After two years of living in the cit, I compiled a list of the best things to do in the city. This is completely an arbitrary list base upon my personal preferences, so although some things here will be standard tourists attractions, others will be a reflection of my own bizarre tastes because they are in the order of how much I enjoyed each experience. Therefore things like Гум (as shopping centers usually make me break out in hives) are left off the list. That said, here are my top 11 things to do and see in Moscow (since 10 in an overrated number).
11. Homemade Blini
It is my firm belief that the best way to get to know a culture is through food and drink, and although Russia is not known for it's cusine, I must admid I've grown to really enjoy eating blini for breakfast (and sometimes lunch and dinner). Blini are similar to crepes, but slightly thicker and, in my opinion, better. An interesting thing about them is that you can get them either with sweet of savory filling anywhere they're sold. So basically, if you want one with berries and jam or with sweetened condensed milk for breakfast, you can. And if you want one with cheese and mushrooms or smoked salmon for lunch, you also can. My point is, you have a pretty diverse variety to choose from and as long as it's not from a chain restaurant, it'll be delicious.
My best advice would be, if possible, to go during a week in early spring called (Maselnitsa). It's a 7 day celebration before the beginning of Lent in the Russian Orthodox Church that consists of eating as much blini as you can. You'll find stands selling them in pretty much every park, Red Square, and other major areas of the city.
10. Haggle at Izmailovsky Market
Normally, I hate shopping. My general outlook is that more material possessions just collect dust and weigh you down. But, that said, whenever I did go buy something in Moscow (aside from food), it was always at Izmailovsky Market. For me, this wasn't just a place to go buy something, it was quite literally an experience to be had, and here's why.
First of all, it's the largest open air bazaar in Moscow and consists of hundreds of stands, set up by locals, where you can get pretty much anything you can imagine. Old Soviet memorabilia? Yes. Household appliances? Yes. Paintings and artwork? Yes. Homemade honey and alcohol? Yes. Central Asian scarves, Russian hats, and hand-carved chess sets? Yes. If you do want to get a gift for a friend or relative, this is absolutely the place to go. Everything will be so much more interesting than in stores and much cheaper if you know how to haggle. Even if you don't want to buy anything (as was usually the case for me), it's still fun to go browse around and practice speaking Russian with the local vendors.
Oh yeah, and one more thing. The market is located within Moscow's second Kremlin. Many people don't know it, but the city actually has two Kremlins, the huge stone one in Red Square that now serves as Putin's house, and this smaller, colorful wooden one that serves as a market. It is near the metro station Partizanskaya (one of the last stops on the dark blue line) and is quite far away from the hustle of city center, and it exists because this region (Izmailovo) used to be a city in and of itself. Is Russian, Kremlin just means stronghold, and this wooden Kremlin used to be the fort for defending Izmailovo before the region was eventually absorbed by Moscow.
9. Gagarin Statue
This one is a bit of a personal favorite. It is not one of the city's most famous monuments, nor will you ever see it in a guide book or tourist information pamphlet. Before going there, I never had any idea that it even existed, but finally one day I came across it by chance. It all happened as I exited the Leninsky Prospekt metro station on my way to Vorobrovny Goriy. To my surprise, I was greeted by this giant silver figure (looking a bit like Superman) standing on a pedestal, posing as if he were about to fly off into the sky. It was constructed in Soviet-era block form, made to look as glorious as possible. I was intrigued.
It wasn't until I walked closer and actually read the inscription until I actually found out what it was: a monument to the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. For me, it felt like my own little discovery, unknown to foreigners and away from the busy center and for that reason, it makes my list. It was both weird and awesome. It by no means fit in with the surrounding landscape, but after knowing Moscow for two years, it makes complete sense. Its an odd and unique relic of the Soviet past, and if you're at all like me, you should absolutely go check it out.
8. See Lenin
Have you ever wanted to see the preserved remains of an early 20th century communist revolutionary? Well, if you come to Red Square and wait in line from 10:00am-1:00pm (once in a while it's closed for repairs), you actually can. There's a big building that reads (Lenin) and is free to enter. From there, you will be greeted by several guards demanding that you keep quiet and do not take photos. Then, after walking down a couple corridors, you see him. Leader of the Bolshevik October Revolution (which actually started in November), Vladimir Ilyaich Ulyanov (aka Lenin) lays, preserved in a glass coffin and surrounded by dimly lit red lights. The whole experience is a bit eerie, but overall,one thing in particular stood out to me. Lenin was short. Very short. Probably no more than 5'5'' or 5'6'' which came to me as a surprise since I'd always imagined him as this powerful, towering figure. Apparently he was not. But that said, it's absolutely worth checking out.
