There are so many things to do in Moscow, Russia that I decided to start and end my Trans-Siberian Railway journey in the Russian capital. In total, I spent more than one week in Moscow, exploring the city and even some of the surrounding small towns.
At first, Moscow can feel overwhelming. The city has a population of almost twelve million people, and an area of more than 2,000 square miles (almost 6,000 square kilometers for those of us on the metric system). A lot of people don’t speak English, a lot of signage is only in Russian, and the city isn’t exactly known for its hospitality. However, for travelers who are comfortable feeling uncomfortable, Moscow is an amazing destination full of things to do, things to see, and places to get totally, completely lost.
Below, I’ve listed twenty of the best things to do in Moscow. Lots of them are free, and even the ones that cost money are affordable for most travelers. I’ve also listed the nearest metro station, noted where there’s something cool nearby and provided a few insider travel tips that I learned during my week in Moscow (which was part of a longer seven-week trip across Russia as a solo female traveler). Have a read, and let me know in the comments what you’d most like to see and do in Russia!
Things to Do in Moscow – Around the Red Square
Start your trip to Moscow at the Red Square, where you’ll be surrounded by Moscow’s most postcard-perfect buildings.
1. The Red Square
Quite possibly the prettiest plaza on the planet, Moscow’s Red Square is legendary. In 1990, UNESCO designated the Red Square a World Heritage Site. It’s not the square itself that is so special though; it’s the beautiful buildings surrounding it. There are at least seven important buildings adjacent to the Red Square, including the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the GUM department store, the State Historical Museum, the Kazan Cathedral and the Iberian Gate and Chapel. If your camera has a panorama setting and you have a steady hand, it’s possible to capture most of these in a single photo.
Metro: Okhotny Ryad is the most beautiful entry point.
2. Lenin’s Mausoleum
Time your visit to Lenin’s Mausoleum carefully if you want to see the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin. He has been on display for nearly 100 years now; in the 1950s he was briefly joined by Joseph Stalin but for the last sixty years he has been alone in the Red Square, attracting more than two million visitors every year.
Visitors are usually permitted to visit the mausoleum on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, and only from 10:00 until 13:00. Holidays, restoration work and construction occasionally reduce those hours with little notice. If possible, arrive early and get in the queue at Nikolskaya Tower before 10:00 am.
Metro: Okhotny Ryad
Creative Commons photo via Jorge Lascar
3. The Kremlin
Coming from the West, you may only know the Kremlin in metonymic terms, as “The Kremlin” is so often used to refer to the Russian government. When you come to Russia you’ll quickly learn that the word “kremlin” refers to a fortified complex, of which there are many in Russia. You’ll find kremlins in many cities, some intact and some now in ruins. Moscow’s kremlin is “the” Kremlin; it includes five palaces (including one that serves as the official residence of the Russian president; shown above) and four cathedrals surrounded by fortified walls and towers.
Tourists can visit the Kremlin, but it’s a complicated process that actually put me off visiting. The most popular things to do at the Kremlin are visiting the Kremlin Grounds and Cathedral Square, or touring the Armoury Chamber. Tickets for the two are sold separately and are best purchased online, through the official site, fourteen days before your planned visit. Trust me, I saw the queues to buy day-of tickets and you don’t want to wait in those queues.
Metro: Biblioteka imeni Lenina is closest to the entry points for both the grounds and the armoury.
4. GUM Department Store
Much like many cities have kremlins, many cities in the former USSR also have a GUM department store. GUM is the translated abbreviation of “Main Universal Store”, a slight change from its previous title of “State Department Store” during the Soviet era. Old photos of people lined up around the Red Square to shop at the GUM are etched into many people’s memories, and those who remember those images are often surprised to see how Moscow’s GUM has now been transformed into a luxury shopping center with brands like Bulgari, Chanel and Gucci.
You don’t have to be wealthy to take advantage of all the shops and services though: the historical toilets in the basement cost a mere 200 rubles ($3 USD) and feature red carpets and gold finishings, while Stolovaya #57 is a busy, cafeteria-style restaurant on the mall’s top floor (read more about stolovayas below).
Metro: Ploschad Revolyutsii
5. Saint Basil’s Cathedral
When you think of Moscow, do you immediately envision Saint Basil’s Cathedral? Before my first visit to Moscow it was definitely the first thing I thought of when I imagined the city! This cathedral is about 450 years old. UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site back in 1990, along with the entire Red Square area.
