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, and 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

What (not) to do on Red Square in Moscow

Red Square. Is quite red.

Historical Museum Red Square
Red!

There are the soaring brick-red walls sloping high up one side, protecting the Kremlin. These are cornered by the thin round (red) towers, topped with big ruby-red stars. In front of that there’s the squat blocky browny-red building you aren’t allowed to get to close to because the mummy called Lenin is inside, and the long lines of stone steps fanning out either side. At the back end is the Gothic blood-red splendour of the State Historical Museum. Next to that there’s a small coral church, and then all down the other side is a surprisingly unred beige affair, also fairly burdened with busy architectural detailing, inside which you can find the former State Department Store GUM.

GUM, Red Square, Moscow
It’s not red!

And best of all, at the front, there is the riot of colour, thankfully with red to the fore, that is St Basil’s cathedral.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
This is not the Kremlin.

Actually, Mama says that St Basil’s isn’t even called St Basil’s, technically speaking. But then she also claims that Red Square is so named because ‘red’ and ‘beautiful’ have the same root in Russian, rather than because of the scarlet nature of its surroundings. I say it’s only a matter of time before someone overrules her and paints GUM a soothing shade of pink. Mama counters with the information that they already did this when they switched the previously whitewashed Kremlin walls to painted red.

She leaves out the fact that the walls are, underneath the paint, red brick.

Of course, at night, they light GUM up… yellow.

GUM on Red Square at Night
Still not red!

But on my first visit, it was midday in August. And after what felt like three thousand hours, we were only just in the centre, and wilting in the blazing sunlight.

Red Square is huge, very open, and covered in extraordinarily hard-to-walk-on cobbles. Which also have mysterious straight lines in different colours painted all over them.

Red Square from St Basil's
Biiiiig.

Mama reckons they are either for organising parades or to guide the erection of stages for some concert or other, which are the two things that Red Square is for when it isn’t covered by people in what pass for wide smiles in Russia (or, for the foreigners, fur hats with ear flaps) standing around mugging for the cameras in front of the stuff round the edges.

It’s so hot and so exposed that the only time Mama has ever found Red Square a nice place to hang out in the height of summer was on her wedding day, when she indulged in the Russian custom of taking her big white dress and her wedding party out for a stroll around all the most photogenic spots in town. Yes, Mama, too, clearly has hankerings after princessdom, for all her eyebrow-raising at my insistence on wearing my poufy pink tutu skirt to the playground, and her wedding photos therefore include shots of her daintily swigging champagne in front of brightly coloured onion domes in a large Disneyesque ballgown. Cool.

Not that the cobbles are any easier to walk on in the middle of a blizzard. Or when they are slick with rain. It’s a bit of a slog in almost any weather. Although they do have a skating rink and a New Year/ Christmas market to liven things up in winter.

Christmas Market on Red Square
Check out St Basil’s (still not the Kremlin) in the background!

I dunno, I made Papa pick me up around now and did the rest of the walk in comfort.

After a brief break while we did our own photography shoot, we resumed our hike towards St Basil’s. Mama thought we might enjoy scrambling around it.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
Onion domes! Which are not the Kremlin.

She was wrong. In my then four-year-old case.

St Basil’s is an odd kind of structure. It started when a tsar, promisingly called Ivan the Terrible, started tacking churches onto an existing structure every time he won a battle in a spat he was having with a neighbour. Having sealed Moscow’s supremacy over increasingly large parts of Russia, he decided to set the thing in stone. The architect he commissioned did not just slavishly replace the original wooden buildings, but the best that most people can say about the end result is that it is ‘unique’. There is a story that the same architect had his eyes put out by the apparently very aptly-named tsar so he could not build anything similar again. I think this is going a bit far. It’s not THAT bad.

St Basil's Red Square Moscow
My eyes, my eyes. Are not seeing the Kremlin.

