The Glorious City of Moscow
By Maria Steinberg
For many, Russia is still unknown territory. A country once mostly isolated from the world when it was part of the Soviet Union (USSR). But since the advent of glasnost in the 1980s and the dismantling of the USSR, more travelers have been seeking its vast cultural riches. Derived from its multilayered tumultuous history and Christian Orthodox origins. Moscow, its bustling capital, is the perfect start to get acquainted with the land of vodka, Tolstoy, and stunning onion-domed churches. Let’s take a tour:
At Red Square
Red Square – State Historical Museum | The impressive 19th century State Historical Museum which borders Red Square on one side is the largest national museum in Russia | Photo Courtesy by Maria Steinberg
The best place to start seeing the grandeur of Moscow is at Red Square. The immense square is bordered on all sides by various notable structures. The red walls of the 800-year old Kremlin, once a fortress, and now Russia’s political center and seat of government. The magnificent 16th century Russian Orthodox church St. Basil’s Cathedral with its colorful 6 domes. GUM (pronounced “goom”), the sprawling Russian medieval and Victorian-inspired department store from 1893 that is even more dazzling inside. And opposite GUM, the granite structure of Vladimir Lenin’s tomb where the first leader of the USSR’s preserved body lies in state.
The Kremlin is not one structure but a walled city dating back to the 12th century. With many marvelous attraction that you’ll need more than a day to visit. Included inside (there are entrance fees) are several glorious churches such as the Assumption, Archangel, and Annunciation Cathedrals. As well as palaces now serving as government offices and beautiful lush gardens. It also houses the 19th century Armoury with its 4,000 plus precious relics and artifacts once owned by Russian royalty. Including the famous bejeweled Faberge eggs — magnificent objet d’art gifted by tsars to their tsarinas and beloved family members.
Inside Kremlin – Cathedral Square | At the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square stands the Assumption Cathedral, where Russia’s imperial leaders were crowned and church leaders chosen for many centuries (foreground). | Photo Courtesy by Maria Steinberg
GUM department store is more mall than one big store. It has 160 luxury clothing, home goods, and other specialty brands spread out on three levels under an impressive atrium style glass roof. Perhaps the best bargain at GUM’s is the famous 100-ruble ice cream on a cone (about US$1.50). It’s sold at small kiosks in flavors like blackcurrant and crème brulee (at various locations inside the mall). You can shop at the lavish specialty food and wine store Gastronome No. 1 for souvenirs or treats to take back to your hotel. Spoil yourself at the cozy caviar bar or, if you must economize, visit the third level and brave the long lines for a close-to-authentic Soviet-era canteen food experience at Stolovaja No. 57. Partake from its wide array of local delicacies like borscht, pelmeni, and chicken kiev presented cafeteria style. Not in the mood for Russian? Check out the Chinese, Uzbek, and other fare served fast food style on the same floor.
Gastronome No. 1 at GUM | The deli counter at the specialty food store Gastronome No. 1 inside GUM department store. | Photo Courtesy by Maria Steinberg
St. Basil’s Cathedral
St. Basil’s Cathedral at the southern end of the square is arguably the most photographed structure in Red Square, if not in Moscow. Commissioned by Russia’s notorious ruler Ivan the Terrible in 1555 to commemorate a territorial conquest, the cathedral showcases a breathtaking mélange of colors and patterns on its domes. Reflecting an Eastern influence that captures Russia’s location between Europe and Asia. Now a museum, there are nine main chapels. Many displaying striking carvings and paintings, and one that houses the remains of the cathedral’s namesake, St. Vasily (Basil) the Blessed.
