The Top Things to Do in Moscow

Statue of Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky in front of St Basils Cathedral
Statue of Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky in front of St Basil's Cathedral | © Yury Gubin / Alamy Stock Photo
Dasha Fomina

As a vibrant capital and Europe’s largest city, Moscow is a powerful mix of history and edginess, full of world-famous sites. Russia’s capital was just a small town when it was first recorded 800 years ago, but there is enough here today to keep you busy for months. Here’s the ultimate first-timer’s list of things to do in Moscow, from exploring the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral to getting a cable car from Sparrow Hills or skating in Gorky Park.

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Red Square

The heart of Russia’s capital, Red Square is surrounded by striking sites including the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s Mausoleum, and is where so much of the country’s history has unfolded. What was once a humble market square has become known as the place where rebels have been executed, protests staged and military strength put on show throughout Russia’s tumultuous history.

St Basil’s Cathedral

However long you’re visiting Moscow for, you must set aside some time to soak up the archetypal image of Russia’s capital with the glistening rainbow roofs of St Basil’s Cathedral. The onion-shaped domes were designed to make the building look like flames on a bonfire. The cathedral was commissioned in the 1500s by Ivan the Terrible and according to legend, the Tsar thought it so beautiful he ordered that the architect be blinded so they would never surpass this creation.

Lenin’s Mausoleum

The love-it-or-hate-it of Russia attractions, Lenin’s Mausoleum houses a glass sarcophagus containing the embalmed body of the legendary Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin. First opened to the public in August 1924, the Mausoleum attracts around 2.5m visitors a year, who presumably don’t mind queueing and going through a thorough search to enter Lenin’s presence.

Moscow Kremlin

The biggest active fortress in Europe, Moscow’s Kremlin offers a week’s worth of attractions on its own. Once you get behind the 2,235m (7,332ft) of walls, there are five squares to wander around, various buildings to explore, 20 towers to learn the names of, and the world’s largest bell and cannon to see.

State Historical Museum

An attraction in its own right, the State Historical Museum, founded in 1872 by Ivan Zabelin and Aleksey Uvarov, was once the principal medicine store, also containing antiquaries owned by the royal family. It now houses an impressive collection, which includes relics of prehistoric tribes that once inhabited the territory of present-day Russia, the country’s largest coin collection, as well as 6th-century manuscripts and artworks collected by the Romanov dynasty, among other treasures.

GUM

Russia’s main department store, GUM’s stunning interior houses a variety of high-end boutiques. Built between 1890 and 1893 and known as the Upper Trading Rows until the 1920s, the legendary store is now home to over 100 boutiques selling a variety of brands: from luxurious Dior to the more affordable Zara. Even if shopping is not on your list of what to do in Moscow, the GUM is still worth a visit; the glass-roofed arcade faces Red Square and offers a variety of classy eateries.

Arbat Street

An elegant, pedestrianised street right in the historic city centre, Arbat is one of Moscow’s most touristy spots. With lots of cafes and restaurants, live music performers and caricaturists, as well as souvenir shops and tattoo parlours, monuments and a theatre, Arbat draws crowds of visitors every day.

Tretyakov Gallery

Built between 1900 and 1905, Tretyakov Gallery started as the private collection of the Tretyakov brothers, who were 19th-century philanthropists. Designed by Viktor Vasnetsov, the gallery is home to one of the largest collections of Russian art in the world. Here you can see icons including Rublev’s Trinity, and pre-revolutionary masterpieces such as Girl With Peaches by Valentin Serov, Demon by Mikhail Vrubel and The Rooks Have Come Back by Alexei Savrasov.

Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

The largest foreign art museum in Moscow comprises three branches housing a collection of incredible works by masters of ancient civilisations, the Italian Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age. The main building contains masterpieces by Botticelli, Tiepolo, Veronese and Rembrandt, some of which had never been displayed before. The Gallery of European and American Art, located next door, stores an incredible collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings.

