Moscow, oh Moscow! What a spectacular city. Moscow’s architecture, streets, parks, people, cuisine, colors, and sounds are so varied, and yet you are constantly reminded that you are in Russia. Huge soviet statues, enormous pavilions, Stalinist towers, and onion domes mix with new shiny adorned hearts, gates, lamps, and flower bouquets. It’s as kitschy as it gets and elegantly beautiful. At night, the city’s coolest bars and discos rival those of other great European cities. Moscow has been an artistic powerhouse for centuries. This is the city of ballet, theater, books, painters, revolutionaries, and crazy ideas. So no matter what you are into, you will find it in Moscow.
- 1 First Impressions
- 2 What to See and Do in Moscow
- 3 City Center – Moscow UNESCO Architecture
- 4 Red Square
- 5 St. Basil’s Cathedral
- 6 Kremlin
- 7 Novodevichy Monastery
- 8 Kolomenskoye
- 9 Cathedral of Christ the Savior
- 10 Bolshoi Theater
- 11 Tretyakov Gallery
- 12 Tsaritsyno
- 13 All-Russian Exhibition Center
- 14 Stalinist Towers
- 15 Moscow Metro
- 16 Historic Shops
- 17 Moscow Hangouts and Contemporary Architecture
- 18 Moscow Hidden Treasures
- 19 Moscow Literary Landmarks
- 20 Day Trips
- 21 Where to Stay
Being the capital of the biggest country on earth, Moscow attracts people from all around Russia. Hence, Muscovites are cosmopolitan and cultured. The place is a feast to the senses, in a completely sophisticated and hedonistic way. We loved that you can walk through Moscow streets for hours in search of landmarks without a glitch. We always felt safe. Likewise, though I speak Russian, Eitan doesn’t, but he always found people willing to help him find his way. What’s more, the city combines architecture and nature brilliantly. Moscow is a bustling city, and yet you can always find a park or a quiet corner to chill.
What to See and Do in Moscow
You will end covering Moscow entirely if you want to see all of its attractions. Granted, tourist masses have invaded the Kremlin, but Novodevichy, Kolomenskoye, and Tsaritsyno are a different story. Likewise, Moscow has attractions for every taste and interest, including Soviet architecture, famous theatres, metro stations, historic shops, temples, palaces, and some of the highest towers in the world. Nature in Moscow is impressive too. We spent hours in peace, walking and biking through splendid parks. An additional perk is food and coffee. No matter where you are in the city, you won’t have trouble finding delicious food.
City Center – Moscow UNESCO Architecture
Take note that in 1990 UNESCO included the Red Square and the Kremlin in its list of World Heritage Sites. That means all of the components within an area of 43 hectares. The Kremlin in Moscow is actually a compound of several buildings, including the Church of the Annunciation, the Cathedral of the Dormition, the Church of the Archangel, the bell tower of Ivan Veliki, the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin, the Granovitaya Palace, and the Nikolskaya and Spasskaya Towers. Likewise, the Red Square comprises several Moscow landmarks. These include the Pokrovski Cathedral (Cathedral of St Basil the Blessed), the State Historical Museum (former Imperial Historic Museum), the GUM Shopping Center (former Upper Trading Rows), the Middle Trading Rows, and Lenin’s Mausoleum.
Of all of Moscow’s attractions, the Red Square is my favorite. This gigantic square was meant to be the city’s main marketplace, connecting the royal seat (the Kremlin) to the merchant quarter. Instead, it became the stage of Russian history. Moscow was the center of the country until the founding of St. Petersburg, so most buildings on the square date from the 14th to the 17th Century. Don’t even think of seeing it all in one day. Why would you? The place is so grand that you will come back several times, even at night when the lights shine, and there are fewer people. We almost forgot: Zaryadye, Moscow’s newest park, is next to the square.
St. Basil’s Cathedral
Moscow has a plethora of religious architecture, but none is as impressive as St. Basil’s Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, or Pokrovsky Cathedral. In the middle of the 16th Century, Ivan the Terrible wanted a temple to commemorate the conquest of Kazan and Astrakhan. The Soviet’s confiscated the temple in 1928 from the Russian Orthodox Church and turned it into a State Historical Museum. The church’s structure contains eight colorful domes representing the churches aligned around the central one.
