What to do in Moscow? Coming from the West, it is a question I get asked frequently. Here’s my suggestion for the best things to do in Moscow.
The Russian capital is the largest city in Europe with a population of over 13 million, and has a long history as the capital of one of the most important countries and empires in world history. While Russia is often cast in a negative light in the media in Western countries, Moscow is actually one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world and although there certainly are some political issues to consider there, it is a place with plenty of fun things to do and see.
The location of the city on the Moskva River is one of the reasons that it developed, and the earliest records of the city date to the twelfth century. At the time Moscow was only a small town, although it started to grow into a prominent trading city towards the late thirteenth century.
What are the Best Things to Do in Moscow?
While there are many different attractions that you will be able to see in Moscow, there is no doubt that the most iconic of these is Red Square, which is surrounded by the oldest and most prominent buildings in the city. It is right in the heart of the city and on every tourist map you’ll find. The cobblestone square is surrounded by beautiful architecture and a lot of the history of this city took place here and you obviously have access to the public area at any time of day or night. It is well worth planning a night visit for some spectacular photographs. Around Red Square you will also find the colorful towers of Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral
The onion-shaped domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral are unforgettable and it is on everyone’s list of places to visit in Moscow. They were designed to make the building look like the shape of a flame on a bonfire and although the Soviet government was pronounced in their anti-religiousness, even they knew better than to do anything with this iconic Moscow attraction. It was ordered to be built in 1500s by Ivan the Terrible and it is far from… terrible.
While the Kremlin is often associated with the government, much of the complex is open to visitors, and is well worth spending a few days exploring. Although it is still an active government complex, part of it is open from Friday through Wednesday from 10 am to 5 pm.
While you are at the Kremlin doing some Moscow sightseeing, check out the world’s largest bell, which sits on those grounds. It was originally cast in 1735 at the request of Empress Anna Ioanovna, a niece of the famous Peter the Great.
Lenin’s Mausoleum houses a glass sarcophagus with the embalmed body of… wait for it…. Vladimir Lenin. It is not open for too long each day, only from 10 am to 1 pm on Tuesdays through Saturdays.
One of the remnants of the Cold War, and 165 feet below the surface of the city, it is a collection of tunnels and bunkers that you can now see, but it is only available via a scheduled tour. Tour packages are available at all hours of the day, catering to a range of ages, some of which focus more on the historical aspects of the bunker, while other take a nearly comic angle on the tangible threat of nuclear annihilation for all humankind.
Museum of Soviet Arcade Games
Located in the basement of a technical school in the suburbs, the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games features about 60 machines from the Soviet era including video games, pinball machines, and others. The museum has an underground feel and is one of the oddest Moscow attractions you can imagine, and although only 50 to 55 of the games are playable, each of the machines paints a picture of life and entertainment in the past, during the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain.
Laika was the first living thing to circle the Earth in outer space. It did so in Sputnik 2, which made over 2,000 revolutions of the Earth before disintegrating on reentry. This statue was installed near a Moscow military facility in 2008 in honor of this Moscow mutt that got in a spacesuit and got shot into outer space.
Monument to the Conquerors of Space
On the more traditional list of what to see in Moscow, this is a massive, 350-foot fall obelisk that commemorates Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 orbit of earth and the feeling that the U.S.S.R. was going to dominate the space race.
The cemetery was opened in 1898, but once famous Russians like Nikolai Gogol and Sergey Askakov got re-intermentered there, after their former necropolises were demolished under Stalin, it got even more popular. Here you can find the graves of Chekov, Bulgakov, Khrushchev, Yeltsin, Tolstoy, and also a number of Russian cosmonauts.
Fallen Monument Park
When the Soviet Union fell, so did dozens and dozens of monuments to historical figures from the past of the U.S.S.R. Some ended up at in the Fallen Monument Park, which is also known as the Park of the Fallen Heroes. In this park near Gorky Park, you can find statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other heros of the Soviet past.
Institute of Russian Realist Art
This museum was only opened in 2011, largely consisting of a private collector’s extensive collection. It has pieces that reflect the artistic style of socialist realism, which was the officially approved art of the Soviet Union. Most consider it merely propaganda, but it is eerily beautiful.
State Darwin Museum
In a society that devalued religion and religious beliefs, of course there is a museum dedicated to Charles Darwin, who’s evolutionary theory still irks most religious people in the world. It was built in 1907 and has over 3,000 pieces in a three story building.
The Pushkin Museum
For those of you that have a keen eye for art, the Pushkin Museum is one of the things to see in Moscow, for sure. There are some fine original pieces in here, and it’s devoted to Western art. You will spend a good few hours in here, just walking around, admiring the artwork.
More Fun Things to do in Moscow?
