When thinking of Moscow, I always had images of military parades, long speeches by uniformed leaders and large statues of communist working class heroes. It took 43 years before I finally set foot in the largest city of Europe, over 25 years after the fall of communism. What I discovered was a city far from my stereotypical perception. Russia’s capital city is a true international metropolis, offering everything from the most expensive to the poorest neighborhoods in Europe. A far cry from the old communist days. It converted into one of the most capitalist cities I have visited, but friendly to the traveler. A surprisingly inviting citytrip destination.
It is interesting to see how Moscow seems to struggle with its recent past. It is hard to find statues of the old communist days. Of course Stalin disappeared from the streets and squares a long time ago, but even statues of Lenin are hard to find. You have to search for even small traces of the old hammer and sickle, and in contrast to the communist days, religion is finding its way back into daily life. But many churches are still monuments, rather than operational churches. Many other pre-communist monuments have been rebuilt, like the gates of the Red Square and several cathedrals. On the other hand, Moscow is gradually embracing its Soviet heritage too, for example with the restoration of the Soviet VDNH showcase park.
Moscow is surprisingly easy to visit, deserving its place on the city tripper bucket list. With changes happening quickly and new sights being (re) erected almost monthly, it is also a destination that deserves revisits every couple of years. Being the largest city in Europe, there is plenty to discover during many trips. In this blog post I take you along some of the must-see sights for a short trip. Please follow me on a virtual citytrip to modern day Moscow:
Getting from one of the three major airports to city center is a piece of cake. All three airports have a fast direct connection to the city by the Aeroexpress train, bringing you directly to one of the central railway stations. From there, the efficient Metro system takes you to any location in the city.
In fact, the Moscow Metro (underground) is an attraction by itself. Most stations are built like small palaces. The system takes a little while to get used to, but once you understand the system it is really simple and super fast. For those with vertigo: beware of the longest escalators in the world!
Is it a museum? Is it a palace? No, it is the entrance to one of the Moscow Metro stations.
The red ‘M’ cearly shows you the entrance to the Metro from above the ground. This particular entrance brings you directly to the gates of Red Square.
On your first day in Moscow you should spend a few hours on Red Square. It rightfully is the heart of the city, if not of all of Russia. City maps for orientation are abundant. Don’t be fooled by the historic looks of some of the buildings here. The ‘old’ gates, as well as this Kazan Cathedral were rebuilt in the 1990’s, after being demolished by the communists in the 1950’s to make room for military parades.
You will immediately recognize the enormous Red Square from television and news photographs. This is one of those famous places in the world that everyone knows, whether you have been there or not. Still, the scale of it can only be experienced by being there in person. With the gates behind you, you have the Kremlin wall to your right, St. Basil’s Cathedral in the distance in front of you and the GUM department store to your left.
St. Basil’s Basilica is a museum. Inside you will find a maze of small rooms, spread over two floors, filled to the brim with large icons and beautiful mosaics. Crowded in weekends, this is a must-see.
The most picturesque side of St. Basil’s Basilica is the back side! Make sure you walk around the building to take pictures like these. And make sure to do it again after sunset, as the entire church is beautifully lit.
Another major attraction, as popular today as it was in communist days, is the Lenin Mausoleum, located in the middle of Red Square, against the Kremlin Wall. Be prepared to stand in line for a long time and make sure you leave your bags at the hotel. Although it is OK to bring your camera, photography inside the tomb is strictly forbidden, but outside is fine. Make sure to visit the burial places of other famous Soviet and Russian heroes (like Gagarin and Korolev) in the wall behind the Mausoleum.
The square gets even more impressive after sunset. Millions of lights create a very picturesque atmosphere. You can wait for the sun to set at the only outside terrace on the square at Bosco’s Cafe, which is part of GUM. Not the cheapest place in town, but the only with a view onto the square. Thanks Romy Mlinzk for the tip!
The views of the Kremlin Wall and St. Basil’s Basilica never get tired. This is the view from the Moscow River towards the back of the Basilica at the end of the Red Square.
Once the State Department Store, where long lines of people buying scarce food items dominated the impressive building, nowadays the GUM department store offers the best (or worst) that capitalism has to offer. Looking for Luis Vuitton or Prada? This is the place to be. But also the more budget conscious traveler can find great and inexpensive food stalls with air conditioned seating and magnificent views over the elaborate hallways. For example on the third level, with a view on the central fountain.
