In Moscow, grand boulevards and massive buildings that seem to stretch for miles are the norm, but some of the city’s most impressive sites are actually found below the streets, in the underground metro system used that transports millions of residents each day.
Moscow’s metro system is one of the busiest in the world and, at 190 miles (305kms) long with 185 stations, it’s also one of the largest. The stations aren’t just transit hubs – they’re a sort of free public art exhibit, and one that tells the history of the city in their design and decoration. The stations were designed so lavishly in the hopes that their beauty would inspire workers on their way to dreary jobs under Soviet rule. These ornate stations eventually became known as “the palaces of the people” for their extravagant architecture. Later, new stations were designed in a slightly more understated way, their appearance reflecting a more austere time in the city’s history.
Red Square is the central square in Moscow, sitting just northeast of the famous Kremlin. Once a marketplace, over the years it has been the sight of public ceremonies and proclamations, the occasional coronation and during Soviet times, military parades. Together with the Kremlin, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990, one of the first sites in the Soviet Union to receive such designation. Today Red Square also serves as a major concert venue, with Paul McCartney, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shakira, among stars who have performed in recent years.
The main entrance to Red Square is through the Resurrection Gate, which was rebuilt in 1995 to copy the gate that was originally finished in 1680. At the center of the gateway stands a small chapel housing an icon known as the Iverian Virgin. It’s not uncommon to see crowds of people gathered around the chapel throughout the day.
The Christ the Savior Cathedral was originally commissioned by Tsar Alexander I after Russia’s defeat of Napoleon, but work did not begin on it until 1839. Designed by a famed St Petersburg architect, it was modeled on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
The cathedral was eventually consecrated in 1883, but its tenure was short-lived as the Soviets destroyed it in 1931 to make way for what would have been a Grand Palace of Soviets. However, the palace was never built and instead a swimming pool stood in its place for several decades. In the mid-1990s, Moscow’s mayor joined with the Russian Orthodox Church to rebuild the cathedral and construction began in 1994.
With donations from more than a million Moscow residents, the new church followed the original design, but with modern day improvements. At 103 meters tall, it is the tallest Orthodox church in the world and can accommodate nearly 10,000 church-goers.
GUM is an abbreviation meaning “Main Universal Store”, from the Russian “Глáвный универсáльный магазѝн”. It is the name of a private shopping mall located in central Moscow, just opposite Red Square. The building is a trapezoidal shape, with a steel framework and a glass roof. This made it quite unique at the time of construction, in the 1890s. From 1890 to the 1920s, the Red Square GUM was known as the Upper Trading Rows and served as a State Department Store. It was built to replace the previous trading rows, which were destroyed during the 1812 Fire of Moscow. However, GUM hasn’t always served as a shopping destination. In 1928, Joseph Stalin converted it into office spaces, and it only reopened as a department store in 1953. It then became one of the only stores in the former Soviet Union not to suffer from consumer goods shortage, often resulting in long shopper queues spilling into Red Square.
The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts is the largest European art museum in Moscow, with over 560,000 works of art. Opened in 1912, it actually has no connection to Alexander Pushkin, the famous Russian poet – it was simply renamed in his honor in 1937 to mark the centenary of his death.
The museum includes an impressive collection of Dutch and Flemish masterpieces from the 17th century, including several works by Rembrandt, as well as Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works by painters such as Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso. The latter are now housed in a new Gallery of European & American Art of the 19th and 20th centuries next door to the main museum building. Many of the museum’s paintings were obtained in the 1920s and 1930s when private estates were nationalized; other works were taken from the History Museum, the Kremlin Museum, the Hermitage and other museums in St Petersburg.
Once a chocolate factory producing some of Russia’s most popular chocolate, the Red October Complex was the first industrial site in Moscow to be converted into artistic space. Located on Bolotny Island in the Moscow River, the complex itself dates back to the 19th century. In recent years, it has been transformed into a multi-purpose space featuring art and photo galleries, designers’ studios, television and web media headquarters and a variety of bars and cafes. It is also home to the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, which offers workshops, lectures and concerts for the public.
