The city’s secret softer side
Moscow is a large city and at first glimpse it can look, and feel, a bit severe. The walls of the imposing Kremlin wrap around St Basil’s Cathedral, huge Sovietera buildings and statues still dominate architecturally and the wealth of history and power hangs in the air. But on closer inspection, there are plenty of lighter touches too.
The metro stations are like glittering film sets with stained glass, enormous murals and legions of glamorous women in belted fur coats. The parks are wonderful and leafy with galleries, cafes and outdoor theatres. In the summer, when the pavements are free of ice, the main tourist sights are unexpectedly compact and easy to navigate on foot.
Often the biggest surprises for visitors, though, are the Russians themselves. Commonly perceived to be an unsmiling and unfriendly bunch by foreigners, in fact most Russians are eager to chat to visitors, will happily help you if you’re lost and will be genuinely pleased you came to visit.
Moscow is a shopper’s paradise. Tverskaya Street is the most expensive shopping street in Moscow (and Russia) and has all the big brands; but more interesting is Vernisazh market that is packed with Soviet posters, art, handmade crafts, antiques and every kind of souvenir you care to think of. Spend time browsing the Yeliseyev Grocery Store on Tverskaya Street.
Supermarket to the rich and famous, this is Moscow’s equivalent to London’s Fortnum and Mason. The shelves groan under the weight of elaborately wrapped chocolates, fine coffee, bottles of premium vodka (some shaped like eagles) and eye-wateringly expensive cans of caviar. Really, though, it is all about the dazzling decor. Originally an 18thcentury palace, look up and you’ll see chandeliers, soaring columns and gilded wall decorations.
For a late lunch head to Saperavi Café. Russians love Georgian food and at this smart place – more of a restaurant than a café – the chefs pump out the tastiest khachapuri (cheese bread), homemade lemonades, khinkali (Georgian dumplings) and spicy adjika dips. It is a laid-back and popular place to linger with a simple but chic decor.
Time for a relaxing glass of wine in low-key surroundings at Kvartira 44. Creaky stairs and a handful of living-room style spaces give the impression of being in a large local home. A pianist plays in the corner and bohemian types sip beer, read books and chat quietly. It is hidden down a little alley off Bolshaya Nikitskaya, so despite it being an established place it’s not touristy and you get the sense you are discovering it for yourself.
Just five minutes away from Kvartira 44 is the small four-star Assambleya Nikitskaya Hotel. It is set in a former 18th-century aristocratic mansion, with a rococo-style facade and is a short hop from many of Moscow’s main sights (just a 13-minute walk from the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre).
Bedrooms are simple but clean and the service is excellent. All staff speak good English and are more than happy to help. For a grander experience, The Ritz-Carlton, Moscow is right next to the Red Square and there’s butler service, a budget-busting spa and fantastic views from the celebrated Caviarterra restaurant.
The other top place to stay is the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski Moscow. It boasts Moscow River views and is close to Red Square. The Restaurant Baltschug is popular with well-heeled locals who file in for classic Russian fine dining – the beef stroganoff is the thing to order here. It takes time to really get to know the capital of the Motherland, but 24 hours is usually enough to inspire most visitors to come back.
• Save time for the amazing New Tretyakov Gallery (www.tretyakovgallery.ru) where you can marvel at socialist realist paintings as well as works by famous artists like Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall.
• Book tickets for the Bolshoi Theatre (www.bolshoi.ru), a quintessential Moscow experience. Recently renovated in 2011, the theatre boasts a six-tier auditorium and has an electric atmosphere. It is a Moscow must.
• Visit the enormous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on the northern bank of the Moskva River. Its gold domes and elaborate frescoes are jaw-dropping. Rising 103 metres into the sky, it is the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world.
• Whatever the weather make a beeline for Gorky Park. Marked by flags and edging along the river, inside there’s an amusement park and ice-skating in the winter.
OPPOSITE PAGE: Bathed in the glow of the morning sunlight Moscow reveals her softer side; the Bolshoi Theatre is a Moscow must-visit. THIS PAGE: Visit the Saperavi Café for tasty khachapuri; the New Tretyakov Gallery showcases socialist realist paintings and works by famous artistis like Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall.