When I first told people I was going to Russia in May, I received some pretty random questions which made me realize that I actually don’t know that much about the country; and to be honest, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I remember watching some videos on Youtube of road accidents in Russia, I remember it looking extremely cold and even more chaotic. Hence, my ignorance allowed me to believe that Russia was exactly that… and I’m happy to say I have never been more wrong in my life.
So despite what you might have heard; the weather was actually perfect in May; the sun was out almost every day (I actually came back to Abu Dhabi with a tan) but a light breeze kept us cool as we toured the city. A light jacket was more than enough to keep us comfortable. For those visiting during the World Cup in June and July, the weather will only keep getting better. Onto more pressing concerns though; I was told several times before traveling that Russians are arrogant and a little racist, that is so far from the truth though. So if you were told the same thing, just ignore it trust me. We had absolutely no problems with the people there and they were extremely delightful to deal with… most of the time. You gotta understand though that language barriers are pretty strong and what might come across to you as someone being rude, might just be that they simply do not know how to get their point across to you. So keep a light heart, smile and most importantly… use Google Translate!
So, before getting started with the blog, here are a few things that you need to know. Firstly, I am not paid to advertise any of the tour agencies, restaurants, etc. that are mentioned here. That being said, I booked almost everything through RealRussia and they were a pleasure to deal with. Yana handled all my communication, she was very friendly, professional and got things done quickly. Secondly, it is no secret that it gets cold in Russia, so make sure you check the weather forecast before planning your trip. As I previously mentioned, I was there in May and the weather was literally perfect. I suspect it only gets better from here on. Moreover, visiting during summer means you get extremely long days, which means more time to explore and… grasp the adventure! Thirdly, Russia is a country that loves its food. There are restaurants and bakeries on every corner, so be prepared to gain a couple of pounds during your time there. Lastly, I recommend picking up a sim-card at the airport when you arrive, you get unlimited calls and texts along with 5 gb of data for only 800 rubles. Anyway, I’m done blabbering, let’s get started with the blog 🙂
Day 1: Getting to Know the City
Movies and Youtube videos don’t do Moscow any justice, so I believe you should dedicate your first day to taking in the city’s true beauty and getting to know it’s culture and history. As soon as you’re done checking into your hotel and freshening up, take the metro to St. Basil’s Cathedral. There are two reasons I urge you to take the metro right now:
- Familiarize yourself with the metro, you will be purchasing a 3 day pass tomorrow
- You will pretty much walk for the rest of the day so give your feet a few extra minutes of freedom
St. Basil’s Cathedral is arguably the most beautiful architectural work and the touristic symbol of Moscow, so what’s a better spot to begin your adventure?
Although it is commonly known as St. Basil’s Cathedral, it actually has a number of different names. It is also called the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed but its official name is Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat… with an official name this long, no wonder it has so many nicknames. Despite every name containing the word cathedral, the building is actually a museum now so make sure you enter and check out the interior too. The cathedral was built from 1555 to 1561 which means it only took 6 years to build, pretty impressive if you ask me. The order to construct this wonder was given by Ivan the Terrible who was commemorating the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. It was also the city’s tallest building until the completion of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in 1600.
When you’re done taking pictures of the cathedral, turn your back to it and head south over the Moskva River to enjoy a beautiful panoramic view of the city. From atop the bridge, you’ll be able to see the cathedral along with the Kremlin, the Bell Tower, Nikolskaya tower and the Armoury Chamber.
Once you’re on the other side, head east and then cross over the river again but via the Bolshoy Ustyinskiy Bridge this time to enjoy a perfect view of the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building. To be completely honest with you, I had no idea what that building was when I first saw it but I knew it looked important. Thanks to Google, I quickly found out that the structure is one of seven Stanlinist skyscrapers laid down in September 1947 and completed in 1952 designed by the Chief Architect of Moscow at the time. The main tower has 32 levels and is 176 meters tall. I thought it was a governmental building at first and was quite surprised to find out it’s actually residential, a few Russian celebrities even live there.
So, you’re probably starving by this point right, I mean how dare I go on this long without suggesting any food?! Unfortunately, I won’t be recommending any restaurants just yet but there will be a good amount of munching coming right up. Head back north towards Red Square via Zaryadye Park and Khram Zhivonachal’noy Troitsy V Nikitnikakh, yet another beautiful church in Moscow.
