Moscow Guide: The City’s Best Cathedrals, Cafes, and Ballet Theatres

Moscow's diverse heritage, cuisine, and vibrant nightlife are now more affordable.  
Red Square Moscow Russia
Red Square has been a hub of activity for Moscow over the ages, initially serving as a market place, an arena for political meetings, and now as a space for festivals and celebrations. Photo: Tanatat Pongphilbool, Thailand/Moment/Getty Images

Russia is a country that has always fascinated me because of its turbulent history, longstanding tradition of art and politics, and its many representations in fiction. Over time, it became larger than life in my mind and I started mixing it up with some fabled land. In 2014, when the value of the rouble dropped dramatically, Russia seemed accessible to me. Last year, I took advantage of an opportunity that arose and finally made my way to Moscow.

Crimson Tide

St Basil's Moscow Russia

Apart from the iconic St. Basil’s (pictured here) there are other famous cathedrals in the Kremlin complex clustered around the nearby Sobornaya or Cathedral Square. Photo: Ute Grabowsky/Contributor/Photothek/Getty Images

All the photos I’d seen and descriptions I’d heard didn’t quite prepare me for the imposing architectural beauty of Moscow’s Red Square and surrounding areas. However, I caught my first glimpse of the glory of Russian Revival architecture in the heart of the city at Manezhnaya Square, which connects Red Square with downtown Moscow. On one end of Red Square is the large and splendorous State Historical Museum, in a deep, rich Moscow red brick (www.shm.ru/en; open Mon, Wed, Thur, Sun 10 a.m.-6 p.m, last ticket 5.30 p.m.; Fri-Sat 10 a.m.-9 p.m., last ticket 8 p.m.; RUB350/₹354). Alexander Garden and the entrance to the Kremlin is here as well.

Cathedral Moscow Russia

Assumption Cathedral has five golden domes and its interiors with elaborate frescoes. Photo: Alvaro Leiva/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

A few steps north, along the main street of Tverskaya, passing under a bridge, I was once again surrounded by beautiful red. The crimson towers of the Kremlin, a sprawling fortified complex with palaces and cathedrals, spiral as high as 62 feet towards the sky. Its bulky walls, some 21 feet thick, line one side of the square. The blue, yellow, and green domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral built in the typical Eastern Orthodox architectural style stand out, looking fairy-tale-like besides the formidable red buildings. During winter, there’s an ice-skating rink built right in the middle of Red Square. So when you fall on your back, as most first-timers will, you can stare at the motionless beauty around. (www.kreml.ru/en-Us/museums-moscow-kremlin; open daily 10 p.m.-5 p.m. except Thursday; entry from RUB287/₹290; children under 16 free; skating rink open 30 November-9 March; free except Friday 4-10 p.m. and weekends/holidays; costs at www.gum.ru/en/projects/rink.)

Inside the Kremlin is a world of wonders, with sprawling gardens and magnificent buildings, including Putin’s official workplace. You could easily spend all your time in Moscow between Red Square and the Kremlin complex, visiting its museums and admiring its Russian Orthodox cathedrals of which the Cathedral of the Annunciation is one of the most beautiful. With walls covered with frescoes dating to the 17th century, it is like walking inside a painting.

Soul Warmers

Moscow has many food options, and I strongly recommend that visitors indulge in local food. LavkaLavka, on Petrovka street, is a farm-to-table restaurant that is also a design-lover’s delight. Here, you can get rustic Russian food such as fish pies and sbiten, which is a hot winter drink. The decor incorporates lots of warm wood brightened by lanterns made of red milk cans. In this place full of design quirks and hipster cool, my glass of wine cost only RUB195/₹197 and a meal for two costs as little as RUB1,150/₹1,160. The food store outside has a heady array of cheeses, meats, pickles, and preserves. The Camembert-like artisanal cheese I brought back was delicious and I ate it with walnuts (restoran.lavkalavka.com; RUB575/₹581 for 250 gm).

Food Moscow Russia

Local food stalls often serve a variety of grilled meat kebabs called shashlik. Photo: Rishiraj Ahuja

Another fabulous dining experience is to be had at the White Rabbit, celebrity chef Vladimir Mukhin’s rooftop restaurant that broke into the World’s 50 Best Restaurants at number 23 in 2015 (whiterabbitmoscow.ru/en; Smolenskaya Square; book in advance). The 12-course tasting menu at this Alice in Wonderland-themed restaurant was priced at about RUB8,000/₹8,200 per head—before the rouble dropped in value, this would have meant about ₹35,000—and I went for it. The meal included unforgettable preparations and presentations: caviar on biscuits lying on solid rocks of pink salt; red mullet with pickled bamboo; calf sweetbreads and deconstructed liquid grapes, and many other delights. Not everything was fancy, but it was uniformly good.

Another lovely spot in the centre of town is Café Pushkin, which feels like an exclusive “members only” club from the 1820s, with old-world wood decor, stiff upper lipped waiters, and silver cutlery. My typical Russian breakfast comprised pumpkin porridge, baked milk, which tasted like cheesecake, and kefir, a fermented milk drink. One of my favourite Moscow memories was sitting on the café’s terrace under the glass roof topped by entwined creepers, sipping a strong coffee (cafe-pushkin.ru/en; about RUB1,150/₹1,160 for a full breakfast).

With all this fare available at affordable prices, for the first time I felt empowered as a spender in Europe. From preserved apples or pickled cucumbers at the Danilovsky food market to pelmeni (Russian dumplings) and fish or meat pies at a café, you can eat heartily in Moscow for about RUB690/₹698 for two.

Browse and Pick

GUM is a shopping mall on the Red Square that could be mistaken for a monument (gum.ru/en). GUM’s facade is lit up year-round with decorations even more spectacular around Christmas. Inside, you can find everything from clothes to curios, vodka to chocolates. Definitely stop at the quirky art gallery and store Shaltai-Boltai (shaltaiboltai.ru), for cat cushions, fun art prints, mugs, and more (prices from RUB115/₹116 to several thousand roubles). At the general store Respublika, I found beautiful souvenirs made by the company Heart of Moscow (from RUB122/₹123; heartofmoscow.ru/en), and at the Zhostovo, boutique lacquer trays and plates with bright, folk-style floral paintings (small plate about RUB690/₹698).

View From the Wing

Bolshoi Moscow Russia

The Bolshoi Theatre has played an important role in the history of Russia’s performing arts scene and celebrates its 240th anniversary in 2016. Photo: Adea/G. Sioen/Universal Images Group North America LLC/Deagostini/Alamy/Indiapicture

Don’t return from Moscow without visiting the Bolshoi Theatre. The theatre building opened in 1856, and has seen many renovations over the years, the last one in 2011. Take a guided tour of the lavish neoclassical architecture and fascinating interiors and spend at least an hour inside, going from room to ornately crafted room, ending at the stunning auditorium. To catch a ballet performance bookings can be made online (bolshoi.ru/en; tickets from RUB1,500/₹1,515; hour-long theatre tours Mon, Wed, Fri RUB1,300/₹1,315).

On my last night in Moscow, I had drinks at O2 Lounge, the rooftop bar of the Ritz-Carlton Moscow, which has, undisputedly, the best view of the Kremlin and Red Square. Walking onto the terrace to take in the view, I stood gaping at the length of this marvellous old fortress, lit up against the night sky. At that moment I felt lucky to be in Moscow.

Appeared in the September 2016 issue as “The Red Heart”.

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    Kalyani Prasher is a freelance writer and editor based in Delhi. She was executive editor of India Today's travel magazine till end-2013 when she decided to get out of the office routine for a few months to see what having a life feels like. She never went back.

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