What do tourists go to Moscow for? To see the Red Square, to visit the Cathedral of St. Basil, the Historical Museum, and the Mausoleum (which the Muscovites deem a bit controversial, but foreign tourists find especially interesting), to walk the Old Arbat, the city’s most famous pedestrian street. To witness the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, to visit the Tretyakov Gallery, to go to the Bolshoi Theater if you’re lucky to get tickets; or at least to take pictures against the backdrop of the famous hundred-ruble facade decorated by a quadriga by Clodt… Those coming with kids have an expanded mandatory program: on top of all of the above, they have to go to the Moscow Zoo and to a circus (the Tsvetnoi Boulevard Circus or its counterpart on Prospekt Vernadskogo).
Is that it? No, it’s not! Even a small town often has much more than just a few places to go, and a city as huge as Moscow certainly has a lot more to offer! We are not saying we’re giving an exhaustive list of Moscow’s attractions, but we surely can give a few ideas where to spend your vacation in Russia’s capital city. Not necessarily a grand vacation, perhaps just a couple of days.
City of Contrasts
The best way to learn the city is to walk in the downtown. Downtown Moscow is a mixture of architectural styles: its 17th-century churches in Naryshkin’s Baroque coexist with Classicist mansions of the 19th century, graceful Modern buildings, majestic Stalinist Empire structures and tasteless administrative buildings from the second half of the 20th century… All of that is just one street, an eclectic combination reflected in the shiny facade of a brand-new business center built in the last decade.
Walk along the Boulevard Ring and turn to one of the alleys branching from Tverskaya (say, to Myasnitskaya), and you’ll be able to truly appreciate all this eclectics. Choose a fine day for such a walking tour, for you might have to spend a few hours: Moscow is a city of long distances, whereas the vicinity of its boulevards contains a lot of historical sights (churches, monasteries, museums, and world-famous theaters), shops (rather expensive tho), and, of course, a great selection of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops for every taste and budget. Besides, if you want maximum pleasure from walking tours, get a guide (or at least an audio guide). Never hurry!
Moscow’s Garden Ring givens an even more complete picture of the city’s architectural contrasts. It’s bigger than the Boulevard Ring, and walking along a highway isn’t as pleasant as shady alleys, so you’d better travel at least some part of the street by bus or trolleybus, if you want to manage everything in time.
There’re, of course, other ways to learn more about Moscow and its historical image: spend a day at one of its ancient manors turned museums, hidden amidst picturesque parks. Arkhangelskoye, Izmaylovo, Kolomenskoye, Kuskovo, Ostankino, Tsaritsyno, Cheryomushki-Znamenskoy… This is far from an exhaustive list, and the geography is quite extensive, too: these manors used to be the country residences of Russian tsars and nobility. Of course, that countryside is in the city limits now, but it’s still a bit away from the downtown, giving you a reason to understand the maze of the Moscow Metro.
Moscow’s monasteries and convents are still worth visiting. Say, Don or Andronikov Monastery of the Saviour, the two oldest monasteries in the city. The latter contains the Andrey Rublev Museum of Ancient Russian Culture and Art. The famous Novodevichy Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is rightfully believed to be one of the most beautiful monasteries of Moscow, is also worth visiting. It is famous for the cemetery of the same name that is adjacent to the monastery’s southern wall and is the last home of numerous historical figures, from Nikolai Gogol to Boris Yeltsin.
Take time to explore a few ancient churches. Yes, Moscow had gorgeous churched constructed even after the Cathedral of St. Basil was built, the architects behind which, legend has it, were blinded so as not to create another masterpiece like that. Need a proof? Take a look at the Church of the Intercession in Fili or the Church of St. Gregory of Neocaesarea in Bolshaya Polyanka. Of course, this list is far from exhaustive.
Top view is better
Alas, just a few days is not enough to visit all of Moscow’s interesting sites. Days? One might as well spend years in the city and still have a lot of places to go. So, why would you try to seize the unseizable while you can just enjoy a bird’s eye view at it? No observation deck will give you a complete overlook of the city, but wait, there’s much more than just one deck! The Sparrow Hills, for example, give a great view of Moscow. In their vicinity stands the main building of the Moscow State University, the country’s first university and one of the world-famous Seven Sisters; even if you’re not studying there, just take a tour and go straight to the 28th floor to enjoy a truly spectacular view. Go here to register for a tour.
There’s yet another observation deck in Moscow City, the construction of which took place at the turn of the new millennium and is still causing disagreement among Muscovites whose penchant for heated arguments has been a thing for ages: some dub these skyscrapers “Russia’s Mordor” and are terrified by how the business district ruins the skyline; others admire it; there’re, of course, those who do not give a damn. But why would you argue about its value whereas you can just register for a tour and enjoy a city panorama from the 58th floor? Here’s the tour company’s website.
Before those skyscrapers arrived, fans of panoramic photos would take tours to the Ostankino TV Tower, which is one of the world’s 10 highest stand-alone structures and has been dubbed a “Syringe” for its specific shape. Besides an observation deck, the tower contains a restaurant at an altitude of 337 meters; its name, Seventh Heaven, speaks for itself, doesn’t it? When visiting the Tower, do not hesitate to go to the Ostankino Manor as well. Here’s how you visit the Tower and how much you pay for it.
Dungeons, no dragons
Ok, let’s stop going up and above. Visiting Moscow without going down under the ground isn’t an option. It’s not just because the Moscow Metro is the city’s fastest and most reliable mode of transport that can take you anywhere in no time, avoiding traffic jams; but also because the metro is not just about transport. This is a museum where, according to the billboards you could see everywhere in the metro network just a few years ago, “each station has its own image.” Valery Syutkin, a famous Russian schlager singer, sang once that each Muscovite spent 42 minutes in the metro. They actually spend even more time and have developed a somewhat ironic attitude to the imperial spirit embodied in the glitter of marble and stained glass, in sculptures, columns, and bas-reliefs; they would be glad to actually have a better air conditioning there instead, especially in Moscow’s hot summers and freezingly cold winters, but… Damn it, it’s beautiful!
However, it’s not about beauty. The most interesting thing is the numerous omens, fables, legends, mysteries, and arcane lore which this underground system, launched in May 1935, has been associated with since its inception. We’re not suggesting you should try to find the mythic Metro 2, but why wouldn’t you actually prove (or bust) the myth that whispering a word into a column at Mayakovskaya Station is echoed by the opposite column? or try the harmless “zero-gravity coin” trick at the same station? Don’t forget to rub the nose of the border guard dog memorial at Ploshchad Revolutsii for good luck! Just don’t overdo it: the nose is already shiny.
PS. If you don’t want to ruin your experience with the Moscow Metro, go there on the weekend, and god forbid, avoid rush hours (8 to 10 am and 6 to 8 pm).