While many travellers would steer clear of Moscow in the depths of winter, those that brave the Russian capital in December, January or February get a unique insight into the lives of Muscovites. However, any time is a good time to visit this extraordinary destination, and Nannette Holliday checks in with suggestions for ten top things to do...
Moscow’s winters are extremely cold, but even with lashings of ice and snow across the city, it doesn’t hibernate.
Workers keep the roads and footpaths clear so that locals and visitors can get around. Christmas is celebrated in January, and during February the ’farewell to winter’ festival — Maslenitsa — is held around Red Square. At this time the city is decorated with a multitude of sparkling lights in parks and on buildings.
For many visitors, Moscow is a complete surprise whatever the season. A quarter of a century on since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city has changed almost beyond recognition. Today it’s one of the largest cultural centres in Europe; a modern metropolis with a wide variety of hotel and Airbnb accommodation at competitive and very reasonable prices. You’ll find pedestrian zones, vast shopping centres, a wide choice of restaurants and cafes, jazz clubs and avant-garde theatres. Best of all there’s superfast Wi-Fi everywhere — in homes, hotels, cafes, buses, and even below-ground in the metro.
Straddling the Moskva River, Russia’s vibrant and cosmopolitan capital of 12 million people is a truly fascinating destination. Here are ten top things to do in Moscow.
Moscow is the seat of Russia’s government, and its historic core is the Kremlin — the official home of the president. Located in the heart of the city, and surrounded by brick walls painted red (they were originally white), you can wander around the grounds and sit in Taynitsky Garden to soak up the historical atmosphere. Visit Cathedral Square and the three historic cathedrals used by the Tsars and their families, and see the Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon — two monuments to the grandeur of Russia’s past. Both are the largest and heaviest of their kind in the world. Interestingly, the bell has never been rung, and the cannon has never been fired.
Not to be missed while inside the Kremlin’s walls are the Tsarist treasures in the Armoury Chamber — an exquisite collection of costumes, headpieces, thrones, coaches, gifts, goblets and more. The adjacent heavily guarded Diamond Fund exhibition showcases Russia’s finest examples of jewellery and precious stones, from the elegant brooches of empresses to a map of the country made entirely of diamonds. An audio guide for each museum provides the backstory. A walking tour of the Kremlin with a local guide is a good way to go.
2. Walk Red Square
Once you’re back outside the Kremlin’s walls, take a stroll through Alexander Gardens and glean more history from the various monuments. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Eternal Flame are located at the main gate, and a changing of the guard ceremony takes place here every hour.
Around the corner is vast Red Square — Old Russia’s symbolic centre. It’s not red (but was so named because red meant beautiful in Old Russian), but it is a buzzing hub of social activity and regularly hosts markets, festivals and celebrations. During winter there’s an ice-skating rink and a Christmas market in the centre. Beneath the red Kremlin wall you’ll find Lenin’s Mausoleum — home to the preserved body of Vladimir Lenin — Russia’s first socialist leader. The State Historical Museum and iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral (known for its rainbow of glistening onion-shaped domes) are at opposite ends of the square.
Built by Vladimir Shukhov, GUM department store stands on Red Square opposite the Kremlin and is an architectural wonder inside and out. It has been the country’s main department store since 1893, and boasts chic designer boutiques, charming cafes and the most lavish Christmas decorations in the city. At night the building’s facade is illuminated by thousands of sparkling lights.
3. Go to the theatre
The Bolshoi Theatre is a worldwide cultural phenomenon, renowned for its outstanding ballet and opera. The famous neoclassical theatre dominates Moscow’s Theatre Square — also home to Maly Theatre, Russian Academic Youth Theatre, the Bolshoi New Stage and the New Bolshoi Beethoven Hall. Tickets for performances are not cheap and sell out months in advance, so plan well ahead if seeing the Bolshoi Ballet is on your bucket list. Tours of the Bolshoi Theatre (which has been ravaged by fire three times) occur in English on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and cost just 1300 rubles. Check out the emperor’s private box with its dense red velvet soft furnishings and gold decorations.
Directly opposite the Bolshoi Theatre is the Metropol Hotel. It featured in the film version of Boris Pasternak’s classic novel Dr Zhivago. Enjoy the pianist at the grand piano while relaxing with a classical Russian high tea (which rivals the British version!).
