Last year I attempted to read Ana Karenina, by Leo Tolstoi. I managed to get past the first 650 pages (out of 850). Reading through this novel isn’t easy, it is long, slow, and has so many different characters with strange names that everything gets very confusing at times.
Sergio had wanted to visit Russia for a while, and adding to this my attempts at reading the novel, I agreed, though I was a bit hesitant at first. However, once on Russian soil, I knew I had made the right choice!
Finding the best time to visit Russia is hard because of the weather. Napoleon’s army lost 100,000 men in 1812 while trying to invade, Hitler’s army in 1941 suffered the same fait… clearly if trained armies in history haven’t been able to face the harsh Russian winter, neither were we, especially with Ruben!
We decided to travel in the summer, taking advantage of another trip we had to make to England, so ended up going mid July. Of course, after having bought the plane tickets, I found out about the “White nights festival”, where there are celebrations day and night because there are hardly any hours of darkness, only to learn our trip would be two weeks late for this… oh well … if you are planning a visit to Russia, I’d recommend to make sure your trip matches this festival!
We arrived in the early morning, so headed straight to the hotel to get some sleep. Luckily, Ruben was tired after the an approximately four hour flight from London – half of which we spent bearing the screaming of a baby (NOT RUBEN, fortunately!). We were able to get around 3 hours of sleep before heading out sightseeing.
The Red Square and the Kremlin
After finding the nearest Starbucks – of course, I can’t get anything done without coffee in me – we headed straight to the Red Square. The Red Square has important landmarks such as the famous Saint Basil cathedral, the Kremlin, the State History Museum and Lenin’s mausoleum.
Entrances to Saint Basil, the Kremlin and Museum are fairly cheap, and I’d recommend a visit to the three of these. Entrance to Lenin’s mausoleum is free, but it also has the longest line, so I recommend you start early in the morning, as they only admit entrance until 1 pm (and our theory is if you were in line and suddenly it’s 1, you can’t get in!).
The Kremlin has many churches inside, all of them with the characteristic Russian domes. They are beautiful both inside and out. In the Kremlin you can also visit the Armoury collection, which is a museum with royal clothing and chariots. It is amazing to look at all these items, which are all covered in gold and jewels! In this complex you can also see the Grand Kremlin Palace, where the president currently lives, and the Bell Tower, which we only admired from the outside.
Lenin’s mausoleum was the most amazing. After making a line for about one hour, you only get about 5 minutes inside, as you are not aloud to stop and must follow along the line. Despite of this, it is amazing to see Lenin’s embalmed body in a glass coffin. The mausoleum is dark and has very faint lighting. You aren’t aloud to speak and make noise while passing through (thank god Ruben was asleep), and the overall feeling is very strange. Coming out of mausoleum it’s impossible not to have the debate: is it really Lenin’s body? Who knows…
For those of you planning a visit to the Red Square, I’d suggest spending the whole day, from early morning to the evening. There are plenty things to do there, and the lines can get long. We ended up going on two different days.
Arbat Pedestrian Street
After re-visiting the Red Square we went off to Arbat Street, a long pedestrian area with shops, restaurants and souvenirs. After I freaked out at a Starbucks because of a misunderstanding (post on that soon!), we walked along the road and were surprised by the amount of animals that are sold in the street as pets – kittens and rabbits mostly. There are many street artists as well, and it’s fun to stop and listen to music or be impressed by the break dancing.
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and Parks
We found this cathedral by accident. While looking onto the horizon we saw a huge, golden dome, and walked towards it. We were impressed when we finally got there, because the cathedral is huge and beautiful! We walked around the outside, as by the time we reached it it was already closed, but that was okay because we had already seen enough churches.
From there we continued walking towards The Garden of the Fallen Monuments and Park Gor’kogo. The first park has a variety of sculptures, mainly of important people from Soviet times. We didn’t get a chance to see any of these because we got there when it was nighttime and we were starvingly looking for something to eat before we headed home as early as we could so as not to disturb Ruben’s bedtime any further. Nevertheless, we walked along the Moskva river, enjoying the beautiful view and atmosphere. We loved seeing people of all ages doing all sorts of activities – ping pong, roller skates, bicycles, families with very young children playing ball or just strolling along, people enjoying the street food, and street musicians.
