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Moscow is the capital of the world's biggest country, and is situated in the centre of the European part of Russia. The Kremlin lies at the very heart of the city, and indeed the country. It has been the Russian centre of governmental and religious power for almost eight centuries, and includes five palaces and four cathedrals. The view over Red Square and the colourful domes of Saint Basil's Cathedral may be the country's most iconic image.
The city's fusion of geometry and finesse is evident in the massive concrete slabs and high-rise apartments of the Stalinist era, and the ornate churches, beautiful neo-classical houses and impressive architecture of the old city. Wide grey thoroughfares give way to narrow winding inner city streets, and golden church domes gleam between the looming skyscrapers. Moscow attracts all those eager to embrace new business and free enterprise, while the divide between affluence and poverty is always evident.
Since the fall of communism, Moscow has been injected with a sense of urgency to change the face of its capital, embracing capitalism and shaking off the years of communism with flashy shop fronts housing Western franchises, glossy hotels and the frenzied restoration of lavish Orthodox churches. The once dreary streets are now a vibrant commotion of life, with markets and eager vendors offering an assortment of goods unavailable during the Soviet years.
It's also a city of entertainment, with theatres and the renowned Moscow Circus, museums and art galleries. It boasts the world's largest and most efficient metro system, featuring gleaming stations deep underground which are astonishingly decorated with elegant marble, glittering chandeliers and magnificent mosaics. Moscow is the soul of the new Russia and an intriguing mix of history, politics, business and culture.
The Moscow Kremlin is a fortress surrounded by a thick red wall, intersped with towers built in the late 15th century. It consists of golden-domed churches, palaces and museums, along with offices, assembly halls and monuments.
Cathedral Square is the religious centre of Moscow and the historic heart of the Kremlin. The attractive Annunciation Cathedral contains beautifully painted murals and icons on the interior walls. The throne of Ivan the Terrible can be found in the Cathedral of the Assumption, whose richly-coloured interior is lined with the tombs of many Russian Orthodox leaders.
The Belfry of Ivan the Great is the tallest structure within the walls. At its foot lies one of the world's biggest bells which was broken from a fall in 1701, while nearby is one of the world's largest cannons, the Tsar Cannon.
The Armoury Palace is the richest and oldest museum, housing a staggering collection gathered over the years by the Church and Russian state. These include jewel-studded coronation capes; thrones encrusted with diamonds; royal coaches and sleighs; and the renowned jewelled Faberge eggs, each containing an exquisitely detailed miniature object of precious metal. The Diamond Fund Exhibition in the same building contains the 180-carat diamond given to Catherine the Great by Count Orlov.
Red Square is a dramatic cobbled square in the centre of Moscow. Originally the city's marketplace, the square also served as a public gathering place to celebrate festivals, listen to government announcements or witness executions. The Soviets turned it into a memorial, constructing Lenin's Mausoleum on one side wherein his cadaver is still open for public viewing. St Basil's Cathedral is the square's most well-known building, crowned by the bulbous multi-coloured domes for which it is so famous. The communist government destroyed several ancient buildings around Red Square, with the current Resurrection Gate and Chapel both replicas built in the 1990s. The name originally meant 'beautiful', referring to St Basil's Cathedral at the southern end. But the word changed to mean 'red' too, giving the square its present name.
St Basil's Cathedral is the most famous landmark in Russia, standing on the edge of Moscow's Red Square. Its striking design was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate a victorious military campaign against the Tartar Mongols in 1552. It's said that Ivan was so overwhelmed by its beauty that he had the architect blinded to prevent any rival creations. St Basil's includes a central chapel surrounded by eight tower-like chapels, each crowned with a different coloured and uniquely-patterned onion-shaped dome. The church escaped demolition many times, with the Soviets eventually closing it and later turning it into a museum. The interior is a dimly lit maze of corridors and delicately decorated chapels, with a priceless 16th century screen shielding the inner sanctuary.
Moscow's oldest and most famous theatre, the Bolshoi is home to world-renowned opera and ballet companies. Rebuilt after a fire in 1856, the grand building is a masterpiece of Russian neoclassicism, including an eight-columned entrance porch topped by the horse-drawn chariot of Apollo. The glittering five-tiered interior is richly adorned with red velvet furnishings, ornate gold detailing and chandeliers, while the size of the auditorium makes it one of the largest theatres in the world. The Bolshoi Theatre has hosted some of the world's most celebrated premieres, such as Swan Lake, Spartacus and concerts by Wagner.
The Tretyakov Gallery houses some of the great masterpieces of traditional Russian art from before the Revolution and has the world's finest collection of Russian icons dating from the 11th to the 17th-century. The gallery's collection of paintings, graphics and sculptures covers Russian art from the 18th to the 20th century. The gallery was named after its founder, Pavel Tretyakov, an art collector who donated about 2,000 works of art from his private collection to the city of Moscow, forming the basis of the collection to which state acquisitions were later added. He also donated his own residence, which became the original site of the art gallery. Two separate buildings at different locations house the works selected for display.
