The Metro is functional and fabulous, the stations almost outdoing the city sights, writes Courtney Whitaker.
So you've made it to Moscow, and you're wondering how to get around a place that is home to almost 20 million people. The Moscow Metro is punctual, cheap and easy to use, so here are some of the best things to see and do by way of the underground in Russia's magnificent capital city.
The most obvious of touristy places, but well worth the effort. You have a few choices here, and you should set aside the better part of a day if you want to see everything.
There are museums, churches, Lenin's Mausoleum, the Armoury, the Lenin Library, and Palace tours.
You'll see the vast red State Historical Museum immediately as you emerge from the underground, with the Man on a Horse monument directly in front. Pass through the Resurrection Gates and Iberian Chapel into Red Square and take a moment to soak up the history before you continue. A ticket for the grounds of the Kremlin and Cathedral Square will get you into each of the beautiful gold-domed churches, including the Archangel's Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Dormition and the Church of the Twelve Apostles.
The Square itself, once used for the funeral processions of the tsars, is massive and flanked by lush gardens. The Tsar Cannon and Tsar Bell — near the Ivan the Great Bell Tower — are easy to find in the Square.
In the Armoury Chamber you will see precious royal jewellery, state regalia and, of course, Faberge eggs.
The infamous Russian Orthodox, candy-coloured St Basil's Cathedral is a collection of eight churches arranged around a central ninth, and is hard to miss. You can take tours inside but be prepared to queue.
From the Kremlin grounds, take a five-minute walk to the Bolshoi Theatre for a tour, or to watch a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet company. The Kremlin ticket office is located in the Alexander Garden, though buying tickets online is your best bet.
METRO EXIT: ALEKSANDROVSKIY SAD (ticket office); OKHOTNY RYAD (Red Square)
MOSCOW MILITARY TATTOO
We made the best decision ever to book tickets to the Moscow Military Tattoo, which is held around late August annually in Red Square, and happened to be on during our stay.
Brass bands, singers, dancers and performers from around the world gather in front of Spasskaya Tower in the middle of Red Square for a two-hour spectacular. We couldn't put a price on the whole experience; thousands standing to sing a rousing version of the Russian anthem, and the bonus entertainment we enjoyed having accidentally booked seats right in the middle of a young boys' military school, were priceless.
See which "celebrities" you can spot in the VIP area, where foreign dignitaries and important people enjoy the best view in the house. And you won't feel out of the loop thanks to all the announcements being projected on to big screens with English translations (which is how we knew American actor Steven Seagal was a visiting guest of honour). Then, feel the excitement building near the end of the evening to the climax of the whole event: the most insanely dazzling fireworks display over St Basil's Cathedral. This was a highlight of our time in Moscow.
METRO EXIT: OKHOTNY RYAD
You might balk at some of the prices in this famous shopping mall, although your budget might stretch to a packet of sweets. In fact, you'll be so overwhelmed at the sheer size of this place you'll need to allow half an hour to find the bathroom, so be prepared.
GUM is a shopper's delight, with more than 200 big brands and fashion houses within its incredible walls. The mall sits on prime real estate alongside the Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral. Stretching for more than 200m, you'll have three levels to explore, all sitting under an elaborate glass roof. Stand on one of the pedestrian bridges that dissects the levels and take a photo, or just admire the architecture.
Don't expect to pick up any bargains here but, for an authentic shopping experience, head to Gastronome No 1 — a Soviet-style grocery store — or to one of the many excellent cafes, bars and restaurants to people-watch.
METRO EXIT: OKHOTNY RYAD
Because you'll already be using the fabulously functional metro to get around, why not throw in a Metro Tour as well? These stations could arguably be among the most beautiful in the world, decked out in marble pillars, massive vaulted ceilings with exquisite chandeliers, stained glass detailing, and sculptures. They also have fascinating histories to boot. My absolute favourite was Komsomolskaya station with its gorgeous butter-yellow hand-painted ceilings and magnificent chandeliers. You'll also be blown away by the incredible sculptures at Revolution Square, the ornate plasterwork at Prospekt Mira and the grandeur of Mayakovskaya. Metro Tours run daily and can be booked online.