The cathedral is open to visitors most days (on the first Wednesday of each month it’s closed for cleaning, and there are other occasional closures for restoration work or services). A ticket is 700 rubles, or 1200 with the audioguide, and can be purchased at the entrance to the cathedral. Saint Basil’s is one of the least-strict Orthodox churches when it comes to dress code. Women are unlikely to be asked to cover their head or shoulders here, while it is to be expected at most other churches in Russia.
Things to Do in Moscow – Luxury Travel
The average monthly income in Russia is about $650 USD. However, Moscow is home to many of the country’s wealthiest residents. You too can experience a few moments of their luxurious lifestyle during your visit to Moscow.
6. Sanduny Baths
Opened in 1808, the Sanduny baths are Moscow’s oldest and most famous banya (bathhouse or sauna). Although they have an opulent main entrance for men, as a woman I was relegated to a little side door that was probably originally intended for staff. Again, the men’s side is famously elegant and extravagant, but the women’s side appears to be a bit of an afterthought. Like all saunas, you start with a shower, then a hot sweat session, then a cool-off via plunge pool or bucket of ice water. For the full “Russian” experience make sure to purchase a beating with birch branches (it’s said to increase circulation and relieve muscle pain). All of this takes place while you’re fully nude, and in plain view of the other guests. Can you even say you went to Russia if you didn’t get a birch-bark beating in a banya? I think not.
Moscow Tip: Don’t even think about visiting Moscow without getting the Yandex.Metro app (Apple / Google). This amazing app will tell you exactly how to get from one place to another using Moscow’s metro system, including exactly which station entrance or exit you need, and which wagon is closest to your exit or transfer point. Oh, and it’s free!
7. Bolshoi Theater
Moscow’s famous Bolshoi Theatre was opened in 1825 and meticulously restored in 2009. To see it for yourself, you can choose between purchasing a ticket to one of the Russian ballet or opera performances, or signing up for one of the building tours that take place thrice weekly. If you’d like to see a show, the best way to get tickets is online through the theater’s official site; they generally go on sale two months before the performance (and cheap tickets sell out first!) The Bolshoi Theater still has age limits, dress codes and photography restrictions, so familiarize yourself with their rules (explained clearly in English on the website) before purchasing your ticket.
8. Kuznetsky Most
If you’ve ever seen suspiciously-thin Russian girls on Instagram, posting with suspiciously-uneaten plates of food and suspiciously-expensive shopping bags, chances are good that photo was taken somewhere along Kuznetsky Most. Packed with luxury boutiques, upscale cafes and famous historical buildings, this pretty pedestrian street is a must-stroll, even if you afford to take out your wallet.
Metro: Kuznetsky Most
Moscow Secret: One of the city’s best vegetarian restaurants, Jagannath, is based on Kuznetsky Most. They do a set-price lunch with five items (expect soups, salads and curries to make an appearance) and the attached shop sells a well-curated selection of health foods.
Things to Do in Moscow – Moving Around
Simply getting from one place to another can be one of the most interesting, and most beautiful, things to do in Moscow.
9. Ride the Moscow Metro
Moscow is famous for its beautiful underground metro stations. In fact, many tour companies offer metro tours, where they guide you between the city’s most beautiful metro stations and explain the history and unique design behind each one. While everyone has different taste, some of the stations that are consistently rated as being among the most beautiful metro stations in Moscow include Mayakovskaya, Komsomolskaya, Kiyevskaya and Arbatskaya. With the city’s official Troika card, a single trip on the metro is only 40 rubles, and you can get on and off the train as many times as you want (just don’t leave the station!).
Metro: All of them. 😉
10. River Cruise
One of my favorite things to do in Moscow is take a river cruise along the beautiful Moskva River, admiring the city’s amazing architecture along the way.
There are lots of ways to get yourself on board one of the boats, but if you’re like me and prefer an up-front, hassle-free experience, just reserve a spot on board one of the Flotilla Radisson Royal boats that depart multiple times a day from the Hotel Ukraina docks. You can easily buy tickets online through their official site. The Radisson boats are more luxurious than the one shown above, despite their ticket price of less than 1000 rubles (about $12 USD), and they are equipped with ice-breakers that allow them to sail even on the coldest winter days.
Metro: Kievskaya (it’s a fifteen-minute walk away, so give yourself ample time!)
