48 hours in Moscow

Vast and imposing, the city is transforming itself into a 21st-century destination, rich with bars and nightclubs. But there are still reminders of the Soviet past amid some stunning architecture
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The Independent Travel

Why go now?

As Aeroflot's website optimistically puts it: "Travel to Russia is easier than ever." In many ways, and especially compared with a decade ago, this is true. However, there is still the dreaded visa to obtain, an occasion when a tour operator can help hugely. Red tape aside, it is a welcoming and vibrant city. Many people speak English, it's easy to get around and there are new cafés, bars, clubs and restaurants eager to prove that Soviet service standards are a distant memory. Too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, spring and autumn are the perfect times to visit. And if you go soon you can join in the marvellous Pancake Festival, a celebration of the coming of spring that takes place from 11-17 March.

Beam down

Believe it or not, it is actually tougher and more expensive to get into Moscow than it was back in the USSR. Add to this the high fares on British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) and Aeroflot (020-7355 2233, www.aeroflot.org), and it is far better to book a package through a specialist such as Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711, www.regent-holidays.co.uk). A three-night package including BA flights, inbound transfer and accommodation costs £400, including £55 for the visa. Moscow's Sheremetevo-2 Airport, 27 miles northwest, is an adventure in itself. Arriving is a hassle, unless you have a pre-arranged transfer: a taxi to the centre will cost $50-$80 (£35-£55). Local buses will only take you as far as the nearest metro station (around 20 minutes away). You then face a half-hour metro journey into the city centre.

Get your bearings

Orient yourself from Red Square (next to the Kremlin, GUM and St Basil's) and you'll find Moscow pretty easy to get to grips with. Moscow's high street, Tverskaya, runs north-west of Red Square. To the west side is the Arbat (old shopping district). To the east is Moscow's Chinatown, Kitai Gorod, where lots of cafés are opening and churches are being restored. South of the Kremlin, over the river, is the must-see Tretyakov Gallery. Moscow is bigger than London. It's not a city to see on foot: take the metro if your destination is more than three or four stops away.

Check in

If you can afford a swanky hotel, life will be much more comfortable. A room at the Baltschug Kempinski Ulitsa Baltchug 1 (007 095 230 6500, www.kempinski-moscow.com) costs around £140 a night, but sometimes weekend deals are available. It is luxurious, offers great views and is in the centre of town (opposite Red Square). Moscow still has a lack of mid-range accommodation. If you're feeling adventurous, and don't mind prostitutes in the lobby, go for the Cosmos Hotel Prospekt Mira 150 (007 095 234 1000, www.hotelcosmos.ru), north of the centre, which costs from £52 a night. For an authentic Muscovite experience, stay with a family – you pay around £21 a night for bed and breakfast; to book it and wade through the bureaucracy, call the specialist company Interchange (020-8681 3612, www.interchangeuk.com).

Take a hike

For a bracing walk, Moscow families head out to Sparrow Hills (Vorobyovuiye Gory), formerly the Lenin Hills, where you can get panoramic views of the city. Close to Moscow University, one of the city's wedding-cake buildings, this is one of the most famous picnic spots. In the summer, Muscovites swim in the river here (not an advisable activity, judging from the industrial activity nearby). Close by is the Central Lenin Stadium and sports complex at Luzhniki, which hosted the 1980 Olympic Games.

Lunch on the run

Look out for branches of Russkoye Bistro all over the city, Moscow Mayor Luzhkov's answer to McDonald's, and a great stop for miniature cabbage pies and warm breads. For a quick sandwich and a ridiculously sweet treat, go to Zen Coffee Bolshaya Dmitrovka 5/6 (actually on Kamergerski Pereulok) , Moscow's would-be Starbucks chain, which serves great coffee along with shots of vodka and Russian speciality cakes. For a food-hall experience, go downstairs at Manezh the underground shopping mall in front of Red Square. Alternatively, if you're at any metro station, keep an eye out for women selling hot pies from buckets at their feet (there's normally a crowd of them at Izmailovsky Park station). Always homemade and delicious, these pies (usually meat, mushroom, cabbage or potato) are scandalously cheap.