METRO EXIT: ALL
I know what you're thinking: I'm sending you to sightsee at a supermarket, but you'll thank me later. This building has an unassuming street frontage, but absolutely must be seen inside, even if you only buy a bottle of water for the road. This breathtakingly restored shop — or rather food palace — has been open since 1890, and is fit for a tsar, with an elegant blend of gilded ceilings, chandeliers and dark-wood antique shelving units holding the most mundane of grocery items. It really is a sight to behold, and you'll feel rather underdressed in sports shoes. Nevertheless, as well as your run-of-the-mill grocery items, this place has an enticing bakery, deli and even an extensive wine cellar and, of course, vodka selection. Even the old-fashioned, grandiose signs announcing the contents of each section have been restored to their pre-Soviet splendour. Antique clocks and frescoes decorate the upper walls and elaborately framed portraits of important-looking men stare down at you as you order borscht-to-go at the deli.
The most out-of-place item? A large, garish cabinet in the shape of a Faberge egg, which holds mini egg replicas and Russian nesting dolls of all shapes and sizes.
We were tickled to spot little reminders of home in the Villa Maria and Mud House wines sitting top of shelf in the wine cellar.
METRO EXIT: OKHOTNY RYAD
FALLEN MONUMENT PARK
The Muzeon Park of Arts is a pleasant place to visit for history buffs. Pick up a coffee at one of the riverside cafes as you walk from the metro station to the park. The park contains more than 700 sculptures and is not only home to many symbols of the Soviet era, but it has also gained traction with the modern art community. Modern pieces are now displayed here alongside the busts of Stalin, Lenin and Marx. These historic sculptures were hauled from their original sites and dumped in the park after the fall of the Soviet Union. They remain here today, although they are now, fortunately, mostly upright.
METRO EXIT: PARK KULTURY or OKTYABRSKAYA
CATHEDRAL OF CHRIST THE SAVIOUR
If you haven't quite had your fill of religious symbolism, make time to visit the massive Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It's amazing from the outside, especially when viewed from across the Moskva River. This imposing building sits on the site of the original church, which was destroyed by Stalin in 1931 to make way for a "Palace of the Soviets", which never came to fruition. The church, which was rebuilt following the fall of the USSR, is a staggering 103m high with four gilded domes that dominate the skyline. Supposedly this structure can hold 10,000 people, and has intricately frescoed interiors. Women need to wear a head covering to enter, and men will need long trousers. Scarves and trousers can be hired from the onsite office. Free entry.
METRO EXIT: KROPOTKINSKAYA
The restaurant's website says it has been "serving staples of Russian nobility cuisine in the splendid atmosphere of the old aristocratic mansion" for many years. Indeed, turning up slightly dishevelled and in walking shoes was not part of our plan, but when we mentioned we'd like to order a bottle of Champagne, we were swiftly ushered upstairs to the "Library Hall" to eat among well-heeled Muscovites. Despite its old-world grandeur, Cafe Pushkin actually only opened in 1999, and is housed in a beautiful baroque mansion on Tverskoy Boulevard, once a famous stomping ground for artists and poets, such as Alexander Pushkin.
The waiters are elaborately attired in quirky old-world uniforms — white bell-sleeved shirts, red-piped waistcoats and forest-green cravats — which suited the decor: antique bookcases piled high with old tomes, wooden wall panelling, and beautiful, long windows looking down on to the boulevard.
The menu is extensive, and centred around traditional Russian cuisine. Its offerings don't come cheap but I can assure you it is worth every ruble. I was rather taken with the Champagne cart, offering by-the-glass selections of the finest French fizz. And we were impressed by the Freshly Salted Salmon with rye blinis and the generously proportioned Beef Stroganoff with Mushrooms and Potatoes "a la Pushkin", washed down with a (small) glass of vodka. When in Russia.
METRO EXIT: PUSHKINSKAYA SQUARE
Moscow Metro tickets are 50 rubles each ($1.10), or roughly $2 for a round trip. This is the quickest and most cost-effective way to get around one of the world's largest cities.
Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Moscow, via Dubai. Economy Class return fares start from $2119.