Moscow Travel Guide


The Arbat, once the quarter of court artisans, is also a good place for a stroll, passing elegant buildings, Stalinist eyesores and a pedestrian precinct complete with buskers and souvenir-sellers.

Central Moscow
A visiting 19th-century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine, described the exterior of St Basil's Cathedral as 'a sort of irregular fruit bristling with excrescences, a cantaloupe melon with embroidered edges'. The exterior is so magical that the interior is a bit of an anticlimax. Nearby, you can still pay your respects at Lenin's tomb. Bordering Red Square, the magnificent GUM (State Department Store) was built in the 19th century to house 1000 shops. The hefty building north of Red Square is the stuff of nightmares and airport novels. It housed the KGB and the notorious Lubyanka prison.

A walk up the city's most famous thoroughfare, Tverskaya Ulitsa, reveals 19th-century palaces, 1930s apartment blocks and glimmers of colour bouncing off the domes of half-obscured churches. The Arbat, once the quarter of court artisans, is also a good place for a stroll, passing elegant buildings, Stalinist eyesores and a pedestrian precinct complete with buskers and souvenir-sellers. As much a fabulous museum as it is an underground transport system, Moscow's famous metro survives in all its constructivist glory, with more chandeliers than Buckingham Palace and enough marble to fit out the kitchens of the world. Forty-four of its stations have been designated as architectural landmarks.

Gorky Park
Stretching almost 3km (1.8mi) along the river, Gorky Park is full of that sometimes rare species, the happy Russian. Officially the 'Park of Culture', named after Maxim Gorky, it's the original Soviet park - part ornamental and educational, part funfair and amusement park, and a good place to escape the hubbub of the city.

In winter the ponds freeze and the paths are flooded to make a giant skating rink - you can rent skates if you take along some ID, such as a passport. But that's not all. Gorky Park has a small amusement park with two Western roller coasters and almost a dozen other terror-inducing attractions.

Space buffs can shed a tear for the Buran, the Soviet space shuttle which never carried anyone into space. The park has a number of snack bars and, behind the amusement park, a 2000-seat German beer hall.

The Pushkin State Fine Arts Museum, in the southwest of the inner city, boasts a broad selection of European works from the Renaissance onward - mostly confiscated from private collections after the revolution. The Tretayakov Gallery, near Gorky Park, has the world's best collection of Russian icons and a fine collection of pre-revolutionary Russian art. The Central Artists' House, next to the new Tretyakov Gallery building, is one of the places you're most likely to find good contemporary art. Past shows have ranged from 19th-century sacred art to the works of Gilbert & George. There are also numerous literary museums, usually situated in the houses of famous writers, such as Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Lermontov.

Novodevichy Convent
The Novodevichy Convent (New Convent of the Maidens), a cluster of 16 sparkling domes behind turreted walls, has Moscow's (if not the world's) most prestigious cemetery: it's the resting place of Chekhov, Eisenstein, Gogol, Khrushchev, Kropotkin, Mayakovsky, Prokofiev, Stanislavsky and Shostakovich.

In Soviet times Novodevichy Cemetery was used for some very eminent people - notably Krushchev - whom the authorities judged unsuitable for the Kremlin wall. Other famous remains were reinterred here when their original cemeteries were destroyed under Stalin.

The convent itself was originally popular with noblewomen, who would often retire here, but it was also used as a prison for rebellious royals, including Peter the Great's half-sister and his first wife.

The Kremlin
The Kremlin is the stronghold of Russian political power. Here, Ivan the Terrible and Stalin orchestrated terrors, Lenin made the dictatorship of the proletariat, Khrushchev fought the Cold War, Gorbachev unleashed perestroika, and Yeltsin dreamt the New Russia.

The Kremlin occupies a roughly triangular plot of land covering little Borovitsky Hill on the north bank of the Moscow River, probably first settled in the 11th century. Today it's enclosed by high walls. Red Square lies outside the east wall. The Kutafya Tower, which forms the main visitors' entrance, stands away from the Kremlin's west wall.

Most visitors are surprised to see so many churches in what was, for decades, a den of militant atheism, but the Kremlin was once the centre of Russia's Church as well as its State. Start with Archangel Cathedral (the royal burial church), Assumption Cathedral (the burial church of religious leaders) and Annunciation Cathedral (icons, icons everywhere).

Ivan the Great Bell Tower is a famous Moscow landmark, visible from 30km (20mi) away, with the cracked Tsar Bell at its foot. The towers lining the Kremlin include the Tower of Secrets (the oldest) and the Gothic and Renaissance Saviour's Tower.

Off the Beaten Track

Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre
The Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre, in the inner north, gave the world Chekhov, revolutionised Russian drama and heavily influenced Western theatre. Founded by actor-director Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Art Theatre adopted a realist approach and stressed the importance of team-work by the cast, believing every player had something to contribute. There is also a Stanislavsky museum in the mansion where he lived.

Sandunovskiye Baths
The Sandunovskiye Baths, in the city centre's northern winding streets, is Moscow's most famous bathhouse. The fading but grand 19th-century baths are a mixture of sauna and social club, with sexes strictly segregated. For hours you can move between steam rooms and pools, interspersed with massages and twig whippings.

Travellers to Russia have for centuries commented on the particular (or in many people's eyes, peculiar) traditions of the banya (bathhouse), regularly enjoyed by numerous Muscovites at Sandunovskiye. The banya's main element is the parilka (steam room), which can get so hot it makes the Finnish look like sauna-wusses in comparison.

