I find Moscow to be a little overwhelming at times. It is like parts of London, Paris, New York and Washington, DC all combined into one giant city. Still, I keep coming back for the museums, the history, and the energy that you can only feel in places like New York or London. Each time I visit I learn something new and also swear I will not return. In time, the memories of bad service, overpriced hotels, people being rude to my wife because she is a Russian married to an American, overcrowded buses, and thick bureaucracy fade and I am ready to return for another round.
The last few trips to Moscow we have rented apartments rather than stay in hotels. Our favorite location has been near the Arbat, a pedestrian street about one kilometer long in the historical center of Moscow. The Arbat has existed since at least the 15th century. Anatoly Rybakov’s trilogy of Soviet life, Children of the Arbat, takes its name from this privileged neighborhood. The street continues to attract people to this day with its cafes, restaurants, and shops. You are close to the Metro so you can travel anyplace in the city from the Arbat. There are also sites on the street such as the Pushkin Museum. Be sure to look for an apartment on the Old Arbat not the New Arbat.
Everyone needs to see the Kremlin, Red Square and Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Lenin’s Mausoleum is in Red Square but I have never had a desire to see a formaldehyde soaked corpse. You can walk the half mile from the Arbat or take the Metro. My biggest surprise was how large the Kremlin was inside the walls and how many churches were still inside the walls. Moscow was once a city of churches and many remain despite the destruction campaign by the Communists. If you come to Red Square early in the day you gain a greater appreciation of its scale as well as being able to take some unobstructed photos.
My two favorite museums in Moscow are the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The Tretyakov was built on the foundation of Pavel Tretyakov’s collection and is probably the greatest single collection of Russian art. The Pushkin is a powerhouse of European fine art including Rembrandt, Botticelli, Canaletto, Guardi, Tiepolo, along with an impressive collection of works by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet, and Picasso. The work of Matisse and other artists of the late 19th and early 20th century are from the collection of Sergei Shchukin who recognized their greatness before Western European museums understood the shift in art that was taking place. Shchukin’s collection was taken by the Communists and now forms the foundation of the Pushkin’s collection.
From the Pushkin, it is about a 10 minute walk to the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The original church, built during the 19th century, took more than 40 years to build. It was destroyed in 1931 on the orders of Joseph Stalin. Uncle Joe excelled at killing his fellow Soviet citizens (50 million) and razing churches. The current church was rebuilt on the site during 1995-2000. We first toured the Cathedral in 2000 shortly after it was opened. As you might imagine, it is a beautiful reconstruction. Sadly, our photos have been lost but you can see it here.
Many people know the Cathedral as the place where the female Russian rock group Pussy Riot was arrested for singing what was termed an “irreligious” anti-Putin song. Totalitarian regimes fear laughter and mocking more than any other form of resistance so the band members were promptly jailed and found guilty. Enjoy your visit but limit your singing to traditional church songs. Better yet, stay silent.
Like London or Paris, Moscow is overflowing with activities, cultural venues and history. One of our regrets is that we never visited the Bolshoi Theatre. It was always either under renovation or we arrived when nothing was on the concert schedule. Choose your list carefully because you cannot see everything.