Local’s Guide: Moscow

The Russian capital’s history is as colourful as its architecture. Journalist Shura Collinson, who calls the city home, guides us through the old and the new.

The Russian capital’s history is as colourful as its architecture. Journalist Shura Collinson, who calls the city home, guides us through the old and the new.

Moscow is the ultimate city of contrasts and contradictions, where brutalist tower blocks cohabit with historic churches sprouting clusters of brightly coloured onion domes, and babushkas can still be spotted begging in front of the upscale boutiques downtown. After decades of shortages and hardship during Soviet times, Russian attitudes to luxury are firmly in the realm of ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’. While not representative of how most people here live, flashy cars parked on pavements, designer boutiques and botoxed beauties are likely to feature in a visitor’s first impressions of the Russian capital.

But there is another side to Moscow, too: the stones are steeped in centuries of dramatic history, the more recent Soviet legacy and the rich cultural heritage. Far from being worlds apart, these two sides to the city are inextricably intertwined. Keep an open mind and your eyes open in Moscow, and you will discover the best this fascinating city has to offer.

Start with the oldest part of Moscow - the Kitay Gorod district - to see how the city started out and developed. The best way to get a feel for the city’s complicated past is to take a walking tour with Moscow Free Tour Company. Walk from the city’s iconic Red Square down Ulitsa Varvarka, one of the oldest surviving streets, and marvel at its historic buildings - from the lovely old churches and home of the aristocratic Romanov clan (before they ruled Russia) to the earliest English embassy, where Ivan the Terrible once locked hapless traders in a fit of pique after Queen Elizabeth I refused his offer of marriage.

If all that walking leaves you with an appetite, treat yourself to lunch at Bosco Cafe inside GUM, a department store located on Red Square. If the weather is good, it doesn’t get much better than sitting out on the terrace with an unparalleled view of some of the city’s most famous landmarks including St Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin walls and Lenin’s Mausoleum.

For the other extreme - a taste of new Russia - head to White Rabbit, on the top floor of Smolensky Passage shopping centre, for the ultimate in Russian gourmet dining. Headed by the young virtuoso chef Vladimir Mukhin, the restaurant boasts panoramic views of the city, from the Soviet Neo-Gothic tour de force that houses the Foreign Affairs Ministry to the new glass skyscrapers of the Moscow City financial district (which is still under construction). But it was the restaurant’s dishes, rather than its views, that won it a ranking of 23 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2015. Try the 7000-ruble (about $130) tasting menu for a whirlwind gastronomic tour of this vast country and the flavours of contemporary Russian cuisine.

Moscow is enormous, and its traffic jams notorious, but there is a delightful way to see the city without wearing yourself out. Hop on the Flotilla Radisson Royal icebreaker that cruises along the Moscow River all year round, then sit back and enjoy the superb views. The boat leaves from the Radisson Royal Hotel (formerly the Ukraina Hotel), located in one of the Stalin-era skyscrapers known as the Seven Sisters. Now a model of spruced-up Soviet-era splendour, the hotel achieves the perfect blend of old and new.

If you find yourself getting weary of the crowds, and the giant city buildings are starting to make you feel like an ant, venture down into the metro - it’s an unmissable sight in itself for the mosaics, majestic pillars and elaborate Communist symbols that adorn the palatial interiors of some of the stations. Escape to the calmer atmosphere of Kolomenskoye, a rambling park and former imperial estate located a few stops from Red Square.

At the far end of the park you’ll find a reconstruction of the original medieval wooden palace that once stood here, belonging to Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (it would not look out of place in Disneyland).  But that’s not why Muscovites keep coming back to Kolomenskoye. The real charm is concentrated at the other end, where you can wander the ruins of the old royal court, admire examples of traditional wooden architecture brought from other parts of Russia, and prepare to be awestruck as you walk through an archway onto a grassy hill proudly crowned by one of the most beautiful of Moscow’s many churches: the Church of the Ascension. Used by Sergei Eisenstein in his film Ivan the Terrible, the whitewashed church overlooking a tranquil stretch of the Moscow River looks spectacular in any weather.

Once you’ve recharged, head back inside the Garden Ring (the main road that encircles the city centre). If you’re looking for a novel dining experience, call in at Cook'kareku. The menu here is composed of 26 different breakfasts from all around the world, from Azerbaijan and California to India and Thailand, all available 24/7.

It would be a crime to visit Russia and not sample the cuisine of neighbouring Georgia, and Moscow is home to plenty of excellent venues where you can do this. Khachapuri, located off Tverskaya Street and named after the decadent hot cheese bread that is Georgia’s sublime signature dish, is a good place to start. For meat lovers there is a range of traditional shashlik, or grilled kebabs, while the adzhapsandali vegie stew is enough to convert even the most committed carnivore. Walk it off with a stroll up Tverskaya, popping into Time Out Bar - located at the summit of yet another Soviet-era high rise, Hotel Peking - for a digestif. Sit on the balcony to enjoy city views, though the mosaic interior is no less enthralling.

Alternatively, head the other way down Tverskaya and go up to the rooftop bar and restaurant of the Ritz-Carlton Moscow. The O2 Lounge boasts fantastic views across Red Square and the golden spires and familiar red walls of the Kremlin. If the bling of the ostentatious Ritz - very representative of new Moscow - is a bit much for you though, try the Metropol Hotel opposite the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre instead. With its gorgeous Art Nouveau design and location next to a historic section of the old city wall, the Metropol and its air of pre-revolutionary luxury are about as old Moscow as it gets.

Meet your guide

Shura Collinson is a British journalist and translator who went to work in Russia on a one-year contract 10 years ago and has never quite managed to leave. After seven years in the cultural capital, St Petersburg, where she was editor-in-chief of The St Petersburg Times newspaper, she moved to Moscow where she enjoys getting to know the history of the capital’s districts, together with her trusty Italian greyhound, or braving the traffic to explore Moscow by bike.

Shura Collinson - Published in Voyeur April 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 10,562,099
Time Zone UTC +3/+4
Languages Russian (official), Swiss, English
Currency Russian Rouble
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