Moscow travel guide
Metro Aleksandrovsky Sad
One of Moscow's first public parks, this thin strip of slightly wooded greenery stretches for half a mile along the Moscow Kremlin's western wall. Near the entrance is an eternal flame and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (from World War Two). An honour guard that used to stand outside the Lenin Mausoleum was moved here and is changed every hour. They march past a dozen red, porphyry blocks, each inscribed with the name of a Russian city. Inside the blocks is earth from the World War Two battle that took place at each of the named cities. It's all a solemn reminder of the gargantuan sacrifice - 27 million deaths - made by the people of this country to win the War. A wander further on through the gardens makes a pleasant retreat from busy central Moscow where you can admire the Kremlin wall towers or simply sit down on the grass and enjoy a hot dog from one of the vendors.
Metro Arbaatskaya, metro Smolenskaya
Having been around at least since the 15th Century, The Arbat is one of Moscow's oldest streets and probably its most famous. Until the mid-twentieth century it formed part of the road leading from the Kremlin westwards to Smolensk, Belarus and Poland. At first it was populated mainly by craftsmen, later it became a trendy place of residence for the nobility and later still it became known as an artists' district and the birthplace of the Russian intelligentsia. In the 1960s, however, parallel-running New Arbat was built. These days "Old Arbat" is a pedestrian street populated by caricaturists, street performers and souvenir sellers while retaining a large number of pretty, historical buildings. Next door New Arbat is lined by restaurants, bars, shopping centres and, until they were banned in 2009, a lot of casinos.
Known to locals as Bolotny Island, this strip of land sandwiched between the Moscow River and the Vodootvodny Canal is named after Balchug Street. In existence since the end of the 14th Century, it is one of the oldest streets outside the Kremlin. The island is dotted with historical buildings including a 17th-century estate, pre-Soviet mansions and Moscow's first electrical power plant. Perhaps the best symbols of the island are those pictured in the photo above - the Peter the Great Statue and the Krasny Oktyabr Chocolate Factory belonging to one of Russia's oldest confectioners. Several bridges link the island to the mainland, including the one between the chocolate factory and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which offers spectacular views of the Cathedral itself and, across the water, to the Kremlin. This whole district has long been at the very heart of Moscow. In 2011 and 2012 the island's Bolotnaya Square was the place chosen by tens of thousands of protesters to voice their anger at allegedly rigged elections.
Cathedral of Christ the Savious
The Cathedral of Christ the Savious, the tallest Orthodox church in the world, towers majestically above the Moscow River embankment and is one of the city's most memorable sights. Inside it is even more impressive, the decor reaching almost outlandish levels of grandeur and opulence. This is in strong contrast to the piousness of those who come here to worship, humble crossing themselves before pictures of saints, kissing icons and even prostrating themselves. The cathedral was built over almost fifty years in the Ninteenth Century but after Lenin's Death Stalin had it blown up and planned to build the 350 metre tall Palace of the Soviets in its place, complete with a 100 metre tall Lenin statue. They never got beyond digging the foundation hole, however, which kept flooding. After Stalin's death Krushchev decided to simply convert it into the world's largest open air swimming pool. It served this purpose until in 1990 the Church was allowed to build a very accurate reconstruction of the original Cathedral on the site.
Partizanskaya metro station, Moscow
This big market is a wonderful mix of souvenirs, antiques, old Soviet knickknacks, fur hats and anything in between. It is wonderfully diverse and the non-tourist section still has an adorable Soviet-feel to it with old babushkas offering random selections of things you would not think sellable. The top floor is occupied by genuine antique vendors with things that probably need export permission. The prices are fairly fixed and the vendors are mostly friendly, though the military stalls can collect quite some characters. Inspect the goods carefully and don't take any sales pitch about quality, origin and age too seriously. Come during the weekend when more vendors come in.
Lubyanka Square, Moscow
When Russia was the Soviet Union, the grand building at Lunyanka square served as the headquarters for the feared secret police KGB. The chiefs sat on the third floor while the prison was on the ground floor, where captured foreign spies and other unlucky people were interrogated and tortured. Today, the building houses the headquarters for the FSB (Federal Security Service) and is as unwelcoming as in the old days. There is a KGB museum somewhere in the back, but it is apparently only open for tour groups with the right connections.
Red Square, Moscow
Lenin died in 1924 and was embalmed, against his own wishes, as the fashion of the Soviet time dictated. His preserved body was then put on display for the public in a hastily built mausoleum right on the Red Square. The mausoleum was later upgraded to the granite and marble version you see today. When Stalin died in 1953, his body got the same treatment and joined Lenin in the mausoleum, but only shortly, for in 1961 he was removed and buried along the Kremlin Wall where other important men of Russia are buried. There are now talks about giving Lenin the burial he wanted, so hurry up if you want to have a look at the pickled Lenin.
As the traditional seat of power in a country that until recently spanned 11 time zones, the Moscow Kremlin is appropriately impressive. The towers and turrets of its twenty five metre tall red walls overlook the Red Square, the Moscow River and Alexander Garden on the outside while housing four palaces and four cathedrals on the inside. Though often referred to simply as "The Kremlin" this is in fact incorrect, as dozens of Russian towns had kremlins, many surviving intact to this day. The word originally meant the wooden fortress at the heart of a Russian town and Moscow's Kremlin is first mentioned as such in 12th-century chronicles. In the 14th Century wood was replaced by whitewashed stone and at the end of the 15th Century today's distinctive red brick walls were put up. Entrance to the Kremlin is paid and you can wander around from building to building on your own or take guided tours.
Besides being (maybe) the most heavily used subway system in the world (competing with Tokyo's), the metro of Moscow is also home to extravagant decorated stations, built more like palaces than transport hubs. Some of the most elaborated stations boast marble columns, bronze statues, mosaics or stained-glass pieces while ceilings can be ornamented or even lit up by large chandeliers. The end walls are usually fine examples of Socialist art that celebrate the Communist past. Enjoy these masterpieces while getting around in Moscow, or make them a destination in themselves.
Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery
The Novodevichy Convent is a wonderfully calm oasis or greenery, its paths winding between sweet-smelling flower beds and beautiful 16th-century architecture that can almost make you forget about the frantic pace of life that holds sway in the surrounding city. The convent has been the object of several historical battles, has featured in famous scenes from Russian literature and was a favourite place for the royal family or nobility to banish wives they got bored of or sisters who got too big for their boots. Just down the road from the convent is the Novodevichy Cemetery, the most prestigious place to be buried in Moscow. Many of its 27,000 graves belong to important figures from Soviet and pre-Soviet history, ranging from Yeltsin and Khrushchev to Gogol and Chekhov.