THE Guide to Moscow for First Time Visitors

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

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

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

Red Square Moscow

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

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

GUM Moscow

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

The Kremlin vs St Basil’s

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

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

Kremlin helipad Moscow

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

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

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

Experience ‘wild urbanism’ at Zaryadye Park

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

Kremlin from New Zaryadye Park Moscow

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

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

Cruise down the Moscow River and see it all

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

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

The old meets the new in Gorky Park and Muzeon

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

Gorky Park Moscow Fountain

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

Lenin Bust Muzeon Park Moscow

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

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

A tour of Soviet Moscow

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

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

KGB Headquarters Moscow

Look out over the Moscow rooftops at Detsky Mir

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

Rooftop View of Moscow

The fact that you can indulge your inner child on the way up with one of the bigger Hamley’s stores, a 2018 FIFA World Cup merchandise shop, and all sorts of interactive games in the corridors is surely just a bonus.

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

Explore VDNKh, the Soviet theme park

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

Pavillion VDNKh Moscow

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t visit the Museum of Contemporary History

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

Unfortunately, it is currently undergoing a renovation, so the main halls containing really interesting artifacts relating to the period, significant moments, and famous and more obscure heroes and villains are closed. There are temporary exhibitions for the real enthusiast. But it is cheap and central, being on the main drag down to Red Square Tverskaya Street, just up from Tverskaya/ Pushkinskaya/ Chekovskaya metro stations. And since it is housed in the former English Club, a gentlemen’s hang out for expat Brits and Anglophiles in Tsarist Russia, it’s in a really nice-looking building.

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

Go underground and visit Bunker 42 and the Gulag Archipelago

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

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

Tanks, planes and guns

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

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

U2 Spy Plane Powers Moscow

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

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

Victory Park and the Napoleonic Wars

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Museum Red Square

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

Travel round and round the Moscow Metro

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

Komsomolskaya Moscow Metro

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

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

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

Troparevo Moscow Metro

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

The modern, the traditional and the trendy art galleries

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

The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsy Val

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

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

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

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

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

Old Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow

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

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

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

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

Both of them are closed on Mondays. Of course.

Admire Moscow’s pre-revolutionary architecture

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

Moscow mansion house

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

Peep into the lives of famous Muscovites

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

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

Why is the Old Arbat famous?

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

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

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

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

Victor Tsoi Wall Arbat Moscow

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

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

Shop for souvenirs at Vernissage in Ismailovo

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

Kremlin in Ismailovo Moscow

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

What more can Moscow’s parks offer?

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

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

Bridge Tsaritsyno Moscow

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

Horse and carriage ride Kolomenskoye Park Moscow

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

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

Be observant of Russian Orthodox churches

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

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

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

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

Christ the Saviour cathedral Moscow

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

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

Moscow City, Skyscrapers and TV Towers

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

City of Capitals Moscow City

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

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

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

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

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

Bolshoi Theatre Moscow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finish your day with people watching, cafe culture and nightlife

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

Moscow street musicians

In winter, well in winter just get indoors.

And finally

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

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

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

Nikolskaya Ulitsa Easter 2018 Moscow

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

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

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

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Tin Box Traveller

Why Vernissage in Ismailovo is the best place to buy souvenirs in Moscow

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a foreign tourist in Russia, whether or not in possession of a fortune, must be in want of a matryoshka doll.

And this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding Muscovites, that it is not at all difficult to find one’s rightful aide memoire in the various souvenir shops, stalls, or by walking down the Old Arbat, albeit at a price.

But if you want more of an experience, Mama’s top tip for the best place to buy souvenirs in Moscow is to travel a bit outside the centre to Vernissage in Ismailovo, next to the idyllic Ismailovsky Park. There you will find the largest affordable souvenir market in Moscow along with arts, crafts, antiques, and a flea market. Which also has the advantage of being part of the very attractive wooden Ismailovo Kremlin complex.

Art Market at Vernissage in Ismailovo Moscow

Look, ‘a kremlin’ is a fortress in Russian, OK? There are quite a lot of kremlins dotted around Russia.

In fact there are two of this one alone, as it is the second replica of the Tsar Alexei Michailovich’s summer palace in Moscow. The other one is a bit closer to the original location in Kolomenskoye Park.

Palace inside the Kremlin in Ismailovo Moscow

The Ismailovo Kremlin doesn’t really pretend to be anything other than a complete tourist trap, not that there is anything wrong with hanging out in a Slavic theme park in Mama’s opinion.

Inside you will find various small museums on crowd pleasing themes such as folk art, bread, vodka and child delinquency, many with the potential to attend master classes in… what? Matryoshka painting, bread eating, getting tiddly and the correct way to stick chewing gum on the underside of a school desk? Or something. I dunno. I wasn’t there, and Mama and Papa weren’t going to find out, having seized on Babushka’s offer to look after us at the weekend to get up at 6am and go and stand around in freezing conditions in front of tourist attractions that weren’t open yet.

Great time to get some uninterrupted photos though. Fabulous buildings, huh?

The Kremlin in Ismailovo Moscow

Being there so early and winter also meant that there were no brides wondering about looking photogenic – the other thing the Ismailovo Kremlin is for, aside from having a lot of entertaining space for hire, is hosting weddings. There is even a registry office inside and dedicated, suitably decorated buildings to retire to afterwards. If gawking at brides is your thing, Mama recommends coming in summer, when there will be queues of limos and big white dresses.

Mama missed out too on the live action blacksmithing and whatever else they do in the courtyard that leaves behind straw and a brightly coloured stage.

But that was OK. Mama and Papa were not really there for the Ismailovo Kremlin, not actually being tourists.

No, Mama and Papa were there to recreate their pre-children youth looking at the more pre-loved items on display in the upper sections of the market next door devoted to random second-hand tat likely to bemuse the foreign tourist, genuine antiques in the form of things like silverwork, samovars and icons, and other items of rather obsessive interest. Like stamps. Or coins. Or badges.

The flea market at Vernissage in Ismailovo in Moscow

Or, in Mama’s case back in the day, Soviet porcelain figurines, the idle collection of which she would have been considerably less blase about had she known what eye-watering prices they go for now. Still, at least you all know what present to get her.

Flea Market in Ismailovsky Market Moscow

Mind you, her most memorable purchase was a double bass. Look, it was minus 15 that day and she felt desperately sorry for it. Yes, the joinery did all spring apart as soon as she got it inside and it warmed up. It’s more a decorative item than actually something you can play when you live in a flat with paper-thin walls anyway.

More recently, Papa bought her a toaster for her birthday here.

Love is not dead.

Anyway. This Vernissage is the authentic heart of the complex, and has its origins in the makeshift flea market and informal hobbyist swap meet on the grounds of Ismailovsky Park proper that sprang up when perestroika both ushered in a more relaxed attitude to, well, everything and also tanked what was left of the Soviet economy to the extent that selling off your prized possessions became a necessity.

Or your paintings. The name Vernissage is actually French for ‘varnishing’ and is what you call the pre-exhibition showing of artworks, presumably because you are walking around sipping champagne while the pictures are still tacky.

At this time in the morning, then, everyone knows each other and its a toss-up whether it’s all the fascinating little items on display that are the main attraction or people watching the camaraderie of the stallholders as they catch up with friends, do a bit of inter-trading and see what new acquisitions everyone has brought along this week, along with getting set up for the day.

Enjoy, too, wandering around the winding alleys which curve here, there, and down and back up over each other, surrounded by carved wooden structures such as the souvenir sellers’ huts, a windmill, galleried verandas and covered walkways.

Vernissage in Ismailovo Moscow

It may have started in a very modest way, but it’s definitely not a temporary set up now. Although you’ll still find people spreading out their wares on the ground rather than specially provided tables.

Should you actually be wanting to buy a little something to remind you of your trip to Russia, however, then you want the lower sections of Vernissage in Ismailovo, where you will also surely be able to find the perfect gift from Russia for people back home.

There are, of course, fur hats with ear flaps aplenty. Every possible colour, many with a little star on the front and probably all made out of rabbit. It will still keep your head warm, of course.

