What (not) to do on Red Square in Moscow - Kidding Herself
St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

What (not) to do on Red Square in Moscow

Red Square. Is quite red.

Historical Museum Red Square

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

GUM, Red Square, Moscow
It’s not red!

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

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

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

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

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

GUM on Red Square at Night
Still not red!

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

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

Red Square from St Basil's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside GUM, Red Square, Moscow

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

Air con in GUM, Red Square, Moscow

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

Flower carpt in GUM, Red Square, Moscow

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

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

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

More Information

St Basil’s website (English).

Lenin’s Mausoleum website (English).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mini Travellers

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Kidding Herself is (nominally) written by Herself, a seven-year-old girl, and describes an AngloRusski family's local travel adventures in Moscow, Russia (and the UK).

69 thoughts on “What (not) to do on Red Square in Moscow”

  1. This is delightful. I love reading the history and the explanations as to why the square and buildings are the way they are. I admit, I’m uninformed on my Russian history and architecture.

  2. Thank you for bringing me back to Red Square! Now I want to visit it after dark and during summer too! The personal story always makes places more magical, and this is Red Square after all – another story will contribute to its massive presence and meaning!

    1. What, it can’t be that hard. Doesn’t everybody remember every country they visited in the last ten years? (Visa free travel with World Cup tickets. Just sayin’).

    1. Summer is absolutely blistering here it’s true. The problem is that winter seems less… reliable than it used to be. Last year was great, but we are still mostly having rain so far. I suspect the people in charge of getting the ice rinks up and running in about two weeks are feeling nervous.

    1. And I didn’t even include the story about Stalin wanting to blow it up to make room for more tanks, and a famous architect declaring he would slit his threat on its steps if Stalin signed the order. Stalin, who I think really enjoyed pushing people right to their limits, stayed his hand as a result.

  3. Hahaha, well I’m afraid I am among those who disagree with you on shopping malls! I personally would love to visit Red Square one day, ghoulish atmosphere and all. Sure looking at Lenin’s actually corpse is morbid and all, but…

  4. I rather love a gaudy onion some – although sunglasses sound handy for a visit. Daft though it is, I hadn’t realised quite how much red there was on the square – or quite how vast it is either. Definitely somewhere I would love to wander one day, ideally with someone to stay with my daughter and inevitable ice cream while I pop my head in to see Lenin… Thanks for linking up with #citytripping

  5. This is a beautiful post! I have never been to Moscow so, I cannot comprehend the magnitude of this square. I can see it is grandiose. I didn’t know about the name origin. That mall looks like a palace. I wish we have mall like that here. #citytripping

  6. The most interesting part for me was reading about why the structure of St Basil’s is so unique! It’s the one building that stands out and I find it very hard to describe its architecture. It’s slightly Arabic! Now I know why it looks so different, thanks for sharing this !

  7. suprised the russians didnt kryogenically freeze Lenin. Love the glass ceiling of the GUM and St Basil’s cathedral is definitely on my bucket list of places to visit in Russia! Going to have to see if its really red or not!

  8. Interesting fact that older Russian churches are plainer than newer ones. Do they all come with an onion dome? We have seen a lot of Russian orthodox churches while travelling across Europe, and the simpler they are, the lovelier they look.

  9. Your photo captions are funny, but, I gotta say, those architecture are wonderful! St. Basil almost looks festive as well. Or is it just me? Moscow seems like it has a lot to offer! I’m so excited.

  10. Now this has been on my bucket list for a long time, but after seeing your photos and reading about it, I think it has moved up the list! I can’t imagine how big the Red Square is when you’re standing in the midst of it. Hopefully I’ll find out soon!

  11. What an amazing place. I think I might have mixed feelings about seeing some parts given the history of the place, but would really love to see Lenin’s tomb. The architecture is just stunning!

    1. Well, Ivan certainly wasn’t a very nice man, but I am not sure Lenin was much better. And at least the cathedral is dedicated to a holy fool/ innocent rather than a mass murderer. I’d still pick St Basil’s myself.

  12. Lovely post, and of course I love reading everything from herself’s perspective… I know my own children have felt that we’ve spent 3000 hours in a place! Living the US, we don’t get a lot of Russian history, so it’s fascinating to read about it. I think I may have skipped the body viewing as well… #citytripping

  13. Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia, visiting Moscow’s Red Square and especially the Lenin Mausoleum were at the top of my travel list. Don’t get me started on the parades, that was a highlight of my travel imagination. And the GUM department store also had a reputation as a must-see wonder of Soviet accomplishments. Alas, I only made it as far as Odessa, at the ripe age of 6. I’ll conquer you some day, Москва, I will.

    1. It’s always a bit dangerous, going to somewhere you have had on the list since very small. But hopefully Red Square would not disappoint. I bed Odessa was cool too though!

  14. Yes, my girls would probably take cafes in shopping malls over seeing the sights any day 🙂 I bet you muma enjoying being back in the square with all those happy memories of he wedding! #MondayEscapes

    1. I trek across it relatively regularly and to be honest, the reason I don’t post more pictures of it is because I keep forgetting to as it’s quite familiar. My first job in Moscow was in a place with a view over Red Square!

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