Please note: this article was originally written in 2015. I’m updating this in 2022 to state that — for obvious reasons — you should not be travelling to Russia at this time. If you are in Russia, you should leave immediately.
As the capital of the largest country on earth, Moscow is also larger than life. In a city adorned with palaces straight out of a fairytale, you won’t be shocked that even the metro system is full of opulent art.
At the center of Moscow is the iconic Red Square, home to the Kremlin and the spiritual heart of the city. But as you wander, the storied streets guide you to marvelous sites from ancient cathedrals to royal estates, the summer havens of the Tsars.
Wherever you look, you can see the footprints of old Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution and Stalin. Connecting all three is a rich culture, exceptional theater and a vibrant nightlife.
Explore the Red Square
There’s so many layers to the story of Moscow that it can feel overwhelming. There’s really only one place to start this adventure, and that’s at the Red Square. Streaming out of the square is each of Moscow’s major streets, like ventricles feeding the rest of the body. It’s easy to see why this is both the historical and cultural centrepiece of the city.
The Red Square is home to several of the top landmarks in Moscow, from Lenin’s Mausoleum and the State Historical Museum to the iconic Kremlin. In times of victory and defeat, this has been the point of congregation for the community even when it lacked its modern day splendor back in the 15th century.
On regular days, there remains a fantastic atmosphere in Red Square as locals come and go and tourists explore with wide eyes. Although you’ll find ample stunning sites, you may be surprised to know that there’s only a single statue in the historic square. This statue shows Prince Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, who defeated the Polish invasion in 1612.
See St. Basil’s Cathedral
One of the most eye-catching sights in Red Square is St. Basil’s Cathedral. Its colorful onion domes stand atop a church of incredible variations. The cathedral was built in the 1500s under the request of Ivan the Terrible. The architects were Barma and Postnik who essentially combined nine different styles of churches, chapels and domes into one spectacular work of art.
As the legend goes, the architects were later made blind by Ivan the Terrible. This was so they couldn’t recreate the sheer magnificence of St. Basil’s. Under the early morning sunlight (or at dusk) the orange colors shine brightly, as if the cathedral was a grand bonfire accented by streaks of green, yellow and blue.
It’s hard to imagine from the outside that St. Basil’s interior is exceptionally small. There are nine individual chapels that are intimately decorated with frescoes and icons, both of which lead your eyes up to the soaring domes above.
Go on a River Cruise
After visiting the Red Square, turn your attention to the Moscow River. A great way to take in the city’s sites is from the water, which offers a unique and quiet perspective away from the crowds. Public transport on the river will return in 2022, with the schedule increasing year by year.
The Moscow River and its surrounding canals feature almost 50 bridges and showcase the city in a way that few can duplicate. A popular station for river transport can be found alongside Gorky Park. From the dock, you’ll head north through the heart of the city with the Red Square and all its highlights floating by on the left bank. Before the river swings and heads south towards the Danilovsky District.
While exploring the city on the Moscow River is a great way to see the sights and get around, it’s easy to turn it into a romantic experience. Moscow is even more spectacular under the evening light, something you can discover on a luxury river cruise.
Visit the Bolshoi Theatre
Within the illustrious city center, you’ll find grand architecture and history, with one of the best examples being the Neoclassical Bolshoi Theatre. The breathtaking six-tier hall is one of the oldest ballet and opera houses in all of Europe.
Each renovation has remained faithful to the original design, allowing the grandeur of the Bolshoi Theatre to remain as it has since 1824. Catching a show here is one of the best things to do in Moscow, even if ballet or opera has never been your speed. The rigorous passion on display transcends fandom and will have you on the edge of your seat.
Some of the classic shows at the Bolshoi Theatre include Francesca da Rimini by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa. Both iconic shows premiered right here. After entering the theater, take time to appreciate the opulence on display, from the multi-tiered chandelier to the gilded accents and red velvet walls. It’s grandiosity will have you ready for a night of high culture.
Spend Time at Tretyakov Gallery
The Tretyakov Gallery may have begun as a private collection among the Tretyakov brothers, but it has grown to be the most significant museum of Russian fine art on earth. The gallery is now home to well over 130,000 exhibits, including several iconic paintings known the world over.
Near to Red Square, the Tretyakov Gallery comprises an old and new building. The former is home to works dating back to the 11th century, with the new building featuring contemporary and modern art. Some of the most renowned pieces include The Trinity, by Andrei Rublev and the Vladimir Mother of God, which is almost 1000 years old. While you could spend a number of hours admiring the worlds of Ilya Repin, a celebrated Russian realist painter.
Surrounding the Tretyakov Gallery are several sculptures to complement the experience. None more striking than the 280-foot (86m) statue of Peter the Great.
