There’s plenty of art to see in Moscow, but the one unmissable stop is the new wing of the Tretyakov Gallery, in a vast Soviet building on the river embankment. The gallery houses Russian 20th-century art, and the centrepiece of the collection comprises Russian avant garde works.
Feast your eyes on Kandinsky and Chagall, including little-known sets the latter artist completed in 1920 for the Moscow Jewish Theatre. Malevich’s famous Black Square is also here. Anywhere in the west there would be long queues for this art; here, you’ll probably have the place almost to yourself. The gallery also houses a large collection of later Socialist realist art, impressive in its own way.
Moscow has some great theatre, but most of it is off-limits to non-Russophone visitors for obvious language reasons. Gogol-Center, run by director Kirill Serebrennikov, has English subtitles for many of its performances. The modern stagings have often proved controversial in a city that still likes its art traditional, and not everything they put on here works. But the space itself is beautiful, the crowd is young and interesting, and many of the productions are innovative. Frequently in the repertoire is An Ordinary Story, a play by Ivan Goncharov, about a man coming to Moscow from the provinces, written more than 150 years ago and updated to the present day.
Dr Zhivago cafe, inside the Hotel National, just across the road from the Kremlin, is the place to go for posh but simple Russian food. The high-kitsch Socialist realist interiors are fun, and the serving staff are friendly. Open 24 hours, it has different vibes at different times: watch brawny businessmen do breakfast deals over trout and cream cheese pancakes (£5), raucous family parties eat dinner, or bleary-eyed revellers pop in for post-boozing caviar (£32.50) at 4am. The golubtsy (stuffed cabbage leaves) with crayfish (£10.50) are divine, as are the fat juicy kamchatka crab legs smeared in butter (£11). Book several days in advance for dinner.
VDNKh (pronounced veh-deh-en-kha), in the Ostankinsky district of the city, is a great place to spend an afternoon. Designed as a kind of Disneyland to show off the achievements of the socialist economy, each of the Soviet republics had a grand pavilion which used to hold exhibits. Now, many have shops or cafes in them (the restaurant in the Armenian pavilion is excellent). The huge grounds have been given a makeover of late and are now a pleasant place for a walk as you admire the architecture. Don’t miss the legendary Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue outside. There’s also a cute space museum in the grounds.
The Soviet Union was not known as a culinary paradise but, of all the different national cuisines, Georgian was the best, and Moscow has some of the best Georgian food outside Tbilisi. Sahli is one of the top places to try it; it’s not the cheapest, but worth every rouble. Non-intrusive live music on some evenings adds to the family atmosphere and cosy surroundings. Particularly worth ordering: succulent lyulya kebab (£9) and khachapuri, the indulgent Georgian cheesy bread (£6). There is also a selection of decent Georgian wines.
The area between New Arbat and Patriarch’s Ponds is stuffed with sumptuous art nouveau mansions, built for the wealthy merchant class in the years before the Russian revolution. Many are now embassies, but one you can get inside to gawp at (free of charge) is the magnificent Gorky House Museum. The house’s owners fled in 1917, and the mansion was handed over to the writer to live out his last years, after he returned from exile. Marvel at the extraordinary swirling shapes in the doors, windows and railings, and the overwrought Gaudi-esque staircase inside.
The banya is a quintessential Russian experience – the Slavic version of a sauna. The tourist-friendly Sandunovskie baths have impressive interiors but, for a more down-to-earth experience, try the Rzhevskie baths. The steam room is roasting hot and very humid; cool down by plunging into ice water; repeat. Men and women have separate sections. Banya etiquette is to purchase bunches of birch twigs and whip each other’s bodies. Afterwards, people relax with tea, beer and snacks in the changing area. It’s especially invigorating on a cold winter’s day, or with a hangover. Nothing quite matches the buzzy post-banya warmth and you will have never felt so clean. You’ll have to be comfortable with total nudity.
Necking vodka out of plastic cups at a bus stop is so 1990s. Today’s young Muscovites prefer to sip glasses of wine or and hipster-made cocktails. One of the best places to see this new Moscow in all its glory is Public Bar, a sharply designed subterranean cocktail haunt with low-key interiors and high-concept drinks. It’s tiny, so being turned away is always possible. In which case, retire to the perfectly decent café Iskra upstairs for food or drinks.
Moscow has four opera houses and, while you shouldn’t miss the chance to see something on the stage of the Bolshoi – if you can get a ticket – the others are also worth checking out. My personal favourite is the Helikon, where tickets are not much more expensive than a cup of coffee. For a small fee, you get sharp stagings of a mixture of classic and lesser-known operas in extremely intimate surroundings. Many performances have English subtitles. The Helikon also stages 40-minute performances in the foyer, during which the singers might pour you a coffee or a beer.
Start with brunch at Strelka (in summer, have lunch on the terrace), before setting off on a long, lazy walk along the river embankment. Call into the Tretyakov (see above) and then walk on through Gorky park which, in recent years, has been turned from a gloomy weed-strewn mess into a fun and pleasant space, full of cafes and activities. Pop into Garazh, the contemporary art gallery run by Roman Abramovich’s wife, Dasha Zhukova, then continue all the way along the river until you reach Sparrow Hills (Vorobyovye Gory), from where you can take the metro back into town.