The Forty Forties. The Third Rome.
The quite impressive and sprawling massive city of Moscow, home to over 12 million people was for a very long time one of the most desired destinations to go. Not the easiest either, first of all the airfares at the time we went there were still quite high, with no other option than having to take a flag airline carrier as no low-cost airlines were flying, something that has dramatically changed with the years after by the way; and secondly, most important to be honest, the not so easy way to get a visa and its costs.
On the bright side, happy to finally be here and admire such grandeur and at points, luxurious city where you will come to see the so called “New Russians”. These are the rich and new rich people, mostly young students whose parents run successful business and have enough money to have that extravagant style of living where money does not really matter. The list speak for itself, Moscow has the largest community of billionaires in the world. On the other hand, the country is quite the opposite. No doubt the cities along the west especially Moscow and Saint Petersburg act as a facade and a truly show-off to what the reality is in the rest of the country, notably the rural areas which in the largest country in the world, trust me, it is huge, inconceivable huge.
Moscow’s history is terribly rich, and while some chapters are not that bright than others, no one can argue of its strength and power through the centuries. Always a super power and always grand. No matter on the ruling power of the time, here building the bigger and the better is still the tendency on our days. Founded as a small trading post in 1147, developing with the centuries into lavish baroque palaces, elegant avenues and boulevards with incredible mansions, fountains, statues and great public spaces legacy from the Tsar Russia, the once so extravagant and envied monarch system. And continuing to evolve after the fall of the Tsar regime in the February Revolution of 1917 with the establishment of the Bolshevik in 1923 founding the Soviet Union at the end of the Russian Civil War.
The turmoil years of the Soviet Regime until its fall in 1991 were not all bad for the country and Moscow after all. While everyone will agree that the destruction of countless monuments and entire neighborhoods to make way for the traditional Soviet urban planning of wide boulevards and imposing buildings was a sad lost, it is also in the other hand one of the major landmarks today drawing millions of visitors yearly. The Soviet architecture is beautiful, meant to impress and act as a state of power. And so were the great quality materials used for the lavish interiors. The Red Square as we see it today is simply a masterpiece, considering every building at the exception of Saint Basil’s Cathedral which was spared from destruction, was built from the razed older constructions.
Yet you do not need to even be above ground to admire one of the city’s jewel. Its metro system, the most beautiful in the world. The stations are palaces built with the most luxurious materials and embellished to the detail with iron works, statues, glazed tiles, mosaics, glass and marvelous chandeliers. A palace for the people and to the people, that was the ideal of the Soviets. But on street level you have the next superb pieces of architecture, without even talking yet on the historical monuments such as the Kremlin, churches and cathedral. I am talking about the Stalinist skyscrapers, 7 in total, known as the Seven Sisters. Stalin was so impressed after his trip to New York City with the art-deco buildings that he wanted to create similar wonders in Moscow scattered all over the city, and he succeeded no doubt. The model was the Municipal Building in Manhattan. The style was exported across the entire back then Soviet Block being one of the most characteristic architecture all over the ex-block to this date.
But the most magnificent buildings are the Moscow Kremlin. A kremlin in Russia means citadel, and these are all over the country, but here in Moscow this is the largest and most known. No less than 5 palaces, 4 cathedrals, the former residence of the Tsars and the enclosing red walls. Nowadays the sight number one full with museums in the palaces and the cathedrals than can be visited, yet other parts closed and heavily protected since it is the President’s main residence. Just to visit it all one can spend a full day, hence bear this in mind when calculating your overal time in the city.
So when is it best to Moscow?. Well, I think we all agree that during the winter months it is extremely harsh conditions and unless you are OK to be at something between -20 to -30 degrees centigrade and a thick layer of snow and ice in the streets, then during late March until October would be the ideal months. Summer time is the high season when prices are at the peak, specially for flights and hotels. But late March and April, or late September and October are potentially the best options. We went during Easter time and there were still huge mountains of snow and ice in the streets melting. Of course very cold too, but perfect in the sense what we paid overall for the flights. A great deal with Austrian Airlines via Vienna.
