bopping along.

Incidentally, it was snowing so hard you might actually be able to see it in the photos. This winter has been particularly good value for snowfall, and there is definitely something very fabulous about doing anything at New Year and Christmas accompanied by large fluffy snowflakes.

This did not make things easier for the tightrope walkers operating high above the street about half way down. Genuinely awesome, and they had even worked out how to make falling off part of the act. Luckily.

Tightrope walker on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow Journey into Christmas Festival

We also got a chance to try out tightrope walking for ourselves. Ably assisted by assistants to keep us on the ropes.

Tightrope walking on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

And thus we carried on our way, until we got to the real life hockey game at the bottom, and the people swaying gently back and forth on long sticks.

Ice Hockey on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party
Acrobats on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Festival

Hugely entertaining way to spend a few hours during the New Year holidays, and just goes to show why, if you want to spend New Year outside of your own country, you should definitely consider Moscow.

And for your convenience the whole festival is actually called ‘the Journey into Christmas’ because Christmas in Russia comes at the end of the winter holiday break on 7th January rather than the beginning. It’s good marketing for non-Russians, at least for those who arrive before December 25th, especially as many of the things Russians do for New Year, other countries do for Christmas.

Unicorn and Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

As for the Moscow New Year street party, Mama recommends starting at the top end, near Pushkinskaya Square. No particular reason, except that it’s downhill, and you can finish up at the fair on Red Square that way. Or go ice skating.

Either way, it’s definitely something we recommend if you are in town at the right time.

More information

This is the Moscow city government’s festival page (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about constructing the perfect playlist for a party.

Getting there: Pushkinskaya (purple line), Chekovskaya (grey line) or Tverskaya (green line) stations will drop you at the top of Tverskaya Street, and Okhotniy Ryad (red line), Ploshard Revolutsiy (dark blue line) and Teatralnaya (green line) stations will see you at the bottom.

Opening: The street party generally runs from 31st December to 2nd January, and the Journey into Christmas festival starts mid December and goes on until the second week in January.

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Have Spacesuit Will Travel to the Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

When we first visited the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, devoted to the Soviet and Russian space programme, Mama thought that space, its vastness, its inhospitable nature and the problems of how to stay there successfully went a bit over my and my Cosmic Big Brother’s head.

Inside a spacesuit Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

At that point we were only visiting Moscow, we were both six and under, and I was quite concerned about some of my toys. They were not where I was. I kept asking Mama if they were in my far far away home. She said yes. I was reassured for another ten minutes, while Mama was delighted. Not, I hasten to explain, because I was undergoing angst. But because she thought I had understood something important about the abstract concept of place.

What I say is that you would have had to be very dim indeed, or y’know, two or something not to grasp the distances involved when you have got on a train for ages, a plane for ages and ages and ages, a train for ages, an underground train for ages, and then still had short bus ride to go.

But space, I’m told, is even further away. And I did spend quite some time thinking that Moscow was a magical fairyland up in the clouds, because I tended to be asleep for the down bit of the journey. You can see Mama’s concern. Particularly as there are also actual adult people living today who think that the world is flat. 

On top of this, modern life being in many ways indistinguishable from magic, the sheer effort involved in chucking a big tin tube into outer space past the gravity sucking forces and cosy atmosphere bubble is easy to dismiss. Even when it comes back more or less intact. I mean, it’s alright, but it’s no carrying a talking super computer connected to the collected wisdom of humanity (plus cat pictures and Bejeweled Gem Swap Invasion 7) around in your pocket, is it? Surely there’s an app for that?

Satellite Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

However, the good news is that you cannot spend three years living in Russia without gaining a bit (ok, a lot) more appreciation of the whole undertaking. Or the idea that being first to *cough* almost *cough* everything to do with the cosmos is a thing to aspire to and be proud of.

MIR space station Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

So Mama now has to lean somewhat less hard on her not considerable knowledge of physics and engineering to engage us on our visit to the Space Museum, and can rely somewhat more on that of my Cosmic Big Brother. Who has been on school visits. And has internalized a number of factoids he finds interesting about the exhibits. Which he is more than happy to share.

Naturally, as it involves animals, chief among those is the life story of the space dogs, Belka and Strelka, the first two living beings to make it to space and come back alive (give or take a few mice and fruit flies). Did you know that after they landed they were never fed conventional dog food again, but only the very choicest of meaty morsels? You do now. And when they died, they were stuffed and put on display in the Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in the opening gallery devoted to some of the famous first flights. Now that’s fame.

Belka at the Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

Luckily for her, Valentina Tereshkova is still alive and unavailable. Mama wonders how close Yuri Gagarin was to sharing the same fate. But Sputnik is there, and that’s pretty cool, as are the first satellites to orbit various heavenly bodies, significant space suits and a film loop of footage surrounding the most significant space race milestones. Clips of take offs, engineers fiddling with equipment, the great dog/human cosmonauts themselves waving, and shots of ordinary people’s reactions to the news of what had happened.

Sputnik Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

The great engineering brains behind the endeavour are not forgotten either, but they too are given a human touch. Not just their medals or items from their professional lives are on display, but photos of them relaxing at the datcha alongside their personal chess board and so on too.

Also in this section are some of the spaceorific souvenirs created to commemorate all of this worthy activity. Which, this being the Soviet Union, were mostly in the form of lovingly hand crafted porcelain items rather than mass-produced plastic tat. This is Mama’s personal favourite, although she would like to point you in the direction of the very (very very) obviously female cosmonauts in the other display case.

Space flight souvenir Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

The engagement of children and adults alike is also enhanced by the fact that the Cosmonautics Museum is visually stunning too. The sputniks, rockets, landing crafts, satellites and probes which litter the place are objects d’art in their own right. The first room you enter has lighting designed to simulate a particularly impressive starry starry night, which makes all the shiny metal things twinkle and the marble floor gleam. The main exhibition hall has a space mural painted over the ceiling. Something which I was particularly delighted to point out to Mama.

Space Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

And it is surrounded by aluminum walkways, almost giving Mama the impression that she would at any moment be ushered into a space craft and countdown will commence.

Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

If you are in any way photography minded, this means you will want to invest in the special pass. You can take pictures with your phone for free, but for an actual camera you need to pay extra. Mama made the mistake of not realising the first time she visited how very photogenic the Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics would be. By the time she noticed, she was too far in to go back. Mama’s photography skills are not improved by having to hide behind Papa to snap shots very quickly, so this time we went she ponied up the 230 roubles immediately we arrived.

Totally. Worth. It.

Of course, you can see inside the rockets too, and actually tour a mock-up of the original space station, MIR. Where we were delighted by the computer stuck to the ceiling, the space toilet, and the fish tank.

Fish tank Mir Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

And then you can roam around in the section about how cosmonauts live, when they are preparing for space, when they are in space, and when they land. Check out the space fridge!

Space fridge Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

And the very natty training uniforms.

Cosmonauts uniforms Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

And lots of pictures of smiley people clearly having a whale of a time while whizzing round and round the Earth, pondering the insignificance of humanity’s place in the universe.

Life on MIR Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

And this, which my Cosmic Big Brother somehow still managed to make all about animals. It’s the emergency kit for cosmonauts who have landed to help them survive until help arrives. Note the gun? That’s for shooting wolves, apparently. Aaaaaaaaaaah, Russia.

Cosmonauts survival kit Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

Just underneath MIR, you can see a re-entry capsule that actually was in space, which you can tell because of its impressively incinerated look. Look out for this mottling elsewhere to reassure you they have not just emptied out the space programme’s cupboards of all the spare, unused space-going, possibly a bit substandard machinery.

Reentry Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

The last area is when international co-operation in this great undertaking is celebrated, specially in detailing the work of the International Space Station. We were terribly excited to see the UK flag up there. Hurrah for all two of our astronauts!

Cosmonauts and astronauts Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

It is sobering, though, to note by looking at the wall of Soviet/ Russian cosmonauts, just how few people of any nationality have been up on the cosmos in the last 70-odd years.

If all of this attention to the pinnacle of human ingenuity has made you hungry, there is now a cafe open on the premises, in which you can buy some very reasonable pizzas, and souvenir space food.

Mama was rather upset not to be able to get dehydrated space ice cream and recreate the thrill of when Grandad brought her some on his business trip to the US space centres when she was a child. However, with careful consideration, we got some chicken-and-potato-in-a-tube to take home. After much delighted faffing about with the nifty self-heating pouch, it was a bit of a let down to discover that what was inside was perfectly palatable. But then none of us is all that far removed from the pureed baby food era of family life, so this judgement is perhaps not representative of the reaction of the population at large.

