MY MOSCOW: 5 PLACES

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).

Chillin.'

Chillin.’

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 Monastery circa 1911-1912. Image credit: Wikimedia.

Novospassky Monastery circa 1911-1912. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

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.

BONUSNovodevichy 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.

Novodevichy Convent on a stormy summer afternoon.

Novodevichy Convent on a stormy summer afternoon. That tour group is about to get soaked! As was I…

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.

Alone, by Alexander Shilov. Image credit: Wikipaintings.

Alone, by Alexander Shilov. Image credit: Wikipaintings.

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.

Three Bogatyrs (Knights) by Victor Vasnetsov.

Three Bogatyrs (Knights) by Victor Vasnetsov.

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.

Izmailovo Market

Izmailovo Market

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.

Last year's acquisition.

Springtime — last year’s acquisition.

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.

Izmailovo Kremlin

Izmailovo Kremlin

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.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The view from Strelka. More here.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The view from Strelka. More here.

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45 thoughts on “MY MOSCOW: 5 PLACES

  1. Novospassky Monastery? Is that really a monastery? Why is standing under the open heaven, rearing its domes and steeples so high that the whole city can view it from anywhere? To me this is so strange. In my country, monasteries are very small, primitive, humble places. Usually, they are found far away from civilization in the forests and caves. Some of them are on the islands of Lake Tana (in the north) and Lake Zway (rift valley). None of them comes anywhere near being so grand like Novospassky.

    • Yup, it really is. It’s an active church – my grandma went to a morning service every day when she was alive – and a fully functioning monastery, it’s just that the monks and male residents aren’t the hermit kind. And most ancient monasteries around here were also fully-functioning fortresses. The original NP (called ‘Spassky Monastery’ was originally located on the territory of the Moscow Kremlin, but moved to its present location – with the addition of the ‘Novo’ prefix – when Kremlin was undergoing a bit of redevelopment in the late 15th century, I believe. Also, the lower ranks of Russian Orthodox clergy (though not monks per se) always were/are permitted to marry, so there isn’t quite this stringent separation from ‘the world.’

      • Very interesting. If I ever get the opportunity to come to Russia, I believe I will visit Novospassky Monastery for a greater understanding of the differences not only between the monasteries of our country and Russia but also, as you explained, the life style those who live and serve in them.

          • In Ethiopia it is predominantly of the Orthodox (coptic) variety. Some dedicate their whole life to prayer and contemplation of the divine. These want to avoid the distraction and temptation of the world very early. Others join the monastic life when they think they are too old to enjoy worldly pleasure and need to prepare for the after life.

    • I actually love ballet and opera and symphony orchestra (I was being raised on that stuff while still being gestated), but I know I am in the minority.

      Oh, if you came to Moscow and didnt tell me – we’d have WORDS, lady.

          • I will stage a ponchiki intervention. I really should do a post on the Russian pastries…though one of the most popular cookies is called a Berliner! First we fight the Germans, then we decide we love their stuff
            >.<

          • Can’t beat them on the pastry front…
            Jam doughnuts (yes, I insist on this spelling) are called ‘Berliner’ in Germany. But only in the north. Down south, we call them Krapfen.

        • Darling, I will take you to the finest Krispy Kreme in all of the former Rus’!

          But seriously this is an amazing list and I can’t believe I STILL haven’t been to Kolomenskoye. Moscow fail.

          • >.< Ugh, that compliment at the end totally kills all my desire to call you a saboteur! [whispering: *you saboteur!!!*] Come on, it's got to be ponchiki all around! You can take her for KK when she visits Virginia!

    • Wanna have a little friendly competition of which city has better sightseeing and attractions, Moscow or Riga, or you’ll just forfeit? 😛 I kid, I kid…come on over! Maybe I’ll finally get my pub crawl on!

    • Hi, John!
      Everyone is raving about the new Gorky (I used to work across the bridge from it, so I know it well), but a part of me misses when it was a super-awesome amusement park with insane rides and ‘glamorous’ western toys… (ok, I was a teenager!). I did go there for Maslenitsa 2 winters ago (before they banned booze in public parks on national holidays – so there was a lot of mulled wine happening for me 🙂 ) and it was super-fun and gorgeous.

      • I went in May this year, and it was beautiful weather – lot of people sunbathing. There was a great atmosphere. I don’t know Moscow as well as SPB, but I really did like it during my last visit.

  2. See, I also grew up next to Novospassky monastery..:) and then I moved to New York, and Stamford (CT). Have we lived parallel lives only to cross our paths at CB?… 😉

    • Oh my, where exactly did you live? I was in that big yellow Stalinka, Novospassky 3! And whereabouts were you in NYC? My best friend lives in Middletown, works in New Haven 🙂
      Aww, CB really does bring people together!

      • Gosh, the world is just a little village 🙂 In Moscow: we (my parents) live a little further from monastery – in a yellow Stalinka on Sharikopodshipnikovskaya (and my grandma used to live in a lilac building on Marksistskaya). But since at that time, there was no Dubrovka station, we took a tram and each day I passed by monastery to Proletarka. (My own apartment is located on Prospect Mira, 5 min from Olimpijskij.) And obviously grandma was one tram stop away. In NYC, I used to live next to Fairway, on 74th and west end ave. In Stamford, exit 8 of I-95. By the way, have you noticed, that Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeifer had a randevu (sp?) in sberbank next to Novospasskij in “From Russia with Love”? An easy explanation is that the person, who helped to a location scout, used to live in the building for foreigners next to another entrance of Proletarka…

        • Oh dear, I live not far from Trubnaya = close to Olimpijskij now! I looooooooove the book market there. Need to write a blog post on that!
          And OMG in NYC I lived on 74th as well – but east side, off of 2nd Ave!!! (I cant even…) And might have crossed paths with Fanty in one of the east side pubs!
          I had no idea about Novospasskij’s part in Bondiana! Thanks for that tip. But Mikhalkov filmed Sibirsky Zirulnik right there – I was in the US but mom would call and tell me how firetrucks would hose everything with foam bc there was not enough real snow!

          • So funny 😉 we discussed once with my friend in NYC that we were deemed to meet because for almost 30 years we always lived in the same neighborhoods — country after country, town after town. And then we accidentally met at Pilates class at Equinox in west village because they put us in spairing (?) and I cursed in Russian after she pulled my back 😉 which gym do you go to in Moscow?;) Should I look around for you tonight? 🙂

  3. I haven’t been to any of those (I did go to Novodevichy on my last trip though). I knew I had to come back, now I have the start of my sightseeing list. When are you doing your Madrid top 5? – I’m going to be there for the first time in late November.

    • Nice – now I have a challenge with a deadline! I had outlined some things for Madrid already, but it will be [disclaimer] my lamest roundup. Madrid it where I went – ok, I’ve already spent 5 months visiting castles and churches and museums in Europe, now I am going to just drink heavily and party all the time 🙂
      But for Moscow there will also be 5 activities, and possibly 5 works of Art. Also 5 dishes – bc I dont eat out a lot here. For DC it will be sites/activities, and restaurants. Basically there will be different lists of 5s, but what they’ll focus on will vary a bit city to city. Madrid and Paris are a bit tough right now too bc all my photos and notes are still in storage in the US – grr, having your life split between 2 continents for the last 20 yrs is a pain!

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