It’s been 19 years since we visited Moscow. Our last visit coincided with the coup d’ état attempt that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union. We remember the tanks that rimmed Red Square, the heavily armed troops who marched in the streets. We vowed to return and return we did to find a very different Moscow: fashionable outdoor cafes had popped up everywhere, luxury shops like Gucci and Chanel were busy and Muscovites hurried to and fro smartly dressed, cappuccinos in hand and fixed to their cellphones. Lovers met on the steps of the Bolshoi. Pushkin’s Moscow of a hundred golden domes had, indeed, changed dramatically.

What lured us back was a huge citywide bash that celebrates the founding of Moscow in 1147 each year with during the first weekend of September. From free entry to museums to special performances and parades through the city center, there was no shortage of ways to wish the Russian capital a happy 872nd birthday. This year, there were four themed venues dedicated to different eras in VDNH (the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy) history.

We dove into the street festival and joined thousands of jubilant Russians in paper crowns strolling up Tverskaya Street agog at the dancers, zip line, circus acts, tight rope walkers, skateboarders, musicians, magicians and assorted street food vendors who energetically created a wholesome, fun atmosphere that lasted for two days well into the night. We admired dazzling works of art, a replica of the Vostok rocket, and a large model of the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman monument among the giant decorations.

Moscow remains a less-obvious tourist destination for the American traveler, but the simple truth is that once you clear the bureaucratic hurdle of obtaining an entry visa, you can fly there easily. We flew on the wings of Finnair through Helsinki and were deliriously happy. Warm Nordic smiles were everywhere on the cabin staff.

The capital of Russia has its classic attractions: Red Square; the red-walled political stronghold known as the Kremlin; Gorky Park, the Central Park of Russia; Lenin’s Mausoleum; the State Historical Museum; the Metro. Yes, you must experience the Metro, an engineering marvel that will take you deep into the earth, a triumph of art and architecture. But the city also rewards those travelers who venture off the beaten path while maintaining some degree of street smarts: offbeat bars, tasty meals, and interesting, unusual people surround you. Do not fail to tour the city at night—it rivals Paris in terms of light cascading dramatically off historical buildings. Your visit will be greatly enhanced if you hire a guide; the language barrier will not be an issue and they seem to have magical powers to cut queues. Plus, their prodigious knowledge for details is mind-boggling.

What else to see:

The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (commonly known as Saint Basil’s Cathedral), is a church in Red Square regarded as a symbol of the country. It was built from 1555 to 1561 on orders from Ivan the Terrible and commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. It was the city’s tallest building until the completion of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in 1600. The original building, known as Trinity Church and later Trinity Cathedral, contained eight churches arranged around a ninth, central church of Intercession; a tenth church was erected in 1588 over the grave of venerated local saint Vasily (Basil). In the 16th and 17th centuries, the church, perceived (as with all churches in Byzantine Christianity) as the earthly symbol of the Heavenly City, was popularly known as the “Jerusalem” and served as an allegory of the Jerusalem Temple in the annual Palm Sunday parade attended by the Patriarch of Moscow and the Tsar. The building is shaped like the flame of a bonfire rising into the sky, a design that has no parallel in Russian architecture. It is like no other Russian building, a fantasy of colorful onion-shaped domes. Nothing similar can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition from the fifth to the fifteenth century … a strangeness that astonishes by its unexpectedness, complexity and dazzling interleaving of the manifold details of its design. The cathedral foreshadowed the climax of Russian national architecture in the 17th century.

The Bolshoi Theatre is a historic theatre originally designed by architect Joseph Bové, which holds world-class ballet and opera performances. Before the October Revolution it was a part of the Imperial Theatres of the Russian Empire along with Maly Theatre (Small Theatre) in Moscow and a few theatres in Saint Petersburg, namely the Hermitage Theatre, Bolshoi (Kamenny) Theatre, later Mariinsky Theatre and others. The Bolshoi Ballet and Bolshoi Opera are amongst the oldest and most renowned ballet and opera companies in the world. It is by far the world’s biggest ballet company, with more than 200 dancers. The theatre is the parent company of The Bolshoi Ballet Academy, a world-famous leading school of ballet. It has a branch at the Bolshoi Theater School in Joinville, Brazil. The main building of the theatre, rebuilt and renovated several times during its history, is a landmark of Moscow and Russia (its iconic neoclassical façade is depicted on the Russian 100-ruble banknote). On 28 October 2011, the Bolshoi re-opened after an extensive six-year renovation. The official cost of the renovation was 21 billion rubles ($688 million). However, other Russian authorities and other people connected to it claimed much more public money was spent. The renovation included restoring acoustics to the original quality (which had been lost during the Soviet Era), as well as restoring the original Imperial decor of the Bolshoi.

