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first time in Moscow

What to See Your First Time in Moscow

My expectations before my first time in Moscow were low. Would it only be Soviet-style buildings and melancholy designs?

But, after exiting the Leningradsky Vokzal, the train station with trains to and from Saint Petersburg, Moscow immediately proved me wrong.

Moscow is like New York City. Modern skyscrapers tower the skies. Tourists and Moscovites wander crowded pedestrian areas. The food scene could fill an entire Instagram grid with its delicious creativity and innovation.

Moscow is like London. Modern and historical buildings neighbor each other. A river divides Moscow, but architecturally-fantastic bridges connect the city. Some of the best city views are on the bridges at night.

Moscow is like any large city. Attractions are packed with tourists and locals. Cars zoom around corners, then slam on their brakes and blow their horn at the congested traffic before them. Moscovites dress to the nines for any occasion; do not wear leggings! (Check out my packing guide for Russia here)

Although Moscow resembles world cities in many ways, Moscow is uniquely itself. Soviet buildings remind you of Russia’s resilient history. You’ll forget how crowded Moscow’s metro stations are as you stare in awe at the towering statues, elaborate chandeliers, and marble designs. The city’s architecture shares secrets of Moscow’s history with all who pass.

There’s so much to see in Moscow, it’s overwhelming for even returning visitors. While I’m an advocate for travelers to see what they want and skip what they don’t, here are my suggestions for your first time in Moscow.

Red Square

The heart of Moscow is at Red Square. This name developed during the Soviet Union because the square hosted many military parades, but “Krasnaya ploschad” (the Russian name) directly translates to “beautiful square.” Today, the square is a meeting point for locals, a shopping epicenter, and historical headquarters. Moscow’s most iconic sights–the Kremlin, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, and Mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin– are found here. Many tourists rush to these attractions their first time in Moscow, but you should linger in the Red Square for a while. It’s an attraction of its own.

Mausoleum

The Mausoleum, located in Red Square, houses the mummified body of Lenin, the leader of the October Revolution and the first president to the Soviet Union. Lenin wanted to be buried in Saint Petersburg, but Stalin decided to embalm his body instead. Every year, for two months, scientists treat the body with a special solution designed to preserve the body.

I skipped the museum because I didn’t want to see a dead body. But, if you want to visit, the mausoleum is open every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM. There’s no admission fee, but the wait to enter is usually 30 or more minutes.

Kremlin

Originally, I thought the Kremlin only existed in Moscow and was a single building. Kremlin actually means “a town inside a town” and they exist throughout Russia. They’re similar to a fortress because the towering walls protect everything within.

The Kremlin in Moscow is seventy acres large (about 53 football fields) and holds over 800 years of political and religious history. Many areas are restricted from the public, but it’s not always clear what is restricted. A tour guide, maps, and the police will ensure you don’t step out of bounds.

Although there are restricted areas, there’s still plenty to explore inside the Kremlin. You could spend an entire day touring the four churches, Patriarch’s Palace and Armory. My guide navigated me through the sometimes confusing complex, explained more of Russian history, and shared stories about life at the Kremlin. Did you know there are military barracks inside the Kremlin? Or that Putin installed a helicopter landing pad on the Kremlin’s grounds without the World Heritage Site’s permission?

You’ll likely stop at Tsar Cannon and Tsar Bell, which are the largest cannon and bell ever made. The cannon, weighing 40 tons, and the bell, weighing 202 tons, are too large to serve their intended purpose. It’s ironic how, in pursuit of greatness, practicality was lost.

Near the cannon and bell is a square featuring the Kremlin’s three main churches. Each one served the Tsar at different stages of his life–baptism, marriage, and death. The churches are physically in a circle, representing this circle of life.

The Annunciation Cathedral was for baptisms and other familial ceremonies. Although the Annunciation Cathedral is not large, with only four columns dividing the Cathedral into three naves, this church is unique because of the balcony inside. Most people visit this church because it is home to the oldest, surviving multi-tier iconostasis in Russia. Over one hundred icons are displayed on six rows and each icon is wrapped in a gold frame. The Cathedral’s frescoes were painted after the fire of 1547. They depict events occurring in the sky, calamities happening to the earth, and the fight between good and evil.