The Red October Complex is especially popular on the weekends with bars and restaurants like Art Akademiya, Dome and Bar Strelka, the latter of which donates its proceeds to the Strelka Institute. It also boasts a lively clubbing scene for those looking to explore Moscow’s famous nightlife.
One of the most iconic sights in all of Russia, Moscow’s Kremlin is a massive fortress sitting along the banks of the Moskva River. First the seat of the Russian Grand Dukes, then the residence of the Romanov tsars and later home to Soviet leaders like Lenin and Stalin, the Kremlin today serves as the official residence of the president of the Russian Federation. Despite that, much of the complex is open to the public on a daily basis, including the bell tower, several cathedrals, the Patriarch’s Palace and the famous Armoury.
Once the tallest building in Russia, the Ivan the Great Bell Tower offers great views around the city and the Assumption Cathedral, the Archangel’s Cathedral and the Annunciation Cathedral surrounding the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square offer visitors a glimpse into Russian religious life. The Armoury, though, is what will take your breath away, with its impressive collection of jewels, armor, weapons and ancient Russian relics.
One of the best known theaters in the world, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, traces its history back to 1776. This was when Empress Catherine the Great granted Prince Pyotr Urusov the privilege of maintaining theater performances of all kinds for a period of 10 years. The current Bolshoi building opened on the coronation day of Tsar Alexander II in 1856, and featured a six-tier auditorium decorated in crimson and gold that could seat up to 2,300 people.
The Bolshoi recently re-opened in October 2011 after being closed for a six-year renovation project. The reconstruction and refurbishment of the theater’s main stage employed over 3,000 specialists at the theater each day, as well as an additional 1,000 in restoration workshops outside of the theater. The project not only restored the historical appearance of the theater, inside and out, but it also restored its legendary acoustics while adding state-of-the-art machinery and stage equipment.
Lenin’s Mausoleum is the current resting place of Vladimir Lenin, the former leader of the Soviet Union. Lenin’s embalmed body has been on display since he passed away in 1924 and his tomb has been visited by millions. Located near Red Square in the center of Moscow, the tomb is a small granite building that features elements derived from ancient mausoleums such as the Step Pyramid in Egypt and the Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Iran. Although a bit morbid, a visit to Lenin’s Mausoleum is considered a must for visitors to Moscow.
Just west of the Kremlin, the Alexander Garden was laid out between 1819 and 1823 in an effort by Tsar Alexander I to rebuild Moscow after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. One of the first urban public parks in Moscow, it was built on the site of the riverbed of the Neglinnaya River, which was channeled underground.
The garden actually includes three separate gardens, which stretch all along the western wall of the Kremlin, but the Upper Garden is of most interest to visitors. It includes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which contains the remains of a soldier killed in World War II. A faux ruined grotto was built underneath the Middle Arsenal Tower in 1841, and a large granite obelisk was erected in 1914 to celebrate the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty. While it was originally engraved with the names of the Romanov tsars, the Bolsheviks re-carved it with names of socialist and communist philosophers and political leaders.
Novodevichy Convent & Cemetery comprise one of Moscow’s most beautiful attractions. Also known as the New Maiden’s Convent, the convent may be best known as the place where Peter the Great imprisoned his half-sister Sofia after deposing her and taking over as tsar of Russia. He later confined his first wife to the convent as well. Originally built as a fortress in 1524 to commemorate the conquest of Smolensk, the convent features 12 battle towers. Most of the current buildings, however, date to the late 17th century, when the convent was substantially rebuilt.
The largest and most important church in the convent is the five-domed Cathedral of the Virgin of Smolensk. It was finished in 1525 and contains impressive icons dating to the 16th and 17th centuries. Almost as impressive as the Cathedral is the red and white Church of the Assumption, built in 1680.
For an inside look at the extravagance of the Russian tsars, pay a visit to the Kremlin Armoury. Housed in a mid-19th century building inside the Kremlin, the Armoury Chamber displays a wide variety of items from the tsars’ treasury, including ancient state regalia, ceremonial dress and the largest collection of gold and silver by Russian craftsmen.
Spread out over nine halls on two floors, the Armoury is home to more than 4000 items of applied art of Russia, European and Eastern countries of the fourth to the early 20th centuries. On display are Russian gold and silverware, including works by Petersburg and Moscow masters and the famous Faberge eggs. You will see European and Oriental ceremonial weapons, guns crafted in Persia and Turkey and Russian arms dating back to the 12th century. Exhibits also feature ambassadorial gifts from Germany, England, Sweden, Poland and France, including a unique collection of English Renaissance silver and French dinner and tea sets.
The vast, open spaces of Revolution Square lie just north of Moscow’s fabled Red Square in the Tverskoy District and the two are connected by the twin spires of the Resurrection Gate, which was first built in 1535 and restored in 1945 after the end of World War II. Revolution Square is so-named thanks to its role as a gathering place during Russia’s socialist revolution in 1917 and in recent times has once more been the hub of dissension under the rule of Putin; however visitors are more likely to find it full of market stalls selling souvenirs than protesting crowds.
In a pedestrianized public square surrounded with monumental pre-war architecture, the standout building is the vast, red-brick edifice of Moscow City Hall. Built in Russian Revivalist style in 1890, this was originally home of the ruling Duma, which was disbanded after the Revolution in 1917.
Named after Russian author Maxim Gorky, Gorky Park is Moscow’s most famous park, covering 300 acres along the Moskva River near the center of the city. Opened in 1928, it was the first park of its kind in Russia and served as a model for other parks throughout the country. During Soviet times, it was a center of activity for Moscow residents, featuring roller-coasters, a Ferris wheel and other western-style carnival rides, as well as more formal gardens and woodlands.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the park fell into disrepair, but has been completely reconstructed in recent years. Old amusement park rides have been cleared away to make room for a more eco-friendly recreational area. Today, the park features contemporary art displays, new cafes and an open air cinema. Lounge chairs and pillow-shaped bean bags welcome those looking for a little relaxation and free wi-fi is available throughout.
Kolomenskoye is an ancient royal estate located a few kilometers southeast of Moscow. Perched on a bluff above the Moscow River, the estate served as a summer residence for the Grand Dukes of Moscow and Russian Tsars. In the 1920s, it became home to the first open-air museum of wooden architecture in Russia and today stretches over 900 acres.
One of the highlights of the estate is the Church of the Ascension, built in 1532 and considered to be a masterpiece of both Russian and world architecture, built in white stone with an octagonal “tent” topped by a small dome at the top. Another highlight is the reconstructed Palace of the Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich. Originally built in the mid-17th century, the wooden palace consisted of 250 rooms and a complex maze of corridors – all constructed without using nails, saws or hooks! Empress Catherine the Great demolished the palace in 1768, but a model survived, forming the basis for the full-scale reconstruction in 2010.
One of several churches standing on Cathedral Square inside Moscow’s Kremlin, the Cathedral of the Archangel was the main burial place for Russian tsars for centuries until the capital was temporarily moved to St. Petersburg. Built in the early 16th century, it represented the culmination of a grand building project initiated by Ivan the Great. Built in a style unique from the other Kremlin cathedrals, the Cathedral of the Archangel features Italian Renaissance design elements, as well as five domes representing Jesus and the four evangelists.
While many of the cathedral’s treasures are now displayed in the Kremlin Armory Museum, the 17th century iconostasis remains, as do many 16th and 17th century wall frescoes, painted by more than 100 different artists. The oldest icon in the cathedral, which depicts Archangel Michael in full armor, dates back to the 14th century.
Moscow’s Kazan Cathedral was built between 1633 and 1636 to celebrate Russia’s liberation from Polish invaders in 1612, the end of the Time of Troubles. Prince Dmitry Pozharsky often prayed to a holy icon of Our Lady of Kazan, to which he attributed his success in removing Polish occupiers. Kazan Cathedral housed the icon for two centuries. In 1936, the church was intentionally demolished as part of a greater plan to remodel Red Square to host military parades for the Soviet Union. Using measurements and photographs of the original church, the All-Russian Society for Historic Preservation and Cultural Organization built a replica of the cathedral in 1993. Services are held within the cathedral twice each Sunday, as well as for vespers on Monday evening.