To date, I have lived in five wonderful cities: Moscow, New York, Washington DC, Paris and Madrid. This is my take on the best things to do, places to visit and treats to try in each of them. While this is not an exhaustive compilation by any means — and a rather subjective one at that (you won’t find me fawning over music festivals or modern art) — I recommend these particular urban gems passionately and wholeheartedly to a first-time visitor or a full-time denizen alike.
Without further ado, I bring you my favorite spots of my current home — Moscow.
So, you’ve hit up the Kremlin museums, had your picture taken with Lenin, dozed off during a ballet at the Bolshoi and maybe even trekked all the way to Zamoskvorechye’s Tretyakov Gallery to gawk at some Russian art. You’d like to see more of Moscow but aren’t quite ready to go mingling with the locals off the beaten path (you’ve heard stories).
Where to next?
1. Novospassky Monastery.
I’ve heard many a foreigner say that they want to come to Russia to see ‘those onion domes.’ Well, Moscow is teeming with historic Russian Orthodox churches, big and small, ancient and less so. For a comprehensive experience, I would recommend a visit to a classic monastery – the Novospassky Monastery (The New Monastery of The Savior), to be exact, next door to which I grew up.
Novospassky is a church and a fortress. It’s the oldest monastery in Moscow. It was patronized by the progenitors of the Romanovs (last Royal dynasty of Russia) and their far more pedigreed relatives, many of whom are buried there. It boasts vast, beautifully managed grounds and many buildings, including the massive, 5-dome Transfiguration cathedral and a Baroque bell-tower. It feels like an authentic, active Russian church – which it is, in contrast to the Kremlin cathedrals, which today are primarily museums. It’s not at all touristy yet totally tourist-friendly and pretty centrally located. And it has a lovely park with a pond just next to it — where I used to go swimming every summer and sledding every winter weekend.
BONUS: Novodevichy Convent is visually stunning year-round, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a cemetery for many Russian notables, including writer Anton Chekov and President Boris Yeltsin. But plenty of tourists flock here as a result, and overall for me it has a morbid, sculpture-garden feel.
2. Shilov Gallery
Alexander Shilov is a contemporary Soviet and Russian artist. He achieved worldwide fame for his highly detailed yet incredibly soulful – sometimes heartbreaking – portraits of the Russian people, from the nation’s leaders to downtrodden war vets and pensioners. I still remember how some of them brought tears to my eyes on my very first excursion, when the gallery just opened in the still-tumultuous 1990s. If you want to see faces of Modern Russia in all their beauty, tragedy and power, Shilov Gallery is the place.
BONUS: Tretyakov Gallery. OK, this is inarguably the richest collection of Russian art in the world. It holds ancient icons, life-size illustrations of Russian history, mythology and fairy tales, nature-worshiping works of the Wanderers and some of the world’s finest examples of the Socialist Realism.
Basically it is THE treasure chest of the Russian cultural heritage. Visit all the halls of the Tretyakov Gallery and you will be one massive step closer to understanding what Russia is — kind of like reading the complete works of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Mayakovsky and Yesenin while listening to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but much faster and with pretty visuals.
I have spent hours at the Tretyakov on several visits as a child and as an adult, and I still cannot get enough, especially of the nature paintings exhibited there. Sadly, while I have seen Tretyakov included in many ‘Moscow must-see’ lists of guidebooks and travel blogs, I have noticed it skipped a couple of times in favor of the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum.
3. Kolomenskoye Estate and Park
Come for the former royal estate and hunting lodge high on the banks of the Moscow River (breathtaking views guaranteed year-round), stay for the picnic of shashlyki (kebab BBQ) and bliny. There are apple orchards, groves, meadows, rolling hills, hiking trails, ski trails in the winter, several museums, fairs, and an entire ‘village’ of cafes serving traditional Russian fare. It’s very family-friendly and not overrun with blaring pop music or tacky bridal parties like some other ‘royal estate’ parks of Moscow (I am looking at you, Tsaritsino).
In the winter my sister and I loved to sled down the mammoth slopes all the way onto the frozen river at neck-breaking speeds — I even took my college boyfriend there to experience this Russian past-time in all its glory on a visit to Moscow some years back. Sadly, the really crazy parts have now been fenced off for ‘public safety’ concerns. PLEASE. [As I hadn’t partaken in these revelries in a while, here are some awesome photos by someone who has — apparently rubber tubes are cooler than old rickety wooden sleds now.] Oh, and my ancestors are buried there.
4. Izmailovo Market (Vernisazh)
Ok, this one also pops up on most Moscow travel guides – primarily as the place to buy Russian souvenirs, from Matryoshka nesting dolls to shot glasses, from hand-embroidered linens to big fur hats. But while hunting down a bargain, it’s easy to miss Izmailovo for what it is at heart: an arts and crafts museum of Russia. Every folk handicraft is represented here in its finest: blue-on-white ceramics of Gzhel, Palekh’s lacquer-box miniatures, brightly painted Khokhloma dishes and delicate Vologda lace.
Venture to the end of the main shopping line and climb the stairs to discover a flee market selling everything from rare books (in every language) to one of a kind antique Limoges porcelain sets. And once you’ve stepped out of the 2nd-level stalls and into the open air, well, that’s when you arrive at my favorite part of the whole place: an open-air art gallery. Otherwise known as ‘where my paychecks go to die.’ While there’s a little bit of kitsch for the undiscerning eye, there are also many brilliant works by truly talented artists — who are very friendly and happy to chat about their craft, too.
Then there is the Izmailovo Kremlin next door – a brand new and totally whimsical wedding palace/ mini-amusement park/ museum/ dining concourse. And a Vodka History Museum. And another royal estate with some ancient churches. And a couple of beautiful parks with ponds, food and entertainment nearby. Basically Izmailovo is an intra-Moscow day trip all of its own.
5. Strelka Bar
It was trendy 5 years ago. It’s favored by expats. It does not take reservations.
But here’s the deal: the food is solid; it is one of a few places in Moscow where you can get a proper cocktail without having to give written instructions or maxing out your credit card. And the view — well, you’d be hard-pressed to find better. Sipping your drink on Strelka’s 2nd floor terrace, looking at the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world as the Moscow River flows just feet away and a lively crowd buzzes around – it’s pretty darn fantastic.