Bustle and Brutalism in Russia's dynamic capital
Moscow’s size, reputation and Soviet architecture has given it a fairly intimidating reputution. But there is much more to the Russian capital than its central role in the Cold War. In fact, the capital has a fascinating history that dates back over 800 years, and while it doesn’t have the dreamy canals and European glamour of its northern counterpart St. Petersburg, it’s no slouch in terms of culture, hosting some some of the country's most renowned art and history collections, theatres and film studios—not to mention some extremely luxurious shops, glamorous restaurants and slick bars. Most of the action can be found within the Garden Ring, where a thoroughly contemporary, if not downright ostentatious, buzz prevails.
Hot right now . . .
Paul Sullivan, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the hottest things to do and places to eat and drink season.
The concept is in the name: Less Sugar Bar (LSB) (24 Ulitsa Malaya Bronnaya, Bldg. 4; 00 7 499 394 3511) serves up classy cocktails sweetened with honey and syrups (instead of sugar) inside a colourful and slickly designed interior. Try one of the signature Daiquiris such as the Santa Monica, made with rum, grapefruit peel, honey oolong milk and lime.
Spanning three floors of the Tretyakov Gallery (00 7 495 953 1051; Lavrushinsky Lane, 119017), this major retrospective of Ilya Repin showcases works created by the painter between the 1870s and the 1920s—almost 200 paintings and over 100 graphic works in total. As well as famous works (“Unexpected Return”, “Barge Haulers on the Volga”), there are inevitably many lesser-known ones that are equally compelling. Until August 18, 2019.
Masters & Margaritas (2 Bolshoi Palashevsky; 00 7 499 110 0593) brasserie and bar, located near Patriarch’s Ponds, has a highly Instagrammable interior and an inventive food and drinks menu that stretches to stroganoff pies and smoked margaritas. Service is great.
48 hours in . . . Moscow
The place to begin any tour of the Russian capital is the mighty Red Square known locally as Krasnaya Ploshchad. Best entered through the imposing Resurrection Gates south of Tverskaya Street, the square’s centrepoint is the Kremlin (00 7 495 697 0349) which lies within the red-brick walls of the city’s ancient citadel. Not everything here is open to the public (the president's offices, for example), but accessible highlights include the collections of tsarist treasures in the Armoury Chamber, the Patriarch’s Palace and the Bell Tower complex, and the Diamond Fund.
The "red" part (Krasnaya) of the square’s name might date from the middle ages rather than the communism era, but another of the square’s main sights is Lenin's Mausoleum (00 7 495 623 5527), where the embalmed corpse of the revolutionary leader lies inside a granite building. Note that although the queues can be long, visitors are given a few minutes inside the mauseleum so the lines tend to go down quickly, so don’t be put off if it’s high on your wishlist.
St. Basil's Cathedral (00 7 495 698 3304), the onion-domed landmark, has a maze-like interior that’s interesting and fun to explore, as is the underratedState Historical Museum (00 7 495 692 4019). Note that an excellent English audio guide is available at the ticket counter.
Once the sightseeing is done, head over to the delightful Dr Zhivago (Mokhovaya St, 15/1; 00 7 499 922 0100) for a memorable Russian dining experience: caviar, blini, borscht and ukha (fish soup), as well as caviars of all kinds and colours.
After lunch, browse boutiques and luxury brands (Cartier, Versace, Hermes) inside the adjacent GUM department store (Red Square, 3; 00 7 495 788 4343). Too expensive? Nearby Okhotny Ryad shopping centre has shops for all budgets. From here, stroll through the lovely Alexander Gardens (00 7 916 709 1337) which run along the fortress's north wall, or walk along the Moskva to one of the city’s finest art institutions, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts (Ulitsa Volkhonka, 12; 00 7 495 697 9578), where you can spend the afternoon admiring an impressive array of Western masterpieces. Look out for highlights like the 15th-century statuettes of Amenhotep and Rannai, the replica of Michaelangelo’s David in the courtyard, and Henry Matisse’s Goldfish.