Once you have spent enough time on the Red Square, it is time to visit the Kremlin itself. To find the entrance you have to walk to the other side of the complex, passing the eternal flame and elaborate World War II monument.
With a bit of luck you may witness one of many ceremonies held at this place. During my visit a large group of young female Army cadets performed a flower laying ceremony at the eternal flame. Russians are passionately patriotic!
The main entrance to the Kremlin is clearly indicated. There is a bit of a procedure to get in: First you buy your ticket at the cashiers office, then you go through a security check (like almost everywhere in Russia) in another building, before you enter the Kremlin grounds over the main bridge.
Once inside, you will find the Kremlin being more of a museum than the seat of government. Actually the Russian Parliament (Duma) is not even located here, but rather a few blocks away, close to the Bolshoi Theatre. The 1950’s Soviet-style concrete assembly hall (to the left in this picture) is the only building resembling a government institution.
There are many historical buildings inside the Kremlin. The Armory (closed when we visited) and the Five Churches are the most attractive. Surprisingly, all churches offer extensive information leaflets in many languages, allowing several hours to discover all the remnants of Russian history. You can find the coffins of Ivan teh Great and Ivan the Terrible in the Archangel Cathedral, that basically is one big public burial room.
The many onion-shaped domes of the Kremlin Cathedrals offer great photography opportunities.
Don’t miss some of the other monuments inside the Kremlin, like this massive ‘Csar’s Cannon’. Makes you wonder how they put the cannon balls inside the barrel…
Back outside the Kremlin Wall, on the short edge of the Red Square, you find the State History Museum. This place takes one to two hours of your time, explaining the pre-communist history of Russia, starting with the stone age.
In addition to the interesting exhibits, the elbaorately decorated museum halls are worth a visit by itself. Great to find links between Russia and my home country the Netherlands, for example through this Amsterdam-made globe of the world.
To experience Soviet Moscow you have to take the Metro a few kilometres north, to the VDNH park. Now a popular weekend hangout for Moscovites, this park is being restored to its old glory of a showcase of the Soviet Empire. Many pavillions celebrate the feats of the communist era. Each former Soviet republic is represented in beautiful pavillions in the typical style of that republic. Obviously Lenin still standsstrong in the heart of the large park.
The elaborate fountains are a great place to cool down during hot summer days. Not allowed in most western cities, nobody seems to care here. Great fun guaranteed!
Some of the VDNH sights are more eclectic, like this popular upside-down house. Is this really how the Australians live?
The back end of Red Square ends at the Moscow River. The river offers nice opportunities to stroll along many sights, including the Kremlin Wall.
Many historic buildings ornate the river banks. I recommend the 1-hour walk from Red Square towards Gorki Park, where you pass several monuments and (restored) churches. The park itself is great for a drink and people watching.
Halfway this walk you pass this enormous kitsch statue for Csar Peter the Great on his ship. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it play a role in the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie…
Although technically you can fit all these sights in a one day visit, you should really allow more time. As this post only describes the most essential and central sights, I am sure you can spend weeks exploring the more remote sights of Moscow. My next blog post zooms in on the space places, which is just one of many ‘themes’ you can select for your trip to the capital of Russia. For a little preview, see travel blogger Eva Hopstaken’s blog about finding Gagarin.
Practical tips: Moscow has three main airports at which you will arrive: Domodedovo in the south-east, Vnukovo in the south-west and Sheremetyevo in the north. All three have an Aeroexpress train connection to city centre (400 rubles one way), taking 30 to 45 minutes. Please note that all three trains leave from different train stations on the edge of the inner city.
Inside the city the Moscow Metro offers fast, reliable and very cheap connections to all major sights and hotels. Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world for hotels, but you will find a good selection of much cheaper hostels too.
For the social media user, Moscow offers thousands of free wifi spots scattered over the city. Even in the middle of Red Square you will find free wifi signals and almost all hotels, restaurants and cafes offer free wireless internet access. Use a VPN if you are concerned over internet security. Roaming on European subscriptions in Russia is very expensive, but you can easily get a local SIM with data access if you prefer 3G or 4G connectivity.
Finally there is no worry about changing money before you leave. There are plenty of reliable ATM’s on every street corner and Maestro, VISA and Mastercard are widely accepted. Just make sure your bank account has sufficient balance. Moscow is an expensive city.