Moscow is the largest city in Europe (technically behind Istanbul) and has its own unique tradition, history, and culture. Due to Russia’s different political system and conflicts with the western world, Moscow remained a strange place and off the travel radar for decades.
I visited Moscow and Saint Petersburg in the month of April and it was still freezing cold. I could still remember the coldness of the strong wind blowing on my face; yet, I also remembered the taste of Russian cuisine, the beauty of onion domes, and the niceness of local people. There is quite a lot to see and do in Moscow city alone and the following is a 4-day classic to experience the best of Moscow has to offer.
Day 1: Join Moscow Free Tour, and Then Take a Closer Look of Red Square
The Moscow Free Tour is a great way to kick start your visit to Moscow. It’s been in operation for a long time, and I heard it’s getting popular among tourists. The tour is free, and it covers the center of Moscow – mainly the famous landmarks and sights around Red Square.
The tour starts every day at 10:30am and it is required to make a booking. The professional and friendly tour guide first gave the group a brief introduction about Moscow’s history, culture, sights, stories, and curious oddities. Then we started walking toward the Red Square along the Varvarka Street and we were introduced to a lot of famous buildings, landmarks, and monuments including GUM, Lenin’s Mausoleum, State Historical Museum, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and Moscow Kremlin.
The tour takes only 2 hours and we didn’t get to be guided into the buildings. Yet it gave us background information about what we were about to see. The tour ended outside GUM where we were introduced to have a taste of some very cheap and authentic local dishes in a restaurant – to find out which restaurant, how to book the free tour, and some tips and afterthoughts for traveling in Moscow, check out: We are here! Moscow!
After the free tour and lunch, take a closer look at the attractions around Red Square. Walk around in GUM, visit the State Historical Museum, take pictures of the Kazan Cathedral and Senate Palace, and mail postcard in the nearby post office. Of course, St. Basil’s Cathedral is the centerpiece of Red Square and no one would miss it. Unlike many other spectacular cathedrals that have a giant hall for a large assembly, St. Basil’s is cozy and intimate. Now, the former cathedral served only as a museum that showcases exquisite artwork and fresco, with multicolored domes that are featured in almost every defining shot of Russia.
The paintings and rooms in the cathedral are so impressive and it might take about 2-3 hours to complete. After spending as afternoon exploring Red Square, walk along the Nikolskaya Street – many souvenir shops and cafes are lined up along the streets, where you might get unique souvenirs or local products for your family and friends at home! Some of the most common gifts are Matryoshka dolls and traditional handicrafts. To me, I got some caviar and candies in supermarkets as they were sold at a very low price, and they taste great with biscuits and bread!
Day 2: Explore the Many Orthodox Churches in Kremlin, and Catch a Circus Show!
We stayed in an apartment near Belorusskaya, a train station intersects with the subway station that connects to Tverskaya Street, the main radial street in Moscow that leads to the Red Square. The State Historical Museum was the first thing we saw and the entrance of the Kremlin is on the right of the museum.
The Kremlin, in general, means “fortress inside a city”. For over five hundred years it has been the executive office (like White House in the US) of the Russian government and also a major tourist attraction. The fortress covers 0.277 square kilometers and consists of a number of historical buildings and landmarks inside the Kremlin walls and towers from State Kremlin Palace, Spasskaya Tower, Dormition Cathedral, Church of the Twelve Apostles, and Church of the Deposition of the Virgin’s Rob. Don’t miss the Kremlin Armoury – one of the oldest museums of Moscow, established in 1851, and take a walk in the Alexander Garden. There are a lot of monuments and sculptures of important figures that are on display in the garden. Check out: Moscow! Onion Domes!
We visited the Novodevichy Convent afterward. The religious complex was built in the 16th century and the exhibition rooms showcase valuable artworks and artifacts. The combination of buildings includes the Cathedral of Our Lady of Smolensk, Octagonal bell tower, and almshouses. Don’t miss its cloisters and it remained virtually intact since the 17th century!
We headed further south that day and took a walk at Moscow University. There was a small market outside the Universitet Station and the popular Bolshoi Circus is on the opposite side of the University. Your first-time visit to Moscow won’t be complete without catching a circus show! The Great Moscow State Circus opened since 1971 and it has a capacity of 3,400 audiences with 2 shows daily, in the afternoon and evening. The circus building has 5 arenas (equestrian, water, illusionist, ice rick, and light-effect); the arenas could be swapped during the performance and their shows change theme periodically, keeping it fresh to the audience. To find out more about the show I watched and how to buy a ticket, check out: The Circus! Razzle Dazzle ’em
Day 3: Travel in Moscow Metro and Learn about the City’s Communist Past
Another must-see in Moscow is the historical metro system that is one of the oldest in Europe and still effectively transporting passengers around the city every day all over Moscow. It was said, “They used to have a palace for kings, we are going to build palaces for the people!” – that’s true. Many of the stations in Moscow are beautifully decorated and the entire network is a living art museum. To those who were happy with the Moscow Free Tour might also sign up for another guided tours: the Metro Tour and the Communist Moscow. The tours require a fee and also takes about two hours. The metro tours cover some popular network highlights, like Revolution Square’s magnificent sculptures of the Soviet People, Kurskaya Station’s Hall of Fame of the World War II in the hall, Komsomolskaya’s impressive mural mosaics of Russian glorious victories, and Novoslobodskaya’s stained glass; however, there are so many more stations worth visiting. With a little research, it may be fun to ride along with the metro and explore these stations on your own. For my list of stations, check out Discovering Moscow’s Most Beautiful Subway Stations for the list of stations, and more tips, “what to see” and history about these stations.
If you still have time after the metro ride, learn about the city’s Communist pat by joining the Communist Moscow tour at 4pm. The tour covers some lesser-known attractions around the city and it might help to have a guide to share some interesting stories and historical facts about these places. Visit the Ex-KGB headquarters on Lubyanka, Solovetsky Stone, Bolshoi Theatre, Gulag Museum, Tverskaya Street, Eliseevsky Gastronum (the most important grocery store of USSR), and Stary Arab Street.
Day 4: Admire the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and Dine with the Writers
For the last day of our visit, we headed to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It is actually another important cathedral in Moscow and it looks very different from St. Basil’s. The cathedral is a spectacular architecture that stands in front of the Patriarchy Bridge, where you could have a great view of the Kremlin on the Moskva River.
Unlike St Basil’s, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is painted in white, adorned with impressive onion domes and sculptures inside and out. The cathedral is actually quite new, completed in 2000, and it’s an important site of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is nearby. It is the largest museum of European art in Moscow. The museum features an impressive collection of paintings and sculptures donated by private collectors like André Derain, Sergei Tretyakov, Dmitry Schukin, Henri Brocard; there are also pieces of work provided by the State Hermitage, if you are interested to know more about the rooms and art in the State Hermitage, check out: Rooms. State Hermitage.
To complete and “celebrate” our trip to Moscow, we went to C.D.L. for dinner at night. The restaurant has a special place in the city because of its historic value and importance.
C.D.L. means “Central House of Writers”. It was built in the year of 1887 by the order of Prince Boris Svyatopolk-Chetvertinsky. Many important figures have visited this place, including former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, yet the restaurant actually welcomes all walks of life and they provide traditional and elegant Russian cuisine with good value. I always remember that we were offered their self brew nut wine – it was the first time that I tried nut wine and it was a perfect ending of our last night in Moscow. If you are interested to know more about the restaurant and the food, check out: C.D.L. – Dine with the Writers