The city is huge, surreal and exciting. After a few weeks here, the bizarre becomes normal and you realize that life is – as Russians say – bespredel (without limits). Traditionally a place for strangers to throw themselves into debauchery, leaving poorer and wiser, Moscow's puritan stance in Soviet times was seldom heartfelt, and with the fall of Communism it has reverted to the lusty, violent ways that foreigners have noted with amazement over the centuries, and Gilyarovsky chronicled in his book, Moscow and the Muscovites. No excess is too much for Moscow's new rich, or novye bogaty – the butt of countless "New Russian" jokes.
As the nation's largest city, with some twelve million inhabitants (one in fifteen Russians lives there), Moscow exemplifies the best and worst of Russia. Its beauty and ugliness are inseparable, its sentimentality the obverse of a brutality rooted in centuries of despotism and fear of anarchy. Private and cultural life is as passionate as business and politics are cynical. The irony and resilience honed by decades of propaganda and shortages now help Muscovites to cope with "wild" capitalism. Yet, for all its assertiveness, Moscow's essence is moody and elusive, and uncovering it is like opening an endless series of Matryoshka dolls, or peeling an onion down to its core.
Both images are apposite, for Moscow's concentric geography mirrors its historical development. At its heart is the Kremlin, whose foundation by Prince Dolgoruky in 1147 marked the birth of the city. Surrounding this are rings corresponding to the feudal settlements of medieval times, rebuilt along European lines after the great fire of 1812, and ruthlessly modernized in accordance with Stalin's vision of Moscow as the Mecca of Communism. Further out lie the fortified monasteries that once guarded the outskirts, and the former country estates of tsars and nobles, now well within the 880-square-kilometre urban sprawl encircled by the Moscow Ring Road.
Moscow's identity has been imbued with a sense of its own destiny since the fourteenth century, when the principality of Muscovy took the lead in the struggle against the Mongols and Tatars who had reduced the Kievan state to ruins. Under Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible – the "Gatherers of the Russian Lands" – its realm came to encompass everything from the White Sea to the Caspian, while after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, Moscow assumed Byzantium's suzerainty over the Orthodox world. Despite the changes wrought by Peter the Great – not least the transfer of the capital to St Petersburg, which Slavophiles have always abhorred – Moscow kept its mystique and bided its time until the Bolsheviks made it the fountainhead of a new creed. Long accustomed to being at the centre of an empire, and being misled that their society was the envy of the world, Muscovites felt the disillusionments of the 1990s more keenly than most Russians – although some have prospered beyond their wildest dreams.
All this is writ large in Moscow's architecture and street life. The Kremlin's cathedrals are Byzantine, like its politics. Ministries and hotels the size of city blocks reach their apotheosis in the "Seven Sisters" – Stalin-Gothic skyscrapers that brood over the city like vampires. Limousines cruise past babushki whose monthly pensions wouldn't cover the cost of admission to a nightclub (the city has more casinos than any capital in the world). Fascists and Communists march together, bankers live in fear of contract killers and life is up for grabs. From all this, Muscovites seek solace in backstreet churches and shady courtyards; in the steamy conviviality of the bathhouse; and over tea or vodka. Discovering the private, hidden side of Moscow is as rewarding as visiting the usual tourist sights.
Red Square and the Kremlin
Visiting Moscow is best in late spring or autumn when the weather is warm and sunny, and there is simply no better place to begin your exploring than its historic heart: the Red Square (Krasnaia Ploshchad') . Much of Russia's turbulent history has played out either in public on the Red Square itself or in private behind the walls of the Kremlin (Kreml') . The Kremlin is a powerful mix of church and state, of European and Russian styles, and of historic and modern-day Russia. The Red Square is an impressive and famous city square separating the Kremlin from the city's merchant center. Entering from the north end past the State Historical Museum , you will instantly recognize the multi-colored onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral (Sobor Vasiliia Blazhennogo) looming on the far side of the square. To the left of the square is the vast edifice that is the GUM department store and down on the right are the towering walls of the Kremlin. Beneath the walls sits Lenin's Mausoleum , a step-pyramid structure housing the embalmed remains of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.
