Moscow Holiday Highlights
The moscow holiday plan
Travel warning: advance planning required.
Flying with airmiles: The decision to book a Moscow holiday was based mainly on the purchase of a new kitchen. We’d put it on British Airways American Express credit card (see Money Saving top tips page – coming soon), thereby earning ourselves an unusually high (for us) number of air miles. When added to the last 5 years’ spend we were up to 44,000 and, crucially, had spent enough in one year to qualify for a free companion British Airways ticket.
Where could we go for this seemingly huge number of points? “Japan for the cherry blossom,” shouts one of the boys. But no, that would be 200,000 miles, at least another decade’s spend. A few more ideas are bandied around and it turns out that for this number of points you can get 3 people to Moscow. In February. And you really ought to buy a ticket for the other child, for about £200, but it feels almost like a free holiday. Moscow holiday with kids it is!
Moscow holiday with kids - in winter
We were excited because we nearly got married in Moscow (we chose Las Vegas instead as we happened to be there at the time, which made it easier). A Moscow holiday sounded cool (literally )and St Basil’s Cathedral looked like some kind of ice-cream pudding. But were we mad to go to in February, with children? Wouldn’t it be a bit cold? Reading the Lonely Planet guide and Tripadvisor reviews, we were relieved to find we were not at all mad and it was the best time to go for a wintry break. The city would not be at its coldest, there would be snow on the ground, but the pavements would not have turned into slushy rivers as they do in March. So far good.
Top tip: You are required to register your arrival with the hotel if you are staying more than 7 days and to carry your papers (registration, passport/visa) round with you at all times. It has been known for corrupt police to ask to see your papers and then demand a bribe for their return. The streetwise are advised to carry PHOTOCOPIES of everything but keep originals in your hotel. They might shout at you but cannot arrest you for this, apparently.
How do you get a russian visa?
But what about visas? I knew we’d need visas. I had not realised they would be almost £100 each (not looking like such a free holiday now) and that not only would we have to find every passport we had ever owned, specify dates of all countries visited in last 10 years, provide details of all social media and bank accounts, but also travel to London to be bio-metrically fingerprinted.
Just in case the system is not off-putting enough, there is a time window for applications of not more than 3 months before travel (so you probably had to get your flights first and risk it for a biscuit). You also need the hotel to sponsor your stay and send you a “voucher” to present to the embassy, with everyone’s dates of birth and names spelled properly.
Because of the arbitrary 3 month rule, we had to use the Christmas holidays to get us all up to London on a week day for the futuristic finger stuff. We got there early and checked in on Facebook (to get some cool Russian writing), accidentally checking into the Moscow Embassy in Russia itself (much to confusion of immediate family).
I had a huge pack – a completed 10 page application form each, photos, passports, hotel vouchers but despite regular communication with the embassy about how to fill them in properly, I had failed. When presented with the option to tick employed /unemployed box for a child, I had selected unemployed. Wrong. I was directed to a Soviet 1970’s computer to mend my ways, and had to work out the exact date they had each started school and google detailed information about their current educational establishments. It crossed my mind that there was more than an outside possibility that I was being used as a soviet spy.
So, the administratively inconvenient Christmas season being upon us, coupled with the 10 day processing period and the extended Russian Orthrodox New Year (until 9th of Jan), and to avoid any kind of postal delay nightmare, we decided to throw away another £100 on train tickets and head back to London to collect the visas in person in time for Feb flights.
Apply here: http://ru.vfsglobal.co.uk/online_application_form.html
(There are companies you can pay to do this all for you).
As a bonus you do get to see your name in Russian.
Moscow holiday Hotel Choice
Not knowing how warm or family friendly old-school backpacking hostels are in the former USSR (or if they even exist) it felt wiser to go with a known hotel chain. I could see from trivago.com that double rooms at the Moscow Novotels start at about £50 for a double and we have a loyalty card so can get a few quid off (see travel tips section – coming soon).