I can’t blame the gaudiness on the bad taste of the builders though. Apparently that came about when Russians discovered new pigments a couple of hundred years later. The original was much more inclined towards just showing off this exciting new building material called (red) ‘brick’, which, incidentally, is how the Kremlin came to be surrounded by the stuff. The whitewash was to disguise this fact. Because traditionally, kremlins in Russia are white stone.

And the older a church is in Russia, the plainer it is, by and large. In direct contrast to how it is in the UK. History is strange.

Anyway, later restorations have stuck to the more vibrant colourscheme, with just a few areas and a model on the inside to show how it might have looked before they emptied the paintbox all over it. Mama, who is clearly a very lapsed protestant, approves of the murals inside no matter how modern. It’s like, she says, someone took the illuminations from the margins of medieval manuscripts and extended them all over the walls and ceilings. Nice.

And even I have to say that the outside is certainly a cheerful sight. Mama says it’s easy to speculate that such brightness is needed in the winter to perk people up through the gloom. But then, she adds, you get to the depths of February, and the skies are a bright blue, the sun is shining down and bouncing off the plentiful white snow, and St Basil’s then moves from being merely loud to almost unbearably dazzling.

But it isn’t my artistic sensibilities which made our visit a trial. No, it’s the nature of the inside. There are Orthodox churches which have wide open spaces inside, but St Basil’s is more of the style of a collection of intimate chapels spread across several levels, with small connecting passageways and even more claustrophobic twisting staircases. And it’s very dark, with few windows and dim artificial lighting. Oddly enough, this only makes the gold leaf richness of the iconostases stand out even more. All this gave me the willies. Mama did not help by following us up the stairs making ghost noises. Nor did the male voice choirette, whose traditional chanting from an indeterminate location added yet another layer of spook.

I spent the visit clutching anxiously at Papa’s trouser legs.

After the terror of St Basil’s, I congratulate Mama on her decision to leave visiting Lenin’s mausoleum for another few years. I reckon there’s a definite judgement call to be made in deciding when your children will happily celebrate the ghoulishness of going to look at an actual dead body in an almost blacked-out room surrounded by fully armed guards who will be abrupt if you pause to try to take a better look, or, heaven forbid, talk, or whether they will have nightmares for six months as a result. The smell is something too. Mama says. This does mean that you don’t get to see all the other graves built into the walls of the Kremlin, but Mama feels that sightseeing can be a bit full of looking at the headstones of dead people as it is. And the chances of my having any idea of who they might be are slim, so I am good with missing out.

Lenin's Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow
Lenin has not left the building.

Instead, both Mama and I recommend a visit to GUM. It is, these days, a luxury mall, not quite as out there in terms of outrageous conspicuous consumption as its sister round the corner TsUM, but nevertheless not somewhere you are going to want to go and shop at unless you actually like spending more on a Hermes tie than you would back home. But it’s a lovely space. Built well before this Revolution everybody keeps talking about, it is something of an engineering marvel, with it’s impressive curved glass roof topped with even more impressive glass domes, which have withstood not only time but also huge amounts of snow being dropped on them every year. Mama says you should spend a lot of time both looking up and going up, because the galleries and bridges overlooking the central spaces, and the way they interact are also rather attractive.

Inside GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Roof!

Mama also thinks the cafes on the overhangs on the top floor look rather fun, not least because in summer they mist the air around the tables with a fine spray of water in order to try to counterbalance the lack of air conditioning. Seems to work. We did not find the atmosphere inside oppressive, despite the glass roof and the excessive heat outside. If you don’t fancy that, there is at least one excellent ice cream kiosk near the main southern entrance, which will allow you to indulge in a Muscovite tradition. Especially if you have one in winter. Mama likes the pistachio or melon flavoured cones. I’d go for the strawberry ones myself.

Air con in GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Misty!

Other than that, there’s usually something to look at in GUM, like the window displays of idealised life from back when this was the biggest and most well-stocked Soviet department store, or the carpet of flowers down the left hand aisle. Aside from all the things in the shops.

Flower carpt in GUM, Red Square, Moscow
Flowers!

