Experience for Active Tourists: Top 20 things to do in Moscow
Dear traveler, if you are reading this to find out whether or not Moscow is the kind of city where you can spend your time not just listening about some long gone hist orical events or gazing cluelessly at landscapes and buildings, but actually gaining some personally valuable experience, then you’ll be greatly pleased to know that there are countless enjoyable things to do in Moscow. ‘Countless’ if one would have an insane idea to actually count them all, so I won’t pursue this goal, but I’ll do my best listing some of the most impressive places from a viewpoint of an average tourist that is visiting the city for the first time (even though these things never get old even if you’ve been born and raised in Moscow).
Basically, this list is finite merely because most of the tourists spend just two or three days here, so they are just physically unable to properly enjoy more than two dozen various cultural monuments. Thus, this list is a more or less a full program, if spending a couple of days in Moscow is your plan as well, or just a beginning if you plan to stay here longer.
1. Walk around the beautiful Red Square
Red Square is the heart of the city; it is surrounded by beautiful and colossal architecture, and each of those buildings is worth exploring on the inside too. The Red Square is famous for its rich history: from being the main place for trading and royal ceremonies since the XV century to being the №1 place for various festivals today. And you can see it, not just be aware of it – you look at one side and see St. Basil’s Cathedral finished in 1561; you look the other way and you see the Mausoleum; you look elsewhere – you see examples of cutting edge modern architecture and artistic exhibitions. All the major roads of Moscow originate from the Red Square, which is why there is a saying that all the roads in the world start from there. The name “Red Square” comes from an archaic Russian word that means “red” and “beautiful” at the same time, and it’s the latter meaning that was implied, so it should technically be translated as “The Beautiful Square”, which is a very fitting name for it indeed.
Now let’s get to exploring some of this architecture from the inside.
2. Visit Lenin’s Tomb (The Mausoleum)
Lenin was the leader of Russian revolution in early XX century, the result of which was overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a socialist state. He now rests in Mausoleum, a pyramidal building on the Red Square. Mausoleum was built in 1924, after Lenin’s death; his body was embalmed and put there for the visitors to observe. There are, however, strict rules for the visitors: people are not allowed to bring any electronic devices with them and they also must move through the Mausoleum rather quickly while being quiet and orderly. Mausoleum has become an inspiration for other several mausoleums for great political leaders all over the world, like the mausoleum for Ho Chi Min in Hanoi (Vietnam).
3. Explore, or do some shopping in GUM
GUM is a huge department store that had originated as a marketplace in XVII century, and after a long history of constructions and reconstructions, was built the way it is now in the year 1893. The name “GUM” is an abbreviation that is short for “main universal store” in Russian and should be pronounced “goom”, so it nothing to do with any kind of gum. Even though you can buy pretty much anything in there that you can buy in any modern mall, it is worth a visit even if you don’t plan on doing any shopping. The building is quite impressive from the outside and from the inside alike; everything is breathing history.
4. Appreciate Kremlin
As you’ll stand (if you will) in the line to the Mausoleum, you won’t be wasting time, because you’ll be walking along the walls of Kremlin – the fortified residence of the Russian Government. Kremlin’s walls and its 20 towers were built in 1495 and to this day remain in a great shape, raising 242 feet of 74 meters above the pavement. However, Kremlin isn’t merely a defensive construction; on the contrary, it contains many fascinating exhibitions, such as the Diamond Fund of Russia, Armory Chamber, grounds and cathedrals. By the way, if you only got one day to see Kremlin, don’t choose Thursday, it’s the one day of the week when entrance is forbidden.
6. Salute the fallen heroes at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier
It is located in Alexander Garden and is guarded 24/7 with ceremonial changing of the guards every hour from 8 AM to 8 PM. It is the guarding post №1 and the main memorial dedicated to the soldiers who had died in the World War II. Over ten million soldiers of various nationalities and ethnic groups had given their lives to protect the country during four years of terrible events.
7. Get inspired at the State Tretyakov Gallery
Your journey to Moscow cannot be called a proper one, if you won’t see at least a small part of the great collections of fine art created by Russian painters and sculptures throughout the centuries. You’ve got to start somewhere, and you can’t ask for a better place to begin, than the famous Tretyakov Gallery. It was founded by Pavel Tretyakov in XIX century and in his lifetime he had managed to collect over 2000 fantastic artworks by the year 1892 before he left this world six years later, in 1898. Today, the gallery contains over 100,000 pieces from as far as the X century to the recent examples of artistic masterpieces of the XX century. The gallery can be visited every day except Monday from 10 AM to 7 PM (to 6 PM on Sunday).
8. Continue the inspiring experience by going to Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
The next place I advise you to visit would be the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, named after the greatest (or, at least, the most famous and successful) Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. The Museum was built in 1912 and to this day it is the biggest collection of western art in Russia, and one of the biggest collections in the whole world. It would enough to say that in this museum you can find works of such legends as Van Gogh and Picasso. People can visit the museum from 10 AM to 6 PM every day, except Mondays.