There are 3 Novotels to choose from in Moscow, all in different business districts 3-5km from the centre. Research was required into which would be the least frightening. Not being near anything vaguely touristy meant they were not really covered by the travel guides. We were on the point of booking one, when I came upon a review mentioning burnt out cars and gold toothed Mafioso hanging around outside, which, to be honest, put me off a bit. We went for the Novotel Moscow City instead, (5k out). We could get the tube in.
As there were going to be 4 of us all in 1 hotel room for the week (and maybe in it quite a lot if it turned out to be a bit nippy) it was decided to go for the suite, for about £700 for the week including breakfast, which we could part pay on points. We went fully cancellable so that if the visas were rejected, we weren’t going to be completely out of pocket (apart from the £400 visa fees, £200 flight and family trips to London).
Moscow Holiday Schedule
If anyone had asked me to name Moscow’s top sites I’d have known what St Basil’s looked like, but that was pretty much it.
A lot of research went into the schedule. I did not want to be lingering on street corners, flicking though the Lonely Planet working out where to go next or how to get there, slowly losing fingers to frostbite. I had google mapped each journey (and counted tube stops in case we couldn’t decipher the Cyrillic script quickly enough) and located eating establishments near each attraction. Food is never far from at least one person’s mind in a group of 4, and al fresco Tesco meal deals were not going to be the answer.
My pre-reading revealed that there were plenty of potential scheduling traps and restrictive opening times – Lenin’s tomb only being open Tue – Thur 10-1 (and not on public holidays) etc. And our first day was a Monday, when everything closes. So that was handy.
I decided on a Soviet souvenir market (an hour away but the only thing open on a Monday), St Basil’s Cathedral and a neighbouring vintage shopping mall called GUM, the Kremlin (with the Russian crown Jewels), ice-skating in Gorky Park, Moscow zoo (one for the kids), the tomb housing Lenin’s embalmed body and (for a bit of warmth) an old Chocolate Factory/new artsy hub – Red October.
We had looked at going to the Bolshoi ballet, but the performances which were open to children were in the modern building not the fabulous old one, and, although cheap, at about £25 a head, this was still £100, and the boys were not pushing for this as an option.
Not wanting to flag down a random taxi at Moscow airport, I found one (in the comfort of my own home) rated by a travel guide on the internet, booked it and crossed my fingers. I pre-ordered the Rubles in Debenhams (nearly always the best high street rate, and you can earn points and get a £5 voucher). I was now Russia ready.
Moscow holiday Minus 1- Airport lounging
In the weeks leading up to our Moscow holiday departure, we’d been avidly following the Moscow weather forecast (so much more interesting than Bristol’s, which is 10 degrees and rain, pretty much year round). There were highs of -12 and lows of -18. Sounded a bit chilly, especially for the younger family members. Then over the weekend before our departure, it hit the BBC news that Moscow had had a month’s worth of snow and was in fact seeing its harshest winter for 20 years. Excited by the snow! Bit scared of the cold.
Spent a slightly nervous pre-flight night at the Novotel Heathrow, to swap untold morning motorway stress for a slap up breakfast (kids under 15 in £50 family room eat free – bonus – fill your boots).
Moscow holiday Day 1 - Snowy Arrival
We landed into a frosty grey haze. I’d sent our pre-booked taxi to the right airport (there are 3) and in a strange role reversal of terrain awareness, the driver was skidding quite comically over the ice in his loafers whilst we winter novices were sturdy footed as mountain goats in our shiny new snow boots.
We drove for an hour through snowy forests then into the heart of the city, past Soviet tenement blocks straight out of a Nikita video by Elton John. Many, many lanes of traffic emerged and merged in the sheets of sleet and eventually we pulled up to a shiny new London style business hotel, with not a gold tooth in sight. Phew.
Moscow holiday activity 1. - playing out in the snow
Our first Moscow holiday job had to be to play in the untouched 2 feet of snow and luckily the park next door had snow, illuminations and a tube run. Result.
