48 hours in ... Moscow

The onset of winter and the rich history of this enigmatic city offers a get-away steeped in culture and stunning attractions, says Philippa Goodrich
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

Today is the 81st anniversary of the 1917 October uprising (the old-style calendar explains the discrepancy), which marks the real beginning of winter - the time of year when Moscow looks its best, especially before the first snowfall has been turned black by traffic or had a chance to melt to slush. And this year has proved even more intriguing in Europe's most enigmatic capital.

Beam down

Air fares are high - about pounds 300 return - so you may like to opt for a package instead through a city-break operator. This will also ease the visa problems. But don't let the dimly lit arrivals hall in Sheremetevo airport and the queues at immigration put you off. It gets better. The easiest way of getting into the city centre is by taxi. When you emerge from customs, you'll be surrounded by touting drivers. To avoid this, ask the hotel you're staying in to send a car. If they can't, make sure you ask the driver to switch his meter on or agree to a flat rate before you set off. It shouldn't be more than about US$60. Bear in mind that most prices are quoted in American dollars, but fluctuations on the local market may affect prices.

Get your bearings

Central Moscow is enclosed within two ring roads: the garden ring which is a busy, multi-lane highway, and the more manageable 19th-century Boulevard ring. The Moscow River cuts across the bottom of the Boulevard ring, turning it into a horseshoe. An up-to-date guide book is essential, as many streets have reverted to their pre-revolutionary names even though they may still be known to Muscovites by their Communist-era name - and in Russia, if you don't ask the right question, you'll never get the right answer. Most hotels supply street maps and the free English language newspaper, the Moscow Times, is a good source of information.

Check in

The Rossiya hotel enjoys an unrivalled position overlooking Red Square, the Kremlin and the Moscow River. The drawback is that it's huge and the rooms are Soviet in style. But they're relatively cheap at about $100 per night. The East-West hotel in Tverskoi Boulevard is within walking distance of Red Square and its low rise, pastel-coloured exterior gives you a taste of pre-revolutionary Russia. Double rooms start at $180 a night, including breakfast. If you want a more peaceful experience (apart from the bells) you could stay at the hotel in the Danilovsky Monastery, home of the Russian patriarch. Double rooms, with breakfast, start at $230.

Take a ride

The Moscow metro is the way to get around. It was trumpeted as a great achievement of Communist Russia and many of the stations are tourist attractions in their own right. Tokens can be bought from an office inside each metro station. You need one per journey so it's worth buying several at a time. Most of the signs are in Cyrillic, so make sure you're armed with a bi- lingual map. Also bear in mind that if a station has more than one line going through it, it may have more than one name.

Take a hike

Sooner or later most tourists in Moscow end up on the old Arbat, the street which in the Eighties represented the city's expanding liberalisation. If you start at the Foreign Ministry, one of the city's gigantic Stalin skyscrapers, you'll come across stalls selling Matryoshka dolls and other trinkets. The latest addition to the range of political dolls is the Bill and Monica matryoshka. Alexander Pushkin held his stag night at No 53, which you'll pass on the right-hand side. Further on, the "peace wall" - dozens of tiles painted by Soviet school-children - is a reminder of the Cold War. When the Arbat runs out, take the underpass to Ulitsa Vozdvizhenka, which runs towards Red Square. The house which belonged to Tolstoy's grandfather stands on the corner of Bolshoy Znamenskiy Pereulok, while the end of the street is dominated by the Russian State Library, formerly the Lenin Library. From here you get a good view of the golden domes of the Kremlin. Red Square lies beyond Manezh Square, in front of you and to the left.

Lunch on the run

Mayakovskaya square (its new name is Triumfalnaya, but no one calls it that) where the garden ring meets Tverskaya is a good place to grab a quick bite to eat. There's a new sushi bar and a Deli France patisserie in the Tchaikovsky concert hall. Back towards the ring, you'll find an Ed's Diner. There are a lot of quick eateries on the old Arbat, but the food is generally of dubious quality.

Cultural afternoon

You can't leave Moscow without visiting the Kremlin. Even if you don't spend ages in the museums, it's worth walking around it just to feel at the heart of centuries of Russian history. You can go with or without a guide. The ticket kiosk is by the Kutafya tower, which is the entrance you see from the end of Vozdvizhenka.

Window shopping

The most famous shop in Moscow is GUM in Red Square, opposite Lenin's mausoleum. Actually it's more like a bazaar, as its elegant, steel-framed arcades house lots of different shops including, these days, some expensive ones.

An aperitif

Head for Donna Clara's in Malaya Bronnaya in the heart of Moscow's leafy 19th-century district. And if you haven't tried any vodka yet, do so here.

Demure dinner

At the end of Malaya Bronnaya and near the Patriarch's ponds you'll find Margarita's restaurant, named after the heroine of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Mask and Margarita, which is set in this part of Moscow. There you can eat simple food at a reasonable price to the accompaniment of an energetic violin and piano duo.

Sunday: go to church

If you want to escape from the hurly burly, spend a bit of time strolling around the Novodeichiy Convent and then go down the road to its cemetery. Pick up a plan at the gate which will help you find the graves of famous Russians from Anton Chekhov to Andrei Tupolev. As you make your way down the grassy avenues you'll also see lots of ordinary Russians carefully tending the graves of their relatives.

Bracing brunch

The Zoo (the bar, not the nearby animal park) is in the shadow of the Stalin building at Barrikadnaya metro and does a good all-day breakfast.

A walk in the park

Take the metro out to the all-Russia Exhibition centre, (VVTs) or, to give it its Soviet title, the Park of Permanent Economic Achievements (VDNKh). This used to be a standard ingredient of every package tour to Moscow; it's a shadow of its former self, but the statues at the gate of a girl and boy striding forward into a Socialist future are still impressive.

The icing on the cake

One of the best Russian experiences has to be the bannya, or bath. You can spend anywhere from an hour to an afternoon there, depending on how seriously you take it. Most of the Russians who go there take it seriously, so be prepared for a lesson on observing the rituals. The Sandunovsky baths in Nelginnaya street, like most Russian bannyas, has separate entrances for men and women. Sheets, birch twigs and slippers will be supplied by the attendants (at a cost), but the most important thing is to take a hat to protect your head from the intense heat and to allay the tut-tuttings of elderly bannya goers.