We always wanted to see St. Basil’s cathedral and the Moscow Kremlin and this is what made us draw up an unusual itinerary for our vacation in August 2011. We took a stop over at Moscow for two days on our way to Europe. What planted the idea in our heads? Aeroflot had the cheapest tickets to Prague, it went through Moscow and we’d only need a transit visa. It was slightly complicated to get the visa because a week before the trip the Russian embassy asked us to come down to Chennai and apply in person. We ended up paying for last minute tickets to Chennai and the expedited visa fee which was double the normal fee. But it was worth it and we’d love to do it again. Next time it’ll be St. Petersburg because Russia is a beautiful country and you don’t want to miss seeing it when you get a chance! We had just one and a half days in Moscow but we made the most of it. Would we go back for a longer time? Definitely.
Day 1: We reached Moscow (Sheremetyevo airport) at 9:00 a.m. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the views from the plane had already doubled our enthusiasm to see the city. The best way to get to the city centre from the airport is to take the aeroexpress train which goes to Beloruskaya. When you reach Beloruskaya get out of the station and go to the metro station that is right next to it. From there you can take the next metro to wherever you want to go. We changed two metros and walked a lot to reach our hostel because till then we hadn’t figured out how the metro system in Russia worked. What made it all the more difficult was that all the instructions were written in Russian and unless you understand the Cyrillic alphabet you can’t read anything. A peculiar thing we noticed was that the same metro station can have multiple names one for each metro line it falls on. The stations are connected internally and you never have to get out of any metro station to change trains. Our first brush with Russian hospitality also happened to be at at a metro station where we were trying very hard to figure out which train we had to take. An old lady saw our plight, walked up to us and offered to help. We pointed to the station we wanted to go to on the map and she personally escorted us to the right platform. We had the same experience again later and were quite amazed because both times the people who helped us didn’t speak English!
We finally reached our hostel –Godzillas. The hostel was very clean and the people were very friendly. We chose this based on the reviews on TripAdvisor.com and the location. It was not very far from Red Square and had a metro station very close to it. Moscow is among the most expensive cities in the world and accommodation near the Red Square is on the expensive side. Even hostels are not very cheap but if you’re on a budget, they are the best option. We took a quick shower, rested for an hour or two and then headed out to see St. Basil’s Cathedral. We decided to walk because it is one of the best ways to really experience the city. It took us 30 minutes to get to St. Basil’s and we didn’t regret it one bit.
St. Basil’s cathedral is a Russian Orthodox church located in the Red Square and was built from 1555-61 by Ivan the Terrible. The church has been part of the Moscow Kremlin and Red Square UNESCO world heritage site since 1990 and stands out for it’s unusual, bright, onion shaped domes which have no precedent in Russian architecture. The building is an inseparable part of the Moscow skyline and a must see. From the side we entered, we walked passed GUM to reach the cathedral. The onion shaped domes look resplendent in their many colors and the image looks straight out of a fairly tale. Walk past the cathedral and go to the side of the cathedral that faces the Moskva river. This spot will give you unhindered views of the cathedral and some great shows. You can also climb the bridge on the Moskva river to get beautiful views of St. Basil’s, Kremlin’s walls and the city of Moscow.
After that we went to GUM (pronounced as goom) which used to be a soviet era department store and is now a high-end luxury shopping mall. It’s beautiful and definitely worth a visit even if you don’t want to empty your purses at Dior and Louis Vuitton. We spent the next hour or so just walking around the square admiring the buildings. The square was full of people enjoying a drink at the street side cafés , buying souvenirs at the open market or, just enjoying the sun. The atmosphere was so vibrant that we were just happy sitting there doing nothing.
The sunset was around 8:30 -9:00 p.m. which gave us ample time to roam around. After that we took the metro back to our hostel. On the way back, we also bought a metro pass valid for ten rides which made it much easier to get around without having to buy a ticket each time. It took us two-three rides before we figured out how the metro system works. But once we did, it was pretty easy to use and never had to take a cab. The metro stations are really deep and it takes 2-3 minutes to get to the bottom on the escalator and some stations have two! By the time we got back to our hostel we were exhausted but happy. We were already looking forward to our next day at the Kremlin. More about our day at Kremlin and quick travel tips for Moscow in the second post…
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