Moscow Secret: Don’t pay for the expensive food on board the boats (though, you can order a cocktail and get preferential seating in the bar area… which I highly recommend!). As you’re walking from the Kievskaya metro station to the Hotel Ukraina pier, you’ll pass through a beautiful park. On the north side of the park, about halfway through, there is a branch of Khachapuri restaurant. This local chain serves amazing Georgian food (including meat and vegetarian options) at reasonable prices, and English menus are often available.
Things to Do in Moscow – Food & Drink
Moscow is home to more than 10,000 restaurants, few of which I found exciting enough to recommend. Instead, I want to highlight one of my favorite styles of Russian dining: the traditional stolovaya.
You can be in some of the smallest, most remote towns in the far east of Siberia and you’ll probably still be able to find a stolovaya, or cafeteria-style restaurant. Some are full-service (a scowling Russian babushka will slop food onto your plate on your behalf) while others are self-service (and you’ll probably be charged by weight).
In Moscow, my favorite stolovaya was not the famous Stolovaya #57 in the GUM shopping center. No, it was Grabli, a local chain with a few restaurants dotted around town (including one near the Pushkinskaya metro station that was walking distance from my first Moscow hotel). Here, I would load up my plate with buckwheat, grilled vegetables and roasted potatoes, grab a bottle of kvass (soda made from rye bread) and enjoy a hearty, healthy(ish) meal.
Metro: Pushkinskaya, Kievskaya, Arbatskaya, etc… all have Grabli locations near the station.
Things to Do in Moscow – Art & Architecture
The architecture in Moscow awed me. Somehow, it seemed like every corner I turned, every escalator I used to ascend from a metro station, and even every turn of my head revealed yet another spectacular building.
12. Russia Academy of Sciences Building
My favorite building in Moscow is the Russian Academy of Sciences building. It was built in the 1980s according to a design inspired by science and technology, and the gold boxes on top of the two towers have given it the local nickname “Golden Brains”. One of the most surprising moments on my trip to Moscow was when I realized I could walk right into the courtyard of the complex and take photos of the amazing design, without being bothered by the (many!) security guards. Unfortunately I arrived quite early in the morning, as if I’d come closer to lunch I could have ascended to the Sky Lounge, a posh restaurant and nightclub on the 22nd floor of one of the towers.
Metro: Leninskiy Prospect
Moscow Secret: The building is just a block away from the Monument to Yuri Gagarin, a 42-meter tower that was inspired by rocket exhaust and made from titanium (like a real rocket!).
13. State Tretyakov Gallery
Moscow’s museums may not quite compare to The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, but the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is still a world-class art collection housed in a building designed to recreate the mood of classic Russian fairy tales. The collection is focused around Russia art and includes The Apotheosis of War by Vasily Vereshchagin, Black Square by Kazimir Malevich and The Swan Princess by Mikhail Vrubel.
Unfortunately their English website is down today and my Russian isn’t good enough to navigate their e-ticket site, but I believe a ticket for foreign visitors is about $15 USD, and the gallery is typically open Tuesday to Sunday.
14. The Seven Sisters
Following World War 2, Joseph Stalin embarked on a mission to make Moscow look like a cosmopolitan international capital. The heart of his plan was the Seven Sisters, a group of skyscrapers built between 1947 and 1957. They include Hotel Ukraina (shown above, now a Radisson hotel, and the departure point for my recommended Moscow river cruise), the main building of the Moscow State University, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. They were the tallest buildings in Europe at the time, and they inspired similar Stalinist constructions in other European cities (like the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw).
Things to Do in Moscow – Parks, Etc.
Moscow can feel like an urban jungle, but the city did manage to preserve some green spaces within its inner rings. Here are two Moscow parks (plus one island!) worth checking out.
15. Patriarch Ponds
Several ponds are now one pond, here in the heart of Moscow. Surrounded by luxury apartment buildings, this tree-lined pond is a pretty place to sit with a cup of tea or some seeds to feed the swans. Patriarch Ponds were made famous in The Master and Margarita. Bring a copy on your Russian adventure or watch one of the film adaptations before your trip.
Creative Commons photo via David Gee
16. Gorky Park
Gorky Park is another Moscow park immortalized in contemporary media (the novel Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, was adapted into a film in 1983, and launched a series of mystery novels featuring Detective Arkady Renko). Today, this 300-acre park is one of the recreational hearts of Moscow; a popular place for families to gather when the weather is nice. Inside the park you’ll find ponds, fountains, bridges, a skating rink, cafes and even a carousel. Don’t miss the sculpture park on the northeast side of the park; there are more than 1,000 pieces here for visitors to wander through freely. Radisson river cruises also sporadically depart from the dock in Gorky Park.
