Maslenitsa, the why, how and where of pancake week in Moscow, Russia

So here we are again at the end of Maslenitsa, or (variously) Shrovetide, Butterweek, Pancake Week, or Cheesefare Week, depending on who is trying to explain/ translate the phenomenon.

Making blini pancakes for Maslenitsa

And YES, I KNOW that the west is probably making their pancakes on a different date, only for one day, and that Lent starts straight after on a Wednesday. Not only is there a difference between the Orthodox church’s calendar and everybody else’s to account for when Easter falls, but there is also a difference in the way it counts Lent.

Now Mama has, over the years, gotten used to the idea that she is going to be making or eating pancakes, or rather Russian pancakes called blini, for a whole week rather than just the one evening.

She has, at various times, found herself planning whole feasts involving just the one basic dish and as many things to put into them as Pinterest can imagine, competing in competitive blini making with actual Slavs, trying to fend off her mother in law when she pops round with approximately 42 000 blini that need to be eaten now so she can make 84 000 fresh tomorrow, trying to get the Russians around her to appreciate a squirt of lemon and a sprinkling of sugar as a filling despite the fact that for some reason this is the ONE thing Russians don’t seem to add to pancakes, and standing in windy London park in the drizzle with her Mother in Law, having a pancake themed picnic, the widest possible variety of fillings (including sweetened citrus), whist engaging in blini oneupmanship.

Games with pancakes in Russia

But she was nevertheless a bit taken aback when she returned to Moscow after ten years of living away, to find that Maslenitsa has now also achieved the status of determinedly celebrated revived folk festival. There is bunting. And everything.

Maslenitsa street theatre in Moscow Russia

Of course, Mama is obviously no stranger to bonkers traditional practices.

She has to explain Guy Fawkes Night to foreigners every year after all, a conversation that goes something like this: yes, we do burn a puppet of a man, seemingly alive, to celebrate the time we dragged him through the streets behind a well fed horse, hanged him to almost dead, cut his genitals off, disemboweled his living body, and then cut him into four pieces and sent him to different part of the country as a warning to others. You can make your own guy! Well, children used to anyway. And then they went round the streets begging for money with it! We also set off fireworks. It’s a family holiday! You should definitely go to one of the displays. There’s a village in the south of England that chucks politicians and celebrities on the fire! It’s very cool, they even have burning crosses and everything. Why? Oh, well it was essentially an anti Catholic holiday, so probably that. But we’ve stopped burning effigies of the pope now even though they still have banners saying Down with Popery, so you should be OK.

And it’s not like living through a Russian winter doesn’t beg for a bit of celebration when it is coming to an end.

Bring back the sun to Russia

Or rather the beginning of the end of winter because anyone sending Mama photos of snowdrops, crocuses, green grass and themselves enjoying the fresh smells of spring in a light anorak on Shrove Tuesday will get short shift as she marches through the likely blizzard. Actual spring is a good month off yet. Possibly two, depending on when Maslensitsa is this year

Maslenitsa sun arch VDNKh Moscow

I, for one, am all for the aggressive dismissal of the snow after a number of winter seasons. Scientific reason may have made us more certain that there is summer and 35 degrees centigrade round the corner, and admittedly this sort of thing is usually done by actual non-Christian participants a bit closer to the event at the spring equinox, but it’s not like there isn’t precedent for mucking about with religious rites according to the whims and obsessions of the age.

Especially as, who knows, in a short time, all this may be less certain, what with global warming and all. Perhaps pacifying the old gods is not such a silly idea after all.

Pagan costumes for Maslenitsa Russia

Thus the round, slightly golden and glistening blinis become sun symbols, just as the were, apparently, at sun encouragement festivals of the past. The effigy constructed at the beginning of the week and burnt at the end to remove bad things from the world, is said to represent Lady Maslenitsa, or the death/ rebirth wintertime goddess Marena, depending on just how pagan you want to get. In central Europe she is drowned (or burned and then drowned, which all sounds a bit 17th century to Mama), but the similarities are there.