I would recommend no less than 4 days. This is a very large place with countless sights scattered everywhere, with several kilometres away for the farthest neighborhoods for what you will need to take the public transport quite often. The centre itself, anything near the Red Square and the Kremlin are easy to walk and enjoy on foot. The riverside view of the Kremlin with the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in the distance is perhaps one of the most symbolic, and the promenades so well regenerated and gentrified that this is one of the best strolls among locals and tourists. But the University, Novodevichy Convent, Church of the Ascension, Izmailovsky Park or the International Business Centre do all require longer time to reach and visit, adding a good bunch should you wish to visit the most renown metro stations. Don’t fall short of time, it would be sad considering all the hassle to get a visa and all that requires to come here.
Food-wide talking, Russia again is a win-win. But finding the right place can be challenging since rarely anyone will speak or understand English. If you know Russian, the Cyrillic alphabet or even Slavic, then you will be totally fine as you will be able to communicate. But something easy which you will find anywhere in their cuisine is a Russian borsch (soup made of vegetables with beetroot topped with sour cream); rosolnyk (soup made with pickles), deruny (potato pancakes), varenyky or pierogi (dumplings filled with meats, vegs or both), goulash (although Hungary is popular for this, Russia does a great version of it), cabbage rolls (cabbage leaves rolled with rice, meats and vegs), and many meats. Try to find as more local place as possible and you will get the best quality and the cheapest prices guaranteed, with generally large portions.
For more information about Moscow check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Russia’s currency is the Rouble (RUB). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
Now to the most important information before planning. The Visa application. So, it’s not that you need a visa and that’s all as for other countries, you need also an invitation letter, and without this letter, you cannot even apply for a visa. How do you get an invitation letter? If you have any friend in Moscow, or Russia anyway, then they can do this for you, if not, as will be the 99.9% of the cases, then you have two options. The paying one, this is through a travel agency. Or the free one, if you book a 4* or 5* hotel, but making sure before you book they can do this for you. If they can, this is then free of charge. But careful with “free”. If you happen to cancel the trip, or don’t show, then they will charge you a fee for that. It is clearly written in the application papers they will send you and it’s logical, as otherwise, anyone could book just a night, get the invitation and get somewhere else illegally.
Once you have an invitation letter, then apply online for the visa, complete all the relevant fields and make sure no errors or typos. Also, very important, note down your username and password for future access. In case you need to change any detail, then you will not need to fill the whole application again, simply log in and update, and print it again.
An appointment will be made for you to attend the visa centre, hand out the invitation letter, completed form, bring with you the hotel booking, the flight bookings, and 2 special size pictures. You need to tell whoever is making your picture that the size is for a Russian Visa. And of course, hand over your passport. After a week in most cases the visa will be ready for collection.
What to see and do in Moscow
- Avenues While the city is famous for its wide boulevards and elegant avenues, it would be difficult to name these all in the list, however the following are the most visited among tourists all of which start at the first rind road in the north of the historic core, and meet near the Red Square and the Bolshoi Theatre.
-Tverskaya ulitsa The westernmost of the ones here described. It contains several theatres, cinemas, museums and ministries and links directly the Manezhnaya Square at its southern terminus where you will find the Kremlin and the Red Square just after the Resurrection of Iberian Gate.
-Pushkinskaya Square One of the large open spaces, yet very congested due to the road traffic. Here you’ll find the Soviet built 1961 Musical Theatre where the Russians movie premier.
-Tverskaya Square Continuing south along the avenue is this charming square home to the former City Hall, nowadays part of the State Historical Museum
-Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre Not far from the former City Hall, a beautiful art-noveau building.
-Central Telegraph Built in 1927 in constructivism style predating the art-deco. A very prominent piece or architecture in the avenue.
-Yermolova Theatre Dating from 1997 in neoclassical style. Just across the road after the Telegraph building.
-The Ritz Carlton Hotel One of the many luxurious properties in this section of the street with a beautiful architecture.
-Hotel National Attached to the Ritz and overlooking the Manezhnaya Square.
-Parliament Opposite the Hotel National. A good example of Soviet architecture.