They have also set up a proper souvenir shop in the Moscow Space Museum foyer, although Mama thinks they need more interesting mugs, and also wonders why they do not sell the space food there. We just wanted the Belka and Strelka toys. And magnets. And, I dunno, pencil sharpeners. Whatever there are the cute space dogs on really. Although I was also impressed by the professional looking telescopes.

What they have taken away since our last visit are the very blue, very plush, very strokable rope barriers. Noooooooooooooo! But probably sensible, given that you were not supposed to touch them. Mama likes to think the decision was made after she helpfully pointed out this problem in our original post about the Cosmonautics Museum in Moscow.

The museum does still have the best entrance marker of any museum evah. A sliver rocket soaring on a silver smoke trail elegantly high into the sky. At its base are two very Soviet murals, whose supermen (and dogs) marching gloriously forward into the heavens does not, in this instance, look at all overdone. Mama had been admiring it for years before she ever made it into the museum.

The rocket sculpture above the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Do not dither in the same way yourself and do not let the shiny distraction of the new Cosmos Pavillion in VDNKh, or the fact that you can go on a tour to Star City, the actual current cosmonaut/ astronaut training area outside of Moscow, distract you – the Memorial Museum of Cosmonauitics is still very very worth visiting. It’s important, it’s interesting, it’s beautiful and it’s really really well air-conditioned.

This post has been considerably revised from the original 2014 version after a recent visit.

More information

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the first manned space flight.

Address: 129515, Москва, пр. Мира, д.111

Opening: 11am to 7pm every day except Monday, when is is closed, and Thursday, when it is open until 9pm.

Price: Adults – 250 rubles, Children over seven (and other concessions) – 100 rubles, Children under seven – free. The photography pass (which you MUST get if you have a camera) is 230 rubles.

By Metro: The nearest station is ВДНХ (VDNKh) on the orange line. It is about 100m to the museum entrance past a couple of cruise missiles if you come out of the exit near the front of the train (assuming you are travelling out from the centre), but if you choose the exit past the rear carriages, you can walk up a pedestrian-only avenue lined with cosmonaut-planted trees, busts of famous space-programme-related people, stars commemorating important cosmic milestones, and a damn big solar system sculpture-come-sundial. Luckily, whatever exit you choose, you can’t miss the museum. Head for the rocket.

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Go to the Cosmonautics Museum Moscow and experience the highlights of the Soviet and Russian space programme including sputnik, MIR and Belka and Strelka in person

“hilarystyle"

Banksy in Moscow: genius, vandal or what the hell?

‘Ooooh, is Banksy in Moscow?’ asked Mama on seeing a friend’s Facebook post a month or two back.

Banksy at the Central House of Artists Moscow exhibition

As it turned out, it wasn’t the British graffiti artist Banksy himself on display in Moscow but a number of his works in an exhibition subtitled ‘Genius or Vandal? You decide.’

Mama was relieved. The man’s identity may be something of an open secret these days, but Mama has a lot of sympathy with someone who sticks stubbornly to their pseudonymity regardless.

This being cleared up, Mama had no feelings of conflict when she set off, alone, to admire the exhibition. We were out of town, and Papa airily declared that, unlike Mama, he had been to Bristol and seen a number of Banksies in the original. Whatever was in Moscow would not be the same.

Mama, by contrast, had hitherto only seen one of Banksy’s artworks in person.

Banksy near Regents Park

Which brings us to the dilemma of holding an exhibition of street art.

Quite apart from the issue of transposing the pieces from the raw urban environment they were designed to challenge into a respectable art gallery, how do you overcome the logistical difficulties of transporting whole walls, sometimes quite sizable walls, and frequently holding up actual buildings across a continent and into a room or two, albeit rooms in the very large Central House of Artists, opposite Gorky Park and within the grounds of the sculpture park Muzeon?

The answer may surprise you.

You. Do. Not. Even. Attempt. It!

I know!

Luckily, many of Banksy’s better known works have been reproduced in (Mama understands) fairly limited, carefully authenticated prints. Which is the advantage of frequently working with stencils. So the exhibition consists of a number of these, borrowed back from their owners, and one or two sketches and similar, of the back of an envelope type.

Banksy Note Central House of Artists Moscow

There are also nice big photos of the original works in situ.

Which were usually of typical British street scenes, frequently in London. Mama, overdue a visit back to the motherland, was feeling quite homesick by the end of the show. At one point she actually forgot she was supposed to be looking for the (quite subtle) bit of graffiti and instead gazed at the buildings, the trees, the shops, the road signs, and the people, in undisguised longing for a few minutes.

London street with Banksy Moscow exhibition

Other expats be warned.

Also be warned that you are not the target audience for this show.

The thing is, Mama would not have called herself an avid Banksy follower. But what with the fact that she and Banksy are somewhat of an age, a number of his works here seemed focused on her yoof, cycling as they do though the same topics any 20 something anarcho middle class leftie would have had an eye on back in the 90s.

In fact, the themes – the iniquities of the British royal family, the rise of surveillance society and an obsession with the works of Quentin Tarantino – seemed so linked to their time and the culture that produced them, Mama wondered if they would speak to anyone younger, not British, and not currently upset by the death of Princess Diana, the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, and the ear sawing off scene in Reservoir Dogs being set to such an irresistibly catchy song.

The Royal Family Banksy Moscow exhibition

It also seemed perhaps a bit trivial compared to some of today’s concerns.

Mama concluded that maybe that’s what everyone thinks looking back on their youthful outrage from their 40s, except, perhaps, the bit about the UK having one CCTV camera for every 11 people or so.

Thug for Life Banksy Moscow exhibition

And to be fair, the feedback from Muscovites younger than herself is that they had no trouble relating to the more general points being made by these sections.

Of course, the last thing Mama remembers hearing about from Banksy was the Dismaland installation (pun entirely intended), which was really quite recent, about the same time we left for Moscow in fact.

Banksy took over a large area in a run down seaside resort town on the south coast for a month and together with over 40 other artists created a nightmarish theme park attraction. It featured not only social commentary via the medium of subverted fairground rides and a derelict fairytale castle, but also real life docents who acted like grumpy disaffected employees of the unhappiest place on earth.

Dismaland Banksy Moscow

Mama followed with interest the fuss that it caused, with some commentators noting that the sarcasm was all rather broad, while at the same time, 150 000 people braved the difficulties of booking a ticket via a sketchy website or queued for hours to get the walk in tickets released each day. Having added some 20 million GBP to the local economy it was dismantled – and the building materials sent to the refugee camp near Paris.

It was all very gleefully satisfying.

Of course, Banksy is in many ways something of a performance artist, one who sucks all around his work into participating. From the ongoing arguments about whether his paintings should be allowed to stay put, be painted over, or be protected with glass, involving building owners, local councils, Transport for London, art critics, buyers, the media and after that, the general public. To the fact that he once got into a tit for tat wall painting war with a more venerable tagger and his followers. Which only ended when the other party, King Robbo, sadly had a (non-graffiti related) accident and eventually died of his injuries.

But I suppose what surprised Mama is that given all that has happened in the three years since Dismaland, there wasn’t more about things like the UK currently descending into self-induced turmoil, as though in defiance of how often Banksy really surfaced in the headlines, he should be out there spray painting furiously at all hours, all night, every night, fulfilling the same sort of role as political cartoonists in the newspapers, or comedians on the TV programmes like Mock the Week or Have I got News for You, churning out topical commentary on the latest stories to hit the headline week after week after week.

And it isn’t like he hasn’t said anything at all.

Brexit Banksy Moscow

Of course, Mama mused, it seems Banksy has been spending a bit of time in the US, so perhaps Brexit is not feeling quite so immediate. Mama also gathers one of his current area of focus is Palestine, and there is definitely a case to be made that this is a place which needs attention from someone who has proved very effective at communicating to the public at large in a way that gets people’s attention.

Still, there is another reason than that ‘Banksy: Genius or Vandal’ is more of a Banksy retrospective for the potentially uninitiated, and this is that the exhibition turns out not to actually have anything to do with Banksy himself.

In fact, just this week he posted a screen shot on Instagram of splendidly well-crafted conversation indicating that he might be a bit miffed about it.

Banksy on Instagram Moscow exhibition

The organisers of the exhibition at the Central House of Artists did actually say up front that he was not involved, mind you, but it does explain a couple of things that Mama found surprising when she went round. One is that the tickets start at 550 roubles, which is not 20 quid (it’s more like a fiver) but it is pricy for a Moscow art exhibition, and that’s if you buy online and for a weekday. It’s 15 pounds if you want to skip any queues and have a guided tour, but there are Q-codes which you can scan and get an audio or textual commentary (in Russian) for free. Mama paid 750 roubles (7 or 8 GBP) when she bought at the door on a weekend.