9. Witness a performance in Bolshoi Theatre
The same thing I said about seeing art galleries when visiting Moscow can be said about going to the greatest theatre in the city, that being Bolshoi Theatre. In fact, its very name translates from Russian (not even archaic Russian) as “Big Theatre” and that is, trust me, a very modest name for such a grand place, not only architecturally, but also historically and artistically. And don’t worry, I’m not advising my clients who rarely understand Russian to go and see a spoken play – that would bу weird of me, if not just flat out silly. You can see many classical performances there that do not require understanding of the language: sometimes it is just ballet (mind you that Russian ballet is considered the best in the world, so even if you aren’t into men in tights, give it a shot, these are the world’s best men in tights - that’s saying something!) or opera (let’s face it, nobody understands the words in opera even in their own language).
10. Enter the Moscow subway system
People of Moscow had always been proud of the city’s subways. Not only is it the quickest, cheapest and the most comfortable way to get from one district to another, but the stations of the Moscow subway are famous for their unique design and grandeur – it is, without a doubt, the most beautiful subway system in the world. It also holds the record for transporting the biggest number of passengers. It is a great tourist attraction, a network of fantastic underground palaces that serve a very useful purpose, and highly efficiently. Endless variety of marble and basil decorations, mosaics, sculptures, glass paintings… You won’t see anything like that anywhere else in the world.
11. Learn about the soviet past at VDNKH (All-Russian Exhibition Center)
Great All-Russian Exhibition in VDNKH had originated as “Exhibition of Soviet Economical Achievements”, and the name “VDNKH” is an abbreviation of that name in Russian. You can see the fountain dedicated to the Friendship of Nations, a mockup of the first spacecraft with a man on board - rocket ship of Yuri Gagarin called “Vostok-1” (“vostok” means “east” in Russian), and since USSR was a union of countries that are now separate, like Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Armenia, etc., there are pavilions of those countries as well. You can walk around the area on foot, but there is an option to take a ride on a small train, and this fact probably gives you a clue about the size on the whole exhibition. Many famous monuments are presented there, like “A Worker and a Kolkhoz Woman” created by Vera Muhina for the Paris International Exhibition in 1937 which is considered the etalon of social-realism (artistic style celebrated by USSR Government), or an absolutely amazing “For the Conquerors of Space” – 110 meters high and made of titanium, it depicts a rocket that had just took off and now goes upwards to conquer space. The rocket itself is only the top part of the monument; the rest of it is basically a smoke trail (a titanium smoke trail!). Now try to imagine how huge the whole thing is when I tell you that the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics is located inside the bottom part of the monument. There is also a park around the monument, and a Ferris wheel.
12. Be amazed by spectacular city lights at night
Since Moscow is a great capital city, it doesn’t sleep at night, but shines like a diamond – millions of bright lights of all colors create a magnificent picture that will leave you in awe. There are hundreds of fantastic places where you can take great photos even if you are not the most skilled photographer. Every building is highlighted, every street is filled with street lights – night Moscow is truly a miraculous kingdom of light and color.
13. Have a walk down the Old Arbat street
Old Arbat is a famous street for pedestrians in Moscow downtown, it is paved with cobblestone and is very much loved by Muscovites and tourists for its many unique street lights, cafés, street artists and musicians. The street itself is very old, its history counts more than 500 years. Alexander Pushkin mentioned above had actually lived on this street and now his house is turned into a museum dedicated to him. Examples of modern international culture are also presented: enough to say that you can go to The Hard Rock Café. One of the main tourist hooks of Old Arbat (sometimes referred to as simply Arbat) is that there are many shops that specialize on souvenirs and lovely hand-made artsy goods. Shops are opened ‘til 10 PM.
15. Explore Novodevichy Convent, Park and Cemetery
Without a doubt one of the most romantic, peaceful, and beautiful places in Moscow, especially if you enjoy a casual promenade whilst gazing at impressive yet relaxing landscapes and architecture. You’ll see a pond with a great view on golden domes and white stone walls, a big park with many welcoming paths, massive ancient walls, and a small bridge over the pond… This place is absolutely delightful at any season, but especially so when the landscape turns into a real magic kingdom on a snowy winter. Novodevichy Convent is included in UNESCO World Heritage List and is appreciated by many experts not only in architecture or religion, but also history and politics, since the convent also served a defensive purpose being a part of Kremlin assemble and was commonly used by the royal family.
Behind the south wall of the convent is located Novodevichy cemetery, the most famous and prestigious burial site in Moscow formed at the end of 19th century outside the convent's grounds. One of the first famous Muscovites to be buried here was 19th century short-story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov. The Novodevichy necropolis is the elitist cemetery. During its history it became a museum of memorial sculpture due to the fact that the best sculptors and architects created monuments for all the significant and well-known figures.