There were other children present but they were playing in the snow-cleared area by the swings. Weird. In fact the focus of attention in the park was not the knee-deep snow – but us, for playing it. A family appeared to be on the verge of staging an intervention when the boys were buried up to their necks (and in hindsight this may have been unwise from a core body temperature perspective).
I guess snow is not your friend in Russia, and is possibly even your enemy.
Despite having hands encased in 2 pairs of gloves and buried inside sheepskin pockets, the cold started to bite.
Moscow holiday activity 2 - finding food
In search of food and heating, we discovered we were next door to a very Western looking mall, populated with H & M, Next and Mothercare. The only tell-tale sign at this point that we were, like Toto, a long way from home, was the full body metal detector/security scanning machine at the mall entrance. But no need to despair if you’d forgotten your weaponry or had it confiscated at the door, you could tool up in the knife and automatic machine gun boutique on the first floor.
At least food would be easy in a mall. You’d think, wouldn’t you? Turns out, a failure to familiarise ourselves with the Russian alphabet was a drawback here. There were the (always so unappetising) food photos next to the “words”, but these being a good 20 feet in front of the counter staff, were neither visible to them nor usefully positioned in terms of pointing action.
We finally found a stall where the pictures and the cashier were in sufficiently close proximity to complete a transaction and ended up with some non-specific mall meat kebab (generously termed “burritos” by the less experienced kebab eaters in the family). We thanked god that breakfast was included in the morning.
On heading back to our room we saw on the news that 15 minutes after our plane had landed, and while we were still on the tarmac, another plane had burned up after take off at the airport, killing all on board. Something to do with the wings not being properly defrosted. We were chilled physically and metaphorically to the bone.
Moscow holiday Day 2 - Vernissage in Izmailovsky Market
Moscow holiday activity 3 - dressing for -15
After a night on crackly, visibly static sheets, watching fleets of dumper trucks pile snow outside the hotel (presumably clearing all city centre streets for totally non-slippy promenading for us the next day), it was time to prepare for Moscow holiday Day 1. Inadvertently popped a bit of yogurt into my coffee, after general confusion in the milk aisle in the mini-mart the previous evening, before breakfasting on donuts and herring.
Endured a tricky post-breakfast transition period where we re-dressed for the arctic, donning at least 3 layers of everything, still in the 26 degree room, but ready for an imminent 41 degree temperature drop.
Top tip – do not complete dressing before anyone else or you will die waiting.
Moscow holiday activity 4: the moscow metro
TOP TUBE TIP – The Moscow tube system is a tourist attraction in its own right. There are art deco marvels, stations where everyone has to rub a brass chicken, gold frescoes and communist statutory at every turn.
Due to the no-fun-on-a-Monday rule, the first stop on our schedule for the week (and only thing I could find open) was the most distant from the hotel. In at the deep end on the Metro system for us.
We found the station conveniently immediately in front of the hotel (feeling a bit more confident now) and attempted to purchase 4 lots of 10 multi-ride metro passes, without recourse to the Russian language (not quite so cocky at this point.) Disappointingly, Google translate’s Russian was not decipherable by the actually Russian ticket lady. And, as is only right, the ticket machine was also Russian.
Not entirely clear what we have ended up buying (but there were definitely not 10 of them), we head for the platform. The lack of a strong London style colour coding system becomes quickly apparent. It is very hard to know which line you are on or where you are headed when the wall opposite you looks like this:-
A train pulled up. Was this the right one? Dithering ensued. A last minute decision resulted in me looking on in panic as the metro doors closed on the half of family with cash, tickets and working phone who had decided to board the train. Luckily, a heavy set bearded man was able to prise the doors open with his bare hands, for a shaky-laughter filled reunion.
Make pact to travel adult, child, child adult sandwich formation from here on in.
