If you have chosen Russia as your next travel destination and are not traveling by land into Russia then there is no escaping Moscow. Most international flights into Russia land at one of the 4 airports at Moscow (SVO being the hub of Aeroflot and DME for other major airplanes). [For our experience of Aeroflot and the SVO click here.] As you make your way through the airport and into the city, dreary and bleak matchbox like buildings come up on either side of the tracks and as you look around for some solace you see stern faces devoid of a smiling countenance and you almost start regretting your decision of ever including Moscow in your travel plan. And then when you had least expected it, Moscow happens. And it keeps you wide eyed and open jawed, at its magnanimity and its illustrious and at times spine chilling history. If Moscow reflects the soul of Russia then St Petersburg is its flamboyant and colorful alter ego. Read more about our trip to SPB at the St Petersburg’s guide.
You can easily spend upto a week in Moscow, soaking into its atmosphere of elitist grandeur. Most people I have spoken to would ask you to spend less time in Moscow and more in St Petersburg. St Petersburg appeals to everyone’s sense of vision, it is more European in its looks. But Moscow is the true gem in Russia’s crown. If you want to understand the soul of Russia, you have to spend time in Moscow. For me, I could only spend a day in Moscow but I do not regret that since I have already planned a longer time in Moscow fairly soon. We used our second day in Moscow for a day trip to two of the most cities of the Golden Ring, Vladimir and Suzdal. Read our experiences here.
So what do you do if you have 24 hours in Moscow?
The must see landmarks of Moscow are adjacent to each other namely, the Red Square and the Kremlin. Apart from this you can set aside some time in the evening for the ballet at the famous Bolshoi Theatre. After the peak season activity in June, most theatres take a break in August so plan your travel accordingly if you don’t want to miss out on the Swan Lake or The Idiot.
The Moscow Free Tour comes highly recommended and having been part of it myself I would suggest that you start your orientation of Moscow with this tour. It will start from near the Kitay Gorod metro station and takes you all the way into Kremlin. However the tour doesn’t cover the insides of the Kremlin and neither does it take you to Lenin’s mausoleum. I would suggest that you start your day with the Free Tour and, if you are enthusiastic enough and depending on your place of stay, use your full day metro ticket (RUB 100) to see the fabulous metro stations of Moscow before arriving at the Kitay Gorod station. Follow the instructions on how to reach the meeting point of the tour and start your quick orientation of Moscow’s past and it several architectural wonders. After around 2.5 hrs, the tour will end and you will find yourself in Red Square. From here you can either signup for their guided tour of the Kremlin or do it on your own. You will be able to go into the St Basil’s Cathedral and also visit Lenin’s Mausoleum. This should cover a better part of your first day in Moscow and the most important too. In the evening, take a stroll at Gorky Park and/or catch a performance at the historical Bolshoi theatre.
Although the Moscow Free Tour takes you inside the GUM Department Store, it will be an injustice to yourself if you don’t spend atleast an hour inside the GUM, either relaxing in a cafe or walking around inside the lovely complex. The building built in the neoclassical style was commissioned by Catherine II and is a fine example of Moscow architecture.
Where to stay in Moscow?
While in Moscow, it is preferable to stay within the Garden Ring which is a circular ring road around central Moscow. You will find most of the hotels in this area and if you are booking through Booking.com you can even put a filter for the Garden Ring area. A popular and economical way to stay in Moscow would be to rent apartments and if you really want to stay in one of the historical buildings in Moscow then try booking an apartment in one of the Seven Sisters, seven skyscrapers that Stalin had commissioned to build. Couple of these buildings are now turned into Hotels – Hotel Leningradskaya and Hotel Ukraina. We stayed at the Kudrinskaya Square building which was the last of the seven to be built and is also said to have been used as a KGB radio-monitoring centre to eavesdrop on the US embassy’s activities (which is a stone’s throw).
Moscow traveler tips
Unlike most European cities, Moscow may not seem to be extremely travel friendly mostly owing to its lack of English signage and most locals not speaking English. Moscow was never built to attract tourists and hence you will hardly see directions to the Red Square or the Kremlin or the St Basil’s Cathedral any where in the city, something which is almost ubiquitous to European cities. I have compiled below a list of tips which I found useful while traveling in Moscow and Russia
- Once you land in Russia it is advisable to take a mobile connection which come quite cheap. We took up the Tele2 connection at the airport which provided 12 GB of data and 400 mins of voice calls and a validity of 1 month at RUB 400. This will be particularly important because although most restaurants and public places have internet in Russia you will need a local mobile number to use the internet as the activation code/password is sent to a local number. Also given that tourist information is not readily available everywhere you may be relying heavily on the world wide web.
- Download the offline Russian translator in Google Translator. You will find people looking at almost everything through their mobiles in Russia. The lady at the kiosk we took the phone SIM from, was actually talking to us through the Google Translator app!! It was real fun I must say. The reason I insist on downloading the offline translator is because you maynot always get a WiFi in Russia for reasons stated in #1.
- If you have landed in SVO and want to come into the city, take the Aeroexpress to arrive at the Belorussky Rail Terminal from where you can take the Metro to wherever you want. The Aeroexpress trains are almost never full so a Standard ticket is enough (you don’t necessarily need a Business class ticket). The ticket prices at the counter are higher (RUB 500) when compared to what you get from their website (RUB 420) though. The train station is near the Starbucks shop in Terminal D of SVO.
- There is a Left Luggage counter at the Belorussky Rail Terminal if you wish to leave your luggage. It costs RUB 230 for each piece for 24 hrs.
- Try to avoid the local taxi system in Moscow and St Petersburg. Use their extensive Metro network or use taxi services such as Yandex Taxi or Uber. They are way cheaper. Best thing about using Yandex is that they have a mini van option too which was helpful for us as we were a group of 5 with good amount of luggage.
- If you are in Moscow for a couple of days then you can make do with the Moscow Metro day ticket which costs RUB 100 per day. If you are staying for a longer period try the Troika card. We were given the Troika card at the counter although we had asked for the day pass but it served our purpose anyways (we had been waving at the lady at the counter with our 5 fingers and I think she thought that we wanted tickets for 5 days instead of 5 people!!).
- The various exits and the connections at the Moscow Metro may overwhelm you. But near every exit escalator you will find a man/woman inside a small cubicle who would be able to give you directions. The average Moscow man will also be more than happy to help you and lead you to your destination, in multiple instances in our case, and leave you with a very warm ‘Namaste’ (if you are from India).
- If you are traveling to Moscow and St Petersburg in July – August, carry umbrellas or rain wear as it is their highest rainfall month and you are sure to get sporadic bouts of heavy rainfall.
- Before heading out to the Kremlin, check the opening hours on their website. It is usually closed on a Thursday but it is best to check before leaving.
- When buying your train tickets for your travel within Russia or originating from Russia the cheapest option is to buy to Russian Railways website. However as with me and with many others, at times non-Russian credit cards do not work on this site. In that case, the next best option is to try TuTu which has the lowest markup amongst all other websites.