This month’s ‘Departures’ provides you with information on ‘better’ things to do in Moscow – it’s our guide to everything and everywhere the discerning traveller needs to know: From the best bars in Moscow and the best restaurants in Moscow to the best Moscow hotels and the capital’s most impressive buildings.
The Russian capital might not immediately take your breath away like Paris or Rome and it doesn’t offer up the exciting eclecticism of London. But Moscow’s best buildings are still stunning, and exploring the architecture is a must for anyone with even a passing interest Russia’s 20th Century history.
“Almost every building in Moscow tells a glorious or tragic story”
Memories of the Soviet period are everywhere, whether it’s the in-your-face Stalinist skyscrapers, the preponderance of Order of Lenin badges or the statues honouring Soviet heroes that still stand in many parks and squares.
Then there are the buildings built in the post-Soviet period – from garish, glass and steel constructions erected during the oil boom to the more subtle refurbishments of old factories that have become fashionable recently.
Almost every building in Moscow tells a glorious or tragic story – sometimes literally, if you can decipher the granite plaques dedicated to the famous Russians or Soviets who have lived in them.
Moscow’s Best Buildings #1: The Metro
Moscow’s metro is far more than just a functional mass transit system. Conceived as a way of both celebrating the country’s glorious workers and inspiring awe at the power of the Soviet state, the stations in the city centre are underground palaces. A ride on the metro is a trip to a museum and art gallery rolled into one.
There’s no need to rush for your train – in any case, the service is much more frequent and reliable than most Western capitals.
Instead, dawdle and take a look at the Soviet-era mosaics on the ceiling of Mayakovskaya station, or the stained glass windows at Novoslobodskaya. In Ploshchad Revolutsii bronze statues of Soviet citizens lurk behind pillars – touch the noses of the soldiers’ dogs as you go past, for luck – and the chandeliers at Mendeleevskaya are worth a trip in themselves.
Moscow’s Best Buildings #2: Ostankino Tower
The TV tower spikes out over the north of Moscow and is open to visit for a panorama of the city, if you book in advance. Ostankino also played a significant role in Russia’s turbulent modern history, as the site of deadly clashes during the 1993 constitutional crisis, when anti-Yeltsin demonstrators tried to storm the building and take control of the airwaves.
Nearby is VDNKh, an open-air Soviet-era exhibition centre that still holds events and remains as a monument to the Communists’ vision of the glorious future. It boasts statues of the first cosmonauts and the giant Worker and Collective Farm Woman sculpture, among many other impressive pieces from the period.
The exhibition centre is undergoing refurbishment but is gradually re-opening and many of the buildings and monuments remain accessible.
Moscow’s Best Buildings #3: Narkomfin
Originally used to house staff in the Soviet finance ministry, the long Narkomfin building behind the US embassy was one of the world’s foremost examples of constructivist architecture.
As the style fell out of favour with Russian authorities, so the building fell into disrepair – but recently a massive project to restore the building was given the go ahead. Tours have stopped as the refurb gets underway, but still well worth a look for an example of this revolutionary style.
Moscow’s Best Buildings #4: Melnikov House
Built by the architect Konstantin Melnikov in the 1920s to house his family and art studio, Melnikov House is like nothing else in Moscow… or perhaps anywhere in the world.
The building is made out of two interlocking cylinders – leaving the inside free of any dividing walls – and studded with hexagonal windows. A striking relic of the Russian avant-garde and open to visit in the Arbat district.
Moscow’s Best Buildings #5: Moscow State University
If you’re driving through central Moscow, you’re unlikely to have one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters skyscrapers far out of your skyline. These neo-gothic giants were started from 1947 onwards as the USSR and the USA began to view each other as rivals, to close what Stalin saw as a “skyscraper gap” with New York.
Perhaps the most impressive of the seven is the main building of Moscow State University. For the best view, go to Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills) where the early 1950s edifice will towers over you, dwarfing the statue of the Russian scientist Lomonosov which stands in front.
Turn around and you get one of the best views of Moscow’s skyline – with the Luzhniki stadium, site of the World Cup matches in the foreground.
Other “sister” skyscrapers worth seeing include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the end of the Old Arbat shopping street, and the Radisson Royal (formerly the Hotel Ukraina), on the other side of the river from the White House government building.
Theo Merz is a British journalist based in Moscow. Keep up with him on Twitter.