Moscow is the largest city in Europe (technically behind Istanbul) and has its own dignified 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 Moscow has to offer.
One way to explore Moscow that you could consider is using a Moscow City Pass. I have mentioned City Pass in some cities because it saves money, and you could skip long queues for popular museums and attractions. City Passes always grant free access to a number of places in the city, including transportation and sightseeing tours.
Moscow City Pass offers to skip the line, free access to 40 attractions in Moscow, one hop-on hop-off bus tour, and half-day sightseeing tours within the effective period. More, it comes with a 24-hour data sim card, and a discount on entertainment shows, bike and car rental.
Prices: 1-day pass (US$65), 2-day pass (US$100), 3-day pass (US$120), 5-day pass (US$180)
Where to buy it? The Pass is available to pre-order online. The actual pass will be sent to users by mail, or available to pick up in a number of service centers in the city. They can also be bought at the airport, hotel, and ticketing office of many attractions.
Major Attractions include the Moscow Kremlin, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Patriotic War of 1812, State Historical Museum, and so many more.
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 – and it should be the first thing you do before activating your City Pass. 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 10:30 am and it is required to make a booking. The professional and friendly tour guide first gave the group a brief introduction to Moscow’s history, culture, sights, stories, and curious oddities. Then we started walking toward the Red Square along 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 postcards 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 an afternoon exploring Red Square, walk along 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!
Moscow City Pass Option: Take a quick spin in the museums in Red Square of your choice: the State Historical Museum, Museum of Patriotic War of 1812, and Underground Museum in the park “Zaryadye”. Then simply take a ride in one of the two routes of the hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus to have another overview of all the main locations in Moscow. The sightseeing bus operates from 12 pm to 8 pm daily.
At night, visit the Hotel Ukraina observation deck
of the Radisson Royal Hotel (formerly known as the hotel in Ukraine in the 1950s). It was once the second tallest building in Moscow, but still, now it’s located in a prime location in the city, that its 33-floor observatory offers visitors a panoramic view of the river, downtown, and Moscow TV Tower all year round.
Day 2: Explore the Many Orthodox Churches in Kremlin, and Catch a Circus Show!
We stayed in an apartment near Belorusskaya, a train station that 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 the 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 in 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
Moscow City Pass Option: Not a fan of the circus or you cannot get a ticket? There are still places that you may bring your children to enjoy an afternoon (or even yourself). VDNH (All-Russian Exhibition Center) is an exhibition center that a wide range of themed display, from the largest aquarium in Europe – the Mosquarium, the largest scientific and technical museum in Russia – Museum of Cosmonautics, and the largest multimedia museum in Europe – Historical Park “Russia – my history”.
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. Those who were happy with the Moscow Free Tour might also sign up for other 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 4 pm. 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.
Moscow City Pass Option: To dive into the world of the Cold War, visit Restaurant Bunker 42, 65 meters deep underground. Sign up for a guided tour to learn more about what happened in the 1950s.
Sparrow Hill is the highest point in Moscow, and the easiest way to go there is hopping on the Moscow cable car (recently opened in 2018, linking Luzhniki and Sparrow Hills).
Day 4: Admire the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and Dine with the Writers
On 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.
Moscow City Pass Option: In fact, many tourists love taking a 3-hour boat tour from the Radisson Royal Flotilla. The tour operates even in winter, breaking the ice.
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 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 to 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
Moscow City Pass Option: Good news~ Visitors with a City Pass can enjoy one of the two exhibitions in the Puskin State Museum of Fine Arts for free. One exhibition features in the main building and the art gallery on the other side showcases art pieces from the 19th to 20th centuries.
At night, if you want to view the city even at an even higher level, go to Federation-East Tower’s PANORAMA360 Organic restaurant and observatory deck on the 89-floor. The City Pass offers free access to the deck and 10% off for sampling some European and Mediterranean cuisine with organic ingredients at the restaurant.