Top things to do in Moscow
By Martha Hales
Moscow is the beating heart of Russian identity and culture, famous for its staggering architecture, sophisticated high society and frankly its sheer, mind boggling enormity. There are over 13 million people living within its city limits, rising to 17 million if you include the surrounding urban area. This makes it Europe’s largest city and among the top 15 by population and metropolitan area in the world.
The size and importance is tangible as you stand dwarfed by Moscow’s enormous public spaces, imposing palaces and vast civic buildings. There also isn't a bad time to visit - in spring and summer the leafy trees, sparkling fountains and wide open spaces make for stunning explorations, and in autumn or winter snow blankets the world and lights sparkle from trees, lamp-posts and building facades.
You can’t fail to be impressed by Moscow, so here’s a taster of some of our favourite things to do in Russia’s dynamic capital.
See a show at the Bolshoi Theatre
This iconic Russian monument to the arts is a symbol of Russia in general and Moscow in particular, its facade featuring on the 100 rouble note. The theatre is currently enjoying renewed fame and favour after an extensive renovation was completed in 2011, restoring much of the early grandeur to the interior and overhauling the acoustic qualities of the main auditoriums.
Predominantly showing performances of ballet and opera, the Bolshoi is a world famous theatre where tickets sell out months in advance, so plan ahead if you want to see a show. Even if you can’t secure a ticket, however, a look around the foyer at the sumptuous decor is well worth it.
Explore Gorky Park
Laid out in classic Russian imperialist style, the major green space of Moscow city centre has relinquished its faded attractions and has undergone an important transformation in recent years.
Creaking old roller coasters and rickety cafés have been bulldozed, free WiFi and outdoor activities have been introduced, and contemporary spaces constructed. During the summer it is a focus for outdoor living for many Muscovites and in winter the popular ice rink draws people to the park.
Admire Red square
The first thing that hits you about Moscow is that everything is supersized. The sprawling city itself, the buildings and most notably Red Square. Its vast dimensions give it an air of a monumental location where history is made, and the iconic buildings that border it resonate with past glories.
Your eye is drawn to the fairytale spires and jewel-bright, patterned domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, while Lenin’s mausoleum stands solid and imposing and the Kremlin oversees it all from behind its walls. This is a huge and impressive city square and really the emblem of Russia past and present. No visit to Moscow would be complete without a visit.
Take a ride on the metro
An easy, fast and inexpensive way to get to know one aspect of Moscow’s character is to take a trip on the metro. Descend into the city’s ornate underworld, where stations are not just the place where you wait for the next subway train, but works of art in their own right.
Elaborate chandeliers, statues, mosaics and marble clad surfaces are the norm, and each station expresses something of its namesake or its neighbourhood. The most intricately decorated and interesting stations include Komsomolskaya, Kievskaya, Novoslobodskaya and Dostoevskaya.
Bathe in a banya
An important part of Muscovite social life is the banya, or communal bath house. In common with several other cultures, the communal bath house is a place to wash, certainly, but its function is so much more than that. This is the place where friendships are won and lost, business is conducted, gossip is exchanged and leisure is king. Spend a morning getting scrubbed, steamed, heated and cooled in one of the many banya’s around the city, each of which has its special treatments. For bathing in glorious historic surroundings, head for Sanduny bath house, a truly beautiful location for a soak and a steam.
Window shop your way round GUM
Famous for keeping Moscow’s high society clothed and shod, GUM is the quintessential shopping destination in Moscow, housing around 200 separate boutiques selling a dazzling range of high-end goods.
It’s not for the budget conscious, but the arcade style interior with its glass roof and distinctive decor is impressive enough that a browse is well worth the effort, or perhaps a refreshment stop at one of the many cafés and restaurants.
Wander the Flea Market of Izmailovsky
Izmailovsky is Moscow’s premier souvenir shopping area, a little way out of the centre but easily reached by metro. It is known as a flea market, but it is really quite orderly, if sprawling, and is a bit of a fairytale destination itself.
It has a beautiful approach, and plenty of winding lanes stuffed with stalls selling matryoshka dolls, fur hats, soviet memorabilia and all sorts of other handicrafts and trinkets. Bargaining is the norm and bulk buying will get you good discounts. Look out for street food stands as well, as these offer some of the cheapest yet most authentic flavours of the Russian capital.
Visit the Pushkin Museum
This cavernous gallery showcases fine examples of art from all over Europe and beyond. The building itself is a work of art, with classical forms prevalent internally and externally making a grand backdrop for the important works on display.
There are many examples of work from renowned painters and sculptors, particularly from the Italian Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age. The collection of impressionist art is of world importance, featuring famous works by artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Monet, amongst others.
Take in Arbat Street
One of Moscow’s oldest streets has been in situ for more than 500 years, though it has had to be rebuilt due to a great fire in 1812. This was the first street in Moscow to be pedestrianised and it has long been at the heart of the old city, a popular place for a stroll and an important meeting point. Today the street, often referred to as ‘The Arbat’, is home to several cafes and restaurants thronging with locals and tourists, lots of statues and a thriving street art scene with entertainers of all kinds performing, especially in the evenings. Visit over winter to see some spectacular Christmas decorations.
Make it happen
Take your time exploring this iconic city with the expertise of our specialist local partner agency to guide you. Simply get in touch and they will design a bespoke Russian itinerary based on your preferences. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.