As our No 1 Red Arrow started slowing, the countryside around gave way to small houses, then small tower blocks then the full concrete jungle. Our provodnitsa (carriage attender), opened the door to let us step down onto the platform. Each provodnitsa stood outside their door all alone the length of the platform facing the same direction in an almost military stance.Wednesday -0°CThursday -1°CFriday 1°CSaturday -5°C
Walking out of the station, it was still slightly bemusing to be utterly ignored by the taxi touts who only seemed to target Russian travellers. (On a side note, Uber works well in Moscow and is significantly cheaper than hailing a normal taxi – it’s normally the same car/driver as well!). Walking away from the station we both remarked that it would be brilliant if the massively tall building literally on the other side of the road was our hotel – it was!
We had booked a room in the Moscow Hilton which is inside one of Stalin’s seven sisters – the name given to 7 massive skyscrapers in the city designed and built by Stalin. Walking into the hotel lobby (through a metal detector), we were greeted by an enormous high ceiling area full of plush chairs with a huge stair case either side. The receptionist politely greeted us and took our hotel confirmation. He swiftly followed that up by wishing me Happy Birthday (it was) and said that they could check us in immediately! Given that it was only 8am, this was a super show of customer service as we had only been expecting to drop our bags off and come back later. The customer service went one notch further when he told us that he had upgraded us to a corner suite. This huge room consists of a hallway, a bathroom, separate toilet, living space and vast bedroom. I genuinely believe that our somewhat small 2 bedroom house in the UK could pretty much fit inside the suite.
After dropping our bags off, unpacking a bit and freshening up, we headed back out (after briefly stopping to get directions from the front desk who very helpfully gave us a metro map and explained the best way to get to Red Square and on which line). We instantly went wrong by walking into the overground station but quickly corrected and queued up at the ticket desk to get a rechargeable multi trip ticket. Some websites say that it is possible to get a 11 trip ticket – we couldn’t find that but instead bought a 20 trip ticket that can be used by two people – simply pass the ticket back after the first person taps through the gate. It worked flawlessly and as long as you did 6 or more trips then you saved quite a bit.
The metro was busy, but not unbearably so, clean, tidy and well lit. The signs threw us for a little bit as they were mainly in russian but we soon figured out which was what on our english map. The metro covers most of Moscow and is by far the quickest way to get around the city. After getting off and taking several long escalators, we emerged back into the sunshine excited to take our first view of the Red Square. Instead we were met by a wall of police, soldiers, military buses and police cars. A helicopter overhead added to the drama. Slightly unsure of what was going on or what to do, we attempted to ask one of the policemen who politely pointed us down the road in the directions that other tourists were going. We followed them and after a few more turns and a few more non english speaking army men, we figured out that the Red Square was closed until 2pm due to the Labour Day celebration. Slightly gutted, especially as it was a beautiful day, we found a coffee shop to sit in (Coffe Mania – really good) to decide what to do. Whilst we were there, thousands of people walked by with Russian flags, balloons in their national colours and what I assume were workers union flags. There was a huge sense of excitement and pride in the air and although slightly daunting at first, all of the soldiers and police were polite, friendly and happy to attempt to speak english. There was no sense of any danger, or edginess and it was clearly just a massive event for the people who were delighted to be there.
We decided, as it was a lovely day, to head to Gorky Park which is a huge area lining the banks of the river. Thousands of people clearly had the same idea as we joined huge numbers of people walking in the same direction. After passing through more metal detectors, we walked out onto a vast pedestrian only space with bicycle lanes, big fountains that worked to the sound of music, green lawns, street food stalls and lots of child friendly activities. For a long time, I had really wanted to eat noodles from a square takeaway carton with chopsticks. Odd I know but it’s not something that is easily found in the UK. By chance, there happened to be exactly that in the park so we queued up and ordered a takeaway and attempted to listen for our number being called. Our ISIC cards worked here as well and we saved over 30%. We sat by one of the fountains and ate the noodles whilst people watching in the brilliant sun. Later we realised that we had got sunburnt – something I never thought I’d say whilst in Moscow!
