Moscow’s Soviet-era shenanigans and brutal past have earned the city a pretty intimidating reputation, but in reality, it’s a surprisingly welcoming, bedazzling, intriguing, and cosmopolitan metropolis.
Russia’s capital has a fascinating history spanning over 800 years, and it’s a city of idiosyncratic contrasts, a mix of glamorous, bohemian, utilitarian, eclectic, industrial, traditional, and modern.
During the noughties, Moscow grew to become one of the most expensive cities in the world, rivaling New York, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, but following the 2014 Russian financial crisis which led to the increasingly plummeting ruble, ludicrously lavish prices are a thing of the past with the cost of a week’s trip for two now averaging around $795.
These days Moscow offers a lot of bang for your buck, in addition to oodles of culture, art, fine dining, a great transportation system courtesy of its stunning metro, grand buildings, gleaming bejeweled churches, and a pulsing nightlife 24/7.
So, get that visa, a fist full of rubles, and dive right in!
Red and dead
If Moscow is the heart of Russia, then the mighty Red Square is the heart of the city. Inside the red-brick walls of the city’s ancient citadel, known locally as Krasnaya Ploshchad, you’ll find the Kremlin; the Ivan the Great Bell Tower; St Basil’s Cathedral, and the Patriarch’s Palace, amongst other must-sees.
Red Square is home to Lenin’s Mausoleum, where you can visit the embalmed corpse of the revolutionary leader as he lies in state. The mummified remains of the former Premier of the Soviet Union have been carefully guarded since his death in 1924, with stern guards ensuring visitors remain silent and respectful at all times.
Lenin isn’t the only Soviet-era dignitary who’s buried in Red Square, the Kremlin wall is the burial site of a slew of other deceased communist heavy-hitters, including the politicians Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev, and famed astronaut Yury Gagarin.
Red Square also houses the Armoury Chamber where you’ll discover a glittering array of precious stones, solid gold artifacts, and treasures formally belonging to Russian tsars and princes, such as stunning Fabergé eggs and Catherine the Great’s coronation dress.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat, looms majestically over Red Square offering spectacular views from every side, and a maze-like interior to explore.
The iconic and colorful, onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral was built in the 16th century at the bequest of Ivan the Terrible, who, as legend has it, ordered the architect’s eyes be cut out after completion so he could never create a more beautiful building again.
Gorky Park, located on the riverbank in the center of the city, is Moscow’s largest and most famous pleasure garden.
The park is named after the author Maxim Gorky and it’s a favorite summer-time hangout for Moscovites, with a dazzling array of activities on offer.
In addition to the expansive manicured lawns, there’s a sports center, an outdoor cinema, beach volleyball courts, live dance sessions, bike rentals, free yoga lessons, and even boat cruises.
Chanel and candy
GUM pronounced goom in Russian, is Moscow’s famed upscale department store, that dates back to the 18th century.
The bustling shopping outlet is actually more of a mall than a store, with an array of posh shops such as Chanel, Hermes, and Cartier, and high-end restaurants nestled behind its 790 foot-long facade.
During the Soviet era, the shelves were pretty much bare, but now GUM is packed full of designer wares and shopping ops, as well as kiosks selling historic USSR ice cream cones and old-school Russian candy.
Even if you don’t fancy blowing your bank balance, GUM is a must-visit, with a spectacular interior spanning three levels, a skylight roof, and one of the most luxurious restroom experiences in the world thanks to its “Historic Toilets”.
Souvenirs & mysterious museums
If you’re hankering for some classic Russian souvenirs such as fur hats, nesting matryoshka dolls, Pavlovo Posad shawls, and lacquer boxes, or maybe some more unconventional items, like topless Putin calendars, then head to Izmaylovo Market.
The expansive market is a veritable treasure trove of curiosities and home to dozens of stalls, workshops, cafes, and unique museums.
There are also more than a dozen marvelous and mysterious exhibits located around the perimeter of Izmaylovo, including the Soap-Making Museum; an ice sculpture museum; the Museum of the History of Russian Vodka; a museum dedicated to valenki (Russian felt boots); the Museum of Bread, and the Museum of Disobedient Children which documents how unruly and rebellious children were punished back in the day, including kneeling on peas, pitting kids against each other to fight, and other torments.
The luxurious bunker where Stalin used to hide out during WWII is also located in the area.
The Hotel Ukraine, originally the Grand Hotel Ukraina, was commissioned by Joseph Stalin and occupies the second-tallest of his gothic, Soviet power-showcase Seven Sisters skyscrapers.
The Hotel is now owned by the Radisson chain, but you can still enjoy a lot of the original features, as well as a 1:75 scale model of Moscow and the Kremlin complex that’s based in the lobby.
Once you’ve finished sightseeing, enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of the city from the terrace bar, where you’ll also get to engage in some epic people watching as it’s a playground for drunk karaoke-loving oligarchs.
Get your ballet on
The grandiose and opulent Bolshoi Theater is one of Moscow’s most iconic landmarks.
Just the stunning interior alone is worth a visit, but if you’ve got the cash then splash out for tickets to see one of the ballets performed by world-renowned Russian dancers or enjoy an amazing and memorable opera.
Moscow has some of the worst traffic in the world, so it’s a good job that the city has an amazing metro system in place that’s fast, reliable, and cheap.
The Moscow metro isn’t just highly efficient and functional though, it’s also absolutely stunning with amazing architecture and majestic design features.
Check out Komsomol’skaya and Kazan’skaya stations to fully appreciate the best of the city’s impressive underground system.
- Not surprisingly, winters in Moscow are hella cold, like -10 degrees cold, with snow often falling through until March. The weather makes winter a cheaper time of the year to visit, but spring and summertime are the more popular seasons with most tourists.
- Carry a copy of your passport, or a photo ID with you at all times as it’s not uncommon for police stops to occur.
- Be sure to always carry cash as a lot of smaller places in Moscow don’t take credit cards, and make sure you have plenty of smaller notes with you.
- If you want to adhere to Russian manners, don’t place your elbows on the table when eating; don’t shake hands across a doorway, and be sure to place finished drink bottles on the floor rather than leaving them on your table.
- Steer clear of ordering a Moscow Mule in a bar, it’s not a Russian cocktail, it was invented in New York City, USA.