St. Basil’s Cathedral | The stunning beauty of the domes of the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral, as seen in Red Square. | Photo Courtesy by Maria Steinberg
At Theatre Square
Bolshoi Theatre | Photo Courtesy by Maria Steinberg
For ballet and opera buffs, what could be more heart soaring than watching Swan Lake or Tosca at the world-renowned Bolshoi Theatre? The Bolshoi stands majestically at Theatre Square, an area which also includes smaller performing art theatres. On hiatus from July to early September, this meticulously reconstructed structure with its sumptuous 6-tiered auditorium opened in 1856, although the theatre group traces its beginnings way back to 1776 during Catherine the Great’s reign. Bolshoi means “grand” in Russian and its exquisite ballet and opera performances were once graced by culture-loving imperial families in their royal boxes. To see a Bolshoi performance, it’s best to book online several months in advance. One can also take a 1-hour guided tour of the theatre when the season opens.
Metropol Hotel | Photo Courtesy by Maria Steinberg
Across the street from the Bolshoi in Theatre Square sits the historic Metropol Hotel in all its Art-Nouveau glory. The 113-year old luxury hotel was for a time used by the Bolsheviks (the Communist party) as residence for party officials and government offices when the capital was transferred from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1917. The hotel, which retains its original splendor, serves as the setting for the current bestselling and hugely fascinating novel A Gentleman in Moscow, depicting the era when imperial Russia turned red. Have cocktails at their plush American-style bar, experience their Bolshoi Theatre package for a decadent taste of Russia, or simply take a (paid) guided tour by their historian and wallow in the greatness of the hotel’s past,
Other Must-See’s in Moscow
The architectural grandeur that one sees in many of Moscow’s buildings goes far deeper – literally into the subterranean. Many of the Moscow Metro underground stations, inaugurated in 1935 during Stalin’s reign, are works of art in themselves. Showcasing marble sculptures, mosaics, bas-reliefs and chandeliers.
Mayakovskaya Metro | Photo Courtesy by Maria Steinberg
The opportunity to see all this grandeur is one big reason to use the Metro, which charges 55 rubles for a single trip. One of the most beautiful stations is the Mayakovskaya. With its Art Deco design and 34 ceiling mosaics depicting scenes based on a “24-hour Soviet sky” theme. Another must-see station is Revolution Square (Ploshchad Revolyutsii). For its stunning display of over 70 bronze sculptures of Soviet commoners such as students, farmers, and workers. Each statue positioned underneath marble arches. For the best viewing experience, avoid peak hours and create an itinerary of stations to see.
Revolutionary Square Sculptures | Photo Courtesy by Maria Steinberg
Pushkin Cafe Library | Library hall at the Pushkin Café harks back to the glamourous and opulent era of imperial Russia.
There couldn’t be any other place in Moscow that’s more beautifully romantic than Café Pushkin. Housed in an 18th century Baroque mansion and named after Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s revered poet who used to frequent the neighborhood. It’s a recreation of a 19th century café located at Tverskoi Blvd. near Pushkin Square. The café offers 24-hour restaurant service in various rooms (halls) and includes a summer terrace. And it serves excellent Russian and French fare adapted from Pushkin-era recipes. For a more intimate experience, dine at the sumptuously decorated Library. Complete with antique telescopes, globes, and wood paneled bookcases filled with Russian classics.
Great City Views
Street Lights Red Square | Photo Courtesy by Maria Steinberg
Not far from the Kremlin, go for a sweeping panoramic view of Moscow on the Patriashy pedestrian bridge. Situated over the Moskva river that cuts into the city. The view is even more enchanting at night when most structures, including Red Square, are lit.
Cathedral of Christ the Savior | Photo Courtesy by Maria Steinberg
From the bridge, the imposing golden domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is just walking distance. The church was built in 1997 on the site of the 19th century cathedral that was destroyed during Stalin’s regime in 1931. Drop in to see its opulent interiors and you may even chance upon an ongoing service.
To be in Moscow is to time travel through periods of greatness, excess, deprivation, cultural and religious fervor – all of which have made it the awesome city it is today.
Planning your visit: The best times to go are in the warmer season from May to September, with the busiest times being July and August. But if you are willing to brave the notorious Russian cold, winter has its own earthly as well as magical delights. It is after all the land of the Nutcracker.