The first stage is to strip down in the changing room, wish 'Lyokogo para'(something of the order of 'May your steam be easy') to your mates, then head into a dry sauna. After that it's into the parilka where, after a good steam, someone will inevitably stand up, grab a tied bundle of venik (birch branches) and, well, beat themselves or each other with it.

Next you run out and plunge into an ice-cold pool (basseyn). With your eyelids now draped back over your skull, you stagger back into the changing room to hear your mates say 'S lyogkim parom' ('Hope your steam was easy!'). Then you drape yourself in sheets and discuss world issues before repeating the process five to 10 times over a two-hour period.

The vast propaganda park known universally as VDNKh (USSR Economic Achievements Exhibition), in the northeast of the city, was an early casualty when those in power finally admitted that the Soviet economy was a disaster. Funds were cut off in 1990 and it remains a frightening and decaying monument to Soviet dogma. Avenues stretch into eternity beside grandiose pavilions, glorifying every aspect of socialist construction, and fountains embellished with lurid gold socialist realist statues. It's a bit of an embarrassment these days, so the exhibits are gradually being replaced with private advertising displays.

Other Russia Attractions

Novgorod was settled in the 9th century and for 600 years was Russia's pioneering artistic and political centre. Lying just 190km (118mi) south of St Petersburg, the city was annexed by Ivan III, razed by Ivan the Terrible and methodically trashed by the Nazis, but there's still a lot left to see. Its Kremlin includes the Byzantine Cathedral of St Sophia, the Millennium of Russia Monument, the icon-filled Chamber of Facets and the research-based Museum of History & Art. Across from the Kremlin, Yaroslav's Court includes medieval markets, churches, arcades and palace remains. The Church of Our Saviour-at-Ilino is arguably one of Russia's most charming, with playful ornamentation and gables, and an interior boasting Byzantine frescoes.

With the Caucasus mountains as its backdrop, subtropical climate, warm seas and adjoining trendy resort complex of Dagomys, the resort has long attracted heads of state, foreign tourists and Russians alike. Heading inland, there are waterfalls, hilltop views, spa towns and alpine vistas to enjoy.

Gardens are a feature of the town, as are therapeutic establishments and the dachas (country houses) of the powerful and famous. Heading inland, there are waterfalls, hilltop views, spa towns and alpine vistas to enjoy.

St Petersburg
St Petersburg has been dubbed the Venice of the North for its palace-lined waterways. It managed to escape the architectural incursions of Stalinism and its grandiose relics of tsarist days are virtually intact. Sculpted by islands and the sinuous Neva River, the city is a geometric vista of orderly elegance.

St Petersburg is a wondrous city, part fable, part nightmare, floating in diaphanous light. Its heavy imperial luxuries, literary heritage and artistic bounty are enhanced by its rickety charm, a crumbling shabbiness that palliates its white-and-gold tsarist excesses.

The Volga
The main artery of the Russian heartland has always been the 3700km-long River Volga (Europe's longest), which slowly meanders from Yaroslavl, north of Moscow, all the way down to Volgograd, from where a tributary runs off to the Caspian Sea. The Volga-Don Ship Canal links it with the River Don, bound for the Azov Sea. Cruisers and steamships ply the Volga's waters, the most interesting section is between Volgograd and Rostov-on-Don. Towns en-route include Kazan, one of the oldest Tatar cities in Russia, which features a limestone kremlin and several mosques; and Lenin's birthplace, Ulyanovsk, replete with attendant memorabilia. Volgograd, previously known as Stalingrad, is best known for the decisive and protracted battle fought here during WWII. The city has since been built from scratch, and appropriately grim museums and monuments proliferate.

Trans-Siberian Railway
A jaunt on the Trans-Siberian Railway is the way to see this massive country. The six-day, 9446km (5857mi) journey takes you from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, passing through endless forests of birch and pine, log-cabin settlements and vast steppes. Life on the rails can be boring or fascinating, depending on the nature of your travelling companions, your choice of paperback novels and the friendliness of your carriage attendant (a vital factor). The route takes you past Siberia's Lake Baikal, a waterway as big as Belgium and home to the world's only freshwater seal, and multicultural Irkutsk, the most appealing city you'll pass along the line. Ulan Ude is home to the country's seat of Buddhism, the Ivolginsk Datsan. Those who get into the rhythm of the stops and starts and the passing parade of trees and far-flung towns will find it an experience to savour.

Life isn't easy in Murmansk. It's surrounded by tundra, pitch black for most of the winter, home to Russia's nuclear-powered ice-breakers and surrounded by municipal housing blocks. Little wonder that the town goes wild every March for the Festival of the North, which features reindeer races and a ski marathon.

Solovetsky Islands
The monasteries on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea have been used as a place of imprisonment and exile from the Middle Ages to the Stalin era, but these days the sheltered islands' moderate climate make them a fun place for boating around a system of lakes and interconnecting canals.

This pacific port and naval base was closed to foreigners until 1990. Its site is often compared to that of San Francisco, because of its picturesque hills and heaps of sea views - though the battleships moored offshore somewhat detract from this comparison. In the surrounding nature reserves, you may luck out and see a tiger.

This Gulf of Finland port is one of Europe's oldest cities and has an imposing medieval castle built on a rock in the bay. Over the years, the place has been tossed from Sweden to Russia to Finland and back again. Today, the town is a handsome mish-mash of architectural styles populated by fishers, shipbuilders and timber-haulers.

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