Gorky Park

Moscow’s premier green space, Gorky Park offers entertainment for every taste: outdoor dancing sessions, yoga and fitness classes all summer, as well as beach volleyball and ping-pong, rollerblading, skateboarding and cycling opportunities, along with Segway and boat rentals. In winter, half the park turns into one of the city’s biggest ice skating rinks. The park is also home to an open-air movie theatre and one of the less obvious places to visit in Moscow for art lovers, the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

Sparrow Hills

If you take a walk from Gorky Park along the Moscow river embankment, you’ll end up in the city’s other legendary park, Sparrow Hills. Although the park doesn’t offer as many activities as its hip neighbour, here you can take a closer look at the tallest of the seven Stalinist skyscrapers (the Moscow State University), admire the view from the observation deck or get a cable car ride.

Bolshoi Theatre

Opened in 1856, the legendary Bolshoi Theatre is one of the pest places in Moscow for an evening of entertainment. It’s the home of Bolshoi Ballet and the Bolshoi Opera – among the oldest and most famous ballet and opera companies in the world. Alongside the classics, the theatre also stages contemporary works by young international composers and choreographers. The theatre’s imperial decor was restored in a six-year refurbishment that finished in 2011.

VDNKh All-Russian Exhibition Centre

The enormous VDNKh contains about 400 buildings and is said to cover an area bigger than Monaco. The centre started out as the all-Soviet agricultural exhibition in 1935, and now serves as an open-air museum of Soviet architecture. With the iconic fountain at its entrance, the park complex is home to a number of museums, shopping pavilions, multiple eateries, a massive oceanarium, a zip-line, a horse-riding rink and a Russian space shuttle. In winter a skating rink opens – the largest in Europe.

Tsaritsyno Museum-Reserve

The former summer residence of Empress Catherine the Great was commissioned in 1775, and succumbed to deterioration during the Soviet era. The whole of Tsaritsyno Museum-Reserve has been fundamentally renovated since the 1980s to look even brighter than the original. With its opulently decorated buildings, gardens, meadows and forests, Tsaritsyno Park is the perfect place for a green respite in Moscow.

Izmaylovo

Mostly known for the city’s largest flea market, the district of Izmaylovo is home to a maze of shops where you can get just about anything: from handmade items to Soviet antiquities. It’s also one of Moscow’s largest green spaces, where you can hide from the city buzz.

Ostankino TV Tower

Built in 1967, Ostankino TV Tower was the tallest free-standing construction in the world at the time. Now it’s still the best observation deck with a glass floor and 360 degree views. So be sure to book one of the hourly tours; the speedy elevators will take you 337m (1,105ft) in no time.

Kolomenskoye

A 10-minute metro ride from the city centre will take you to Kolomenskoe Museum-Reserve, where you can get an idea of what Medieval Moscow looked like. Here you’ll find ancient churches (one dating back to the 16th century), the oldest garden in Moscow and a favourite estate of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich, father of Peter the Great.

Novodevichy Convent

Founded in 1524, the Novodevichy Convent is a place steeped in history. Behind the walls that once served as a fortress, there are four cathedrals with a fascinating icon collection and a venerable cemetery. Back in the day it was common for women from noble families to retire in monasteries, and the Novodevichy Convent had some notable residents such as Princess Sophia and Eudoxia Lopukhina, both related to Peter the Great (and imprisoned by him). The former was his half-sister who claimed the throne; the latter was his first wife, who stood in the way of his marriage to Catherine I.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

One of Russia’s most visited cathedrals, Christ the Saviour is a truly remarkable site. The grandiose cathedral was built in the 1990s where a 19th-century church of the same name stood before it was demolished in 1931 by the Soviet authorities. Designed to look like its predecessor, the modern building also contains the icon Christ Not Painted by Hand by Sorokin, which survived the demolition of the original cathedral. The cathedral was the site of feminist punk collective Pussy Riot’s 2012 protest that led to the imprisonment of several members.

Moscow City

Home to Europe’s tallest office building, Moscow City, also referred to as Moscow International Business Centre, is one Russia’s most ambitious engineering projects of recent years. With its various high-rises, the business district is where you should come for great crowd-free shopping and the best panoramic views of the city.

Izmailovsky Market

For those on a budget, ditch window shopping at the exclusive GUM and take a foray into the bustling world of Izmailovsky, Russia’s best flea market. Delve into the bargains, rifle through the artisan crafts, admire the local handiwork and be tempted by the silky smooth traditional fur hats. Expect walls of matryoshka dolls, fascinating Soviet memorabilia, and glittering hand-crafted jewellery. Head up to one of Izmailovsky market’s cafes for a warming mulled wine before continuing your shopping spree.

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