Take a ride

The metro is the best ride in town and only costs five roubles a trip (10p). Start at Mayakovskaya, and look up to admire the amazingly detailed ceiling mosaics depicting planes and sporting scenes. Ride one stop north to Belorusskaya and change on to the circle line, travelling anti-clockwise through Krasnopresnenskaya. Get off at the next stop, Kievskaya, where you can admire frescoes on the friendship between Russia and the Ukraine. Other stations worth a look inside if you happen to be passing: Park Kultury, Teatralnaya, Novokuznetskaya and Ploshchad Revolyutsii.

Window shopping

It's become a cliché but you have to do GUM the giant shopping mall next to Red Square (8am-8pm Mon-Sat, 11am-7pm Sun). It has everything from Benetton to La Perla these days. For competitively priced vodka, caviar and Red October chocolate, go to Yeliseyev's 14 Tverskaya. This is one of the most beautiful stores in the world, and has brilliantly outlived its Soviet name – Grocery Store No1.

An aperitif

Moscow is not really an aperitif kind of city, with most locals wanting to get stuck into serious drinking over dinner. However, you could try the (expensive) bar of the Hotel National Mokhovaya Ulitsa 15/1, a sumptuous Art Deco building where Lenin once had a room overlooking Red Square. Or try the hottest ticket in town, Biscuit, in the shopping centre halfway down Ulitsa Kuznetskiy Most. It's a new restaurant, and there's a short bar where they will serve you an aperitif if it's early evening and not too busy.

Dining with the locals

Classy locals proudly dine at Cyr Sadovaya-Samotechnaya 16, an Italian restaurant with an extensive menu and an interior that imitates the inside of a Swiss cheese. Pasta, salads and Tuscan breads so good you'll forget you're in Moscow. Expect to pay about 1,000 roubles (£20) a head without drinks. Cheaper and more homely is Yelki Palki, Russian for "goodness gracious" at Bolshaya Dmitrovka 23/8 – a simple, authentic Russian chain serving great pelmeni (dumplings), borsch and pirozhki (pies).

Sunday morning, go to church

For a taste of modern Russia, head to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (opposite metro Kropotkinskaya): restored recently at a cost of £1.4bn, most Muscovites hate this ostentatious cathedral, an exact copy of its pre-Revolutionary self (which was pulled down by Stalin). It's worth a visit, however, for its views over Moscow. Sunday is also a good day to visit the churches and cathedrals of the Kremlin from 10am. Far from being just a parliamentary building, the Kremlin (meaning "fortress") describes an enclosed park-like area with five stunning cathedrals, the State Armoury and several landmark towers.

A walk in the park

The wide, flat expanses of Gorky Park are unappealing; instead, go to the area behind Kropotkinskaya if you want to find a bench on a leafy avenue. Moscow's amateur chess-players hang out here. Most Muscovites would name their favourite park as Patriarch's Pond, the area featured in Mikhail Bulgakov's cult Soviet novel, The Master and Margarita (in the book a man gets run over by a tram near the park). Now one of the most expensive residential areas, Patriarch's has a pleasant children's park and a picturesque pond.

Bracing brunch

Moscow is embracing the concept of "biznez lanch" (business lunch), which is basically a glorified brunch. One of the best can be had at Chinese Pilot Dzhao Da Lyubyansky Proezd 25, an underground student haunt that serves cheap and cheerful fare. For the upmarket expatriate option, head to the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, whose dining room is the only one overlooking the Moscow River, St Basil's and the Kremlin: their Champagne brunch is around £15.

Write a postcard

If you have time, get out to Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery, near Sportivnaya metro. Buy some postcards of Novodevichy's stunning 16 golden domes and find a bench to sit on in the leafy gardens of the convent or the well-kept cemetery. Chekhov, Gogol, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khrushchev are all buried here, in inspiring surroundings.

Cultural afternoon

The Tretyakov Gallery Lavrushinsky Pereulok 10, has more than 100,000 Russian works in its collection: highlights include Chagall and Kandinsky (open 10am-7.30pm, closed Mondays). One often-overlooked cultural must is the interior of St Basil's on Red Square; (open from 10am-4pm, closed Monday and Tuesday): seeing the onion domes from the inside is fascinating, with their extensive mosaic work and icons.

The icing on the cake

It has to be the famous so-called "wedding cake architecture", also known as Stalinist Gothic. Look out for the seven matching skyscrapers erected at key points in the city in the 1940s and 1950s: each of these "Seven Sisters" has the same amazing tiered exterior (just like a wedding cake, of course). The Foreign Ministry opposite Smolenskaya metro is probably the easiest to spot.

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