Behind the church, you will find countless souvenir and food stands. I do not advise you to do your souvenir shopping just yet as you’ll find cheaper destinations down the line; I do however urge you to binge on all the different delicacies available. Once you’re done, continue onwards to GUM mall. I’m not usually one to recommend visiting malls during holidays but this case was different, the place looks more like a historical building than a shopping complex. It is worth mentioning that the center was originally commissioned by Catherine II so it is pretty much part of the city’s history. Unfortunately, the initial structure burned down after the 1812 Fire of Moscow and the existing mall was build as a replacement. Like all other grand building in Moscow, the mall is extremely elegant and radiates a certain sense of richness. The complex shows off isles and isles of high end brands but what’s even more impressive is their VIP toilet. It costs 100 rubles just to use the washroom! Whilst walking around the mall, you’ll notice that almost everyone around you is eating ice cream… literally everyone. In case you haven’t already figured out where they bought them from, there are ice cream stands at the end of every isle, and I strongly recommend you purchase a scoop.
Now that you got some food in your system, continue walking onwards to the renowned Bolshoi Theatre. Ideally speaking, you should be attending a ballet performance in this theater on one of your Moscow nights, but I added this walk to the itinerary anyway just in case the ballet isn’t in your plan. Moreover, if you’re visiting during a season with shorter days, visiting the theater today will give you the opportunity to see it with some sunlight. For those of you who have no idea what the Bolshoi Theatre is… its the theatre Jennifer Lawrence worked for at the beginning of the movie Red Sparrow. Oh, it is also the most iconic ballet theater in Moscow and arguably even Russia.
From the Bolshoy, you can easily turn onto Tverskaya, one of Moscow’s main boulevards. This road is pact with bakeries, restaurants, coffee shops and department stores. You can find everything from Starbucks to Gucci. In my opinion though, the main highlight of this street is a simple supermarket… ok calling it simple is a downright lie. This place is anything but simple. When I say supermarket, you probably imagine white fluorescent lights, endless isles of food and mindless zombies pushing onto trolleys as they check food items off a never-ending list; well my friend, your idea of a supermarket is in for a treat. I just realized I literally used up 6 entire lines just to introduce a store. So anyway, walk down the boulevard and right at the end of it, you’ll find Eliseyevskiy. Now I’m not gonna add any pictures or explain the history of this place just because I want you to be surprised by it. After checking it out though, I think you should run a quick Google search to understand why this supermarket looks the way it does. Also, keep all that information in mind because you’ll visit another branch of this supermarket in St. Petersburg, owned by the same family too.
While you’re at Eliseyevskiy, buy yourself a bar of Belgium chocolate and a cup of coffee, take them over across the street to the Pushkin Monument and enjoy the richness of the chocolate under the Russian sun. When you are well rested and that sugar high starts kicking in, get up and make your way to our last sight of the day, Kazan Cathedral. Now you might have realized that this cathedral is back in Red Square, and you might be wondering why you didn’t just check it out earlier when you were already there, worry not dear friend because I have got the answers for you. Firstly, by the time you’re done with everything, it is probably time for the evening services of the cathedral which means you’ll be able to enter and walk around the place. Second of all, I think it is a good idea to end the day at the Red Square since there are many restaurants there, giving you the opportunity to choose where you would like to have dinner on your first night in Moscow.
Just like that, you have pretty much covered central Moscow on foot in one day. Although we have barely even scratched the surface of what this magnificent city has to offer, we can safely say that you are beginning to understand why Russia should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Day 2: The Kremlin
Today, you’ll be visiting one of Russia’s most iconic destinations, The Kremlin. Keep in mind that touring the entire fortress will not take less than four hours so make sure you have a hefty breakfast at the hotel. Like everything else in Moscow, the Kremlin opens at 10 AM; however, you should still try to get there by 9:30 AM at the latest to meet your guide and queue up as it does get pretty busy. Unfortunately, I was there on the week of Victory day, May 9th, which meant that literally everything in the Red Square was shut. Yes, Russia actually closes down all the museums, cathedrals and even the Kremlin throughout the entire week of Victory day. On the upside, this gives me a pretty good excuse to go back to Moscow again soon. Moreover, it was also a very good lesson learned: always check whether there are public evens and celebrations before planning your trip and make sure they won’t disturb your itinerary.
The Kremlin literally translates to ‘fortress inside a city’ and that is pretty much what it is. Don’t get it mixed up as there is no single building named the Kremlin, this fortified complex includes five palaces, four cathedrals and the enclosing Kremlin Wall with Kremlin Towers (hence why it takes a minimum of four hours). It is strongly advised to purchase a guided tour here because you wanna make sure you learn the most from your visit. We were extremely bummed out about missing the opportunity to visit this wonder; however we still managed to come up with our own little adventure and actually had the most random day ever; that story will be in a separate post though(link will be added as soon as it’s ready).
