Moscow has to be one of the most fascinating cities in the whole world. Its name alone conjures up images of Soviet tanks rolling through the Red Square. Lenin and Stalin giving speeches to thousands of people. The thing is though, it’s a LOT more than this. Soviet times were just a small fraction of Moscow’s near 800-year history. The Moscow of today is extremely modern (and wealthy) with high-class designer stores on nearly every street corner. You get to witness the juxtaposition between old Orthodox cathedrals and modern skyscrapers. I can safely say after my visit that Moscow is my favorite city in Europe!
This guide is intended for first-time visitors to Moscow. It is in no way comprehensive, there are literally thousands of things that you can do in this expansive city. We spent 4 days in Moscow in February 2020 and these are all of the attractions that we visited.
Visit Red Square
Red Square is Moscow. It is the postcard image of Russia’s capital and the center of the city, surrounded by the most important places. It is also completely breathtaking!
The famous St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, and the GUM store, to name a few attractions, surround the square. We visited in wintertime and there was still a bustling market and ice skating rink leftover from Christmas celebrations.
The best thing about Red Square is that you have to visit it at least twice; both in day and night time. I think you will agree that it is worth it!
Bunker-42 is located in the Taganka neighborhood. Taganka is served by the brown line on the Moscow Metro (look for Taganskaya stop).
Bunker-42 is a really unique museum. It is located in what was once a nuclear bunker during the Cold War. The most surreal part is that the bunker is located right in the middle of the neighborhood. To begin with, you need to go down 18 levels to actually get to the bunker. That is 18 flights of stairs you need to go down (and back up when the tour is over).
The Cold War Tour
The tour itself is run by a guide who plays the role of a KGB officer. You will be taken to many different rooms including “Stalin’s office” – although Stalin never actually visited here. The guide explains how the bunker was capable of surviving a nuclear attack, including all the fortifications and top-secret access points. Most interesting of all was that the bunker wouldn’t actually be able to survive a nuclear attack today, such is the evolution of nuclear weapons since the Cold War ended.
To end the tour there is a demonstration of what would have happened in a nuclear attack in the bunker. This includes audience participation to “Push the Button” and everybody moving to the bunker’s tunnels. Here, the lights flashed on and off giving a red hue while the nuclear sirens went off. Pretty surreal but an experience none the less.
This is definitely an experience for the historically inquisitive. The situation around the Cold War is explained throughly by the guide.
Although the bunker was cool, different and quite a different experience – I would only recommend the visit if you had some extra time in Moscow. The tours in English are quite infrequent, with only 2 a day available. We took the Cold War tour at 3.30 pm and there were about 20 people in our group, so quite packed. The price of the tour is really expensive, coming in at 2200 rubles (~€24), which was one of the most expensive attractions of our trip. Once again though, when else will you get the chance to visit an actual nuclear bunker that is 18 floors below ground?!
Zaryadye Park is one of Moscow’s newest parks and is located close to Red Square. The park provides a nice space to walk around, with a bridge that hangs over the river, providing great views. There are also numerous exhibitions and attractions available in the park such as an aquarium, ice cave, and the likes.
Be sure to give Zaryadye Park a visit, for the views of the river, one of the Seven Sisters, and Red Square.
Sparrow Hill is one of the highest points of Moscow, located along the banks of the River Moskva. Formerly known as Lenin Hill, Sparrow Hill came highly recommended to us when researching the trip. It did come with the caveat of it being a summer activity, but we decided to give it a visit anyway!
The first thing we did to get to the Sparrow Hill region was to hop on the metro. We took the purple line to the stop ‘Universitet’. We chose this stop as we had a few items on our agenda for our visit to Sparrow Hill.
Moscow State University
The first was to visit the Moscow State University. The main building of the university is one of the famous Seven Sisters (more on them later) and it also so happens to be the tallest of those buildings. The impressive 240m in height was a bit too much for the Russian weather on the day we visited though, the tip was covered by cloud, but we could appreciate the beauty none the less.
Sparrow Hill Viewpoint
Next, we walked from Moscow State University to Sparrow Hill. Sparrow Hill is essentially just a platform that provides a view of the city of Moscow. Again, the weather didn’t play ball but we were still able to spot some of the Moscow skyline favorites. The skyscrapers of Moscow City we shrouded in the cloud, however.
Moskva River Cable Car
After this, we decided to experience Moscow’s only cable car. The cable car only opened in the last few years, and we took the journey from the Sparrow Hill observation platform to the Luzhniki Stadium. The cost was 500 rubles (~€5.40) and crosses over the Moskva River. Although short, it was still a different experience to have in Moscow. Saying that it did not compare with previous, much cheaper journeys we took in the likes of Medellin and La Paz.
