A Foreigner's Guide to Moscow

by Maria Popova

Photography by Maria Popova

There is no romance quite as controversial as a romance with one’s own hometown. There, we travel along our well-familiar itineraries, as if performing a perfectly polished algorithm.

We understand the noises, hot temperaments of the townspeople and serene sounds in the mornings. We accept and appreciate our home for what it is as it gives us comfort and familiarity. But, just like in a long-term relationship, this convenient familiarity hides the gems of the place we live in.

It is only when you introduce your hometown to a foreign visitor that you seem to fall in love with its charm all over again.

Moscow is a city of red bricks, golden domes and painted windows. Its vast boulevards are filled with endless cars and old elaborate facades of Stalin-era tower blocks hide its unprecedented people with their invariably grim expressions thanks to the merciless weather.

It is a place with a capricious character, which I grew to ignore, and only came to appreciate after showing Moscow to my foreign friend. We did not have much time, thus our list was as minimalistic as can be. Without losing any time, we put on endless layers of clothing, downloaded a lifesaving metro journey planner app and stepped into the Russian winter with its arctic cold stinging and numbing our cheeks.

Our first destination was obvious: the Red Square. Festive crimson bricks, which cover the former royal citadel and current residence of President of Russia, led us to the large State Historical Museum, closed Lenin Mausoleum, colorful St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin itself.

At the risk of being overwhelmed by the abundance of historical sights to see, we decided to start with The Kremlin Armory—the museum that encloses the one of the richest collections of treasures in the world. The ten fabergé eggs, each one carefully designed for a specific occasion, endless pearls, diamonds and emeralds and carriages with velvet curtains. All of which transport the visitors of the armory to Tsar’s Russia.

As you exit the Armory you face the President’s residence. Watch for the flag , which flies up only when Vladimir Vladimiroich is at his residence. Walking past the residence, you can see the Cathedral Square—the heart of Kremlin with its three main cathedrals: the Cathedral of the Dormition (the church where the Tsars were crowned), the gilded three-domed Cathedral of the Annunciation and enormously large Cathedral of the Archangel Michael. Inside, explore the colorful ornaments and holy icons, and maybe even traditionally light a candle for the wellbeing of your family.

On your way out, do not forget to take pictures with the Tsar Cannon and the Tsar Bell—two of the famous visitor attractions at the Kremlin. As you exit the Red Square, treat yourself to a traditional Petushok lollipop and one of the fur hats they sell at the entrance.

Red square is an optimal start point of the journey because of its access to the city’s major metro lines. Remember that it is almost always a better choice to take a subway rather than a taxi because the infamous Moscow traffic can last as much as a few hours in the mornings and evenings. Do not risk it; instead, enjoy one of the most elaborately and diversely decorated underground stations in the world.

From the Red Square you can take the metro to Tretyakov Gallery—the foremost depository of Russian art in the world. The collection that was created by a merchant in 1856 progressively grew into a museum of national art. Take a look at The Girl With Peaches by Valentin Serov, Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Ivan Kramskoi and Apotheosis of War Vasily by Vereshchagin, among many others.

Although there is no better food for the soul that fine art, sightseeing can be dangerously exhausting. Make sure to visit the well-known Café Pushkin (which is ironically French) for an exquisite dining experience and check out Chaikhana, the best spot for a quick, delicious and affordable local meal. For the best pumpkin porridge in Moscow, don’t miss out on a visit to Grand Coffeemania.

After your highly caloric Russian meal, it is a good idea to take a walk at Gorky Park. During the summer, the park is perfect for rollerblading and eating cotton candy along its large fountains. During the winter, unfortunately, it is only appropriate for very short walks and hot chocolate.

Moscow, as one of the world’s fashion capitals, offers grandiose shopping opportunities—or just an opportunity to stare at the opulent showcases and admire stunning hallways and arches of the malls due to unreasonably high prices at stores. While prices are over-the-top, a local fashionista never gives up their elaborate and elegant street style. Be prepared to see women wearing 20-centimeter pumps and lacy dresses with wide-brimmed hats in the middle of the day.

This minimalistic list can only be completed with a trip to the Bolshoi Ballet Theatre. Famous for its ballet virtuosos, including ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, it offers performances that can be matched neither in skill nor in style. However, it is important to keep in mind that if you wish to experience the grace of Russian pirouette, you must book the tickets at least a few months in advance.

Also, a foreign guest should not limit him or herself to the ballet. Opera performances at Bolshoi also offer unforgettable experiences. There are English subtitles on the screens along the arches, preventing the issue of the language barrier.

During the intermission, do not forget to visit the buffet. The ultimate place where Russian intelligentsia socializes, a tiny bar offers a wide variety of canapés, caviar tarts, desserts, fruits and alcoholic beverages.

Leaving the majestic building of Bolshoi, remember one thing: under no circumstance should you take any of the taxis parked next to the theatre, if you do not feel like throwing unreasonable amounts of money around. Call an Uber, a company suggested by your hotel or take your trip home on the metro.

Finally, a foreign guest should certainly receive fair warning about the people in the city of Moscow. They do not usually smile at you, not because they are mean, but because they were taught that “laugh without a reason is a sign of silliness.” They are very direct and they can be a little abrupt in their manners. Yet, they are genuine and generous. Sharing is in their blood since the October Revolution. And surely, after a few Russky Standarts and personal conversations, these people will become your warmest and most loyal friends.