Head to the Garden Ring, the wide boulevard that encircles central Moscow, which has been given a makeover and is as charming as it was originally meant to be. Stroll through the freshly landscaped gardens, looking out for the statues, outdoor exhibitions and installations, until you come to the city’s main commercial drag, Tverskaya Street.
Here you will find Café Pushkin (Tverskoy Boulevard, 26А; 00 7 495 739 00 33), a great spot for dinner, and—a little farther north—Noor, a slick retro-looking building with fabulous aperitifs and cocktails and a casual dining menu (Tverskaya Str., 23/12; 00 7 903 136 7686). Head back south to Theatre Square to round off the evening at the Bolshoi Theatre (Theatre Square, 1; 00 7 495 455 5555), which hosts classics like Swan Lake alongside new and pioneering productions.
Start today with an overview of Russian art at the State Tretyakov Gallery (Lavrushinsky Ln, 10; 00 7 499 230 7788), whose sprawling collection of over 170,000 works spans everything from Orthodox icongraphy to early 20th century works
Head west from the river to pass through Zamoskvarechye. This district is mostly known for its neighbourhood ambiance and serves as a nice contrast to the bustle around the main centre, but literature fans might want to look out for the striking red and white St. Clement’s Church (Ulitsa Pyatnitskaya, 26; 00 7 495 953 0236), and the former home of playwright A.N. Ostrovsky (Malaya Ordynka str, 9; 00 7 953 8684), an interesting building in its own right, which now houses a museum about his life and works.
Continue drifting southwest to the Muzeon Park of Arts (Moscow Krymsky Val, 9; 00 7 495 995 0020), an outdoor park area which houses many of the communist-era statues—Lenin, Marx, Stalin, they’re all here—that were no longer wanted after the USSR collapsed. It backs onto Gorky Park, where you’ll find several cafés for a snack, takeaway coffee or lunch.
Spend a couple of hours exploring the park. Not only can you take in the riverside atmosphere and watch the locals enjoying some leisure time but also visit Garage (Krymsky Val; 00 7 495 645 0520), a contemporary art gallery that hosts local and international exhibitions.
Loop back along the river, admiring the views and dropping into the New Tretyakov Gallery, (Krymsky Val, 10; 00 7 495 957 07 01) where one can continue the exploration of Russian art with 20th-century favourites like Chagall, Kandinsky and Malevich.
Afterwards cross the bridge—making sure to photograph the stunning Christ the Savior Cathedral (Ulitsa Volkhonka, 15; 00 7 495 637 1276) en route—to the Krasny Oktyabr (Red October) (Bersenevskaya nab, 6), a former chocolate factory complex that’s now an island of art and culture, where art galleries, bars and restaurants share space with the 98-metre high Peter The Great statue (Krymskaya Naberezhnaya), built to commemorate 300 years of the Russian Navy.
After catching whatever is on at the small but excellent Lumière Brothers Center for Photography (which specialises in retrospectives of Soviet-era photography), head to the terrace of Strelka (Bersenevskaya Naberezhnaya, 14/5; 00 7 495 771 7416), the bar and restaurant that belongs to the pioneering Strelka Institute For Media, Architecture & Design, whose curriculum is overseen by Rem Koolhaas.
Here you can enjoy an aperitif and fantastic views as the sun goes down, as well as a diverse international menu. Afterwards you’re right in the middle of the nightlife district; many of the nearby bars —the vibrant, disco-ball filled Gipsy (Bolotnaya Naberezhnaya, 3/4; 00 7 499 409 86 93) for example—have DJs playing into the night. If that’s too much, head back across the river to the hip but laid back Dictatura Estetica (Bersenevskaya Naberezhnaya, 6; 00 7 905 732 03 69) for cocktails or craft beers.
Where to stay . . .
As the first international five-star hotel in post-Soviet Russia, theHotel Baltschug Kempinski Moscow has kept up with the competition via constantly renovated luxurious interiors, top-notch amenities and pristine service. The prime location across the river from Red Square and the Kremlin doesn’t hurt either. Breakfast includes traditional Russian pancakes with red caviar and sour cream.
