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48 Hours In: Moscow

With the prospect of a low-cost link from Gatwick, is the vast Russian capital about to join the big league of weekend break locations? Shaun Walker reports
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Travel essentials

Why go now?

The latest target for the no-frills revolution is the Russian capital: easyJet hopes to fly from Gatwick to this big, brash and fascinating city as soon as next month. Moscow bulges with such iconic sites as the Kremlin, the fortified citadel at its heart, and St Basil's Cathedral (1) alongside. Travel in the next few weeks to catch the last few rays of summer sun and to enjoy the city's café terraces – before winter takes hold with a magic of its own.

Touch down

Britons visiting Russia must obtain a visa prior to travel. A single-entry tourist visa costs £50, plus £26.40 fee, via the UK visa office (0905 889 0149; ru.vfsglobal.co.uk), and takes five working days. Even without easyJet, there is plenty of competition between London and Moscow, with fares from Heathrow at £300 return or less. Aeroflot (020-7355 2233; aeroflot.ru) flies to Sheremetyevo, 30km north-west of the city centre, while British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Transaero fly to Domodedovo airport, 40km south-east. Both have convenient Aeroexpress trains every half-hour to central Moscow, fare 320 roubles (£6.40). From Sheremetyevo, trains take 35 minutes to Belorussky station (2), From Domodedovo, they take 45 minutes to Paveletsky station (3).

Get your bearings

Moscow is a sprawling beast that can be disorienting. Come armed with a basic knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet (it's surprisingly easy to master the basics to the level of reading street names ), and a well-thought-out plan.

The city is split in two by the Moscow River, but most of the tourist sites are on the north side –location for the Kremlin and Red Square, from where the city ripples out in a series of concentric circles; first with the tree-lined Boulevard Ring, then the busy Garden Ring (a 12-lane highway, with no greenery in sight despite the name).

The metro is the most practical way to get around, especially in rush hour. You seldom have to wait more than two minutes for a train and stopping at signals is almost unheard of. Buy magnetic ticket cards at station desks.

All journeys cost 28 roubles (60p), but you can buy cards in multiples of two, five, 10, 20 and 60 journeys.

Check in

In the heart of the action just across from Red Square, the Ritz Carlton (4) (3 Tverskaya St; 007 495 225 8888; ritzcarlton.com) is the place to be if money is no obstacle. From the gaudy lobby to the oversized rooms, this is Moscow bling. The rooftop terrace offers cocktails, spectacular views and the chance to rub shoulders with minigarchs. Doubles from 24,500 roubles (£490), room only.

A good mid-range option is Ma Maison Pokrovka Suites (5) (40/2 Pokrovka St; 007 495 229 57 57; mamaison.com). This all-suite hotel is cheap by Moscow standards and is close to the pretty lanes of Kitai Gorod. Doubles from 9,000 roubles (£180), including breakfast.

Despite Moscow regularly topping global hotel-rate tables, there are good budget options. Petrovka Loft (6) (17/2 Petrovka St, entrance 2; 007 495 626 2210; bit.ly/ Moscheap) offers 10 basic but stylish rooms in a loft in the heart of Moscow. Bathrooms are shared but clean. From 2,500 roubles (£50), including basic breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike

Begin on the cobblestones of Red Square, site of Tsarist executions and Soviet parades, to see the mummified body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. There are constant whispers about removing him, but for now the hero of the October Revolution is still in his marble mausoleum (7) and open for business from 10am to 1pm daily except Mondays and Fridays (free entry).

Soak up the austere beauty of the square before walking down Ilinka and the lanes of Kitai Gorod, dotted with ancient churches and low-rise buildings. Emerge on Lubyanka Square (8), the monolithic base of the KGB and its successor, the FSB. Head back down the hill to the Soviet-era Russian parliament (9) and you'll be back at the other side of Red Square. Head up Tverskaya, Moscow's main thoroughfare, passing the mayoralty and a statue to Yury Dolgoruky, the city's founder. You'll end up at Pushkin Square (10), from where you can cut through to Patriarch's Pond (11), where the Devil first appears in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

Lunch on the run

The area around the Patriarch's Pond has a number of lunch options. Café Margarita (12) at 28 Malaya Bronnaya (007 495 299 6534), named after Bulgakov's book, serves hearty Russian fare such as pancakes with caviar and salt herring. Lunch will cost 750 roubles (£15).

