This 28-hectare (69-acre) fortress, called kreml in Russian, emerged in the 12th century as a wooden encampment, and survived many an invader to become synonymous with modern totalitarianism in the 20th century. Physically it's still a citadel, surrounded by unscalable red-brick walls and tightly guarded gates, though the river and moat that once protected its north and east sides were filled in nearly 200 years ago. These defenses make it all the more magical once you get inside, a world away from the din and modernity beyond. Its oak and birch walls were replaced with white stone ones in the 1360s, which were replaced again by 2.2km (1 1/3 miles) of red-brick ramparts in the 1490s. Much of that brick remains standing today. Most of the buildings inside were wooden, however, and suffered several devastating fires. Despite its forbidding location and reputation, Mongol Tatars sacked the fortress in 1382, and revolt and bloodshed were familiar plagues throughout the centuries. Ivan the Terrible, Ivan the Great, Boris Godunov, and the first century of Romanov czars ruled from the Kremlin palaces. The Kremlin suffered some neglect after Peter the Great moved his capital to the swampland of what would become St. Petersburg, but it flourished again in a very different way when the Soviets made it the seat of Communist power.
Architecturally, the complex centers around its churches, as did Russian life and politics until the 20th century. The administrative and residential buildings and the tranquil, car-free plazas complement the cathedrals and reflect centuries of development and design. The Russian president no longer lives here, but his motorcade whisks him to work here every morning. Several buildings used for state functions are off-limits to tourists, with violators strictly reprimanded.
The ticket desk is a confusing affair, with different fees for different buildings and lower fees for Russians. The ideal itinerary would include everything: entrance to the Kremlin itself, Cathedral Square, the Armory, and the Diamond Fund. However, the latter two are open at limited times, not always on the same day. You can purchase tickets separately for each attraction. At the very least, choose the entrance-plus-Cathedral Square ticket, which allows you access to the chief buildings and will fill up a good hour or two. Visiting the cathedrals plus the Armory Museum will take you an entire afternoon.
Cathedral Square (Sobornaya Ploshchad) forms a monument to Russian architecture of the 15th and 16th centuries, and its cathedrals deserve a thorough tour inside and out. It's easiest to start at Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which shows selected pieces from the Armory Museum. The tower was built in three stages over 3 centuries, starting in 1505, giving it a rather inconsistent appearance. Its heaviest and lowest bell is a staggering 64 tons (compared to Big Ben's 13.5 tons), but it is still dwarfed by the Czar Bell . Continue to the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, also built in 1505. Italian architect Alevisio Novi introduced the Corinthian capitals and Venetian shell scallops in the gables. The cathedral holds the tombs of Russia's rulers from Ivan I (1328-41) to Tsar Ivan V (1682-96), Peter the Great's predecessor. The interior of the church is fittingly somber, its hall of coffins surrounded by small shrines. The Cathedral of the Annunciation was built in 1482, and was where the czars were christened and married. Its tiers of tented gables and kokoshniki (pointed arches) are reflective of early Moscow architecture. Faded frescoes line the stone walls and columns from marbled floor to painted ceiling, their enormous faces and curved figures gazing over the central chamber. Renowned icon painter Andrei Rublev is buried here. Next door is the reconstructed Red Staircase mounted by centuries of czars after coronation. Also from these stairs, a young Peter the Great watched relatives impaled during an uprising that prompted him to flee Moscow to found his own capital. Tucked in the corner is the small Church of the Deposition of the Robe, built in a more traditional style of the late 15th century, with narrow windows and stained glass, the latter a rarity in Russian churches. It's now a museum of wooden figures and church relics. Behind it you see the layered cluster of 11 domes that top Terem Palace, the oldest structure in today's Kremlin and the quarters of Russia's rulers until Peter the Great.
The most prominent building on the square is the Cathedral of the Assumption, a white limestone building with scalloped arches topped by almost chunky golden domes. Started in 1475 by Italian architect Aristotle Fiorovanti, this church is the most tourist-friendly of the cathedrals on the square, with detailed English labels on icons and architectural details, and plenty of room for groups. The church is light and spacious, unlike any of the other churches on the square -- or indeed of this period. Czars were crowned here, and patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church were inaugurated and buried here -- the Patriarch's Seat is built into one of the pillars. Napoleon's cavalry stabled horses here during their brief occupation of Moscow in 1812. Most of the frescoes date from a later restoration, in the 1660s. The Patriarch's Palace and the Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles are next door, both part of one structure that is now a museum of 17th-century Russian life and art. The exhibit includes a goblet with no base, requiring drinkers to toss back a full cup of wine in one gulp. The huge stove was used for making holy oil (involving more than 50 ingredients) once every 2 or 3 years. Other personal effects include a 17th-century chess set with knights mounted on elephants.
