After sleeping like logs, we tucked into a delicious breakfast in the hotel’s executive lounge where we had been invited after receiving a complimentary room upgrade. The buffet selection was broadly similar to the main hotel restaurant but we received a more personal service from the waiting staff and were able to sit back and relax in the comfortable armchairs.
After our obligatory two large cappuccinos we wrapped up warm, kitted out with hats, scarves, gloves and boots to protect us from the biting cold wind. The Sokolniki metro station was just opposite the hotel and from a ticket machine we purchased 2 x 3 day travel passes which cost RUB 438 (£5.20) each. On our previous visit to Moscow we had been able to buy passes covering an entire week but for some unknown reason these are no longer available and travel cards can now only be purchased in durations of 1 day, 3 days or 1 month, necessitating us to buy a second one later in the week. Do ask at the ticket kiosk for a metro map as they are never on display but are invaluable as each of the stations is indicated in both English and Cyrillic. Before leaving home we had attempted to print out this map but it could only be done in either Cyrillic or English which wasn’t very helpful.
In possession of our travel cards, we took the Red Line 1 to Red Square station (Okhotny Ryad) taking only 8 minutes. Soon we were passing through the Resurrection Gate on Tverskaya Street which is considered to be the front gate to the city. This gate, leading into Red Square was originally constructed in 1535 but was demolished in 1935. In 1995 a replica of the gate and its adjoining small chapel were completed.
Just a short distance through the Resurrection Gate lies Lenin’s Mausoleum and Burial Sites at the Kremlin Wall which is only open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday between 10.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. (entrance free). We had arrived at around 10.30 a.m. and there was already quite a queue snaking alongside the walls of the Kremlin. Fortunately our wait was no more than ten minutes and after a quick security check we were entering the mausoleum.
As a sign of respect, men are obliged to remove headgear and all visitors are required to file past in a silent, dignified manner with photography not permitted. Leaving the mausoleum we were guided along a path outside the Kremlin wall lined with tombstones before reaching the exit near to the magnificent onion shaped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
Between the resplendent GUM department store and the Kremlin a huge Christmas Market was nearing completion with its associated ice rink and funfair already in full swing. As Russia is an Orthodox country the official Christmas and New Year holidays in Russia are from 31st December to 10th January with Christmas itself being celebrated on 7th January. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, people were free to celebrate 25th December once again but it’s still a quieter and smaller holiday in Russia compared to the huge New Year festivities.
Our morning stroll then continued from Red Square through the entrance gates of Alexander Park backing onto the Kremlin. Here we paused briefly to reflect on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with its eternal flame flickering in the gloomy daylight. The Kremlin ticket office is located further into the park and a selection of different ticket options are available. I suggest checking on the website in advance to see what each one covers as it can be quite confusing.
We had already decided to buy the Architectural Ensemble of Cathedral Square ticket RUB 700 each (£8.37). This ticket provides access to all the external areas of the Kremlin including the Tsar Bell, considered to be the largest bell in the world. Also included is the Tsar Cannon which is a unique item in the Kremlin’s artillery collection as well as gaining access along the inside of the perimeter wall overlooking the Moskva River. In addition, this ticket included entrance to all of the Kremlin’s cathedrals which have now all been converted to museums.
To keep out the cold, all the cathedrals keep their heavy wooden doors firmly closed and for this reason, most visitors seemed to miss out on visiting several of them as they were unaware they were open or included in the admission ticket. One cathedral in particular was accessed up two flights of stone steps and contained some beautiful historic relics yet only two other people had made the effort to seek it out. For just over £8 we thought this combination ticket was extremely good value and included the main sights.
After leaving the Kremlin, we wandered back across Red Square to the famous GUM department store adorned with the most elaborate of festive decorations, this year featuring the theme of space travel. GUM is not really a department store but rather a spectacular huge mall filled with high-end designer stores. The impressive building located on the opposite side of Lenin’s Mausoleum is worth a visit for its beautiful architecture. The glass roof, unique at the time of construction, gives the building an antique European railway station appearance. Each floor is connected by charming bridges featuring galleried halls and original stone staircases with iron handrails.
Throughout history the site of GUM has served as a trading centre and used to be known as the Upper Trading Rows. The present building was completed in 1893 to replace the old structure damaged by a fire. Before the Soviet revolution, it was the largest shopping mall in Europe with 1,200 stores.