7. Patriarch's Ponds
One of my favorite Russian novels is The Master and Margarita, and if you're familiar with it, you'll understand why this place is on my list. Not only dose it serve as the opening scene for the story, but the former house (now converted into a museum) of its author, Mikhail Bulgakov, sits right alongside with a perfect view overlooking the water. And also little subtleties referring to the novel, such as Кафе Бехемот (Cafe Behemot) (named after the giant demonic talking cat in the story), can be found here and there, scattered around the area.
Regardless of the novel, the whole area is a beautiful spot in the city. Green trees and pleasant walkways line the still waters and many little benches sit in the shade if you to relax and enjoy the day. Also, there happens to be a large variety of strange, yet interesting statues depicting animals acting like humans have been constructed all around the perimeter of the place, which in and of itself is worth seeing. Just one side note though, the name is a bit of a misnomer. Despite the plural name, there is only one pond. Still, it's really nice and worth a visit.
6. Red Square
I know this is probably number one on pretty much any tourist site, but it absolutely is one of those places you need to see. I still remember the very first time I walked through the gates and saw St. Basil's and the Kremlin standing before me in all their colorful glory. It felt unreal, as if I had walked onto a movie set. None of the pictures I'd seen before had done it justice. The whole scale of it, all the colors and history surrounding me was an experience unlike any other. Lenin, revolutionary leaders, Soviet premiers were all buried right there along the walls of the massive Kremlin with its towers bearing down upon you. And I can say, if you have a full day, make sure to go in. Over 75% of the Kremlin is open to the public and you'll have the opportunity to see the Tsars' armory and throne room, among thousands of other artifacts from Russian history.
Also, make sure to check if there will be any type of cultural event going on during your stay. Many different demonstrations, parades, exhibitions and festivities are held within the square and are open to the public. Moscow usually goes all out making the special occasions as grand as possible. Therefore, it could make for a really interesting experience if you get the chance to attend some sort of celebration or display.
5. Pushkin Square in the Winter
Winter in Moscow is best defined by two adjectives: cold and long. Sometimes it feels like it lasts from October to May and tempertures can fall below -30. But, to the city's credit, Moscow is pretty well prepared for such conditions and no place, in my opinion at least, does it better than the area around Pushkin Square and Tverskaya Street. From the begining of December to the start of February, the whole area is lit up in decorations and lights. The barren trees glow with lively white lights and festive decorations hang from every lamp post. It's always slightly different each year, as Moscow is a dynamic, changing city, but always is a beautiful sight to see, especially in the snow. If you're there in the winter, make sure to talk a walk around at night. Believe me, despite the cold, it is very much worth it.
4. Metro Adventure
Growing up between New York and Boston, I was used to subway/metro systems being rather dirty and terrible. However, when I first entered Moscow's, I was completely blown away. As well as being several stories underground, the stations were completely spotless, decorated with chandeliers, murals, and statues, and incredibly efficient. Every station was unique in its own way, with different designs and decorations (most commemorating some part of Russian culture or history), and since there are 14 lines with 20-30 stops each, the sheer magnitude is mind-blowing.
One day, a few friends and I decided to make an adventure/photo project out of it by travelling to some of the most interesting and elaborate stations throughout the city and taking pictures of what we saw. Even though I knew it would be interesting, at the very least, it ended up becoming one of the best activities I've done since moving there. We went during a weekday in the evening, after rush hour, so there weren't too many people around, therefore giving us the ability to see much of what is missed during the standard commute.
I couldn't recommend this enough. By doing a self-constructed metro tour, you can see all the subtleties that went into creating and engineering the whole underground system. I advise seeing as many stations as you can, but as for some recommendations, make sure to see Комсомолская/Komsomolskaya, Маяковская/Mayakovskaya, Пло́щадь Револю́ции/Ploshad Revolutsiy, Киевская/Kievskaya, Белопусская/Beloruskaya, Арбатская/Arbatskaya and Проспект Мира/Prospeky Mira among others.