Soviet kitsch is a lot less evident than it once was, which means that either visitors to Russia have finally decided that having small busts of mass murderers like Stalin and Lenin humourously perched on their mantelpiece isn’t as amusing as it was in the 90s, or they have cleaned out the former Soviet Union of such things already. Not completely disappeared though, and anything Red Army related is still quite popular, so never fear, hammer and sickle stamped items are here.

Red Army memorobilia at Vernissage Souvenir Market Moscow

But what Vernissage really excels at is showcasing the full range of traditional Russian decorative arts, many of which are actually either practically useful or genuinely attractive in their own right beyond just being a way of remembering your trip to the Wild East.

So what are the best souvenirs from Russia?

There are the aforementioned matryoshka, or Russian nesting dolls, of course. Practically compulsory. But you can choose between very small sets or giant ones, between rather simply painted ones and ones decorated with infinitesimal delicacy, artistry and patience. You can get ones with your football, hockey or basketball team immortalised, or the full set of Soviet/ Russian leaders. Or, if you commission one in advance, your own family.

Matryoshka dolls at Vernissage Market in Moscow

Whatever kind of matryoshka you want, you will be able to get it here at Vernissage in Ismailovo.

However, this is not the only handicraft available.

On the more practical end are the soft, so soft cobwebby Orenburg shawls, made from goats hair, and splendidly warm for those cold Russian winters. Mama also recommends the woolen socks and gloves, and these days they are even making highly decorated felt slippers in the style of the traditional felt boots that were once so ubiquitous on the feet of Russian babushkas.

Russian Felt Slippers at Ismailovsky Market in Moscow

I am pretty sure I know what Granny and Grandad are getting for next Christmas to add to their already vast collection of gifts from Russia.

Lace is still crafted by hand in parts of Russia, and can be found trimming linen tablecloths and napkins, tablecloths which Mama possess at least three sets of, but cannot bring herself to use in case someone spills red wine on them.

She does regularly bring out her sets of wooden napkin rings, painted with various scenes from Russian fairy tales though. These are riffing off the more traditional lacquer boxes, where the colourful scenes overlay a strictly black background.

Lacquer boxes in Ismailovsky Souvenir Market in Moscow

More wooden tableware? Try the cheerful Khokhloma spoons, bowls and trays and so on where red and gold flowers are painted over a black background (see the theme here?). Or more delicate porcelain cup and saucer sets from the Lomonosev factory, which also makes animal figurines. And teapots.

Fancy something a bit more frivolous? You will notice necklaces, bracelets and rings made from various stones throughout Ismailovsky Market. Russia is famous for its orange amber and green malachite, but almost any colour is available, and in a variety of styles.

Amber at Vernissage Market in Moscow

Is you house looking underdecorated? Then if you don’t share Mama’s taste in figurines, you could try the blue and white designs of the Gzhel factory, or the colourful, naive style of  Dymkovo. Which look a lot like children’s toys made out of clay and then painted because before the advent of plastic, that’s exactly what they were.

You can, of course, get actual wooden toys, handmade fabric dolls, and outfits in a traditional Russian style for kids. Who can resist those fabulous headdresses?

And at any time of your you can find some lovely carved wooden Christmas (New Year) tree ornaments, including large Father Christmases (Ded Morozes), who are designed to sit under your tree and guard the presents. Do not be alarmed if they are not dressed head to toe in red, this is normal. Think of it as an interesting Eastern quirk.

If you go to the flea market section you might be able to find some of tree decorations from the fifties too, which have their own unique charm. Mama’s pride and joy, which is inherited rather than sourced from Vernissage, is an ornament in the shape of a pickled cucumber.

There will also be all sorts of things, including pictures, made from silver birch bark, and there is always the fine arts market at the very top of Vernissage if you want to take home an actual painted picture imitating the works of great Russian artists, countryside scenes, urban landscapes and lovingly depicted flora.

And if all of this crafting activity is inspiring (and Mama has really only given the highlights), you will also be able to buy all sorts of supplies in order to have a crack at it yourself, a hangover from the days when Vernissage was, along with the flea market, a wholesalers market where the people who sold the items more directly to the public met the artists who produced them, and the artists met the people who produced turned wooden eggs.

Whatever you decide to get, have a go at haggling. It’s expected. But do also be aware that many of the items on display are not mass-produced and take time, effort and skill to produce. So they stallholders will resist past a certain point.

A word of warning if you are thinking about buying an antique – there are rules about taking items out of Russia that have both age and cultural worth, and you need a special chitty to be able to do so. If you really want an old icon, therefore, it might actually be better to get one from the more established shops on the Old Arbat. It is also prohibited to buy or sell medals of any age.

Icons at Vernissage Antiques Market Moscow

But that’s OK as you can get a magnet instead. They are plentiful. Although you won’t find much else made of plastic. If you want a model St Basil’s it will probably have to be painstakingly hand crafted from wood and lovingly painted. Sorry.

By this point you will probably be hungry. Luckily there are any number of snack selling kiosks dotted about, who will also be sending carts around the walkways if you can’t last until you find their permanent location, as well as cafes and restaurants back in the Ismailovo Kremlin. And if you fancy trying out some street food, there are people cooking up some plov and shashlick near the entrance.

If this doesn’t sell the place to you or if you are not convinced by our recommendations about the best things to buy as gifts from Russia, or that Ismailovsky Market is the best place to shop for souvenirs in Moscow, the best place to come to relieve the pressure of high culture sightseeing, AND the best place to discover a fascinating new line of collectibles, perhaps you will be tempted by the news that the same team behind the trendy Flacon art and design complex have purchased land right next to Vernissage. They seem to be planning to turn it into the sort of up market hipster hangout that is proving popular elsewhere in the capital.

One can only hope that this doesn’t send the whole place too far into tasteful blandness.

Just make sure you get off at the right metro stop on your way in. Oddly enough, Ismailovo Kremlin and Market is not at Ismailovsky Park.

Want to know more about what to do and see in Moscow? Check out Mama’s comprehensive guide to Moscow here.

More information

The Kremlin in Ismailovo’s website (in English. For a given value of English).

More about Flacon’s plans for Vernissage.

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

Address: 105187, Moscow, Ismailovsky Shosse, 73

Opening: Vernissage is best to visit on Saturday and Sunday after about 10am and before about 6pm. The market is much reduced during the week, especially the antique, art and flea market sections, but if you must go then go on a Wednesday.

Admission: It’s free to get into the market and wander around the Kremlin in Ismailovo territory.

Getting there: You need the metro station Partisanskaya (dark blue line) NOT the one called Ismailovsky Park. It’s a five-minute walk, tops, from this station.

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We think the best place in Moscow to buy affordble souvenirs in Moscow is Vernissage in Ismailovo and we also explain what makes a perfect gift from Russia

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Gazing upwards at Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, UK

The problem with visiting Anglican cathedrals is that you spend a lot of time bending awkwardly backwards so you can stare at the ceiling. Ely Cathedral is no exception to this, although there is plenty to see at less crippling angles.

Ely Cathdral Roof

Notably the stained glass windows.

Ely Cathedral Stained Glass

In fact, to celebrate this, Ely Cathedral has a stained glass museum. Which we didn’t go to (it cost extra).

The other thing we didn’t do were the Tower Tours (it cost extra. Plus there were steps). This may have been a mistake as it is how you gain access to the upper walkways, bringing you nose to colourful window, and giving you the chance to see the fabulous space that is the cathedral from another angle.

Actually, perhaps with two under tens in tow that’s not such a good idea. You wouldn’t want centuries of craftsmanship to be destroyed by one enthusiastic bounce. The kids might suffer a bit from taking a header through the glass too.

Luckily, Ely Cathedral has other dedicated activities for its younger visitors. Mama tried to interest in us in the quiz, which encouraged us to contemplate key architectural details and their historical significance, but we quickly abandoned this for the sticker scavenger hunt. There is a map. There are locations marked on the map. There are locations marked on the map, which if you can find them, have stickers for you to collect and add to your compendium of interesting things to note about Ely Cathedral. We had a high old time galloping about what is quite an expansive site, and Mama got to take many many photographs in peace while we did so.