The other is that there is a certain amount of leveraging the merchandising opportunities at the end. Mama hadn’t previously associated Banksy with paying to have your photos taken in the style of some of his better known stencils, or branded T shirts. In fact, while actually at the exhibition, she had spent some time pondering this and trying to work out if this was some kind of new work on the commericalisation of art. Hey ho.

The exhibition closes on 1st September. In the meantime, if you want to see what he is actually doing now, you can visit his website or check him out of Instagram.

More information

The Moscow Banksy exhibition site website.

Banksy’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Yate, South Gloucestershire, UK.

Address: The Central House of Artists, Krimsky Val, 10/14, Moscow, 119049

Opening: Until 1st September 2018 11am to 9pm Monday to Sunday

Admission: Adults: 650 roubles on weekdays and 750 roubles at weekends, no concessions. It’s 100 roubles cheaper if you buy tickets online, and 1400 roubles for a guided tour booked online.

By Metro: Oktabrskaya (orange and brown lines) – turn left, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left down the other massive seven million lane highway at right angles. Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. The Central House of Artists is opposite Gorky Park.

By other means: Actually, the bus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way.

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Banksy in Moscow a review of his unauthorised exhibition.

THE Guide to Moscow for First Time Visitors

Coming to Moscow and not sure what there is to see and do beyond the famous onion domes of Red Square? I am a Brit but I’ve lived in Moscow for well over ten years off and on since 1996. Currently I’m bringing up two Anglo-Russki kids in the capital of Russia, and I’m married to a native Muscovite. This is my guide to the most essential sights for first time visitors to Moscow, as well as other cool, interesting and unusual things you might want to look out for if you have a bit more time to look around.

You can’t miss Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral

Obviously you are going to have to visit Red Square, with St Basil’s Cathedral, the iconic image of Russia as its focal point. You can even go round the church, built in the 16th Century by Ivan the Terrible. St Basil’s is colourfully painted throughout, with tiny winding staircases leading to a succession of dimly lit, atmospheric chapels, all richly highlighted in gold leaf. Sometimes there are also singers.

Red Square Moscow

If that experience is not spooky enough you can also visit the mummified body of Lenin, still in his stylish boxy tomb next door to the cathedral. Shuffle past Lenin, ignore the smell, and don’t try to talk or pause or the guards will… frown at you. Then you can go and see the graves of other famous revolutionaries (and Stalin) in the walls of the Kremlin outside.

Want to see what high-end shopping looks like in Moscow? Nip into GUM, the former Soviet state department store, now thoroughly revamped. Its pre revolutionary roof is a work of art, as are its ice creams. Eating one is a Russian tradition, one of the things you must do in Moscow whatever time of year you visit.

GUM Moscow

Red Square is freely accessible most of the time, except when Lenin is receiving visitors or there is a public holiday which requires celebrating with a parade. The opening hours for St Basil’s are 11am to 6pm in summer and for Lenin’s mausoleum, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 10am to 1pm. Read more about what to see and what (not) to do on Red Square here.

The Kremlin vs St Basil’s

Of course, one thing you may have discovered while visiting Red Square is that St Basil’s is not, in fact, the Kremlin, and the dead centre of Russian political power is also somewhere you can’t miss on a visit to Moscow.

Inside you can admire cathedrals with Tsarist connections, neo-classical government buildings, a cracked bell, some formal gardens, lots of cannons, a really hideous Soviet-era concert hall, and the Russian president’s helipad.

Kremlin helipad Moscow

On Saturdays from April to October you can also watch an elaborate changing of the guard ceremony, although there is also a more modest version every hour or so outside the Kremlin walls at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Lots of high kicking marching and saluting.

If you pay a bit extra you can go to the Armoury and look at national crown jewels type treasure. You might be thinking the communists would have got rid of it, but you will be wrong. There will be a lot of bling. Some Faberge eggs. It will all be exceeding shiny.

The Kremlin is open every day except Thursday. The Armoury costs extra for entrance at two-hour intervals. You need to book your visit on the day, but you can do this via the internet as well as in person.

Experience ‘wild urbanism’ at Zaryadye Park

Prefer some fresh air? If you wander down to the river you can check out Moscow’s newest public open space, Zaryadye Park. It is definitely one of THE spots to go and get your Instagram on – in particular you should head for the bridge that sweeps out into the middle of the river for an uninterrupted shot back up towards Red Square and the Kremlin.

Kremlin from New Zaryadye Park Moscow

Designed by the same people who are responsible for the High Line in New York, it also contains an open air amphitheatre, an underground glacier and a multimedia experience showcasing Russia’s manifold beauties. And the park itself is designed in zones to represent the different climates and flora of the very large territory Russia currently encompasses.

This post covers what happened just after it was opened, and why it lived up to its tagline of ‘wild urbanism’.

Cruise down the Moscow River and see it all

Just up from the park in the summer season you can catch cruise boats which will allow you to drift comfortably down the Moscow River taking photographs of many of Moscow’s top attractions as you go. Sail past Zaryadye Park again, the Kremlin (the best views are from the river), the reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (see below), the former Red October chocolate factory (it’s very red, you can’t miss it), the GIANT statue of Peter the Great (there are no words), and get off at Gorky Park, although you can choose to go on for longer too, and admire one of the main stadiums for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, some of the tallest skyscrapers in Europe, as well as a lot of trees.

Read more about cruising down the Moscow river, including what to look out for and why, here. Cruises also run during the winter too, but those only start and finish in Gorky Park.

The old meets the new in Gorky Park and Muzeon

Gorky Park is a much bigger space than Zaryadye Park and in the last few years has been completely renovated. It now has a large number of (variously) cafes and food stalls, flowerbeds, artfully scattered lounging cushions, boating lakes, open air theatres and cinemas, playgrounds, free yoga and dance classes, fountains, sports facilities, random hip happenings, places you can hire bikes, and a huge outdoor ice rink (in winter).

Gorky Park Moscow Fountain

You can also nip back towards Peter I (you can’t miss him) and check out the park, Muzeon, directly opposite Gorky Park. This started out as the dumping ground for defaced Soviet busts, figurines and towering 3D representations of people like Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the KGB, which were torn down at the end of the Soviet period. But it has mutated into something a bit less bitter over the years and now has all sorts of other sculptures for you to wander around and wonder about. Still, if you want to get a selfie with Lenin, this is the place to come.

Lenin Bust Muzeon Park Moscow

Both Gorky Park and Muzeon are free to enter. Opening hours are roughly equivalent to daylight hours. Read more about the delights of Gorky Park here, and the origins of Muzeon can be read here.

Want to find out more about how the statue of Peter the Great came to be imposed on the Moscow skyline? Read this.

A tour of Soviet Moscow

Travelling around Moscow, you will have already noticed that the fact that there is a park to deposed Soviet statues does not mean that there aren’t any hammer and sickles on display elsewhere around the city. If you are looking for traces of Moscow’s communist history, it’s easy to find them.

Leave Red Square, for example, along Nikolskaya Ulitsa at the far end of Red Square from St Basil’s, and at the top of this attractive pedestrianised street you will find a giant mustard-coloured building. This is Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB and now the actual headquarters of the FSB. No, you cannot visit. But you can look at the monument to the many people who died in the Gulags off to the right, on the spot where the statue of Dzerzhinsky used to be.

KGB Headquarters Moscow

Look out over the Moscow rooftops at Detsky Mir

More cheerfully, to the left (yes, right next door) is the Central Children’s Department Store on Lubyanka, which back in the USSR was much more snappily named Detsky Mir, or Children’s World. Even if you don’t have kids along, you might want to pop inside because you can go outside on a viewing platform at the very top of the building, giving you an excellent view over Lubyanka, and the rooftops back towards the Kremlin and Red Square.

Rooftop View of Moscow

The fact that you can indulge your inner child on the way up with one of the bigger Hamley’s stores, a number of child-oriented attractions such as a room of anamatronic dinosaurs, and all sorts of interactive games in the corridors is surely just a bonus.

The Central Children’s Department Store on Lubyanka is open from ten am every day and closes at ten pm. Read this post if you want to find out more about this venue.

Explore VDNKh, the Soviet theme park

If you want a real USSR experience, though, you should head out of the centre to VDNKh. Begun as an exhibition space to show off all of communism’s finest achievements from the small (breeding a lot of pigs) to the large (first man in space), this very enormous park is dotted with all sorts of pavilions to things such as Armenia, honey and electromagnetic engineering, which are both very Soviet in design and extremely attractive.

Pavillion VDNKh Moscow

It’s fun to wander around and admire the architecture, but nowadays the pavilions also contain a number of very visit-able attractions, including an aquarium, an interactive science museum, an illusion factory, an urban farm, art and history exhibitions, and a space shuttle you can go inside.

In addition (but do you need an addition?), right next door to VDNKh is a whole museum devoted to space exploitation, which is an absolute must-see for anyone with any kind of interest in space rockets, space dogs, space chess sets and space ice cream and has the added bonus of having the most fabulous roof-top sculpture of any museum on the planet.

The rocket sculpture above the Memorial Space Museum of Cosmonautics in #Moscow

And! In winter they build one of the largest outdoor ice skating rinks in the world so you can skate past the pavilions of VDNKh, and then whizz down a tubing run that winds round an actual space rocket.

VDNKh is found a fifteen minute journey from the centre of Moscow half way up the orange metro line, and is open all day. For more about the history of this remarkable space as well as what you can do there, read this post.

Visit the Museum of Contemporary History

Of course there is always the actual museum to the revolution, including its build up and its consequences right up to the present day, although now it bills itself as a Museum of Contemporary History rather than out-and-out devoting itself to the formation of the USSR.

This means that there is a Putin room. There is a collection of pipes sent to Stalin from around the world. And there is a Yeltsin Spitting Image puppet. In addition to Lenin related items and similar.

It is also cheap and central, being on the main drag down to Red Square Tverskaya Street, just up from Tverskaya/ Pushkinskaya/ Chekovskaya metro stations. And since it is housed in the former English Club, a gentlemen’s hang out for expat Brits and Anglophiles in Tsarist Russia, it’s in a really nice-looking building.

Closed Mondays. Do not ever try to go museum visiting in Moscow on a Monday. This is almost always the day they have off. The Kremlin is the exception. The last Friday in every month is also often not a good idea, as this is also usually another closed day. On the upside, if you are in town, on the third Sunday each month and some public holidays, a large number of museums are free. There will be queues for the more popular ones, however.

Go underground and visit Bunker 42 and the Gulag Archipelago

Top of the list of more off-the-beaten-track Soviet-related locations to visit is Bunker 42, where you can relive the Cold War. Be prepared to walk down many many stairs, and go deep deep underground to find out where the Soviet leadership intended to ride out any attack the West could throw at them. To visit you have to be part of a tour, and it’s pricey compared to many of the other museums and experiences in Moscow at over 2000 roubles per person for the English language excursion. It may nevertheless still be worth it. To fortify you for the slog back up the stairs, there is also an underground cafe down there.

Another museum which aims to look at the less palatable aspects of the Soviet Union is the Gulag Museum, about the extensive network of labour camps for political (and other) prisoners. Open every day (except Monday) from midday, it is between Dostoyevskaya and Tsvetnoi Boulevar metro stations.

Tanks, planes and guns

If you want to look at really big guns, then the Central Armed Forces Museum is for you. It covers the whole history of the Red Army, although the Second World War dominates. Called the Great Patriotic War in Russia, this might give you some understanding of how brutal it was on the Eastern Front.

But as well as some very sobering dioramas of the horror that was Stalingrad, triumphal collections of captured Nazi flags and other such aide-memoires, you should be able to find all the uniforms, tanks, planes, armoured vehicles, and weapons big and small you could possibly want, and the actual American U2 spy plane shot down by the USSR in 1960 to boot.

U2 Spy Plane Powers Moscow

There isn’t much English language support, but its appeal is very visual even if you don’t know your AK47s from your AK74s. There are handling opportunities too, although not going so far as to let you actually fire the things on display.

The Central Armed Forces Museum is to the north of central Moscow near metro station Dostoyevskaya or Prospect Mira and open every day except Monday and Tuesday.

Victory Park and the Napoleonic Wars

Somewhat further out from the centre is Victory Park and another museum which is closed on Monday. This time it is exclusively about the Second World War. In case you weren’t sufficiently convinced by the Central Armed Forces Museum about just what a big deal it was to the Soviet Union, Russia, and the allied victory.

In fact, although it celebrates the end of World War Two with a giant monument designed by the same person who did the humongous Peter the Great statue you will not have missed on the Moscow River, the park was actually only completed in the 90s. But there are even more tanks round the side of the museum as a reward for coming out here as well as the deepest metro station in Moscow, Park Pobedy. Enjoy the ride up the escalator!

The park also hosts various events during the year, many of them entirely unwarlike, such as the Ice Sculpture Festival in the New Year holidays.

If you want to find out more about the other disastrous land war in Eurasia, then right next to Red Square is a museum devoted to the incautious invasion of Russia by Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s not actually the blood-red gothically detailed State Historical Museum which dominates the other end of Red Square to St Basil’s, but a subdivision next door.

The State Historical Museum is itself interesting for those who want to look into pre-twentieth century Russian history. Right back to prehistoric times. For non-Russian speakers it is essential to get the English language guide, as most of the objects in the museum have been selected because they have an interesting story attached rather than being merely representative. You will want to hear about them. This museum is, wonder of wonders, NOT closed on Monday or any other day.

Historical Museum Red Square

Read this post for more about what you can see at the Historical Museum, and why you shouldn’t tell your children that most things from deep history are found in graves.

Travel round and round the Moscow Metro

It’s not often that affordable, everyday and extremely practical means of travelling around are recommended in a guide to the top things to do in any given city, but there is a reason why it keeps coming up for the Moscow Metro, and that is the outstanding station design. You don’t need an interest in trains to appreciate the ceiling shapes, the light fittings, the many and varied artworks, the marble, the statues, the door details, and the columns.

Komsomolskaya Moscow Metro

The project began with the intention of building a series of people’s palaces (and to glorify the Revolution through the medium of public transport) and you have to say that it was a success, although they throttled right back after the first wave of construction. What this means is that most of the really spectacular stations are along the circular brown line, so it is simplicity itself to tour them.

Other notable stops are Ploshchard Revolutsii, the nearest stop to Red Square on the dark blue line (Soviet superpeople and animal statues, rub dogs or chickens for luck), Mayakovskaya on the green line (look up), and most of the stations on the dark blue line going East, which conveniently takes you to Vernissage souvenir market (see below).

However, the Moscow Metro is still under construction, and some of the newer stations in the south have also been decorated with an eye to making a functional space delightful once again. To compare the old and the new, the southernmost stations of the red line might be worth a journey, plus you’ll get to go through the station which is actually on a bridge of the Moscow River!!! And also right next to the 2018 FIFA World Cup stadium.

Troparevo Moscow Metro

To find out more about how to use the Moscow Metro, its history and what stations are essential viewing, read our guide.

The modern, the traditional and the trendy art galleries

If you are interested in seeing the Soviet Union through the eyes of its artists, you can visit the large rectangular box like building you will not have failed to notice while you were visiting the fallen statues of Muzeon. This bit of uninspiring architecture houses the New Tretyakov Gallery, a museum to the Soviet avant guarde and what followed it. Really worth a look if you have any interest in Kandinsky, Malevich and enormous canvases of Stalin twinkling avuncularly down at you.

The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsy Val

If you prefer your art more contemporary, just inside Gorky Park the Garage art gallery is one of the most likely spaces in Moscow to find out what Russian artists are up to now although it also has a lot of exhibitions by international names. It’s not very big, so easy to pop in and out of, and there is a pleasant sort of cafe, if none of the ones in the rest of the park appeal.

There is also the relatively new Moscow Museum of Modern Art, which has five locations all over the city and a wide variety of exhibitions, as well as the Moscow Multimedia Museum, which has Lego stations in the foyer.

Their websites will tell you if there is anything on which you feel particularly drawn to, but for a flavour of what you can see at any of them, click on the links in the text above, which also give more information about the locations, costs and the fact that they are closed on Monday.

And if you want to see just how hipster Moscow’s trendy art and design scene can get, check out the former Red October factory just down from the Kremlin and next to Muzeon, although this is rather better for hanging out in cafes and bars. So also go to Winzavod or the ARTPLAY complex in the east, down from Kurskaya/ Chkalovskaya metro, or Flacon in the north near Dmitrovskaya metro.