The Armory Museum (tel. 495/621-4720), despite its name, holds much more than guns. The Russo-Byzantine building, dating from the 19th century, occupies the spot where royal treasures were housed since the 14th century and offers a sweeping introduction to Russian history. Exhibits include the Fabergé eggs exchanged by Russia's last royal couple, Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, on Orthodox Easter for 3 decades; the silver goblet used by the man considered Moscow's founder, 12th-century Prince Yuri Dolgoruky; the velvet caftan Peter the Great wore while training in Holland's shipyards; and the gold brocade robes he wore at his coronation. The throne display, a Goldilocks-style delight, includes a compact throne for the diminutive Czar Paul and a double throne for Peter the Great and his co-ruler, his feeble half-brother Ivan. The imperial carriages will simultaneously satisfy fashion fans and car buffs. The weaponry through the ages is also impressive. Admission is limited to four sessions per day of 1 hour and 45 minutes each, at 10am, noon, 2:30, and 4:30pm. Audioguides in English are available and worth the 150 ruble price tag if you're not with a group.
The Diamond Fund holds the crown jewels, including Catherine the Great's coronation crown, the 89-carat Shah diamond presented to Nicholas I by the Shah of Persia in the early 1800s, and the 190-carat Orlov diamond that one of Catherine the Great's lovers gave her in an (unsuccessful) effort to keep her attentions. The fund can be visited only with a 30- to 40-minute tour, held every 2 hours and reserved ahead; it costs 500 rubles on top of the ticket to the Kremlin grounds. If you're short on time or money, skip it. The entrance is through the Borovitsky Gate of the Kremlin (tel. 495/629-2036; www.almazi.net). Open Friday to Wednesday from 10am to 5pm.
The Grand Kremlin Palace, not open to tourists, is used to receive foreign dignitaries. Watch television footage of a Kremlin reception and you may glimpse luxurious St. George's Hall, encircled with statues representing Russia's military victories throughout the centuries. The building, originally erected in the 1840s, underwent a costly renovation in the 1990s that uncovered a massive corruption scandal involving the Kremlin property department and questionable Swiss construction companies.
The staggeringly huge Czar Cannon and Czar Bell are two striking and bizarre features of the Kremlin and indeed of Russian history. The cannon, with a 40-ton barrel, was designed in 1586 to defend the Kremlin's Savior Gate, but it has never been fired. The chassis and the cannonballs alongside were built 3 centuries later and give a sense of the enormity of the weapon (though it was designed to fire stones and not cannonballs). The bell is by far the largest in the world, at 200 tons, 6.1m (20 ft.) high, and nearly 6.6m (22 ft.) in diameter. It was built in the 1730s but was abandoned and cracked before it could be rung. Both remain monuments to Russian ambition and royal excess.
Kremlin entrepreneurs recently reintroduced the centuries-old changing of the guard on Cathedral Square -- but for a fee. The elaborate and carefully choreographed ceremony, which involves 12 horses, 45 soldiers in czarist-era uniforms, and the presidential orchestra, is held every Saturday at noon for visitors who pay 700 rubles for a special ticket. In addition to the guard-changing ceremony, the ticket includes tours of the churches on Cathedral Square (but not the Armory or Diamond Fund).
Note: The Kremlin is sometimes closed to the public during state visits, and other important ceremonies. Check with your hotel concierge or tour guide before you go.
You can buy Kremlin tickets at Kutafya Tower in Alexander Gardens (tel. 495/697-0349; www.kreml.ru/main.en.asp). Access to the grounds costs 350 rubles for adults, 100 rubles for students with ID and for children 7 and up. Admission to the Armory costs 700 rubles for adults, 200 rubles for students and for children 7 and up. An audioguide costs 200 rubles. Taking photos is forbidden inside the Armory and Cathedrals. Bag check (downstairs beneath the ticket offices) costs 50 rubles if you leave a backpack, double if you leave a camera or video camera. Tip: If you plan to visit Lenin's Mausoleum , do so before reclaiming your bags. The Kremlin is open to visitors Friday through Wednesday from 10am to 5pm unless there's a special event, as noted above. Armory admission times are limited. The closest metro stops are Okhotny Ryad and Biblioteka Imeni Lenina.
Crown of Monomakh (Shapka Monomakha) -- A key reason to visit the Kremlin early in your trip is to view the Crown of Monomakh (Shapka Monomakha). Once you've seen this unusual crown, you'll recognize its likeness on many of your other stops: in the shape of church cupolas, in paintings of medieval Russia in Tretyakov Gallery, in frescoes in any Orthodox cathedral, even in modern fur hats on display at Russian designer boutiques. The crown was made of eight triangles of gold joined to form a cone; studded with red, blue, and green gems; topped with a cross; and trimmed with a brim of sable. The shape recalls the hats worn by central Asian khans, and reflects Russia's cross-continental geography. According to legend, the crown was presented to Prince Vladimir Monomakh of Kiev (1053-1125) by his grandfather, Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX. Though most historians say the existing crown wasn't made until much later (around the 14th c.), it still came to symbolize Russia's claim to the heritage of Byzantium. It was used in coronations at least as far back as the 1400s, until Peter the Great introduced more Western-style crowns in the 1700s. The Crown of Monomakh remained a key Kremlin treasure, and Peter and his successors continued to use the orb and scepter symbolizing the czar's dominion over the earth. All three are on display at the Armory Museum in the Kremlin.
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.