By and large a thriving commercial area, Kitai-Gorod incorporates the broad area east of Red Square. Kitai is encircled by reconstructed medieval walls and separated from the Kremlin by the Red Square. The area is a unique demonstration of architectural history. It is a mix of traditional, art'nouveau and monumental Soviet-era architecture. Nestled between sights are the remnants of richly decorated churches and mansions. Notable examples include the well-preserved 17th-century Tserkov Troitsy v Nikitinkakh (Church of the Trinity in Nikitinov) and the Romanov Boyar House in Zariadie (Muzei Palaty v Zariade) , the former home of Romanov boyars. Gradually, beginning in the 19th Century, it was transformed into a commercial center with banks, shops and businesses.
Bulvarnoe Kol'tso & Sadovoye Kol'tso
Moscow sits on the banks of the Moskva River and its road system is centered around its heart, the Kremlin. The road system is an intricate circular system of roads, which forms rings around the Kremlin. The first, innermost ring is known as the Bulvarnoe Kol'tso, (Boulevard Ring). The Bulvarnoe Kol'tso was built on the former site of a 16th-century city wall. Despite its name, the Boulevard is not a full ring, but more of an arc shape. The Boulevard Ring extends from Cathedral of Christ the Savior (Khram Khrista Spasitela) to the Yauza River. North of the Bulvarnoe Kol'tso is a hugely varied and rolling area encompassing many of Moscow's main sights and attractions, including the Bol'shoi Theatre .
The Sadovoye Kol'tso (Garden Ring), also known as B Route, is the second circular avenue consisting of about 17 streets and 15 squares. The buildings along Sadovoye Kolt'so are eclectic, from a 19th-century mansion to recently constructed shopping malls. While under the rule of Stalin, the ring underwent construction, yet no part was rebuilt in the Stalinist style. The western side of this arched area was once one of the city's fashionable districts. Several famous names resided here, and many of their former homes have now become tourist attractions such as the Tolstoi House-Museum and the Pushkin Museum on the Arbat among others. The area around the Arbat and Novi Arbat used to be a thriving zone for Soviet Bohemians.
To the north of the Garden Ring, you'll begin to get a sense of the dizzying size of Moscow; the vast residential districts stretch north as far as the eye can see. There are many sights here that are worth checking out, including the All-Russian Exhibition Center , the nearby Botanical Gardens and the Ostankino Television Tower . Closer to the center, there are a handful of nice museums such as the Dostoevsky Apartment Museum and the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture .
South Of The City Center
Immediately south of the Moskva River is the State Tretyakov Gallery , Moscow's foremost gallery of Russian art. The famous Gorky Park is also located here, not far from the controversial Monument to Peter the Great (Monument Petry Velikomu) . Farther south, lies the Tsaritsyno .
Taganka Square is filled with palaces and churches built by Moscow's former social elite to the east, now surrounded by extensive residential development. It is home to the famous Theatre on Taganka . Other sights include the Andronikov Monastery and the Pomorskaya Old Believers Commune of Moscow .
The White House (Belyi Dom) on the River Moskva, has profound cultural and political significance in Russia's Post-Soviet history. Over the river resides the memorial Victory Park (Park Pobedy) , commemorating the victory over fascism and Nazism in the "Great Patriotic War," World War II. Farther south (and back over the twisting river) you'll find the famous Novodevichy (New Maiden) Convent and Cemetery . The cemetery houses the graves of famous Russian authors Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakovlikes, among other notable Russians. From there across the river, you'll see the imposing presence of Moscow State University's Main Building .
Moscow's contemporary wining and dining scene is utterly unlike anything that existed here during the age of the Iron Curtain. The transformation of the city from Communist citadel to Capitalist frontier is reflected in the entirely new range of restaurants that have sprung up since the beginning of the 1990s - Irish bars, snazzy American diners, expensive Japanese restaurants, Australian pubs...the list goes on. From the thriving fast-food scene to the numerous prestigious restaurants serving the new elites, eating and drinking in Moscow will not be boring. Moscow also harbors a surprisingly rich stock of ethnic cuisine from around the former Soviet Union, the most widespread being that of Georgia (a former Soviet republic to the south) but also including Central Asian and other Caucasian varieties. If you've got enough money, Moscow's selection of top class restaurants is unbeatable.