That said, when it comes to art, as a tourist, you’ll usually get directed to the Old Tretyakov Gallery which is back up the river a ways, on the south bank not that far from Red Square. Its building is much more attractive than the New Treatyakov Gallery’s, and its art is pre revolutionary.

Old Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow

You are unlikely have heard of any of the artists, but if you get hold of one of the many-languaged audio guides, by the time you come out, you will have a decent working knowledge of the whole of the history of Russian art, and a serious bear and birch trees addiction.

Or you could go to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, which is full of the paintings the Soviets acquired in the Second World War, among other things. Lots of Impressionists and Picasso and so on. Also, many life sized plastercasts of great works of art from around the world for the edification of Soviet citizens who were unlikely to be able to see them in person.

The Old Tretyakov Gallery is at Tretyakovskaya/ Novokusnetskaya metro stations, and for an overview of what you can see there and why it is interesting, read this post.

The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art is near the Christ the Saviour cathedral (see below) at Kropotkinskaya metro station.

Both of them are closed on Mondays. Of course.

Admire Moscow’s pre-revolutionary architecture

As well as visiting the gallery, you might also want to have a wander around the area surrounding the Old Tretyakov Gallery, the south bank . This being one of the places you can see what Moscow looked like before the revolution, full of low-lying pastel-plastered mansion houses, sometimes even still wooden or partially wooden. There are also 19th century factory buildings, as well as a whole bunch of churches. Walking away from the Kremlin down either Novokuznetskaya or Bakhrushin Streets towards the metro station Paveletskaya will give you an overview.

Moscow mansion house

Prefer a more art nouveaux vibe? Then the back streets near the Old Arbat street are where you should attempt to get lost. Maxim Gorky’s house is a particularly famous building, having been designed by the architect Fyodor Shekhtel for businessman Stepan Ryabushinsky in the early 1900s before it was handed over to the writer by Stalin himself. You can go round it, and if you do, be prepared to be particularly impressed by the staircase.

Peep into the lives of famous Muscovites

In fact, there are quite a lot of flat, house and country estate museums dedicated to the writers, artists and performers who lived in them, so if you have a favorite look them up and see if you can go and see where they ate, slept and worked. One of the most enthusiastically celebrated is Mikhail Bulgagov, of Master and Margarita fame, as there is not one but two quirky house museums to his life and works in his former apartment block. One of them is the place where Bulgakov located the Devil’s abode in Moscow. Graffiti covered stairs, art installations, theatrical performances and a bus tour of the area are also available. Read about our visit here.

Of course, if you are a tourist in Moscow you should almost certainly take a walk down the Arbat street itself – it’s that kind of place.

Why is the Old Arbat famous?

Well, it is one of the oldest streets in Moscow, and one of the major routes in and out of the city for friend and foe alike. Originally lined with artisan’s workshops, eventually all the aristocrats had their palaces here. Later it developed more of a middle class medical and legal vibe before the artists, writers and poets moved in to make it the bohemian quarter.

More recently, in the 1980s this is where you could go to help kick start Moscow’s headlong jump into the wild waters of capitalism by getting involved with the black marketers exchanging jeans and foreign CDs for Soviet memorobillia. It was, therefore, a cool, edgy hangout, and the posibility of having a run in with the police, high.

Scruffy teens still to this day occasionally persist in turning up and trying to look cool by playing rock songs on their guitars. But they are fighting what is probably a losing battle with the pleasant cafes, souvenir shops and stalls, and professional street entertainers of the type you might find in Covent Garden in London or along the Royal Mile of Edinburgh.

You might want to check out the Kino wall, though, a much graffitied monument to Russia’s most famous underground rock star, who died unfortunately young. If it is still there. What with clashing with the new genteel vibe and all, there are rumours it is about to be painted over. Catch it while you can.

Victor Tsoi Wall Arbat Moscow

To get to the Old Arbat, you can either get off the metro at Smolenskaya and walk down the street towards the Arbat metro station (another one of the pretty ones). Or do the trip the other way. This experience is equally as fun in the evening as during the day.

To find out more about Soviet underground rock, read this post.

Shop for souvenirs at Vernissage in Ismailovo

Another great place to shop for your matryoshka doll is Vernissage at Ismailovsky Market. This sprawling outdoor complex combines a large number of arts and crafts vendors, souvenir emporium, fine arts gallery and a flea market, and is housed in a colourful fairy tale wooden kremlin recreated from the 17th Century. The main buildings are popular as a wedding venue, but there are also little museums to vodka, bread, folk art and child delinquency if you have had your fill of admiring the attractive wooden stalls and their contents, and there will also be outdoor entertainments such as live action blacksmithing for you to enjoy.

Kremlin in Ismailovo Moscow

Vernissage is open from 10am all week, but for souvenirs and shopping you really want to go there at the weekend as during the week the number of stallholders is much reduced. This post tells you a lot more about how very very fabulous Vernissage is, and what else you can buy there.

What more can Moscow’s parks offer?

Vernissage is right next to one of Moscow’s many excellent and very extensive parks, in this case Ismailovskiy Park, although this particular urban wilderness is probably of more subtle interest to the casual visitor than others with more obvious tourist attractions.

Such as Tsaritsyno in the south, which has a full sized replica of the original 18th century royal chateaux built for Catherine the Great, striking orange and white outbuildings, and a dancing fountain.

Bridge Tsaritsyno Moscow

There is also Kolomenskoye, which has one of the oldest churches in Moscow, Peter the Great’s modest cabin and a full sized replica of the original 250-room wooden royal palace of Peter the Great’s father to go round, as well as horse drawn carriage or sleigh rides (depending on the season).

Horse and carriage ride Kolomenskoye Park Moscow

These parks are situated quite close to each other in the south of Moscow along the green line, but that doesn’t really mean you should attempt both on the same day. You’ll want Tsaritsyno metro station for the gingerbread gothika, and Kashirskaya or Kolomenskoye stations for the 8th wonder of the Medieval world.

Read more about each location in this post for Tsaritsyno, this one for Kolomenskoye, and this one for the palace.

Be observant of Russian Orthodox churches

Moscow’s architecture is very much bound up in its churches. Moscow was once known as the city of 500 000 000 cupolas (at least), especially in comparison with its more secular and classically inspired neighbour, St Petersburg. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox church took back many of its buildings from their communist occupation by libraries, cinemas, museums, housing, communal gyms, public toilets, factories, storage facilities and other community projects returning them to the gorgeously decorated places of worship they are again today.

The biggest restoration project in Moscow of this kind is the Christ the Saviour Cathedral on the Moscow River, just downstream from the Kremlin.

The cathedral was demolished by Stalin to make way for a giant revolutionary monument and Soviet palace, which was to be the biggest such structure in the world.

Unfortunately, the soggy banks of the Moscow River proved unsuitable for building something so large and so the foundations were turned into an outdoor swimming pool. Today, it is once again a huge, gleaming, white marble-cladded gold-topped cathedral, built to the original specifications. You can visit it and admire the frescoes and icons inside. As well as the religious space, there is also an art gallery in the basement.

Christ the Saviour cathedral Moscow

The cathedral is open 9am to 7pm throughout the week, services willing. As with many religious establishments, they prefer tourists to dress modestly. It is traditional for women to cover their hair, and if you plan to be looking around a lot of churches, a head scarf might be a useful thing to have in your bag, should you be of the female persuasion. Men should remove headgear, and no-one should hold hands. It’s bad luck, apparently.

Further along the river, near the 2018 Fifa World Cup football stadium, is Novodevichy Convent, which as well as remaining one of a number of working Orthodox Christian monastic orders in Moscow, is notable for its cemetery, which contains the great, the good and the extremely notorious, as well as very striking headstones all round. Krushchev, Chekov, Gogol, Eisenstein, Bulgakov, Molotov, Mayakovsky, Shostakovich, Ilushin, Yeltsin and many more are buried here. You can buy a map of the graveyard at the entrance.

Moscow City, Skyscrapers and TV Towers

You will not have missed, while looking round Novodevichy, the towering glass buildings of Moscow City, or the International Business Centre as it is supposed to be called, as these are right next door. There are some genuinely striking bits of modern architecture here, but the real area of interest is that this complex houses the second tallest, the third tallest, the fourth tallest and the sixth and seventh tallest buildings in Europe (the tallest is now in St Petersburg, and the fifth tallest is in London). And you can go up the skyscrapers and look down over Moscow from unfeasibly high up, if you should so wish.

City of Capitals Moscow City

Decide if you want to spend the money, and read about our experience on one the tours to the Moscow City viewing platforms here.