Flowers Ely Cathedral

The only downside was that when we arrived at the relevant spot the stickers were not actually there. Mama was not entirely sure this was a down side though as it meant that we got twice as much exercise and some useful practice in polite interaction in English, as each time we failed to find our reward we trotted back to the helpdesk to collect it there. Although after this happened for the 200th time, the very obliging staff did just hand us over the whole set. After which we lost a bit of interest. It’s the hunt that’s the thing, you see. But they did then go round to top up the displays ready for the next underage visitor. You are very welcome.

Mama is welcome too. She lost her purse while in Ely Cathedral. It’s one of those things which marks you out is a tourist is losing key belongings while on a trip out. That and getting pickpocketed. Mama was quite shocked at the thought she might have been pickpocketed inside a religious institution in the UK, but almost as the thought crossed her mind she realised that she had probably just dropped it.

And thankfully for the reputation of respectable cathedral-going visitors in Britain, this was exactly the case and somebody had handed it in, so she got her purse back (if not her dignity) entirely intact.

After which we got back to admiring the building. One of the great attractions of Ely Cathedral, apart from the ceilings, the windows and the stickers, are plaques to the great and the good of Ely and the surrounding area stating their main purpose in life. Apart from dying, which seems a popular achievement to mention, there appear to have been a lot of Cambridge University professors in the area.

Plaques Ely Cathedral

Occasionally, you get statues of people sleeping. Why sleeping, I do wonder. Is being good at snoring particularly impressive? Or something that the UK is particularly known for? I think we’d better book my Babushka a place right now because her penetrating buzz-saw whiffling is surely outstanding in its class.

On the other hand, I have no idea what talent this guy thinks he is showing off.

Reclining Victorian bishop Ely Cathedral

What Mama particularly liked about Ely Cathedral, however, was that it is clearly not just a carefully preserved monument to days gone by, but a working space.

Anglican vicar at work Ely Cathedral

Mama, in fact, spent a happy twenty minutes dragging my Long-suffering Big Brother, who has a much higher tolerance for being lectured at than I do, about the cathedral demonstrating the changing nature of Christian worship in the UK over the last five centuries or so.

Admire the craftsmanship and sheer effort of erecting this huge, gorgeous building in the middle of nowhere at a time when humanity was still constructing everything by hand.

Ely Cathedral

Nothing was more important than God!

Ely Cathedral Architectural Details

See the painstakingly ornate carvings, the colourful windows, the walls which would once have been covered in paint! And contemplate the impact that having a nice place to hang out in once a week and the prospect of a brighter future might have had on the Medieval mind.

Chapel Entrance Ely Cathedral

Thrill as you recognise the moment when Catholicism gave way to Protestantism in the decision to preserve the figures in the Lady Chapel with their faces smashed off.

Note how the rood screen, with its symbolic and actual separation of the congregation from the place where the most important God veneration used to take place, is now ignored in favour of a nice plain altar on the side where the great unwashed sit.

high altar Ely Cathedral

Modern Altar Ely Cathedral

Talking to God was a specialist job at one time. And people were assumed to need a bit of visual help in interpreting the stories. But now one is supposed to take a bit more responsibility for one’s own post-death safety. And be able to read.

Yet observe the moment that history comes full circle as the modern church decides that contemporary society demands that they try to convey the concept of the divine through the medium of interpretive art.

Ely Cathedral Modern artworks

And of course, there is also the serious business of the flower arranging rota to enjoy. Mama says you couldn’t get any more Anglican unless there was quiche, stewed tea in a tea urn, a jumble sale and people bickering over who gets to babysit the vicar’s son.

Flowers Ely Cathedral

And in fact there probably was quiche in the cafe near the entrance, although we opted for the generously sized portions of cake instead. No tea urn though, but then Mama does prefer coffee.

Basically, we enjoyed our trip round Ely Cathedral, which we completed on the same day as we visited Oliver Cromwell’s House Museum. Given that the two buildings are practically next door and all. Definitely a must see for anyone visiting Ely. It’s big, it’s relatively empty, it’s full of welcoming well-meaning people, it’s got lots of interesting things to look at and there are refreshments. What’s not to like?

More information

Ely Cathedral’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about stained glass windows.

Address: Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4DL

Opening: 7am – 6.30 pm, although the best time to visit  is 9am – 5pm Monday to Saturday. Bear in mind that if there is a service going on then access will be restricted. There’s a page on the website where you can check potential closures out.

Admission: 8 GBP for adults with 6 GBP concessions. Kids under 16 are free. It’s 15 (or 13) GBP to add the Tower Tour, and 12 (9) GBP to visit the Stained Glass Museum and the cathedral together. To do it all and get a free cup of tea is 18 (15.50) GBP. People who live in or go to church in the area can get a free pass.

Getting there: Ely is a bit farther north of Cambridge up the A10 or the A14. There’s no dedicated parking for the cathedral, but there are a number of free car parks in Ely and the one we were in was just a few minutes’ walk away.

Ely also has rail connections to Stanstead Airport, Kings Cross London, Birmingham, Norwich and Peterborough. The station is 10 minutes away from the cathedral.

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Ely Cathedral is historically interesting, visually stunning and welcoming to visitors

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Is VDNH, Moscow just a memorial to a Soviet never-never land?

Russia is one of those countries which every foreigner has an opinion about.

Of course, what people think about it changes. A bit. When Mama first came to Moscow, it was all food lines, bears on the streets and year round snow. Ten years later it was more about the super rich owning football clubs, bears on the streets and year round snow. Twenty years earlier, it was the stone-faced communists and their threat to the world, bears on the streets and year round snow. We are back now to super villain status – bare-chested, riding on a bear, in year round snow – but through all of this what people have seen as a handy symbol of whatever they think of the country is Red Square and the Kremlin.

They are where gold leaf is frowned on in favour of severe granite blocks and lots of marble, and then plastered back again twofold and with added malachite in the government buildings and state apartments.

Where churches are demolished to make way for the tanks, and then rebuilt with a super large statue of St Vladimir the bringer of Christianity to ancient Rus round the corner for good measure.

Where conspicuous consumption conspicuously isn’t in the State Department Store GUM, and then returns at conspicuously high prices, supplemented by advertising that takes the form of a giant Luis Vuitton suitcase slap bang in front of St Basil’s.

Where military parades now jostle for their place with extravagant firework displays, exclusive rock concerts and public skating in the winter.

Where Lenin still hasn’t been moved out of his mausoleum, but is can be covered by a jaunty awning if his presence is inconvenient, such as when Easter coincides with the 1st May.

Sort of thing.

So of course, you need to visit both. But there are other places which represent the changing face and fortunes of Russia in the 20th Century.

One of those is VDNH.

The Soviet exhibtion complex VDNH VDNKh Moscow

Or VDNKh, because the last sound doesn’t transliterate very well into English. Try doing the ‘ch’ in the Scottish ‘loch’ and you are close. Mama prefers the second spelling, but the Russians themselves seem to have given up.

VDNH (VDNKh) stands for ‘the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy’ (they tried to rename it ‘the All-Russian Exhibition Centre’ for a while. It didn’t stick). It began as the Soviet equivalent of the Great Exhibition in 19th Century London or the World Trade Fair in the US in the 50s and it is remarkable for the amazing set of buildings, or pavilions, each representing some achievement unlocked by the hero supermen and women of the Soviet Union.

Mama used to be particularly delighted by the fact that if you come in the front entrance of VDNH, the buildings start out being to really grand things like electromagnetic engineering! Armenia! And space!

Armenian pavilion VDNH VDNKh Moscow

And then work their way to the back with the more modest structures where it’s all pigs! Meat! And honey!

meat production pavilion VDNH VDNKh Moscow

She found out later that the agriculture section is where it all started, so it’s not surprising that it is curiously well represented if less epic in scope than later offerings.

A tad tasteless, too, given that this part was begun not long after a large number of people had starved to death due to the famine brought about at least in part by Soviet agricultural policies.

Told you it’s representative.

Today there are over 500 permanent buildings, 49 of which have been designated as listed buildings.

Pavilion at VDNH Moscow

What that means is that it has a very very big territory. Mama is itching to suggest that out of all the World Exhibition Great Fairs, Moscow’s is probably the biggest in some way, but she has no evidence to back this up. Wikipedia does say that the area is larger than the whole of the principality of Monaco though, so that’s something, right?