4. Ride the Moscow Metro
The Moscow Metro has been the main means of transport within the capital since 1935. It’s cheap, fast, easy to navigate, and an underground museum to boot. It’s one of the world’s deepest metros with 196 stations, 133 of which have long, steep escalators (44 are recognised as objects of cultural heritage).
The stations provide a compelling, and somewhat surprising insight into the history of socialism in Russia, with intricate mosaics, gleaming chandeliers, marble statues and illustrations from Dostoevsky’s novels adorning the interiors. The Moscow Central Circle route is the most notable. These stations were built during Joseph Stalin’s reign. Purchase a one-transit ticket for 55 rubles, and you can spend hours checking out the stations by just getting off, taking photos and getting back on the next train. They arrive every three to five minutes.
Another cheap and easy way to travel between the city’s key sights is on the double-decker hop on hop off buses. Choose a 24 or 48 hour pass. Commentary is available in eight languages via headphones. There are two routes, with 17 stops on the red route and 27 stops on the green route (which travels further afield). Your ticket also provides discounted entry at many attractions.
6. Be a culture vulture
Culture lovers can get their fix at the Tretyakov Gallery — home to the works of famous Russian masters, and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts — with its vast collection of masterpieces by foreign-born artists. They are drawn from three private collections: Shchukin’s and Morozov’s collections of modern art (including fantastic pieces by Monet, Gaugin, Van Gogh, and Matisse), and Ivan Tsevtaev’s collection of moulds from Greek and Roman sculpture. The impressive building has grand columns and a classically styled facade designed to complement the different epochs of the art it houses.
It’s hard to believe that the nearby Cathedral of Christ the Saviour — the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world — is new. It was originally constructed in 1883 but destroyed in 1931 for the gold on its roof and to make way for Stalin’s proposed Palace of the Soviets (never built). The site became a giant outdoor swimming pool until the fall of the Union. The cathedral was rebuilt in 2000. The highlight of a visit is the panoramic view from the 40 metre-high observation platform.
7. Relax with the locals in Gorky Park
Built in 1928 on a garbage dump alongside the Moskva River, Gorky Park was made famous by the book and Hollywood film of the same name. The park is divided into two sections. One hosts a range of family activities, including a fun fair, tennis courts, a skating rink, boat hire, horse rides and a beach area in summer. The remainder consists of formal gardens, woodlands and historic residences. You’ll also find art stalls here, which is a chance to buy a more creative souvenir than those found on Old Arbat Street (the tourist-oriented pedestrian thoroughfare).
8. Enjoy a drink at a rooftop bar
Head for one of the city’s many rooftop bars and enjoy drinks with a view. It’s a tad expensive, but the O2 Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton hotel overlooks the Kremlin and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Bosco Café at GUM has the only terrace on Red Square, while the old Red October chocolate factory houses the Strelka Institute and a selection of cool bars and clubs.
9. Try traditional Russian cuisine
Tuck into delicious, hearty, mouth-watering Russian and French cuisine at Café Pushkin. Situated in a building that has been renovated to look exactly like an 1825 Russian aristocrat’s home, the service is surpassed only by the standard of the fare. Try a range of traditional Russian recipes at LavkaLavka or browse the fruit, vegetables, fish, meats, cheeses and tasty pastries on offer at the Danilovsky Market.
10. Take a river cruise
Whether it’s summer or winter, farewell Moscow on a river cruise through the city. Flotilla Radisson Royal operates ice-breaking yachts with a full restaurant service on board. The 2.5 hour cruise provides a different perspective of Moscow as it comes to life at dusk. On one side of the boat you’ll see the Kremlin, the cathedrals and other significant architectural monuments; on the other, the magnificent Seven Sisters Stalinist skyscrapers, and modern edifices like the twisted Evolution Tower.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Moscow? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Nannette Holliday was obviously born to travel — Holliday is her real name. A former TV and radio presenter, Nannette’s globetrotting has earned her the nickname ‘International Woman of Mystery’ amongst friends, while also providing a rich library of experiences to draw on creatively. Many are woven into her first novel: The Sting of Fate, and Nannette is currently working on the sequel. When she’s not drafting chapters for herself, Nannette writes for a variety of magazines, and even ghostwrites books for other people. It all helps keep her in the manner she has become accustomed to — indulging in world travel, fine food and great wine!