Moscow, Russia. To some those two words evoke images of darkness, gloom, and suspicion. But a vacation there doesn’t have to be defined by politics and associations with stereotypes. A trip here is an opportunity to discover the essence of ancient Russia (Moscow is 872 years old after all), simply by seeing it up close and personal, through a different lens. 

walking through moscow
Photo by Nikola Vorobyev.

Walking west from Tverskaya Street, you’ll see the iconic towers long before the Kremlin itself comes into view. Walking under the streets to cross their intersections might feel weird, but it’s just as much a way of life here as the imposing presence of massive palaces, with the hustle and bustle all about you and statues like that of Marshall Giorgi Zhukov in the distance. But you haven’t entered the Red Square until you’ve passed the Marshall on his horse and the “palace” housing the State Historical Museum.   

Crossing through the gates, anyone will notice the namesake red cobblestones without necessarily knowing that the Russian word for red, krasni, also translates as beautiful. Although the name indeed has nothing to do with Russia’s communist past, it’s fully possible that you notice people standing in line to see Vladimir Lenin’s body during your visit, if you arrived midmorning.  

If the long line puts you off or the mausoleum isn’t open when you visit, enter the nearby Alexander Garden to see the Eternal Flame to the Unknown Soldier and the Hero City urns of World War II, containing earth from each spot that fought bravely against Nazi Germany’s eastward advance. This will allow you to gradually make your way to the tours entrance for the Kremlin. Taking a step on to the entrance bridge is like crossing into history itself, past the Trinity Tower and into ancient Rus, a time when the imperial Romanovs were nowhere to be seen and the Ruriks ruled. 

The palace and its amory have official exhibitions, while a walking tour of the Kremlin will also take you to Cathedral Square’s Archangel Cathedral, where the Ruriks and early Romanovs are buried. Also included there is the Dormition Cathedral, where every Romanov ruler was crowned and Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower—all of which survived the Soviet Union’s state atheism and continue to play major roles in Russian Orthodoxy. 

walking through moscow
Photo by Felipe Simo.

On either side of the Ivan’s Bell Tower are the dynastic show pieces, the Tsar Cannon and the Great Tsar Bell. The Tsar Cannon was commissioned by Rurik Tsar Feodor III, who wanted a symbol to show off his power as ruler. The Tsar Bell, commissioned by Romanov Empress Anna, was cracked and broken after its wooden supports were doused with water during a fire. Across the way in the park, you’ll find a monument to the recent past: a simple oak tree. The “Cosmos” tree was planted by Gagarin after returning from making his own mark on history. When he tragically died in a training accident, it’s said that the tree began to die mysteriously as well and Soviet scientists worked tirelessly to save it. 

walking through moscow
Photo by Nikita Tikhomirov.

Exiting through the Spasskaya Tower (its clock reminiscent of London’s Big Ben) will bring you back into the Red Square and across from St. Basil’s Cathedral, where the iconic G.U.M. Department Store returns you instantly to the present day. Shop ‘til you drop or tour through the ten churches that make up the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin on the Moat, or St. Basil’s Cathedral. 

Take another step back in time by stepping underground to wonder at Moscow’s ornate metro stations, replete with homages to culture and history. Look for the red “M” to find the metro entrances and make sure you have a map of the metro, just in case you get lost or want to explore more—it’s easy to correct any mistakes thanks to the fact that trains run every 90 seconds.

Thankfully, taking the train from Arbatskaya to Park Pobedy (Victory Park) doesn’t require any transfers, and there’s no need to  worry about missing your stop since they are announced in English. Exit the metro to see Russia’s historical showcase of its identity. Victory Park is a massive park built to commemorate Russia and the world’s experience of World War II, known domestically as the Great Patriotic War. Walking the central path is another journey through time itself, passing by columns depicting significant battles, granite blocks depicting the years, and 1,418 fountains for every day that the war raged on.

walking through moscow
Photo by Michael Parlava.

The giant obelisk at the end surrounded by the war museum depicts St. George’s battle with the serpent to signify the conflict’s end, with the Greek goddess Nike announcing victory. Around the park are 13 other monuments that represent everything from  the members of different faiths that fought in the war, the Allied victory, the Allied alliance, and the sad realities of that terrible war with memorials monuments to MIA soldiers and the victims of the Holocaust. “The Tragedy of the People” is a haunting reminder of the Jewish victims of the concentration camps.

Moscow has taken great strides to distinguish its many versions of self through the centuries while not overly championing one over the other, which makes it all part of an identity that is upfront yet complex, alluring and yet disarming of any first impression of ill-intent. For those who want to see Russia through a cultural view the Kremlin and Red Square are a must, while Victory Park is a hidden jewel often unknown to tourists, and the metro stations are a special treat. Other recommendations to discover the Russian identity include the Gulag Museum, VDNKh Park, Novodevichy Cemetery where some of the most famous Russians are buried, and the Tretyakov Art Gallery.

Where did you go on your trip to Moscow? We’d love to hear in the comments!