Along with its historical and touristic attractions, the culture in Moscow is also a particularly thriving, with the ballet and the orchestras of Moscow being internationally recognized. There are also plenty of other venues for enjoying live music and theatre, while another of the distinctively Russian attractions is the Moscow State Circus. The city is also home to some of the finest restaurants, with internationally renowned chefs, while the local cuisine is also quite distinctive and worth trying during your visit.
The things to see and enjoy are also complemented by the range of activities that you can enjoy in the winter, with one of the most popular being ice-skating. There are several ice-rinks around the city that tend to be quite busy when they are open, but it is something that many people will want to do during their visit. If you are visiting during the warmer months there is also a water park that is fun for families, while the Moscow Zoo is the oldest in Russia. If you are looking for something a little more adrenaline fueled, you can take flights in a MiG fighter aircraft over the city.
The Geography Of Moscow
As Moscow is one of the largest cities in the world, especially when you consider the suburbs and the greater metropolitan areas, there are many different definitions of the different areas of the city. At the heart of the central district is the Red Square and Kremlin area, where all of the government buildings and the historic heart of the city is located. The city has generally grown outwards in a circular shape in every direction with usually two or three administrative areas known as raions in each of the north, south, east and west areas of the main city. The sprawl of Moscow has swallowed what were once towns and smaller cities, especially to the south and west of the city, but these aren’t considered a part of the city itself.
The heart of Moscow is found on the north bank of the Moskva River, and is where many of the historical buildings and the Kremlin are located. This is not generally a residential area, as almost all of the buildings are museums, churches, monuments or buildings dedicated to the running of the government. The Kremlin complex takes up much of this part of the city, while the Red Square and Kitay-Gorod area has much of the rest of Central Moscow. Most visitors to the city will spend several days exploring this historic part of the city looking around the various Moscow tourist attractions that are located here.
The Kremlin may be the home to the Russian Government, but most of this complex is actually open to visitors, and has a range of museums, churches and exhibitions, along with its fortifications. One of the most impressive attractions is the Cathedral of the Annunciation, which is beautifully topped with a series of gold domes, and was once the private chapel of the Tzars, while now it is one of the best things to do in Moscow. The Armoury Museum is another must-visit as it has a stunning collection of treasures, a diamond exhibition, ceremonial armor and state regalia. However, there are numerous other sites worth visiting in the Kremlin as well.
The cobbled grounds of Red Square are another of the most popular tourist sites in Central Moscow, and the Kazan Cathedral and Saint Basil’s Cathedral are both well worth seeing. In the square itself, you will also find monuments to Alexander II, and a grand mausoleum for Vladimir Lenin, where his body is embalmed. They are on the must-do list of places to visit in Moscow, Russia. If you do need to find a little more peace and quiet in the city center, it is worth spending some time exploring the pleasant Alexander Garden and the Taynitsky Garden.
As all of the historic center of Moscow is filled with the historic buildings, it is only the most expensive hotels that are present on the fringes of this part of the city and it definitely a place to visit in Moscow. Most people looking for budget options may need to stay a little further away from the center. Here are the hotel options that are in the center:
Where to Stay in Moscow: Central Moscow
Luxury – Hotel National – This grand hotel was opened in 1903, and is around 200 yards from Red Square, with a swimming pool and hot tub within the hotel. Rooms are beautifully decorated in a traditional style, while the reception and shared areas of the hotel are especially opulent. Rates begin at around $310 per night.
Luxury – Hotel Metropol – An Art Nouveau style hotel built in 1899, by 1918 this building was occupied and used as the Second House of the Soviets. Today it is in a great location for the Kremlin and Red Square, offering beautiful accommodation with a swimming pool and lovely restaurant and bar. Rooms available from around $290.
Luxury – St Regis Moscow – Just a short walk from the main attractions of the city, this hotel has a lovely swimming pool and a spa offering a range of treatments to help you relax. The rooms are beautifully decorated, with the bathrooms being particularly grand. Rooms begin at around $295 per night.
Lying to the North of the Kremlin and the Kitay-Gorod district, this part of the city has a large number of historic churches to visit, mainly dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of particular interest is the Nativity Convent, which was a nunnery founded in the fourteenth century and relocated to its current position in the fifteenth century. The Katholikon in this complex dates from 1500, while several buildings have been added to the complex since. Another distinctive building is the Nativity Church at Putinki, which has a tented roof and is topped with several blue spires with gold crosses at their peak.
One of the interesting aspects that is worth investigating in this part of the city are the two attractions that look at some of the workings of Moscow during the Soviet era. The first of these now partially opened to the public is the Lubyanka building and prison, which was the heart of the security services in Moscow, and was also where many of the opponents of the government was taken. There is also the state museum of Gulag history, which looks at the history of the development of Russian gulags, and also features photographs, art, and even the memoirs and personal belongings of those who were sent to the gulags. Both are great things to do in Moscow when it rains, since they are indoors.
