Moscow may not be at the top of everyone’s wish-list but this, the largest and most populous city in Europe, offers excitement in lorry loads. Visiting Moscow is like stepping out of your travel comfort zone, because it’s such a potentially intimidating place for the first-time visitor. However, with careful planning, a trip to Moscow can turn out to be fuel for dinner party conversation for years.

Named after the river that runs through it, Moscow is medieval in origin, when the Kremlin was built to protect the tiny city within it. The Kremlin walls have been destroyed and rebuilt many times in its time, often by Mongols in the early years, but remained the basis for the emergence of the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the middle ages. Moscow was under constant attack, from the Swedish, the Poles, the Lithuanians and then various plagues which ravaged the city from 1570 to 1771.

Under Peter the Great, Moscow ceased to be the capital of Russia when he built St. Petersburg in 1773.

Moscow was burned by its own residents when Napoleon approached in 1812, but he and his Grande Armée were beaten back by the brutal Russian winter as were the Nazis in 1944.

Since 1989 the Moscow population has grown from 8.5 million to 11.5 million.

Conversion rate: At the time of writing the pound was worth 48 Russian Roubles and the US Dollar 31 Roubles.

Reaching Moscow

The cheapest way to reach Moscow is with British Airways from London Heathrow. Aeroflot is now one of the world’s most successful airlines with a large fleet of new planes so don’t let any tall stories of communist-era service put you off. It tends to be the first choice for most Russians which is why it may not work out as cheap as you would hope.

Many readers may want to join an organised escorted tour of Moscow which may incorporate a visit to St. Petersburg as well. Great Rail Journeys is worth trying, and so are Regent Holidays, and On the Go Tours.

It is now possible to take a sleeper train all the way from Paris to Moscow. This recently re-instated service is called the Trans European Express, but is not cheap at over 600 Euro per person. It does offer some adventure though. To book it call the Deutsche Bahn UK call centre on 08718 80 80 66

Arriving in Moscow

If you are travelling from the UK are most likely to arrive at Moscow’s newer international airport, Domodedovo, which is now far better organised than the older, some would say outdated Sheremetyevo Airport. Passport checking is now much faster than it was although it’s possible to find yourself in a scrum to get to the front of the queue (Russian’s are not the most polite when it comes to queues, sadly).

Once out through customs you need to make the often longer-than-expected transfer into the city and to your hotel. A word of caution: never, ever, show up at any Moscow Airport and hail a cab, it is the one sure way of getting completely and utterly ripped off. Instead, you need to pre-book with a number of private hire companies who will arrange for a driver to greet you at the arrivals hall to take you directly to the hotel. You can Google the term “Moscow transfer” and take your pick, or use the recommended supplier of your booking agent if you used one. We have found Intourist UK a reliable company over the years who can deliver reasonable prices but above all, reliable service. We have used them for obtaining a Russian Visa, making it a painless experience. Even if you live in London, a day queuing outside the Russian Consulate in Notting Hill Gate is a day wasted, and Intourist are right opposite, so take our advice, use an agency to get your visa, it’s money well spent.

Getting around Moscow

Another word of caution, Moscow is absolutely massive. In fact it’s so big that walking to all the sights is probably infeasible for all but the hardiest of travellers. Therefore what you must do is steel yourself to get tickets for the Moscow Metro and then use it. The 180 or so stations are all individually designed and many look more like ballrooms than Metro stations. The most beautiful are on the “circle line” in the centre of the city including Novoslobodskaya, Krasnopresnenskaya and Prospect Mira. Get more information from its official site. Any visit to Moscow without using the Metro is a visit wasted!

Things to do in Moscow

Red Square
The central focus of any tourist visit to Moscow is Red Square. All Metro lines lead to the centre (apart from the central ring line) so reaching Red Square is pretty easy, look out for the stations of Okhotnyy Ryad or Ploshad Revoluskii which are the two closest stations to get off from. The Russian term for Red Square is Krasnaya ploshchad in case you get lost looking for a sign for Red Square.

The square itself is smaller than many people expect. At the far end you’ll see St Basil’s Cathedral, which is itself a very small cathedral. This iconic and immediately recognisable structure may represent the Orthodox faith very well but hasn’t been used as a place of worship since the Revolution. It may seem to be representative of the Orthodox churches all over Russia but it is in fact unique – there is no building, religious or otherwise, quite like it. The man who built it was unique in a special kind of way too – Ivan the Terrible. St Basils is the Geometric centre of Moscow.