Lady Maslenitsa near Red Square Moscow

Of course, some people will tell you that pancakes are all about using up food before the Christian Lenten fast. This was something that confused small Mama a lot on 1970s Britain. I mean, yes, fasting, but quite what was so fabulous about eggs, flour and butter she was not sure. As compared to, I dunno, meat, biscuits and apples.

But the Eastern Orthodox fast, unlike the modern day Anglican one, is strict and effectively turns observers vegan. But not at once. In preparation for the full fast, the week of Maslenitsa is supposed to be meat free. But eggs, butter and oil can still be eaten. See? Pancakes now make sense!

Interestingly, along with dubiously resurrected pre-Christian rituals, the other thing that has made a resurgence in post-Soviet Russia is the observance of Lent. It’s a very dry January sort of impulse, as far as Mama can tell, and not particularly related to how religious a person actually is but following the fierce dietary requirements of the fast is definitely a thing. So coming to Russia in this period if you are vegan is something to seriously consider as restaurants have special alternate Lenten menus at this time which should cater to your every need.

Goast costume for Maslenitsa

Of course, Mama, as a professional manipulator of people, admires the fasting system as a means not only of purifying your soul, but as a way of getting a population of freedom deficient serfs through times of scarcity and harsh climate conditions.

Which brings us to the final point of Maslenitsa, and that is social engineering.

Fasting in the Eastern Orthodox church is not just for Lent, but a pretty year round thing. It is noticeable that there is a continual waxing and waning of quite how extreme you are supposed to go. Mama is particularly impressed by the very careful leavening of the longest 40 day fast by the occasional allowance of the odd bit of butter every second Sunday (or something), which she considers a particularly masterful understanding of human nature’s inability to keep up a hair shirt mentality for too long.

Goat costumes for Maslenitsa Russia

Or perhaps that a society built along rigidly prescriptive lines with no let up is not such a desirable thing.

It does mean that Eastern Orthodox Lent has to be longer to meet the 40 days requirement. Which is why even when Maslenitsa falls the same time as Pancake Day, Easter does not. Yes, despite knowing the reason for this, it does make Mama’s head hurt at times.

The week of Maslenitsa itself, in fact, was itself an exercise in society-approved letting off steam, celebration and general joie de vivre. Just as Christmas, Easter and other random holidays were and, frankly, are today.

Russian folk music

So each day had its own brand of ritualised bonding opportunities for people stuck living together in small right knit rural communities. Or ritualised anti-neighbour aggression in the case of the bare knuckle fighting (300 dead on one historically memorable year in Moscow. Puts the argument over who borrowed whose lawnmower firmly into perspective). Much is made of the need for mothers in law to entertain sons in law to blini and vice versa. And sisters in law also have to spend time together and attempt to get along. And there is a whole Sunday of asking for forgiveness.

There is also the day when young men are allowed to kiss any girl they fancy, so let’s just take a moment to disapprove of that and feel superior to our neanderthal forebears.

Russian folk costume

However, the idea behind it is clearly to have a socially approved relaxation of the normal rules of fratinisation (don’t) in order to facilitate moves towards marriage as soon as Lent and Easter are over (obviously one does not get married in Lent. What would one eat?).

Mama applauds, in fact, the idea that there is some kind of need to actually gain the female half of the partnership’s acceptance of your decision to wed her and some time period for her to think it over. And also notes that the narrative of men being instigators and women passive accepters of passion is not a thought process which has moved on as much as you might expect in the last 500 years or so.

Not that she thinks it’s an appropriate tradition to resurrect today. And to be fair, nobody seems to be suggesting it, or the fist fighting, or live bear-related festive theatre. Or importing Granny so Papa can stuff her with pancakes.

Although there is this.

Maslenitsa games in Moscow Russia

And this.

Tug of war

Moscow city government sponsored fun, big and small, therefore is definitely well within the spirit of the holiday, even if it generally starts the weekend before Maslenitsa proper and reaches a culmination in the final Saturday and Sunday, to fit with a more modern working life pattern.

Fairly reliable places to find things happening will be Tverskaya Street and Manedzh Square, just off Red Square. Or VDNH, the Soviet and now Post-Soviet exhibition space. Kolomonskoye Park in the south will have something on, as might Gorky Park, and the Slavic theme park of the Ismailovo Kremlin.