As anticipated, it turned out to be impossible to scan the station names quickly enough as they whisked by, and matching the verbal announcements to the written words was beyond the best of us (i.e. Husband). Overnight, acknowledging its importance if we wanted to eat or travel this week, Husband has learnt a bit of the Russian alphabet but he was not yet a speed reader. Miraculously, we arrived at our intended destination tube station for Vernissage market (also confusingly referred to as the Kremlin and Izmailovsky).
The road to market was a marshmallow world of whipped cream snow, with pathways being forged by teams of spade-toting men and women sporting the universal yellow jackets attacking the layers of ice with gusto.
Cars had been eaten by Mr Whippy.
Moscow holiday activity 6: disney market
The market itself was like a Disney set and ice cream sundae rolled into one and topped with icicles. It was also an inauthentic, modern pastiche of Russian architecture but weird and pretty in a theme park kind of way. Also, is was oddly devoid of people, be they customers or indeed stall holders,
There was a smattering of Russian hat and doll sellers, but disappointingly most stalls were boarded up, meaning the promised Moscow holiday vintage Soviet souvenir browsing session was not really on the table. We did spot a effigy of Babushka being burned to mark the last few days before the start of Russian Orthodox Lent, and a (much) larger than life Russian doll. Husband successfully managed to complete a cake and coffee order. Things were looking up. We trudged around the empty buildings for a while and played in the untouched snow for a couple of hours.The scheduled all-day meandering with dinner at the market plan, however, was in the bin, and the rest of Moscow being Monday-closed, we bravely set out to navigate the one and a half hour Metro ride back to hotel for a safe mall tea, now that Husband could safely read and say “pizza”-
"Bustling" Verssinge Market (too cold for tumbleweed)
Moscow holiday Day 3 - St
Basil's Cathedral and GUM
Dined on a breakfast of custardy cabbage spring roll, endured the re-dressing for the outside session, having learned to wait for child 1 to fully lace his DM’s before throwing on my last 3 layers, and set off to see the jewel in Moscow’s (if not its actual) crown, St Basil’s.
We popped up outside Lenin’s Library, crossed the street and headed Into Red Square where Christmas trees were festooned with yellow ribbons for the “spring” festival (in temperatures hitting -15 degrees).
Red Square is a world of architectural excess and where it all happens. It is the home of:
- the Kremlin,
- the huge (can you say Victorian in Russia?– probably not) shopping complex, which is a bit fancier than its own name, GUM,
- a large military museum, and
- our destination for the morning, St Basil’s
Moscow holiday activity 7: st basils
We had to walk around the outside a few times just to take in all the different stripy-topped onion domes – it had something of a Charlie and the Chocolate factory lollipop room feel to it.
The entrance fee was 500 roubles (about £6) and kids under 16 are free, so absolute bargain for a national treasure and no queues to get in. Happy days.
The historical information is also helpfully provided in English, so we managed to find out who built it and when. (It was built from 1555 to 1561 by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakha.) The guide books cast doubt on the story of its architects having their eyes put out, so they could never build anything as beautiful again, which is good because I hate that story.
Every inch of ceiling, wall and door is covered in gold or fabulous murals. It isn’t actually very big inside so, a thousand photos later, we were done by lunch time.
Inside St Basil's
Braved a proper Moscow holiday Russian lunch of blini (chocolate pancake) from a stall in Red Square. The only problem is to eat it, you kind of have to take your gloves off and finish it before it and your fingers turn to ice.
moscow holiday activity 8: GUM
The plan for the afternoon was to warm up in GUM, which stretches the length of one side of Red Square and houses 200 (heated) shops.
GUM is the main department store in many Soviet cities. It was built about 1890, with an impressive glass roof and (I googled this bit) elements of medieval Russian architecture. Wikipedia informed me that after the Revolution GUM was nationalised operated as a “a model retail enterprise for consumers throughout Russia regardless of class, gender, and ethnicity. GUM’s stores were used to further Bolshevik goals of rebuilding private enterprise along socialist lines and democratizing consumption”. Interesting.