Window shopping

Yeliseyevsky Supermarket (13) at 14 Tverskaya is worth a visit for its Tsarist-era interiors. You can stock up on vodka or caviar. Like many shops in Moscow, it's open 24 hours. Be warned that it's technically illegal to export the rare black sturgeon caviar but there are no restrictions on red caviar. Visit GUM (14), for upscale boutiques and a chance to glimpse a Tsarist relic.

Take a ride

The Moscow metro is an attraction itself. Central stations boast grand columns, mosaics and statues extolling Stalinism. All the Circle Line stops are impressive, particularly Komsomolskaya (15); the sleek columns of Mayakovskaya (16) and the imposing statues of Ploshchad Revolutsii (17) are worth a detour.

An aperitif

Head to Bar Strelka (18), the best venue in a former industrial area that's now a creative hub of galleries, bars and offices (007 495 771 7416; strelka.com). In summer, take to the terrace; otherwise the sleek bar downstairs is a perfect place for a cocktail (from 350 roubles, £7), with views over the river and Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

Dining with the locals

Feeling adventurous? Try Mayak (19) at 19 Bolshaya Nikitskaya (007 495 691 7449; clubmayak.ru), which has the décor of a grand Soviet-era apartment. The Russian-European menu is reasonable if basic, with soups, grilled fish and steaks and an average bill of 1,000 roubles (£20) per head, but you come here for the atmosphere. You'll rub shoulders with actors, journalists and the political opposition. If you come before 9pm you should get a table for dinner; the place gets raucous later on as tables are cleared and loud music and bad dancing kick in until sunrise.

For a more refined experience, it has to be Café Pushkin (20) at 26a Tverskoi Bulvar (007 495 739 0033; cafe-pushkin.ru/en), the long-standing champion of haute cuisine à la russe. The room has been painstakingly renovated to late-Tsarist splendour and the waiters come in period costume. The food – beef stroganoff, perfectly prepared fish, and pelmeni dumplings – is fantastic. Expect to pay 3,000 roubles (£60) and upwards, with wine, or visit during the day for a £15 lunch deal.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Take the red metro line south to Sportivnaya (21) and turn right on exiting the metro. Here you'll see the extraordinary castle-like walls of Novodevichy Monastery (10am-5pm Wednesday to Sunday, admission free). You can tour inside, but the real draw is the cemetery (9am to 5pm daily, free), with cultural and historical names galore, from Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin to Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol.

A walk in the park

Two stops back up the red line lies Park Kultury station (22), from where you can cross the river bridge to Gorky Park. Until recently it was a forlorn place, but a spruce-up with Roman Abramovich's money has turned the park into a great place to spend time, whether it's pleasure-boating in summer or ice skating in winter.

Out to brunch

Lebedinoe Ozero (23), which means "Swan Lake", is in the park at 9/22 Krymsky Val (007 495 782 5813, s-11.ru/lebedinoe -ozero). It opens at noon daily. Grilled fish and kebabs (about 450 roubles/£9) are served inside, or (weather permitting) on the terrace.

Cultural afternoon

Go to the Tretyakov galleries, new and old (007 499 230 7788; tretyakovgallery.ru for both; admission 360 roubles/£7.20 to each). Across the road from Gorky Park at 10 Krymsky Val is the New Tretyakov (24) with its collection of Soviet art including a breathtaking array of Russian avant-garde works (10am to 7.30pm daily except Monday). Allow a couple of hours for the original Tretyakov (25) at 10 Lavrushinsky Lane (daily 10am to 7.30pm), which houses the world's most impressive collection of Russian art including icons by Andrei Rublev and Ilya Repin's dark portrayal of Ivan the Terrible murdering his own son.

Icing on the cake

The Kremlin (007 495 697 0349; kreml.ru/en) is much more than a political powerhouse: it is the historical centre of Muscovy, and used to house the whole centre of the city in its walls. It is open 10am to 5pm daily except Thursday (entry 350 roubles £7); guards will stop you straying too close to the bits that are still government buildings. Of the five cathedrals, the most splendid is the Archangel Cathedral (26). A separate ticket (700 roubles/£14) is required for the Armoury Museum (27) of Tsarist jewels and relics.