You can also go outside Moscow, and Mama thinks Maslenitsa tourism might be a growing thing. Everyone loves a good bonfire, amirite?

Bonfire for Maslenitsa Russia

Expect street theatre, and lots of people dressed up in traditional outfits, something faintly pagan, or with folk overtones.

Street theatre for Maslenitsa in Moscow

There will almost certainly be live music. And games. Also hands on activities with villager overtones for the urbanites to dabble in. Mama never thought she’d be standing in a queue to wait to have a go at sawing wood, but then it happened.

Wood sawing competition

Masterclasses will involve paint, with a reckless disregard for the messiness I am fully capable of bringing to such activities. Increasingly, a Marena, Lady Maslenitsa building competition may be happening.

Lady Maslenitsa Russia

And of course, you will be able to get blini. This year my Intrepid Big Brother tried pine cone jam in his, which he recommends, although Mama notes that anything smelling strongly of pine is mostly reminiscent of the stuff you use to clear the bathroom with.

Pine cone jam Siberian pancakes with pine nuts

And on the Sunday, or possibly Saturday, because never let tradition get in the way of a well scheduled event, we watch the winterwoman go in in flames. Well, you can. Mama thinks that the One True Bonfire is that lit on 5th November and has not got up the enthusiasm to track that part of the festivities down yet.

But if you are lucky, you might catch some other fire related show. This, says Mama, is what we should contemplate doing as our Saturday job in a few years. She just shelved books in a library and pulled pints in a haunted pub. We are less keen currently, but it was a pretty thrilling end to our Maslenitsa weekend.

Fire show in Moscow Russia

Happy blini hunting, and a safe and purified journey into Easter.

More information

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and Mama) has to say about making blini (and tvorog) without mucking about with yeast or whisking egg whites.

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Why Russians eat pancakes for a whole week at Maslenitsa in the run up to Lent, what else they do, and where in Moscow they do it

A sweet treat at the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum in Russia

One of the things everyone recommends when you say you are about to visit Kolomna in Russia is a look around the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum. Which does not initially seem like and incentive to get on a train and travel for two hours out of Moscow.

Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum in Russia

But then you find out that pastila is a type of sweet.

Pastila is, in fact, the same sort of sweet as a (Rowntrees) fruit pastille. Name a bit of a give away there. Except pastila is a lot softer, a bit more gourmet, with more variation in the different types. And originally at least, a lot less mass produced.

In French, they call it Pate de Fruit. Immediately makes it sound even more enticing, non?

Essentially, for those who have never considered how their fruit pastilles are made, to get pastila you concoct a fruit puree and then allow it to turn into something jellylike.

Examples of Russian fruit pastille sweets at the Kolomna Pastila Museum

Apples are involved, partly because Kolomna seems to have been particularly abundant in apple orchards, and partly because they are a good source of the setting agent pectin. But other berries and soft fruits can be used too. Mama particularly likes the blackcurrant flavoured ones.

But then the makers of Kolomna pastila started to get fancy. And not just because pastila was often made with honey in Kolomna. Honey was cheap. Sugar was not. That’s it. Honeyed pastila is tasty though.

No, classic Kolomna pastila was different from the French and English versions because the addition of eggwhites to the puree and a long drying process in the traditional Russian clay oven added a certain marshmallowy quality to the sweet. Which became beloved of the Imperial court on down.

Adding eggs to the Pastila puree

Shame the original historical recipe got lost somewhere between the revolution upending everything, including, for some reason, the apple orchards. And the attempt to produce pastila as an fully industrial process did not go as well as hoped either. Still, they seem to have got it mostly worked out again now.

This doesn’t quite explain the popularity of the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum, however.

Even though everyone is careful to tell you they will serve you tea and conduct a tasting session, Mama was bemused by the extreme enthusiasm she encountered from tourists and locals alike.

I mean, every cafe in Kolmna serves tea and pastila, and the museum itself has a particularly fabulous one next door to the main building. What could possibly be so gripping about a few glass cases and some explanatory placards?

Cafe at the Kolomna Pastile Factory Museum

But it turns out that the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum tour is much more than an exhibit-ridden succession of rooms enhanced by fifteen minutes of a guide droning in front of each one.

No, it is an interactive, immersive experience in which the history of pastila making in Kolomna, the cooking process, and all the different types of pastila are demonstrated by costumed actors playing out various roles of 19th century cottage industry workers.

Demonstrating how to make traditional Russian fruit pastille sweets

And also the factory owner and his wife.

Tea party hostess at the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum Russia

Even the embedded advertisement for all the related products sold by the Pastila Factory Museum shop (fruit syrup, herbal tea, jam, and preserved fruit, in case you are wondering) is exuberantly done. And Baba Yaga herself has a cameo appearance.

Baba Yaga makes a surprise appearance

You get to make your own pastila, from washing and coring the apples, through stirring the puree, to sticking the pastille on a hook to allow it to be dipped in syrup and hardened.

You also get to visit the cellar full of apples. The smell alone was worth the price of admission.

Apple cellar in the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum

Mama and Papa seriously considered locking my Appleloving Big Brother in there and coming back in a few hours to see who had won. Particularly as he was having a bit of a sulk at the beginning of the tour over a clash between Mama’s desire to photograph all the very attractive Kolomna buildings, churches and houses, and his desire to go and slide around in the record amounts of snow that had fallen that weekend.

He had thoroughly cheered up by the end though.

We did both also score an apple to munch as we went round the rest of the tour of the Kolomna Pastila Museum though and I must say that every museum tour should consider this method of keeping their young visitors happy, as well as ending with a sweet tasting.

If you are dithering about which Kolomna pastila museum to choose (there are two), or whether to go to a pastila museum at all, we heartily recommend this one. One word of warning – the tours are all run in Russian. But you can find yourself a guide to translate without too much difficulty, if you are not able to nudge your children sharply at significant moments and demand key words. Like Mama. Ow.

Actor on the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum Tour

If you cannot make it out of Moscow to Kolomna yourself, then the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum has a shop actually in Moscow, near Smolenskaya, and is available to order goodies from online.

And if you are not planning to visit Russia at all (really???) here are two recipes Mama is planning to follow to make her own – one for the denser fruit pastille-esque stuff, which will probably be most familiar to Mama’s UK readers, and a more Russian version involving 10 hours in an oven.

More information

The Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum website (make sure you have the right one).

The Kolomna sweet shop in Moscow.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about apple bobbing.

Address: 4 Ulitsa Polyanskaya, Kolomna, Russia, 140415

Opening: 10am to 8pm (on a tour).

Admission: Different tour packages at different times of the year cost different prices, which start at around 400 roubles for adults and 200 roubles for kids.

Getting there: Kolomna is about a tour hour journey from Moscow by train from the Komsomolskaya station. You can drive too. Kolomna is dead south from Moscow.

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Find out why everyone recommended the Kolomna Pastila Factory Museum when we said that we were visiting Kolomna, a picturesque town near Moscow, Russia.

The Moscow New Year Street Party on Tverskaya

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

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

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

What was left?

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

Kremlin and Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

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

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

Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Festival

And it was all free.

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

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

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

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

Stilt walkers Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

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

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

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

Band on Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unicorn and Tverskaya Street for the Moscow New Year Street Party

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

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

More information

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

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

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

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

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Have Spacesuit Will Travel to the Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

Inside a spacesuit Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

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

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

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

Satellite Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

MIR space station Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

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

Belka at the Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

Sputnik Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

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

Space flight souvenir Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

Space Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

Totally. Worth. It.

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

Fish tank Mir Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

Space fridge Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

And the very natty training uniforms.

Cosmonauts uniforms Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

Life on MIR Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

Cosmonauts survival kit Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

Reentry Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

Cosmonauts and astronauts Cosmonautics Museum Moscow

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rocket sculpture above the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

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

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

More information

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics website (in English).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tin Box Traveller

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

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

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

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

Wolves and Moose Darwin Museum Moscow

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

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

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

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

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

Guinea Pigs and Evolution Darwin Museum Moscow

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

Dogs Darwin Museum Moscow

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

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

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

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

Computer Game Darwin Museum Moscow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution of horses Darwin Museum Moscow

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

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

Live insects Darwin Museum Moscow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Information

The State Darwin Museum website (in English).

