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, and more about 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 2018 FIFA World Cup merchandise shop, 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.

Don’t 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.

Unfortunately, it is currently undergoing a renovation, so the main halls containing really interesting artifacts relating to the period, significant moments, and famous and more obscure heroes and villains are closed. There are temporary exhibitions for the real enthusiast. But it is 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 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 traditional 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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Tin Box Traveller

How does Russia My History multimedia historical park compare to every other museum we have ever visited?

It’s true what they say about how easy it is to indoctrinate children. Mama would not have said that she displayed a wild sort of enthusiasm for wholesome educational family outings when she was a child, but here she is putting us through the programme she was once made to endure, and enjoying herself hugely.

Family days out are wasted on the young.

What this means, though, is that Mama has spent a lot of time over the years in museums, girl and woman, and she thinks this entitles her to have an opinion. Not to mention the fact that she is both a history graduate and erstwhile history teacher.

And do you know what they make you do at the beginning of a teacher training course in history in the UK? Study the history of history teaching. Gotta love historians. A wee bit obsessed.

Anyway, this is a bit depressing because it basically goes ‘… and then the history teachers refused to teach the type of history politicians think is important and so Margaret Thatcher and every subsequent government set about reducing the hours spent on the subject to its current high of two and a half minutes every other Tuesday in favour of citizenship classes and more remedial literacy’. Oh, and half the time the programme will be delivered by geography teachers, who last studied the subject when they were 13 (if it helps, half the time geography is being taught by historians. Luckily the map of Europe looks a lot more like the 18th century one than it used to 20 years ago).

Mama also learned that it was now very unfashionable to do what she had done at school and take a superficial jog steadily through the list of kings and queens from the start of civilization (Alfred the Great defeating the Vikings sort of thing) to the pinnacle of achievement that is the reign of Elizabeth II and Theresa May.

Which involved learning the dates of important wars, the lists of laws enacted and religious controversies weathered. With, if you were Mama’s history teacher, little stick men drawings of the tortures carried out by the Spanish inquisition to copy into your books. Also good for the messy deaths of royalty in the Wars of the Roses and remembering what happened to Henry VIII’s wives.

No, it changed to being all about lingering on one period for some time and taking a three sixty look at not just high politics but the everyday lives of ordinary people, and thinking about the nature of cause, effect, and consequence, developing the ability to appreciate that there was some logic to WHY ON EARTH people ducked harmless old women in a village pond in an effort to discover if they were witches, and deciding how we can trust anything an eyewitness says when everybody lies, to some extent or another.

All very well and good, but it turned out that what with pupils not having the linear timeline to hook it into, this study of patches of in-depth historical understanding had become so decontextualised that it was causing people to have problems grasping how situations develop over time, how each of these isolated events were connected to each other, and why what we think of as the right way to do kinging today isn’t appropriate as a benchmark to analyse kinging in the middle ages.

What is needed is to make sure that when looking at history, you take both a long term approach combined with carefully chosen case studies. Look out for a teacher who will spend a few lessons doing the WHOLE OF AGRICULTURE FROM PREHISTORY TO THE PRESENT before launching into the agricultural revolution is what Mama says. Especially if you are an inner city kid who has never seen a cow in the wild before.

Mama thinks a good museum manages the same balancing act. Particularly important given the aforementioned lack of time for history in actual educational settings.

One of the reasons why she is not keen on the British Museum, in fact, is that in her opinion, it is a bit too full of the glorification of random stuff. And empire.

It reduces things like the Elgin Marbles to the controversy surrounding their acquisition and the fact that we won’t give them back, this being 90% of the background Mama has for them given that there is very little support from the British Museum itself on why she should care about the headless wonders. I mean, yes, thousands of years old, but lots of things in the British Museum are thousands of years old, and some of those statues, notably the ones in the Middle East section, are far more impressive as objects d’art.

If you want to admire historical stuff as stuff, the V&A is much better at it, because the stuff they have picked is stuff which is inherently pretty. No further explanation necessary. If a museum (looking at you, the British Museum) wants Mama to walk though rooms and rooms of reddy black pots, Mama needs a bit of help to understand why they are all on display.

The State History Museum in Moscow and the National Army Museum in London have a lot of initially rather disappointingly unremarkable historical items, but really outdo themselves in elaborating on them well to personalise each item on display. Who did it belong to, what did they have to do with the life and times we are interested in, how is it an interesting example of whatever it is, why, in short, should Mama care?

And, if we are deviating from history for a moment and talking about museum design in particular, the more visual you can make this, and the less reliant in lengthy FUCKING explanatory placards (expletives Mama’s) written in a dense expository style the better.

For example, the Horniman Museum’s natural history section and the Darwin Museum in Moscow make the points they want to get across about classification of animals, the ways animals have adapted to their environment, and the nature of evolutionary change by artful grouping, and to lift the whole thing further off the page, in the Darwin Museum you also have subtle but well chosen video clips of the animals in their natural habitat, and a whole range of fairly vivid and varied paintings to really ram the point home.

But you can do this with history too! In the Museum of London, for example, they have walk through sections where the sights and sounds of some of the periods they display have been brought to life. Mama’s favourite is the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which has little playletts projected onto screens around you to complement the props that are scattered about to make the whole thing more 4D.

In Hampton Court you can attempt to get your head around 16th century boardgames while sitting in an ante chamber and waiting for an audience with royalty. Which you may well get, as gorgeously dressed men and women will wander by regularly and engage you in conversation, convincing children like my Gullible Big Brother (when he was much younger) that they have just met the queen.

And, of course, there are places like the outdoor re-enactments at Beamish Open Air Museum, Ironbridge Gorge, and the Ulster American Folk Park, where that sort of immersive experience is taken to a new level, where visitors are invited to take part, alongside the actors, in the experience of recreating life in a particular place, at a particular time. Whole towns have been rebuilt! There are working candle makers! A printers! Steam trains! A foundry! Pit ponies (plus attached pit)! A sweet shop! And a fairground!

Even commercially-driven enterprises like the London Dungeons have something to recommend them in that, while Mama would say that while they are going for the wow factor than having any true educational value, they certainly do fire up enthusiasm for the dry and dusty subject that wrong-headed people make history out to be. Or in the case of the Dungeons, as it does things like splash warm ‘blood’ in your face in the French Revolution room just as the guillotine goes down, impress with the ghoulish yuck factor.

It’s this, not the popularism, that means that Mama will not be taking us there, or to Lenin’s Mausoleum, any time soon. Spoilsport.

All of which brings us to the new Russia My History pavilion in VDNH. All you really need to know about it is that it has been billed as a multimedia history park, and that the building it is in is huge, as well as the fact that, all the gods be praised, they have a hefty pre-twentieth century focus, and you can imagine Mama’s excitement when she heard about it.

Would she sail the Baltic Sea with Peter I? Would she sit in on pelmeni making on a traditional clay oven? Would she see Ivan the Terrible slaughter his son? Would she get caught up in the duel of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin? Would she drink tea from a samovar in a merchant’s middle class house? Would she meet Catherine the Great walking her dog in the grounds of a palace? Would she take part in a village zemstvo council meeting? She didn’t know but she’s been really looking forward to finding out.

Even so, it was only this last weekend, when the weather took a turn for the worse (no, worse than that there was SNOW on the ground. In May! Yes, I know!), that we actually went. We even took both Papa AND Babushka, it was going to be that good.

We got there – VDNH is less fabulous than normal in the driving sleet, but luckily the new minibus service from Botanicheskiy Sad metro/ central circle line station takes you practically to the back door of Russia My History – acquired our tickets, put our coats in the cloakroom, went to the loo, paused to take our photos with the cardboard cut out medieval bogatyr knights, and gamboled happily into to the first room of the Romanov’s section.

Which consisted of text heavy explanatory FUCKING placards (expletives Mama’s) projected onto the walls, illustrated by a few pictures and flickering flames (we had entered during a war) and…

… nothing else. Except some touchscreens.

Russia My History Red Room

With more expository text. On every panel. With a few pictures to illustrate. Some of those spun slowly round and round, admittedly. But that was it. Except…

… the noise of flames.

Papa frowned a bit and disappeared round the corner to see what happened next, while we idly played with stabbing at the computer screens to see if they got more interesting (no).

A few minutes later he was back, with a somewhat horrified look on his face. ‘It’s all like this,’ he said.

And so it was. Rooms and rooms of it, although there were some videos you could watch too. Three minute loops of auditory explanatory FUCKING placards (expletives Mama’s), accompanying a slide show. The voice was very dramatic. The content…

… wasn’t.

But it was all very well-lit.

Russia My History Green Room

We carried on round, and eventually made it into the early 20th century expo.