VDNKh (All-Russia Exhibition Centre)
This place was used to exhibit the achievements of the USSR back in Soviet times and it is currently a nice landmark in the city, surrounded by parks, some cafés and street food, and a place for families to hang out during the day.
When we were there we were lucky to see an antique auto show. Car owners exhibited their cars in front of the main entry, which made it a great place to take photos.
Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
This is near the Exhibition Center and can be seen from far away as the Monument to the Conquerors of Space is 110 meters tall. The monument marks the end of the Cosmonauts Alley, a park that is above the museum where you can see different stone memorials of important people in the soviet space program.
In the museum you can see a variety of exhibits telling the story of the soviet space program. For me at least it was great to learn a little about this, and I was surprised that all I knew about was NASA, and I was totally oblivious about all that the Soviets accomplished. So much is said about Niel Armstrong yet so little is known about Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.
I was surprised and saddened as well to learn about the use of animals in space experiments.
This must have been one of the most impressive things we did in Moscow, next to seeing Lenin’s body. This is a genuine nuclear bomb bunker from the 1950s. It is hard to find because – duh – it was meant to be a secret bunker for important soviet politicians, in the event of a nuclear attack on the USSR.
65 meters under a random building in a quite neighborhood, you will find 7000 square meters of tunnels built by the same workmen who built the Moscow subway.
This museum is significantly more expensive than all other attractions in Moscow, but I think it is worth the money. You get a tour by a very well informed guide who is super friendly and willing to answer any of your questions. There is a 20 minute film giving you a summary of the cold war from the Soviet perspective, which is very interesting, at least for me, as I had always learned about the American perspective in school. You also get the chance of playing around with all the old school telecommunications equipments, and even experience being locked down during a nuclear bomb drill (although I did miss this last part, because I thought it could be too scary for Ruben, so ended up waiting outside).
If you plan to visit this museum I suggest you take a sweater – it is super cold 65 meters underground!
Getting around in Moscow
Because we travel with Ruben and never carry along our carseat, we try as hard as we can to avoid taxis. That is a good thing in Moscow because as I read before our trip, and confirmed while we were there, taxis do not have a meter and you have to negotiate the price before getting on. Of course, this means the driver charges you whatever he wishes.
Using the subway is the best way to move around Moscow. You can get to all attractions by subway, it feels generally safe (although you should always beware of pickpockets), and best of all…. EACH SUBWAY STATION IS A MUSEUM! This is truly spectacular! It is like travelling through time because the subway trains appear to be the original ones from when it was first built (I don’t know this for sure, but they are OLD! I promise, they are antiques!) and each station is decorated with super elegant chandeliers, marble walls, and beautiful paintings or mosaics.
As a hint, I recommend you download the official Moscow Metropolitan app, because there are no signs in English, no one speaks the language, and it can be really hard to find your way around. The app makes this super easy because it finds your current location and you can search for your destination using phonetics. Of course you need internet connection to use the app, but I also recommend you purchase a phone sim card in the airport when you arrive, which are very cheap and will allow you to have internet access through the entire trip – you may also need internet to use the Iphone maps (which I cannot travel without) and a translator (I use google translate, which had a camera function that lets you point at virtually any writing and translates it to you!).
Is Moscow a baby – appropriate destination?
The question I always ask myself before, during and after every trip, and to which I have a variety of answers depending on the moment of the trip.
The cons of going to Moscow with a baby is mainly that the subway system has no elevators, and that escalators are literally 3 kilometers long. We risked it by putting the stroller on the escalators, and for some days, went out only with our baby carrier.
Another big con of course is you miss out on all the partying… ha ha ha…! At the start of the Moskva river walkway, near the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, we spotted a few clubs that seemed to be at their best, even at 8 pm.
And as for pros, we found that there are tons of families there with babies of all ages. There are so many parks where you can stop for a snack, or just to let baby loose to crawl, roll, or walk around! In general, the places feel safe for babies and very family friendly.
Oh, did I mention people in Moscow love babies? Here’s Ruben who spent our entire meal in arms of the waitress…
And thats our trip to Moscow! Up next… Saint Petersburg!