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
DAY TWO / Grab a coffee and a pastry to go from Café Kranzler before stepping out onto Sofiyskaya Embankment. Take a left and walk along the river for half a mile or so. Soon, you’ll notice the giant modernist building known appropriately as 1 House on the Embankment. Built as an apartment complex for the Soviet elite, it was also a key site of the Purges, with many residents detained and killed by Stalin’s forces. Just beyond this, you’ll come across the vast redbrick Victorian-era 2 Red October chocolate factory, the ancestral home to Russia’s most beloved chocolate brand. In a sign of the times, it’s currently being redeveloped by renowned architects like Sir Norman Foster as offices and SoHo-style lofts.
Cross the river via the nearby pedestrian bridge to the monumental 3Cathedral of Christ the Savior, stopping to check out the absurd 315-foot-tall, nautically themed
4Monument to Peter the Great, designed by the much reviled Zurab Tsereteli. If you’re wondering why an 18th century czar is dressed like a conquistador, popular legend has it that the statue was originally intended for Columbus, Ohio, but was deemed too ugly. Undeterred, Tsereteli recast the head to look like Peter and sold it to his buddy, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
Tsereteli and Luzhkov also teamed up to build the cathedral. The original Christ the Savior had been completed in 1883 after nearly 50 years of construction. It took Stalin mere days to dynamite it to the ground. The story came full circle when Luzhkov ordered it rebuilt in 1994, in time for the 850th anniversary of Moscow’s founding.
To dispel the growing impression that everything in Moscow has been destroyed and recently rebuilt, cross Volkhonka Street and visit the nearby 5Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, home to an excellent collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists like Monet, Cezanne, Picasso and others.
Afterward, retrace your footsteps to the 6 Kropotkinskaya Metro station and take a ride on the most incredible subway on earth. The Moscow Metro may be among the busiest systems in the world, but it’s not just a utilitarian means to an end. Stalin’s regime declared that Metro stations should be “palaces of the people,” and what the regime said was law. No expense was spared filling the stations’ soaring vaults with marble, mosaics, chandeliers and sculptures. (Palace or not, avoid traveling during rush hour, when the Metro feels more like a stockyard.)
Ride the train three stops south to 7 Sportivnaya station and climb back to street level, where you’ll find the 16th century domes of 8 Novodevichy Monastery sparkling nearby. Once inside this UNESCO World Heritage Site, soak up the peaceful environs. The real attraction, however, is the cemetery, the sprawling final resting place for some of Russia’s greatest luminaries, like Chekhov, Gogol, Khrushchev, Raisa Gorbachev and reformer/tippler Boris Yeltsin. From Sportivnaya station, travel back the way you came, but exit after two stops at 9 Park Kultury station, and cross the suspension bridge to the leafy expanse formerly (and more famously) known as Gorky Park. A slightly disheveled version of Central Park, Kultury is an oasis of green. Proceed south along the water until you reach 10 Chaihona, an Uzbek teahouse situated in a large yurt. Order strong tea to accompany a lamb-stuffed phyllo pastry, and lounge on one of the divans.
When you’re ready to go, catch a water taxi at the nearby pier. The boats, which run every 20 minutes, cost about $10, making them cheaper than the most scrupulous taxi. Go two stops to Bolshoi Ustinsky bridge, and you’re home.
No trip to Moscow is complete without visiting the 11 Bolshoi Theater, not far from the Kremlin. The Bolshoi differs from most major Western theaters in two key ways: You can buy tickets last-minute, and great seats are available for less than $100. If you’ve never been to a Russian opera before, be warned that after the first intermission there’s usually a second or even a third, so there’s no shame in snoozing through an aria or two. Afterward, you can head down Petrovka Street to 12 Peperoni, a chic Italian café run by Arkady Novikov, Moscow’s answer to Wolfgang Puck. Munch on a thin-crust margherita pizza or tangy bruschetta, and wash it down with an espresso, which might help you recover from the second aria.
A nightcap is in order, so hop a taxi to 13 Denis Simachev Bar. Owned by Moscow’s fashion-world darling, this bar is loud, funky and entertainingly unusual: filled with leopard skin rugs, a manga mosaic, disco balls and bathroom stalls outfitted with old-fashioned pull-chain toilets. The patrons tend to be equally eclectic, and the party goes 24 hours a day, so don’t worry about getting your fill of fun before last call.