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

Address: 117292, Moscow, 57/1 Vavilova Ulitsa

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

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

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

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

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

 

Discovering the wooden palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich at Kolomenskoye in Moscow

People in Moscow are always asking Mama for directions and she has a theory about this.

Of course it could be because sometimes she forgets to change her streetside face from the British perpetual half-smile to the less welcoming Russian deadpan stare. But in reality Mama reckons that when you are in a place where asking for directions requires the effort and concentration of talking in a language you aren’t completely comfortable in, you tend to be a lot more conscientious about looking up where you are going, what it will look like when you get there, how much it costs, where the cafe is and so on and so forth than you do when you can amble vaguely in what you assume is the right direction and hail people casually for help if your destination isn’t where you think it ought to be or, indeed, open.

You tend to look confident as you stride purposefully along the streets, annotated map in pocket, and this means that other less well-prepared passers-by assume you are the person to stop and dither at.

They used to bother Papa rather than Mama in London too, for example. Although that might just be because Papa gives off experienced urbanite vibes wherever he happens to be, born and bred capital city dweller that he is.

That said, Mama’s particular downfall when going places in Russia is not so much in inability to get people to tell her stuff but read signage accurately, as demonstrated by our trip to the wooden palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in Kolomenskoye Park this winter holiday. 

Room at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

Alexei Mikhailovich was the father of Peter the Great, and this palace, or rather the original as this is a reconstruction, was where he spent most of his time growing up. It was really supposed to be a summer hangout, but Tsar Alexei liked Kolomenskoye so much he had this giant wooden 250 room construction built, which people told him at the time was the eighth wonder of the world.

As you do, when your Tsar is really really into something.

Side of Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich in Summer Kolomenskoye Moscow

This seems to have been the sum of Alexei Mikhailovich’s achievements, aside from marrying two women whose families really did not get on, and dying a bit too early. He sounds somewhat wet, in fact, although just progressive enough that you can see from where Peter the Great got his compulsive need to shave off beards and build an entire city on a marsh in the middle of nowhere so he could get to Europe a bit more quickly.

As a spur of the moment trip out suggested by Papa and a place we had already noted as interesting when we came across it one spring, Mama didn’t do any further research other than remind herself of which Metro stop to get off at. She had even had a chat to the woman in the ticket booth last time out about what there was to see inside and everything! Nothing further to worry about!

Unfortunately, it turned out that there was more than one thing to see inside, and all of them needed separate tickets. This was complicated by the discovery that Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich’s palace was one of the museum buildings offering free tickets during the winter holidays. To some, but crucially not all, of what was on display.

So Mama enrolled the services of Bilingual Big Brother to figure out what we should ask to go and see.

The problem with Bilingual Big Brother is that he is nine and even with Mama’s determined efforts to cram us full of heritage and culture, he probably only had a vague idea of what Mama was after. Translation can only take you so far when you can’t quite conceive of what ‘nice old (replica) furniture and furnishings’ might consist of.

And the problem with the ticket booth that Mama chose to stand in front of this time was that it was only selling tickets for the exhibitions at this end of the complex.

Mama did not realise this, probably because she only bothered to read the first line of the sign that told her about the other ticket booth.

So we ended up touring two (2) exhibitions, neither of which included fancy recreated interiors, before Mama overheard one of the docents telling another visitor that to actually get into the palace proper, they needed the other cashier round the other side of the building.

Which, when Mama studied it properly, did look a lot more impressive.

Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich in Winter Kolomenskoye Moscow

Mama thinks they should have built the palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich the other way round, given that it is in a different part of the park from the original, so they could have quite easily erected it so that the entrance to Kolomenskoye Park is right next to the front rather than the back.

Although this, of course, is why they put up signs.

Hey ho. We got to see a collection of various typical folk art and crafts such as hinges, enamelled tiles, painted wooden trimmings and icon frames.

Russian folk art

Big up for the icon frames from me! They have cartoon-like pictures telling a story round the edges. I was fascinated to realise that the tales are frequently of how the main character is dismembered in different ways. Something I insisted on double checking at length with Mama.