After walking around the park a bit more, we headed back to the Red Square metro station. There were still hundreds of people waiting around so we sat on a wall to watch and wait. It felt like people were waiting for something or someone to arrive. However after about 20 mins, the only thing that had happened was a bizarre sight of 4 or 5 street sweeping trucks cleaning the street in an almost dancing type way with the police and soldiers briefly closing the road! I still have no idea what that was all about. Eventually we noticed people starting to walk towards the archway which gave access to the square, so (using the metro station to bypass the police), followed them through the red gateway building to see St Basil’s cathedral for the first time. Like the Taj Mahal, St Basil’s is a sight that you’ll never forget and we never got bored of looking at it despite going multiple times during our stay in Moscow.
Red Square is a huge open space but, yet again, despite the huge number of people there (mainly Russians celebrating Labour Day with their families), it didn’t feel packed or crowded. St Basil’s was at the far end of the square with its golden onion shaped domes glistening in the sunlight. The closer you got, the more you could see the other colours, shapes and features which make up the unforgettable shape. The red walls of the Kremlin with one of its clock towers, the huge red building of the museum and the vast GUM shopping mall complete the square. A small church hid slightly to one side after the entrance added more colour to the already vibrant mix and also reminded you that this was far from just a tourist attraction – this was a real, working, hugely important part of Moscow and Russia.
As a birthday treat, my other half had arranged for a dinner river cruise on the Moskva river which departed from a dock connected (by name only apparently) to the Moscow Radisson Blu hotel which was in another of the Seven Sisters (only two are hotels). After collecting our tickets from the dock side office (and showing my driving licence to prove that it was indeed my birthday which entitled us to 15% off!), we joined a small queue and boarded via a slightly dubious looking gang plank – made even more dubious by my other half wearing heels! The lady checking tickets said something rapidly in russian and a young smartly dressed waiter snapped to attention and politely asked us to follow him through the downstairs area and up a spiral staircase in the middle of the boat to the first class area. This smaller space had significantly fewer tables, all with window seats with plenty of space between them giving much more privacy. We were asked if we wanted the menu in russian or english and then given comprehensive drinks list. After choosing a starter and mains each, we settled back as the boat smoothly pulled away – in fact so smoothly that if the view hadn’t been changing, you really wouldn’t have thought that it was moving at all.
It really is a great way to see the city especially as the sun started to set and lights turned on. The vast tall buildings were all lit up tastefully, with bridges and smaller buildings no exception. Soon the river started following Gorky Park which was still full of people walking, cycling, sitting and later on, dancing ballroom style to music that we could just about hear. Hundreds of people were stood watching as the numerous pairs twirled around each other. Whilst I’m sure the national holiday had made it busier than normal, you still got the feeling that this was perfectly normal on a nice evening with the city enjoying the green open space. As the sun set fully and darkness fell, the boat headed back to its dock next to the towering Seven Sisters building emerging from the darkness like a Gotham City scene.
The next morning we left the hotel (relatively) early and headed back to the Red Square before the crowds arrived. After a few (posing) photos in the nearly empty square and in front of St Basil’s, we wandered over to Bosco cafe which has an envy inducing position on the outside of the shopping mall, with tables outside directly looking out onto the square and the church. Having learnt our lesson in St Petersburg, we walked straight to our desired table (at the end, with the best view). The breakfast menu was varied with some unusual but delicious sounding options. We ordered cream cheese (not the type we get in the UK) pancakes and a delicious spinach and mozzarella omelette. Complimentary olives and bread were bought out as well. The house coffee was great and well made which completed a pretty perfect breakfast.
