Moscow is less a beautiful city than a collection of beautiful sights, many of them hidden beyond the expansive modern boulevards that successive Soviet governments bulldozed through town. The key to delighting in Moscow is to not let it overwhelm you. Keep your eye out for twisted gold cupolas peeking from residential courtyards, turn your gaze upward to admire the caryatids and atlantes supporting the balconies of otherwise unremarkable apartment buildings, and stay cool when challenges come your way. You'll be rewarded by the discovery of a new world, one that daily news reports from Red Square can't possibly convey. Taking in even a few main sights can give you an idea of the hardships that made Ivan the Terrible so terrible, introduce you to the nuances of icon painting, and help you appreciate the motivations and misjudgments of the Soviet regime. All this is essential to understanding why Russia and the Russians are the way they are today.
The things to see in Moscow fall roughly into four categories: church-related, art-related, Soviet-related, and everything else. Try to get a taste of each, regardless of your interests. The Kremlin is a category unto itself, representing every era of Russian history for the past 700 years and continuing to emanate an aura of mystery and authority as the seat of modern Russian politics. It is the most logical starting point for any glimpse of Moscow, providing a historical and contextual frame for viewing the rest of the city.
Moscow's art museums are often unfairly overlooked and overshadowed by the magnificent Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg; try to squeeze in at least one of them. Closing days for museums vary, and many close 1 day a month for maintenance in addition to their weekly days off. Many museums adhere to the Soviet policy of charging foreigners significantly more for admission than Russians. The foreigner's fee is usually equivalent to what you would pay at a similar site in western Europe. In addition, admission fees, though posted and paid for in rubles, are usually pegged to the U.S. dollar and therefore change frequently. Children 7 and under are always admitted free, unless noted.
Roughly half of Moscow's buildings date from the Soviet era, which spawned a range of architectural styles and governing attitudes despite its overall authoritarian bent. Much of the Soviet legacy has been (rightly) discredited in recent years, but ignoring Russia's Soviet history gives you a half-picture of what the country is about. Brilliant artists, writers, and architects managed to produce masterpieces in the Soviet era despite the pressure and whims of the state.
Moscow may not boast the literary traditions that St. Petersburg does, but many of Russia's most famous writers lived and worked here, and Muscovites are proud enough of the country's literary heritage to erect museums in their honor. Most of these museums label their exhibits in Russian only, though I've listed some below that offer printouts in English describing room contents. Among other Moscow highlights are the aristocratic estates around the city's edges, which often host festivals in the summer.
Many of the cathedrals listed here are functioning churches as well as museums, and services can be held almost any time of day. That doesn't bar visitors; however, you should follow local custom during your visit.
Stalin's Seven Sisters
By the end of your first day in Moscow, you're bound to have noticed at least one of these sky-scraping, turreted castles to Communism. Seven of them cut into the city skyline, immediately differentiating the city from any other in the world. Initiated under Stalin, Moscow's "Seven Sisters" emerged in the 1950s and came to embody an architectural style dubbed "Stalin Gothic" that was emulated in buildings throughout the Communist world.
The buildings are immediately recognizable by their tapered towers, glass spires, and solid stone enormity. Architecturally, they combine features of Russian 17th-century churches, Western Gothic cathedrals, and American skyscrapers of the 1930s. Many were built by German prisoners of war. The grandest example is the main building of Moscow State University, lording over the city from the peak of Sparrow Hills. Containing 32km (20 miles) of corridors, this 5,000-room building is best viewed at a distance, ideally from the lookout platform above the Moscow River. Another impressive sister is the Kotelnicheskaya apartment building (1 Kotelnicheskaya Naberezhnaya), which housed the Communist elite in decades past and now includes some of the city's priciest real estate, even if its infrastructure is in need of an upgrade. A second apartment building, Krasnaya Presnya Tower at Kudrinskaya Square, once housed Soviet aviation elite. Two more of the Stalin Gothic buildings are hotels (Hotel Ukraina, 2/1 Kutuzovsky Prospekt; and Hotel Leningradskaya, near the Leningradsky Train Station at 21/40 Kalanchevskaya Ulitsa). The remaining two are government buildings (the Foreign Ministry on Smolenskaya Sq., and the Transport Ministry on the Garden Ring Rd. at Krasniye Vorota). Even modern developers have caught the Stalin Gothic bug: The biggest real estate project in recent years is the Triumph Palace apartment complex in northwest Moscow, one of Europe's tallest structures -- you're sure to spot it on your way in from the airport.
The biggest castle of all -- and the one that served as a boilerplate for the others -- never reached fruition. The Palace of Soviets was intended to be the most elaborate ode to Communist power that Stalin could conceive, planned for the site of the razed Christ the Savior Cathedral. The plans were sabotaged by infighting and later by World War II, and the site became a public swimming pool, and remained so until the end of the Soviet era. Today a new cathedral stands on the site, one so grandiose that some call it an Orthodox version of the Palace of Soviets. Original designs of the Palace of Soviets are among the exhibits at Shchusev Museum of Architecture at 5/25 Vozdvizhenka Ulitsa (tel. 495/291-2109; metro: Biblioteka Imeni Lenina; admission 100 rubles. It's open Tuesday to Friday from 11am to 7pm, Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 6pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.