Night has fallen, the afternoon rain giving way to a starry sky, and Red Square looks magical. The wet cobblestones are slick with reflected, kaleidoscopic light. The great red wall of the Kremlin looms to my right. Ahead of me the gaudy onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral shimmer in floodlights. It is a fairytale setting.
During my Cold War childhood, Red Square was often perceived as a place of marching soldiers and trundling tanks: the epitome of the Red Menace. But the name predates Communism, deriving from the Russian krasniy, meaning “beautiful.” Tonight, the beauty of this famous place fills me with a childlike sense of wonder.
Here pumps the very heart of Moscow, Russia’s Mother City. From this central point, roads radiate out to every corner of the world’s largest country. The incomprehensible scale of the open space and the imposing buildings that fringe it completely dwarf me.
The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky called Red Square the center of the world, probably overstating it. But it is certainly the focal point of any visit to Moscow. Each of the major attractions around the square requires dedicated visits, and together they encompass the three pillars of modern Russia: the state, religion and commerce.
At the epicenter of Russian power sits the Kremlin (http://www.kremlin.museum.ru). With only about a third of the Kremlin open to the public, stern-faced policemen ensure that you do not stray into the forbidden zones. Even so, the visitor area encompasses some truly fabulous historic architecture and provides a vivid impression of Russia’s past.
Just outside the Kremlin walls on Red Square, another historic legacy, the Lenin Mausoleum (http://www.aha.ru), displays the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin. Even now, 17 years after the end of Communism, there are often long queues to get in, though these days people seem more motivated by ghoulish curiosity than ideology.
St. Basil’s Cathedral, commissioned in 1555 by Ivan the Terrible, presents a more beautiful exterior than its somewhat claustrophobic interior. Even so, the nine separate chapels exude an ancient ambience that is well worth a visit.
Another sort of cathedral borders the entire eastern side of Red Square. GUM Department Store (http://www.gum.ru/en) is a vast temple to consumerism. The current building opened in 1893, featuring stunning glasscanopied arcades. A shrine to austerity during the Communist era (though a luxury store on the top floor was open to senior party members), it once again embraces capitalism and houses a wide array of international shops.
For younger consumers, Detsky Mir (http://www.det-mir.ru), “Children’s World,” is a toy-filled wonderland with branches throughout the city. The multi-floored flagship store sits on Lubyanka Square, bizarrely situated opposite the headquarters of the former KGB.
For James Bond enthusiasts, the nearby Museum of the Security Service(21 Tverskaya Ulitsa, tel 7 095 299 6724) provides a fascinating window into the murky world of Soviet espionage.
Some of the greatest attractions of Moscow are accessed for the price of a subway ticket. The original stations of the Moscow Metro, built as “people’s palaces,” are breathtaking. The Circle Line provides the best sightseeing. Time your visits outside peak times and be vigilant for pickpockets. Among the most spectacular stops are Kievskaya, Park Kultury, Mayakovskaya, Belorusskaya and Komsomolskaya.
The city boasts a wealth of highbrow museums. One of the greatest, the State Tretyakov Gallery http://www.tretyakovgallery.ru exhib,its an outsta nding collection of Russian art. The nearby New Tretyakov Galleryis devoted to modern art.
The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics (http://www.informatics.org/museum) reveals the space race from the Soviet perspective. Displays include rockets and satellites, pieces of moon rock and genuine spacesuits that you can try on.
Gorky Park, on the banks of the Moskva River, offers simulated space rides in a retired Buran, the Russian version of the space shuttle. Home of the internationally respected Moscow Zoo (http://www.zoo.ru/moscow) which exhibits nearly 1,000 animal species, the park is a great place to mingle with ordinary Muscovites.
Animals are also featured at the legendary Great Moscow State Circus(http://www.bolshoicircus.ru). Performing bears and porcupines star, as well as some of the funniest clowns and most agile trapeze artists you will ever see.
The pinnacle of performing arts in Moscow, the Bolshoi Theater (http://www.bolshoi.ru/en) is closed for renovation until November 2009. The Bolshoi opera and ballet companies continue to perform at the adjacent New Bolshoi Theater and at the State Kremlin Palace.
ARARAT PARK HYATT
Location, location, location. A block from the Maly and Bolshoi theaters and just a five-minute walk from Red Square, the hotel does not rest on its strategic laurels. The 203 guestrooms, spacious by Moscow standards, are complemented by first-rate service, which comes at a price. Accommodation in the city is among the most expensive in the world, and this top-end property will certainly make a hole in your pocket, especially if your visit coincides with a major holiday or event — when tariffs can double.$$$$
ARARAT PARK HYATT
4 Neglinnaya St.,
tel 7 495 783 1234,
Timing was lousy for the wealthy backers of the original Savoy Hotel. The hotel opened in 1913, unabashedly catering to the wealthy upper classes. Four years later, the Russian Revolution swept away the target market and the hotel fell to neglect. Revived as the Hotel Berlin in the 1950s, it reigned for decades as one of the better properties owned by the state tourism company Intourist. Refurbishment in the 1990s restored the 67 rooms to their former glory. A further multi-million-dollar overhaul completed in 2006 firmly reestablished the Savoy as one of the swankiest places in town and a particular favorite of visiting celebrities. $$$$
3/6 Rozhdestvenka St.,
tel 7 495 6208500,
Describing a hotel as Stalinist would not usually be considered a compliment. The ruthless Soviet dictator, although a particular fan of brutal, monolithic architecture, signed the orders for the creation of this 107-room hotel to cater to senior Communist party officials and visiting dignitaries, showing his softer side. With its white marble staircases, gilded ceilings and plush red carpets, the hotel was a sumptuous palace for the ruling elite. Rooms upgraded to modern international standards still preserve the remarkable Soviet ambience.$$$
Leningradsky Prospekt 32/2,
tel 7 495 960 2000,
Blvd. Tverskoy 26a,
tel 7 495 2295590
Located at the head of famous Arbat Street, the Praga (or Prague) originally opened in the 1870s as a cheap café. Its fortunes changed in 1896 when a merchant named Taraykin won the property in a game of billiards. He immediately transformed it into the most prestigious restaurant in the city. Here Chekhov celebrated the opening of his play, The Three Sisters. During the Communist era its grandeur and reputation faded, but today it is experiencing something of a revival, with three popular restaurants — Italian, Brazilian and European — housed under the same roof.$$-$$$$
tel 7 495 2906171,
AMERICAN BAR AND GRILL
When in Moscow, do as the Muscovites do — eat in an “authentic” Wild West saloon. If you need a break from borscht and bliny, the city’s three Ambar restaurants provide the perfect antidote — for your wallet, too. The ample portions provide great value for the price. Tuck in to burgers or burritos under the impassive stare of the buffalo heads mounted on the walls. The original branch is located close to Mayakovskaya metro station.$$
AMERICAN BAR AND GRILL
tel 7 495 2517999,
INFO TO GO
International flights arrive at Sheremetyevo-2 Airport (SVO), 17 miles northwest of downtown. Taxis into the city cost almost $100. By public transport, get into town by a combination of minibus and Metro for around $1. Domestic flights depart from Moscow’s three other airports: Domodedovo (DME), Vnukovo (VKO) and Bykovo (BKA). For more information, visit http://www.russia-travel.com .
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