There is also a strong cultural aspect to this area of the city, with the Bolshoi Theater being home to some of the premier ballet, opera and classical music companies, and where their performances are staged. Within the Hermitage Gardens there is also the Novaia Opera (reserve your tickets early though), which hosts daily opera performances, while in the summer the gardens also host an open air jazz festival. If you are looking for a more colorful form of entertainment, the Nikulin Circus also has its home in this part of the city, and has regular performances and is well worth a private tour.
Where to Stay in Moscow: North-Central Moscow
Budget – Matrushka Hotel – Within walking distance from Red Square and the attractions of the city center, this hotel has free WiFi and has a bar on-site. Rooms are simple but comfortable, with an en-suite shower in the room, and a flat screen TV. Rooms start at around $35 per night.
Mid-range – Hotel Otokomae – Just minutes away from the Bolshoi theatre, this hotel has a lively decoration featuring a lot of modern art. Rooms have air conditioning, free WiFi and flat screen TVs, while there is also a free breakfast included. Prices start at $60 per night.
Luxury – Moscow Marriott Royal Aurora Hotel – A 5-star hotel that has a butler services sets the tone well, and this hotel has a lovely heated pool and is in a good location for exploring the city. Rooms are comfortable and spacious, with large screen TV, air conditioning and free WiFi. Rates start at $210 per night.
For those who are looking to explore the east of the city, there are a range of museums and galleries to explore here, including some that are a little more quirky and unusual than what you would expect elsewhere. One of these is Bunker 42, Tagansky Protected Command Point, which is a large underground military bunker that was designed to have housed up to 3,000 people in case of nuclear attack during the Cold War. You can now take tours of the bunker, see an exhibition that looks at the history of the bunker, and take in a meal in the restaurant 65 meters below the surface.
There are also some interesting museums that are worth a look in this part of the city, with the Museum of Russian Icon being a free museum looking at the history of religious icons from Russia and beyond. Another fascinating place that will be of particular interest for car lovers is the Museum Moskovskiy Transport, which has a collection of several hundred vehicles, looking at how people would have moved around Moscow, while there are also some racing cars preserved here as well. The Polytechnic Museum is another place worth visiting, with collections and exhibitions looking at science and technology.
Almost every part of Moscow has historical buildings that you can visit, and here in the east of the city the Choral Synagogue was the first Jewish synagogue completed in the city in 1891, and has an ornately decorated interior. Lying on the banks of the Moskva River, the Moscow Orphanage has recently been auctioned for redevelopment, but was a huge building that was developed by Catherine the Great as a way to improve the lot of Moscow’s orphans, and while it isn’t open, you will still see the building in its prominent position. There are also several historic churches that can be explored in this part of the city.
Where to Stay in Moscow: East-Central Moscow
Budget – Wood Design Hotel – Within easy reach of the city center and the attractions in this part of the city, this quirky hotel has utilized a range of wood in the design of the room and throughout the hotel. Rooms have flat screen TVs with cable channels and free Wifi, and are simple and comfortable. Rooms start at $40 per night.
Mid-range – Red Brick Hotel – Less than a mile from the city center and Red Square, this hotel has a stylish restaurant and bar on-site, and includes a free breakfast. Rooms are nicely furnished with a modern shower room, with air conditioning and free WiFi included. Rates start at $75 a night.
Luxury – Custos Hotel Lubyansky – Located within easy reach of the city center, this hotel offers pleasant accommodation in a modern style. Rooms are air conditioned and offer spacious accommodation, with flat screen TV and Wifi included. Rates start at $95 per night.
Lying between the south bank of the Moskva River and the Garden Ring Road, this part of the city has a particular wealth of historic churches from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The Church of St Clement is an eighteenth century Russian Orthodox church that is topped with five domes in gold and blue, while also decorated with an attractive baroque interior. The Temple Museum of Saint Nicholas is another site worth taking a tour of, with its beautiful gold altarpiece depicting religious scenes, while there is also a range of religious art on display throughout the church.
One of the biggest attractions here is the Tretyakov Gallery, which has one of the largest collections of Russian Art on display in the city. The gallery has a collection covering many centuries up until the end of the nineteenth century, including some of the most noted Russian artists working in sculpture as well as on canvas. The New Tretyakov Gallery is an expansion of the main museum which has its own building in Gorky Park, and has the modern art collection of the gallery, and has some fascinating exhibitions and contemporary art on display.
If you prefer to explore the outdoors in Moscow, then Gorky Park is on the south bank of the river, and is a large park that is a pleasant place for a walk and to enjoy, with impressive gardens and fountains dotted throughout. There is also another museum of contemporary art located towards the southern end of the park. For those who enjoy the ballet, there is also the State Central Theater Museum of Bahrushin, which looks at the history of the ballet in Moscow.
