Travel guide to Moscow: grand, thrilling and intimidating in equal measure

Destinations

Travel guide to Moscow: grand, thrilling and intimidating in equal measure

By
4 February 2020

By | 4 February 2020

This city is not for the faint of heart. But throw yourself into it and it’s one of the most rewarding places in the world

Moscow is a city of wild extremes. It can be achingly cold or devilishly hot. The buildings can be as delicately detailed as the finest wedding cake, or merely a faceless grey slab of concrete. You’re as likely to have to leap out of the way of a brand new Lamborghini as you are a smoke-belching Lada or Zhiguli. And you’ll either adore it, or wonder how anyone could possibly spend their life here.

Find yourself on Red Square and there won’t be crowds of selfie-stick toting travelers — Maks Ershov / Shutterstock Group Created with Sketch. Find yourself on Red Square and there won’t be crowds of selfie-stick toting travelers — Maks Ershov / ShutterstockMaks Ershov / Shutterstock

It’s also huge. Not just in terms of sprawl, but the sheer number of people, the width of the roads circling the city center, the metro network… it’s a big place.

So where to start? Well, it’s nice to discover that it’s a place that’s a living, breathing city; not a museum like some places in Italy, and not somewhere that locals avoid because of the hordes of tourists.

Find yourself on Red Square and there won’t be crowds of selfie-stick toting travelers (okay, maybe a couple), but there will be Muscovites, hurriedly going about their business and paying scant attention to the multicolored majesty of St. Basil’s Cathedral or the marble mausoleum of one Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t, mind you. Exploring the twisting insides of the cathedral or paying your respects to one of the 20th century’s most important figures are two boxes you need to tick. Complete the set of three by taking a tour of the Kremlin.

Discover the underground charm 

Ggt off at each station to admire the frescoes, carvings, stained glass and statues — Viacheslav Lopatin / Shutterstock Travel Guide to Moscow: grand, thrilling and intimidating in equal measure Group Created with Sketch. Get off at each station to admire the frescoes, carvings, stained glass, and statues — Viacheslav Lopatin / Shutterstock

To explore the city further, simply jump on the metro. The older lines have older trains and it can be pretty noisy down there when compared to more modern systems, but that’s all part of the charm.

For a history lesson for the price of a ticket, jump on the circle line and get off at each station to admire the frescoes, carvings, stained glass and statues depicting the heroic factory workers, tractor drivers and farm laborers who would sculpt the glorious future of the Soviet people.

There are many other notable stations — although you could just as well spend your time seeing what you can find — including Slavyansky Bulvar (only opened in 2008 but modeled on a mish-mash of 1930s Russian and Parisian metro style); Mayakovskaya and its art deco sleekness; Vorobyovy Gory, built on a bridge over the river; Arbatskaya’s blue line platform with its odd marble-as-carpet floors and vaulted central hallway, and many others besides.

Explore the Soviet relics

Built in the 1930s, this large exhibition ground was designed to promote Moscow as a City of Exhibitions and Fairs — aquatarkus / Shutterstock Travel Guide to Moscow: grand, thrilling and intimidating in equal measure Group Created with Sketch. Built in the 1930s, this large exhibition ground was designed to promote Moscow as a City of Exhibitions and Fairs — aquatarkus / Shutterstock

For more Soviet-Union-at-the-height-of-its-powers nostalgia, jump on the orange line and head out to VDNKh. Built in the 1930s, this large exhibition ground was designed to promote Moscow as a City of Exhibitions and Fairs and did so throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Its building and pavilions now celebrate the scientific, aviation and cosmonautical achievements of the Soviet Union, including displays of Soyuz rockets, passenger and military aircraft, and satellites. There’s also a fairground with a ferris wheel and roller coasters, a number of grand fountains and, in winter, a huge outdoor skating rink.

When you’re done with thinking about the past, appreciate what the city has today. A bar and nightlife culture that’s got something for everyone, from cocktails and the theatre to beers and punk music in some scuzzy bar or other.

Some of the country’s top sports teams compete in Moscow in football, ice hockey, basketball, and others, while individual sports like tennis are taken very seriously as well. Names such as Spartak, Dinamo, and CSKA are recognized the world over.

Learn the characters of Russian alphabet

Knowing the characters of Russian Cyrillic can make it way easier to move around Moscow — Ovchinnikova Irina / ShutterstockOvchinnikova Irina / Shutterstock Travel Guide to Moscow: grand, thrilling and intimidating in equal measure Group Created with Sketch. Knowing the characters of Russian Cyrillic can make it way easier to move around Moscow — Ovchinnikova Irina / Shutterstock

Of course, it’s not without its annoyances and hazards as well. After all, what big city isn’t? You’ll almost certainly have to get a visa, which can be a time-consuming and relatively costly process. Despite the friendliness and curiosity much of the country displayed for foreigners during the 2018 football World Cup, there is still very little English used outside of major tourist areas.

You’ll do yourself a massive favor by learning the characters of the Russian alphabet at least, so that using the metro, for example, becomes a lot easier. Oh, and the stereotype about Russians not smiling a lot is true. This doesn’t mean they’re not friendly — far from it — but walking down the street with a massive grin on your face will mark you out as a foreigner.

All in all then, if you want a relaxing city break, Moscow might not be for you. But if you want to experience a city that will see you leave, blinking and slightly stunned yet weirdly in love, it’s got the lot.

Moscow travel information

Moscow is served by four airports: Sheremetyevo international, Domodedovo international, Vnukovo international and Zhukovsky international. While Sheremetyevo is the main airport and home of Aeroflot, Domodedovo is the busiest and Vnukovo is considered the best. All are relatively far from the center but Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo, and Vnukovo have good bus and train links — it just takes a while.

Most Russians travel by train and Moscow sits at the center of the rail network. From Leningradsky station it’s possible to arrive in St. Petersburg in a brisk four hours, Belorussky is the main station for international departures, and the Trans-Siberian Railway departs from Yaroslavsky. 

It is probably best to spend as much time on foot as possible, but the beautiful metro is definitely worth exploring and is perfect for longer journeys. Buses and trolleybuses run along every main street, although they are not exactly reliable.

Moscow has one of the largest tram networks in the world but it’s not great for tourists, even with the historical cars that run on some lines. Red paper tickets are used for the metro. To ride the buses, trams, trolleybuses or monorail purchase a Troika card. This is similar to the tap-in, tap-out systems in place on the mass-transit systems of most major cities. The red tickets also work on buses and trams.