To get back to Moscow downtown we took the purple line this time from Vorobyovy Gory station, which is quite close to the Luzhniki Stadium.
The Bolshoi Theatre is world-famous and one of Moscow’s most symbolic attractions. Originally built in 1780 the theatre has lived through a lot of Moscow’s most turbulent times, and even managed to survive the Bolshevik revolution.
The theatre is also of course home to the world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet Academy, and so it seemed like a must that we go to a show when in the city. So imagine our luck when looking at the schedule in advance that we saw one of the most famous ballets of all time was taking place when we visited – Swan Lake!
Buying Tickets for the Bolshoi
Now, I say we saw it when we were looking in advance because you have to book in advance. WELL in advance. Or chances are that the tickets will be gone and/or prohibitively expensive. I had kept a keen eye on when the tickets were being released for Swan Lake and managed to snap up 2 tickets a couple of days after they went on sale. At this stage, there were very few “cheap” seats left, however. This was 4 months before the actual show, which took place in the low touristic season – so do plan well in advance!
Our seats were on the balcony to the left of the stage, and we shared a booth with just one other person. Of course, being in the Bolshoi was a true experience. Being in the historic stage an added bonus. It really was an amazing place to watch a show.
Our tickets cost 7500 rubles (~€82) each. The ticket price changes depending on the seat and also the show. The closer to the date of the show and more in demand the ticket the prices will also go up. So book in advance.
When we visit any destination we also like to learn about the history of the place. It is important to remember that Russia’s history is not all about the Imperial Tsar’s or stories about what Ivan the Terrible did to the builder of St. Basil’s Cathedral. Russia has a relatively recent dark history, and so we went to the Gulag Museum to learn more.
Gulags were hard labor camps that were set up by the Soviet Union under Stalin’s regime. People were sent to these camps for crimes, political reasons, or anything that didn’t fit in with the principals of the ruling party. The people were sentenced to many years developing remote regions such as Siberia, working in the harshest of conditions.
The museum is insightful as well as being interactive. The exhibitions really hit home what the prisoners had to go through. I would also say that you can spend many hours here, as the museum covers quite a lot of detail.
The Gulag Museum is located a bit out of the way in Novoslobodskaya. We got an Uber to it as there is no metro within close distance. Admission to the museum costs 400 rubles (~€4.50).
Moscow Metro Tour
The Moscow metro is extremely useful for getting around, with stations located right beside most of the attractions on this list. It is also really easy to use, and cheap to boot! Most of all, it has to be the most beautiful metro in the whole world!
The saying in Moscow is that the metro stations were known as the “Palaces for the people” and you can definitely believe that when visiting some of them. One of the top things to do in the city is the famous Metro Tour, but we found the tour times too restrictive for our tight schedule, so we decided to create our own tour. If you want to follow it then check it out here.
Kazan Cathedral is a Russian Orthodox church located in Red Square, close to the gates of the square. The Cathedral was actually destroyed under Stalin’s orders in 1936, so the current is a replica. It is worth having a look inside at this small church. We visited during a religious ceremony so we stayed at the door, but the inside is quite unique!
Alexander Garden was the first public park in Moscow, and it sits alongside the walls of the Kremlin. The gardens contain some great views of the walls, along with the expected flowers and shrubbery (although these were understandably lacking in the winter).
Another highlight of the Alexander Garden is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here lies the body of an unknown soldier killed during World War II at the nearest point to Moscow that the Nazis made it. Armed soldiers guard the eternal flame at all times.
The gardens also contain some historical statues relating to the Romanov dynasty as well as the famous Kremlin wall towers. It is, of course, also the starting point for visiting the Kremlin.
One point of interest close to the park is the humongous statue of Saint Vladimir, which is just across the road from Alexander Garden, close to the touristic entrance to the Kremlin.
As you can tell from our pictures, the weather was not on our side when we visited Alexander Garden. However, it was still clear to us how beautiful this place could be with the sunshine, and not so much construction work!
Visit the Kremlin
Visiting the Kremlin is on the top of most people’s bucket lists before Moscow. There is a large chunk of the Kremlin that is accessible to tourists. These include the Armoury Chamber museum and Cathedral Square.
Check out our travel guide to the Kremlin for all the information you need to know for visiting it.
St. Basil’s Cathedral
St. Basil’s Cathedral is the poster boy for Moscow. It would be in pretty much every image you see of Moscow, and rightfully so. It is breathtaking. I won’t forget the first time I saw it – it really was a bucket list moment.