Red Square and the Kremlin
All kinds of different cuisines can be found the in area around Red Square and the Kremlin. Only a mile from the Kremlin, Tamerlan restaurant serves some of the only Mongolian barbecue in the city in a modern dining room, where you can choose every aspect of your meal. The doorway of Godunov is a large vaulted arch. Expect to find the best in obscure, ancient Russian dishes on the menu here and live Russian and Gypsy music. As the name implies, Scandinavia restaurant serves delicious Scandinavian food in a clean, modern Scandinavian designed space. Night Flight is another Scandinavian restaurant in the area that also is a popular nightclub.
Gratzi is a family-friendly restaurant that serves Italian food and offers live jazz music. The wait staff at Elki-Palki are decked out in old-fashioned Russian costumes, while they serve you traditional Russian food and drink. Don't miss your chance to try their homemade pies. The Ukrainian restaurant Shinok has a collection of live game animals grazing in its courtyard and entertainment provided by a clown on the weekends. Practically next door, Bochka is a famous restaurant within Moscow and beyond, with its opulent interiors and delicious Russian foods. For a true, American-style steakhouse, Chicago Prime is an excellent choice in the area.
This district displays Moscow's most impressive architecture, and the dining options here are somewhat limited, but still delicious. Named for a Chinese pilot, Kitaiskii Letchik Dzhao Da (Chinese Pilot Dzhao Da) is conveniently open 24 hours and is reasonably priced. Vogue Cafe is an appropriately named cafe where people go to be seen. There is also live music and an eclectic menu with everything from Russian to Italian dishes. The bright and beautiful Cafe Ararat specializes in traditional Armenian cuisine.
The American Bar & Grill is popular with Americans living abroad because of its Western menu and English-speaking staff. There is a patio open in the summer for those looking to dine outdoors.
South Of The City Center
Darbar has an extensive menu of Indian food and an à la carte menu. If you're looking for impressive traditional Russian creations, Danilovskii is a fantastic option that also has a fascinating history of its own.
The Schwein , which is German for "pig," is a bar and restaurant that features live music and delectable German and Russian cuisine. Inside, you will find plenty of fun, pig-related decorations. For authentic Ukrainian cuisine, try Vechera na Khutore (Evenings on a Farm) . The name comes from a Gogol folk story, and the building is modeled after a windmill.
Il Patio serves all kinds of delicious Italian dishes, from pizzas to pasta to profiteroles, as well as a sizable wine list. Oblomov is a classically-decorated restaurant with pool tables and various board games available. Mama Zoia's is a no-nonsense restaurant where you can get the best in Georgian food and enjoy live, local music. For Mexican fare, Pancho Villa is a must; it's known for its generous portions of traditional dishes.
Many of Moscow's quintessential sights are located in the heart of the city around the Red Square and the Kremlin. While there are things to do and places to see throughout the Russian capital, most travelers will begin their exploring here.
An ancient seat of Russian power, an awe-inspiring symbol, and an internationally-renowned landmark, the Kremlin is the spiritual heart of the Russian government: a giant, walled complex combining sacred monuments of both church and state. Russian rulers have sat here since medieval times, excluding the temporary interruption when St Petersburg was made capital. There is a story that when one film crew was at work shooting a period film in the Kremlin grounds, Yeltsin himself came out of his office to instruct them to keep the noise down. The grounds themselves are thick with history, home to a scattering of churches and cathedrals that would suffice elsewhere for a whole city.
Entry can be gained via the Kutafia Tower (Kutaf'ia Bashnia), which lies at the end of a ramp jutting from the Kremlin's west wall. Security is understandably high at this point. Walk up the ramp and you'll get to the Trinity Gate (Troitskaia Bashnia), built in 1495 and placed right on top of a 16th-century prison. ?? the right, beyond the Trinity Tower is the Poteshnyi Palace (Poteshnyi Dvorets) in which Stalin had private apartments and where his wife shot herself. Next, on the right is the Kremlin Palace of Congresses (State Kremlin Palace), a former venue for Communist Party parties and now a huge 6000-seat concert hall which is, and always was, completely out of tune with its surroundings.