Roam the Moscow Kremlin
The Kremlin is an enormous complex whose sheer scale can only be appreciated from within its ancient walls. It’s the most recognizable landmark in Moscow, as it has been since opening in the 15th century. Since that day, the Kremlin has gone onto be the home for a series of Tsars before becoming the official residence for the president of the Russian Federation.
Major government leaders may live elsewhere, but if anything, that lowers the red tape and opens up more of the grand palace. The Kremlin covers over 105,000 square miles (275,000 sq. km) and is surrounded by fortress walls. As you wander, it’s easy to place yourself in eras past as you gaze upon several opulent cathedrals, spellbinding palaces, and the ancient Armoury.
The Armoury produced and stored weapons for centuries until in was converted into a museum in the early 19th century. You can now explore the history of Russian, Western European and Asian weaponry along with resplendent works by jewelers and goldsmiths, including the museum’s Faberge egg.
Pay a Visit to Lenin’s Mausoleum
Vladimir Lenin was the founder and leader of Soviet Russia and eventually the Soviet Union. He remained in power until the day he died. Shortly after his passing, the mausoleum was created in Red Square. It was only supposed to be for a short period, but such was the popularity of the leader that Lenin has remained on display ever since.
He was removed from his original tomb into a permanent sarcophagus that now holds a central spot in the Red Square. The marble stairs that flank the mausoleum have also taken on a life of their own, as the spot for leaders to watch the many events that take place in the famed square.
Almost a century removed from his passing, Lenin’s Mausoleum is still a popular attraction with regular lines to enter. But it’s well worth the wait for an eerie experience as you cross paths with the revolutionary leader, who lays peacefully within a bullet proof chamber.
Visit the Cathedral of Christ the Savior
A few blocks from the colorful St. Basil’s is a no less opulent, but even more significant cathedral. The first Cathedral of Christ the Savior was demolished under the order of Stalin in the 1930s. He had plans to build the tallest skyscraper on earth, a dream that was later scrapped as the grounds became home to the massive Moscow Pool. This makes the new iteration, built in 2000, the youngest of the city’s many incredible churches.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior has the classic onion domes atop what is the largest Orthodox church on earth. From the front, paved paths lined with lamp posts guide you towards the cathedral. From there you can appreciate the magnificence of its huge facade, featuring golden accents, archways and spires. As you wander inside, you’ll be taken aback by the mosaic floors, grand altar and intricate paintings.
From the back of the church, admire the impressive Bolshoy Kammeny Bridge along with views of Red Square and Gorky Park.
Spend a Day at Gorky Park
Speaking of, head across the beautiful bridge and make your way to the city’s top park. Gorky Park is an expansive green area that runs along the banks of the Moscow River. It’s the biggest in the city, with something to offer for solo travelers, couples and families alike.
In the summer months, locals flock to Gorky Park in the evenings and on the weekends, where you’ll find all sorts of entertainment. In the morning hours, stumble upon yoga classes and dance lessons before joggers and cyclists arrive in equal numbers. If you have time, get about on foot to appreciate the manicured gardens along the walking path that guides you to Sparrow Hill. From the top, you can bask in exquisite views of the Moscow skyline.
Gorky Park is also home to the Muzeon Art Park, where you’ll find an unusual collection of over 700 sculptures. At night, Gorky Park plays host to an outdoor movie theater while live music is also a common treat.
A traditional home for artists and poets, Patriarshiye Prudy is a bohemian neighborhood with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and bars. Tucked away from the downtown, Patriarch Ponds is quieter than much of Moscow, yet remains an exciting pace to be. The charming ponds have been referenced in endless poems and depicted in notable pieces of art. You could spend a quaint morning watching the sun rise over the glistening water, which slowly begins the reflect the many beautiful buildings that surround the park. While in winter, the pond freezes, turning into a popular and scenic ice rink.
Along the surrounding streets you’ll discover one of Moscow’s foodie hotspots, with plenty of cozy cafes serving tasty treats and popular Uruguayan steak houses. As primarily a residential neighborhood, you’ll find the tables have turned. Away from the Red Square, visitors will enjoy a look into everyday life, while enjoying some of the best hospitality in town.
Take the Moscow Metro
It’s not in every city that you’ll want to explore the metro. But as we know by now, very few cities are like Moscow. The local subway system was developed under Stain in the 1930s, making them one of the oldest in the world. In typical Stalin fashion, each station is unique, with its own layer of grandeur.
Akin to underground palaces, each station is an attraction making getting around Moscow on the metro an aesthetically pleasing experience. Some of the top stations include Arbatskaya, which features striking bronze chandeliers and granite slabs. While Park Kutlury, next to Gorky park is laden with marble. The stops immediately surrounding Red Square are also easy on the eyes.