However, the classic place to go if you want to stare at Moscow from above is the Ostankino TV Tower, still the tallest structure in Europe, even if it has been eclipsed by buildings with proper floors in lists of such things. As a bonus, it is lit up at night, and has a revolving restaurant, as well as a glass floor in the 360 degree observation deck.

Find Ostankino Tower close by to VDNKh, where it is virtually unmissable if a bit of a walk from te metro. Bring your passport as they won’t let you in without it and check the weather before you go – clouds may well obscure the top of the tower.

Enjoy expert performances of ballet, music, opera or the circus

Russia is deservedly famous for its ballets, and there can be no better location to see one than the Bolshoi Theatre just off Red Square. The historic stage is the one for the full on gold leaf, red velvet, boxes and balconies experience, but other venues under the same company’s umbrella are available, if less prestigious and lacking in really sumptuous architectural detailing. Booking is now possible online, and really needs to be done well in advance.

Bolshoi Theatre Moscow

If you want the thrill of walking into the Kremlin as more than just a tourist, try getting tickets to the Kremlin Ballet, which is housed inside the Kremlin itself. The only downside is that it is held in a considerably less visually attractive building than the Bolshoi.

Performances in either the Bolshoi or the Kremlin are unlikely to be radically innovative, but there will be virtuoso spinning and jumping, which is what you want really unless you are really into your dancing. Both of these also do opera for those who prefer singers to dancers.

If classical concerts are more your thing, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall and the venue attached to the Conservatory are also both lovely spaces, central and chock full of performances, also on the more traditional end of the spectrum.

Less highbrow but equally as essential in order to experience the full range of authentic Russian entertainment options is a trip to the circus. In Moscow these have permanent, specially constructed buildings, such is the seriousness with which this art form is taken. The Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoi Bulvar is bang in the centre, and the Great Moscow State Circus on Vernadskogo is rather bigger but further out in the south west, near the University.

Both have all the acts that you might expect, traditional and less so, visually spectacular, breathtakingly nerve-wracking and laugh out loud funny, with no need to understand Russian to enjoy them. But be warned; those have opinions about performing animals should steer clear.

To be honest, there are so many venues big and small all over Moscow for all sorts of shows, that if none of the above appeals but you want a dose of the performing arts then there will be something out there for you, even in summer when traditionally the big companies go on tour abroad. You want ice dancing? Indie bands? Puppet theatre? A musical version of Anna Karenina? A-tonal string quartets? Elton John? Depending on the season and day of the week it will be there.

Finish your day with people watching, cafe culture and nightlife

There is also a thriving nightlife in Moscow with cafes, bars and clubs to suit every taste too. When the weather is nice in the summer months you can just stroll around the pedestrianised centre, starting at, say, Tverskaya Street just behind Red Square, immediately making a sharp right along Kamergerskiy Pereulok, and then you just keep wandering along from there, investigating any side streets that look interesting. The evening will be awash with venues that have spilled out onto the broad and accommodating pavements so just take your pick. There will be buskers of all kinds and all sorts of people watching opportunities.

Moscow street musicians

In winter, well in winter just get indoors.

And finally

Hopefully, this has given you ideas about what you can do to fill your time in the capital of Russia both if you are visiting Moscow for the first time or if you have been here before and want to find something a bit different.

Of course, it is not an exhaustive list of things to do in Moscow.

I haven’t even mentioned the Darwin Museum of Evolution, the theatre of performing cats, the zoo, the train yard with full sized locomotives to climb over, the many many escape rooms (some in English), or the fact that whenever you turn up there is highly likely to be a festival of some kind in the centre with extensive decorations, stalls, games, craft workshops and street performers. For example.

Nikolskaya Ulitsa Easter 2018 Moscow

But you’ll need to go home eventually, so it might be better to just plan to come back to Moscow another time.

Any questions, comments, or suggestions for about what I should have included in my list of top Moscow attractions but didn’t?

And if you need some ideas of where to eat traditional Russian food at an affordable price, try here.

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This is THE #guide to #Moscow for first time visitors and those with more time looking for cool, interesting and unsual things to do in the capital of #Russia

Tin Box Traveller

400,000 stuffed animals at the State Darwin Museum, Moscow

A good three years back Mama visited the State Darwin Museum in Moscow for the first time and fell in love. We returned recently to find that not only is it just as good as it was the first time were were there, in all the ways described below, but that they have actually managed to up the level of fabulousness even more. There is now an impressive surround sound surround video experience to greet you in the first exhibition hall, and a new touchy feely area full of interactive educational games off the foyer, in addition to all the ones still in existence in the second building. 

It is fair to say that there is probably nowhere else in the world that has so many stuffed animals on display as the State Darwin Museum in Moscow.

Big Cats Darwin Museum MoscowThree large floors of them, plus more in the building next door. You’ve got dioramas of animals in their native habitats; groups of endangered or extinct animals; scenes of animals being torn apart by other animals, and other… educational… interactions; displays of a bewildering number of different types of squirrel; cases showing a large selection of dog breeds in order of size and likely ferociousness, from wolves down to those little yippy ones you keep in handbags; expositions on the topic of genetics punctuated by the stuffed remains of generations of guinea pigs; collections of all the birds who have the hooked meat-ripping beaks, the pointy fish-spearing beaks, the bijou seed-winkling beaks, the big round night eyes, the really bright feathers, and so on and so forth.

Wolves and Moose Darwin Museum Moscow

Basically, all the possible combinations of stuffed animals you could imagine, the State Darwin Museum in Moscow has ‘em, and a few more to boot. Including a walrus that must be giving the one at the Horniman a run for its money.Walrus Darwin Museum MoscowWhich should make it both one of the creepier and, after the first room or so, one of the more boring museums in the world, but it isn’t. In fact The State Darwin Museum in Moscow is now Mama’s new favourite museum, both on a personal level and on the basis of somewhere good to take us kids.

And we’re pretty keen on it too. Here’s why.

Firstly, it’s entirely devoted to explaining the theory of evolution. This is both interesting and, in Mama’s opinion, important. Interesting because Mama is the sort of person who likes an in depth look at things, and that’s not something that many museums have the luxury of giving. Important because she sends Stupendous Big Brother to not one but two church schools in not one but two different languages. She feels the need to nip any odd notions about the development of life on earth firmly in the bud that he might pick up, because, say, to take an example not at all at random, his (British) teacher has told him everything springing fully formed from the head of a god within a seven day time period is what he believes.

Hitherto Mama has been using the children’s non-fiction books aimed at explaining such things, assisted only by the odd half a room display in the London NHM or the Horniman. This makes it uphill work because, well, the biblical tale is just a better story than one which really requires you to grasp the concept of deep time and generations upon generations of living organisms first. We have difficulty understanding that Mama had a life before we appeared, so it’s not an idea that just takes a few minutes to sink in.

But now she can (repeatedly) take us to a museum which exhaustively covers all the main points in a memorably visual manner. So well done is it, in fact, that Mama, whose Russian is not up to long scientific explanatory placards and who is a wishy washy humanities graduate to boot, had no difficulty working out what the point of each section is. This, she thinks, bodes well for getting it across to kids. She and my Stupendous Big Brother certainly had a number of what looked like spirited and interested discussions while looking at the exhibits.

Guinea Pigs and Evolution Darwin Museum Moscow

If the stuffed animals aren’t enough, there’s also a vast collection of animal paintings on display. Mama is dubious about the artistic value of these, but my Stupendous Big Brother was very taken with them indeed.

Dogs Darwin Museum Moscow

I simply basked in the fact that most of them were entirely visible to someone of my height, nobody told me off for leaning on the glass and that there was plenty of room to gambol around looking for the horses.

It’s not that there’s no English, mind. Each room has a paragraph or two in that to get you oriented, should you feel the need.

Another thing Mama thought was particularly well done about the State Darwin Museum were the interactive touches that have been added to the basic glass cases, and I have to say that I heartily concur. They seem to have made a real effort to do things which bring the displays to life, and really add to what you are seeing, rather than distract or, worse, detract from them.

Mama thought, for example, that the little video screens showing clips of the animals in action in the section all about animals and their native habitats was inspired, and not just because they had put them at kids’ eye height. I liked the buttons you could press throughout the galleries to hear the sounds that different animals make. And the animal jigsaws, especially the ones where the aim was to focus on the massive differences in feet, mouths or limbs between different types of animals. And! The fact that all of these things had boxes next to them to make them easy for me to reach if they weren’t at my height already. My Stupendous Big Brother liked the computer games. Name that animal! Match the animal to their tracks! Match the animal to their habitat!