We wandered around GUM checking out Russian dolls tumbling from the ceiling, candelabra-hatted men, and incongruously, an abundance of artificial cherry blossom.
moscow holiday activity 9: moscow river
As we could feel our fingers again, and never having seen a frozen river before, we thought we would brave a stroll along the Moscow River, which some boats were still gamely attempting to navigate.
The best laid wardrobe plans included the purchase of waterproof socks. These were amazing. Would totally recommend them. In fact get them for the whole family, which we didn’t. The snow worked its way through the boys’ snow boots. Damp socks in -18 degrees isn’t anyone’s idea of fun. I made the biggest sacrifice of my parental career to date and donated mine, resulting in me finishing the day sock-free and bare-ankled in aforementioned -18 and several feet of snow. (We now own 4 pairs, but are no longer in actual Russia.)
moscow holiday activity 10: kitay gorod
As we were instructed by all the Moscow holiday guidebooks, we wandered around the streets behind Red Square, watching the sun set on the golden onion domes of the historical quarter of Kitay Gorod.
Golden buildings of Kitay Gorod
moscow holiday activity 11: kremlin by night
As a recommended Moscow holiday finale for the evening we marvelled at the illuminated St Basil’s as darkness fell on Red Square. Quite magical.
Moscow holiday Day 4 - The Kremlin and Gorky Park
moscow holiday activity 12: kremlin by day
The Kremlin is a collection of cathedrals, military establishments and an armoury housing the Russian crown jewels, a bit like a gold and red Tower of London. Like all the other top dog attractions, it can be found in Red Square.
The amount of information you can read about this in advance is a bit overwhelming – but I had summarised it thus:
- Allow 2 hours for armoury and 2 hours for Cathedrals – separate tickets are available so you can visit one in the morning and the other in the afternoon
- Get to the ticket booth when it opens so you can have your pick of time slots (especially if also planning a slot in a trip to Lenin’s tomb)
- Ivan the Great Bell tower – under 14’s cannot enter
- Armoury – Russian crown jewels
- Archangel cathedral – Ivan the Terrible buried here.
- Assumption cathedral – golden frescoes
- Patriarch’s palace – where the tsars feasted
- Lunch – No eateries in Kremlin.
Despite arriving early and successfully locating the ticket booth (near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), became generally confused at the array of ticket options and timings and the whole Russian language thing. Seemed to walk away with an armoury ticket slot for 12 and maybe some cathedrals? Went past the heavily armed guards through the red brick outer walls of the Kremlin into a land of gleaming white, golden onion-topped cathedrals.
Tiny men could be spotted clambering amongst their domes, shovelling off the snow. A general hazard in the city was these men saving roofs from the weight of the snow, but in doing so, jeopardising lives of small boys passing underneath.
moscow holiday activity 13: the russian crown jewels
The crown jewels were dazzling. (No photos allowed, so you will have to take my word for it.) There were rooms filled with gigantic silver tigers, 4 foot high jewel-encrusted tomes, Fabergé eggs, a fleet of royal carriages, costumes, thrones and crowns, often with a Mongolian twist. There was one double throne from which 2 boy kings had ruled, with a small hole in the back through which their older sister, Catherine the Great, would tell them what to do. An English Audio guide brought it all to life. They did let us inside the shiny cathedrals and so we found Ivan’s tomb.
After leaving the Kremlin, we went for another icy-fingered blini lunch (who needs vitamins anyway?), and passed a crowd of photo-bombing, then money-extorting, Cossacks and Mongols. Did end up with a great photo but it was a party of at least 6 who bombed me and afterwards demanded a minimum of £15 each. It’s not every day I get to run away from an angry Mongolian mob.
Despite being aware for at least 3 months (and actually writing into the schedule) that it closed at 1pm, we’d missed Lenin’s tomb. But I had been ambitious with the day’s plans and we were not done yet – next stop Gorky Park.
