Moscow embodies centuries of history and culture with a uniquely rich atmosphere. Here’s my travel guide for a slow weekend in the city.
There are cities that boast ancient civilizations and monuments thousands of years older than Moscow. But nowhere have I felt such a palpable weight of history than in the Russian capital. In this grand old city, the past has a strange way of smacking into you.
Moscow’s incredible metro stations
It’s there when you enter one of Moscow’s 196 metro stations to find a mosaic of Vladimir Lenin, who’s considered a hero despite his iron rule. History is there when you look up at the ceiling inside the Mayakovskaya station and see mosaics by Alexander Deyneka depicting the “Soviet Sky.” Other stations are underground palaces with chandeliers, marble walls and stained glass. Despite the grim-faced commuters, you feel more like waltzing than waiting for a train.
The city’s metro line is the first place I feel Moscow’s great history. But it’s not the last.
I’m at the heart of a centuries-old empire home to the legendary artists, ballet dancers and authors I’ve adored since my teens. And although many of Dostoyevsky’s famous novels are set in St. Petersburg, there’s a monument to him in Moscow at the state library. The author looks thin and anxious as his bronze gaze is illuminated by a neon blue Samsung ad.
Moscow’s modern history
“That’s Bolotnaya Square,” my friend says that evening in our speeding taxi as we pass a vast space lit up by street lamps where thousands of Russians gathered during the 2011 demonstrations. The protests were a rare show of defiance in a country known for its apathy and its love for the president.
Later at the gate of an unassuming flat, next to a brightly-lit pharmacy, we lay a red rose for Anna Politkovskaya. The journalist was known for her opposition to Putin and to the Second Chechen War, and was found dead in her building on the president’s birthday.
In Moscow, grandiose monuments — or terrifying ones, depending on who you ask — rise up from under gentle-slopping hills and sneak up on you at the ends of suburban streets. The first time I see the Kremlin is late at night walking past rows of apartment buildings. Suddenly the Spasskaya Tower, on the Kremlin’s eastern wall, comes into focus with its vibrant red bricks and red star.
The Red Square
A childlike delight overtakes me when I first see the Red Square, as it often does at iconic sights that have been only familiar to me from books. In Moscow the postcard views appear even grander in real life.
The next day, I explore the vast Red Square in detail starting with its show-stopping Saint Basil’s Cathedral and the candy-colored domes that remind me of childhood fairy tales. In reality, standing on the cobblestones in the square’s cold winter air, the cathedral plays tricks on the eyes. The clouds part for a moment and the scene is thrown into sunshine with its bright swirls.
Built on the orders of Ivan the Terrible starting in 1555, the cathedral is now a museum that friends say isn’t really worth visiting. So I take a slow walk around the cathedral instead to wonder at the details making up such a stupendous whole.
Asymmetrical in design, the cathedral consists of eight side churches around its core. “It is like no other Russian building,” writes Dmitry Shvidkovsky in Russian Architecture and the West, calling it strange and astonishing. “Nothing similar can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition.”
Going forward into the center of the square, the point of origin of Moscow’s major streets, I can either: visit Lenin’s Mausoleum and see the embalmed body of the man who led the Russian Revolution, or shop at the massive GUM department store.
The former sounds too macabre, and it’s closed anyways, so I opt for shopping. GUM, reopened as a department store in 1953, was a rare shop in the Soviet Union that didn’t experience shortages during that regime and would often see lines of eager shoppers extend across the square. Today it’s full of high-end shops that stretch out underneath a glass ceiling.
Kazan Cathedral is a picturesque Russian Orthodox church at the other end of the square, so pretty that I photograph it until my battery dies.
What’s seen today is a reconstruction of the original. In 1936, Stalin ordered the entire Red Square to be cleared of churches ahead of a military parade. The famous onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral was saved from the destruction, but the delicate Kazan Cathedral was demolished only to be rebuilt in 1990-93. Nearby, you can get your photo taken with a Lenin impersonator sporting the leader’s characteristic mustache and beret.
Leaving the Red Square, I make my way toward the Kremlin. This grand, fortified complex includes five palaces and four cathedrals, enclosed by a wall with towers.
The official residence of the country’s president, the Kremlin has served throughout its history as the seat of grand dukes, tsars and Soviet leaders who replaced the towers’ golden eagles with red stars. Today it’s home to the Armoury Chamber, a vast collection of Russian state regalia worn during coronations and 8,000 items in the arms and armor collection.
I start with a tour of several cathedrals. They’re stunning on a winter day as the sun radiates off their golden domes. My favorite is the Cathedral of the Dormition, a Russian Orthodox church almost minimalist in its simplicity. And yet, from 1547 to 1896, Russian monarchs were crowned here. And the small cathedral is regarded as the mother church of Muscovite Russia. Inside the walls are rich with fresco paintings in reds, blues and golds on every available surface.
I have a hurried meal with friends that night. I love the rich and filling cuisine. It’s a perfect example of comfort food that includes plenty of potatoes, sauces and fresh dill. I’d highly recommend borscht, a hearty soup made with beetroot that’s of Ukrainian origin.
For most of the year, Russians are more concerned with warming up than with cooling down. They drink plenty of tea throughout the day. In some tea houses you can drink the beverage served from samovars. The metal containers used to boil water are symbolic of Russian hospitality.
At the Bolshoi Ballet
I end my day at the nearby Bolshoi Theatre, another Russian legend and venue for one of the world’s most famous ballet companies.
While the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg is famed for its lyrical style, the Bolshoi dancers are known for their acrobatic and showy bravura. The company was founded in 1776 and is one of the world’s oldest. It rose to international renown under Yuri Grigorovich, who staged ballets like Swan Lake changed to include a happy ending.
The Bolshoi has for centuries served as a meeting point for thousands of Russians. It’s been a backdrop for countless stories, legends and intrigues.
Once a symbol of imperial royalty or ground for Soviet modernism, the theatre is like many buildings in Moscow. It carries the city’s long history underneath its layers.