-Four Seasons Hotel Opposite the Parliament. Built in 2014 in place of the former 1931’s Hotel Moskva that was torn down. The new construction resembles almost faithfully the original one. The label of the famous Stolichnaya vodka features a line drawing of this hotel in the bottles.
-Bolshaya Dmitrovka The next of the major avenues, starts from behind the Musical Theatre just a block east parallel to Tverskaya ulitsa and terminates at the Four Seasons Hotel and Revolution Square.
-Moscow Operetta Theatre Towards the southern end of the avenue. Another of the many theatrical institutions in the area, built in neoclassical style.
-Small Bolshoi Theatre Just behind this is the world famous Bolshoi Theatre, here this smaller yet charming sister.
-Russian Academic Youth Theatre The last one to complete the quadrant of scenic spaces..
-Petrovka ulitsa The next parallel avenue just a quadrant east of Bolshaya Dmitrovka. It terminates at Teatralnaya Square, home to the Bolshoi Theatre.
-Petrovsky Passage Built in 1906 as one of the first elegant shopping galleries.
-Central Department Store Continuing south along the avenue. Built in 1908 in neo-Gothic style it became one of the most exclusive shopping malls ever since in the city, the nowadays TsUM.
-Neglinnaya ulitsa The last of the four major throughfares, also home to more theatres and cinemas along its way, terminating right by the Hotel Metropol and Teatralnaya-Revolution Square.
- Teatralnaya-Revolution Square Without any doubt, one of the most symbolic and monumental in the city. Home to precious gems of architecture and neuralgic transport hub.
-Bolshoi Theatre Home to one of the most renown ballets in the world since its opening in 1825.
-Maly Theatre Along the east side of Teatralnaya square. Grand in its neoclassical architecture, the oldest in the city originally founded in 1756.
-Gardens Located at the front of the Bolshoi and extends at the other side of the main boulevard to become the Revolution Square.
-Revolution Square and Park In memorial of the October Revolution, with the statue of Karl Marx and the Vitali Fointain,
-Hotel Metropol An art-nouveau masterpiece along the eastern side of Revolution Square.
- Manezhnaya Square Just west from the Revolution Square and interconnected each others along the south side. This is perhaps the idyllic postcard perfect image everyone have from the city, with the gorgeous State Historical Museum of Russia, Resurrection of Iberian Gate and the Kremlin walls, all in red bricks.
-Alexander Garden From where you can admire the Kremlin’s walls and towers, and main access gate inside over the Trinity Bridge and Tower.
-State Historical Museum of Russia Home to precious artifacts from the history of Russia and Moscow since prehistoric tribes to modern Russia. Inaugurated in 1894 by Tsar Alexander III in fine Russian revival style.
-Resurrection of Iberian Gate Originally built in 1680, rebuilt in 1996. It grants access to the Red Square.
-The Kremlin The crown jewel of Moscow and most visited landmark in the whole of Russia. Non only inside but outside with its marvellous walls, gates and towers some of which as iconic as the Arsenal Tower, that one next to the Historical Museum, Saint Nicholas Tower overlooking the Red Square, Senate Tower right behind the Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square or the Saviour Tower opposite the Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Tickets are 700 RUB to visit the armoury and 350 RUB to visit everything else. Arrive early as tickets go on sale 30 minutes before the the 10 am tour, or 1 hour before the 12.00, 14.30 and 16.30 pm tours. Within the Kremlin you will see many interesting and beautiful palaces, churches and cathedrals, the later located in Cathedral Square at the very heart of the Kremlin itself. You will see also a great collection of priceless Fabergé eggs. Unfortunately, no pictures allowed inside the museums and cathedrals itself. The Diamond collection in the Armoury is worth a visit on its own. The nearest metro stations within walking distance of the tourist entrances are: Biblioteka im. V.I.Lenina, Alexandrovskii Sad or Arbatskaya (dark Blue line, east exit), or a short walk from Borovitskaya.
- Red Square Monumental and elegant, the landmark of Russia to the world. The nearest metro stations are Ohotnii Ryad, Teatralnaya or Ploshad Revolutsii.