On the right-hand side of Red Square is Lenin’s Mausoleum, where you can see all 5’ 2” of him lying in an embalmed state in a large marble room. There are usually long queues to see him, mostly Russian’s and stopping is not allowed while walking past. There are soldiers present, but the whole experience is free. No photos are allowed.

Opposite Lenin’s mausoleum is the Gum shopping centre, where the Communist elite were able to shop for pretty average goods during the Soviet years. These days it is packed with luxury brands now associated with the new-found wealth of both Moscow and its 80+ billionaires. If you are familiar with Knightsbridge, you won’t find anything new, but it definitely is worth watching the clientele lighten themselves of very large volumes of cash.

You can spend half a day visiting the Kremlin when you’ve done Red Square. Buy tickets at the ticket offices located at three points around the outside of the Kremlin depending on which side you are approaching. It’s very much worthwhile walking around the outside of the Kremlin anti-clockwise from Red Square to pass the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where there is a permanent guard to commemorate the terrible events of WW2. Inside the Kremlin you can see The Armoury Chamber, The Ivan the Great Bell Tower, the Assumption Cathedral, the Archangel’s Cathedral, and a permanent exhibition of the Archaeology of the Kremlin. It’s a fascinating place, where you can learn an awful lot about the spread of Byzantine influenced orthodoxy. For more information visit www.kreml.ru

The Old Arbat
The Arbat is the oldest street in Moscow and effectively the most prestigious. It was the place where the aristocracy lived while in town during the times of the Tsars, where top Soviet Officials were put up, and now it’s considered very advantageous to social status by having an apartment there.

The Arbat is walking distance from Red Square and the Kremin, just 800 metres west, and has been made the first pedestrianised zone in Moscow, which is about 1 km long.

Christ The Saviour Cathedral
The original Christ the Saviour Cathedral was built by Tsar Nicholas I after his father pledged to build it after the relief of defeating Napoleon. It was built in Russian revival style and modelled on the Aghia Sofia in Constantinople. It took many years to build but was finally unveiled in 1860, when painting work inside was still in progress.

In an act of crass philistinism, Stalin ordered the cathedral to be blown up, to replace it with a giant statue of Lenin (as if enough weren’t built already) in 1931. It took over a year to clear the site with much of the marble later re-used in the Moscow metro. The dynamiting of the cathedral was even filmed. In the end because of architectural and other problems what remained there in 1989 was a giant outdoor swimming pool.

Over a million Russians donated money to the rebuilding of the cathedral which commenced in 1992 and finished in 2000. Boris Yeltsin was the first Russian President to lie in state there after his death in 2004. It is the largest Orthodox Cathedral in the world at 105 metres tall.

Christ the Saviour Cathedral is not far from the south west corner of the Kremlin. Go to witness the sheer scale of the building and gain a great vantage point to look along the Moskva River from the new footbridge in front of it.

Gorky Park
Whenever I mention a visit to Gorky Park, people say “you mean there’s a real Gorky Park!”. The book by Martin Cruz Smith and the film were named after this park just south west of the Kremlin on the other side of the Moscow River. Its real title is Gorky Park of Culture and Leisure, bestowed on it by the communist regime. It’s roughly the same size as Hyde Park in London (about 120 Hectares or 300 acres), with leisure rides around the place being taken down to make way for a newer, and free eco park. If you’re into architecture, you can evaluate the constructivist design so typical of this age of communism. Now one of the most popular parks in Moscow, it’s free to enter.

Bolshoi Theatre & Ballet
Visiting the Bolshoi is certainly something worth bragging about when you get home from Moscow. It’s near Kuznetskiy Most Metro station and close to the centre of the city from where you can check out what’s on and buy tickets from the Box Office. Have a look at their website to see what’s on before you arrive www.bolshoi.ru

Tretyakov Gallery
The Tretyakov Gallery is the most important gallery in Russia, equivalent to the Tate in London with an equally illustrious modern art wing. Tretyakov was a hugely successful businessman in the late 19th century who started a collection 1856 which formed the beginnings of the museum in 1905. It’s one of the most rewarding art experiences there is. www.tretyakovgallery.ru

Where to stay in Moscow

There is a considerable variation in prices at Moscow hotels. You could book a top class hotel like the Swissotel Krasnye Holmy, and pay an absolute fortune, or you could stay at the Alpha Izmailovo Hotel, which was built as part of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It’s jut a few minutes walk from Izmailovsky Park and the Metro Station of the same name which takes you into the centre of Moscow in ten minutes or less. The Alpha is no palace, but it’s clean, secure, and great fodder for dinner party conversation.