Four to five hours in the Kremlin ain’t easy and it’s guaranteed you’ll be hungry and tired by the end of it. So once you’re done, stroll down to the opposite side of the Red Square and have lunch in one of the many restaurants in the area. To balance out all the indoor sightseeing that was done, the next destination is all about the outdoors. When you’re done eating, use Google Maps to locate the nearest metro station and make your way to the Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery. It is worth purchasing a three day metro card too as you will definitely be putting it to good use. Uber is extremely cheap in Russia and you may be tempted to just take that everywhere instead of the hassle of metros but keep in mind that metros are actually part of Moscow’s charm. You will immerse yourself into the local community in addition to seeing some insanely beautiful metro stations.
Anyway, the Novodevichy Convent, also known as Bogoroditse-Smolensky Monastery, is probably the best-known cloister of Moscow. The convent has remained virtually intact since the 17th century and was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Stick to the outdoors here as the actual exhibits aren’t that great. When you’re done with the convent, make sure you visit the cemetery too and walk around the lake for some calming nature and scenery.
It has been a pretty long day already but it ain’t over just yet. Take the metro back to your hotel and relax for an hour or two. Once you have freshened up and feeling rejuvenated, change into some less comfortable, more fashionable clothes because it is dinner time. Arbat street is the main walking boulevard of Moscow and it decorated with countless restaurants, souvenir shops and bakeries. Like all touristic spots, things tend to be significantly more expensive here so save your shopping for tomorrow; don’t worry, you’ll get all the souvenirs you want at Izmailovsky Market. Nevertheless, do walk into the stores and check out the funky collections of Matryoshka dolls. Take pictures of the ones you love and you can try mimic their designs when you take your own master painting class on the last day. Finally, when you hear your stomach begin to rumble, choose the restaurant that best suits your taste and begin your feast. No matter where you decide to eat, food in Russia is relatively cheaper than it is in most other countries so don’t be shy with the menu and order up!
Note: During your stay in Russia, I recommend you watch a ballet at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, A Russian Circus in Moscow and a Ballet at the Marinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. If two ballets is too much for you, then prioritize the one in Moscow. However, this all depends on availability so ask your hotel or tour provider to find some tickets for you and include them in your itinerary accordingly.
Day 3: Museums, Fancy Lunches & Souvenir Shopping
Once again, try to wake up by 8 AM in order to give yourself enough time for a hefty breakfast; you will need it. You don’t really need a guide for this first part of the day but you’ll see why it’ll be useful in a second.
Today’s first activity is visiting Lenin’s Tomb which may seem like an odd way to spend the morning for some, but there are multiple reasons why you should. First of all, you cannot deny that there is something intriguing about the chemically preserved body of the Soviet Union’s founder which has been on public display for 94 years. Moreover, it’s important to note that Lenin’s body won’t be there forever so this could potentially be a ‘back in my days’ moment for you. Many powerful Russians are actually objecting to the idea of idolizing and displaying a mass murderer in addition to the millions of dollars spend on chemical baths for the body each year (only the best from Bath & Body Works). Long story short, they want him buried so it’s now or never folks. Now back to why I recommend a guide for this, the mausoleum opens at 10 AM but the line grows rapidly at 9:30 so try beat the clock on this one. Bags, cameras, cell phones and sharp or glass objects are not allowed inside… here is where the guide comes in handy since he’ll be waiting for you outside. If you don’t have a guide, you can check the items in at the Historical Museum but that means leaving the long line you stood in, so might be a good idea to have one person check in the items while the other stands in line. You’re probably thinking ‘why don’t I just check them in before standing in line??’, well genius, the museum doesn’t open until 10 AM either.
The exit of the tomb will place you at a 15 minute walk from where you checked in your cell phones and cameras, so double back because you’ll definitely be needing them for the rest of the day. The next destination will help you gain an insight on Russia’s twisted relationship with communism. The Museum of Contemporary Russian History is located in Russia’s most prestigious pre-1917 hangout, the English Club, and it tells the story of the birth and death of the Soviet Union… unlike all Hollywood movies though, this museum presents the Russian perspective of things.
The museum will definitely leave you tired and hungry for some good Russian food and I got just what you need! stroll down Nevsky Prospekt once again until you locate a restaurant named Cafe Pushkin. Watch out though because the cafe doesn’t serve lunch, you gotta make sure you’re in the actual restaurant.
With plenty of time left before the Circus, we had the opportunity to visit the Izmailovsky Market and satisfy our longing for souvenirs. Here, you can purchase anything from Matryoshka dolls to deodorants or even passports of former Soviet Union lieutenants in the early 90s. It’s a great place to buy all your gifts from, strongly recommend it since you’ll find the same kind of quality available on Arbat street but for a mere fraction of the price. If you’re looking to buy yourself or your loved ones some Matryoshka dolls from Russia, there is a lady at the market selling them out of a big Matryoshka booth, she cannot be missed; I even added a picture below. The lady is a bit of a grump but you’re guaranteed cheaper prices than anywhere else and the quality is quite impressive. Of course, she has a great variety and the higher-end ones are relatively expensive. Besides shopping, the market is also a picturesque scene and worth visiting for the architecture. I’m not sure whether the buildings served a different purpose in the past or whether it was build to cater as a market, if you have any idea, do let us know in the comments section below.
