Moscow, a true Russian capital. The city where you can feel and see the Russian history. The center of power of the former grand princes, the tsars and the soviet leaders, but also the political center of the current president Vladimir Putin. I spent a little over two days in Moscow. You would think this is too short, but it was enough for me to get a good impression of this metropolitan city.
Want to read more about Russia? Read also my post about traveling in the western Russia: my favorite, itineraries and travel tips.
Moscow has a negative image. A lot of people still think it’s a scary and ugly city with communist features. Well, let’s talk about this. First of all, communism as an ideology is definitely gone, but it is true that you can see the glory of the Soviet Union. Proof are for example the red stars on the top of the towers of the Kremlin. Secondly, a scary ugly city? No, exactly the opposite is true. Moscow is a modern metropolitan city, a light city, a city that never sleeps. Stores are open until 10 pm or even 24 hours and buildings are lighted throughout the year. Moscow is huge and exciting. You could easily spend a week here. So where to begin if you are only there for a weekend? In this post I’ll give you a head start by giving you four sights you cannot miss.
1. Red square
One of the most beautiful places in Moscow is the Red Square (Красная площадь, Krasnaya ploshchad). Most people think the name comes from the red bricks of the buildings surrounding the square. This is not true. Originally the name krasnaya had two meanings: red and beautiful. In case of the Red Square Russians preferred to call it beautiful square, because of the Basilius cathedral. Nowadays the Russian word krasnaya has only one meaning (red). Hence the Red square.
The eye-catcher of the Red Square is the Basilius cathedral, a church with a sinister history. Built in 1555 to commemorate the victory of Ivan IV (also known as Ivan the Terrible) over the Tatars of the city Kazan. After its completion legend has it that Ivan had its architect’s eyes poked out to keep him from building something like this ever again. We shall never know if this story is true. Anyhow, it’s a marvelous structure. Each dome is unique, and has its own size, shape, patron and color. We’re lucky it’s still there. The cathedral almost got demolished by Stalin, because it was blocking his military parades. He gave orders for demolition, but the architect refused to carry it out. Lucky us.
If you look to the north side of the square, you’ll see the Resurrection gate, the National Historic Museum and the Cathedral of Kazan Mother of God (Kazan Cathedral). During Soviet times this entrance looked a little bit different. In Stalin’s view this structures also blocked his military parades and so he gave orders to demolish the Resurrection gate and the Kazan Cathedral. The National Historic Museum could stay, because it was a place of national pride. It contained art pieces of the entire Russian history. Luckily, after the fall of the Soviet Union the gate and cathedral were rebuilt.
On the east and west side on the square, capitalism and communism stare each other right in the face: the GUM against the Mausoleum of Lenin. During Soviet times the GUM was a place with constant queues where people we’re waiting for hours to get their groceries. Now the GUM is a shopping arcade which houses only the exclusive brands. Inside the building the GUM is like a small village. Three stories high with all kinds of streets, side streets, bridges and stairs. You won’t see any ordinary Muscovites here, they call the GUM ‘the exhibition of the extremely high prices’. On the other side of the square you can find the red and black Mausoleum which holds the body of the first leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. For a brief period Stalin’s body was also put in the Mausoleum, but they soon removed it. Now you can find Stalin at the wall of the Kremlin, next to other important Soviet figures like Yuri Gagarin. Note that the Mausoleum has very limited opening hours so you might want to be there on time.
2. The Kremlin of Moscow
When people think of Moscow, they think of the Kremlin, the political heart of Russia. What people don’t know is that the word ‘Kremlin’ means fortress and that there are several Kremlins in Russia. The Kremlin of Moscow was built as a wooden defensive work, but it soon grew into a city. There was only one problem: wood burns. And so Moscow was burnt down to the ground several times. Soon they replaced the wood with bricks. The Kremlin evolved into the masterpiece of the Romanov dynasty, complete with 18 watch towers and royal palaces and cathedrals. Nowadays you’ll find inside the walls five cathedrals, two palaces, a theater, a museum and the official residence of the president. And everything is as big as it can be. For example the Tsar Bell and the Tsar Canon, two immense structures that have never been used.
3. Cathedral of Christ the Savior
Not far from Red Square you can find the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the highest and largest orthodox church in the world. The church is a replica, the original got destroyed during the rule of Joseph Stalin. Stalin wanted to built the highest communist skyscraper ever seen, right on the place of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Eventually the plan didn’t make it, but the church got demolished anyway. In order to fill up the gap the Soviets created a public swimming pool. The biggest during that time. After the fall of the Soviet Union the new regime started to rebuilt the church. Communism was gone, religion was not prohibited anymore. And so it was painful for most Orthodoxes when Pussy Riot played their punk prayer in this church in 2012. We all know how that ended. This emotional history makes this sight definitely worth a visit. Furthermore, the nearby pedestrian bridge gives a splendid panoramic view over the river Moskva and the Kremlin.
4. New Maiden’s Monastery
To escape the overcrowded Moscow center you can follow the river Moskva down to the New Maidens’ Monastery. It consists of a fortress with inside cathedrals and palaces. You would expect nuns to have lived in this monastry, but believe it or not, it was a women’s prison for a large period of time. Also interesting is the nearby cemetery where you can find prominent Russian figures like Boris Yeltsin and the writer Anton Chekhov. What I liked the most is taking a stroll along the water and sitting down at one of the benches to look at the view. And to enjoy the sun.
Have you ever been to Moscow?