VDNH is a massive general-purpose trade show and amusement park celebrating its 80 th birthday. First opened in 1939 as an agricultural exhibition, Moscow’s Vystavka Dostinzheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva—you can call it “VDNH” —has grown into something much more than that. After several name changes and renovations, the park is now a major hub of the Russian capital, even boasting its own eponymous metro stop. With more than two million square meters of territory to explore, VDNH is stuffed with pavilions, museums, shops, fountains, parks, restaurants (we loved Spumante overlooking the boating pond), cultural displays, amusement park rides, a functioning farm, and the largest ice skating rink in Europe. Not to be missed is the Space Pavilion, a reopened palatial building sporting an elegant glass cupola, packed with rockets, landing capsules and entire space stations, some of which you can walk through. A spheric 5D cinema shows a film that tells the story of the universe from the big bang to the start of space exploration by humans. A life-sized replica of the Voskhod rocket was installed at the main entrance in 1967. Music from giant loudspeakers pervades the park. Children are everywhere. Bring comfortable walking shoes.

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. We were immersed in the exhibit: Shchukin: Biography of a Collection, one of the most prominent collections of European Modernist art, encompassing the most important artistic trends of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This exhibition, extraordinary in its scale and content, occupies almost the entire museum space. The project shows the history of Sergei Shchukin’s compilation of his collection through his personality, his family’s biography, and the cultural and historical context. To help recreate that context, the collections of Sergei Shchukin’s brothers Pyotr, Dmitry, and Ivan are also be displayed. The exhibition includes masterpieces by Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gaugin, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and other masters. This is one of the world’s largest complete collections ever displayed.

Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. A legendary classical concert hall attracting renowned orchestras, performers and conductors. We heard a profoundly good orchestra of energetically-strummed balalaikas, accordians, tympani, woodwinds and brass playing Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakkov, a soaring bass singer and graceful dancers in costume. Tickets are reasonably priced. Historically important and with a high degree of significance for Russian culture, perhaps, there is no comparable concert hall.

Radisson Boat cruise. The all-weather boats of the Radisson Royal flotilla offer sightseeing and entertainment trips on the Moscow River with restaurant service on board all year round, following regular schedule. This route makes it possible to see Moscow’s 30 main landmarks in only 2.5-3 hours while bypassing all traffic jams on the streets of Russia’s capital. Ten excellently equipped boats are at your service: there are business-class, first class and Royal class salons available, panoramic windows and climate control, open decks and enclosed decks, trips with live music; it is possible to rent the whole boat or first-class salon. These boats boast of a high level of safety, including their impact on the environment.

Where to eat:

We focused on the superb restaurants of Maison Dellos and can report you cannot go wrong: they are among the best of Moscow, especially:

Matryoshka for the tastiest national dishes with a basic accent on the best products from different corners of Russia. We ate cured herring (pod shuboy), fishy coulibiac with the sour-cream sauce, Murmansk’s codfish, Altaic mushroom porridge, valamo cabbage soup and Linda’s goose.

Turandot: Legendary fine dining restaurant with refined Pan-Asian cuisine. Chef Dmitry Eremeev is an artist creating French, Japanese and Chinese dishes. Lavishly done out restaurant with silks & chandeliers. Turandot is not an ordinary restaurant; it is a real palace, styled in 18th century Chinoiserie. It is breaktakingly beautiful, thanks to the vision of Andrey Dellos who brought together baroque, classicism and renaissance with refined painting, jewel porcelain vases, intricate moldings, genuine Gobelins tapestries, ancient clocks and delicate fireplaces. Two workshops of wood engravers, painters, and sculptors worked manufacturing the interior’s details for six years. Here was surely a place Count Stroganoff would feel at home. http://www.turandot-palace.ru/en/

Cafe Pushkin: Imagine an antique-filled dining room of a nobleman’s house with formal service and a typically Russian menu and you’ve got the notion of the very popular Café Puskin. This aristocratic mansion setting for blinchiki (Russian pancakes) with black caviar, borscht and pelmeni (dumplings), before moving on to the famous Tsar’s Sturgeon and, of course, one of Pushkin’s many, many desserts. Make sure your meal includes a shot or two (or three) of cold vodka. (Ruskiy Standart should do, or ask the waiter for a recommendation.) They treat you like you’re a member of the landed gentry here, and that’s because Pushkin is one of only a few dozen restaurants in Moscow that really understands service.

Kazbek: generous, comforting food honoring Georgian family feasts is at the heart of the authentic dining experience here. A warm welcome greets you at the door, where the host hands you an envelope containing the menu and shows you to your table. The talented young Tbilisi chef Mamiya Jojua, who adds a modern twist to timeless recipes, leads the kitchen. The kitchen is very much a family affair, with Jojua’s mother acting as sous-chef. Order one of the traditional-recipe khachapuri which are baked in a large wooden stove and served in all their golden, cheese-laden glory straight from a wooden paddle to your plate. The rest of the menu features classics like the spinach “pkhali”—herb, spinach and walnuts balls—and garlic-dressed “lobio,” a dish composed of beans and various types of herbs. The pork ribs marinated with spicy adjika sauce are particularly good, as is the “odzhahuri” with port, which provides a little kick for your palate. Pair with a fruity Georgian red.

