Fur hats, wooden dolls, spies, vodka and blinis. That’s it, right? Weeell, not really. Peek over the stereotypes’ shoulders and you’ll find that Russia’s big bad capital is also the place to go to have your valenki (Russian felt boots) blown off by some of the world’s kookiest architecture, get a firsthand lesson in the country’s communist history, and spend a night at the ballet that’ll leave you feeling posher than if you’d just eaten a tin of Beluga caviar inside a velvet-upholstered Porsche. Which is actually something you might do while you’re in Moscow. Yep, this sprawling metropolis of more than 10 million people is a weird and wild place.
The first thing you’ll want to do when you arrive in Moscow, other than down another vodka shot (go on, you’re not in the vodka capital of the world every day), is take a selfie in front of St Basil’s Cathedral. Get over to Red Square in the city’s geographical heart, pass the Lenin and Stalin impersonators at the entrance, and take your spot in the colossal paved square among the pigeons and tourists. You’ll wonder how many vodka shots the architect was riding on when he designed this candy-coloured, onion-domed cathedral in the 16th century. And when you snap that selfie, remember that Russians don’t smile unless they’ve just won the lotto; smiling too much is indicative of a weak character.
Then, chuck on your Birkenstocks (because you’ll be here in summer if you’ve got any sense – winters get down to 40 below zero) to gawp at the ochre-coloured State History Museum, with its mass of jagged towers and delicate white rooftops that look like they’ve been dusted with snow. It’s impressive even if you don’t head inside to check out the collection of millions of artefacts, which span the entire Russian empire from the time of the Stone Age onwards. Sandwiched between these two you’ll find Lenin’s tomb, where the father of the Russian revolution’s embalmed body has creepily lain under glass since his death in 1924; plus the ostentatious 19th century GUM shopping arcade, which is suicide if you’re on a budget but worth a visit just to see the sexy roof, crafted from 20,000 panes of glass.
BACK IN THE USSR
Around the corner from Red Square you’ll find the Kremlin, the centre of Russian political power. As you walk through this fortified complex, passing the yellow and white palaces and gold-domed cathedrals that look like they’ve been topped with Hershey’s Kisses, you may find yourself daydreaming of a shirtless Putin thundering by bareback on a stallion. Hate to burst your bubble but this isn’t something you’ll see today, at least not in the flesh; however, there are oodles of stalls around town selling tees with this image splashed across them.
If you want to be a total ponce head across the road to the historic Bolshoi Theatre, with its glitzy red and gold auditorium. Or walk five minutes down the street to Lubyanka Square, the former headquarters of the KGB, the world’s largest spy and state-security machine. Don’t resist embarrassing yourself with a few commando rolls outside the massive yellow brick building as you play our your own Cold War era Bond fantasy, imagining the spies who once sat inside hatching plots and polishing their Kalashnikovs.
AS ABOVE, SO BELOW
Time to embrace your inner moleman and head underground to see Moscow’s opulent metro system. You’d be right in thinking some of the 180 stations look more like cathedrals; they were built as ‘palaces for the people’ by Stalin during the Soviet era. You’ll see stations with unpronounceable names like Komsomolskaya, with its marble pillars, high sunflower-yellow stucco ceilings and brass chandeliers; or Revolution Station, which packs in more than 70 life-sized bronze sculptures of Russian revolutionaries (including four canine comrades you can pat on the nose for good luck). You’ll need all the luck you can get to decipher the bamboozling Cyrillic text on all the station signs, unless you thought way, way ahead and learnt fluent Russian for your trip. English speakers are pretty thin on the ground, so you’ll probably want to buddy up to a local or hire a guide to avoid accidentally winding up in Kazakhstan.
Your feet are aching, you’re completely befuddled by all the architecture and you can’t tell your Pushkins from your Putins any more. There’s only one logical thing to do: find a place to drink more vodka. And where better than the Winzavod, a former wine-bottling plant behind Kurskaya train station, and now the place to be in Moscow’s growing contemporary arts scene. This reclaimed industrial area, Moscow’s answer to New York’s Meatpacking District, is where you’ll find four of the country’s best contemporary galleries, artists’ and photography studios. Plus there’s concept store Cara & Co., boutiques, and hip art cafes where you can sip the afternoon away while keeping one eye out for the city’s rich and notorious.
If you want to catch the sunset, the slick TimeOut rooftop bar above the quirky Peking Hotel (they rent rooms by the hour, if you’re picking up what we’re laying down), is the perfect spot to watch that big orange ball do its thing over the city. To get amongst the hot young Muscovites, head over to hip, un-touristy Patriarch’s Pond, an area centred on a square-shaped pond (duh), and roam the narrow backstreets lined with hip restaurants, boutiques and private art galleries. Maybe you’ll end the night in one of Moscow’s nightclubs (try Strelka bar, overlooking the Moskva River, and ARMA17), glow sticks in hand, feeling fabulous and sexy even though by this hour you’ll likely have clumps of stroganoff stuck in your hair. Or maybe you’ll take the classy route and head back to Red Square to see St Basil’s Cathedral lit up like an Ibiza rave. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll end up eating a tin of Beluga caviar inside a velvet-upholstered Porsche.
STAY & EAT
For Russian opulence and over-the-topness, look to the Art Nouveau-style Hotel Metropol. Five minutes’ walk from Red Square, this is the kind of joint that serves up live harp music, caviar and Prosecco at breakfast, and that uses enough marble, chandeliers and stained glass to make a Russian oligarch uncomfortable. You might not normally be a fan of big hotels – there are 365 rooms here – but big just works in Russia.
Lavkalavka, a cafe on Petrovka Street, sources all its seasonal, organic produce from more than 36 organic or biodynamic Russian farms, and you can gobble it all down in their garden. To feel like you’re dining in a Russian artistocrat’s home circa 1825, head to Café Pushkin for some blinchiki (Russian pancakes), borscht, pelmeni dumplings and fancy schmancy service, all washed down with – yep, you got it – some more voddy.