As one of the most vibrant European capitals, Moscow is a powerful mix of history and edginess, full of world-famous sites and attractions. Russia’s capital has been in existence for more than 800 years and has enough to keep visitors busy for months. Here’s the ultimate first-timer’s list of things to do in Moscow, from Europe’s oldest fortress and grandiose cathedrals to lively green spaces and futuristic skyscrapers.
The heart of Russia’s capital, Red Square is arguably Moscow’s most visited attraction. The cobblestone square is surrounded by beautiful architecture, and is the place where most of the city’s (and country’s) history unfolded. What was once a market square where traders would sell their goods is now a key location in the city, surrounded by unforgettable sites such as the Kremlin, St.Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Mausoleum and other celebrated attractions.
Soak up the archetypal image of Russia’s capital with the glistening rainbow domes of St Basil’s cathedral. The onion-shaped domes were designed to make the building look like the shape of a flame 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 that he would never surpass this creation.
Moscow’s ultimate love-it-or-hate-it landmark, Lenin’s Mausoleum houses a glass sarcophagus with the embalmed body of the legendary Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin. First opened to the public in August 1924, the Mausoleum attracts around 2.5 million visitors every year, who don’t mind standing in line and going through a thorough body search to get into the illustrious building.
The biggest active fortress in Europe, Moscow’s Kremlin offers a week’s worth of attractions. Once you get behind the 2,235 metre-long kremlin 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.
An attraction in its own right, the State Historical Museum, sheltered in a neo-Russian style building, was founded in 1872 by Ivan Zabelin and Aleksey Uvarov. What once was the Principal Medicine Store 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.
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 200 boutiques selling a variety of brands: from luxurious Dior to the more affordable Zara. Even if shopping is not on your to-do list, the GUM is still worth a visit; the glass-roofed arcade faces Red Square and offers a variety of classy eateries.
An elegant historic street right in the city centre, Arbat is one of Moscow’s most touristy spots. With lots of cafés and restaurants, live music performers and caricaturists, as well as souvenir shops and tattoo salons, monuments and a theatre, Arbat draws crowds of visitors every day.
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 a 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 Rooks have Come Back by Alexei Savrasov.
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 have never been displayed before. The Gallery of European & American Art, located next door, stores an incredible collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings.
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 of the park turns into one of the city’s biggest skating rinks. The park is also home to an open-air movie theatre and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.
If you to 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.
The enormous VDNKh (short for All-Russian Exhibition Centre) recently went through an extensive renovation and now looks better than ever. The centre started 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, and a horse-riding rink. In winter a skating rink opens – the largest in Europe.
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 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.
Mostly known for the city’s largest and best known 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.
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 glass floor and breathtaking 360-degree views. So be sure to book one of the hourly tours and speedy elevators will take you to the height of 337 metres in no time.
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.
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 particularly famous 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; latter was his first wife, who stood in the way of his marriage to Catherine I.
One of Russia’s most visited cathedrals, the Cathedral of 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 once stood, prior to being demolished in 1931 by the Soviet authorities. For 50 years the place had been home to the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool, until the country’s new government decided to rebuild the sacred place. Designed to look like its predecessor, the modern building also contains the icon Christ Not Painted by Hand by Sorokin, which miraculously survived the demolition of the original cathedral.
Home to Europe’s tallest office building, Moscow City, also referred to as Moscow International Business Center, is one Russia’s most ambitious engineering projects over 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.
For those on a slightly more limited budget, ditch window shopping at the exclusive GUM and take a foray into the madly 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 cafés for a warming mulled wine before continuing your shopping spree.