On a metro tour, you’ll visit the best 9 metro stations in the city and discover how and why they’re as beautiful as any famous landmark in Moscow.
Walk Down Old Arbat Street
After walking out of Arbatskaya metro station, you’ll find yourself in one of the most hip parts of Moscow. Arbat Street began as a prominent trading route on the outer edges of Moscow. But from those days in the 1400s to now, the city has expanded greatly to the point Arbat Street feels like the center of town.
The historic street is lined with lamp posts backed by upscale buildings harboring chic bars and hip cafes. One of the latter being a popular spot for Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov to hang back in the day. But Old Arbat Street isn’t just famous for those two luminaries, it has long been a haven for artists and poets, including Alexander Pushkin and Bulat Okudzhava, whose statue is found along the pedestrianized street.
Once you’ve completed the mile-long walk, cross over the New Arbat Street where tourism and modern culture collide. Wander through antique shops or watch the street artists play live music or draw humorous caricatures.
Enjoy the Views from the Ostankino TV Tower
For the best views in the city, it’s hard to pass up an experience at the Ostankino TV Tower. The building was completed in 1967 and including the antenna spire it stands at over 1,770 feet (540m) tall. This makes the TV Tower the tallest in Russia and one of the tallest structures in the world.
Visitors can make their way to the observation deck 1,115 feet (340m) above the ground for expansive views of the entirety of Moscow. But to really get your heart racing, sign up for the glass floor experience that will have you feel like you’re flying over a thousand feet above the ground. Turn your trip into date night by reserving a table at the tower’s revolving restaurant. As you eat, the tower rotates 360 degrees, completing a full circle three times every hour.
Make your experience at the Ostankino TV Tower a breeze by getting Moscow’s hop-on hop-off bus pass that not only stops here, but all the top attractions around the city.
Explore the Tsaritsyno Palace
30 minutes on the train from the center of Moscow, Tsaritsyno Palace was once the home of Catherine the Great. The building first opened in 1775 and its lavish palace is surrounded by expansive grounds covering more than 400 acres.
The palace itself is predictably eye-catching. Its warm velvet bricks make way for towering arches and spires. To the left and right are musical fountains and its interior decor has undergone a complete refurbishment to bring it back to its heyday. As you wander through the palace, you’ll discover embellished staircases that lead to grand halls where royal meetings and parties took place.
Tsaritsyno Palace is now a museum, and alongside the storied halls you’ll find several fascinating exhibits. These explore the life and times of Catherine the Great, along with the history of the building. Other highlights include the palace’s own opera house. Afterwards, take a tour of the lush grounds and historic ruins.
Wander Through the VDNKh
What began as an exhibition has grown exponentially to become one of the top parks in Moscow. VDNKh opened in the 1930s as the host of an agricultural event. But in the decades since it continues to be improved upon. It’s now home to over 400 structures, from fountains to museums.
The expansive complex blurs the line between a park and open-air exhibit, with beautiful gardens punctuated by intricate architecture. As you wander around, you’ll find pavilions that represent former Soviet nations along with ample space to sit and admire the amazing Friendship of Nations Fountain.
Two major attractions in VDNKh are the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, which celebrates the Russian space experience along with the city’s aquarium. But perhaps the park’s best feature is its lively atmosphere. As a common meeting point for Moscovians, you’ll find restaurants in abundance, the largest skate park in Europe, horseback riding and even the chance to zipline across the complex.
Experience the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
As you explore the VDNKh, save plenty of time to visit the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. While we all remember the moon landing in 1969, it’s easy to forget that Russia actually sent the first man into space. While the “Space Race” was an enormous factor in the Cold War between Russia and the U.S.
The museum is unmissable, thanks to its towering titanium pillar, affixed with its own rocket. It celebrates the story of Russian space exploration, from sending Yuri Gagarin into space to developing the sputnik. Visitors will be able to gaze upon the first suits worn in outer space and full sized rockets.
On this private tour, you can learn more about the Cold War and the Space Race that fueled human ambition and lead to incredible feats. Your personal guide will meet at your hotel, where you’ll learn even more about the historic metro on your way to VDNKh. From there, receive valuable insight into the complex before taking a deep dive into Russia’s space exploration.
Shop ‘Til You Drop at GUM
After several days of jumping between cathedrals, parks and palaces, you may be seeking a little retail therapy. If you’re ready to take a break from architectural marvels and embark on some browsing, then make a beeline for GUM. The mall stands for main universal store and is your one stop shop for fashion in Moscow.
You’ll have your choice of over 200 shops, from local boutiques to high-end international brands, meaning you can literally shop ‘til you drop. When you do, you’ll find a great selection of upscale restaurants within the mall, so you don’t have to settle for a regular food court. To save time, head to the Soviet-style canteen for authentic local food.