Having acclimatised for a couple of days on our Moscow holiday, I was sure that a walk to Gorky Park would not be beyond us. A particularly icy bridge gave us a bit of trouble, but apart from that the walk was great, past colourful buildings, a cathedral, St Peter’s statue and more frozen waterways. We wondered whether to fit in a boat trip, but the booth showed no signs of life.
moscow holiday activity 14: gorky park ice skating
I had read that Gorky Park was where locals spent time with its eateries and general park life. Obviously that is more of a summer thing. No food outlets to be found, but the lack of people did mean that, having ordered the snow tubes (using only the medium of mime) we had the run all to ourselves.
The final treat for the day was to be ice skating. The Gorky Park website made it sound very exciting:
“Gorky’s “rink” is a maze of paths, roundabouts and cul-de-sacs with plenty of space to show off your moves, or simply enjoy watching experienced Russian skaters show you how it is done. This is one of the largest and brightest all-weather ice rinks in Europe. It covers 18,000 square meters of the park’s pedestrian pathways and can comfortably host four thousand skaters at one time. The rink itself takes on the role of a light show after dark, with over 33,000 adjustable LED lights installed under the ice. At the center of the main pathway intersection is a massive light installation composed of 400 light boxes”.
Again, quite complicated opening hours and pricing – but it wasn’t a Monday and it was nearly 5pm – so on my reading, it had a good chance of being open.
I was a bit scared as it sounded like the “rink” encompassed the equivalent of the whole of Hyde Park, with the paths just iced over a bit. No sides! We’d had a bit of practice in Telford Ice Rink to brush up on (limited) skills that had lain dormant for 20 years, and knew we could remain standing. Just. But this was a whole different ball game – essentially motorway-style skating traffic. But it would be back-lit by neon lights, edged with bars and all to the accompaniment of banging disco tunes. It had the potential to be a Moscow holiday A lister activity.
15 ticket stands were available across the park giving access to the ice. Most Russians brought their own skates, but I knew that we would have to find our way back to the one we started from to get our shoes back (which would clearly be very important). 3 ladies were encased in human sized booths, behind triple glazed screens and with letter box sized speaking slots, which they would open only for a nano second to sell you a ticket. The ladies, not surprisingly, were not smilers. Again, somehow the transaction was completed and we made our way past the armed rink security detail into the booting area. No one had mentioned the compulsory helmets referred to on the website. Well, she may have done, but I was in and I didn’t have any.
Spent a lot of time finding the right sized skate as the numbering bore no relation to any recognisable shoe sizing system. I just plumped for random numbers in the manner of Bruce Forsyth’s higher/lower game before arriving at anything resembling a Cinderella moment (it was still a bit of a big sister fit in the end).
One child entered the ice like Bambi, stumbling past what was surely an actual pirouetting Russian ballerina. But it was ok, there were some sides to cling on to, the 20 foot colour changing light boxes were as good as they sounded, and the hot chocolate stand (also encased in a triple glazed booth) was open.
Although it caters for up to 4,000 skaters, we saw about 50. Which was just as well as rush hour motorway madness would have wiped us out. We lasted about 40 minutes.There being no sign of food, we then headed off randomly out of the park into the darkness beyond. About another 40 minutes later, having been Russian-adventurous enough for the day, we found a McDonalds. Was a bit surprised to find this overt mascot of capitalism had been allowed within plain sight of the Military Defence of the Russian Federation nextdoor. The Cold War must be over.
Moscow holiday Day 5 - We're all going to the zoo - and fancy Cafe Pushkin (in zoo outfits)
moscow holiday activity 15: Moscow zoo
We attempted to swing by the Ice sculptures housed in refrigerated tents at Krasnaya Presnya park, which were heavily referenced in travel guides, but non-existent in reality.
But never mind, there were other activities on today’s Moscow holiday schedule. Today was one for the kids, Moscow Zoo. In the snow. Bonus. Also a bonus that it is quite a cheap day out compared to Bristol or London (R 500/kids free). The place looked closed for winter when we got there, as 5 out of the 6 concrete ticket booths were shuttered and there were no other customers in sight. We did spot one guy hiding behind his screen and he was happy (not really) to take our money so the plan was on.
