Moscow is a massive, historic, beautiful city. It’s the heart of Russian culture. It’s the stuff of mystery in a lot of peoples eyes. The Kremlin. The coloured spires of St Basil’s Cathedral. Moscow sums up everything about Russia, from the decades of oppressive Communist rule to the reputation as a haven of the wealthy it’s earned in the last ten years.
I had the pleasure of visiting Moscow as part of an assignment for bmi to write a feature for their City of the Month promotion early in August and you can check out the finished product here. I found that even in just 2 days, Moscow is a city you can definitely cover comprehensively, experiencing the full contrast of what this magnificent city has to offer.
Things to See and Do
Even though it seems like a sprawling, daunting beast to take on, I found that the key sights of Moscow are contained within a small area. Using a combination of your trusty stompers and the spectacular Moscow Metro, you can see everything worthwhile the Red capital has to offer.
The Red Square has hosted hundreds of military parades in its time, but it was originally built to be a humble market square. It’s a vast, expansive space that has some interesting features, notably that it’s not flat all the way across. Somewhat resembling the curvature of the Earth, you can stand at one end and not completely see the height of people at the other end.
Make sure to visit it at day time, then return again at night to experience the Red Square from a different perspective. The way all the buildings and the Kremlin wall are lit up by massive floodlights makes it look completely different to what it did during the day.
State Historical Museum
Housing all of Russia’s history ranging back almost 2000 years to present day, this building looks more like a massive red wedding cake than a museum.
It’s the comprehensive place to check out if you want to get an idea of the long, rocky, glorious history of Russia. Comprising of over 20 rooms of info, it’s bursting with artefacts, artwork and propaganda. It’s situated on the north side of the Red Square, making it super easy to find.
St Basil’s Cathedral
As the defining icon of Russia, St Basil’s Cathedral is absolutely unmissable. It’s the image of Moscow that most people think of when the city is mentioned, and it sits pride of place at one end of the Red Square.
When you first enter Red Square, it’s the first thing your eyes are drawn to. The blues, greens and reds of the spires that look like onions really confirms it for you that you’re in Moscow.
The inside is unlike any other cathedral you’ve been in. It’s made up of two levels and is more like 5 small chapels combined to form one large church, decorated ornately throughout with the same intricate detail and vibrant colours seen on the exterior.
When you enter St Basil’s on the ground floor, you soon have to twist and turn up a narrow, steep and dimly lit staircase before you’re presented with the grand central chapel that seems to stretch up forever until forming the top of the spire. Undoubtedly one of the key attractions in Moscow. I’ll say it again, don’t miss it.
The heart and soul of Russia, this is where countless critical political decisions were made that created tension of decades throughout the Western world. Only a few parts are open to the public, as this is definitely still where the President hangs out (and the very strict guards will reminds you of that). The Kremlin is surrounded by an extensive Italian-designed wall dotted with twenty individual towers of different decoration and height, each with their own amazing story.
Inside you will find a few incredibly ornate cathedrals, the armoury and the Diamond Museum. Buying tickets can be confusing at the front gate, as tours of the Armoury and Diamond Museum are only run during certain times of the day and tickets sell out for each. If this happens to you, just buy the ticket that allows you to walk around the grounds of the cathedrals. You’ll still see the amazing attention to detail on the outside fascade and the massive Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon.
This expansive park was constructed in Stalinist times to give the people a nice place to hang out. It features long and wide boulevards, beautiful gardens and a riverside funfair.
There’s lots of little cafes and kiosks dotted around the place and it’s a great place to take an hour or so out and relax. Also during winter, you can ice skate the entire area when it freezes over i.e. not just the lakes but the paths as well!
One thing I think about when I think of Russia is the dramatic, over the top sculptures created by the Soviets to glorify their regime. Given that that era is all over, there aren’t many examples of these in Moscow anymore. However a few are still laying around, and they’ve been relocated to the Sculpture Park.
Walking around, you see statues of Lenin and Stalin, sculptures of soldiers with machine guns standing in arms with farmers and aircraft. Since the early 90’s, contemporary artwork has been added to the mix, making this a very interesting place to walk around and experience.
Food and Drink
Moscow is fast becoming a city that can address any and all of your culinary wants. Well prepared sushi, American style burgers, Thai, Italian and any other Western staple you can think of is catered for. Moscow is full of quirky, stylish and down right chic restaurants and bars, have a look at what I discovered below.
A very diverse restaurant, Ragout offers a fusion of many different cuisines inspired by French. You’ll find risottos, chicken, meat and fish dishes, all with twists inspired by English, American, Chinese, Russian and everything in between.
They also do Sunday lamb roasts, prepared outside by the chef. Expect very prompt, attentive service and a great atmosphere. It’s near Belarusskaya station, come out go across the road and down the street directly in front of you to find it.
Strelka is a very summery joint. It features a huge outside dining area with a decent sized bar, views out to the river and friendly English speaking staff. A simple but effective menu is on offer, with well priced burgers, salads and grill eats. Strelka also boasts an extensive wine and liquor selection. You can also feel a roughly based nautical themed decor with lots of untreated pine decking and furniture, orange and yellow pastel lampshades and big umbrellas.
To top it all off, there’s a huge live music venue space underneath featuring local indie bands during the weekends.
Featuring a spread out rooftop area with sun-loungers, hammocks and plenty of normal seating for eating, GIPSY is probably the coolest bar in the former Red October chocolate factory district. The central tiki style outside bar, astroturf and water sprayers make this feel more like an island in the sky than a bar in central Moscow.
Inside you’ll find big lounges, separately themed booths and a huge central U shaped bar. At night the dance floor gets a workout, and the place gets rammed. A big cartoon graffiti mural featuring characters from Family Guy, Futurama, Looney Tunes, Disney, Super Mario Bros and many more adorns the back wall. Empty spirit bottles and musical instruments hang from the roof upside-down. Quirky much?
However the downside is that service is lousy, with staff seeming to be a bit reluctant to actually serve you most of the time. I tried to order some food by waving down a waiter to be told “oh, maybe in 5 minutes”. 15 minutes later he still hadn’t come back, so I left and went back to Strelka Bar.
Upside Down Cake Company
The Upside Down Cake Company is somewhere anyone with a sweet tooth should not miss in Moscow. Cakes, pies, puddings, coffee and tea are the name of the game here.
UDC make a New York style Crack Pie. Don’t worry, it’s not made from actual crack, it’s not chockers with narcotics. It’s a rich buttery pie, called Crack Pie because it’s so more-ish and addictive. Bringing some home for a special someone will definitely go down well.
How to get there
With flight time taking just under 4 hours from London, this one is a bit further afield than most cities you’ll consider for a weekend trip. It is however doable, as bmi offer redeye flights from London on Friday nights that arrive on Saturday morning, and return flights that will get you back to London before 8pm Sunday night.
A bit of orientation
Here’s a handy map laying out all the sights I mentioned above to give you an idea of where things are in Moscow.
Click on the markers to see the sight listed and zoom and pan around to see more of the map.
View 48 hours in Moscow in a larger map
Get around in Moscow
Walking around the main Red Square/Kremlin area is pretty doable as they’re very close by. However once you start venturing further afield to places like Gorky Park, you’ll need to jump on the Metro. The Moscow Metro is one of the most revered, efficient and beautifully decorated mass transport systems in the world.
After you buy your ticket, study the map carefully before proceeding down the escalator. Make sure you know where you’ve entered from, where you need to get off, which line it’s on and where that line ends. ESPECIALLY try to memorise what the name of the station you want to get off at looks like in Cyrillic, because down on the platforms nothing is in English.
Where to stay
Moscow does have a handful of hostels, the top of which are rated above 90% on Hostelbookers. They do tend to be located a bit further out from the centre of the city, but a Metro station is never that far away.
However if you want to make your stay a special one and splash out on a bit of luxury, you should check out the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel on Tverskaya Street. The location means you’re well situated to the great restaurants in Belarusskaya but a short downhill walk to the Red Square.
The rooms are huge, with high ceilings and expansive beds. Ever seen a bed with six pillows? Neither had I.
The Marriott has an excellent concierge service, whom will help you get your bearings when you first get into Moscow. Plus breakfast here is an event unto itself. Think epic spreads of 8 different types of cereals, eggs benedict (my personal favourite), breads, fresh fruit and juices, even a cook making omelettes. Posh.
Moscow’s not that cheap, and is about the same price range as London. A latte will cost you 182 roubles and an Espresso is 90 rub. 1 trip on the metro costs 28 roubles. A pint of Budweiser (Budvar) is around 240 roubles.
For a city that was shrouded by the Iron Curtain for so many years, it has emerged as a cultural and historical hotspot. In some ways it feels like a lot of other cities in Europe, with very cool bars and interesting museums. However it’s when you enter the Metro and find all the signs in Cyrillic or attempt to get yourself a beer from a bar and have to mime out in sign language because they don’t understand English, that you remember “ah yes, this is Russia“.
Many thanks to Denis Kargaev from We Want Eat for reaching out on Facebook and meeting up with me in Moscow. He showed me the awesomeness of Strelka and Upside Down Cake Company and LOVES his food. Make sure you check out his blog.
Have you been to Moscow? What did you like about it most? Did I miss something you think is worth a visit? Let me know in the comments.
Disclosure: My trip to Moscow was completely funded by bmi, but all opinions are my own.