Imperial palaces and Stalinist skyscrapers, world-class ballets and hedonistic clubs, serene monastries and triumphant iconography... here's how to make the most of Moscow in all its uniqueness
A good place to start any trip to Moscow is Red Square. Here, the spires of the Kremlin churches and St Basil's, together with the gothic GUM department store and the Russian revival-style Historical Museum, make up one of the most spectacular urban views in the world.
Around Red Square are two classic, if overrated, sights. Lenin's mausoleum is the most famous, and you can't visit Moscow and not see it, although it is just a dead guy in a big jelly. The Kremlin complex is one of the most expensive tourist attractions in the world, and if you're on a budget, you're better off saving your money. There are better churches for free in the rest of the city, although the armoury does have some interesting pieces of imperial regalia.
Equally hyped, but very much deservedly so, is the Moscow Metro. You'll find the biggest concentration of the best stations on the circle Line 5, which was built in the 1950s, at the height of Soviet pomp. Jump aboard a train and do a loop, getting off where it looks interesting - trains are only 90 seconds apart. Also make sure you visit Ploshchad Revolytsii on Line 3, which is another beautiful station full of great sculptures of heroic workers, peasants and soldiers. Novodevichiy Cemetery, near Metro Sportivnaya, is another treasure trove of Soviet-era iconography, with Khrushchev and, more recently, Yeltsin being two of the higher profile figures buried here. For me, the highlights were some of the monumental tombstones for people like missile designers or airship crash victims.
Art galleries and literary museums
There are three main art galleries to visit. The Old Tretyakov (Metro Tretyakovskaya) has a detailed collection of old Russian and European paintings, with the monumental Repins a particular highlight. Personally, I found the New Tretyakov (Metro Park Kultura) more interesting for its collection of early 20th-century avant-garde pieces and Soviet-era propaganda art. The Pushkin Museum (Metro Kropotkinskaya) was designed to allow Moscow-based students to see accurate copies of European masterpieces, and not as a museum, and visitors should bear this in mind. While the collection has been improved over the years, particularly with a good ancient Egyptian collection and some good Impressionist paintings, it's not in the top class of European galleries.
Fans of Russian literature can visit the preserved houses of Tolstoy (Metro Park Kultura) and Bulgakov (Metro Mayakovskaya), among others. I mention these two, as they capture the lifestyle of the men very well, with the furniture as it was when they lived there and many of their personal items, such as clothes, on display. Fans of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita should ask at his house museum if walking tours of the sights in the book are being organized during their visit. More architecturally interesting are the house museums to Gorky (Metro Pushkinskaya) and Mayakovsky (Metro Lubyanka), although the lives of the two men are captured less well, as the emphasis is on the properties. A non-literary house museum worth visiting is the Palace of the Romanov Boyars, just off Red Square, for an insight into early modern Russia.
Historical attractions and cultural gems
World War II - or the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call it - was one of the defining moments of Russian history. It is commemorated in many eternal flames and smaller memorials across the city. The focal point of commemoration is Park Poebedy (Metro Park Poebedy) but I found the Red Army Museum (Metro Prospect Mira) much more moving. In its hall of commemoration, the Red Flag raised over the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945 is displayed, surrounded by the scores of captured standards of the defeated German divisions and hundreds of Iron Cross medals ripped off German soldiers. The tattered flag surrounded by these symbolic spoils captures the scale of the achievement and sacrifice so starkly. Another fascinating Russian military sight near Park Poebedy metro station is the Borodino Panorama, a huge (115m by 15m) circular painting of the Battle of Borodino.
Re-asserting itself in Russian culture is the Russian Orthodox Church. The Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer (Metro Kropotkinskaya), rebuilt in the mid-Nineties, is a symbol of the growing assertiveness of the church, but for a more authentic introduction to Russian Orthodoxy, cross over to the south bank of the river and visit the district of Zamoskvoreche (Metro Tretyakovskaya). Walk along Ordynka Street and visit some of the dozen churches you'll easily spot along the road. Here, you'll see pious Muscovites lighting candles at well-loved icons or, if you catch a service, hear the haunting sounds of Russian choral music reverberating around a small church. For a fuller insight into the Russian church, an hour's train journey north from Yaroslavksy station will get you to the town of Sergiev Posad, home to one of the most important monasteries of the Russian church. Beautiful architecture, a genuinely spiritual atmosphere and a few interesting museums make this a very worthwhile half-day trip.
Russia’s fine musical traditions live on, particularly at the Bolshoi Theatre (Metro Teatralnaya; www.bolshoi.ru/en) for opera and ballet and the Conservatory (Metro Biblioteka imeni Lenina; www.mosconsv.ru/english/conservatory/) for classical concerts. Tickets are very cheap ($3-$15 for normal performances) and can be bought at the venues, often with little notice. With the Bolshoi itself closed for repairs for the foreseeable future, larger ballets are held in the State Kremlin Palace (Metro Alekandrovskiy Sad; www.kremlin-gkd.ru/eu/index.htm) inside the Kremlin, a fascinating venue that was originally built to hold Communist Party conferences. Moscow Old Circus is not just for kids - it will bring out the inner child in the most serious of adults.
Those looking for a more lively night out should try the Jazz bar at B2 (www.b2club.info), near Metro Mayakovskaya on Tverskaya Street. At weekends this is also an OK nightclub. Far better clubs are the studenty Bilingua (www.bilinguaclub.ru - ironically enough, a Russian-only website) near metro Turgenevskaya, for good prices, good cocktails and all-night partying with local students. Those looking for a more fashionable clubbing experience should try Propaganda (Metro Kitay Gorod; www.propagandamoscow.com), where newly moneyed young Russians like to splash the cash. Presentable-looking foreigners can sometimes skip the queues - try to draw attention to yourself in a way that won’t be taken for arrogance.
Where to stay
Good mid-range hotels are hard to find in Moscow but they are out there. Many people recommend Godzilla's Hostel. It's a 20-minute walk from Red Square in a lively, safe area, and has private doubles for $60 and dorm beds starting at $18. This is a hostel rather than a hotel, meaning it's a sociable place to meet other travellers but isn't the best for a quiet night's sleep - good for lone travellers or those looking to really get into Moscow's club scene.
A good option for those looking for a more traditional hotel is the Artel Artistic Hostel, which is really a hotel. Private rooms start at $75, rising to $100 for ensuite. The hotel has an excellent location, right in the centre of Moscow and good for the main theatres. The highlight is the bar, which is full of contemporary Russian art and attracts a bohemian crowd. There are concerts in the bar several nights a week, but don't worry: they finish at about 11 every night, so you can still get a decent night's sleep.