Metro: Oktyabrskaya (check out the giant Lenin statue across the street!)
17. Red October Complex
Near the northeast end of Gorky Park, a pedestrian bridge crosses the Moskva Rier to Bolotny Island. This is Moscow’s “hipster” district, and the cool factor emanates from Red October, a former chocolate factory that has been converted into an arts and culture space. There’s still a chocolate shop on site, but most people now come to drink cocktails at trendy bars, shop for clothing, accessories and art at independent boutiques, and party until the late night at some of the city’s most exclusive nightclubs. There is a small park on the island (with the bizarrely-named monument “Children Are the Victims of Adult Vices”) and it faces the stunning, golden-domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Things to Do in Moscow – Outside the City Center
These activities are a little bit further afield (okay, or a lot further afield in the case of the last one!) but they’re all worth your time when you visit Moscow. In retrospect, I think my trip to Russia would have been incomplete without all three.
18. Izmailovsky Market
Combine Disneyland, Russia, a medieval village and a flea market and you’ve got something like Izmailovksy Market, one of the city’s weirdest, yet most satisfying, tourist attractions. This is where I bought gifts for my family: a vintage watch featuring a Soviet spacecraft for my brother, a traditional Russian scarf for my mom, and a set of four coffee mugs featuring a shirtless Vladmir Putin for me (okay, I got my dad one too… but I kept four!).
The market area consists of the “Izmaylovo Kremlin”, a reproduction of a traditional Russian town that is packed with market-style souvenir stalls and shops, the “Izmaylovo Market” itself, which is an antique fair and flea market that is best visited on the weekend, Izmaylovo Park, which I didn’t visit, and Izmaylovo Hotel, which used to be the world’s largest hotel (and still draws bus loads of domestic tourists who come to shop the market). Give yourself three or four hours for browsing, shopping and lunch.
Metro: Partisanskaya is closest to the market.
19. Overnight Trip to Suzdal
Although it’s possible to visit Suzdal as a (long) day trip from Moscow, I think this charming Russian village deserves at least an overnight, if not two. Despite being only three hours from Moscow, it feels about three hundred years away from the big city, with the historic area seemingly frozen in time. Suzdal has one of the prettiest Kremlins you’ll ever see, with its Kremlin domes painted like the night sky. It has churches, monasteries and cathedrals, and it has an ethnographic village featuring reconstructions of the traditional wooden buildings that used to be the region’s main architectural style. The dining here leans farm-to-table, the drinks here lean strong and sweet, and the accommodation leans towards rustic guesthouses (check out Guesthouse Dacha Beliy Bereg (White Beach Cottage Guesthouse) and Na Kremlevskom Beregu (On the Kremlin Beach) for your overnight stay).
Metro: You’re going to need more than a metro to travel the 220 kilometers from Moscow to Suzdal. Start by taking a train from Kurskaia station in Moscow to Vladimir (about two hours). Get off the train in Vladimir and cross the street to the bus station. From here, buses to Suzdal depart every half hour or so. The bus journey takes about an hour.
20. Seven-Day Trip Across Russia (The Trans-Siberian Railway)
One of the most famous journeys in the world is the Trans-Siberian Railway, which spans 9,289 kilometers from Moscow to Vladivostok. Moscow will obviously be either your starting or ending point (although some travelers continue on to Saint Petersburg, it’s not technically part of the official route). For me, it was both, as I only had enough points to fly from my home in Canada to a European destination. I flew into Moscow, spent a few days there getting over my jet lag and then hopped a cheap flight to Vladivostok to catch the train back.
Trans-Siberian Railway trains depart from, and arrive at, Moskva Yaroslavskaya station. The metro station here is Komsomolskaya, with easy connections into the city center.
If you’re considering a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, I have two posts that you should definitely read:
- Trans-Siberian Railway Trip Planning explains how I got a visa, how I purchased point-to-point tickets without using an agency and what life was like on board the train.
- Trans-Siberian Railway Stops focuses on my favorite cities along the route. I don’t recommend making the non-stop seven-day trip across Russia in one go. Instead, I suggest buying point-to-point tickets and getting off the train at as many of these Russian cities as possible.
Are you considering a trip to Russia?
Let me know your thoughts on traveling to Russia in the comments!
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