Belarus pavilion vdnh vdnkh Moscow

Anyway. Up until the dying days of the Soviet Union, VDNH (VDNKh), as the name suggests it ought to, did indeed host actual exhibitions, conferences and scientific meetings and so on. As well as being a pleasant spot for your average Muscovite to come and stroll around and have popular music piped to them over the outdoor loud hailer system, while eating ice cream and boggling at the architectural masterpieces.

Architectural detail at VDNH VDNKh Moscow

Then came the 90s, and the buildings were leased out to a random collection of ramshackle hawkers. The whole place became like a large, well-appointed and peculiarly eclectic pound shop. You could buy anything in the way of random tat here from one of the huge number of higgaldy piggaldy stalls crammed into every available corner in every possible building. Mama’s favourite find was a two dollar double bass bow. No it wasn’t a music specialist shop at all. They also sold plastic cutlery, cheap alarm clocks, tea and clothes.

So, in fact, also very representative, this time of the 90s in Russia. Rampant but basically ill-conceived capitalism.

They still piped out the latest hits around the park though, and if you weren’t to be lured inside by the thought of browsing for a new fridge, a pot plant and a bottle of not-best Crimean champagne, it was still worth going for the vast number of outdoor side shows and fairground attractions, as well as the large number of barbecued meat stalls.

And then all that changed. Since 2014, the governance of the area has been taken firmly back by the Moscow city authorities, who have evicted the kiosk holders and started a major overhaul of what were increasingly crumbling pavilions.

Today it is home to permanent spectacles you may even want to visit, such as the Moskvarium aquarium, the Polytechnic Museum’s not very temporary anymore exhibition, the Museum of Illusions, the Russia, My History multimedia extravaganza*, and the City Farm.

VDNH (VDNKh) puts on more and more performances, art exhibitions and the like every year, and there’s also space now for really large events such as comic conventions, travel shows, education fairs and lift exhibitions.

And, of course, it has a giant skating rink in winter, sports an urban beach in summer and is the backdrop for some of Moscow’s better firework displays on major holidays.

ice skating vdnh moscow

There is even a thriving equestrian centre. You can go on a tour of the stables, ride a horse or just hang around and watch people putting their steeds through their paces!

horses at the equestrian centre vdnh moscow

The next phase of renovations has just kicked in, and, once again, mirrors the re-beautification of all of Moscow under the current Mayor. This phase will see, among other things, the particularly large and fabulous Space pavilion totally revamped and, if Mama understands correctly, the collection from the current Cosmonautics Museum may well be moving there when it’s finished.

The current museum is too small, apparently. Mama is biting her tongue in an effort not to giggle, but not succeeding very well.

This does mean that an awful lot of things are swathed in scaffolding right now or being dug up, so if you visit this summer, the place will not be looking at its most impressive. But in a year or so’s time, wheeeee!

Restoration at VDNH Moscow

It’s hard, and it’s particularly hard for Mama, who loves the place, to think of any down side to this, aside from the ever-present tension between public spending on the cosmetic upkeep of a city versus pumping extra cash into the welfare and social support system. At least VDNH (VDNKh) is a space that can be enjoyed by all.

Even with the debate about the appropriacy of keeping public memorials to historical regimes or figures which now represent ideals or behaviours we condemn, the thing about the sort of Soviet propaganda which VDNH (Veh. Deh. eN. Kh) is a particularly large example of, is that it celebrates human achievements which are largely positive.

This fountain, for example, which is portraying the gold-covered harmony in which all Soviet peoples lived may not be terribly accurate, but it’s not as if it isn’t something that should be true.

Friendship of Nations Fountain VDNH VDNKh Moscow

There are undoubtedly some difficult corners – Mama finds the statues to the children who denounced their parents for unSoviet behaviour disturbing round what used to be the pavilion celebrating children and childhood – but broadly speaking it is good to have a vision of humanity to aspire to sometimes, as well as reminders of when we have failed to live up to that.

And if you just simply and purely want to see a bit of Soviet kitsch, which isn’t really that much in evidence in the Kremlin and Red Square, then this is the place to come.

Soviet detailing VDNH Moscow

Mama does rather mourn the disappearance of her favourite by the glass wine bar (bar snacks included blue cheese on sticks and olives. Mama is so seventies, yeah?). But luckily they still play you cheesy pop songs over the loudspeakers, which Mama thinks has probably always been the best bit.

Nonsense, Mama. It’s the actual rocket, the real life space shuttle and the cosmos themed playground that’s the best bit.

Rocket space shuttle and playground at VDNH Moscow

All in all VDNH (or VDNKh. Do have a go at the rasp) is not something to miss out if you are ever in Moscow, and if you live here there is plenty to keep you coming back and back.

*Actually, don’t go to Russia My History. No, really, you have been warned. But if you want to know where you should go, then read THE guide to Moscow, here.

More information

The park’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Millenium Dome, mediocrity on a colossal scale.

Address: VDNH Estate 119, Prospect Mira, Moscow, 129223.

Admission to the territory is free.

By public transport: The VDNKh (VDNH) station is on the orange line and you will go in through the rather splendid front gates. 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 if you don’t want to walk, 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.

By car: Car parks exist.

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VDNH in Moscow is a Soviet exhibition space full of architectural masterpieces

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Untold Morsels

Moscow City Day Street Party 2016

Moscow was 869 years old on this year’s City Day, and that’s official.

I think it must be very hard to decide what to give someone who is 869. There are only so many My Little Pony dolls, accessories, houses, ice cream parlours, DVDs, costumes, card games and apps out there, whatever Mama might think. The Moscow authorities looked at the profusion of round numbers and gifted the capital of Russia a new circular metro line encompassing the more outlying areas of the city. Which was nice of them. A train set is always acceptable, even if it isn’t actually pink or covered in unicorns. But despite Mama’s keeness to ride the rails, we decided it might be a bit busy on its first day of opening. Instead, we went to the giant street party in the centre.

Living fountain of friendship Moscow City Day 2016

There’s always a street party for City Day.

But as it turned out, this one was not transport related. 2016 is the Year of Film in Russia and so instead we had  pop up cafes, stage shows, cosplayers and street performers all working around the theme of movies set in Moscow. You could even hunker down and watch the films themselves in tiny temporary cinemas if the other entertainment on offer got too much for you.

Now, by films set in Moscow, of course I mean those made by the very prolific Soviet and Russian film industry. Surprisingly, that means virtually none of them feature Brucik Willisov speeding around fighting the mafia and/ or the KGB among grim tower blocks and dilapidated nuclear power stations or fighting off prostitutes in seedy nightclubs.

Says Mama.

So what we had instead was the circus, time travel, Tolstoy, precocious children, singing in the rain, time travel (again), vampires and hipsters. Naturally.

There’s a running joke in the excellent (if very short-lived) Mitchell and Webb series the Ambassadors, set in a Former Soviet Country, which all expats in the Former States really should watch if only to cringe at the spot on portrayal of their foibles. This gag’s about the propensity of the natives to offer the circus as a high treat to any and all visiting foreigners. And the propensity of the expats to cringe with horror at the paucity of this unsophisticated entertainment.

Not a view shared by us, let me tell you! Even if Mama doesn’t have the faintest clue what the film it was referencing was, you can’t go too far wrong, in our opinion, with colourful costumed stilt walkers prepared to lift you up for a selfie, acrobats prepared to teach you some of the tricks of their trade and unicycle riders who took my Jammy Big Brother up with them and rode round the assembled audience, to his everlasting delight. Except I didn’t get to have a go.

Says Mama.

Circus performers at Moscow City Day 2016

Next up was Ivan Vasilievich Changes his Profession where, in a freak accident, the very medieval medieval Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, gets swapped with a lookalike petty criminal from 1970s Moscow, with predictably hilarious results. That one’s based on a story by Bulgakov, in case you didn’t think the Master and Margarita was obscurely satirical enough. But it meant that the organisers of this event could dress people up in robes and fighting gear and trot out the people doing live action metal work again, so that’s alright.Medieval Guards Moscow City Day 2016

Plus, the rather fabulous costumes from the actual film were on display, and that was definitely worth a gawk.