The word kremlin means fortified citadel. Therefore you can find Kremlins not only in Moscow but in 20 cities around Russia, all tourist attractions. Yuri Dogorukiy built the first one on the present site. The wooden structure didn’t last for long, so a white limestone one was built from 1485 to 1495 to replace it. The Kremlin kind of lost its shine when Peter the Great moved his seat to Saint Petersburg in 1712. However, when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they brought the capital back to Moscow and made the Kremlin once again the political center. It is today the official residence of the Russian President.
Novodevichy is Moscow’s most famous monastery. Built in the 16th century during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, it has remained virtually unchanged for the last 3 centuries. Do not forget to enter its oldest structure, Smolensky Cathedral, to see the most beautiful frescoes in the entire city. Other churches and smaller structures, built in the so-called Baroque Moscovite style, are from the late 17th century. Novodevichy Cemetery was built at the end of the 19th Century next to the monastery. It is the resting place of numerous famous Russians, including Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Novodevichy is another UNESCO world heritage site.
The former royal estate of Kolomenskoye includes wooden churches, a couple of monasteries, watchtowers, gates, pavilions, and a reconstructed wooden palace. The great wooden palace was built in 1667 for then Tzar Alexei Mikhailovich. Intricate paintings and carvings decorated its 270 rooms! Over time it fell into despair and was eventually demolished in 1768. In 1990 it was reconstructed based on archaeological and historical evidence. However, the Ascension church is original and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 1532 to celebrate the birth of a baby that would become Ivan the Terrible, the temple became the blueprint of Russian orthodox architecture. Another temple you shouldn’t miss is the Church of Our Lady of Kazan from the 17th Century.
Cathedral of Christ the Savior
Arguably, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior is the building that symbolizes Russian contemporary history. The enormous church was built in the 19th century to commemorate the victory over Napoleon. It took over 40 years to complete. The grand temple hosted Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in 1882. Stalin demolished it in 1931 to make room for the gigantic and never finished Palace of Soviets. The temple we see today, built from 1995 to 2000, follows the original design. It remained the tallest Orthodox Church in the world until surpassed by the one in Bucharest in 2018. Go in and you will hear Tchaikovsky’s cannons!
Who hasn’t heard of the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theater? It is synonymous with Russian opera and ballet. The ballet company, with more than 200 dancers is the world’s largest. Before the October revolution, it was an integral part of Russia’s Imperial theaters. The theater dates back to 1776 when Catherine II gave it a license to conduct performances. Russian Italian architect Joseph Bové designed the original neoclassical building in 1824. However, its current appearance dates to its 1857 reconstruction. Many famous composers had their premiers in Bolshoi Theater including Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Moscow’s grandest museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery, has the largest collection of Russian Art in the world. Wealthy merchant and art collector Pavel Tretyakov founded the museum in 1856. In 1982 the gallery with its 2000 art pieces was given to the city of Moscow. The building is fantastic too. We are talking about a mansion in Lavrushinsky Lane purchased by the Tretyakov family in 1851. They expanded the space as the collection grew. Notice the new main façade built in 1904 following a Russian fairy tale style. Today there are more than 180,000 pieces, including the works of Andrei Rublev, Ilya Repin, Wassily Kandinsky, and Kazimir Malevich. Those of you into art will be in heaven.
Empress Catherine the Great built Tsaritsyno palace and park in southern Moscow in the late 18th Century. Its main highlight, an impressive Neo-gothic palace, is now a museum. Catherine didn’t like the original building, so ordered it demolished before its completion. She didn’t live to see the new building though. Her successor Paul I wasn’t interested in the palace. It remained abandoned for centuries until its reconstruction in 2007. Adjacent to the palace you’ll find a large park with lakes, greenhouses, sculptures, and an imposing dancing fountain.
All-Russian Exhibition Center
The All-Russian Exhibition Center or VDNK is a large open-air amusement park and trade show in northern Moscow. The original complex dates to 1939, when it opened for the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition. However, it was completely reconstructed after the Second World War and opened in 1959 as the Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy of the USSR. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed the center had more than 80 pavilions, each of them representing a certain field, like engineering or education. Every region of the URRS had its pavilion too. Fortunately, it is not as famous as other Moscow landmarks, so you can enjoy it in peace.
For Eitan, Moscow may have many attractions, but these towers are the grandest of them all. Referred to as the Seven Sisters of Moscow, the towers were built from 1947 to 1953 by Stalin’s order. Since he wanted to showcase the power of the Soviet Union, he chose the lavish style we see today. In fact, Seville’s cathedral tower, La Giralda inspired the towers, which blend neoclassical, baroque, and gothic art. The result is 100% Russian though and is known as Stalinist architecture. The seven buildings are Moscow State University, Hotel Ukraina, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Leningradskaya Hotel, Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building, Kudrinskaya Square Building, and Red Gate Administrative Building. Take note that you find them outside of Moscow too, in Warsaw, Prague and Riga.