Bored partners can say goodbye to their loved one and explore the historic mall, which opened in 1893. In keep with the times, it’s starkly different to your typical stale mall with its grand facades and overhanging glass roof that features 20,000 panels.
See the Novodevichy Convent
On the banks of the Moscow River, the Novodevichy Convent is a captivating monastery from the 16th century. Once a prominent fortress, the convent features five domed cathedrals and a marvelous bell tower. Surrounded by historic walls and a series of guard towers, are lush grounds where former leaders once roamed.
Thanks to its preservation (its last major renovation was in the 1600s), it’s easy to step back to those hallowed eras when the Novodevichy Convent was a hub of activity. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors can explore the impressive Smolensky Cathedral, whose interior decor rivals any in Moscow.
In the 1600s, more chapels were added and feature distinct Muscovite Baroque architecture. But joining them all together is the 236-foot (72m) bell tower that was the tallest structure is Moscow upon completion.
Enjoy a Culinary Walking Tour
Russia may be known more for its vodka than food, but no time in Moscow would be complete without exploring the local cuisine. Russian cuisine differs from much of Europe, owing to the diversity of a country that balances the pull of the West and East at the same time.
Modern Russian cuisine is very much an example of what was available to everyday people throughout the eras. As you explore the city, you’ll discover a range of dough-based dishes such as pies, rolls and blini, not to mention plenty of dumplings. Owing to its Orthodox heritage, there is also a great range of vegetarian dishes.
Meat dishes in Russia are a particular treat and this is because it was often prepared during the holidays. These celebratory recipes have been passed down through the generations and now form a part of everyday cuisine.
You can learn all about Russian cuisine as you sample local flavors on a food tasting tour.
Explore an Old Royal Estate at Kolomenskoye
From the 1300s to the Bolshevik Revolution, the Tsars and prominent members of Russian society spent their summers at the Kolomenskoye Estate. Covering 300 hectares, several adorned palaces and a 16th century cathedral, the estate is now an expansive open-air museum.
Just out of downtown Moscow, uncover an abundance of history as you roam the famed grounds with views of the Moscow River. Within Kolomenskoye Estate, there are four significant sites that make up the museum. These include the captivating Palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. Such was the esteem held by the palace that it was seen as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
From the fairytale-like palace, explore the beautiful Church of the Ascension before making your way to Golosov Ovrag, known to be a portal into another dimension. Around the grounds, there are several spacious lawns to later sit back and take in the incredible sights.
Visit the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
A Romantic era playwright, poet and author, Alexander Pushkin, is one of the foremost historical figures in Russia. A man who is also known as the father of the modern Russian language. Despite these storied achievements, he has zero connection to the Museum of Fine Arts that carries his name.
However, all art lovers should make their way to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, which hosts an expansive collection of European art. The museum is broken up into eras, including French Impressionism, the Dutch Golden Age and the Renaissance. Highlights include works by iconic luminaries such as Rembrandt, Botticelli and van Gogh. Along with Cezanne’s “Mardi Gras” and the “Young Acrobat on a Ball”, by the one and only Picasso.
After paying a visit to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, wander across the street and find the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
Join Locals at the Izmailovsky Market
When you think of the Moscow Kremlin, your mind immediately shifts to the landmark within Red Square. However, kremlin simply means fortress. In fact, you’ll visit many kremlins as you explore the city. One that stands out more than most is Izmailovo.
Its fairytale setting looks like something straight out of a Disney film. Here, old Russian architecture collides with modern culture. The colorful buildings may very well be as captivating as any in Moscow. Beneath the resplendent spires and kaleidoscopic roofs is the best market in town.
Many travelers flock to New Arbat Street to pick up souvenirs, including the famed Russian dolls. But the Izmailovsky Market is less of a tourist trap while remaining kinder to your wallet. Within the kremlin is an enormous bazaar teeming with merchants selling high quality Russian dolls. If you’ve wandered down Arbat, you’ll quickly notice the difference. Among the dolls, you’ll discover a wide range of goods, such as traditional costumes, handcrafted chess sets, and plenty of memorabilia. Finish by wandering down the aisle of delectable street food.
Experience the Nightlife
Moscow’s nightlife goes into the early hours of the morning. For those seeking a night out on the town, you’ll have an endless list of bars and clubs to choose from. Patriashiye Prudy is one of the top nightlife hubs in Moscow. Here, you’ll find a row of casual bars and cocktail joints along with some smaller nightclubs, including the popular Clava.
Red October is a huge string of red-brick factories that are now home to some of the best and exclusive nightclubs in the city. One not to be missed is Gypsy, a rooftop club with beautiful nighttime views of Moscow skyline.
Keep in mind that most clubs have strict dress codes. Be sure to tick all the boxes before lining up in the cue.