5 Highlights and 3 Lowlights of Moscow
Moscow’s impressive city center redeems an otherwise mediocre metropolis.
Hot Take: The highlights of the downtown core are really dramatic, but you can safely skip the rest of the city. (3.0 stars)
Pro Tip: Buy a Troika card and use the very efficient Metro system to get around since the traffic is AWFUL!
Moscow is the largest city in Russia (and all of Europe); a sprawling metroplex of about 20 million people. Moscow is the major political and economic center of Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as the northernmost (and coldest) megacity metropolis on Earth. Without a doubt, no trip to Russia would be complete without a visit to Moscow, but we found its charms outweighed by the crush of humanity packed in to see its spectacular, but relatively numbered attractions. If you love queuing, then you’ll love Moscow!
Cathedral of Christ the Savior
Overlooking the Moscow River in stately fashion, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior is the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world (over 300 feet (or 100 meters) tall). A fantastic walking bridge connects from the opposite bank of the river and provided us with an unforgettable sunset view as we strolled through the summer evening. The current church was built in the 1990s to replace the original 19th century church destroyed on the order of Joseph Stalin.
Saint Basil's Cathedral
Deservedly one of the most iconic (and photographed) places in all of Russia, Saint Basil's Cathedral is the crown jewel of Moscow. While not a working church since 1929, the Cathedral’s architecture is a widely recognized symbol of Russia. Good luck finding a way to photograph the building without the crowd of selfie sticks, but you will not forget the first time you lay eyes on this beauty.
Red Square has long occupied a unique place in our minds, think parades with high-stepping armies, massive steel tanks, and ballistic missile trucks. Surrounded by the Kremlin, the State Museum, the GUM, and Saint Basil's Cathedral, Red Square impressively projects the power of Russia’s empire. Red Square is the metaphorical (and somewhat literal) center of Russia, since Moscow's major streets, which connect to Russia's major highways, originate from the square. While our visit to the famous square overlapped with President Putin kicking a soccer ball rather than threatening Western civilizations, it is impossible to not feel the history (and gravity) of a place so critical to 20th century history.
While a kremlin is any fortress inside a Russian city, the Moscow Kremlin (aka “The Kremlin”) is the fortified complex in the heart of Moscow and that was build as the tsar's Moscow residence and now serves as the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation (think Russia’s White House). Today, the complex is mostly a collection of ancient churches (used by the monarchy for coronations and other ceremonies) and museums. Getting in to the Kremlin requires logistics (purchase your tickets online 2 weeks in advance to skip the long queue) and knowledge (bring your passports or you will be denied entry), but the aggravation is worth it to stroll through 5+ centuries of history.
A dream of ours (well Kelly’s) was to see a Russian ballet in Moscow. Widely recognized as some of the best in the world, the movement of the dancers sets the heart aflutter with awe. We were lucky enough to witness a ballet (The Stone Flower) in one of the city’s finest theaters and highly encourage people to do the same. Skip the for-the-tourists staples (Swan Lake, etc) and opt for a contemporary ballet where you will see the brightest stars of Russia’s top troupes perform. A cultural treat was at the end the entire audience stood and clapped in rhythm together for almost fifteen whole minutes - we've never seen that happen in the USA even after a Broadway performance.
Traffic is a nightmare in Moscow. In fact, a recent study declared Moscow as having the second worst traffic jams in the world (only trailing Los Angeles). Rapid population growth and a road infrastructure that can only be understood as Soviet (and designed when much fewer people had an automobile), frustration with Moscow’s traffic will put even the most seasoned traveler on edge as hours get spent on transportation that takes minutes in other major cities. Take the underground Metro whenever you can, the car-pocalypse is real!
While Russia (in general) was very reasonably priced, Moscow was expensive (especially for lodging). In fact, a recent study ranked Moscow as the ninth most expensive city in the world. Worse still, the quality for what you paid for was incredibly poor (it is a poorly kept secret that hotels in Moscow are a terrible value).
As one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world (according to the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index), Moscow is teeming with tourists (even when it’s not World Cup). With only a few top attractions, the crush at these places is pretty unbelievable (think walking around New York City’s Times Square). Add a sea of selfie sticks (the scourge of tourist destinations worldwide) and you will quickly realize that relaxation and/or photography will be a challenge. Simply put, (for the visitor) Moscow is endured and survived as opposed to savored and enjoyed.