Basically, this is the space I enjoyed roaming out of the three available on Red Square. Although if you are in Moscow now, there is also Zaryadye Park to hang out in next door, which is almost as good.

Still. You can keep your historical monuments, your mummies and your unshaded urban courtyards. Shopping malls. That’s where it’s at. Most people seem to disagree with me on this one though.

Want to find out what else there is to do in the capital? Read Mama’s comprehensive guide to what to see and do in Moscow.

More Information

St Basil’s website (English).

Lenin’s Mausoleum website (English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the mystery of the Egyptian Pharaoh at Niagara Falls.

Opening: Red Square is closed when Lenin’s Mausoleum is open, which is Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 10am to 1pm. Red Square is also closed for selected public holidays depending on whether it is being used for some kind of display. You can usually get a view of square from the corners even if it is closed.

St Basil’s is open daily 11am to 6pm in summer and 11am to 5pm in winter.

Price: Red Square is free. Lenin’s Mausoleum is free and St Basil’s is 350 roubles for adults and 60 roubles for children over 7. 150 roubles for a photography pass.

Getting there: The nearest metro station is Okhotny Ryad (red line, with connecting stations on the green and dark blue lines called Tverskaya and Ploshad Revolutsii respectively), which, if you get the exit right, brings you up just behind the square on the other side of the State Historical Museum. Head for the (restored) gates with the small chapel set into them.

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If you visit Russia, then you have to go to Moscow. If you visit Moscow, you have to go to Red Square. But what should you do on Red Square?

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State Historical Museum, Moscow

Mama firmly believes it wasn’t the State Historical Museum in Moscow’s fault that the time we went there ended with my Imaginative Big Brother declaring it the WORST DAY OUT EVAH!

After all, it’s bang in the centre of Moscow, housed at the north end of Red Square in one of the most entertainingly decorated buildings of a city full of entertainingly decorated buildings. How could anticipation not be high when you spot what you are gamboling towards?

State Historical Museum Moscow
How cool is this?

Similarly, when the interior is also so worthy of the fact that you have schlepped both your and your little sister’s cameras along in your very own backpack, and when the museum assistants are so impressed and appreciative about your choice of soft toy companion for the visit, what’s not to like?

Ceiling State Historical Museum Moscow
Look up!

Plus, we may not be wildly enthusiastic about every last thing in a museum, but we can usually be persuaded to take at least a tepid interest in, I dunno, animal themed knick knacks, random fire extinguishers, or anything which is absolutely not supposed to be touched even if it is within touching distance, as long as Mama doesn’t insist on this happening for too long.

So what went wrong?

Mama, the trained historian with a passing interest in the pitfalls of teaching the subject to children, has a quiet determination (*cough* a bee in her bonnet) about making sure that we do not end up seeing history as a long story of inexorable progress towards the current pinnacle of civilization that exists today. Or rather, because Mama is now over 40 the pinnacle of civilization that existed about fifteen years in the past.

But in her quest to convince us that just because modern human beings have Apple watches it does not mean that we are inherently better than our ancestors, she may have overdone the emphasis on how utterly brilliant, how terribly skilled, how marvelously clever it was that people MORE THAN A MILLION YEARS AGO were already able to invent technology and improve on it in much the same way this generation has done with the humble digital watch, as exemplified by the vast collection of stone age tools and suchlike that kicks off the exhibition.

Flint tools State Historical Museum Moscow
Much much more impressive than a mere Apple watch

At which point, my Imaginative Big Brother demonstrated his admirably increasing awareness of deep time and got the collywobbles. MORE THAN A MILLION YEARS AGO being a lot of grandfathers back, and, and this is the point, representing a lot of dead and gone grandfathers.

An existential crisis not really helped by the fact that when we came to the intriguing stone cave-room painstakingly re-constructed in the halls of the State Historical Museum, Mama enthusiastically told us how many dead people had been found inside (700) and that really history, especially the history of very long ago, is mostly driven by finding caches like this and is therefore based on the stuff that was buried with the dead people.