Where to Stay in Moscow: South-Central Moscow
Budget – Delight Inn Polyanka – Offering simple accommodation with nicely decorated rooms, this hotel has access to a shared kitchen and also an outdoor terrace. The economy rooms have free WiFi and hot drinks facilities, while there is also access to a shared bathroom, with the option to upgrade to an en-suite. Rooms begin at around $35.
Mid-range – N-House Hotel – Around 15 minutes walk away from the city center, this hotel has tastefully decorated rooms that are air conditioned, and with a modern bathroom. There are flat screen TVs with satellite channels and the Wifi available. Rooms from around $65 per night.
Luxury – Hotel Baltschug Kempinski Moscow – This grand hotel is just on the south bank of the river, with some rooms enjoying views of St Basil’s Cathedral and the city center. Rooms are large and spacious and are beautifully decorated with grand bathrooms. Air conditioning and large flat screen TVs in each room, while the hotel also has a swimming pool and spa. Rates begin at around $255 per night.
To the west of the city center is one of the most traditional areas of the city, with Arbat Street being a pedestrianized walkway that stretches for around a kilometre, and is a lovely area to see the traditional street architecture of Moscow. Naturally, it also has many cafes and restaurants to serve visitors to the city, and has some western chains that have also arrived in this part of the city. It is also worth exploring some of the side streets of the area, away from the slightly touristy feel of this street.
As with every area of central Moscow, there are no shortage of historic churches to visit. However, one of the more interesting sites is the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, which was only completed in the 1990s. This cathedral was on the site of a previous church that was demolished during the governance of Joseph Stalin, and served as a large open-air swimming pool before being rebuilt after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now there is a museum beneath the cathedral looking at the history of the site.
You will also find several museums worth exploring in this area of the city, with the Museum of the History of Moscow having an extensive exhibition looking at the growth, development and the people of the city over the centuries. The Pushkin Museum is also well worth exploring with its extensive collection of European art, including works from Botticelli, Degas, Renoir and van Gogh.
Where to Stay in Moscow: West-Central
Budget – People Business Novinsky Hotel – Just a short walk from Arbat Street and within a short walk of the city center, this modern hotel offers simple and comfortable accommodation. Rooms have air conditioning and WiFi and compact bathrooms, with breakfast also available. Rates start at $30 a night.
Mid-range – Barin Residence – This hotel has traditionally decorated rooms that also have modern bathrooms, with WiFi, flat screen TVs and are spacious with large beds. The service includes a free breakfast and there is also a spa on-site with relaxing treatments on offer. Rooms from $70 per night.
Luxury – Pentahotel Moscow Arbat – This stylish modern hotel is located in the Book building on Arbat Street, and has been designed with modern facilities and has an attractive bar and restaurant area. Rooms are air conditioned with flat screen TVs, Wifi and large comfortable beds with views over the city. Prices start at around $95 per night.
How To Get To Moscow
There are four international airports that serve Moscow city, and each is within an hour’s journey of the city center, with international routes serving destinations in Russia, Europe and across the world. The city also has extensive railway connections, with routes to the capital cities of many European countries, along with the Trans-Siberian railway that allows you to take the train from Beijing or Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. There are also long-distance bus services from many cities in Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Europe, meaning that there are plenty of options that will allow you to get in to the Russian capital.
Travel Around The City
Moscow has a comprehensive public transport system that is made up of a combination of buses, trams, trolleybuses and an underground rail network, which makes it easy to get around, with routes running from 5:30am to 1am. You can buy a cheap Troika card for the Moscow metro which you can then top up with cash to pay for your journeys, and the rates for using these routes are very reasonable. Traveling on the underground metro is also a great opportunity to see the grand ornate stations that are almost attractions themselves.
Food And Drink In Moscow
As you would expect in any cosmopolitan capital, there are plenty of international cuisine options available, but trying the local food and drink will certainly add to your cultural experience of the city. There are plenty of local dishes to look out for on Moscow’s menus, and while beef stroganoff has been exported around the world, it is a tasty dish of fried beef in a sauce made with sour cream, onions and mushrooms that is best tried in Moscow. Blinis are thin pancakes that are usually served with either a sweet or savory filling such as smoked salmon, while another dish to look out for is borscht, a soup made with beetroot and tomatoes.
There are plenty of drinks to try in Russia, and while vodka is key to the culture, there are plenty of beers that are brewed and served here, with a thriving craft beer scene too. Many of the wine options are imported from Georgia, with a few Russian wineries, but there are still several champagne producers that make the drink in Russia. One of the drinks to look out for is medovukha, which is a drink similar to mead that is produced by fermenting honey and water together. If you are looking for something non-alcoholic, mors is a fruity berry drink while ryazhenka is a thick milk based drink worth looking out for.