During the Soviet era, Upper Trading Rows became GUM, the state universal stores and many Soviet cities had their own GUM store. Because of the shortages of consumer goods, it was common to see long queues outside the store, sometimes extending all the way across Red Square. Times have changed and it’s now a shopper’s paradise. Thankfully, it’s not all luxury shopping though, as at one end of the upper floor are a collection of reasonably priced cafes and restaurants. We had made a beeline for Stolovaya 57, an inexpensive Soviet-style cafeteria. Located in quite a surprising location amongst GUM’s designer stores, this quaint little cafe provides all the classics of Russian cafe dining including beef stroganoff and the famous borscht (beetroot soup).
This traditional cafe has been a popular haunt of Muscovites for generations. Evidently, it’s still just as popular today as there was a very long queue leading from the cafe and continuing outside in front of other cafes. It was already 2.00 p.m. and as we couldn’t be bothered waiting, we decided instead to have bowls of pea and ham soup in one of the neighbouring cafes. These warmed us up nicely and came to only RUB 190 (£2.27 for two).
Leaving the cafe, we slowly explored some of GUM’s boutiques and discovered an absolutely wonderful grocers on the ground floor called Gastronome No.1 which opened in 2008. As well as catering for tourists with its speciality chocolates, vodka and caviar it also stocks a wide range of more humble items such as bread, fruit and vegetables.
To complete our tour of the Red Square district, we retraced our steps past St. Basil’s Cathedral once again towards the nearby Zaradaye Park. Strolling through this park, which has only been open for two years, brought back some fond memories for me as it used to be the site of the Rossiya Hotel. On my first visit to Moscow many years ago, I had stayed at this hotel with views from its rooms of the twinkling red stars of the Kremlin. The Rossiya was a 5 star hotel built between 1964-1967 and was registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest hotel in the world until 1990. It remained the largest hotel in Europe until its closure in 2006 having 3,000 rooms. I stayed there with a school friend and her parents and I can remember it taking ages to locate her parent’s room and it was easy to get lost among the maze of lengthy corridors.
All this is history as they say, as in 2006 the hotel was bulldozed and after years of consultations on how best to utilise this valuable piece of land, eventually a decision to construct an urban park came to fruition. Zaradaye Park was the first public park to be built in Moscow for more than 50 years. Encompassing 35 acres of land between Red Square and the Moskva River the park features several of Russia’s landscapes from wetlands, tundra, steppe to coniferous coastal and birch forests.
Dotted around, over and beneath the park are a media centre, underground museum, concert hall, and a high class market hall offering tempting food from all over Russia.
Cleverly designed, these buildings don’t look out of place at all as their green roofs merge with and sometimes become hillsides themselves with splendid cityscape views.
It was so pleasant wandering through the gardens and onto the 70m floating bridge which is designed in the form of a letter V, incorporating an outward extension over the river. Before leaving the park we looked in the circular exhibition gallery documenting the history of the Zaradaye district through a pictorial timeline which was very interesting and shouldn’t be missed.
By the time we had returned to Red Square it was beginning to fall dark and the lights covering GUM had been switched on casting a golden glow over the surroundings. Our tour of Red Square came to an end as it had begun, by taking the metro back from its nearest station to Sokolniki. A short rest in our hotel was then needed before finding somewhere nearby for dinner. Our choice of restaurant was a little disappointing as the portions were too small and the dishes served lukewarm.
After dining, we took the metro along to Komsomolskaya Station, two stops down the line which is noted for its magnificent platforms on the Circle Line. This beautiful station was constructed as a ‘gateway’ to Moscow due to its location beneath the three busiest railway terminals. The station represents the peak of the Stalinist empire style with its elegant chandeliers, marble arches and mosaics.
After marvelling at this station we continued our evening tour of the Moscow Metro by moving on to the Ploshchad Revolyutsii Station close to Red Square.
This impressive station is lined with 72 life size bronze sculptures depicting people of the Soviet Union from workers, peasants, soldiers, artists, children and animals. As you might be able to see from my photo, some of the bronze has become shiny on the dog’s nose as tradition has it that it’s good luck to rub the nose of the dog.
After viewing these splendid statues, we couldn’t resist a night-time wander around Red Square with its ice rink taking centre stage filled with Muscovites and tourists alike skating to the sounds of festive music.
Our stroll continued along the pedestrianised Nikolskaya Street which had taken on an enchanting appearance with its exquisite decorations hanging down just above our heads. This road led us to Lubyanka from where returned to our hotel room for the night after an unforgettable day exploring Red Square and the Kremlin.
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