The dominating Cathedral in Red Square is iconic, but there is also the possibility to go inside the Cathedral. This is not something we did, however, mainly due to the relatively high admission price. The admission is 700 rubles (~€7.70).
The outside is of course the main attraction. It is definitely recommended to ensure you visit Red Square and the Cathedral at night, and during the day.
Christ the Savior Cathedral
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is the main Orthodox church in Moscow. It has a height of over 100 meters and is a dominant presence in the Moscow skyline. The church is very modern, due to the fact that it is the second church to stand at its current position. The original church was destroyed in 1931 by Stalin due to his indifference to religion. He also had big plans for the sight – he wanted to build the ‘Palace of the Soviets’ but this never came to fruition due to the second World War.
The current incarnation of the Cathedral was finished in 2000. In 2018 it was found that the foundation of the church was sinking, which is causing a major reconstruction currently. This is why the entire sight looked like a construction site when we visited in early 2020.
Admission to the Cathedral is free due to the fact that it is still a working religious center. Of course, you need to follow and respect the rules.
Stroll along Arbat and Novy Arbat Streets
Arbat and Novy Arbat Streets are the main commercial and touristic streets in downtown Moscow.
The older of the two streets is Arbat Street, and here you can find some good restaurants and cafes to relax in. There are also lots of souvenir shops where you can get a good deal on your chosen items. The street also contains the Pushkin House Museum and a statue of Russia’s most famous poet. If you walk the length of the street you will come across the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – which is also one of the famous ‘Seven Sisters’.
Novy Arbat is the new age Moscovian street. It contains a plethora of commercial centers and is dominated by skyscrapers on all sides. We visited this street after it got dark and so all the buildings were lit up. Look out for some of the contrasts in old and new Moscow along this street.
Cocktails at the Radisson Hotel
We didn’t plan on doing this, but as we walked along Novy Arbat Street in the dark we saw the Radisson lit up and decided to at least walk there. The stand out feature of this 5-star hotel is the fact that it is one of the Seven Sister buildings that are dotted around Moscow.
The hotel, previously known as the Hotel Ukraina, also has a top-level restaurant with views of the city. We decided to head for the top and to try some cocktails – why not! I had a delicious Moscow Mule and it quickly became my cocktail of choice over the next few months. The cocktails were surprisingly quite cheap compared to Irish prices anyway. The view from the restaurant was amazing – we got a good viewpoint of the Moscow City skyscrapers. The hotel is pretty formal, so it is recommended to come dressed well.
Also in the hotel, there is a mini replica of Moscow – which is pretty cool and also worth making the trip in itself.
Moscow City View Point
Moscow City (as the Business Center is referred to) contains 6 of the tallest 7 buildings in Europe, including the 2nd tallest (the Federation Tower). We just had to make a visit to the free-viewpoint to view the imposing buildings at night time with all their lights turned on.
The viewpoint we chose was the closest viewpoint to the Delovoy Tsentr Metro stop, which is contained within a shopping mall. You just need to cross the river via a sheltered bridge and the viewpoint is just to the right as you exit!
The mausoleum, or tomb, of former Communist Vladimir Lenin, is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Moscow. It is an extremely unusual place to visit, and it certainly is not for everybody.
Lenin died in early 1924 and his embalmed body has been on display since his death. Lenin was briefly joined by Stalin after his death, although during Russia’s de-Stalinization his body was removed and buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.
The visit it most definitely a flying visit, and one which required some patience from us. We had read about long queues to see the body (expected in the summertime I think), so when we saw a queue forming about 30 minutes before opening, we decided to join it. Of course, by the time we had finished, there was no queue. Regardless once it is open you need to go through multiple security checks. When you enter the mausoleum you are immediately shushed and you need to maintain a steady walking pace. So really, you probably only have about 30 seconds to look at Lenin before being ushered out. It was quite a surreal experience, the body is extremely well preserved, so much so that it almost looks a little plastic. It goes without saying that photography is not allowed inside the tomb – I wouldn’t even chance it!
Kremlin Wall Necropolis
Outside the mausoleum, you can see the aforementioned Kremlin Wall Necropolis. The necropolis contains the bodies and ashes of some of the Soviet Union’s most famous people including Stalin, Yuri Gargarin, and indeed Lenin’s wife.