Where to Stay:

Park Hyatt Moscow Ararat Hotel, five stars, one of the best on Europe, just a 4-minute walk from the renowned Bolshoi Theatre, this upscalehotel is 14 minutes on foot from the colorful spires of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Refined rooms with scenic city views feature free Wi-Fi, flat-screens and iPod docks, as well as minibars, and tea and coffeemaking facilities. Upgraded rooms add plush sitting areas. Some suites offer whirlpool tubs and terraces, while others are bi-level. Room service is available 24/7. There’s a polished Armenian restaurant, a sushi bar, and a stylish cocktail bar with a terrace. A cafe and a sports bar complete the pretty picture here. Other amenities include a luxe spa featuring an indoor pool and a fitness room. A wonderful no-request-too small staff and the world’s fastest elevators make a stay here heavenly.

Recommended Day Trip:

It would be a shame to visit Moscow and miss Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city and its cultural center. One could spend weeks here exploring its palaces and museums, but we took a day trip to this enchanting Russian port city on the Baltic Sea. Via a high speed train, it took just four hours from Moscow, The imperial capital for nearly two centuries, having been founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, the subject of the city’s iconic “Bronze Horseman” statue, Saint Petersburg.

The Hermitage Museum now spans several sites, but for most visitors it is the main collection in the Winter Palace that is an essential component of any St. Petersburg itinerary. Here you’ll find not only centuries of European fine art and a rich collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, but also the astonishingly opulent 18th and 19th century state rooms of Russia’s imperial family. Since the summer of 2014, much of the Hermitage’s renowned collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art (in terms of artistic quality, undoubtedly the highpoint of the collection) has been transferred across Palace Square to the General Staff Building, so if your main reason for visiting the Hermitage is to see the art, then you have to consider making time for the second location, possibly with a break for refreshments between the two.

There’s much more at this “Venice of the North”: St. Isaac’s Cathedral, an 1818 Russian Orthodox cathedral and museum with gold-plated dome and an opulent, multicolored interior, Peter and Paul Fortress, the burial place of almost all the Russian emperors, the Mariinsky Theatre hosting great opera and ballet, Nevksy Avenue, the Winter Palace and Savior on the Spilled Blood, a memorable 1880s church filled with vibrant, richly decorated details, gleaming mosaics and an exterior topped with colorful onion domes. Setting up this trip is as simple as a visit to http://www.firebirdtours.com. They can even arrange a first class overnight cabin aboard the country’s signature Rail.Ninja Train for the way back to Moscow, an adventure sure to bring you in close contact a diverse cross section of local people, some even eager to pull out a bottle of vodka from their luggage to share with you.

For those wishing to stay longer, we’d highly recommend the Four Seasons (an authentic Italian dinner at dinner at Percorso here is a treat) or the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe). Carnivores will love Blok Restaurant where the interior says glitz and glamour but the extensive steak and meat menu uses only Russian farmer’s market meat of the highest quality.

Wrapping it up:

In conclusion, Moscow is many things to many people: a great cultural destination filled with countless historical and modern artworks, the cobblestoned Red Square, the epicenter of Russia, the Kremlin, home of the President and burial place of Stalin and most Soviet leaders, the Bolshoi theatre, an esteemed cultural tradition. It has beautiful and graceful churches, monumental architecture, shop-til-you-drop boutiques and luxurious GUM, the former State Department Store. It is a city of well-groomed parks, great for people-watching and outdoor cafes. It is home to a metro system that is a striking feat of engineering. The metro is essential–Moscow traffic can be crippling slow. Moscow is a city that never sleeps; Russians love to party and share their vodka. Forget their stereotype reputation for being stern and never smiling. If you make the effort, they will embrace you. Knowing a few words in their language, especially please and thank you, helps.

Lastly, go any time of year. The Moscow Seasons (https://moscowseasons.com/) events take place all year round and offer all kinds of spectacular—and free—entertaining programs for locals and tourists alike. In October the Golden Autumn Festival honors the traditional harvest with a stylish culinary week. From December 13-January 12 Europe’s largest Christmas festival—The Journey to Christmas—is held in Moscow with theatrical programs, amusements and special food and drink. White winter is not for the faint of heart but is magical. This Russian Winter Festival showcases live performances, fun and games and Red Square transforms onto a Christmas market with an enormous ice skating rink.

Whether you go for the city’s rich cultural heritage, its turbulent political history, its breathtaking performing arts or just the need for some good caviar and a shot of cool vodka, Moscow will inspire and confound you. A trip to Moscow takes you back in time—to the days of the Tsars of the Russian Empire, to the firebrand communists, to the tortured novelists of the Golden Age of Russian literature. All these ghosts of Moscow’s past still linger in the capital city, making this a fascinating holiday destination.

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