Your trip to Moscow will reveal a city of drastic contrasts thanks to a history of conflicting ideologies. Its regal, tsarist past is particularly evident in the Red Square’s colourful and ornate buildings, as it is through many of the city’s religious monuments. On the other hand, remnants of the Soviet Union pepper Russia’s capital, memorialising war heroes and victories, and anyone curious enough needn’t look too far for a taste of Communist nostalgia.
Soviet kitsch is especially prevalent throughout Moscow’s gastronomic circuit. Embargoes on imported food play no small part in encouraging a culture of simple and traditional fare prepared from local ingredients. Such restaurants are rarely short of creativity, however, from the Glavpivtorg Beer Restaurant to the hip restaurant-club Petrovich.
If dining out has you also feeling a little sentimental for the Soviet era then it’s time to visit some choice museums. Housed in a former nuclear bunker, the Bunker-42 Cold War Museum provides a poignant reminder of the realities of life under threat of annihilation. And then there’s the moving Gulag History Museum – a memorial to the millions of lives lost under Stalin’s brutal rule.
Also try catching a performance at the Theatre Square. Here you’ll find Moscow’s famous Bolshoi Theatre – a world leader in ballet and opera. Nearby you’ll also find the smaller Maly Theatre, specialising in plays, and the diverse Russian Youth Theatre.
People and Traditions
Russians can often seem cold in character to outsiders, however, they’re generally quite a cultured and community-minded people. There is a saying that roughly translates to “hands wash each other” – similar to “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” – which reflects a non-individualistic culture that encourages large social networks and an eagerness to do friends a favour. This often results in a cold reaction when asking strangers for help but the complete opposite from those you’ve taken a little time getting to know.
Traditional festivals can be a great place to enjoy sweets and regional delicacies with the locals. Though the people might be at their warmest, the largest celebrations often take place in the coldest months, including New Years and the Maslenitsa folk holiday, which coincides with the start of Lent.
Moscow is the northernmost metropolis on the planet and consequently the coldest. Long, sub-zero (ºC) winters last from November through March so be sure to pack a warm jacket if traveling during those months. Summers typically last from June to August, though heatwaves are not uncommon in May and September. Temperatures have been known to reach highs in the upper 30s but generally don’t exceed the mid-20s. Summer nights can also be very cool.
Named after Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, Gorky Park was designed as a centrepiece for the Marxist utopia. It offers respite from urban life without ever being so far removed from the city itself – offering an abundance of culture and leisure activities. Visitors can rent bikes or skates to traverse the park’s 300 acres, play beach volleyball, table tennis or pétanque, and in winter, even go ice-skating on the frozen lakes. Exhibitions, festivals and public performers are in no short supply, but even on a relatively quiet day, culture vultures will not be disappointed by the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, located inside the park’s eastern border.
Red Square – named for the colour of its buildings – boasts one of the world’s most striking mass of landmarks. This World Heritage Site has been at the heart of Moscow’s political, cultural and spiritual life for almost 900 years. On one side is the Kremlin, a fortified complex housing multiple towers, cathedrals and palaces – one of which, the Grand Kremlin Palace, is the official residence of the Russian President. On the other side is Kitay-gorod, or the Great Possad, the city’s historic merchant quarter.
The Moscow Planetarium is also a great way to enjoy an afternoon. Its Large Star Hall is the biggest projection hall in Europe, but there’s so much more on offer, including the Sky Park observatory and open-air museum, which teaches celestial observation methods that date back to ancient times.