Ivan the Terrible robes Moscow City Day 2016

One of what I can only assume is War and Peace’s many iterations, saw the interactive fun themed around members of the public being invited to dress up in early 19th century dresses and hang out with the main characters whilst admiring the uniforms of the soldiers sitting around staring moodily into the distance or playing on their iphones. Mama says that Russians admit to skipping the War bits in the novelisation. This must be why. Not much happens.

War and Peace Moscow City Day 2016

Mama, being British, particularly enjoyed the installation where you could stand underneath umbrellas and have water poured on you. A bold choice, she thought, given that it’s mid September and last year’s City Day was a bit of a washout. And you thought Russians don’t have a sense of humour. I, on the other hand, was delighted to be able to show off my performance skills as this was the bit of the street devoted to the musical film, Here I Go, Walking Through Moscow, the title song to which I learned in school! Singalongs! With actions! That’s what every good party needs!Singing ion the rain Moscow City Day 2016

Then it started to get weird, otherwise known as Soviet sci fi.

Soviet cosplay Moscow City Day 2016

Now, they weren’t celebrating Mama’s favourite film in this genre, about a robot boy who takes the place of his lookalike human counterpart at school (The Adventures of an Electronic). Which goes about as successfully as you might expect but also gives a surprisingly interesting insight into what Soviet childhood was actually like in the 80s. No, this one, Guests from the Future, was the one where visitors from the future end up fighting for control of a little black box, to be ultimately thwarted by upstanding members of Muscovite youth culture. I gather from the rolling interactive performance of the main scenes which this area of Tverskaya Street consisted of.

Sci fi street theatre Moscow City Day 2016

Frankly, my Jammy Big Brother and I were decidedly sceptical about the fabulously dressed people milling around, although Mama, who you may have gathered is a bit of a geek, didn’t really see this as a problem as it allowed her the opportunity of getting her photo taken for once. More than once. More than twice, actually. But we enjoyed playing tug of war with the bad guys (we won) and chasing them through the streets of Moscow on our imaginary motorcycles (we won) and generally contributing to the triumph of the gentleman dressed in silver lame over the men in yellow (we won). I mean, who wouldn’t?

We also enjoyed taking part in the obstacle course races, the aim of which, was to act as good Soviet pioneers (like the scouts/ guides but more…. compulsory), and carry the milk in string bags home to Mama through tunnels, and so on. We both won our rounds in that one too. Mama notes we seem to have become a tad competitive over the summer.

Pioneer obstacle course Moscow City Day 2016

In fact, as you can see there was quite a lot going on for us kids, despite the fact that they didn’t seem to be celebrating any of the excellent Soviet cartoons we have been brought up on. And while it was crowded for Moscow, we’d recently attended one of the cultural hat tips on Trafalgar Square, and believe you me, you haven’t experienced packed until you have been to Maslenitsa, Diwali, Eid, a Japanese Matsuri, St Patrick’s Day and Pride in a space which can comfortably fit about a tenth of the people attending it, and you definitely haven’t felt frustrated until you have seen the queues for the interesting looking food or waited in line to get you hand hennaed for ages and ages and ages and ages and ages.

In contrast, for Moscow’s City Day it didn’t take us long to get the obligatory ice cream, or find seats in the obligingly comfortable bean bag chill out zones when our stamina started flagging about half way down Tverskaya.

Chilling out Moscow City Day 2016

Mama wasn’t, inexplicably, all that keen on experiencing food from a mock Soviet café. But we could have popped into any of the usual eateries which line the street had she not promised us fast food as compensation for indulging her love of spectacle – Moscow city centre is amply provided for refreshment options.

Soviet dining Moscow City Day 2016

Buoyed by our break, we hit the final film sets and were away. There were a few at this point Mama didn’t recognise, including the one which involved a giant Christmas New Year tree and ice/ roller skating rink. So we ignored them. Especially as Mama feels we will have had quite enough of Christmas New Year trees, snow and ice rinks in a few months.

The first one Mama was interested in neatly combined one of the mock ups of Moscow architectural landmarks dotted up and down the street with an actual scene from the film involved. Members of the public were climbing the archways to stand and survey the city. Just like the vampire members of the Day Watch police force, tasked with making sure that the magical forces of Light don’t take advantage during the times when most upright citizens of the Dark are having a well-earned nap from drinking blood, promoting the evil agenda, and so on.

Night Watch Moscow City Day 2016From the films (and books) called the Night Watch. Which are pretty bloody good, says Mama, and widely available in English. Hint hint. And the films are worth it for the subtitles alone, Mama says. Hint hint HINT. But as Mama feels that the plot of this one isn’t really very suitable for our ears and as we think vampires are to be avoided, perplexed is what we were.

Day Watch Moscow City Day 2016

Stilyagi (Hipsters), which ended the film parade, is another fairly recent film. This time, about the people who listened to that alternative underground music of the West,  RocknRoll. It’s another pretty good film, and does a very neat balancing act between the jauntiness of the soundtrack and colourful musical numbers and a glimpse at what happened to non conformists in the Soviet Union back in the day. But there’s also a refusal to turn them entirely into entirely righteous martyrs to individual freeeeeeedom and the American way. And a frankly odd ending. Mama thinks they just ran out of plot, or possibly money, but it’s still worth seeing.

Of course, for the perspective of a giant street party, it’s an excellent excuse to have beautifully dressed people performing energetic, hysterically happy, highly danceable music. And have beautifully dressed people mingle energetically with hysterical happiness with the crowd. Carrying a double bass! Mama was cross that at this point her camera battery died and she didn’t get to hysterically happily mug at us with correct hand positioning on the fretboard. You’ll just have to imagine the big skirts, the fifites hairdos and the hysterically happy grinning.

So, will you enjoy City Day, should you be in Moscow sometime in September next year? Will you enjoy a saunter down a street full of colour and distraction with the occasional snacking opportunity? Even if you are not the target audience and may find whatever theme they have a bit incomprehensible? Well, we certainly did, and so we can highly recommend Tverskaya Street on City Day to anybody. Other venues for celebration are available, but this is our top pick.

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Celebrating Moscow's birthday with a city day street party.

 

More Information

Had your interest in Soviet and Russian films whetted? Have a look at this website, which has links to Russian language films dubbed or subtitled into English.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about temporal mechanics in TV and the movies.

Address: Tverskaya Street, Moscow

Metro: Okhotniy Ryad (red line) Teatralnaya (green line) and Ploshard Revolutsii (dark blue line) are at one end, and Chekhovskaya (grey line), Pushkinskaya (purple line) and Tverskaya (green line) at the other.

By other means: What part of the centre is closed to traffic did you not understand?

MummyTravels
Suitcases and Sandcastles

Central Children’s Store at Lubyanka, Moscow: more than just a department store

Mama is turning into an unbearable big city snob, much like Papa, who simply cannot imagine ever living anywhere other than the capital of any given country.

The way you can tell this is that Mama considers Hamleys in London one of the least pleasant places to while away a few hours in a long list of unpleasant places to while away a few hours. She has, in fact, been spoiled by the availability in such a large metropolis of many many more interesting places to hang out, and if a visit to a toy shop is actually necessary would far rather spend the afternoon wandering around the always empty ToysRUs than brave the heaving mass of small shrieking bodies fighting over a broken demonstration remote-controlled car or the last half-inch of kinetic sand. Her children’s delight in getting to actually touch an extremely limited number of the toys on display, in Mama’s opinion, is not worth the hassle of trying to keep an eye on her over-excited and increasingly frustrated kids in one of London’s tourism scrums.

Gagarin and Laika out of Lego

Luckily, because inexplicably we, her children, do not entirely share Mama’s hatred, we now live in Moscow, where there is the Central Children’s Store at Lubyanka.

Yes, it is a bit of a mouthful. There’s a story behind it. Let me explain.

The Central Children’s Store at Lubyanka is not so called because Soviet people had no need for this pig-dog capitalist nonsense of snappily memorable brand names. Back in the day it used to be called Detsky Mir, Children’s World, and it was glorious (Mama tells me).

Central Children's Store Detsky Mir Moscow

It was this giant warehouse of a place, with an aircraft hanger-like open space on the ground floor giving way to open plan balcony effect floors going up and up and up, each one with their own child related product theme. It was so big that the full-sized carousel in the centre of the main hall looked dwarfed. Mama used to particularly enjoy going and standing in front of the walls of a thousand million Barbie dolls. Papa preferred the acres of model train-sets. And they both used to travel to the pushchair section, pre-children, because you haven’t lived until you have seen the massed ranks of every possible make and model of four-wheeled baby carrier stretching far far off into the distant horizon.

