Moscow is an enormous city, capital of the biggest country in the world and home to more than twelve million residents. It houses about 10 per cent of the total population of a country that covers 1/8 of the Earth’s inhabitable land area.
Most of Moscow is a concrete jungle, but there is so much to see and there are many gems, hidden or ostentatiously present. This is the first city for which three days were not enough for us to cover all its highlights. So, we packed all the highlights in a perfect and a loaded four-day itinerary for you!
Start the first day in the heart and centre of the city, the Red Square. This is the oldest part of the city. On one side the Kremlin is situated, the early fortified part and political heart of Russia. On the other side lies Kitai Gorod, which although mostly demolished in the first half of the 20th century, still houses the oldest residential buildings and edifices of Moscow. The square itself is immense. Hopefully, you can admire it without makeshift stands for a parade or other spectacle occupying it.
Standing in line
One thing you should prepare for when visiting Russia, is standing in line. Ticket systems are not the most efficient and a great part of your time visiting popular tourist attractions will be spent on waiting. To combat this, try to buy tickets online. First check the official website, if they don’t sell them you can try to book through intermediaries. Decide for yourself if they seem trustworthy and if the extra expenses are worth it. The other option is to arrive early, check the cashier opening time and queue at least a half hour in advance. This minimizes your waiting time and some frustration as people will try to skip the line.
Start queuing for Lenin’s mausoleum right after breakfast. It’s only open from 10.00 to 13.00 on every day but Monday and Friday. It’s an eerie and surreal experience as you enter the mausoleum with honour guards silently manoeuvring you forward. Shushing those who can’t keep quiet. You’re only allowed a brief moment to pay your respects or gawk at Lenin’s mummy. No pictures are allowed inside and before you know it you’re back outside, wondering what you have just seen. Now you’re also part of the millions who disrespected Lenin’s final wish to be quietly buried beside his mother in Saint Petersburg.
If you’re smart, you’ll have bought tickets to the Kremlin online. Especially the separate ticket for the Armoury since they can otherwise only be bought within small timeslots with long associated queues.
The Kremlin is the fortified political heart of Moscow. Although the word ‘kremlin’ is mostly associated with the Kremlin in Moscow, it’s original meaning is fortified city. You can find many more kremlins in old Russian cities like Suzdal, Novgorod and Vladimir. If you have any time, we absolutely recommend you visiting the kremlins in Russia’s so-called ‘Golden Circle’, which lies close to Moscow.
The first thing to see inside the Kremlin is the Assumption Cathedral. The earliest building dates back to the end of the 15th century. This is the place where most Russian Tsars were coronated and it is seen as the mother church of Muscovite Russia. The cathedral is also the burial place for most Metropolitans (popes) and patriarchs (bishops) of the Russian Orthodox church. The building has five golden domes and beautiful frescos inside.
Ivan the Great Bell Tower
If you want, you can climb the Ivan the Great Bell Tower. But you will need a separate ticket to do so. From the top, you will have some nice views of the Kremlin, the Red Square and the Moscow river.
Also, visit the Archangel Cathedral, this is the final resting place of many tsars and princes of the Russian empire. And the next-door Annunciation Cathedral with great icons inside.
The Armoury is a must-see if you like shiny objects and opulence. It’s full of silverware, jewellery, armour, weapons, crowns and Fabergé eggs. It also shows original gowns, suits and carriages for the less gold obsessed.
State historical museum
For a better understanding of Russian culture and history head over to the State historical museum. It gives a good overview of Russian history from the prehistory up to the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the 19th century. Especially the exhibit on medieval Rus and its Viking origin are interesting. The museum itself is lavishly decorated and also houses the biggest coin collection in Russia. If the Napoleonic wars are of specific interest to you, you can visit the next-door War of 1812 museum which focuses on this time.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral
As you exit back unto the Red Square walk towards the iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Construction of this colourful cathedral started in 1555 on orders from Ivan the Terrible to celebrate his capture of Kazan. The church was secularized in 1929 and now is part of the State Historical Museum and owned by the Russian Federation. The inside consists of a labyrinth of narrow vaulted corridors and vertical cylinders of the churches, absolutely worth a closer look.
When you’re done at the cathedral, finish your day exploring Kitai Gorod. This is the oldest part of Moscow, besides the Kremlin. It still has some great historical buildings and churches from the 16th and 17th centuries. Nowadays it’s also a popular place to go for upscale diners and drinks, so enjoy reward yourself as the day of sightseeing comes to an end.
Start the second day with a great art museum, the Pushkin museum. This is the main museum in Moscow dedicated to foreign art. Here you’ll find masterpieces from antiquity until romanticism. Highlights are Priam’s Treasure, looted from Berlin, and Dutch Golden Age masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt.
For spectacular modern art, go next-door to the 19th and 20th century European and American art gallery. Here you can find works by artists like Caspar David Friedrich, Goya, van Gogh, Monet, and many more. You can buy a combination ticket for both museums.
Cathedral Christ the Saviour
Across the street stands a gigantic cathedral. This is the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. With a height of 103 metres, it is the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world. As imposing as the building may be, it’s not that old. The cathedral was finished in 1997, rebuilt in the image of the original one but on a larger scale. The original cathedral was destroyed by Stalin in 1931.