Well, that and ancient rubbish tips, but by then it was too late for this kind of qualification. Too much information, Mama. We may never be happy about setting foot in a museum again, and certainly took the rest of this one at a fair clip while clutching Mama’s arms and blanching at the thought of ghosts and suchlike all the way round.

Not even the really cool shiny gold and silver items room could entirely placate us although Mama insisted on pausing for long enough to take a photo of the cup made by one of the Tsars himself. With his own two hands. The wooden bit now nearly obscured by layers of overwrought bling anyway.

Wooden and gold cup State Historical Museum Moscow
Someone should probably do this to the deformed clay pots and similar I bring home to Mama

This is the kind of thing the Historical Museum is good at. It’s not just a place which houses props to illustrate an age. Many of the items have historical significance, or at least historical curiosity value, in and of themselves. Non Russian readers may need to pick up the audio-guide to properly appreciate this, although the fact that Mama knows about the cup shows that English language labeling does certainly exist.

That said, some of the props are pretty cool. Mama thinks. The old fashioned carriage which has skis where the wheels should be was almost as entertaining to her as the pushchairs in the shops which have come up with the same engineering solution to the large amount of snow Moscow ought to be able to expect each winter.

Carriage sleigh State Historical Museum Moscow
Jingle bells, jingle bells..

Not that she has seen anyone out and about with one here yet, to her frustration and Instagram’s loss. Global warming has a lot to answer for.

Did such fabulous exoticism lifted us out of our doldrums though? No, of course not.

Neither did gawping the splendid collection of swords. Swords are for KILLING PEOPLE to make graves, to provide cannon fodder for GHOULS like Mama – it is possible that Mama should not have suggested that we look at the design of each one and consider how it might have been wielded.

swords State Historical Museum Moscow
When historical instruction goes wrong

In fact, the only thing that cheered my Imaginative Big Brother up in any way, was the hall of fashions and interiors, and that was only because one of the items on display was a hat with an actual dead bird splayed out in a jaunty manner on top. Actual dead birds, unlike hypothetically dead people, he is absolutely fine with. I was too far gone to even vaguely appreciate this, or the very princessy nature of the outfits. Which is unlike me.

Bird hat State Historical Museum Moscow
This dead bird hat is clearly the best thing in the State Historical Museum

But that’s because nothing in the State Historical Museum was really the reason why the day out so traumatized my Imaginative Big Brother. Even if you are having a determined sulk in front of the displays, there are still free doughnuts being handed out on the street, the richest cup of hot chocolate you have ever tasted round the corner, random architectural features to be climbed in the pedestrianised centre, and even pigeons to chase.

No, the reason why he was unhappy was that I hadn’t recovered as much as Mama thought after my epic two week ‘we’ve-moved-countries-and-bathed-in-foreign-germs-from two-different-schools’ virus extravaganza, and we overdid it in the afternoon by visiting the giant toy shop just up the road.

As a result I ended up screaming all the way home. Twenty minutes on the Metro with an inconsolable child. Another fifteen minutes of further transport hell. It would scar anyone.

So. Providing you do not make Mama’s parenting mistakes, the State Historical Museum is definitely worth a ramble around when you are in the vicinity of Red Square sometime. Stay away from the topics of generations of dead people, ensure your children are essentially snot-free and remember the crowd-pleasing designer taxidermy is just round the corner and you’ll be golden.

More Information

The museum’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Henderson Island and the prehistoric economy of feathers.

Address: 1 Red Square, Moscow,

Opening: Wednesday – Monday (CLOSED on Tuesdays) 10am to 6pm, with later opening on Friday and Saturday.

Admission: Adults: 350 roubles (3.5 GBP), children under 16: free.

By public transport: The connected Metro stations of Oxhotny Ryad (red line), Teatralnaya (green line) and Ploshad Revolutsii (dark blue line) all pop you out next to or nearby the State Historical Museum.

By other means: You’re joking, right?

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