Computer Game Darwin Museum Moscow

There’s also a children’s play area for the under 7s. It has nothing whatsoever to do with animals, Darwin or evolution – it’s based on those big soft shapes you can move around, stack, build a fort out of and throw at each other, but that in itself provides a nice break and refreshes you for a final push round the museum.

The two interactive show stoppers, though, are on the top floor. The first is the case containing the roaring, mooing, stomping and flapping animated dinosaurs, which are switched on on the hour every hour. Otherwise, the dinosaur section is not extensive (and, surprisingly, the models seem to be made of some kind of plastic rather than stuffed), but this is pretty jolly cool to make up for it.

By far the most exciting thing we have EVER come across in a museum, however, is the giant TV screen on the wall.

At first you just stand on the designated spot and admire your filmed self staring up at a giant TV screen on the wall in the midst of a bunch of glass cases full of stuffed animals. And then, suddenly, one of those animals COMES TO LIFE. And! Meanders over to where your screen self is and if you keep staring upwards, while reaching out, you can see yourself touching and interacting with the animals on the screen. It is FABULOUS. We played with lemurs, a huge tortoise, a deer, a lion, an alpaca, the lemurs again, and yet more lemurs (we liked the lemurs). Cannot recommend it highly enough. The only way it could have been better was if we’d had the actual animals with us instead.

Also on this floor is the section devoted to human evolution. Mama, once again, would like to congratulate the curators for their sheer genius in the placement of this. Nothing like making people walk through the crushing evidence in the two floors below before you hit them with the ‘difficult’ monkey man aspect.

Hell with that, I say. It’s the evolution of horses bit you should be checking out. Radical!

Evolution of horses Darwin Museum Moscow

Anyway, you might be thinking that it is time to go about now, but that would mean you miss all the stuff in the other building, which is connected to this one via a tunnel in the basement. They’ve got a whole bunch of experiences there – a planetarium, various 3D, 4D and, I dunno, 5D booths, and some kind of dinosaur labyrinth discovery trail which looked very exciting, all of which Mama declined to pay extra for on this occasion, although she hasn’t ruled it out for subsequent trips as it wasn’t, she says, outrageously expensive.

But for us it was still worth trekking over for the live insects, including giant cockroaches, grasshoppers, colourful beetles, butterflies, and for the variety huge hairy spiders.

Live insects Darwin Museum Moscow

I don’t know how it is, but when Stupendous Big Brother is faced with a zooful of animals, he insists on charging round at top speed, never spending too long in front of one cage. I think he is worried about missing out on something. But give him an attraction with a more limited number of creatures and he will spend hours in front of each one, especially if they fly. Luckily, I was also quite interested, and when I wasn’t they had a particularly nifty touch screen picture puzzle thing, which only needed Mama to commandeered a chair to be fully accessible.

We also skipped through the rooms on the history of natural history briskly through sheer lack of time.Dragon Darwin Museum Moscow

We didn’t miss out on refreshments though. The State Darwin Museum has not one but two cafes, both of which were open. The first is more the sort of place you can buy a hot lunch, although Mama was also delighted that they let, nay, dragged us in and offered us a spare table when they saw us eating in the (perfectly comfortable actually) seating area outside instead. The second is more of a cakes and coffee affair, and dedicated to that famous naturalist, Janis Joplin. Mmmmmmm, cake, say I. Mmmmmmmm, coffee, says Mama. If, for some reason, you are not up for the ones in the museum, there are plenty of other cafes on the walk back to the metro.

So we had a good time. Mama’s favourite bit? The fact that in the whole museum there is not one mention of creationism. No pandering to the existence of this anti-science nonsense whatsoever. It’s great. She says. I think what edged it for my Stupendous Big Brother and I though was that the shop has a decent selection of reasonably priced plastic animal toys, and Mama was so delighted by our day that she let loose with the roubles and bought us some.

The only downside Mama can possibly think of is that you might feel squeamish about the sheer numbers of animals that have, at some point, been killed to furnish the displays. Mama offers up the opinion that, well, what’s done is done, and at least the museum is making use of the taxidermy it has inherited in a positive and educational manner. It is probably a more ethical day out that some of the live animal entertainments she has seen in Moscow and the UK, especially the ones that are run for profit. No matter how well looked after the captive beasts on display are.

Orangutan Darwin Museum MoscowBut as ever, that is a decision you will have to make for yourself.

All in all, this is clearly a museum that has its eye firmly on the patronage of the under 7s, as well as being extremely appealing to the over 40s. There is even a nappy changing table in the toilets. As a result it was busyish, but still not rammed in the way that such a place would be in, say, London in the summer holidays. Things might be different in winter, of course, when it’s less attractive to be outside, and people have not packed their young off to the datcha with the grandparents for the duration.

Update: It is busier in the winter, but not unpleasantly so, and we still got to play with all the buttons and so on as much as we wanted.

Mama thinks you should go to the Darwin Museum if you are ever in town, if not for the evolutionary science, then for the shining example of how to lift a museum out of the ordinary.

She thinks, in fact, that all school children everywhere should be flown in specially whenever they get to the relevant section of the science curriculum. Best. Field trip. Evah.

Especially as, rumour has it, they let you handle the cockroaches on school trips. How cool is that?

More Information

The State Darwin Museum website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say (at great length) about evolution and creationism.

Address: 117292, Moscow, 57/1 Vavilova Ulitsa

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed Monday and the last Friday of every month.

Price: 400 roubles for adults for main set of exhibition halls. Kids over 7 are 150 roubles. You pay extra for various other aspects of your visit, including the interactive play area.

By Metro: Akedemichiskaya (orange line). Be on the front of the train if you are heading out from the centre and leave by that exit. Turn right. Go up the right hand stairs. There should be a large sign directing you (in English as well as Russian) to take the first left. Walk up that street for about ten minutes and the museum is on your left.

By Bus/ Tram: You can get the 119 bus from Akedemichiskaya or the 14 and 39 trams from Univesitet (red line) to the stop Ulista Dimitriova Ulyanova.

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The Darwin Museum of evolution in Moscow is an excellent museum not just because it contains 400 000 stuffed animals. Its interactive enhancements are both well thought out and fun.

 

Lepim i Varim: eating at a pelmeni restaurant in Moscow

What is the best food to eat while you are on a visit to Russia? I expect is a question constantly on everybody’s lips.

Perhaps it’s the cabbagey beetroot soup borscht? Beef stroganoff? Blini and caviar? Chicken kiev?

Or does everyone just drink vodka for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

And there is always the ambitious combination of pizza and sushi we wrote about earlier.

Well.

One of the most ubiquitous Russian dishes you’ve probably never heard of is pelmeni. You’ve probably never heard of it because it generally gets translated a ‘dumplings’ which doesn’t sound very appetising. Although in fact they are much more like ravioli.

Or the Polish pierogi, except that the difference between pierogi and pelmeni is that instead of boiling and frying them, you just boil them. The pelmeni dough is also thinner, each individual pelmen is smaller, and the filling is usually raw, and minced meat based, before you cook it.

It’s a convenience food, but a convenience food which originated in Siberia (possibly by way of China), where it is quite easy to keep a little bag of pastry encased meat balls frozen while you schlep through the forest looking for something to kill and turn back into more pelmeni. The name may, in fact, come from one of the indigenous Siberian languages, and in its original form sounded like ‘dough ears’. And they do look rather like pasty looking severed ears, all ready to eat.

Pelmeni Lepim i Varim Moscow

Tasty ears though. Mmmmmmmmm.

Pelmeni are cheap and sold in every kind of food shop in Russia. All you have to do at home is pull a bag out of the freezer and dump them straight in boiling hot water for 15 minutes, drain them and add sour cream, and maybe a knob of butter. Some people like to serve them with a lot of the broth produced by the cooking process too. And Papa will probably sprinkle over dill if Mama isn’t there to stop him.

Of course, homemade pelmeni are a thing, but it’s like making your own sausages. A lot more bother than is really worth it when the packet from Sainsbury’s is so close and so tasty. The only time Mama and Papa ever did it was when their supply dried up in the UK. It was fun, but took a lot of kitchen space, time and everyone got covered in flour. And then we’d polished the results of all our labours off within a week or so.

We do have a handy pelmeni making implement though. Somewhere. Shame Mama doesn’t know where it is right now as it would make a fabulously obscure picture for your next pub quiz.

Anyway, now we are in Moscow, we eat them fairly regularly for tea.

So you might be wondering why we would bother going to a restaurant which specialises in pelmeni recently. It’s not like Mama spends a lot of her time sampling the local foodie restaurant scene. Couldn’t she have chosen something a bit more exotic when she had the chance?