She wonders if my lack of freaked-outedness means it is time to pay much more attention to what I am watching on YouTube.

We also got to see modern artists’ recreations of traditional folk art and crafts in a more 3D format. This consisted of bit less focus on the bloody bible stories and a few more animal carvings, but it was also quite pretty, and largely deserted.

St George and the Dragon

But I was not up for any more. I had already done my bit culture-wise. I had taken an interest. And now I was hungry.

Mama, on the other hand was determined.

I have developed a way to cope with Mama determined, unlike my Bilingual Big Brother who is easy to bribe. I am capable of keeping up a not-quite-subvocal-enough repetitive whine regardless of what Mama promises or threats for literally hours. The scowling is pretty impressive too. She gets her own way, but she doesn’t enjoy it and I live in hope that one day she will just learn that it’s better to cave quickly.

What it meant on this occasion is that we had to take the interiors at something of a brisk trot. Or as much of a trot as we could given that the free entrance meant that there were quite a lot of people inside.

If I had been more in the mood I am sure I would have been delighted by a number of aspects of the fancy-pants wooden palace.

Obviously one of them is that it is indeed wooden. Both inside and out.

Mama, however, was particularly taken by the medieval central heating system, in the form of the beautifully tiled enclosed stoves.

Stoves at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

She was also delighted to find that Alexei Mikhailovich had much the same taste in wallpaper as her.

Wallpaper at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

My Bilingual Big Brother was pleased with the lions in the throne room, which roar. These days it’s all done with electricity, but back then there was a much more mechanical way to impress visitors.

Throne at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

The dressed up guides were pretty fabulous, and we got to see a lot of them as the palace was so busy. But obviously not listen to then because I couldn’t be having with that in my state of mind.

Guide at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

Guide Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

What Mama particularly coveted (aside from the wallpaper) was the Royal bathroom/ sauna.

Bathroom at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

I just wanted the swan in the dressed feasting chamber. Although, as I repeatedly told Mama, it’s not actually real. Neither is the tower and wall cake, Mama says sadly.

Banqueting Room at Palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Kolomenskoye Moscow

Still, all in all worth tracking down. Just make sure you go round to the front of the palace for admission to the reconstructed interiors first or your six-year-old will not appreciate it properly and you’ll have to take her to MacDonald’s after all.

Although admittedly that meant we had to trek right through Kolomenskoye Park first. Which, funnily enough, is a lot less attractive in early January when there is unaccountably no snow, than it was in spring.

Want more ideas about what to do in Moscow? We have a comprehensive guide to the capital of Russia here.

More information

The palace’s page on Kolomenskoye Park’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about children’s treehouses.

Address: Andropova Ave, Moscow, 115487, Russia

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed Mondays.

Admission: 400 roubles for adults for the palace. Kids under 7 are free. Other exhibitions need separate tickets and cost extra.

Getting there: Metro station Kashirskaya (green line) is right next to the entrance to Kolomenskoye Park which is right next to the (back of) the palace. Kolomenskoye metro station (also green line) puts you at the other end of the park, which is a considerable walk away from the palace.

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Find out why the Palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich was once described as the eighth wonder of the world

MummyTravels

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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Mini Travellers

Bone Music and Bootleggers at Garage Art Gallery, Moscow

So one day British musician and music producer Stephen Coates was walking through a flea market in St Petersburg, Russia (as you do) when he spotted something which looked a lot like this.

Rib record Bone Music X-ray audio Garage Moscow

Intrigued, he stopped and asked the seller about it, but didn’t get a very satisfactory answer. Coates bought the thin plastic disk anyway, discovered it did in fact play music, and then set about trying to discover more.

This was, apparently, a bit difficult at first.

Of course, had Coates asked Mama, he could quickly have found out what he had acquired. This is because Mama long ago read Back in the USSR: the true story of rock in Russia, about the underground rock scene in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

We went on about it here, you might remember.

This book, published in the very late 80s, was written by Atemy Troitsky. Who was very much in the thick of it all as a producer, musician, critic and organiser of some of the Soviet Union’s first rock festivals.

