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9 Breathtaking Moscow Attractions

Traverse Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral and more, in this step-by-step guide to Moscow’s most illustrious attractions.

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1. Red Square

Red Square (Krasnaya Ploshchad) has been at the heart of Moscow for over 500 turbulent years, and its grand buildings recall the city’s eventful history. Here, Ivan the Terrible mutilated prisoners before repenting of his sins at Lobnoe Mesto; it was he who funded the construction of St. Basil’s Cathedral. In 1812 a victorious Napoleon addressed his troops on the square, while stabbing their horses in the cathedral. Lenin Mausoleum was added by the Communists, who later demolished both the Resurrection Gate and Kazan Cathedral to make way for enormous military parades. The square has been restored to its pre-Soviet appearance.

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2. St. Basil’s Cathedral

With red-brick towers and swirling onion domes, this gloriously colourful cathedral is perhaps Russia’s most emblematic building. Ivan the Terrible ordered its construction to celebrate capturing the Tatar stronghold of Kazan, 800 km east of Moscow, in 1552. The cathedral was designed with eight chapels, each representing a successful assault made on Kazan. A ninth chapel was added later to cover the grave of Basil the Blessed, the pious ascetic to whom the cathedral owes its popular name.

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3. Cathedral of the Assumption

Originally founded in 1326, the cathedral was redesigned in 1470 by Italian architect Aristotle Fioravanti in Renaissance spirit. For centuries it hosted Russia’s most important ceremonies, including the coronation of Ivan the Terrible in 1547 and the inaugurations and burials of the patriarchs and metropolitans of the Orthodox Church. The cathedral retained its importance even after the capital was moved to St Petersburg in 1713, but was closed by the Communists in 1918; religious services resumed in 1990.

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4. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

This stately museum has amassed over 500,000 artworks since its inauguration in 1912. It was envisaged as an educational institution, and was initially filled with plaster casts of sculptural masterpieces along with a world-class selection of Egyptian relics. Subsequent political events led to the expansion of the collection far beyond its original parameters. The Communist policy nationalizing private property brought many new artworks to the museum; it was further boosted when the government transferred thousands of pieces to it from St. Petersburg’s Hermitage. The museum’s excellent collection of impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modernist art is housed next door in a new Gallery of European and American Art of the 19th-20th Century.

(Photo courtesy of Jaime Silva/Flickr)

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5. Bolshoy Theatre

Established in 1776, the Bolshoy theatre and ballet companies are among the oldest in the world. They were based in Moscow’s Petrovsky Theatre until 1812, when the building was consumed by fire during Napoleon’s invasion. In 1825 the Bolshoy Theatre, designed by Osip Bove (1784-1834), opened to instant international acclaim, but in 1853 it too was claimed by fire. Its restoration was overseen by architect Albert Kavos, who increased the building’s height and chose the current décor. Today the Bolshoy retains its status as a world-class ballet and opera venue.

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6. Tretyakov Gallery

Starting life in 1856, when Pavel Tretyakov first exhibited his collection of paintings in his front room, the Tretyakov Gallery has since evolved into the world’s largest repository of Russian art, with more than 130,000 works. Tretyakov envisioned a gallery for ordinary citizens that would cover the entire spectrum of Russian art. The collection begins with ancient icons painted by anonymous masters, and ends with colourful pre-Revolution works inspired by Fauvism and later condemned by the Communists as degenerate. Works dating from the early 20th century are shown at the nearby New Tretyakov.

(Photo courtesy of jgieseking/Flickr)

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7. Metro Stations

Opened in 1935 as part of the government’s plan to transform Moscow into the world’s capital of Communism, the metro’s first stations were conceived as magnificent showcases of Soviet success. Thousands of labourers and genuinely patriotic volunteers dug the tunnels, initially using simple pickaxes and shovels. Today, retaining ubiquitous red stars and original Soviet artworks, the metro is a working museum of Communist design. The system carries 7 million passengers a day and currently has 177 stations on 12 lines.

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8. Novodevichiy Convent

This splendid UNESCO-listed convent was founded in 1525 to celebrate Grand Prince Basil III’s recapture of Smolensk in 1514. Many aristocrats took their vows here and it became known as a nunnery of nobility. Tsarevna Sophia Alexeyevna (1657-1704), who served as a transitional ruler of Russia, ordered the reconstruction of many of the buildings in Moscow Baroque style, with fine ornamentation. The convent was occupied in 1812 by Napoleon’s troops, and later used as a female prison before becoming a museum during Communism.

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9. Kolomenskoe Estate

Set in idyllic riverside parkland, Kolomenskoe was the favourite summer residence of Ivan the Terrible and was also popular with Tsar Mikhail I (1596-1645). Both leaders made improvements, but it was Tsar Alexei (1629-76) who decided to build his “country Kremlin” here. A fine wooden palace, with an eclectic ensemble of buildings and 270 lavishly furnished rooms, was created in 1667. After Alexei’s death the palace fell into disrepair and was demolished by Catherine the Great (1729-96). Today the estate draws Muscovites, who come to picnic, sledge and attend festivals in the grounds.