Double rooms from RUB 15,000 (£175). Ulitsa Baltschug 1; 00 7 495 287 2000.
The retro-futuristic StandArt – the first Russian Design Hotels member– is unarguably the chicest hotel in the city. As well as offering the most stylish rooms in town, it has a restaurant helmed by a double Michelin-starred chef, an attractive spa and gym, and a conveniently central location.
Double rooms from RUB 12,000 (£282). Strastnoy boulevard, 2; 00 7 4 95 587 7730
The Boutique Hotel Chenonceau has a castle-like construction with elements of modern Russian architecture in the exterior and an interior designed in classic 18th century English style, complete with stone lions in the garden and crystal chandeliers and salon paintings in the public areas. It might be slightly too much for some, but for others it will feel like the epitome of Russian-style romance.
Double rooms from 3600 Russian Rubles (£45). Trekhprudny Per. 15; 00 7 495 699 214.
What to bring home . . .
For Fedoskino lacquer boxes, head 20 miles outside of Moscow where you can visit the Fedoskino factory, which employs nearly 300 artists and scores of highly skilled craftsmen who produce lacquer miniatures. If you don’t want to visit the factory, find them at the Izmailovsky Market (Alleya Bol'shogo Kruga, 7; 00 7 499 166 6119; daily 9am-6pm).
Traditional Orenburg shawls are hand-knitted and known for being warm depsite being elegantly thin. You can find them at Indefxflat (41 Starokonyushenny Pereulok) or Tagansky Passage (Taganskaya Ulitsa, 3; 00 7 916 836 7110). Elsewhere, be wary of fakes.
When to go . . .
Winter is a mixed blessing, with snow often falling right through to March, covering its distinctive Soviet towers, sprawling parks and onion-domed churches with romantic layers. The bitterly cold temperatures won’t be for everyone, but the hotel rates are cheap—excluding New Year—and the city’s cafés, restaurants and bars are even more welcoming than usual.
Spring and summer are inevitably more popular—and expensive; the former is a particularly good time to visit for fewer tourists, reasonable temperatures and events like Russian Fashion Week (April) and the Spring Festival (May 1-2), while in summer the temperatures, prices and number of outdoor events all soar in tandem. Autumn can be pleasant, with some good deals and favourable weather, but it’s audaciously short so you’ll need to time it well.
Know before you go . . .
British Embassy (00 7 495 956 7200; ukinrussia.fco.gov.uk), Smolenskaya Naberezhnaya 10
Emergency services: Dial 01 (fire), 02 (police), 03 (ambulance) – though English is not generally spoken
Telephone code: Moscow has two telephone codes – 495 and 499 (prefixed by 00 7 if dialling from abroad). Codes must be used and prefixed by an 8 - so 8-4 495 1234567, for example, then the number
Time difference: +3 hours (GMT)
Flight time: London to Moscow is four hours
Local laws and etiquette
St Petersburg is a very laid back and generally safe city, but the usual precautions should be taken against pickpocketing and phone/bag snatching, especially in busy tourist areas such as the underground and Nevsky Prospect.
It’s worth carrying your passport or ID around as police checks do take place, though they’re usually not the corrupt shakedowns of yesteryear.
There are a few general rules of etiquette, mostly general Russian superstitions rather than distinct to St Petersburg: don’t shake hands across a doorway; always bring a gift if visiting someone’s home; don’t place your elbows on a table when eating; don’t place finished bottles on the table – the floor is the preferred place for them.
Attitudes around LGBT+ culture in Moscow and St Petersburg are changing, if slowly. There are communities and clubs in both cities, but they tend to remain mostly hidden from public view. Exercise caution in public. For more information, read the FCO advice.
Paul Sullivan is a regular visitor to the Russian capital. He enjoys visiting the city’s fantastic galleries and the challenge of keeping up with its fast-changing culinary scene.
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