Troitsky is mostly concerned with the scene in the late 70s and 80s, but he includes as a sort of prequel a whole chapter on the clandestine music lovers who came before. These were the stilyagi, or hipsters, who went to extraordinary lengths to simulate the Western lifestyle of rock and roll fans in the late 40s and 50s, up to and including listening to bootleg records made out of old X-rays.

Rock and roll posters Bone Music Garage Moscow

One of which, of course, is what Stephen Coates had got his hands on.

Mama is smug that she knew about this before it was cool. But then on the other hand, Mama did not start a whole organisation called X-Ray Audio dedicated to preserving the records and researching the phenomenon by meeting and interviewing some of the participants like Stephen Coates did. And now there is a whole exhibition, Bone Music, at the contemporary art gallery, Garage, dedicated to these fabulous objects.

Bone Music Garage Moscow

Mind you, not that the ryebra, or ribs, were just about passing round Western rock and roll or jazz music, acceptable during the war, summarily banned afterwards. Also frowned upon by the post-war censors was music by Russian emigrees, 50s gangsta rap-esque prison ballads, and songs by any individuals who had pissed off the Communist party or one of its more influential members.

Roentgenizdat Bone Music X-Ray Audio Garage Moscow

Why X-rays, you might be wondering. Well, they were reasonably easily obtainable – hospitals had to get rid of them after a certain amount of time because of the fire risk they represented – and took the grooves cut by improvised recording equipment well enough, if not particularly well, to be able to hear the desired tunes. Alongside a lot of hissing and crackling.

So the Bone Music exhibition is not just celebrating the roentgenizdat, but the people who made them and the machines they built to do it. People who were arrested, sent to the gulags, came out, and settled down to do it all over again.

And you never thought Rock around the Clock was all that.

But also on display at Bone Music was the way that people who might want to listen to such things were portrayed in the press, or even in films. Negatively, as I am sure you can imagine.

Quote about stilyagi Bone Music Garage Moscow

Yes, much of the text in the exhibition is in English as well as Russian. But then the Garage art gallery is very hip.

Very apt.

Our favourite bit of the whole Bone Music exhibition was the room set up to simulate a bootlegger’s lair. The reason? Everything in the room was touchable. All those little drawers had bits and pieces in. Tattered ID documents, valves, more valves, bits of string, technical drawings, some wire, valves, stamps, a tin of old kopecks, and valves. We opened the tea caddy and smelled the leaves inside. We handled the freshly produced X-ray records. We looked though the old exercise books of carefully handwritten catalogues. Hours of fun.

Bootlegger room Bone Music Garage Moscow

Bone Music is on at Garage until 14th October, but if you don’t catch it before then, the X-Ray Audio project goes on tour internationally quite often. See if you can check it out when it comes to you, because the sheer ingenuity of people generally, and the indomitable spirit of those suppressed should be celebrated.

And then there’s music. You should definitely remember the days it didn’t die.

To help you, here is Stephen Coates doing a TED talk about Bone Music and his X-Ray Audio project.

More information

The exhibition’s page on Garage’s website (in English).

X-Ray Audio’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Beat generation.

Address: 9/32 Krymsky Val, 119049, Moscow, Russia (inside Gorky Park).

Opening: 11am to 10pm all week to 14th October 2017. Other exhibitions at Garage also exist.

Admission: 300 roubles for adults, free for children under 11.

Getting there: The two nearest metro stations to Gorky Park are Oktyabrskaya (orange line) and Park Kultury (red line).

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The Bone Music exibition about X-ray records and bootleggers at Garage art gallery in Moscow Russia

Suitcases and Sandcastles
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Welcome our new robot overlords at Robostansiya, VDNH, Moscow

There is this assumption that children will take new technology in their stride, unlike Mama, who still remembers when digital watches were considered cool and has not recovered at all from living in the future where she carries the world around in her pocket.

However, when we found ourselves in the first section of Robostansiya at VDNH, an attraction that celebrates all things robotic, I was a little freaked out to discover that modern robots do not always look like boxes stacked on more boxes and move by lurching around with the sort of walk a zombie would be proud of. No, instead many of them look like deconstructed people, and even the ones that don’t have animated faces. They look at you. They talk to you. And then they glide towards you, frequently with an ominously pleasant enquiry as to whether or not you would like a cup of tea or something.

