Moscow, a city which brings up images of Soviet power, fur coats, Vladimir Putin and the good old 1950’s Space Race. Moscow had been high on our hit list for many years though after falling in love with little sister Saint Petersburg during our stay there we weren’t sure what we were in for. We’d heard the rumours of Moscow’s bustling unfriendliness in comparison, and she sure didn’t disappoint.
Let’s put it this way. If Saint Petersburg were your beautiful, alternative and sexy friend then Moscow would be her frumpy, unattractive and slightly bitter older sister. People are meaner, smile less, push you out of the way, steal your shit, get angry in dorm rooms and creepy man-baby paintings in churches everywhere.
Arriving on the morning train from Veliky Novgorod at 05:15 we easily navigated the metro exiting at Biblioteka metro station and were met with our first views of the ever impressive red walls of Moscow’s Kremlin. Our hostel, Volhonka, was situated a stones throw away and we’re swiftly checked in and shown to our dorm beds where we proceed to crash out for a few hours. Awaking at 10am we’re soon feeling that first inkling that we’re not in St Petes anymore when an older Russian man, a ‘long termer’, in our dorm jumps out of bed to abuse us loudly in Russian for accidentally making noise when the locker draw beneath our bed broke.
Moscow – Strike 1
Unable to find any information on the location of a Tourist Information office (other than that there isn’t one) we set to transferring our Googlemap pins to Maps.Me so we could use our smartphone to find our way around what we wanted to see. First up, as it was right on our doorstep, was the Kremlin. Unlucky for us it was the day before Russian Orthodox Christmas Day and the streets were packed with holidaying Russians. Luckily most of them wanted to pay cash for their entrance tickets so we skipped the long queues by using the credit card machines. Next up was the baggage check (you’re not allowed to take backpacks into the complex) and after navigating the metal crowd control barricades erected everywhere we’re soon making our way up the rampart and through the Trinity Tower gate.
The sun was shining yet the air was freezing and we spent our time hoping from external sights, such as the Tsar Bell (the largest in the world weighing over 200,000kg), the Tsar Cannon (which is pretty but was never actually used in war) and the church exteriors topped with their dazzling gold crosses, to the warmer church interiors. Each church is filled with frescoes, artifacts and it’s own little piece of history.
While the Kremlin map gives a brief overview of the dates and uses of each church, individual flyers (in English and other common languages) containing maps of the interior, renderings of the exterior and plenty of information on the paintings, history and artifacts contained within is available at each church entrance. You’ll find the burial place of Ivan the Terrible (you can read some of his apparent escapades here) inside the brightly painted Necropolis of the Archangel Cathedral, and don’t miss the painted pillars inside the Dormition Cathedral. Keep your eyes peeled for the typical Russian style paintings of the Virgin Mary holding what looks to us like a very creepy man-baby. Unfortunately photos aren’t allowed inside or we’d show you some great man-baby painting weirdism.
With the Christmas crowds we skipped the Armoury (where you can view the crown jewels for an additional RUB700 fee) and headed around the corner intending to visit Red Square. Again we were thwarted by Christmas crowds. Every entrance was blocked by metal detectors and swarms of police, obviously taking the recent increase in terrorism threats seriously. The decision between waiting in the freezing cold crowd or heading inside to check out the nearby GUM mall was an easy one.
Covered in fairy lights it’s easy from the outside to call the GUM Moscow’s Harrods. Once you’re inside it’s just as easy with brand names such as Burberry, Calvin Klein and Louis Vuitton taking up residence here. Still the curved glass ceilings are a must see and with the Christmas crowds and decorations galore there was a buzzing atmosphere. On the 3rd floor you’ll also find Canteen No.57, a Soviet kitchen style restaurant with reasonable prices and English labels. Just outside the mall Voskresenkiye Vorota was filled with arches of Christmas lights, confirming the fact that the Soviets know how to use lighting to great effect.
Thinking we’d finally managed to locate a Tourist Info desk we stepped inside the State Historical Museum and saw a desk with a large sign above it announcing Information for Tourists, win! Or not. Turns out when we dared to ask for some information, as we were tourists, she looked at us like we’d asked if we could spit in her face, waved us away angrily and proceeded to pretend we were no longer there. Fed up and with night setting in we called it an early night.
Moscow – Strike 2
The following day the streets were deserted. The crowds of Christmas Day had disappeared and Red Square, filled with more Christmas Markets, was ours to explore. Taking in the impressive State Historical Museum, Kazan Cathedral and colourful iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral we soaked up the moment standing in one of the world’s most famous squares. Sure you’ve seen the picture but it’s no until you stand beneath St Basil’s colour clashing domes that you realise just how much it looks like it’s made out of plastic and lego. With Lenin’s Mausoleum closed for the day we vowed to return tomorrow and hit the metro to explore further afield.
Making our way up to VDNKh metro station we exit to the impressive 110m high rocket topped titanium Monument to the Conquerors of Space. Beneath the monument you’ll find the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics which just so happened to be free today (otherwise RUB250). This place could be a 5 out of 5 if only there were more English captions and explanations to a lot of the displays. Still it’s interesting enough to spend a few hours wandering around. You can see the first two dogs in space, Belka and Strelka, now stuffed and on display, as well as a space capsule used by Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, and a sample of moon dirt brought back by the Apollo 11 crew.
VDNKh stands for ‘Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy‘ and is a vast area of parks and exhibition spaces. It’s teeming with Christmas Day visitors and we take some time to stroll along the boulevard to the tower of Friendship of People’s. Lamp posts line the way made to look like a sheaf of wheat in recognition of Russia’s farmers.
