Ottomans, Russians have been fond of calling Moscow "the Third Rome." While it never became the center of a global empire, in modern Russia it's no exaggeration to say that all roads lead to Moscow. When describing their city, Muscovites reach for superlatives. This habit might be a holdover from the Soviet Union, but they're no longer boasting about the biggest cement factory. After years of growth during which Russia transformed into a swaggering economic superpower, its capital has become a world-class destination, flaunting the dynamism of a city with something to prove.
Author Jake Rudnitsky Photography RIA NOVOSTI / TOPHAM / THE IMAGE WORKS / IRA BLOCK / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC STOCK , FEILER FOTO STUDIO / STOCK FOOD , RICHARDT . NOWITZ / CORBIS , SIME S.A.S / ESTOCK PHOTO
Nowadays, they brag about having the most billionaires, the tallest buildings or the most expensive hotels. And while Russia has been hit hard by the world economic crisis (Forbes.com recently said that Moscow is home to “only” 27 billionaires, as opposed to 74 last year), decadence and luxury still rule the day.
It’s time to discover it. Though a sprawling metropolis of 10.4 million people, Moscow’s core is mercifully compact. The city radiates out from the Kremlin, its geographic and cultural heart, and almost everything of interest, from ancient onion domes to strikingly contemporary skyscrapers, is located nearby. In Moscow, a city of constant change, every day is different.
DAY ONE Russians like to say that you can’t understand Russia with your head. That’s certainly true of hotel prices. While they’ve come back down to earth a little in recent months, Moscow’s hotels are notoriously expensive. At less than $600, the five-star Swissôtel Krasnye Holmy is an excellent choice. And in terms of location, it’s hard to beat the five-star neoclassical 1 Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, a relative bargain at around $700 a night. Just as well you’re only here for three days.
Its lobby serves as something of an informal club for the country’s elite. But more importantly for your purposes, the Baltschug sits on the banks of the Moscow River and looks across to the two most iconic buildings in Russia: the 2 Kremlin and the chromatic onion domes of 3 St. Basil’s Cathedral.
There’s no need to stray far for your first breakfast in Mother Russia. At the Café Kranzler downstairs, you can sample traditional Russian fare for about $20. Try the sirniki (cottage-cheese fritters) and blini (pancakes), which you should smother liberally with smetana (sour cream) or varenia (jam).
Step out onto Sofiyskaya Embankment, and you’ll notice right away that there aren’t any taxis. Actually, Moscow is crawling with gypsy cabs—locals just stick out their hand until a car stops to haggle over the price of a trip. However, you should avoid this unless you enjoy flouting traffic rules with a driver who chain-smokes cheap cigarettes and shouts geopolitical theories over a Russian crooner blaring on blown speakers. As a rule, it’s much easier—and more peaceful—to walk, take the Metro or have the concierge order a licensed taxi.
If Moscow is the center of Russia, the hub of Moscow is the Kremlin and Red Square. Weather permitting (and quite often it isn’t) you’re in for an easy morning walk across Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, which leads straight to them.
As you cross the bridge, you’ll have just enough elevation to get a sense of the massive scale of the Kremlin’s unmistakable red walls. You’ll also get a sense of just how schizophrenic modern Russia can be. The Kremlin’s towers are still topped by red stars, symbols of revolutionary Soviet power. But right next door on Red Square, the ornate Iberian Gate is topped with two-headed eagles, a traditional czarist symbol.
St. Basil’s Cathedral
St. Basil’s stands between the bridge and Red Square. The onion domes, intense colors and unlikely textures of this magnificent cathedral add credence to the legend that Ivan the Terrible had its architect blinded so that he could never make anything else as beautiful. That said, Ivan, a particularly vicious 16th century czar who killed his own son in a fit of rage, probably didn’t spend much time inside praying. The interior holds little more than dimly lit, cramped chapels and isn’t worth the long line.
On the other side is Red Square, a vast, empty expanse best suited for military parades. It’s recently been discovered that some of the impossibly big missiles that used to roll by stone-faced Communist functionaries were, in fact, fakes made to frighten the West. Judging by the size of the nuclear arsenals both sides ultimately built, the intimidation tactics worked. In May of last year, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia resurrected the tradition of showing off its heavy weaponry at the annual Victory Day parade. But on most days, Red Square is the domain of tourists.
Those looking for a more macabre activity are urged to line up to see the pickled leader of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir I. Lenin. His mausoleum is in the center of Red Square, next to the Kremlin walls. The goateed revolutionary doesn’t look bad for someone who’s been dead nearly 90 years, but it’s probably for the best the lights are kept low.
Opposite Lenin and the Kremlin is 4 GUM, a stunning 19th century shopping mall with three glass-roofed arcades and several floors of high-end boutiques. One of the more entertaining stores is Gastronom No. 1, a gourmet supermarket done up in Soviet style. With even the security guards dressed in vintage suits, the only things not Soviet are the high prices. (Somehow it’s hard to imagine heroes of the working class spending $10 on artisan bread.) If Gastronom No. 1 awakens your appetite, stop for lunch at Bosco Café, a stylish Italian joint where you can munch on panini for about $30.
It’s time to visit the Kremlin, the official residence of the Russian president and the oldest part of Moscow. The highlight here is the Assumption Cathedral with its five golden domes. As you walk the grounds, check out the Tsar Bell (the largest in the world, it cracked before anyone got a chance to ring it), the Armory (which houses such royal extravagances as jewel-encrusted thrones and Fabergé eggs) and the Diamond Fund Exhibition. Anyone who thinks rappers popularized bling should check out the 190-carat diamond belonging to Czarina Catherine the Great.
After several hours inside the Kremlin, you’ll need a rest, so hop a taxi back to your room. Then it’s off to one of Moscow’s newest luxury hotels, the over-thetop, $350 million Ritz-Carlton. Here, head straight up to the glitzy rooftop 5 O2 Lounge and enjoy views of Red Square as you get drinking advice from one of the world’s only vodka sommeliers. On Moscow’s impossibly long summer evenings, when the sun goes down well after 10, the rooftop terrace is one of the most popular hangouts for Moscow’s beautiful people. But don’t get too comfortable—even though O2 has excellent sushi, you didn’t come to Moscow for the seafood.
Instead, take a 10-minute stroll down Tverskaya Street (Moscow’s Broadway) to 6 Café Pushkin. This restaurant, built a decade ago to look like a 19th century manor, would feel right at home in Las Vegas. When the food arrives, you’ll sense that authenticity isn’t the name of the game at Café Pushkin, because Russian cuisine was simply never meant to taste so good. Order yourself a soup (a must in Russia), piroshki (pastry pies filled with beef, lamb or veggies) and either the beef Stroganoff or Pozharsky cutlets. If you want to go completely native, get a plate of pickled vegetables and at least one carafe of vodka. A meal will cost you about $100 per person and, perhaps, your sobriety.
After dinner, walk it off with a stroll along the boulevard. On summer nights, you’ll find couples in love, speed-chess players and groups of students crowded around street performers. Take a moment to appreciate the scene—and how little it costs.