3. Underground Music
This took me a while to find when I first arrived. Most bars in Moscow just have DJs and do electronic music, which is mediocre at best. But when there is such a lack of creativity on the surface, you often find something amazing crawling beneath. For me, this happened when a Balkan-style brass band (although formed in St. Petersburg) came and stayed at the hostel where I was currently living. They were friends with the manager and apparently pay a visit every time they come to town to play a show. I thought 'Why Not?' and decided to go see what they were all about... and that's when my whole perspective on Russian music changed forever.
Not only was the show unbelievably lively and fun, but the music was incredible. It was like a whole new world opened up for me. From that point on, I began to dig deeper and discover other bands that flourished outside the mainstream spotlight and the discrete underground bars in which they performed. There was an entire thriving sub culture thriving just below the surface where people danced on tables, played electric fiddles with their teeth and celebrated the night in all its glory.
While venues and bands do change on a weekly basis, a few reliable places to check out would be Dzhao Da, Сады Вавилона /ardens of Babylon, Smena Bar, and Shirokuyu Na Shirokuyu, among others. Two of my favorite band discoveries so far have been Карл Хламкин/Karl Hlamkin and Добраночь/Dobtanotch, which I have written about pretty extensively in the section about underground music on the Moscow page.
2. Kolomenskoye Park
You know that place in your town that you consider 'your place'? The place you go when you want to unwind, escape the stresses of everyday life, or just to be at peace by yourself. For me in Moscow, that place is Kolomenskoye Park. And while it's only one of Moscow's many huge green-space areas, this one stands out above all for me for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's huge. If you're deep in the thick of it, it really doesn't feel like you're in a city any more. Instead of buildings, the landscape becomes hills, grass, trees, and old wooden buildings which all come down to the bank of the Moskva River. The view is gorgeous all year round, but that isn't the ultimate feature that makes the park stand out. What separates Kolomenskoye from the rest of the parks is, instead all the unique features and quirks it contains.
For starters, there's a full apple orchard in the middle of the park. I kid you not, thousands of trees stand in rows and from mid summer to late autumn, you can go pick some whenever you want. And they're good too. My friends and I actually used them to make a pie which, despite my lack of cooking skill, still turned out delicious. Then, for drinks, vendors often serve (mead) or mulled wine which is heated and served warm during the winters, thus helping you bear the cold.
The whole place looks out of time, and that is largely helped by the array of wooden buildings scattered throughout the park. Most famously, there's a 15th century wooden church overlooking the river surrounded by mini cabins, but if you continue down the path, you'll soon come to old stable houses and eventually an ornate wooden palace built for the Tsar's family that is now attached to a small, cozy cafe. You can sit outside and look out over the hills and valleys as you eat Vareniki (Russian dumplings) and drink mead. What's more wonderful than that?
1. Dinner Party/Drinks with Local Friends
If you make close friends in Russia, there's a good chance you'll be invited over for food and drinks. Although it is unlikely that this will happen if you're just coming for a quick tourist visit (unless you know someone beforehand) please jump at the chance to join if you get the chance. House parties and get-togethers are a central part of Russian social life and, if I'm being honest, they have been my absolute favorite part of living in Moscow and helped me feel as if I had become a part of the society. Here's what they're like.
Unlike most of Europe, Russian social/drinking life takes place more within private residence alongside close friends and family as opposed to strangers at bars. Usually, the way these events go are like this. One person will invite everyone over and prepare home cooked food and drinks. The food part is particularly important too because according to Russian cultural norms, alcohol is never served alone and every drink is supposed to be followed by a bite of something (preferably cooked warm). On top of this, each guest is supposed to bring something like snacks or a bottle of wine. Even though the host will put forth a great deal of effort and prepare as much as they can for everyone, it is seen as disrespectful to show up empty handed.
Once everyone is there, food and drinks are placed out on the table for everyone, someone will give a toast, and then the festivities begin. By this point, everything becomes pretty relaxed and informal, people will dive deep into group conversation, and usually a game will begin. Most commonly (at least in my experience) the first game to start is the one where you write someone's name on a piece of paper, exchange yours with someone else, and then stick it to your forehead. The objective is to be the first to guess who you are using only yes/no questions. This will continue well into the night, as will the food and drinks, until the last person leaves.
For me, it was a great way to feel welcomed into my new home country and really helped develope strong friendships and helped me see Russian culture up close. There was never a dull night when we were all together and to this day have been some of the most genuine experiences I've had anywhere.