Moscow is divided into six districts, or okrugs, with most of the activity focused on the Central district. The best way to view the city is as a daisylike flower, with neighborhoods stretching like petals from the center core toward the "ring roads" outlined above. Most historical buildings and key sights are within the Boulevard Ring; museums are within the Garden Ring; and hotels, restaurants, and shopping for all budgets are found everywhere. The area from the Kremlin to the Boulevard Ring was known historically as the "Bely Gorod," or "White Town," because of the white stone walls that encircled it to fend off outsiders. The area between the Boulevard and Garden rings was called "Zemlyanoi Gorod," or "Earth Town," after its earthen ramparts.
At the center is The Kremlin, a village unto itself, with cathedrals, palaces, an enormous concert and congress hall, and of course the seat of presidential power -- all surrounded by imposing red-brick walls that extend for 2.5km (1 1/2 miles). On its east side is Red Square, the epicenter of the city and the country. The square abuts a small neighborhood called Kitai-Gorod. This is almost like an annex to the Kremlin, with a dense collection of churches, old merchants' courtyards, and administrative buildings clustered on quiet streets overlooking the Moscow River. Its name today translates as "Chinatown," but more likely comes from an old Russian term for battlements because of its proximity to the Kremlin. The area boasts many restaurants but few hotels.
The primary petal of Moscow's daisy is undoubtedly Tverskaya Street, shooting north from Red Square in the direction of Russia's other imperial city, St. Petersburg. Moscow's most important thoroughfare, Tverskaya throbs with commerce, cafes, and nightclubs, with the columns of City Hall overseeing it all. Tverskaya and its environs include key hotels and museums, and offer close-up views of Moscow's breakneck post-Soviet evolution. Hotels right on Tverskaya suffer from its 24-hour schedule; those on the side streets are calmer but farther from the action.
The more true-to-tradition Petrovka district slopes eastward from Tverskaya. It includes several old and new restaurants, boutiques, and (mostly upmarket) hotels, in addition to two monasteries and a historic bathhouse. Curving southeast from there is the Ukrainian Quarter, whose steep and crooked lanes unveil architectural treasures tucked behind embassies and run-down government buildings. Accommodations here are limited, but the area is great for wandering. As you continue to circle Red Square clockwise, you cross the Moscow River to the Zamoskvarechye neighborhood on the opposite bank. Moving northwest, you come to aristocratic Ostozhenka and Prechistenka streets and the Arbat district, centered around the pedestrian Arbat Street lined with souvenir shops and cafes. Touristy but colorful, the Arbat is surrounded by alleys rich in literary legend and by a few convenient, reasonably priced hotels.
Outside the Garden Ring Road lie many hotels, as well as former "country mansions" now museums or concert halls surrounded by urbanism. Basing yourself beyond the center means you'll need more travel time to see city sights, but if your hotel is close to a metro station, the distance shouldn't be a hindrance.
The Boulevard Ring
The innermost of Moscow's concentric circles is both a main traffic artery and one of the world's most oddly shaped parks. The Boulevard Ring, actually a semicircle tracing a hump through central Moscow, is a road split down the middle by a 9.7km-long (6-mile) green space. It's lined with paths and benches, and interrupted by a couple of playgrounds, a pond, several monuments, and busy intersections. If you have a free afternoon and the weather cooperates, wander one or more segments of the "bulvar" -- an activity that Muscovites call the cheapest amusement in town.
The lines of the boulevard date back to the 14th century, when ramparts were erected to defend the city that had grown up between here and the Kremlin. White stone walls were installed in the 16th century, giving the settlements within the ramparts the nickname "Bely Gorod" or "White Town." Towers, chapels, and gates marked the spots where major intersections now throng with traffic and pedestrians, and the current names of some crossings reflect that era, such as Nikitsky Gates and Sretensky Gates. The ramparts were razed piece by piece in the 18th century and replaced with leafy alleys and wrought-iron lampposts much such as those standing today. When Napoleon's army entered an abandoned and charred Moscow in 1812, soldiers chopped down many of the boulevard's trees for fuel. Today, it is lined with linden and poplar trees, and if you wander the ring in June, you may be sprinkled by white poplar tufts that Russians call their "summer snow."
A few key spots on the ring worth visiting are Pushkin Square, on either side of Tverskaya Street, a major gathering place and the most energized of the boulevard's intersections; the two statues of author Nikolai Gogol, one triumphant and prominent on Arbat Square, the other contemplative and intriguing in a courtyard on Nikitsky Bulvar; and Chistiye Prudy (Clean Ponds), actually a single pond at the far eastern end of the ring that serves as an outdoor skating rink in winter and boating pond in summer.
The Land Beyond the Moscow River
The neighborhood of Zamoskvarechye (Za-moss-kva-reh-cha), which translates as "the land beyond the Moscow River," abuts the very heart of Moscow, even though its name makes it sound like it's in the city's nether reaches. The area does feel different from the rest of town, however, making it well worth a wander at some point on your trip. Situated on a bell-shaped cluster of islands south of the Moscow River, it spreads from the embankment opposite the Kremlin's southern wall down to the Garden Ring. Settlements in Zamoskvarechye date back to at least the 13th century, when Mongol envoys camped here during visits to exact tribute from their Muscovite subjects. The Muscovites themselves eventually moved into the neighborhood, setting up fortified compounds to house the streltsy (palace guards), who served as a buffer protecting the Kremlin from raids from the south.
With the end of Mongol domination, the area began attracting craftsmen, who settled in walled compounds. Each housed a different guild -- tanners, weavers, barrel-makers, sheepskin curers -- and was run by a council of elected elders called a mirsky soviet. As the guilds flourished, they began building the neighborhood's churches, many of which remain standing. Their modest lines contrast with the designs of more resplendent cathedrals elsewhere in town.
Merchants trading in the Kitai-Gorod district across the river "discovered" Zamoskvarechye in the 19th century, building mansions there and sponsoring neighborhood artists and artisans -- eventually creating the country's first art museum, Tretyakov Gallery. By the early 20th century, Zamoskvarechye had become a major industrial district, but its factories grew up alongside the homes and churches instead of subsuming them. The district was touched by uglier episodes in Russian history, too: Bolotnaya Ploshchad (Marshy Square) was once the site of public executions, though it now houses a tranquil park and a statue of painter Ilya Repin. The House on the Embankment (the enormous gray complex on Bersenevskaya Naberezhnaya) was transformed from a prestigious residence for the Communist elite into a house of terror during Stalin's purges. Overall, the neighborhood's character remains artsy and more low-key than the rest of town, with galleries, antiques dealers, and cafes its major draw. Highlights include Tretyakov Gallery, the Obvodny Canal fountains around Luzhkov Bridge, and Pyatnitskaya Street. The nearest metro stations are Novokuznetskaya, Tretyakovskaya, and Polyanka.
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