The second cathedral, representing marriage, was closed during my visit for a private ceremony.

The Assumption Cathedral is the main burial place of Russian patriarchs. Five golden domes and four semicircular gables grace this cathedral. The interior is unusually bright, colorful, and spacious for fresco cathedrals. I loved walking around the glorious golds, reds, and blues. The pillars featured pictures of martyrs because, as the brochure said, martyrs are the pillars of faith. Ivan the Terrible’s throne, as well as the patriarchs’ and Tsarinas’ praying places, are also located here. If there is time to visit only one cathedral in the Kremlin, this should be it.

If you look at crosses on Russian Orthodox churches, you’ll notice there are three horizontal bars instead of one, like many Christians are used to. This is called the Eastern Cross (the other one is a Latin Cross). The top bar usually has the inscription INRI, which is from John 19:19 in Latin: “lesus Nazarenus Rex ludaeorum”, or “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews.”

After the churches, my group visited the Armoury. It was founded in 1511 by Vasily III. It manufactured and stores weapons and military regalia. Today it contains some of Russia’s most sacred state treasures. You’ll find Faberge Eggs, royal carriages, Tsarist gowns, and more. The Armoury showcases life for royals during the empire.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral

Saint Basil’s Cathedral, formally known as Intercession Cathedral, is an iconic spot in Moscow and a symbol of Russia. You’ll be disappointed if you missed it your first time in Moscow. Unique colors, patterns, and shapes distinguish St. Basil’s from other churches in Russia. Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible, wanted the church to commemorate the capturing of Kazan from the Tatars in a brutal and long war. Shockingly, since many 16th Century churches took hundreds of years to complete, St. Basil’s Cathedral was constructed in seven years. Legend claims Ivan blinded the architects so they could never again build anything as beautiful as St. Basil’s Cathedral. But, historical documents show the government had employed these architects after Ivan’s death in order to add an additional chapel to the structure. Do you believe the legend?

GUM

Pronounced “goom,” GUM (an acronym for glavni universalni magazin, or main department store) is a bustling and bright shopping mall. It is the shopping center in Moscow and hosts hundreds of high-end stores and restaurants across three levels. I forgot about the below-freezing temperatures outside while exploring the suspended bridges, waterfalls, cafes, and colorful flora. GUM feels like the Italian countryside. The skylight roof radiates sunlight across the mall, even on gray and rainy days. My friends and I enjoyed exploring the designer stores and mall architecture for hours! We even stopped for gelato that tasted very similar to the real stuff.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Although several of these memorials exist throughout Russia, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow is a sort of national pilgrimage spot. You’ll find newlyweds, grandparents, and families bringing flowers to the tomb. The inscription “Your name is unknown, your deeds immortal” against the eternal flame will overcome anyone with sorrow and hope for humankind. The Soviet cities that witnessed the heaviest fighting between 1941 and 1945 are inscribed on the tomb as well. Soldiers guard the eternal flame and change guards every hour on the hour during a perfectly synchronized ceremony that was well worth the wait and crowd. The tomb is located near Red Square and is a worthy spot on any itinerary.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior

The highlight of my time in Moscow was a night walk with friends from Christ the Savior to the Kremlin along the Moscow River. Few people wander the streets at this time, allowing us to enjoy these beautiful sights away from the city crowds. We posed for photos, cracked jokes, and simply stood in awe at the beauty around us. Christ the Savior is a new Cathedral, completed only in 1997 in time for Moscow’s 850th birthday.

Previously, a Cathedral of the same name stood here and commemorated Russia’s victory over Napoleon. Stalin destroyed this cathedral during his nation-wide raid against religion. He planned to replace it with a “Palace of Soviets” and a one hundred meter statue of Lenin. Stalin’s plans never left the ground because of the swamp-like qualities of the site. That swampy ground held a massive religious site for years, but could not hold a statue. Some Moscovites believe this is telling of communism and/or Stalin’s leadership. Instead of a statue and palace, the site turned into the world’s largest swimming pool for fifty years. If you ask around, many locals will tell you stories of them or their older relatives swimming here!

