From imposing architecture to delicate Fabergé eggs, Jenny Southan experiences the ambition and imagination of the Russian capital
Red Square is the obvious place to start a tour of Moscow, with the orange crenellated walls of the Kremlin – the official residence of the president – and the neo-Russian GUM shopping emporium on opposing sides. If you get the timing right and don’t mind queuing for up to an hour (it could be a push in winter), you can visit Vladimir Lenin’s mausoleum, where the communist revolutionary lies in state.
After a series of strokes, Lenin died in 1924, aged 53 – the outpouring of public grief was overwhelming, with almost 100,000 mourners paying their respects in the first few weeks. Such was the demand for his body to be preserved for future generations that the Soviet government decided to have it embalmed, and in 1930 the stone tomb that stands today by the Kremlin walls became his resting place.
Inside, visitors are ushered a few at a time down a dim staircase by stern guards. At the bottom is a chamber where Lenin lies in a glass-sided coffin. Although he is wearing a dark suit, a spotlight shining on his face reveals smooth white skin and a neatly trimmed beard – think Madame Tussauds waxwork rather than Egyptian mummy.
It might not appeal to everyone but it’s a unique experience that may not be available for much longer as debate continues about whether or not to bury him. In the meantime, it is reported that his body requires daily maintenance, along with chemical baths every 18 months. Open 10am-1pm daily except Mon and Fri; free entry. No photos, phones or large bags – after queuing at the north-west corner of the square, you can check them in for 40 roubles (85p) at the Historical Museum Tower before going through security.
St Basil’s Cathedral
A short stroll across the square will bring you to the colourful St Basil’s Cathedral, the twisted candy domes of which have become a symbol of Moscow. The Russian Orthodox place of worship was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century but has since become a museum. It features eight small chapels, each decorated with golden Byzantine icons, plus a larger central one beneath the fish-scale spire. Each is connected by steep staircases and well-walked corridors decorated with floral and geometric murals. Audio guides are available for 200 roubles (£4). Open 10am-5.30pm daily except Tues. Entry is 200 roubles (£4). No photos.
On the other side of the Kremlin, tickets for the Armoury Museum (open daily except Thursdays) can be bought at the Kutafya Tower entrance, from where visitors walk through the Alexander Garden to a security point (large bags not allowed). Although entry times are restricted to 10am, 12pm, 2.30pm and 4.30pm, it is well worth fitting into your itinerary as even a whirlwind tour will leave you stunned.
Founded by Peter the Great in 1720, the collection of tsarist treasures is spread across two floors and includes a dazzling array of ecclesiastical robes, court dresses, royal carriages, ornate crowns, thrones, icon and bible covers, weapons and armour. Signs tend to be in Russian only but items that may catch your eye are the children’s carriages designed to be pulled by ponies and led by dwarves, the throne encrusted with 1,964 nuggets of sapphire, turquoise and pink amethyst, the velvet and gold brocade horse coats, and the wedding dress of Catherine the Great.
The museum is also home to ten Imperial Fabergé eggs, the world’s largest collection. The House of Fabergé was a jewellers established in St Petersburg in 1842 that became known for its intricately designed Easter eggs made for the Russian tsars – the first was commissioned by Alexander III as a gift for his wife in 1855. Some 50 were created in total, each handcrafted in precious stones and metals with a “surprise” of some kind inside – be it a miniature Trans-Siberian Express train or a replica of Alexander Palace. But only 42 eggs are known to have survived – those remaining are worth millions. Entry is 700 roubles (£15).
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
Not far from the Kremlin is the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (Khram Khrista Spasitelya), complete with shimmering golden onion domes, a white marble and granite façade, and life-like bronze saints adorning the exterior. Originally built in the 19th century, the church was destroyed by Stalin in the early 1930s in a bid to use the site – well positioned on the banks of the Moskva River – for a soviet palace. But construction was interrupted by a lack of funds and then the Second World War, after which the area was used as an outdoor swimming pool.
Today’s cathedral was rebuilt in 1997 and even if you only have a few minutes spare, you should take a look inside at the lavish murals, flickering candles and soaring architecture. Entry is free. No photos. Open 10am-6pm daily.
My My Cafe
This branch of the popular Russian chain of eateries (pronounced Moo Moo) is located on the lively shopping street of Arbat, where you’ll find plenty of buskers, T-shirt stands and souvenir stores. My My offers a democratic style of dining suited to tourists, business people and families alike, with a wide selection of local salads, stews, soups and meat dishes at low prices – take a tray and choose what you want at the counter before paying and sitting down.
Try the oroshka cold summer soup with cucumber, spring onions, potato, ham and sour cream, the beetroot salad, the blini pancakes topped with fish eggs, or a glass of kvas, a non-alcoholic drink made from fermented bread – it tastes nicer than it sounds. Arbat 45/23; cafemumu.ru (Russian only)
Cabs tend to be expensive if you are a foreigner as drivers often charge two to three times more. As a guide, a ten-minute journey should cost about 500 roubles (£10) in an official yellow cab. Locals may offer to pick you up in their own vehicles but this can be risky. If you decide to do this, agree a price first – ten minutes should be about 150 roubles (£3).
The city’s metro system is a sight in itself. Commissioned by Stalin in the 1930s, many of the stations were built as “palaces for the people” to showcase the might of the regime, with grand chandeliers, statues, marble columns and pro-soviet frescoes. London Underground provided advice on its construction.
Go to visitrussia.org.uk