To the south lies Balchug or Bolotny Island in the Moscow river. On the southwestern tip of the island, you can find the former Krasny Oktyabr’ (Red October) chocolate factory. This red-bricked building houses several art galleries, restaurants, bars and clubs. This is probably a good time to have some lunch before continuing southwards.
When you cross the river once more you get a better view of the gigantic statue of Tsar Peter the Great which lies on a little island in the river. As you make your way towards Gorki park along the Krymskaya Naberezhnaya embankment, you pass a garden filled with statues of old Soviet leaders. These statues were removed from their original pedestals after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Now they have a new home in this sculptures cemetery.
You will pass the gigantic New Tretyakov Gallery, which you can visit on the last day, so you won’t overload with art. But if you’re as art insatiable as us, you can also visit it now.
On the other side of the Garden ring road lies Gorki Park. The full name gives you an idea of what to expect here – Maxim Gorki’s Central Park of Culture and Leisure. So, leisurely enjoy the green escape from the city noise. Watch people enjoy themselves, go for a boat trip or bike ride, and finish the day with a visit to the Garage museum.
Garage Museum of Contemporary Art
The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art is a contemporary art museum where you can find both Russian contemporary art and exhibition of international contemporary artists. The experience depends on the exhibition that is on but is overall very good.
Start your third day at the free to enter Kolomenskoye museum-reserve. This is an UNESCO world heritage site and ancient royal country estate. It lies on top of a hill overlooking a bend in the Moscow river.
It’s a 4 square kilometre picturesque park with some beautiful original buildings and some reconstructed iconic Russian wooden buildings such as wooden churches, gatehouses and palaces. The oldest and the most iconic building is the Ascension church from 1532.
Although the park itself is free, most of the buildings require a separate entrance fee. So, decide what you want to see from the inside, and just marvel at the rest from the outside. The reserve is immense and spread out, so go early as it is one of the few things in Moscow which opens early and expect to spend 2 to 4 hours here. You can get here easily by taking the subway to Kolomenskaya station.
Go north to Novospassky Monastery. This 15th-century monastery is free to enter. The imperial Romanov family built the main transfiguration cathedral in the 1640s. The frescoes inside show the history of Christianity in Russia and the Romanov family tree. During Soviet times the monastery was turned into a prison, since then it has been returned to the Russian Orthodox church and restored.
VDNKh (Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva)
Continue your way northwards and head over to VDNKh. As you exit the metro station you’re greeted by the 100-meter-high ‘To the conquerors of Space’ monument. This monument celebrates the launch of the Sputnik. The base of the monument houses the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. Visit this museum if you want to learn more about the Soviet Space program.
The ‘Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy’ (VDNKh) shows the achievements of the Soviet Unions, its republics and their workers. The park has numerous palaces dedicated to the different Soviet republics and industries. At the centre of the park are two huge opulent fountains gilded in gold with precious gems. Other things you can find in this park are the Buran space shuttle, a rocket and fighter jets.
Begin your last day with the huge Tretyakov Gallery. It has an enormous collection of pre-revolutionary Russian art. Highlights of the museum are the paintings by Ilya Repin and the numerous 12th-century Icons.
New Tretyakov Gallery
From the Tretyakov Gallery, it is a 20-minute walk to the New Tretyakov Gallery. This gallery houses the 20th-century Russian art collection of the museum. Highlights are the works of our favourite artist Malevich, and also Goncherova, Popova, Kandinsky and Chagall. And don’t forget its big collection of socialist realist paintings.
Cross the river and take the number one subway from the Park of culture station to Sportivnaya station. From here it’s a 10-minute walk to Novodevichy Convent. The construction of this convent started in 1524 as a commemoration of the conquering of Smolensk by Vasili III in 1514. It’s main building therefore is the Smolensk Cathedral. The convent was also a place where ‘troublesome’ women from noble families were sent to spend their days in exile.
If you like wandering around cemeteries, the Novodevichy Cemetery next to the monastery is the best one in Moscow. Here you’ll find the tombs of Nikita Khrushchev, Boris Yeltsin, Anton Chekhov and Sergei Prokofiev, just to name a few.
Museum of the Great Patriotic War
Now go to the Victory Park with the victory monument, the victory museum and an exposition of military equipment. Here you can get some understanding of the huge suffering the Soviet Union endured during the Great Patriotic War (World War II). The centrepiece of the square is the 141.8-meter obelisk. Every 10 centimetres represent one day of the war.
Behind the obelisk is the museum of the Great Patriotic War. It houses dioramas of all the major battles the Soviets fought as well as impressive memorial halls. The story of the war is retold with a light show.
At the back of the museum in the southwest corner of the park is the Exhibition of Military Equipment and Weapons in the Open Air. If you’re interested in this kind of stuff be sure to visit it. Here you’ll find over 300 different World War II era pieces of military equipment from trains to tanks, to boats and planes.
Now you’ve seen the highlights of Moscow. But there still is much more to see. Moscow is definitely a city to come back to.