Novodevichy Cemetery

I’m not a fan of touring cemeteries. Why would I want to stare at a gravestone of a dead person I had never met? I’d rather visit a museum or read a book about someone’s life instead of staring at a stone.

My feeling towards cemeteries changed slightly with Novodevichy Cemetery.

Novodevichy is the final resting place of many notable Russian figureheads. Each tombstone is a work of art and the cemetery felt like an outdoor art gallery. You’ll find Checkov, Gogol, Yeltsin, and more famous Soviet names buried here.

To help guide you through the cemetery, because it’s massive and you don’t want to miss the highlights, you can purchase a map at the entrance or hire a private tour guide.

Space Explorations

I was determined to get out of Moscow central, so I visited the Cosmonautics Museum near the VDNKh metro station. For 1.5 hours, I grumbled in the chilly rain to enter the museum until I realized the longer line was because it was a free entry day! I saved 200 roubles, but I felt like a wet (and cold) dog. The museum is mostly in Russian, so it’ll be hard to visit if you don’t speak a lot or any Russian. But, the space paraphernalia and propaganda were extremely impressive, so it’d be a good experience if you’re really interested in space. I spent about an hour inside and that included attempting to read a few signs.

Outside the Cosmonautics Museum is the Monument to the Conquerers of Space. It was built in 1964 to commemorate the launch of Sputnik.

You could also visit the Moscow Planetarium. English translations are rare within the exhibits, but you could purchase an audio guide. The planetarium is split into several rooms, each requiring an individual ticket, which can be confusing. You can find a description of the rooms online. I visited the main attraction called the Large Stall Hall. This room explores the roots of space knowledge, meteorites, and more. At 550 roubles, it’s also one of the most expensive attractions in Moscow. My friend and I both left feeling “meh” about it all.

Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoy Bulvar

This circus was originally not a child-friendly production, but the owners realized they could make more money by making the circus a family-friendly event.

This particular circus was founded in 1880 and named after the actor and clown Yury Nikulin, who performed here for many years. Each show centers on an original theme, but I personally didn’t notice much of a theme in the acts so it doesn’t really matter which theme night you attend.

As someone who tries to travel sustainably, it’s important to mention that circuses are not ethical. This circus actually sparked a lot of my internal conversation about ethical and sustainable travel. Although Moscow’s circuses don’t mistreat animals (anymore), I still cringe at the involvement of animals in circuses. Performing tricks for a loud audience with overstimulating lights and music is not natural for them. I wonder what sort of “ethical” training is involved to get elephants, penguins, and seals to perform these tricks. I could rant even more about the doped up animals available for photographs before and after the show. If you’re visiting Moscow soon, I encourage you to skip the circus and write a letter to the organization to find an alternative to using live animals, such as holographic like a Berlin circus adopted (you can see a video here).

Wander Aimlessly

With hundreds of attractions in Moscow, and all worth your time, your first time in Moscow might feel overwhelming. I often found myself in a cafe reading or people watching to maintain sanity in the massive city. Another way I escaped the crowds was by wandering random streets. One particular day, I picked a spiral in the sky, walked towards it, and repeated until the end of the day. This mini-adventure led me past churches, gardens, monasteries, and street art.

I explored Hermitage Gardens, a hip park full of food and art. Apparently, during the summer months, Hermitage Gardens includes concerts and festivals almost daily.

En-route was the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin in Putniki, Novospassky Monastery, street art, sculptures, and theaters. Perhaps true for every city, but especially true for Moscow, wandering is the best way to familiarize yourself with this expansive city.

Tips for Your first time in Moscow

It’s impossible to visit everything in Moscow in one trip alone. Before your visit, plan a few places you definitely want to visit and then explore around that neighborhood. Otherwise, you may finish your trip feeling disappointed you didn’t see as much of the city as you did.

Also, pick accommodations based on location instead of price! It’s worth spending more in Moscow to be close to a metro station and downtown. Otherwise, your days will be spent on public transportation getting around rather than exploring the city.

What do you want to do your first time in Moscow?

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