Historically, Poklonnaya Hill was a spot for Westerners to pay homage to Moscow before entering. Today, it's a beacon to Russia's military strength, having withstood invasions by both Napoleon and Hitler. Atop the hill is Victory Park, providing a scenic walk and contains a memorial mosque and synagogue for victims of the war, and an open air museum dedicated to the victory over Napoleon. There are many tanks and other wartime vehicles on display in Victory Park, along with several impressive monuments and statues. History buffs will love exploring the many attractions of Poklonnaya Hill and Victory Park, and even those not interested in military history will enjoy the art and the views.
After Napoleon retreated from Russia, Tsar Alexander I declared that a cathedral be built in remembrance of the soldiers who had died defending Mother Russia. The original cathedral took more than 40 years to build. Decades later the cathedral was demolished by Stalin to make way for the colossal Palace of the Soviets, which was never actually built. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was rebuilt again between 1990 and 2000 as a faithful duplicate of the original, currently serving as one of the largest and tallest Orthodox Churches in the world. The contemporary Russian artwork, statues and memorials to the Russian tsars, as well as a small indoor museum, are well worth a look.
The battle of Borodino is regarded as the bloodiest of the Napoleonic battles, seeing over 70,000 casualties in a single day and leading Napoleon to brand the Russians 'invincible'. The Borodino Panorama Museum was inaugurated in 1960, with a collection of wartime memorabilia on one level and the enormous panorama on another. The panorama isn't an outdoor view but a 360 degree painting by Franz Roubaud depicting a crucial moment in the battle itself. The mural is 115 meters long and 15 meters high. The museum will delight military history buffs, but should also impress the uninitiated. Those with smartphones can download the museum's interesting audio guide, helped along by free wifi.
Moscow's metro stations amount to the most beautiful public transport facilities in the world. Visitors should not miss taking a ride on this glorious underground rail system, each station boasting a distinct aesthetic, variously adorned with Realist artworks, chandeliers, ornate pillars and marble floors. They are more akin to palaces or five-star hotel lobbies than functional spaces, with the depth of the elevators also astounding. Most travellers in Moscow will encounter the metro system for practical reasons, but many will find that they choose to spend more time than necessary underground. There are nearly 200 stations but some of the most beautiful and ornate are Kievskaya, Dostoyevskaya and Prospekt Mira, along with Mayakovskaya and Ploshchad Revolyutsii.
While finding kids attractions in Moscow might seem like a daunting task at first, this fascinating city still has a fair number of things that will spark the interest of children. The Obraztsov Puppet Theater features performances for children during the day, while animal lovers should head to the Moscow Cat Theater, where domestic cats perform an array of acrobatic tricks. The Moscow Dolphinarium will delight with dolphins, whales and sea lions performing tricks, balancing balls and jumping through hoops. On the other hand, older children may take interest in the historical value of the Kremlin, or in the sheer size of the Tsar Cannon and Tsar Bell.
Moscow has a continental climate, typified by exceedingly cold, long winters (November to March) and hot summers (June to August). In midsummer, during July and August, temperatures are pleasantly warm, with occasional hot spells, and humidity tends to be high. Winters differ drastically, with only about six hours of daylight in the middle of the season and temperatures recorded at way below freezing point. In summer, temperatures average between 53°F (12°C) and 79°F (26°C), and in winter temperatures average between 13°F (-11°C) and 25°F (-4°C). Winter snows start in October and the snow blanket persists well into spring. Moscow has little rainfall, with most of its precipitation falling as snow.
Eating out in Moscow is a warm and gratifying experience. There are ample restaurants serving traditional Russian cuisine such as beef stroganoff, borscht, and blini, as well as many offering international or seafood menus with local favourites like caviar.
Generally the best restaurants specialising in local fare can be found inside the Garden Ring and Kitai, or near Poklonnaya Hill. There are excellent seafood restaurants in both Red Square and Kiev Station Square, while international cuisine is available from restaurants in Pushkinskaya, Tverskaya and on Teatralny Proezd. The Taganskaya area is also well-known for its wealth of restaurants.
While some restaurants actually stay open 24 hours a day, most establishments require reservations. Some restaurants add a service charge to the bill and if not, 10 percent gratuity is acceptable. Moscow is an expensive city with many impressive fine dining options that will set you back substantially, but it's possible to enjoy traditional Russian cuisine on a budget.
Moscow's nightlife features an amazing selection of bars, clubs and concert venues, as well as its fair share of casinos. The most popular party scenes are generally found in and around Kitai Gorod, Arbat and Garden Ring, and a stroll along 1905 Goda Street is a must if you're on the lookout for the latest hot spot.
Be aware that many Moscow bars and nightclubs operate on strict face and dress control systems, meaning that the bouncers will actively turn away people they don't find attractive or fashionable enough. There are a handful of prime nightlife spots near Red Square, as one might expect, but travellers should be wary of tourist traps - often the clubs and bars frequented by locals are the best.
