Walking Tour: Historic Moscow
Start: Red Square.
Finish: Chistiye Prudy (Clean Ponds).
Time: 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
Best Times: Wednesday through Sunday mornings, when exhibits are open and crowds are thinner than in the afternoon.
This tour covers several centuries of Moscow's history, taking in some major sights and some lesser-known ones. It starts with the obvious, becomes more subtle, and ends with a peek into the Ukrainian Quarter, a neighborhood few tourists explore. The city's design has been too haphazard for the tour to be chronological, but it provides a sense of how the eras blend to make modern Moscow. The walk turns sharply uphill about halfway through, so save some energy and wear comfortable shoes. The first five stops along the tour take you through the neighborhood of Kitai-Gorod, with its showcase of Russian architecture from the 15th to 17th century.
Start at Red Square, taking a moment to get your bearings from the peak of this sloped plaza. Then head down toward the beckoning cupolas of:
1. St. Basil's Cathedral
The oldest building on this tour, this 16th-century cathedral has come to symbolize Russia to the rest of the world, but it was almost torn down by Stalin as an anachronistic eyesore. Legend has it that a favorite architect rescued the cathedral by threatening to take his own life on its stairs. Climbing its labyrinthine stairwells and corridors, note how cramped and cool it feels inside, compared to its vivid, abundantly designed exterior.
When leaving the cathedral, turn away from the Kremlin, down Varvarka Street. Ignore, if you can, the street's most prominent feature, stadium-size Hotel Rossiya (if it hasn't yet been razed, as the mayor threatens). Take the stairs on the right-hand side of the street down to the path that runs alongside a string of churches and mansions. This is one of the few sections of Moscow preserved as it was in centuries past, a sort of accidental architectural museum. The first building, the pink-and-white Church of St. Barbara, is closed. Continue to:
2. English Courtyard (Angliisky Podvorye)
This wooden-roofed building is one of the oldest civilian structures in Moscow, a 16th-century merchant's center granted to English traders by Ivan the Terrible to boost trade between the countries. It's now dwarfed by the hotel next door. The small exhibit inside is worth a visit in order to see the building's interior and artifacts (and everything is labeled in English as well as Russian). The building also hosts concerts of medieval music. Open Wednesday and Friday from 11am to 7pm; Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10am to 6pm (tel. 495/698-3952).
Continue up the path, noting the yellow-and-white (and no longer functioning) Church of St. Maxim the Blessed. The next few buildings were once part of the Znamensky Monastery. The strange four-story building at no. 10 houses:
3. The Museum of the Romanov Boyars
The Romanov Boyars (nobles) lived here before Mikhail Romanov was crowned czar in 1613, launching the Romanov imperial dynasty. The only original part of this building is the basement; the rest was added later to re-create conditions of 16th-century Moscow. The building was once part of a vast mini-city that stretched down to the Moscow River. The thick walls, small windows, and rugged conditions were typical of the day, even for aristocratic families such as this one. The museum is open Wednesday from 11am to 7pm, and Thursday through Sunday from 10am to 7pm (tel. 495/698-3706). It's closed the first Monday of each month.
Head to the building next door, the last one along the row, just beneath the hotel driveway:
4. St. George's Church
This church was built in two different eras, the 16th and 18th centuries, and its two parts remain different colors as if to draw attention to the church's split personality. It's the only one of Varvarka Street's churches to hold regular services; you may see an Orthodox wedding if you're here on a weekend.
Head up the stairs to Varvarka proper, and continue down the hill. The street opens onto a busy intersection that can be crossed only by underground walkway. The sole remaining part of the 16th-century Varvarka gate tower is the white stone base, still visible in the underground passage. Once you're underground, continue straight along your trajectory from Varvarka. Take the first stairwell on your left aboveground. You should emerge in front of:
5. Cyril and Methodius Monument
Perched in the middle of Slavic Square, this monument portrays the two 9th-century monks credited with inventing the Cyrillic alphabet, used in Russia and many Slavic countries to this day.
Up the hill behind the monument stretch the leafy slopes of Novaya Ploshchad (New Square), crisscrossed by shaded paths lined with benches.
Take a Break -- There are several midrange cafes along the east side of Novaya Ploshchad, but if the weather's fine, a better alternative is an ice cream or snack from the street vendors nearby. You can perch on a bench or flat stone in the square for a rest and a mini-picnic.
At the top of Novaya Ploshchad, the square opens onto a neo-Gothic, mustard-colored building:
6. The Polytechnical Museum
Built in the 1870s to promote science and technology during Russia's industrial boom, the museum now houses (rather outdated) collections of clocks, rockets, early movie cameras, typewriters, and other technological innovations over the past century. It's open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 6pm (tel. 495/623-0756). Model robots and electronic instruments are switched on briefly every 2 hours starting at 11am.
Head to the plaza on the opposite side of the museum from Novaya Ploshchad, and look across it at the building that no Russian feels indifferent toward:
The Bolshevik secret police seized this granite-and-sandstone building from an insurance company in 1918, and its residents have spied on Russians ever since. Its six-story stone facade takes on a sinister feel when you imagine the persecutions and interrogations that have gone on here. Now it's the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, once led by Prime Minister Putin.
The bare patch in the grass across from Lubyanka is the site where a monument to Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky stood for decades before pro-democracy protesters tore it down in 1991.
In the little green space between Lubyanka and the Polytechnical Museum, note the small stone and plaque:
8. Monument to Victims of Soviet Repressions
A lonely slab of stone from the Solovetsky Islands, an Arctic prison camp for enemies of the Soviet regime, honors the millions of people repressed by the Soviet government. The stone was brought here and placed across from Lubyanka during the soul-searching days after the Soviet collapse, but gatherings here have dwindled in recent years as new concerns occupy Russian minds. A nearby plaque written in English and Russian tells visitors to contact Memorial, Russia's leading human rights organization and the group responsible for the monument, for more information.
Head back into the capitalist rush of modern Moscow by crossing over to Myasnitskaya Ulitsa, to the right of Lubyanka. Follow the street past a string of bookshops and cafes until you see Krivokolyonny Pereulok off to the right. Take this street (which translates as "Crooked Knee Lane") past the 18th- and 19th-century mansions now housing offices and apartments, until you reach two churches clustered together:
9. Church of the Archangel Gabriel & Church of St. Theodore Stratilites
The twisting gold dome of the Church of the Archangel Gabriel is the most noticeable of its nontraditional architectural features. Commissioned in 1705 by Peter the Great's advisor, Alexander Menshikov, the church is a clear example of the period when European classicism overrode Russian architecture, with grand buttresses and cornices not seen on most Orthodox churches. The 19th-century, quasi-Gothic Church of St. Theodore Stratilites is next door.
Continue a few dozen yards to the end of Krivokolyonny Pereulok. You'll emerge onto Chistoprudny Bulvar, a boulevard with a stretch of green space running down its center. Enter the park and head right, until you reach:
10. Chistiye Prudy
This area was referred to as "Dirty Ponds" in the days when it housed a meat market, whose refuse ran into the murky pools. The 19th-century city government cleaned it up and rechristened it "Clean Ponds," or Chistiye Prudy. Only one pond remains; it's a mecca for skaters and toddlers on sleds in winter, and for rental boats in summer.
Pavilion (tel. 495/203-5110), perched on the ponds, is packed most evenings with a haughty, hipper-than-thou crowd, but it's a lovely spot for a midday bite. The wooden deck makes it feel homey. The food is a mélange of Russian, European, and central Asian cuisines.