16. Spend some time at Izmailovo Kremlin (Vernisazh crafts market)
If you are looking for a place to buy some souvenirs with a distinctive Russian flare to them, or to simply admire Russian people’s skill in craftsmanship, there’s no better place than Vernisazh Market – ground floor of the wooden building in which the market takes place is overflowing with classic Russian matryoshkas (nesting dolls), art and clothing. If you walk a bit further, you’ll find antiques, items from Soviet Era, and, oddly enough, piles of junk that possibly hold something that may suddenly charm you more than any fancy antiquity. Most vendors actually can speak English (at least good enough to avoid misunderstandings in the process of you purchasing their goods), and bartering is allowed, but don’t try to pull off tricks that work on Arabic markets where you can decrease the price threefold; if you buy something 20% cheaper, you can call yourself a master of speechcraft and persuasion.
17. Enjoy Art-Muzeon Sculpture Park
Park of Art “Muzeon” (aka “Fallen Monuments Park”) can be found next to the Central House of Artists, and it is an exhibition of many monuments and sculptures that were taken from their original location and moved to the park after Soviet Union was no more. This open-air sculpture museum was founded in 1992 and to this day remains the one and only theme park of this kind. You can see more than 700 works and sculptures carved of stone, wood, bronze and other materials there, however, there are many other entertaining things not only to see, but also to hear (there is a music stage, and, if you’re lucky, there might be a decent band on it) and to actually do: you can join a course for handmade art, such as painting or sculpting. The atmosphere in the park is absolutely wondrous; and how can it not be when so many creative and friendly people gather around there. It is one of those places that fill you with inspiration almost regardless of your will.
18. Taste delicious Russian food in Café Pushkin
All this walking around and doing things will probably make you feel quite hungry, but there’s no need to break the combo by going to a random fast-food, because I know a better place for you. Let’s go to Café Pushkin – great authentic Russian food and top level of service. The café has an interesting story to it: a famous French musician Gilbert Becaud that used to give performances in Moscow wrote a song called “Natalie” in which he said that, “we’re walking around Moscow and you tell me about Lenin and revolution, but I wish we were sitting in café Pushkin having hot chocolate and talking about other things” (you can guess what kind of things). The song became very popular in France, and French tourists were sure to find this café in Moscow, which was a tough task since it did not exist. Finally in 1999 it was opened on Tverskoy Boulevard, the street that is connected to Pushkin Square, has Pushkin theatre on in, and moreover, Pushkin himself had met his future wife on that street. Her name was… Natalie. Design of the café recreates XIX century very nicely and food is absolutely wonderful – quite pricey for some, but it is worth the money. Everything is always fresh (not pre-frozen) and delicate, pirogi and pelmeni have lots of filling, etc. The place is opened 24/7 and staff is used to foreigners, so you’re going to feel very comfortable.
19. Visit the Great War Memorial Victory Park and the Arch of Triumph
Located on Poklonnaya Street, the former is an open-air museum of WWII. It is a big exhibition of fortifications and weaponry, tanks, monuments, fountains, and the obelisk on Victory square – the area is quite big, and all these things (like tanks, for example) stand right on the ground, so you can see all of them very closely. Founded in 1945, right after the war had ended, the park also features many pretty lakes and walking paths; you can hire a boat or a catamaran, visit the amusement park (if the tanks were not amusing enough for you) or do some ice-skating (in the winter, obviously), and some even cross-country skiing.
20. Observe the City Panorama from Sparrow Hills
As you have probably guessed, Sparrow Hills is one of the highest places in Moscow, so when you get there, you can see very far, and the view is just stunning. It is, however, a very peaceful place, where you can take a rest and enjoy a picnic. It is a very popular place for tourists and locals, and it is really impossible to say in what time of the year it is the most glorious. It has a very romantic flare to it, which is why there is a tradition amongst the newly married couples to visit this place. By the way, when I said that it’s a good place to take a rest, I did not mean that you will have to take a rest after lots of climbing – there is an elevator, so it’s alright even if you do not have a car (needless to say that I surely do, so you actually have two ways of getting up there effortlessly). If you enjoy taking pictures, this is a great spot – the view, as I said before, is breathtaking: Moscow River and the Moscow State University stand out the most. Even at night (or, as some find it, especially at night) the landscape is really picturesque. The only time when I wouldn’t recommend going to Sparrow Hills is when it’s foggy (for obvious reasons).
Well, there you go, this is a top 20 of places that come to mind when someone asks me to show the city to him or to her (or to both of them). Surely, the list could go on for much longer, so if you have lots of time, you won’t be bored: you can go to the Ostankino Tower (center of TV and show-business industry), lots of other museums, galleries, enjoy a ride off to the lovely countryside, and so on.
I hope this article had convinced you to visit this glorious city if you had doubts, of filled you with extra-excitement if you were already eager to come and see what it’s like here. You won’t regret it.
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About Me in Short
My name's Arthur Lookyanov, I'm a private tour guide, personal driver and photographer in Moscow, Russia. I work in my business and run my website Moscow-Driver.com from 2002. Read more about me and my services, check out testimonials of my former business and travel clients from all over the World, hit me up on Twitter or other social websites. I hope that you will like my photos as well.
See you in Moscow!