-State Historical Museum of Russia Same building mentioned before but the southern facade which is a twin from the front one.
-Kazan Cathedral Along the north side, next to the Resurrection of Iberian Gate. Built in 1632, it was completely razed during the Soviet Regime upon orders of Joseph Stalin in 1936 who ordered the Red Square to be razed from churches and buildings in order to show off military parades. Was completely reconstructed in 1993.
-GUM Department Store A huge and luxurious shopping mall built in 1893 occupying the whole east side of the Red Square.
-Cathedral of the Epiphany Although not on Red Square, it is behind the GUM. The second oldest monastery in Moscow dating from 1690 in late Baroque style.
-Lenin Mausoleum In the centre of the Red Square along the west side. Free admission, open from 10.00 am until 13.00 pm, closed Mondays and Fridays. You must leave all your cameras, phones and bags in the luggage office. It is the final resting place for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin whose body was preserved and on public display since his death in 1924.
-Saint Basil’s Cathedral This is the most known and beloved landmark of Moscow, with the colourful onion shaped domes. Completed in 1561, it was spared from destruction by mere chance, however it had to undergo a great reconstruction after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Open from 11.00 am through 17.00 pm, close Tuesday.
-Zaryadye Gardens Right behind Saint Basil’s Cathedral, a large open space with landscaped gardens and several historic constructions such as the Great Martyr Barbara Church, Old English Embassy, Church of Saint Maksim the Blessed, Monastery of Our Lady of the Sign and Church of Saint George on Pskov Hill.
- Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge Over the Moskva River connecting the Red Square with the Balchug Island and south banks of the river and city beyond. The views from the bridge over the Kremlin’s walls, the Kotyelnicheskaya Apartments (one of the Seven Sisters Buildings) and Cathedral of Christ the Saviour farther beyond is a must do.
- Cathedral of Christ the Saviour Near the westernmost corner of the Kremlin right by the north bank of the river. Promoted by the Tsar Tsar Alexander I in 1812, was thereafter changed in design upon request of his brother Nicholas who took on power in neo-Byzantine style modelling after Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. This was the largest Orthodox church ever built and was razed to the group upon orders of Stalin in 1931. The current is a reconstruction completed in the year 2000.
- Patriarshy Bridge Very iconic connecting the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour with the Balchug Island and south of the city. The views either from the island or above the bridge are spectacular, not only towards the Cathedral but farther with the Kremlin along the riverside.
- Peter the Great Monument At the westernmost tip of Balchug Island overlooking the Patriarshy Bridge, this huge monument was built in honor to the 300th Anniversary of the Russian Fleet.
- Old Arbat Street Starting by the metro station Arbatskaya, not far behind the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, or west of the Kremlin. It is a gentrified area of Moscow with narrow pebbled streets that gives you an idea of how the city used to look like before the rush of construction and drawing of avenues. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs building is at the westernmost end of the street, listed below under the Seven Sisters.
- Ostakino Tower Far north from the city centre, near the Teletsentr metro station on the orange line. This is the tallest TV tower anywhere in Europe, and among the tallest in the world. Offers the best views of this huge city.
- Moscow International Business Centre West of the city. This is the new business and financial district of Moscow and the country’s motor, where the Federation Tower is currently the tallest in Europe with difference and among the tallest in the world. Plenty of construction still happening, with more and more towers raising. You can easily access this site via the Vystavochnaya and Mezhdunarodnaya metro stations, and although it is completely new, it is very worth to have a walk and visit.
- Novodevichy Convent Located at the southwest of the city near the river, near the metro station Sportivnaya and then a short walk. A big complex of buildings, churches, walls and gates, very colourful. Founded in 1524, it has remained almost intact since the 17th century. It is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the city.
- Church of the Ascension Far south from the city centre yet good connected via the metro stations Kolomenskaya or Kashirskaya. Located within the larger Kolomenskoye Park home to several other ancient structures, some of which wooden churches. The Tserkov’ Vozneseniya Gospodnya is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Izmailovsky Park and Flea Market Located northeast from the city centre near the Izmailovskaya metro station then a short walk. This fairy tale style market was once upon a time an amusement park. It’s worth the visit as you will find a big market selling any stuff you will want, and plenty of matryoshkas as souvenirs at great prices.