Talking robot at Robostansiya VDNH Moscow

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!

It’s unnatural, I tell you. Something the ken of which mankind is not supposed to. Sort of thing.

Friendly robot Robostation vDNH Moscow

This suspicion saw me mostly hiding behind Mama, which greatly interfered with her desire to read the bilingual placards and find out a) whether the robot in question would do her dusting for her and b) how to interact with it.

Engineers at Robostansitya Robostation VDNH Moscow

Mostly by making very slow deliberate hand movement or arranging the furniture in a very specific pattern and never moving it a millimetre. Which reassured me somewhat that the AIs of Robostation are not imminently going to take over the world.

Robostation space dog VDNH Moscow

Even so, it was a bit of a relief when we got round the corner of Robot Station to the bits with the virtual reality. The biggest hit for me was the one with the little cartoon robots which you can only see with the special goggles. Hours of fun shaking them around the TV they were living in, firing them out into the real world, and collecting them back up again with the high-powered laser transporter beam button. Wheeee!

Mama does not quite see why invisible robots are better than ones you can keep your eye on at all times, but what I say is that if there’s one thing the modern child has got the hang of very quickly and that is that what happens inside the computer stays inside the computer. If you are wearing the special goggles, you are safe.

My Sanguine Big Brother, who does not share my aversion to our inevitable slavery by our robot overlords as long as they do his maths homework and handwriting practice for him first, liked the robot table football. Well, who wouldn’t, especially if it means you can be part of an excited group of under tens cheering each other on.

 

Then the Robostansiya robot show started.

First there were small dancing robots, which I think Mama enjoyed even more than me.

But much better was the mad scientist who followed that up.

You know all those chemistry lessons they probably aren’t allowed to do in school any more where the teacher mixes the blue powder with the green powder and something explodes? The science show at Robot Station was like that only with bigger bangs, more singed eyebrows, and balloons. Fabulous stuff. Make sure you are down the front and you will get a chance to pop stuff yourself.

Science robot show at Robostansiya VDNH Moscow

I even fell off my chair with excitement at one point, it was that good.

But not as good as what Mama realised is the real draw for kids at the Robostation, which is to make yourself a giant robot head mask thing to take home.

And the way you do this, right, is you get a cardboard box, and you wrap different coloured duct tape round and round it until you have achieved the effect you want, and then you get the Robostansiya workers to cut out the eyehole design of your choice with a crafting knife.

Robot Heads at Robostation Robostansiya Robot Station VDNH Moscow

Cooooooooooooool. Especially when you get Mama to do most of the sticking.

So what with that and the fact that we probably spent longer playing in the board game area than with any of the other attractions, Mama does rather wonder why she paid a significant sum of money to go out and do the sort of wet weather activities we do at home.

Robot Heads at Robot Station VDNH Moscow

We kids thoroughly enjoyed ourselves though (once we got out of the dystopian nightmare future area). Plus the Robostation face painter was much much better than Mama.

And! They can register marriages! Can’t say fairer than that.

More information

The page on VDNH’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the songs of Marvin the Paranoid Android.

Address: Pavilion #2, VDNH, 119, Prospect Mira, Moscow, 129223.

Opening: 11am to 8pm, every day.

Admission: Adults 650 roubles, kids 490 roubles at weekends. During the week it’s a bit cheaper.

Getting there:  The VDNKh (VDNH) station is on the orange line and you will go in through the rather splendid front gates of VDNH if you use this. You can also come in the back by getting off at Botanichisky Sad (the orange line, and also the new Moscow Central Circle Line) and there’s a shuttle minibus that takes you from this station into the very heart of VDNH too. There are also numerous tram, trolleybus and bus routes going past the park. Robostansiya/ Robostation/ Robot Station is next to the very shiny gold Fountain of Friendship.

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Welcome our new robot overlords at the interactive robot exhibtion and show Robostansiya Robostation at VDNH Moscow

Wander Mum