x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Russia's red, white and new

A weekend guide to Moscow Russia's capital is a teeming metropolis of 10 million people, a place where the whole range of Russian life is on display.

The Red Square in the very centre of Moscow with on the right hand side the Russian National History Museum.
The Red Square in the very centre of Moscow with on the right hand side the Russian National History Museum.

In one city, Moscow condenses a continent. Russia's capital is a teeming metropolis of 10 million people, a place where the whole range of Russian life is on display. From art galleries with European-influenced work, to restaurants filled with the cuisine of the Caucasus and Central Asia; from ancient churches that speak of old empires, to the most modern designer clothes and technology.

Moscow today is the centre of a fast-changing Russia. The days of Soviet austerity and the struggling economy of the 1990s are long gone. These days the rouble is king, and no two weeks in Moscow are the same. You can spend a whole holiday exploring the history of ancient Muscovy, tour the torn-down statues of the Soviets and wander the religious spaces of the old elite - and an entirely different holiday living like one, visiting exquisite, exclusive restaurants, viewing top-class operas and shopping for the latest fashion items.

Moscow changes with the seasons: the winters are thick and long, a setting for romantic walks in thick snow, for warming borscht and long dinners in front of smoky fires, and for imagining political intrigues behind the Kremlin's walls. In spring and summer, the city's parks explode with colour. Moscow is one of the greenest cities in Europe and the miles of woodland and public parks are havens of peace amid the hurly burly. The summer months are the time to experience all the culture that Russia has to offer, from the country that gave the world the music of Tchaikovsky, the poetry of Alexander Pushkin, the novels of Leo Tolstoy and exquisite examples of religious art and architecture.

The best place to start is underground. The Moscow metro is 290km long and links most parts of the city. For as little as US$1 (Dh3.67) you can travel the length of the city and visit most attractions.

Start in Red Square, the pre-eminent public square in the country. From here, visit the granite mausoleum containing the mummified remains of Vladimir Lenin, the USSR's first leader. Behind him the Kremlin walls rise: in reality a series of buildings, towers and churches where the business of government is carried out. Right next door is the intricate St Basil's Cathedral, the onion-domed masterpiece of the 16th century that is the most recognisable monument in Moscow.

A spot of shopping is next, whether your tastes tend towards the ultra-luxurious brands for sale in the enormous GUM department store across from the Kremlin, or the souvenirs of matryoshka nesting dolls and intricate blue-and-white gzhel porcelain widely available along the main shopping street of Tverskaya. Culture vultures will need to plan carefully: in a city that boasts the Bolshoi Theatre, the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, it is not easy to fit everything in. Plus there are numerous galleries, literary museums and concert halls to feed the soul. For children, there is puppet theatre and even acrobatic cats at the Kuklachev Cat Theatre. From Moscow it is easy to do day trips to the "Golden Ring", a circle of ancient towns to the north of the city. The most famous of these is Sergiev Posad (also called by its Soviet name Zagorsk), a place to experience the slow, soothing rhythm of the Russian countryside, before returning to the bright lights of Moscow.

Budget Moscow doesn't know the meaning of the word budget. Even a bed in a shared dorm room at an out of town hostel will set you back around $27 (Dh97) a night. The best bet is to stay at one of the enormous Soviet-era hotels, such as the Izmaylovo Hotel just east of the city centre, with double rooms from $82 (Dh295) per night. Getting into the centre is cheap, quick and easy on the metro.

Izmaylovo Hotel, 71/3V, Izmailovskoe Shosse (www. izmailovo.ru; 007 495 737 7070). Mid-range There are many mid-range hotels in Moscow. A convenient choice a few metro stops north of the Kremlin is the Hotel Sreteskaya, a cosy hotel decorated in the style of Russian fairytales. In addition to rooms, this place has a number of suites and apartments with living rooms. Double rooms cost from $360 (Dh1,296) per night, with suites from $400 (Dh1,440).

Hotel Sreteskaya, Sretenka Street 15 (www.hotel-sretenskaya.ru; 007 495 933 55 44). Luxury Since the Ritz-Carlton opened two years ago, it has been the last word in luxury in the city. Opulent rooms, attentive service, extraordinary views of Red Square and celebrity spotting make this a one-off experience. Prices start at $985 (Dh3,546) per night for standard double rooms, up to $12,300 (Dh44,280) per night for the enormous, 237-square-metre Ritz-Carlton Suite. Ritz-Carlton, Tverskaya Street 3 (www.ritzcarlton.com; 007 495 225 8888).

Breakfast Start your day the Russian way with strong coffee and blini (pancakes), filled with strawberries, cottage cheese or even caviar, from $6 (Dh21). Muscovites don't linger over breakfast - there's plenty of time for that in the evening! The inviting Coffee Mania chain has branches across the city, including one next to the Moscow Conservatory near Arbat Street.

Lunch Stop by Glavpivtorg on Bolshaya Lubyanka for a suitably Soviet business lunch. This restaurant, opposite the former KGB building, is kitted out in the style of a Soviet-era office. A neon sign welcomes you in, while floor to ceiling windows let you look out. A good place for a traditional Russian meal of borscht, pelmeni (dumplings) and Glavpivtorg's veal shashlik kebabs. Main courses cost around $15 (Dh54).

Dinner Jeroboam at the Ritz-Carlton is the place that the elite eat, headed by the celebrity German chef Heinz Winkler. It was Time Out's restaurant of the year last year. An intimate venue with just two dozen tables, the décor is understated elegance - the real star is the food. Try the pigeon en croute or the lobster with black noodles, or choose from the Chef's Menu with a set price of $170 (Dh612) per person.

Both Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) and Emirates (www.emirates.com) have daily flights to Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. Return flights start from $435 (Dh1,600), including taxes.

On the Golden Porch, by Tatyana Tolstaya, one of Russian's foremost literary figures and a descendant of Leo Tolstoy, is a series of beautifully written portraits of Moscow life in the 1990s. The novel presents an unsentimental view of Russia emerging from the Soviet Union.