48 Hours In: Moscow

Prolong the magic of the festive season in the winter wonderland that is the Russian capital, says Neil McGowan
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The Independent Travel

MOSCOW

Moscow is at its most attractive in winter: the snow hides the dirt and adds a traditional frosty topping. If you've not had a sackful of festivities already, you can take a second bite of the blini: Christmas falls today in the Russian Orthodox calendar, and the "Old New Year" (as it would have been prior to the 1918 calendar reforms) is still celebrated next Saturday, 14 January.

TOUCH DOWN

You will need a visa, for which you need to apply at least two weeks in advance to avoid surcharges on the normal fee of £30. The London Consulate is at 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 (0906 550 89 60, £1 per minute; www.rusemblon. org). Non-stop flights from Heathrow are operated by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) to Moscow's

Domodedovo airport, and on Aeroflot (020-7355 2233; www.aeroflot.co.uk) to Sheremetyevo. The lowest non-stop fares are around £225 return; cheaper deals are available if you can accept an indirect flight via, for example, Rome or Budapest.

Given the choice, wise travellers aim to touch-down at the sparkling new Domodedovo, from where the hourly Aeroexpress train whisks you to Paveletsky station in 45 minutes for just 120 roubles (RUR), or £2.40. From older and grimmer Sheremetyevo, bus 815C is even cheaper at RUR15 (30p) and drops you about one gridlocked hour later at the north end of the Green Line of the Moscow metro, from where it's a RUR12 (25p) ride to any station on the system.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Medieval Moscow sprang up around its fortified citadel, the Kremlin. The main attractions are neatly adjacent to each other, and the legendary metro will speed you to other destinations in minutes for pennies, avoiding the terrible traffic at ground level.

CHECK-IN

Rub shoulders with Moscow's oligarchs at the five-star National Hotel at Mokhovaya 1 (007 495 258 7000; www.national.ru/english), where a standard twin room with a Kremlin view costs from $390 (£225) including breakfast for two. The three-star Hotel Volga offers fairly central mini-suites at Dokuchaev Pereulok 2 (007 495 783 9109; www. hotel-volga.ru), from $200 (£115) including breakfast. Modest, centrally located charm comes cheaper at Sweet Moscow Hostel at Tverskaya-Yamskaya 7 (007 495 200 5741; www.sweetmoscow.com), with dorm beds from RUR750 (£15).

TAKE A HIKE

Despite the Soviet-era high-rise boom, it's still possible to find low-rise central areas in which to stroll. Begin at Mayakovskaya metro station , leaving by the newly opened exit in the Soviet-futurist style inspired by Mayakovsky's poems. Cross Tverskaya via the pedestrian underpass, and step into Triumfalnaya Square . Pass the statue of Mayakovsky in the middle, and the colonnaded building before you is the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall . To your right, the high-rise 1930s "Soviet suprematist" building is the Hotel Peking , originally built as the KGB HQ, but never used. Take note of Matrioshka, a handy place for lunch. In front of the concert-hall colonnade, turn right and follow the 10-lane Garden Ring - one of Moscow's several ring roads - for two blocks. If you're already in need of refreshment, the gated gardens beside the Satire Theatre conceal an American diner.

Take a left down Malaya Bronnaya, and you emerge at Patriarch's Ponds, setting of the opening of Mikhail Bulgakov's Stalin-banned classic The Master and Margarita. Half-circle the ponds and exit on to Spiridonovka to pass the mansions of Moscow's 19th-century merchant élite. Savva Mamontov's pile, for example, was built on the proceeds of the railroads he constructed. The last building on Spiridonovka, facing the church at Nikitsky Gates, was the mansion of another tycoon, Stepan Ryabushinsky. An art deco gem that was seized by Stalin to "donate" it to Gorky, who died in mysterious circumstances there, it is now the Gorky Museum it opens Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm, Wednesday and Friday noon-7pm, closed on the last Thursday of each month, admission free. Press on across the big road junction, and follow Bolshaya Nikitskaya down to the Kremlin Gates , unless, that is, you are waylaid by the luscious cakes and coffee at the popular Coffee-Mania, Bolshaya Nikitskaya 13 (007 495 229 3901; www.coffeemania.ru/eng), which is situated outside the Moscow Conservatoire. You started your walk with Tchaikovsky, and you finish with him, too - his statue stands outside the main entrance of the conservatoire.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Matrioshka (007 495 727 9651, noon-midnight daily), on Triumfalnaya Square , is a cheerful café that serves traditional Russian food, but escapes being a kitsch tourist-trap. Help yourself to all you can eat from the huge buffet for RUR220 (£4.40) at lunchtimes, RUR270 (£5.40) evenings, drinks not included.