Heading back to town we stop in at our favourite lunch haunt, the Soviet canteen. This time it’s a little more upmarket (with prices to match) though the selection and quality is better. My-My have locations throughout Moscow and for you thrifty or fussy eaters it’s a winner. Everything is on display and descriptions/prices listed in English. You can get a filling feed for two for under USD$6.
While on the subject of food we headed to Pushkinskaya Square where you can find what was the worlds largest McDonalds when it opened in 1990. At dawn over 5,000 Moscovites queued for hours to be the first served and a world record 30,000 people got their first taste of American fast food that day. Already full from our healthy lunch we just dropped in for a look at the 700+ seats. A short stroll away you’ll find the tiny entrance to tiny Чебуречная CCCP (Cheburechnaya CCCR), a complete contrast to Maccas, serving up traditional chebureks, similar to fried empanadas. You can pick one up for under USD$1 and stick your two fingers up to American corporate greed.
There’s one thing which had been on our Moscow hit list since we’d seen a picture of it years ago and that was having a drink in the Library Room at Cafe Pushkin. Rocking up we were shown to the basement coat check and traded our jackets for the poshest tag we’d ever seen. The hostess offered us a seat in the Pharmacy Hall though with a smile and a polite question a phone call was made, vacancy was confirmed and we were shown upstairs and seated in the wood panelled book filled room. The interior sets a great vibe though our waiter was less than courteous when we advised we were only here for a couple of drinks. Service was pathetic to say to least. We enjoyed a Spanish and French red wine by the glass before ordering a fatigue busting Irish coffee. Warning – they’re strong here!
Asking for the bill we’re obviously peeved to note the waiter had written a big fat over inflated ‘suggested tip’ on it, something we despise (especially when the service has been crap). Cutting the tip in half we leave feeling a little bitter about the whole experience. Still it’s worth a visit and if you’re happy to stay for a whole meal you’ll probably get treated better than we did. Walking home along Tverskoy Boulevard we take our time to check out a brilliant little photographic display of Olympic Games and endless Christmas light installations.
The next day we head back to Red Square to tick off our last site, Lenin’s Mausoleum. On display here since his death in 1924, the body is smaller than we’d thought given the huge size of all the statues we’ve seen around the world. There’s no photos allowed and don’t even try, there’s guards galore. Stopping or straying from the path will get their attention and you’ll be promptly shuffled back into place. Next up we head to the Arbat district and stroll around the back streets, making our way to pleasant Arbat Street. Filled with souvenir stalls and tourist trap restaurants it’s never the less a nice street and you can also take some time to check out the Tsoi Wall on Krivoarbatsky Lane, a grafitti covered wall dedicated to musician Vicktor Tsoi.
With the temperature sitting below -20 for the second day in a row we decide to spend some time inside. Making our way to the perfectly named brown Circular metro line we circle around hopping on and off at stations including Novoslobodskaya, Komsomolskaya and Prospekt Mira to photograph the stunning Soviet architecture, unique to each station. This is a great way to spend time in Moscow and as far as we’re concerned is a must do. You are allowed to take photographs but tripods will get you a no-no from security, who are everywhere. Feeling warmer we headed out east to the Vodka Museum but alas it was closed so we had to suffice with browsing the nearby shops plethora of crazy bottle designs instead (think cars, women, guns etc).
With darkness setting in we braved the cold to head to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world (103m). The interior is brilliant especially when the choir is singing during service, though the USD$360 million spent on reconstruction works completed in 2000 may, like us, leave you wondering how churches can spend so much money on a building when they should be helping the poor, vulnerable and homeless instead.
Crossing the Borotvitskaya bridge a heavy snowstorm creates an eerie view back toward to Kremlin. That night we head out to try some Russian craft beer at nearby Rules Taproom. Located in a courtyard off there’s a Jazz and Blues bars and a hostel here with a large painted musical mural to keep you busy while you’re having a cigarette. Heading home after a couple of Russian IPA’s we realised Sarah had left her awesome scarf/blanket/poncho on the bar stool so headed back only to find in the 20 minutes we’d been gone somebody had stolen it.
Moscow – That’s 3 strikes and you’re out!
Thanks for reading, if you want to see more photos of our time in Russia click on any of the images above to check out our Flickr page.
Tips for Moscow
- We found navigating the subway system very easy, thanks in part to our attempts to learn the Russian alphabet and the fact that all of the subway maps and station names are written in Latin. Learning just a few basic letters of Cyrillic will help you greatly as will ensuring you look up the nearest station to your accommodation beforehand.
- Volhonka Hostel have 4, 6, 8 and 10 bed dorms available from €7.50 p/p as well as privates. Facilities are good though we found quite a few Russian ‘long termers’ in the dorm rooms stomping around like they’d owned the place giving it a bit less of a travellers vibe. The cleaner was also spent more time on her phone or hiding in empty rooms than actually cleaning and when the locker beneath our dorm bed broke we were made to pay to use the lockers in reception. There are probably better options in town.
- If purchasing your ticket for the Kremlin at the credit card machine you’ll need to ask at a ticket window for a map. Don’t line up, just go straight to the front and ask for a ‘karta’.
- There is no tourist information office, fact. If you find one we’d be happy for you to prove us wrong as this seems crazy for a capital city! Do your research of what you want to see and pin your sights on Maps.Me app which you can use on your smartphone offline. It’ll save you having to buy a huge paper map.
- Having a cup/bowl with a spork is handy for overnight/long distance trains. Hot water is always available for you to make tea, coffee or instant noodles.