Well fed, we headed across the square to the Kremlin ticket office. Student cards didn’t work here so just head straight for the self service machines and skip the queues – there is no difference in price. After passing through a metal detector and our camera bag through an x-ray machine, we walked up the raised entrance under a similar but bigger version of the red archway that you go under for the Red Square. Rounding a corner, some of the many churches and cathedrals sprung into view with Ivan the Great Bell Tower standing tall amongst them. The numerous golden domes of Assumption Cathedral glistened in the sunlight in stark contrast to the white stone that each church and cathedral was made from. Whilst access to the Bell Tower is limited to certain times and chargeable separately, all the rest were included in the standard ticket with detailed self guide leaflets in each entrance. Stern looking attendants glared at anyone daring to even touch their camera and sprang into action if anyone even thought about taking photos. I must admit to taking a few before I realised (the signs are small in my defence) and a few others when I knew they couldn’t see me – this is a small bug bear of mine – whilst I can understand them not wanting people to use the flash, I’ve never really understood the logic behind not allowing photos. Surely photos share the beauty which gets more people to visit? People aren’t going to not go to an art display or visit a place of interest because they’ve seen a tiny photo online. Anyway, back to Moscow.
After wandering around for another half an hour or so, we exited the Kremlin and walked back to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Dedicated to Soviet soldiers who died during WWII, this symbolic red tomb with its eternal burning flame, is constantly guarded by two immaculately presented soldiers who stand (completely un-moving) on either side of the tomb. On the hour, every hour, they change the guards in a beautiful timed-to-perfection ceremony. Goose stepping to the tomb, the new guards acknowledge the outgoing guards with a snap look to their side after standing in silence in memory to the dead. Get here early if you want to be at the front of the crowd that quickly builds each hour.
After eating lunch in a nearby pizzeria (and getting a bit more sunburnt), we walked back to the metro to visit Izmailovsky Market. There are a few metro stations nearby but generally the blue line and the Partizanskaya station are the best to use as it’s only a 5 minute walk from there. This great flea market is surrounded by a pretty impressive faux tsar’s palace, wooden church (that is used), several painted anti-aircraft guns and lots of weirdness. It is also the best place to shop for Russian dolls, military uniforms and icons.
On the way back to our hotel, we took a longer circular route enabling us to stop off at several of the huge and awesome looking metro stations. Looking like art galleries or the inside of a palace, these vast hallways have everything from marble columns, chandeliers, ornate paintings and now the longest escalator in the world. Lonely Planet suggests that this takes between 1 – 2 hours but you can easily cut out a few stations if you are low on time (or your other half gets bored like mine did).
After resting our tired feet for a while back in the hotel, we headed out again to see the Red Square at night. Nearly totally empty, St Basils was discretely lit up whilst the GUM shopping mall was strung with thousands of lights. The museum and the small Kazan Cathedral were also quietly lit up making the whole atmosphere very picture postcard worthy. A very short walk off the square can be found the Varenichnaya №1 restaurant. This excellent Soviet Russian restaurant is really worth a meal if you want to experience Soviet dining. With old photos, TVs showing Soviet shows and other Soviet era items, the menu is wide ranging with some really tasty items. We finished the meal with a glass of proper Russian vodka – much to the amusement of our waiter!
The next day, after getting room service for breakfast, we made our way on to the metro before changing to the airport express train. Really easy to navigate too and running every 30 mins (apart from lunch time!), this clean and comfortable express is a much better option that getting a taxi to/from the airport. You’ll need to buy a separate ticket (normal metro tickets don’t work) and there are loads of self service machines in the station. You aren’t allowed onto the platform until 5 – 10 mins prior to departure so grab a drink or a seat in one of the cafes or waiting areas inside the station. After arriving at the airport, we swiftly checked our bags in the vast new(er) departure hall and after finally clearing immigration (they used magnifying glasses to check our passports!), we got a late lunch before going to our gate.
Do svidaniya Russia – we’ll be back!
Meanwhile, check out my first ever video – be kind! Suggestions & advice welcome!
Tips and Tricks:
- The totally free offline maps.me app works a treat including saving offline all of these places so you can find them without any signal. That said, there is WIFI nearly everywhere so you can easily access Google Maps or similar.
- ATMs and card payments are common in Russia but having cash isn’t a bad idea when going on a long day trip. As always, our Revolut cards worked impeccably and saved us a lot of money.
- The Metro ticket is definitely a time and money saver as mentioned above.
- For us, the Hilton was a perfect location and easy access to the whole city from the nearby metro station.
- Learn some Russian words and their alphabet. People love that you’ve made the effort and it’ll help lots on the metro and other signs.