TAKE A RIDE

"It's always lovely weather in the Moscow metro" runs the underground railway's slogan - and, indeed, when it's icy underfoot, the metro serves as a warm-up, ride and sightseeing tour in one. The famously elaborate "people's palace" stations are mostly on the Circle Line, each in a unique style. Kievskaya is a riot of Ukrainian wheat-sheaves; Paveletskaya has bizarrely funereal Pharaonic interiors; Belorusskaya features a giant statue of Belarussian partisans; and Novoslobodskaya ("New Freedom") is all stained glass.

The most striking of all, however, needs a cut off the Circle Line on to the Dark Blue line. Get out at Ploschad Revolutsii to see the huge figures of "revolutionary" types set into the columns - heroic pilots, greybeard riflemen, model mothers... All sadly at odds with the dossers who, like you, are seeking shelter from the weather and dozing the day away in the front wagon.

WINDOW SHOPPING

GUM , on Red Square, is untypical of Russian shopping, but it's a marvellous 19th-century department store that's an attraction in its own right. More practical shopping (clothes, accessories, consumer goods) is available in the adjacent underground Manege shopping mall - along with cheap fast food and clean toilets.

Every kind of Russian stacking doll, chess set and hip flask imaginable, along with the inevitable fur hats, can be had for a good price (if you haggle hard enough) at the weekend "Vernissage" flea market at Partizanskaya metro (marked "Izmailovsky Park" on metro maps older than autumn 2005). The bustle of the market is infectious, but grim toilets and pickpocketing await the unprepared. Trading takes place from around 10am-5pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

AN APERITIF

Moscow's most sophisticated bar is probably Vision, hidden at the unlikely address of Novy Arbat 11, second floor (007 495 727 3230). The easiest way to find it is by looking for the Dom Knigi bookstore that faces it on the opposite side of the street. The combination of a VJ/DJ-bar, smart staff and impeccably made cocktails attracts a fashionable crowd.

More mainstream is Pyramida, located in the pyramid-shaped new building at Tverskaya ul 18a (007 495 200 3603), with its comfy sofas on the balcony level.

Moscow's most popular expat watering-hole is Doug'n'Marty's Boar-House (19), at Zemlyanoi Val 26 (directly opposite Kursky Station, from the metro Kurskaya - take the pedestrian subway under the 10-lane highway opposite), although the "Klondike" approach is looking somewhat tired these days.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

For formal Russian fare, try the conveniently located 1, Red Square - both the name and the address - in the basement of the History Museum (007 495 692 1196; www.redsquare.ru; average bill RUR2,000/ £40 per person, daily, noon-midnight). For those who prefer spicier food, Sindbad (21) at 1-y Neopalimovsky Lane 6 (007 495 248 5102; daily noon-2am, average bill RUR1,000/£20pp) serves Azeri and Georgian food.

SUNDAY MORNING - GO TO CHURCH

The most notable places of worship in Moscow are those to be found within the Kremlin. This ancient fortress is open 10am-5pm daily, except Thursdays and for some official ceremonies, admission RUR300 (£6). Your entrance ticket will include admission to all of the cathedrals - try to visit at least the Assumption Cathedral, where the Tsars were traditionally crowned, and Archangel Michael Cathedral, the location of the royal necropolis prior to Peter I's reign.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Gorky Park (metro Park Kultury and walk across the river bridge) is far jollier than its literary and cinematic reputation might suggest, with funfair rides and ice-skating in winter. Even the ghost train isn't scary.

OUT TO BRUNCH

At any time of the day or night, members of Moscow's trendy and bohemian youth can be found chilling out at Cafe Soup at 1-ya Brestskaya Ulitsa 62 (007 495 251 1383; it never closes). If soup does not appeal, then you could always pay another visit to Coffee Mania, outside the Conservatoire.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

To feast your eyes on the work of some of Russia's greatest artists - including Aivazovsky, Repin and Vrubel - pay a visit to the main branch of the Tretyakov Gallery (26), Lavrushinsky Pereulok 12 (metro: Tretyakovskaya; 007 495 208 9045; www.tretyakovgallery.ru), which opens 10am-7.30pm daily except Mondays. Admission RUR350 (£7).

ICING ON THE CAKE

Spend a magical evening at the legendary Bolshoi Theatre (27) on Teatralnaya Ploschad (007 495 250 7317; www.bolshoi.ru). Tickets, which can be booked online, cost from RUR300-RUR4,000 (£6-£80), depending on the seat and the performance.

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