For those who fancy a flutter, Moscow's casinos include Carnival and Casino Desperado, and bowling alleys and billiard rooms are numerous. Luzhniki Stadium hosts massive international music concerts, while Hermitage Garden is good for open-air performances and contemporary electronic concerts, and also boasts the Novaya Opera Theatre and an ice rink. Good live music is not hard to find in Moscow and the city is famous for its performing arts.
Shopping in Moscow is surprisingly rewarding. This previously-deprived nation loves shopping and Moscow's city centre has numerous malls and upmarket boutiques, offering all the big name brands and some pricey local goods.
The GUM building in Red Square hosts names like Hugo Boss, Dior and Calvin Klein. Tverskaya Ulitsa is Moscow's most trendy shopping street. More modest, high-street fashions such as Benetton, Guess, Nike and Reebok are available from Okhoktny Ryad, under Manezh Square. Izmailovsky Park has a market at the weekends, which sells traditional Russian arts and crafts, such as nesting dolls, which make for good souvenirs.
Eliseev Gastronome was a palace in the 1880s and retains many of its original features, such as curling marble pillars and candelabras. Today, it's an exclusive supermarket where visitors can find the finest Russian vodka or caviar; the Cheremushinsky Rynok market also sells fresh local produce. Warehouses in the suburbs sell cheap electronic goods, DVDs and software, as do vendors at the Gorbushkin Dvor market.
Shops are generally open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 6pm; some larger retailers stay open until 8pm, and many smaller shops are closed between 1pm and 3pm. Ensure that all necessary export permits are in order, and beware of purchasing illegally manufactured or pirated goods.
The easiest and most pleasant way to get around Moscow is on the underground metro. It's inexpensive, very efficient and easy to use, even considering all signage is in Russian. But it's still a good idea to have the destination written in Cyrillic characters to help identify the correct station. The metro runs until 1am and fares are standard regardless of the distance travelled, allowing unlimited transfers.
Overland transport is less efficient than the metro, but an extensive network of buses, trams and trolleybuses covers the areas not serviced by the metro until about 11pm. They can get unpleasantly crowded during rush hour with passenger vans called marshrutka serving as alternatives which follow the bus routes and stop on request.
There are also scores of official metered taxis and unofficial cars that can be flagged down on the street, but fares must be negotiated before entering the vehicle, especially as foreigners are likely to be overcharged. Although taxis are generally safe, tourists should be cautious and single women are advised to avoid them at night. Driving in the city is not recommended.
For the most part, Moscow's tourist attractions bear testament to the city's turbulent past. But there are also a number of more light-hearted cultural and religious venues to enjoy in the city. Sightseeing in Moscow is best from spring through summer (April until late August), when it is warmer and the days are longer.
The city's foremost attractions are the Kremlin, a UNESCO-listed medieval fortress dating back to the city's foundation in 1147; the iconic multi-coloured domes of St Basil's Cathedral; and Red Square. The Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre is home to Moscow's famed performance arts, while the Tretyakov Gallery exhibits traditional Russian masterpieces.
Historic Moscow attractions include Poklonnaya Hill, which highlights Russia's military strength against both Napoleon and Hitler, and the Borodino Panorama Museum, which has interesting artefacts and displays from the Napoleonic wars. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour commemorates the soldiers who died defending Russia in the early 19th century and can be added to the list of military memorials in the city.
Travellers planning a lot of sightseeing in Moscow should consider purchasing the Moscow Pass, which offers free entry to more than 30 attractions.
Located 120 miles (193km) from Moscow, Yasnaya Polyana is the estate where Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828. In 1921, the property became a memorial to the celebrated author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, containing a museum with his personal effects and an extensive library. Nearly a century later, the museum is still run by Tolstoy's descendants. Tolstoy spent 60 years living at Yasnaya Polyana with his family, and all of his 13 children were born there. He founded a working farm and children's school on the estate, and is buried in an area called the Forest of the Old Order.
Consisting of a circuit of historic cities northeast of Moscow, the Golden Ring is a popular tourist route for travellers in Russia. The cities are popular for their distinctive architecture and tradition of handmade craftsmanship, offering tourists a good opportunity to buy beautiful Russian souvenirs. The cities are fairly similar so it isn't necessary to visit them all, with most travellers choosing to see only four or five. But one that shouldn't be missed is Sergiev Posad, the centre of the Russian Orthodox Church and home to the impressive Sergiev Posad Monastery. Suzdal is another highlight on any Golden Ring tour, home of the St Euthymius Monastery and the enormous Spaso-Evfimiev Monastery, which houses 10 museums and is nearly as impressive as St Basil's in Moscow.
A museum since 1917, the Arkhangelskoye Estate was built in 1703 and features classical and neo-classical design elements. The estate consists of the main palace, the smaller Caprice and a church, as well as a theatre. Beautifully decorated interiors are augmented by an impressive art collection. Unlike many other old aristocratic Russian estates, Arkhangelskoye is in very good condition as special, dedicated efforts have been made in recent years to ensure its upkeep. In the summer and early autumn, all of the buildings are open for viewing and visitors bring picnics to enjoy in the gardens. There are also usually several music concerts hosted by the estate throughout the summer months.
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