Crowded and cramped it wasn’t.

Unfortunately just as Mama acquired actual children to go with her general love of wandering around it, Detsky Mir closed for renovation. And did not reopen for many many many many many many years. And sometime during that time, the name Detsky Mir became attached to a chain of children’s toy and clothes shops in and around Moscow. So when it reopened, the original shop needed a new moniker.

Of course, this doesn’t explain, quite, the utter lack of an interesting choice of name in the Central Children’s Store at Lubyanka’s bid to muscle into the lucrative Moscow what-do-we-do-with-the-children-when-it-is-minus-10 outside market. But then perhaps they are rightly resigned to everybody calling it Detsky Mir regardless of copyright whatever they did.

Anyway. I bet you are desperate to know what it is like inside, yeah? Mama is starting to take the piss with these long rambling introductions, isn’t she? I’ll get her to shake the format up next time, OK?

Inferior to the old version is Mama’s grumpy old woman verdict. Nooooooooo, I don’t want to go, you are the worst Mama in the world, let’s just stay for a bit longer, is mine, when anyone attempts to prise me away from it. You decide who is right.

Basically they’ve kept the galleried effect, but expanded the floors themselves so that the open area is much smaller and the available space for selling stuff much bigger, which means it feels much less spacious than before. This, of course, is the source of Mama’s grumpiness. She has had it with urban space squeeze after ten years in London. Papa is just outraged that the new commercially-minded brand has replaced the old iconic clock of his childhood and given the new one (say it with me) the biggest mechanism for any timepiece in the world.

Giant Clock Central Children's Store Detsky Mir Moscow

But what a ground floor it is! There is a STAGE and regular free performances throughout opening hours. If you like people dressed in giant foam heads resembling your favourite TV characters jollying your children along into singing, shouting, crafting and mild exercise, this is the place to hang out. Sometimes they even show cartoons!!! It’s great!

Inside Central Children's Store Detsky Mir Moscow

But it’s not the main event. The rest of the five floors are split between places selling toys, places selling children’s clothes and accessories, places to refresh yourself with child-friendly food, and places which offer other child-oriented entertainment opportunities.

The main toy emporium is provided by… Hamleys!(This may well be Mama’s other source of grumpiness as her face starts to twitch at the mere thought).

Biggest Hamleys in the world in Moscow at the Central Children's Store

Of course, this being Moscow, this Hamleys is much more spacious than the one in London even after the renovations (apparently, wait for it, it is the biggest Hamleys in the world, which should surprise you not at all), so as well as all the many toys to gawp at, there is much more room for the interactive play opportunities. These include, a large indoor climbing frame, giant slides, one of those pianos you can leap about on and make loud plinky noises with your feet, huge numbers of Lego building stations around an interactive Lego model of Moscow, racing an go cart round a track, having a go on a working carousel (smaller then the original, Mama sniffs, mainly because it’s not for adults) and SINGING WITH THE EQUESTRIA GIRLS!!!

The Kremlin out of Lego at Central Children's Store Moscow

Oh, and people demonstrating flying toys, the opportunity to handle the squeaking jumping dogs and more kinetic sand. Naturally. Yes, it can get a bit busy, but we’ve never had to wait that long to get our go on things. And if you are used to the London one, it’s practically empty.

This fabulousness can occupy us for as long as you like, but there are other things to do. First and foremost is to boggle at how many other brand names familiar in the UK have managed to set up shop in the Central Children’s Store at Lubyanka. Mothercare makes a certain amount of sense in a child themed department store, but Mama is mildly amused that BHS, the rather down at heel Marks and Spencer’s knock off, has an outpost here in the dead centre of overpriced boutique shopping that is central Moscow, albeit a usually empty outpost.

We, however, do not do our clothes shopping here (we go to the other Detsky Mir). But we do allow Mama to take us up to the top floor where there is a food court with any number of coffee dispensing outlets, a stained glass fairy-tale depicting roof and a large free indoor play area on the topic of space. We take our shoes off, Mama sits down with her vital caffeinated refreshment and we are all happy for half an hour or so. If the usual fast food joints are not something you could consider feeding your children at, the still reasonable but slightly more respectable Grabli café is on the same floor.

As is the access to the roof. Yes, you can go and stand on the top of this tall building and gawp over the rooftops towards Red Square and the Kremlin. It’s very very cool and there are free binoculars for even closer up aerial sightseeing. Follow the signs for the viewpoint (in English as well as Russian). There is also a free toy museum on the same floor, which we have yet to explore but which is on the list.

As are many of the other entertainment options. For the other reason why the Central Children’s Store at Lubyanka has squeezed its former space a bit is to fit in things like a cinema, a number of stages for robotics shows and the like, an anamatronic dinosaur experience we are TOTALLY going to for my birthday, and Kidburg, one of these amusements which involves children pretending to make like the adults, go work work, earn money and generally prepare themselves for the daily grind ahead. My Jammy Big Brother and Papa have been as part of a school trip. Mama and I have not. We are sulking and therefore not prepared to say anything about it whatsoever until we have our turn.

(‘IT WAS COOOOOOOL!’ says my Jammy Big Brother, ‘I HAD FUUUUUUN! But I kept choosing jobs that didn’t give me much money and I couldn’t buy a toy at the end.’ Which just goes to show you that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But Papa was not as scathing as he sometimes is when he has had to part with money in order to keep his brats amused, so it couldn’t have been that bad).

Central Childrens Store Detsky Mir Moscow at Christmas

Some tips. There is a cloakroom on the ground floor. Use it. Says Mama. Yes, I know you will have to queue when you want to go home, but you do not want to be the one schlepping everybody’s coats, overtrousers and extra jumpers around in the winter months.

Unsurprisingly, the Central Children’s Store at Lubyanka is much quieter just after it opens at 10am than at other times of the day, so if you really want uninterrupted access to all the interactive opportunities, this is an excellent time to arrive.

And also, those little ice cream selling carts dotted around the ground floor? Make use of them – along with eating an ice cream in GUM, eating an ice cream in the former Detsky Mir should be on every Soviet-inspired traveller’s bucket list. Plus, they are pretty good.

If you are travelling to Moscow with children, Detsky Mir, sorry, the Central Children’s Store at Lubyanka is a bit of a must. An indoor themepark in the middle of downtown Moscow? What better way to bribe your children when you want to fit in a bit of cultural and historical sightseeing? I know Mama is quite prepared to trade a visit to a museum with popping in here on our way home. From my point of view this is entirely the right attitude.

What else is there in Moscow that is interesting for kids and adults alike? Read THE guide to Moscow to find out.

More Information

The Central Children’s Store’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the seven deadly sins of electronic toy design.

Address: Teatralny Pr-d, 5/1, Moscow

Opening: 10am to 10pm, every day.

Admission: Theoretically, it is free to get in. Getting out without spending any money when you have children with you is another matter.

By public transport: The metro stations Lubyanka (red line) and Kuznetsky Most (purple line) are actually in the basement. How convenient is that?

By car: There is also a car park in the basement. Usually with a queue to get in too.

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The Central Children's Store in Moscow is more than just a toy shop, it's truly a Detsky Mir, or Children's World.

Packing my Suitcase
MummyTravels

Inchcolm Island and the Forth Bridge by boat

Nobody is ever going to go to Scotland for the glorious sunshine, although we have experienced at least two whole days of lovely blue skies in our total of two visits to nearish Edinburgh so far.

Forth Bridge and Forth Road Bridge

Sadly, the high summer’s day we decided to take a boat trip up and down the Firth of Forth to admire Inchcolm Island and the Forth Bridge was not one of those days.

Forth Bridge in the Rain

But despite the brisk winds, the flurries of rain and the fact that we were having to wear both a thick jumper and our winter coats, this remains one of Mama’s favourite bits about our trips to one of the Venices of the North. Which is why she is writing about it almost three years after it actually happened.

It may be that she is more nostalgic for the summer holidays of her youth spent mainly in full body waterproofs in the Lake District than you might expect.

Especially because those holidays also involved messing about in boats. And as everybody knows, boats are much more interesting when there are a few waves and a whole lot of spray, which is what we got on this occasion in Scotland.

Boat Trip to Inchcolm Island

Papa huddled inside the undercover cabin. Mama stood out back with her face in the wind. And the rain. Did I mention the rain? Of course, she had me strapped to her chest as a makeshift bodywarmer. Sometimes Mama finds having children comes in handy.

The Firth of Forth is quite something from a boat, or indeed from any prospective at all. It’s really an enormous estuary with Edinburgh at its mouth and it is easily able to accommodate multiple ocean-going oil tankers passing each other at a distance. By which I mean, it’s big.

And this is why the Forth Bridge, the railway bridge first crossed in 1890 connecting the north side of the Forth to the capital of Scotland is such an engineering marvel. It is still the second longest cantilever bridge in the world, and was the first of its kind when built, says Mama nodding sagely as though either she or I have the faintest idea who cantilever is or why we should eat it.

But I do know it is so fabulous it is has just been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, along with the Kremlin and Red Square, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, and, apparently, the whole city of Liverpool. Cool, huh?

It’s also responsible for Papa realising he’d been in the UK too long. Making small talk, someone referred to their job as being in its futility much like painting the Forth Bridge, and Papa found himself nodding sympathetically, fully understanding the obscure reference to the fact that as soon as you finish painting one end, you have to start again at the beginning again.

Which is a myth, apparently. They use specially formulated paint to protect the cutting edge but fatally rust prone mild steel, and as a result it doesn’t wear off that quickly. Still, that didn’t stop Papa feeling traumatized. In fact, the Forth Bridge may be responsible for our move back to Moscow!

Of course, there is no chance that my Brilliant Big Brother will take and interest in all this because of his obsession with the natural world.

Luckily, the Firth of Forth boat trip held plenty of interest for him too, mostly in the form of numerous sightings of grey seals basking on rocks, buoys and Inchcolm Island itself.

Seals around Inchcolm Island

Although we also saw a puffin flitting around the boat thanks to his animal obsessed eyes too.

The boats set off from South Queensferry, which is either a short train ride away from Edinburgh proper, or reachable by a dedicated coach journey laid on the by river trip organisers. South Queensferry itself is a very pleasant sort of town for someone who wants to get away from big cities for a while. If you are early you can wander around the High Street. There’s a fish and chippie that sells deep-fried Mars bars and everything, as well as more rustically attractive shopping experiences.

Or, if that doesn’t appeal, maybe pottering about on the rocky seaweed-infested shoreline will. We could certainly spend hours down there. Just make sure you wash your children’s hands thoroughly afterwards, says Mama darkly, who once had to weather tag team explosive vomiting after she didn’t. The Firth of Forth is pretty but it’s not that clean.

Anyway. Once you have admired the elegant red struts of the Forth Bridge and the wildlife and the choppy ride, you will be deposited on Inchcolm Island and marooned there.

There is something quite thrilling about this to Mama, who along with all Brits of a certain age, was forced to read the trapped-on-a-small-island-with-your-school-chums survival manual Lord of the Flies in school. Did we go feral and start beating each other around the head with conch shells? The anticipation would be rampant except that… how exactly is that different from a normal day out with kids? Everybody else can probably just get excited about the prospect of eating all sorts of unlikely live insects courtesy of Get me Out of Here…

Luckily, before it came to that, Mama broke out the sandwiches, which we ate inside the ruined monastery. It’s very scramble-able and picturesque and a whole bunch of fun to look round. Because of course, what else do you do with an island in the middle of an estuary but build a monastery?

Inchcolm Abbey from the water

Well, build military fortifications, that’s what. Bunkers and whatnot. Gotta protect the Forth Bridge from invaders.

We missed out on that because as well as poking around on Inchcolm Island’s sandy beach (WASH YOUR HANDS. Luckily there are fully plumbed toilets by the landing stage), we also discovered the path round the back of the monastery which leads you to the rockier, less built up island area and the end of the island, where the seals lurk.

Unfortunately we did not get to see the seals from land. Papa, who was the first to find the footpath, came back after a few minutes looking shaken and warning us to stay away. So obviously Mama had to take us to have a look.

No sooner had she stepped onto the broad green inviting walkway than she understood his fear. It was nesting season for seagulls, who turned out to be extremely unimpressed by anyone coming within any kind of distance of their young and totally unafraid to dive bomb en mass those that do so.

Seagulls on Inchcolm Island

Being attacked by waves and waves and waves of large raucously shrieking birds who have no fear of humans after years of nicking their packed lunches is quite an experience. Mama made it to the top of the incline on the off-chance it would be a momentary inconvenience, realised the whole area was covered with the angry sea birds and beat a hasty retreat.

Seagulls and the abbey on Inchcolm Island

Never let it be said that our family is not occasionally sensitive to conservation issues and leaving our animal brothers and sisters in peace.

Anyway, after that it was time to get back on the boat again. More waves, more seals, no more puffins, another look at the Forth Bridge, the chance to compare it to the prosaically modern road bridge, and if you are lucky and get there quick before it is finished, the privilege of watching the ALL NEW, almost ethereal, road bridge go up. We may be a hundred and twenty five years on, but it is still damn difficult to get it right. Perhaps you will be there when they discover they are two millimeters off in being able to assemble there flat packed 21st century bridge kit, and everything!

All in all, a highly recommended day trip if you are ever in Edinburgh. QE2 smooeetoo is what Mama says. If you want boats, you want this one.

Although if you really want to go on the best British Isles cruise, you probably want one that goes all the way round.

More Information

Forth Boat Tours.

Maid of the Forth boat trips.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Forth Bridge.

Address for the launching area: Hawes Pier, South Queensferry, Edinburgh, EH30 9TB

Trip times: The boats run between from February to the end of October.  There are between one and three sailings a day, depending on the time of year and whether or not it is a weekend.

You can also do a boat trip without getting off on the island (but that would be a mistake).

Prices: Child over 5 £9.30 – £10.30, adult £18.50 -19.50, family ticket from £49.60. Concessions for Historic Scotland members.

By car: There is a large free car park next to the pier.

By train: Edinburgh Waverley to Dalmeny Station (South Queensferry). Then you walk down the path from the station to the Hawes Pier going under the Forth Bridge. You could even have a go at going over the bridge on the train to North Queensferry and coming back again to Dalmeny if you wanted to really get your Forth Bridge fill.

By bus: Stagecoach 40/40A from Edinburgh Princes Street. Get off the bus at the Police Station (bottom of the hill) and it is a 10 mins walk along the High Street of South Queensferry to the pier.

The first tour operator also does a coach tour of Edinburgh followed by the river cruise.

 

 

State Historical Museum, Moscow

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

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

State Historical Museum Moscow
How cool is this?

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

Ceiling State Historical Museum Moscow
Look up!

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

So what went wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

swords State Historical Museum Moscow
When historical instruction goes wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Information

The museum’s website (in English).

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

Address: 1 Red Square, Moscow,

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

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

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

By other means: You’re joking, right?

MummyTravels
Packing my Suitcase

Welwyn Roman Baths, Hertfordshire

There are few things in life more exciting than an interesting door.

Welwyn Roman Baths entrance
What is behind door number 3?

What could be behind it? A rabbit? A talking mole? Winnie-the-Pooh and a giant pot of honey? Martin Freeman with oversized feet? Martin Freeman dressed as a talking rabbit-mole with oversized feet eating a giant pot of honey in front of Winnie-the-Pooh? Gotta be a possibility, yeah?

Of course, the dilemma then becomes whether or not to collapse the wave and actually go through the entrance and find out, because the problem with real life is that it very rarely measures up to professionally bumbling British actors and highly anthropomorphised animals.

Luckily, when you go though this door, you will find a bath, specifically Welwyn Roman Baths, and baths are pretty cool, even when they aren’t 2,000 years old. WATER PLAY!! BOO YAH!!!

Although I am bound to say there didn’t seem to be much of that fabulous wet stuff in evidence in these ones.