- Seven Sisters buildings Are wonderful Stalinist style skyscrapers in the city of Moscow which also served as reference for other Soviet cities of that time, built between 1947 and 1953. For a good background history here is a good wikipedia article. As the name says, there are seven, although there were plans for an 8th. Below is the list with the location of each, specially the nearest metro station, so you don’t need to look around the internet for this information.
-Kotyelnicheskaya Apartments One of the most emblematic of them all, especially for its prominence by the embankment of the river, resembling the historic skyscrapers of Chicago. The nearest metro station is Kitasi-Gorod, however best viewed from the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge at the south of the Red Square.
-Ministry of Foreign Affairs Near the metro station Smolenskaya, right at the western side of Arbat Street hence one of the most centrally located.
-Kudrinskaya Square Building Although not too far north from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a map, distance in the city are generally big in reality. The nearest metro station is Krasnopresnenskaya. It resembles a fortress.
-Hotel Ukraine Nowadays the Radisson Hotel. Also located along the river along the west side of the city near the International Business Centre. The nearest metro station is Klevskaya.
-State University Located in Sparrow Hills, also west of the city not far from the Novodevichy Convent but across the river, right by the metro station Universitet. Is the tallest and grandest of them all.
-Hilton Leningradskaya Northeast of the city right by the metro Komsomolskaya next to the Kazan and Yaroslavskiy railway terminus.
-Ministry of Construction of Heavy Industry A short walk from the Hilton and along the same street one another.
- Metro Stations As everyone know, the metro stations of Moscow are the most beautiful anywhere in the world, by stunning and luxurious decoration, huge spaces, history and amount of them. It follows Saint Petersburg and then other ex-Soviet cities. This was the ideal of the Soviet architecture. Made to impress, palaces underground. Among the best ones to visit, are the following, split by metro line:
-Circle Koltsevaya Line (5 brown): Komsomolskaya (the most luxurious of them all, see the entrance hall too), Novoslobodskaya (nicknamed Peace through the World, the most ornate of the system), Kievskaya, Taganskaya, Prospekt Mira.
-Zamoskvoretskaya Line (2 green): Belorusskaya, Mayakovskaya (nicknamed A Day in the Land of Soviets. The most important of all the stations. Visit the entrance halls too), Teatralnaya, Novokuznetskaya.
-Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line (3 blue) : Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square. Red Square. Full of bronze statues), Electrozavodskaya (special for the lighting. See as well the hall and entrance doors), Baumanskaya (full of red marble statues), Smolenskaya.
Moscow has no less than 4 international airports, although the most widely used are 2, Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo, the major access gates not only into the city, but Russia.
Sheremetyevo is the largest and busiest in the country, located 32 kilometres northwest and served by a great transport connection to downtown such as the Aeroexpress train towards Belorussky Railway Terminal at the northwest taking 35 minutes. It costs 500 RUB per way and one can get off at Okruzhnaya station to continue the journey on commuter trains to other parts of the city, or by metro from the last station which is another 20 minutes to anywhere near the Red Square.
Alternatively, buses 851 and 949 operate from the airport to the terminus station of metro line 2, Rechnoy Vokzal. While numbers 817 and 948 connect with the terminus station of metro line 7, Planernaya. In any case, the journey time is approximately 40 minutes and costs between 55 and 75 RUB. Thereafter from any of the metro stations it is another 40 minutes ride, therefore quite similar to the Aeroexpress+metro option however for a fraction of the price.
If arriving at Domodedovo International, this is 45 kilometres southeast from Moscow’s downtown and the travel options are similar to Sheremetyevo. The Aeroexpress train operate towards the Paveletsky Railway Terminal, corresponding to the Paveletskaya metro station of line 2, also in the southeast of the city. It costs 500 RUB with a journey time of 50 minutes. Thereafter, you will still need to take the metro to continue to your final destination. Alternatively, the commuter trains do also the same route, with slower and older trains, but this costs 135 RUB and takes 75 minutes.