On the left side lies territory strictly out of bounds to tourists. From west to east the buildings are the Arsenal, the Senate and the building of the Supreme Soviet (Verkhovnyi Sovet). The first of these is fronted by an array of Napoleonic cannons while the second is very notable for being the official residence of the Russian president himself.
On the right you'll see the Patriarch's Palace (Patriarshii Dvorets), a 17th-century building constructed for the head of the Orthodox church.
You can walk through the arches of the Palace, at which point you will find yourself entering the Kremlin's core. From here you can either swing to the left for a quick peek of the Tsar Cannon (Tsar-pushka), an impressive but non-functioning 40-ton piece of heavy armory, or you could proceed onto the main square itself and investigate what's going on there. Surrounding the square, there are various churches and cathedrals.
The Rest Of Red Square
The Cathedral of the Assumption (Uspenskii Sobor) lies just beyond the Patriarch's Palace at the north end of the square and is justifiably considered one of its key monuments. A golden-topped, five-domed structure built in the 15th Century, it was returned to Orthodox Church ownership in 1989.
Next to this (on the right) lurks the snappily-named Church of the Deposition of the Robe, a late 15th-century effort built in wholly Russian style. Inside, you'll find, among other things, a permanent display of wood-carvings. To the south lies the Hall of Facets, where Tsars would entertain guests in the Throne Room. This is closed to the public.
On the other side of the square is the Ivan the Great Bell-Tower (Kolokolnia Ivana Velikogo). It stands higher than any other of the Kremlin's buildings, while behind it, noticeably at ground-level, sits the rather forlorn Tsar Bell (Tsar-kolokol), which never made it to the bell-tower after it lost a chunk during the forging process.
The south side of the square is bordered by two cathedrals, the first of these being the Archangel Cathedral, initially erected in the 14th Century as a place of burial for the tsars but then extensively re-shaped at the beginning of the 16th Century. The second is the Annunciation Cathedral (Blagoveshchenskii Sobor), which used to be a private church for the Tsars.
From here you can head west, past the Great Kremlin Palace (Bol'shoi Kremlevskii Dvorets), which is normally closed to everyone except visiting statesmen. Keep going toward the Armory, an impressively rich ensemble of state treasures dating well back into the dim and distant history of the Muscovite regimes. From here you can exit via the nearby Borovitskii Gate.
Go east from the Red Square and you'll find yourself in the business neighborhood of Kitai-Gorod, an area almost entirely encircled by reconstructed medieval walls and filled with interesting traditional architecture including wonderful mansions and churches. After taking a look at the well-preserved 17th-century Tserkov Troitsy v Nikitinkakh (Church of the Trinity in Nikitinov), you could do some shopping or grab a bite to eat at Chambers in Zariadie (Muzei Palaty v Zariade), the former home of Romanov boyars, which has been converted into a commercial center. Be sure to visit Lubyanka Square, which is where you'll also find the KGB headquarters. It's also worth checking out the Slavyanskaya Square and Theatre Square, on which sits the Bolshoi Theatre. Even if it is on the late side, you can always grab some good food 24 hours a day at the Kitaiskii Letchik Dzhao Da (Chinese Pilot Dzhao Da).
Capital Tours (+7 495 232 2442/ http://www.capitaltours.ru/)
Ost-West (+7 812 327 34 16/ http://www.ostwest.com)
Isango (+1 866 663 7017/ http://www.isango.com/)
Three Whales (+7 495 4208441/ http://www.threewhales.ru/t3.htm)
Moscow Tour Guide (+7 495 565 61 63/ http://www.moscowguidedtours.com)
Monkey Business Shrine (http://www.monkeyshrine.com/places/moscow/guided-tours.php)
Moscow with Elena (http://www.yourmoscowguide.com)