Welwyn Roman Baths, as well as having one of the best entrances in the heritage business, also amuse Mama by being under a motorway. In a steel vault no less. That’s what you get the authorities to do when you find out that the fascinating baths you discovered and have been excavating for ten years are about to have the A1(M) driven right over the top of them. Or at least, that’s what you do if you are Dr Tony Rook. Props to him. Must have been a hell of a fight, says Mama, who has had to negotiate building work with her local council.

Welwyn Roman Baths
The statue on the far right is, apparently, Tony Rook!

The baths are, of course, part of a much larger villa complex, much of which has not been thoroughly explored. But it seems that they were a smaller en suite to the ones probably used by the owner. Still jolly impressive. I could get right into the Roman lifestyle. Apparently they used to spend all afternoon lolling around in the water! Now that’s civilisation.

It helps that Welwyn Roman Baths are surrounded by a wealth of hands on opportunities and displays which really add value to the experience. Without them, we would of course, have looked, nodded seriously at the explanatory placards, but we would also have been out within ten minutes and have forgotten the place almost instantly, even with the H2O interest.

Roman board game at Welwyn Roman Baths
Hours of fun!

With the very child friendly activities, we were able to explore different aspects of the baths – how they were constructed, how people used them and the place they had in Roman culture. There was a focus on Roman life in general, always popular, especially when you get to wear the centurion’s helmet. And there was also quite a lot about how archaeology works, its triumphs and its pitfalls as well. Mama felt that this added up to a pretty immersive experience overall.

Centurion's helmet at Welwyn Roman Baths
This is heavy!

And not everything is just there for the kids. Mama particularly enjoyed the board of Roman era quotes about the public bathing experience. She thinks it’s important to be reminded that people from the past can be just as tartly observational as anyone on Eight Out of Ten Cats.

Roman baby's bottle at Welwyn Roman Baths
Plastic tat eat your heart out!

Mama also enjoyed the audio guide, narrated by Dr Rook no less, something she was actually able to listen to since we were happily occupied by the jigsaw puzzles, the colouring in and the sponge on a stick toilet paper replacement. Getting to listen properly to the audio guide is a thing that almost never happens to Mama, let alone at her leisure.

Not that she really needed the recorded version, because the man himself was pottering around the gallery, and very willing to answer questions, as was the enthusiastic guide looking after the whole experience. In fact, what Mama also particularly appreciated about Welwyn Roman Baths was that when not needed at the desk, the chappie in charge circulated among the visitors and engaged them in conversation. Mama is aware, you see, that docents in historic places of interest are very willing and able to answer questions, but she cannot always think of one to act as an ice breaker so this proactive approach was welcome.

But she would also like to reassure the more retiring visitor that it was also not intrusive.

So all in all, having popped in for what Mama assumed would be a very swift visit we ended up spending well over an hour or so inside, perhaps even longer (Mama failed to time our visit). If you are ever trundling up the A1(M) and see the turn off for Welwyn (it’s the one before Stevenage!), spare a thought to the history you are passing over, and if you happen to be visiting that area, give serious consideration to visiting the baths in person.

More information

Welwyn Roman Baths internet page.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about baths and the art of bathing in the UK.

Address: Welwyn Bypass, Hertfordshire, AL6 9FG

Opening: January through November on Weekends, Bank Holidays and School Holidays from 2pm to 5pm.

Admission: Adults £3.50, children under 16 are free.

By car: Leave the A1(m) at junction 6. It’s right there, give or take a roundabout or two. Free parking exists! There are also toilets and a picnic area on site. No coffee dispensing emporium though.

By public transport: Welwyn Roman Baths are 1.3 miles from Welwyn North station.

Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh

People, or at least lists of child friendly days out, keep suggesting London’s Museum of Childhood as a suitable destination to Mama.

Mama does not really believe in this recommendation.

She is a bit over toys. Don’t get me wrong, the rise of things like adult colouring books show that everybody likes indulging their inner three year old at times. And indeed Mama herself enjoys a good sticking opportunity, a reasonably challenging jigsaw puzzle and the zip wires in the playground.

Plus, she LOVED the World of Illusions.

But toys no longer have the same pull of nostalgia that they might have done if every day she weren’t having to avoid treading on them, worry about whether this or that set is complete, scrub dried on glue off the table, listen to the robot shout rhyming demands for me to play with it every five seconds until she removes its batteries, or repeat the same mind numbing game of snakes and ladders over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Mama also considers that if she wanted to watch us get wound up into a froth of frustration over not being allowed to play with and take home the really cool things we see all around us, she could just take us to the local toy shop for a few hours.

So it might come as a surprise that one of the first places she took us to both times she has been in Edinburgh was its Museum of Childhood.

The thing is, it’s right on the Royal Mile.

Royal Mile from Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

In fact, it’s right on the Royal Mile in such a location that if you have come by train, crossed Waverley Bridge and entered the famous length of street, wandered up to have a look at the castle, wandered back down again, admired the Cathedral with its crown like cupola, its stained glass, its war memorials and its cafe, slogged past a thousand tacky souvenir shops, admired the architecture, boggled as Londoners at the idea that, apparently, many of the top floor flats in the buildings surrounding you are unoccupied, explored a few side streets, investigated how the streets are on top of each other in places rather than side by side and so on and so forth, then you will reach the Museum of Childhood at almost precisely the moment when us small children are about to rebel mightily at the thought of doing any more of the sort of idle rambling around a city that Mama and Papa used to enjoy before we turned up, leavened only by the street performers, who have a lot in common with those at Covent Garden and are therefore definitely worth a 20 minute look see.

And it’s free.

So Mama can be excused from popping in, she feels, in an attempt to break up the day and have a fighting chance of pushing on to Hollyrood House and the Scottish Parliament at the bottom of the hill. Or sidestep off the Royal Mile altogether and take in another excellent Edinburgh museum, the National Museum of Scotland.

And whaddayaknow. The Museum of Childhood is certainly not totally without interest. Each room has a theme – games, books, dolls, trains and so on – and each room has a corresponding set of toys to play with, so we mostly did that, while Mama strolled round and looked at the stuff.

Fish Game Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

Plus, the Museum of Childhood has the most freaky looking mannequins we have ever come across. Definitely one for connoisseurs of the art of making full sized wax models of humans, although Mama rushed me through the school room full-sized mock ups on the grounds that she didn’t want any of us to be having nightmares that evening. Wise choice.

Of the toys, we liked the fishing game, the board games and the tea set but our favourite by far was the puppet theatre, where we took turns elbowing each other out of the way to put on increasingly elaborate shows for Mama with the three available characters.

Puppet Theatre Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

Mama was enthralled by the playlettes of course, but also seemed pretty taken with the published book written by a nine year old in the 1800s, the doll house furniture and the many many dolls themselves, most of which rivaled the mannequins for worrying expressions and starey eyes.

Child Author Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

On his visit, Papa had his nose glued to the trains. And even we sometimes left off playing to come and look at the exhibits. We enjoyed quizzing Mama about the things that she said were straight out of her childhood games, and she enjoyed trying to impress upon us just how modest a set of random plastic tat children of days gone by were willing to put up with.

Early Board Game Museum of Childhood Edinburgh

It wasn’t convincing, that talk. Well, how could it be with floors and floors of toys to prove Mama wrong? And the shop. The shop you have to walk though to enter or leave. Now that’s what I call handy.

Mama seemed a tad less impressed though. She prefers to spend her tourist dollars in the café. But then there isn’t one at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. This matters not a jot, however, because, spiritually refreshed for more sightseeing, you should have ample time to track down some haggis or similar once you are back out on the Royal Mile before your children reach breaking point again.

The Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh, then, is perfectly placed to provide a distraction should you find yourself trundling through the middle of Scotland’s capital with small people to entertain. Enjoy!

More Information

The Museum of Childhood’s page on the Edinburgh Museums website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the seven deadly sins of electronic toy design.

Address: 42 High Street, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH1 1TG

Opening: Monday – Saturday 10am – 5pm; Sunday 12pm – 5pm.

Admission: Free

By public transport: By train to Waverley Station, and then head towards the Royal Mile over Waverley Bridge. You want to be heading away from the castle down the hill. The numbers 6 and 35 buses stop nearby, or you can get any number of buses which go over North Bridge and bisect the Royal Mile.

By car: Allegedly there are car parks in Edinburgh, including some pay and display spaces near the museum.