But St Basil’s is just one of many architectural masterpieces scattered throughout the city that are much more than just a feast for the eyes. From forts constructed to keep the Mongols at bay during medieval times, to opulent cathedrals built by mad Russian tsars during the imperial era, to the razing of these cathedrals and other historic monuments during the industrial revolution and their reconstruction in modern times, Moscow’s ornate architecture will also tell you a fascinating story about its past.
For immediate wow factor, start in Moscow’s Red Square in the city’s geographical heart. Once you’ve passed the Lenin and Stalin impersonators and stalls selling Russian fur hats, you’ll enter the vast paved square via the Resurrection Gate and find yourself staring, slack-jawed, at St Basil’s Cathedral.
You’ll probably wonder what the little-known architect was taking when he designed this psychedelic building in the 16th century, to commemorate one of the major victories of tsar Ivan the Terrible. Its candy-striped onion domes, blank arches and sharp spires make it look like a fairytale castle, but inside lie nine main chapels, with the four biggest domes topping octagonal-towered chapels. When you’re done gawping, you can spin on your heels to check out the State History Museum. This deep ochre-coloured building, with its mass of jagged towers and cornices and delicate white rooftops that look like they’ve been dusted with snow, dates back to the late 19th century and is a typical example of Russian Revivalist architecture.
It’s an impressive sight even if you don’t head inside to check out the collection of millions of artefacts covering the whole Russian Empire from the time of the Stone Age.
Sandwiched between these two blockbuster buildings on the eastern side of the square is the GUM shopping arcade, the elegant 19th-century former State Department Store with elements of Russian medieval architecture, such as its two main gothic towers. The most impressive feature of this up-market arcade has to be its glass roof, crafted from more than 20,000 panes of glass.
If it’s a sunny day, grab an ice cream from the stall on the ground floor and make your way up to the top floor to get the best view of the atrium-style glass roof, which will remind you of London’s great 19th-century train stations.
Next, head around the corner to the Kremlin, the centre of Russian political power and the current hilltop home of Vladimir Putin. Standing inside this fortified complex, surrounded by five yellow and white palaces and four gold-domed cathedrals, you’ll feel the immense power of the place from which autocratic tsars, communist dictators and modern day presidents steered Russia forward.
As you walk through the grounds, you’ll discover that the Kremlin was originally six times smaller than it is today when it was built back in 1147 as a moat-ringed wooden palisade; and that the thick crenellated brick walls and 20 imposing watchtowers of today were built toward the end of the 15th century to celebrate the successes of Ivan the Great in facing down the Mongols.
A few blocks southwest of the Kremlin stands the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world. This magnificent white building with its columns, arches and cupolas that look like Hershey’s Kisses, is another example of the Russian Revival architecture style. It was built to commemorate Russia’s victory against Napoleon in the early 1800s, but the current church is actually a second attempt since the original was blown to bits in 1931 by the Soviet government.
On the other side of the Kremlin sits the second-biggest opera house in Europe, the historic Bolshoi Theatre. With its colonnaded entrance topped with a statue of Apollo, this is one of the city’s most impressive examples of Russian Classical architecture. It’s worth a visit even if you’re not planning on taking in a ballet in the glittering red and gold six-tier auditorium.
Walk five minutes down the street and you’ll find a less aesthetically pleasing but no less intriguing building: the former headquarters of the world’s largest spy and state-security machine, the KGB in Lubyanka Square.
As you stand outside the huge Neo-Baroque yellow brick structure, decorated with horizontal lines of burgundy cornices, you won’t be able to resist imagining the Russian spies who once sat inside, secretly plotting and planning behind doors that were shut tightly against the public.
However, perhaps the city’s most beautiful architecture can be found underground in the richly decorated Moscow metro system.
You’d be right in thinking that some of the 180 stations look more like cathedrals; they were built as “palaces for the people” by Stalin during the Soviet era. Stations such as Komsomolskaya, with its 68 limestone-and-marble pillars, high sunflower-yellow stucco ceilings and brass chandeliers; or Revolution Station, which houses more than 70 life-size bronze sculptures representing people connected to the Russian Revolution, including four dogs that commuters stroke on the nose for good luck as they pass.
From here you can make your way to Sportivnaya station, which is just a 10-minute walk from the World Heritage-listed Novedevichy Convent. The convent was initially used as a prison for noble women when it was founded in 1524, including Russian Tsar Peter the Great’s half-sister and his first wife whom he forced to take the veil and relinquish their worldly possessions. It still is a convent today. The grounds are surrounded by white kremlinesque walls, and contain four cathedrals including the majestic five onion-domed Smolensk Cathedral. But it’s the picturesque gardens you really come here for, which continue across the street at Novodevichy Cemetery, where you’ll find Russia’s most artistic gravestones.
After lunch, hop back on the metro and head to Lomonosov Moscow State University. The main building of the university is one of Lenin’s infamous Seven Sister towers, one of the architectural legacies of the Stalinist period that many locals consider ugly because of their looming size and sinister-looking spires. But whether you see them as beauty or beast, the seven towers, built from 1947 to 1953 in an elaborate combination of Russian Baroque and Gothic styles, are a key feature of Moscow’s skyline. You can spot the remaining six towers from across the road at the Sparrow Hills lookout, which offers panoramic views over the city. From here you’ll also see the Eiffel Tower-like Shukhov Tower, which most Muscovites consider a masterpiece of engineering art.
For your final stop, head to the World Heritage-listed Ascension Church overlooking the Moskva River. This magnificent white church was built to honour the birth of Ivan the Terrible in 1532, and it represented a new stage in Russian architecture as it was the first tent-roofed church to be built in stone rather than wood. Stand back, take in the majesty of this snowy wonder, then get thee to a vodka bar. Go on, you deserve it.
The writer was a guest of Beyond Travel.
THIS STORY WAS FIRST PUBLISHED HERE