Ah but you see, this restaurant chain, Lepim i Varim (‘mould and boil’), touted as the best pelmeni restaurant in Moscow, also consistently tops Trip Advisor’s rankings for all restaurants and cafes in Moscow. Someone as curious as Mama can’t but want to find out why, given that the place is actually within her price range, otherwise known as ‘not much more expensive than McDonald’s’.

Lepim i Varim pelmeni restaurant Moscow

Which is particularly true as children under seven (that’s me!) eat for free. The children’s menu is a bit abbreviated and the portions are smaller, but since what I wanted anyway were the classic Siberian pork and beef pelmeni, and I could only eat five of the six in my bowl, Mama calls that a win. Everyone else just gets free bread and sweeties. You do have to pay for coffee though.

Of course, the Lepim i Varim menu goes a bit further than just your basic meat mix. You can get lamb, crab, salmon, mashed potato, beef and mushroom, cottage cheese, chicken or cherry filled ones, to name a few of the options, all with their own differently shaped or coloured dough surround. Technically, this variety would make some of the offerings vareniki rather than pelmeni, but you can go too far in trying to distinguish between the all the variations of stuffed dough pockets in my opinion.

We added to my choice the lamb and coriander pelmeni, which Mama highly recommends, and the ones with mushrooms in, because Mama, inexplicably, really likes mushrooms. Next time she thinks we should go for the potato ones because they come with crispy onions. Or the cheese ones. Or the salmon. Or perhaps… I think we might be returning to Lepim i Varim regularly.

To add a further twist you can choose to add not only the traditional sour cream, but all sorts of other sauces and a salad accompaniment from the display case next to the counter. They also offer cold drinks here too, or you can order tea, coffee or broth with you pelmeni.

Lepim i Varim pelmeni restaurant in Moscow

Yes, Lepim i Varim is an order at the counter and wait till they call your name sort of place. In compensation, my Hungry Big Brother was very amused by the names of the dishes that were yelled out, which are slightly whimsical in nature: ‘say “cheeeeeeese”‘ (cheese), or ‘rich inner world’ (offal) anyone? And if the servers are feeling particularly gung-ho they might give an amusing twist to the customer’s name they are calling too.

Other items on offer include soup. Borscht! Or for my Hungry Big Brother, chicken noodle soup.

Chicken noodle soup Lepim i Varim Moscow

In fact, there was even a bar at one end of the restaurant Mama took us to at Prospect Mira. I have no idea if there is a bar in every Lepim i Varim, but I daresay this mix of hearty uncomplicated food, the easy going atmoshpere, the comfortable seating, the very reasonable prices, the welcoming attitude towards young children, the easily available booze and the free bread contributed to the mix of families and people in their teens and twenties who were occupying the tables when we were there.

Other attractions include the retro styling, complete with obligatory Soviet pot plants, and the opportunity to watch some of Lepim i Varim’s expert pelmeni makers at work through the glass wall into the kitchen.

How to make pelmeni at Lepim i Varim Moscow

Big up to the ladies at the Prospect Mira branch for their good-humoured tolerance of Mama sashaying back and forth in front of them taking All The Pictures. We never put up with that sort of behaviour.

Clearly if you are in Moscow you have to eat pelmeni and Lapim i Varim is a pelmeni restaurant in Moscow you can trust to provide you with a good introduction to this typical Russian food. Three locations in the capital and one in Tula and counting!

More information

Lepim i Varim’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about chicken noodle soup.

Address: We went to Prospect Mira 26/1, Moscow, 129090. Metro: Prospect Mira (brown and orange lines). There is also one in the central location of Stoleshnikov Pereulok 9/1, Moscow, 107031. Metro: between Okhotny Ryad/ Tverskaya/Ploshard Revolutsii (red/ green/ dark blue lines) or Kusnetsky Most (purple line). And another at Leninskaya Sloboda, 26, StrEAT in Roomer, Moscow, 115280. Metro: Avtozovodskaya (green line).

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Lepim i Varim is a pelmeni restaurant in Moscow and frequently the top rated restaurant on Trip Advisor for the capital

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Pet fish at the Moscow Sea Aquarium at Chistye Prudy

Sometimes Mama wonders why she pays large amounts of money to get into dedicated animal experience venues when we can be endlessly amused by the hamsters and goldfish at the local pet shop. Not to mention the bearded dragons.

This is presumably the thinking behind the Moscow Sea Aquarium at Chistye Prudy, which is, basically, a largish pet fish shop. With extra tanks round the back you can pay to go and see separately.

Tropical fish Moscow Sea Aquarium Chistye Prudy

As a result, the fish viewing area is not particularly styled. The tanks are simply tanks. They have not been turned into a replica of the Amazon made from fibreglass and low lighting. They are no floor to ceiling underwater experiences, which surround you with water and marine wildlife. They also do not play you soothing music as you trundle round.

There are no giant killer whales or seals or anything which requires a large amount of space and the willingness to ignore people who suggest that perhaps keeping killer whales in captivity is a bit un 21st century.

There are some (modestly sized) sharks though! And rays under the glass floor. That’s pretty cool.

Sharks Moscow Sea Aquarium Chistye Prudy

The Moscow Sea Aquarium also has a pretty decent selection of brightly coloured tropical fish, seahorses, a few jellyfish, and some rather astonishing snakey eely things. Also piranhas.

And crabs.

Crab Moscow Sea Aquarium Chistye Prudy

And this rather excellent turtle. It’s an alligator snapping turtle, in case you didn’t know, and actually the reason why I got to go to this aquarium. Animal Mad Big Brother was watching another of his many endless wildlife programmes about this, and remembered that they have one here.

Snapping Alligator Turtle Moscow Sea Aquarium Chistye Prudy

And although I was a bit taken aback by the relatively small size of the place, in truth, I can get a bit bored in the bigger aquariums. The Moscow Sea Aquarium had the perfect number of aquatic displays for me to be pleased by the variety without testing my patience. Despite being a bit disappointed there were no real crocodiles.

Plus, it is warm and moist and tropical inside and Mama’s glasses steamed up and everything, which reassures you that it isn’t just your average pet shop. Luckily they have a makeshift cloakroom in a broom cupboard next to the water filters, so we did not have to swelter our way around the tanks in our winter weather grade layers.

At the end there are some drawing stations with fish-themed pictures to colour in. Always welcome, are colouring in opportunities. We did five. Each. Mama does occasionally also wonder why she takes us out at all when we end up being most enthusiastic about doing all the things we could quite happily get on with at home while she puts her feet up and noodles around on the Internet.

All in all, if you want to kill an hour or so in a child-friendly way on a walk round the Garden Ring pedestrian boulevard that encircles the centre of Moscow, this isn’t a bad way to do it. Plenty of little coffee shops, skating opportunities, cat cafes and other minor items of interest to occupy you nearby too.

It’s also cheaper than dragging the kids out to the back of VDNH to the expensive if considerably more glamorous and extensive Mosqvarium. But the Moscow Sea Aquarium at Chistye Prudy is a strictly amateur affair, as aquariums go, so manage your expectations accordingly, and be warned that the price is perhaps a little on the high side for what it is. A hangover from the days when it was the only fish game in town, perhaps.

Gotta feed the underwater animals though! And obviously if you are actually shopping for pet fish, this place is presumably a cut above you average pet shop in that department. Not that Mama would know. We have had fish and if Mama is honest she was quite pleased to abandon them in the UK (to a good home) because fish require a lot of cleaning out, she found. So she is not in the market for any more.

Mama is not a good parent to a budding naturalist really. We do have a budgie though. Which Animal Mad Big Brother mucks out.

More information

The Moscow Sea Aquarium’s website (in Russian).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about freshwater aquarium equipment.

Address: Chistye Prudy Bulvar, 14/3, 101000

Opening: Every day 10am to 8pm.

Admission: Adults: 400 roubles in the week, 500 roubles at weekends; kids 3 – 12 years old: 250 roubles in the week, 300 roubles at the weekend. There are is a tour you can sign up to (and pay for) too, and you can also pay extra to see them feed the sharks.

Getting there: The nearest Metro stations are Chistye Prudy/ Turgenevskaya/ Sretensky Bulvar (red line/ orange line/ light green line), or Kitai Gorod (orange line/purple line). It’s a good ten minute walk from either, but a very pleasant one.

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The Moscow Sea Aquarium at Chistye Prudy is a small family friendly fish filled attraction in the centre of Moscow

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