Izmaylovo Kremlin and Market
Wait there is another Kremlin in Moscow? Yes, Kremlin means citadel or fortress in Russian, and indeed many Russian cities have a Kremlin, not just Moscow. The Izmaylovo Kremlin is a lot different from the other Kremlin’s found around Russia however. It was only built in 2007 and it is fair to say that it was built with tourism in mind.
The fairytale-like wooden structure of the Kremlin is home to some picturesque attractions, as well as some strange ones. You can find a museum about bread here, another about Vodka, and another about Russian folk art. There is also, rather oddly, a pink statue of Lenin!
It may be aimed at tourists, but when we visited the place was pretty much deserted. It is hard to get a sense of what it would be if it were busy – but at least the architecture was nice.
Probably part of the reason that the Kremlin was quiet was that the adjoining Izmaylovo market was quiet. We visited on a Tuesday afternoon and not all the sellers were out. Those that were there were all selling touristic souvenirs – you would do well to leave without buying one. There were many Russian dolls and Faberge eggs for sale, but it was quite hard to know whether the prices were fair. Of course, bargaining is a must, but I preferred the set price routine found on Arbat street.
Getting to the Izmailovo Kremlin is fairly straightforward. Just take the metro to Partizanskaya station and walk the signposted route 10 minutes to the Kremlin. Don’t forget to read our Apps you need to Download before traveling to Russia guide to discover the best Moscow metro app.
Museum of Cosmonautics
The Museum of Cosmonautics is a museum dedicated to space exploration and the vital role that the USSR played in this. The museum is located within the base of the Monument to the Conquerors of Space. This monument depicts a space rocket taking off and the plume of smoke it leaves behind. It is one of my favorite monuments to have seen in Russia. You can also spot a statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, as well as statues of other important Russian cosmonauts close by.
The museum itself has a huge collection of exhibits, beginning with the first man-made satellites and all the way through to modern-day space technologies. You will find information on the Sputnik, see a stuffed version of Laika the dog, the first living being in orbit, and wonder in amazement at a plethora of reconstructed spacecraft.
This museum is definitely worth a visit. Just be wary of the fact that it may be full of school children who visit as part of a school tour. The ticket admission costs 300 Rubles (~€3.30). To reach the museum, the nearest metro station is VDNKh.
VDNKh is the ‘Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy’ and it is located in the Ostankinsky area of Moscow. The general idea behind this huge park and exhibition center is to showcase the achievements of all the member states of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, it is the largest exposition, museum, and recreational complex in the whole world.
The park’s main draw for us was the imposing main entrance -with huge columns and a soviet style statue on top. Just a few meters more inside is another statue, this time of Vladimir Lenin in all his pomp. The park is an overindulgence in Soviet-style architecture.
When we were there, they had a huge ice skating rink, which is there most winters.
The park is broken up into different pavilions and buildings, with each building representing a former Soviet state. Construction is still underway for some, but for those that are built, you can see that no cost was spared. There is even a space pavilion – it was actually quite unbelievable!
Of course, the park is really big and we didn’t get the chance to visit it all. There are numerous museums on-site also. A lot of the pavilions serve food that is local to the country it represents. Unfortunately, not many of the restaurants were open on the day that we visited.
Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines
You can find many museums within VDNKh, but the most popular one is definitely the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines. You are giving a raft of old Soviet coins and given the chance to play arcade games that were available during Soviet times. It is a pretty unique idea for a museum, and there are many different games to play such as air hockey, hunting, and old school racing.
The admission price is 450 rubles (~€5) and you get 15 soviet style tokens in a matchbox to play whatever game you want. Some of the machines didn’t work too well (the gun’s aim was off, etc.) but overall it was still a good visit. Note that they have another museum in Moscow (on Rozhdestvenka Street) and one in St. Petersburg also!
Spot the Seven Sisters
The final entry on the top things to do in Moscow list is not something that you need to dedicate a portion of the day to – it is something to do throughout your time. We have already touched on many of them, but spotting the Seven Sisters (aka Stalin’s Seven Sisters) was a fun exercise for us during our time in Moscow.
The Seven Sister’s are 7 skyscrapers that were built from 1947 – 1953 in the so-called Stalinist architectural design. The design is a mix of Baroque and Gothic styles, and it is said that they are modeled on the Municipal Building in Manhattan.
The 7 buildings are:
- Moscow State University
- Hotel Ukraina (Radisson Hotel)
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Leningradskaya Hotel (Hilton Hotel)
- Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building
- Kudrinskaya Square Building
- Red Gate Administrative Building
We managed to spot 5 of the buildings when we were in Moscow – most tourists could expect to see at least the same as they are in “touristic spots”. How many can you spot?