The occasional bad guy of international politics also has an artistic creative side, Amelia Harris discovers.

Despite the sanctions, the taking of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, or Russia's support for the Syrian regime, it's a great time to visit Russia. Start with Moscow.

In fact, the weak rouble prompted a 15 per cent increase in Western tourists last year as travellers took advantage of food and accommodation that is now quite reasonable.

Moscow often identifies itself in contrast to St Petersburg; it's Tolstoy (Moscow), not Dostoyevsky (St Petersburg), it's the Tretyakov Gallery, not the Hermitage, it's rivers, not canals. Moscow is the fortress, St Petersburg, the window.

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Like most of Europe, Russia's grandeur often has a dark back story. And travelling here is not necessarily for the faint-hearted. Although any number of package deals can keep you well enough informed and busy, independent travellers might have more luck in catching a glimpse into that notorious Russian soul.

Given a few days to orientate yourself around Moscow, I'd recommend these gems, that in addition to the obvious choices like Red Square, may just help you unpack and even enjoy some of that mystery.

Travel by metro between these destinations and sample the temple-like station decoration and near-religious architecture on your way.

SANDUNY

Metro: Kuznetsky Most

As soon as is practicable, head to Sanduny, the Russian-style bathhouse founded in 1808. As it is segregated into men's and women's areas, I can of course, only advise on the women's section as a place of pilgrimage, ritual and tradition.

Set yourself up in a lavishly decorated booth, have herbal tea, quietly marvel at the intricate tiling and woodwork, then proceed through to the bathhouse chamber where you can delight in any number of water or steam activities. Quiet observation will advise you on protocols, but the basic premise is to get very hot in the banya (steam room) then plunge into the cold-water pool, or pull the lever to drench yourself in a bucket of cold water. Rinse and repeat. You'll usually find various groups of very well organised Russian women scrubbing, applying clay masks, coffee, or honey in between sessions in the Banya, where you'll take turns beating each other with birch leaf branches to aid the detoxification and cleansing.

This ritual is commonly performed in the nude and ideally you'll go along with it, although modest women can always keep a towel on.

THE STATE TRETYAKOV GALLERY

Metro: Tretyakovskaya

The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is the world's foremost gallery of Russian art, from icons to paintings by the famous
The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is the world's foremost gallery of Russian art, from icons to paintings by the famous "wanderers" movement. Photo / 123RF

The Tretyakov Gallery is the world's foremost gallery of Russian art, including the most
important works by Rublev, Kandinsky and Malevich.

A half day walking through the halls in something like a chronological order offers you a glimpse of the depth of religious feeling from the 12th century icon paintings, a feel for the land from "The Wanderer" artists of the 1800s, the brief but startling post-revolution period of Constructivism, through to the ''official'' social realist paintings from the Soviet era.

Morning in a Pine Forest (1889) by Ivan Shishkin is the second most popular painting in Russia, and for good reason. There's no obvious politics, no abstraction, tension, propaganda, it's just three baby bears playing; a fairytale.

MEMORIAL MUSEUM OF COSMONAUTICS

Metro: VDNKh

Russian life is peppered with references to space history, the word ''Poyekhali'' (Let's go!) is commonly used when people are leaving on a journey, or starting an endeavour, mimicking what Gagarin said as his rocket left Earth.

Head around this complex of space exploration where you can pay homage to Belka and Strelka, the dogs who orbited Earth 17 times and are now preserved on display. Continue through a truly comprehensive collection including the first satellite, genuine space suits, capsules, landing crafts and a moon rover. The aesthetic is well into the range of futurism, as imagined 50 years ago.

Strelka, the first dog in space, preserved at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. Photo / 123RF
Strelka, the first dog in space, preserved at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. Photo / 123RF

Space food is available for sale in the gift shop.

POYEKHALI

Metro: Trubnaya

Where better to eat after the Cosmonautics Museum than the restaurant that takes its name from Gagarin's famous exclamation?

Poyekhali draws an interesting crowd of liberal (ish) intellectuals to their fare of contemporary fusion cuisine with a Russian twist.

Be sure to try the Jewish dish of forshmak, a delicious herring pate made with apples and cream, followed by the famous shchi: peasant cabbage soup made with porcini mushrooms gathered in Russian forests. Pike burgers served with caviar and hashbrowns are another menu highlight.

For dessert, try the politically charged Kiev cake — airy layers of almond meringue.

The last piece of advice is simply to grab the chance to say "Poyekhali" yourself — bearing in mind that sometimes a trip to Russia is rather like a trip into outer space.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

● Try a cocktail at the Strelka bar
● Catch Shostakovich at the Moscow Conservatorium
CHECKLIST
Getting there: Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Moscow, via their hub in Dubai.