Vnukovo International Airport some 30 kilometres southwest from the city centre is the next in size and amount of destinations. The Aeroexpress train operates towards the southwest Kievsky Railway Terminal for 500 RUB taking approximately 40 minutes, with an additional 20 more on the metro thereafter. And again, the bus alternative option would be the number 32 connecting with the metro station Novopederelkino of line 8A in around 30 minutes for 55 RUB. It takes another 40 minutes by metro to the Red Square.
Lastly Zhukovsky International Airport is of recent construction, located 40 kilometres southeast, but not as greatly accessible as any of the others, and although there are several routes to Europe and other continents, the choice is still shadowed by any of the other three airports.
Coming overland is quite common by railway, but only speaking around the western part of Russia. Fair enough one can take a train and travel to the very opposite east end at Vladivostok, and of course into Mongolia and China, but distances are gigantic and so the travel times. And while I think we all agree in here that travelling on one of the greatest railway journeys in the world, the Trans Siberian, would be a dream; it comes unfortunately with a price tag not everyone can afford or even consider. This leaves you to rely on the very old Soviet built long distance sleeper trains if you want to travel that far.
Nevertheless, the most frequently used by locals and tourists is the line between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and the connections with Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Kaliningrad, Minsk, Kiev, Kharkiv and farther beyond, generally on sleeper trains either daily, biweekly or weekly to Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Berlin or Budapest, Almaty, Tashkent, Dushanbe, Tbilisi and Baku to name the principal cities.
Within Moscow itself, the public transport network is one of the largest in the world with a super high coverage of every district. The metro systems is the second busiest in the world, just after Tokyo, but also among the largest. So is the tram network, trolley and buses physically everywhere. On top, a good system of commuter railways. You will never be far from a station or bus/tram stop, but something important to considered and remember when taking the metro, is the distance in between the stops of any same line. Likewise any other ex-Soviet built network, the stations are usually very deep underground, and can be several kilometres between the stations, therefore if you miss your stop, I would not recommend you walk the distance overground but instead, take a train in the other direction to your right stop. While anything near the Red Square it can be fan and nice to walk your way around, it is not the same when at other parts of the city where it is easy to get lost.
A metro single trip costs 55 RUB, but for more trips it is advisable to buy a multi trip paper red card with a pre-loaded set of trips. However should you be staying in the city for at least 3 days an over, the best and as such cheapest option is to get a Troika re-loadable smart card. It costs 50 RUB which can be refunded if you return it at the end of your visit, and then you load as much as you want on it. A trip using the metro, bus or tram costs 36 RUB (instead of 55), and for an extra 20 you can continue your journey on any other transport such as taking first the metro and then a bus. Other benefits is the ability to pay the Aeroexpress trains to any of the airports, the public bicycle system and some museums.
What could you expect from one of the largest and most important cities in the world. A vest choice difficult to beat. Name it and you have it, whatever you desire it is there. And especially coming from a city such as Moscow where upscale and luxury go hand by hand, it must be one of the few cities in the world with such a gigantic selection of 5* and boutique posh places catering for the many billionaires not only residing in the country, but coming to do business.
Now coming to a more down to earth words, the average tourist. It is quite expensive to get a nice or even basic standards property. And here is your choice in terms of what’s best. If you go for a 4* and above then it is almost guaranteed they will help you with the invitation letter for free as explained before with the visa requirements, but any lower rating and you will have to deal with it by yourself on your own arrangements, which sometimes can add more overall costs than if going on first instance for a good property. It does not really matter what you do, it is much more expensive than any other capital city in Europe even London or Paris. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Golden Apple Boutique. Located at Malaya Dmitrovka, Tverskoy, 127006. Near the metro station Mayakovskaya therefore a great location to walk all over the city centre, plenty of shops, restaurants, museums and sights and great nightlife. The property itself was fantastic, very friendly and helpful staff who dealt with our invitation letter fast and without hesitation. Very elegant and modern decoration and overall, nice comfortable and quiet room. Larger than average, with a great breakfast. Could not ask for more, and will definitely recommend to anyone and even on a future trip to Moscow.
Album for the city
Album for the metro