The culture, history and 'white nights' of Moscow
Moscow, the city of Ivan the Terrible, Pushkin and Putin, is a place of mind-blowing contrasts: 14th century churches next to towering glass office buildings, roaring traffic and quiet parks, old women with babushkas and young ones with the long, lean I-could-be-a-supermodel look.
It's a great place to visit, but be sure to go in the summer or fall. Winters are notoriously brutal, and during the summer the whole city comes out to play for the "white nights," when it stays light until at least 10 p.m. While white nights in St. Petersburg, north of Moscow, are celebrated with festivals, performances and formal events, in Moscow, it's not as structured. But on weekdays or weekends, it's always party time.
WHAT TO SEE
The Kremlin, which means "fortress," is the seat of Russian power; the place where Putin lives and works. You'll need a ticket to get through the gates and not all buildings are accessible to the public. Once in, visit the State Armoury to ogle the accumulated wealth of the Russian princes and czars -- ornate carriages, Faberge eggs and Catherine the Great's coronation dress.
Then go on to the cathedrals, exquisite examples of 14th and 15th century architecture complete with icons in gilded frames and the tombs of Russian heroes and tsars. The Cathedral of the Assumption is probably the most awe-inspiring of all, a place where princes were crowned and luminaries of the Orthodox church are buried. Built by Ivan the Great, its frescoes, south portal and the 14th century icons are all well worth a long look. Another beauty is the 15th century Cathedral of the Annunciation with a porch built by Ivan the Terrible who was banned from entering the church after his fourth marriage.
Next to the Kremlin, the Red Square was created as a marketplace in the 15th century. The knockout site in the square is St. Basil's Cathedral, commissioned by Ivan the Terrible who allegedly had the architect blinded once he'd finished the project to make sure no one else would ever have such an exquisite building. The cathedral is a riot of color, coral and blue painted panels, and those often-photographed onion domes.
A much more somber structure is the nearby Mausoleum where Lenin's body lies in state. Steps away from the mausoleum is GUM, a sprawling galleried building with a vaulted glass roof that is now home to designer shops and cafes.
Not far from Red Square is the famous Bolshoi Ballet theater, a beautiful neo-classical building and home of probably the most famous ballet troupe in the world.
WHERE TO STAY
If you're going to be in the city for two or three days, stay in a hotel near the Kremlin and Red Square since that's where you're going to want to spend most of your time. Hotels there may be pricy but you'll have the advantage of an English speaking staff that can help you find your way. Moscow has no official tourist offices, very little signage in English and the cyrillic alphabet is a tricky one for foreigners.
Walking is best. Forget taxis -- traffic can be horrendous. Instead, do what the Muscovites do and take the Metro. It will get you anywhere in the city via stations that amaze with platforms and concourses that look like miniature palaces complete with chandeliers, lavish mosaics and statuary.
WHERE TO EAT
An easy walk from Red Square will bring you to a pedestrian street - Kamergirsky -- lined on both sides with appealing cafes. A dinner at one of these outdoor spots will cost about $35 and that includes a glass of wine or beer and unlimited people-watching. Food from the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia and Uzbekestan is always delicious, beet borscht with sour cream is sublime and be sure to have a blini and caviar before you leave.