48 hours in Moscow



Tomorrow marks the 82nd anniversary of the Great October Revolution (the Russians use the Julian calender). Those who look back with nostalgia at the gritty impenetrability of the Soviet era may regret some of the changes of the past decade, but there's no doubt that Moscow is buzzing. Crisis or no crisis, the clubs, restaurants and bars are packed (and not just with tourists). One sign of this peculiar social schizophrenia is that retired doctors beg outside popular watering-holes while the capital's gilded youth pursues its hedonistic search for pleasure inside. But the enduring Moscow realities of historical and cultural treasures with surprises around every corner remain. As do, sadly, bureaucracy and unpredictable service.


Given the high price of flight-only deals, the difficulties of booking hotel rooms from Britain, and the labyrinthine visa rules, there is much to be said for an inclusive package. Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711) has a three-night trip for £315, including flights on British Airways from Heathrow, and B&B accommodation at the Hotel Belgrade; there are surcharges for weekend travel, and prices rise from 14 December. A visa will cost an additional £40, and takes more than a week to process. Check whether your hotel offers a pick-up service from the airport. Taxis are available, but use only drivers who can produce an official taxi licence. On the journey in, keep an eye out for the red tank-traps on the right side of the road, showing just how close the German army came to Moscow in 1941. Allow plenty of time to get through all the airport formalities on the return journey - there are three woefully long queues before you get to duty-free and boarding.


As befits its position as capital of the world's largest country, Moscow is huge. Its historical and spiritual heart is the Kremlin (1), the familiar red-walled triangular fortress brooding over the Moskva river, flanked on one side by Red Square (2). A series of ring roads radiates out from this centre, and the Moskva loops its way in generous curves through the city. More authentically Russian than the "European" city of St Petersburg, Moscow has been the backdrop for much of Russia's history for a millennium, and the twists and turns of contemporary politics are but the latest chapter in a turbulent saga.


The past few years have seen the opening of a plethora of Western-run hotels, many of them geared to businessmen's expense accounts. Cheaper accommodation is available, but the price-to-quality ratio sometimes leaves much to be desired. For sheer self-indulgence and Art Nouveau glamour, stay at the renovated Metropol hotel (3), opposite the Bolshoi Theatre (Teatralny Prospekt 1, 007 095 927 6000). A standard (single or double) room costs about £100 per night at the weekend. More down-to-earth surroundings are available only a few streets away at the Budapest Hotel (Petrovskiye Liniye 2/18, 00 7 095 924 8820; prices start at £40 a night for a single room) or the Belgrade (4) at 8 Smolenskaya Square (007 095 248 2841; £50 for a double room).


This section would normally recommend some form of above-ground transport. Moscow's metro, however, is one of the "must-sees" on any traveller's list, as well as being the most practical way of covering the sometimes considerable distances between sights. The first line of "people's palaces" was opened in 1935, and it is these central stations that house the most striking architectural and artistic features: stucco and gold at Komsomolskaya (5) , red marble at Arbatskaya and Ukrainian-based mosaics at Kiev Station (6) . The old metal tokens have been replaced by cards, usable for one or several trips; in July, a five-trip card cost 15 roubles. A basic knowledge of Cyrillic is essential, as there are practically no English signs.


There are plenty of street vendors selling inexpensive hot dogs and pirozhki , but the health-conscious are rightly wary. For a Russian fast food experience, try one of the cafés on Mayakovskaya Square (metro of the same name) or a "bistro" from the "Yelky Palky" fast-food chain (dotted all round the city). The "Getman" restaurant at 9 Old Arbat (737 0447) offers tasty and warming Ukrainian lunches for a few pounds.


An impressive display of antiquities and European art is on show at the Pushkin Museum, but the Tretyakov Gallery (12), Moscow's premier collection of Russian art, should not be missed (Tretyakov metro). Entry costs 175 roubles (£4.25) for foreigners (20R for Russians), and personal stereos with recorded tours of about one hour can be rented for 80R (£2.20) each. Fedotov's minutely observed portrayals of middle-class life, Repin's historical tableaux and the deep scarlet of Malyavin's peasant dresses provide a secular contrast to Andrei Rublev's Trinity and other revered icons, which often have Orthodox believers praying in front of them.


GUM, the state department store (13) , was once the pride of the Soviet retail experience; customers might have had to queue for goods, but they did so in a magnificent turn-of-the-century building, and organised their rendezvous at the central fountain. Nowadays, you can start with Legoland at one end and work your way along to Estée Lauder at the other, and the only Russian-produced goods you'll find are tourist souvenirs. The story isn't much better in the three-floor underground shopping centre in Manezh Square: overpriced foreign goods are everywhere. Much better to head to Novy Arbat, where Russian department stores give a much more realistic idea of what ordinary Russians buy, and the current exchange rate means that Dom Knigi is virtually giving away its books and music. Alternatively, take the metro to Ismailovsky Park and explore the Ismailovsky Flea Market for matryoshka dolls and Soviet kitsch.


Get yourself in the mood for Moscow nights with pre-dinner drinks at Krasnaya Ploshchad, in the basement of the Historical Museum (at the opposite end of Red Square to St Basil's). Women arriving without male company are virtually guaranteed a margarita on the house. If you read Russian, check out the listings in the fortnightly Afisha magazine for live music venues.


Almost every international cuisine is available in Moscow, but sitting in Petrovich (14) at 24 Myasnitskaya street, entrance 3 (Chistiye Prudi metro) is like stepping back to a safe and comforting version of the pre-Gorbachev era. The walls are covered in Soviet memorabilia, Komsomol posters and Fifties' consumer goods ("I always feel as though I'm in my gran's flat here," said the Russian friend I dined with), while the dishes all have appropriate names (Shining Path, General Secretary). Granny might have been shocked by the prices, but they are unexceptional for Moscow - our three-course meal for two (with wine) cost 981R (just under £24). Call 923 0082 for a reservation.


Following Napoleon's defeat by the Russian army (and winter), a grateful Tsar ordered the construction of a magnificent cathedral, Christ Our Saviour (15), along the river from the Kremlin; in 1931 it was torn down and replaced by an open-air swimming-pool (the ground having proved to be too boggy for the planned congress hall). With Russian Orthodoxy now regaining some of its previous status (and, increasingly, political influence), Moscow's ambitious mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has overseen the monument's expensive rebuilding. Only the lower half is open, but even this gives an excellent idea of the opulence and splendour of the original. At once a symbol of Russia's past and present, Christ Our Saviour should not be missed (Kropotkinskaya metro).


With its blaring music, multitude of fairground and children's attractions, and overall determination to show the visitor a good time, Gorky Park (16) gets lots of attention. Muscovites in search of Sunday afternoon calm take the metro down to the Kolomenskoye "museum-reserve" park in the south-east of the city, once a royal summer estate. Past 17th-century gates, beautiful church buildings are preserved next to historical monuments; walk through the grounds to the river, then take a boat back up to Kiev Station.


The quintessential Moscow experience must include a visit to the Kremlin (1). When buying tickets in the Alexander Garden, remember to state whether you want to go into the cathedrals and museums, as these tickets cost extra. Not that there isn't enough to see once you've gone through Borovitsky Tower into the grounds - standing in Cathedral Square as the bells of Ivan the Great Bell Tower peal out over the city is worth a visit in itself - but the frescoed Cathedral of the Assumption, where the Tsars of All the Russias were once crowned, and the treasures in the State Armoury, take the breath away.