Where the pictures on the explanatory FUCKING placards (expletives Mama’s) were now joined by the occasional film clip of, I dunno, marching soldiers or people waving banners. But the format otherwise remained unchanged.

Although there were a lot of flickering candles to represent people who died. The early 20th Century seems to have been a difficult time for a lot of people.

Russia My History Imperial Family

Although I noticed that Mama had a very raised eyebrow over the fact that an awful lot of them apart from this family seemed to be priests.

It says something when the most thrilling thing about the place were the beanbags in the room with the endless parade of heads of famous Russians of the Soviet period…

Russia My History Beanbags

…and the discovery of an actual game on one of the touchscreens. You had to drag bits of a tank onto the outline of a tank to make a tank!

Yes, that was the entirety of the whole thing, except that you could also do it with planes, guns and other bits of military hardware.

Now obviously, from Mama’s point of view, it really didn’t help that everything was in Russian. But quite who though that this is what a multimedia history park should consist of she does not know. Especially a multimedia history park which has been extensively advertised and which, being called Russia My History, promises to at the very least get you all fired up and excited about your national story.

Although the advertising hasn’t been quite so extensive recently, Mama notes. Not now that actual people have been inside and seen what’s there. She should have realised when it was sleeting outside on a major national holiday and the place was still largely empty that it was not really going to be as much fun as she had through it would be.

Or any fun at all.

For her or Papa and Babushka. Who, y’know, do read Russian.

I say you make your own fun, and the place was large, the opportunities for dancing around a large space with dramatic colour themed glows and mildly amusing sound effects out of the bad weather endless (eeeeendddleessss says Mama). Plus, I am easily pleased by touchscreens. Stab, stab, stab, stab, on to the next one, stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, on to the next one, stab, stab, stab stab, on to the next one, stab, stab, stab, stab. Never gets old. My Gullible Big Brother is less gullible in this way, but then he does like TV a lot, and so managed to hit every of the many many video clips as we went round, although his enthusiasm did wane as it became clear none of them were going to be about animals.

Russia My History Blue Room

Still, I don’t know. Mama eventually gave in and read some of the text, and she found the ones about when new things were introduced to the country, like tomatoes, tea and peonies mildly interesting.

And there were Putin themed tea bags in the shop.

And TV in the cafe. Which apparently qualifies it to be called a Media Cafe.

But even that and the fact that they had both a free virtual reality experience and a handle the military equipment table in the foyer on the day we went (the national holiday was celebrating the end of World War Two. This isn’t normal), Mama is basically recommending that you go to the Russia My History multimedia history park only if you have been to all of the other museums, art galleries, science experiences, exhibitions, zoos, and aquariums in Moscow. So many times that you can’t face going to any of them again.

Russia My History weapons handling table

And if there is nothing on at the cinema. Or any of Moscow’s many theatres.

And the weather is really really bad, so the park is out, a walk in the forest is out, and you don’t want to go on a day trip to Sergeyev Possard. Or to the dacha.

All your friends are out of town.

You have some kind of aversion to hanging out in a restaurant for the afternoon.

And you don’t fancy using a shopping mall as the way to get out of the house for some exercise.

And even then, she’d probably just recommend seeing what’s on the telly instead.

Because there is overview history focusing on the great and the good, the wars, the turning points and the high culture, and then there is really really really boring.

So, no, she will not be going again to see the expositions she did not get to see because her ticket only gave her access to two of them at a time.

Unless someone tells her they have installed a giant anamatronic Lenin fighting Rurik for Tolstoy’s last pirogi or something. In which case she might reconsider.

More information

The history park’s website (if you must).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about history as a form of knowledge.

Address: Really? Are you sure?

Opening: Tuesday through Sunday 10 – 20.45. Closed Monday. Go on a Monday.

Admission: 300 roubles for one exhibition, and 500 roubles for two exhibitions. This, Mama would like to point out, is a steep entrance price for a museum in Moscow and isn’t letting you look at the whole thing. It’s a bit cheaper for OAPs and school kids, and free for the under 7s. You can get unlimited access for 1250 roubles. Don’t buy that one.

Getting there: Get off at VDNH metro (orange line) and walk up through VDNH to the bit near the back with the full sized rocket. Or get off at Botonicheskiy Sad (orange line and the central circle line and take the 33 minibus route to the Russia My History stop (or walk it). Veer straight past the building and go to one of the other things you can do and see in VDNH instead.

Pin for later?

How does Russia My History multimedia historical park compare to every other museum we have ever visited?

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