Moscow Metro is one of the most spectacular public transport systems in the world. Stalin believed stations should be palaces for the people. Therefore, the Moscow Metro is a spectacular net of gorgeous and picturesque stations. You can see how the design changed through the years. To us, the nicest ones are those from the 1950s. Stations in Circular line No. 5 are true gems. The ones to the north glorify the Soviet Union, while those on the south commemorate the victory over Germany. Probably the nicest station is Komsomolskaya, under three large train stations. Once inside, look up and prepare to be dazzled by the yellow baroque ceiling over the platform.
Two historic shops in Moscow are places you will enjoy with all of your senses! Chai Kofe is the oldest tea shop in Moscow, opened at the end of the 19th century. The shop is still in the original Chinese style building with all its details such as sculptures, vases, lamps, and counters in mint condition. You can buy delicious teas, coffee, cookies, and cakes. On the other hand, Eliseevskiy Magazin is the oldest grocery shop in Moscow. This neo-baroque shop had a turbulent history and was once even a literary salon run by a Russian princess. Here you can buy anything from bread, cheese, beer or wine to exotic fruits.
Moscow Hangouts and Contemporary Architecture
Several blocks of Novi Arbat Avenue in the center of Moscow have been refurbished and illuminated and are now contemporary landmarks. To see them, begin your walk at Arbat Metro Station and walk towards the river. Take note that neoclassical buildings, orthodox churches, avant-garde houses, bars, restaurants, and a Stalinist tower pack the area around nearby Stari Arbat Street. To the west of the city, you will find the Moscow International Business Center, where massive towers such as the Federation, Oko and Evolution are. Finally, the Patriarch Ponds neighborhood is the hangout of the rich and famous. Go in the afternoon to mingle with the crowds and enjoy delicious food.
Moscow Hidden Treasures
Moscow’s long convoluted history left us several hidden landmarks. Not many people visit Kritutskoye Compound, our favorite mini neighborhood. It is the only neighborhood from the 18th and 19th Centuries in the city that has survived almost intact. If you are a modern architecture lover, you mustn’t miss the avant-garde Melnikov House and the Narkomfin Building. The first one is the experimental house that served as a model for new social housing. The second one is one of the world’s best examples of Constructivist architecture and avant-garde interior planning. Those of you into kitsch will be delighted in the Izamilovo Kremlin, the Russian version of Disneyland.
Moscow Literary Landmarks
Russia has a special place in the heart of all book lovers. The city has been inspiring and producing writers for ages. Grab a book and search for literary attractions. Begin your walk at Dostoyevsky’s Apartment, where he lived from 1823 to 1837. Continue south until you reach the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum established in the apartment he owned. You can then go to the State Museum of Mayakovski, a building of communal flats. The only museum in Russia dedicated to Nikolai Gogol is on Arbat square. He died in the opulent mansion in 1852. The next mansion to visit is the one that belonged to Turgenev’s mother. Now a museum, the writer himself described the house in his famous Mumu story. The last place to visit is Novodevichy Cemetery, the resting place of several of Eitan’s heroes.
Trust us: you will regret being in Moscow and not going at least to one of the Cities of the Golden Ring. Sergiev Posad is the best choice if you are short of time. Though overly touristic, it is home to one of the nicest orthodox monasteries in Russia, the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius. We strongly recommend spending the night in town to miss the crowds and to continue the next day to equally impressive but far less crowded Rostov Veliky. Another great day trip is to the city of Vladimir, the Golden Ring City that was the Russian capital from the 12th to 13th centuries. Once there, go to Suzdal. This open-air museum is arguably Russia’s nicest village.
Where to Stay
In Moscow, we stayed in three landmarks: a royal palace and two Stalinist towers. Petroff Palace Hotel is one of our favorite hotels in the world. This real palace was built by Catherine the Great from 1776 to 1780 to host royals coming from St. Petersburg. According to some rumors, even Napoleon stayed here. Our second hotel was the superb Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya, a Stalinist tower. Our top floor room has the original decoration from the fifties and outstanding views of the city. We also stayed in another tower, this time in an apartment. We loved the Kudrinskaya Skyscraper Apartments, but unfortunately, they are not available at the moment. Instead, you can choose one of the several IZBA Kudrinskaya Tower apartments in the same building.