Take your shopping back to the hotel and get changed for the famous Russian Circus! I attended multiple performances by Cirque Du Soleil in Las Vegas and Dubai before and was sure the circus here won’t impress me much but boy was I wrong. Yes, the theater doesn’t drown in water, light on fire or lift the performers 10s of meters into the air, but the acts were just as extraordinary if not even more daring. Put all the theatrics aside, this was a downright acrobatic performance. The second half of the show was a bit upsetting though since it included caged up lions and tigers. If you’re an animal rights activist, the circus is not for you so best not attend, or maybe just leave during the intermission. However, once the tiger act was over, everything was back to awesomeness. The staff were extremely strict about photography so I couldn’t get much, but here is something I managed to snap before getting told off.
Day 4: A Little More of Moscow
Today is a little more chilled with not much to do so you can afford a cheeky lie in or a massage to begin your final day in Moscow. If you missed anything from the previous days too, this is when you can cover it.
The first stop of the day is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. You should’ve already seen and taken pictures of this monument during the past three days as it is visible from almost anywhere near the Red Square; however, today is the time to get up-close and personal. The church earns its glory through its magnificent height, standing 103 meters tall, it is not only the tallest Orthodox church in Russia, but the tallest Orthodox church in the entire world. It was built between 1995 and 2000 making it relatively modern, although there was another church before it on the same site, built in the 19th century. The original church took more than 40 years to build and was the scene of the 1882 world premiere of the 1812 Overture. Unfortunately, that church was destroyed in 1931 on the order of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. I’ll let you look into why he destroyed it 😉
Continue walking onwards past the church to the Ostozhenka Neighborhood, an up-and-coming housing block catering to the Kremlin-type citizens. Although quiet and not bustling with life like Arbat or Tverskaya streets, this neighborhood still has a certain charm and many different bakeries and coffee shops to choose from. In case you are interested, you can also visit the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts here, although we skipped it to be honest. Finally, take the metro from Ostozhenka to Sparrow Hills.
The metro won’t take you all the way up the hills but the walk is quite pleasant. If you are not in the mood or incapable of conquering the steps leading up the park, you can either take the bus or call in an Uber. As you make your way through the park, or if you decide to walk along the Moskva River first, you will be approached by multiple people selling boat ride tickets. Don’t worry just yet, the boat ride isn’t a scam, it is a legit company and the tour runs every half an hour or so; however, I strongly, desperately urge you not to fall for this mistake. The ride was arguably the most boring part of our entire trip. The boat doesn’t go through any scenic routes and turns around just as it approached Red Square. To add insult to injury, it stopes every 10 minutes or so for more than 20 minutes in hopes of picking up more passengers. As we got off the boat, we noticed that many of the Russians who took the trip were furious and started fighting with the tour operators… we nodded in agreement even though we had absolutely no idea what they were saying.
Once you get to the top of the hills, walk over to the Moscow State University and bask over its architectural design and glory. Only in Russia will you find a university that looks like the Empire State Building or even fancier.
From here, take an Uber or bus back down the hills and head over the Moscow Olympic Stadium.
Lying right across from the stadium though, and definitely worth visiting is the Moscow Cathedral Mosque. Inaugurated on 23rd September 2015 by Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mahmoud Abbas and local Muslim leaders, the mosque has the capacity of ten thousand worshippers. Like the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, this mosque is also built on the same site of a former one.
Now you’ve got some free time to revisit some of your favorite sites, have dinner at Arbat Street or simply wander the streets of Moscow until it’s time to catch your overnight train to St. Petersburg. It might not be the Orient Express but the night train was still quite impressive. There is no doubt we passed out comfortably, or maybe it was just plain exhaustion. If you have taken the night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg before, let me know what you thought of it.
I would be lying if I said four days are enough for Moscow; a city this big with a history that runs so deep would require weeks if not months just to skim the surface of what it has to offer. However, we did the best with what we have and now we move on to The Venice of the North, St. Petersburg. I sincerely hope you enjoyed this itinerary and blog of Moscow, Russia. If you have, be sure to subscribe, like, comment and share with your friends so they can enjoy it too! Stay tuned for St. Petersburg blog and itinerary to follow soon.
PS: Do me a huge favor guys, if you followed this itinerary, please comment on what you liked, what you didn’t like, anything you did differently or anything you’d change. Most importantly though, rate this trip out of 10 so that other travelers, explorers and adventurers can also benefit from your experience 🙂