(We had seen on the news that before the Moscow Olympics, Russians were given lessons on Western ways, including how to smile more. In Russia, if you smile at a stranger they just think you’re a bit weird. It’s a cultural thing. And maybe the cold.)
The monkeys looked a bit shivery and the bears seemed to be hibernating, but the Arctic wolf pack was loving it! We were a bit concerned as to the effectiveness, as a natural barrier, of the deep moat between us and the wolves , which was not only frozen, but also topped with a couple of metres of compacted snow. Had this passed any kind of risk assessment? Hoped so.
Going inside the tropical monkey/bird house is a bit of a pain in the UK, where you might have to take off a jumper. Here the collective tally was 4 coats, 12 jumpers, untold hats, gloves and scarves (and the spare shoes we were carrying for later). We were like contestants on Crackerjack, balancing an entire wardrobe in our arms and then then putting them all back on again between each enclosure.
moscow holiday activity 16: cafe pushkin
Our clothing was also not ideal for the deluxe Valentine’s dinner we had booked as a Moscow holiday treat at Puskin Cafe. Had researched the fancy-pants section of the Lonely Planet, googled opulent dining establishments and decided on the not-to-be-missed Café Pushkin:
“The tsarina of haute-russe dining, offering an exquisite blend of Russian and French cuisines. Service and food are done to perfection. The lovely 19th-century building has a different atmosphere on each floor, including a richly decorated library and a pleasant rooftop cafe.”
Thought we’d better check the price list before booking, but it turned out that if you opt to eat tea when it’s technically still lunchtime, just before 4 (when you are at your least hungry and usually between meals) then it’s only about 900R for 2 courses, or 1200R (£20) with a glass of wine. We could so do this! So the booking had been made.
Bit of trouble finding the cafe as it is not obvious from the street. In fact started to enter the cafe next door until eagle eyed husband did a bit of Russian sign translation.
There was a dress code (no trainers) and I was aware that our snowshoes/DM’s, though not strictly trainers, were decidedly borderline but there was no way I was going to make everyone sit on the pavement for an on-street shoe swap. The hat hair and thermal jumpers did not really scream “fine dining” either. But deep, deep down, under layer 5, the boys were shirted and somehow I’d managed to squeeze a dress over my salopettes. We just needed to get over the threshold to reveal our inner Cinderellas. On entry, a doorman indicated that, rather proceeding into the restaurant, we should head down into the cellar, probably where we belonged. It turned out this was a dressing area/cloakroom. Another doorman was taking a gentleman’s fur hat, and a ladies’ cloak (classy, rather than synthetic rainbow coloured winter wear such as our own). Beneath the cloak was a ball gown. At this point I realised I may have underestimated the elegance of the place. Fortunately, after the shoe change and a bit of spit and polish, they did let us back up the stairs.
We wanted to explore all the themed floors we had seen on the internet – the library, the summer roof terrace, the gilded ceilings, but were a bit too scared to ask and had to content ourselves with viewing the very nicely wooden panelled and glass bottle filled pharmacy area (and little bit into the lovely conservatory room next door).
We were handed the real menus, but managed, out of fear of bankruptcy, to summon the courage to obtain the pre-vetted lunch menu. Although we were surrounded by dark wood and a piano was playing somewhere, in the end, the food was just a bit too much like a Little Chef. Husband had a deep fried mince fritter with tomato sauce and I had 6 circles of plain pasta placed about 2 inches apart on a large dry plate (“beef stroganoff” – like none I had ever seen). In a way, the food made us feel a bit less intimidated. It was on a par with my own home cooking.
For about £20 a head, and with a nice glass of wine, I would recommend it as an experience, just not a dining one.
moscow holiday activity 17: medieval folk fair
We made our way back to the hotel past a freezing folk band and through a light tunnel to a medieval street festival. The boys looked on blank eyed as a serf from the dark ages explained how to use a cross bow, in Russian. They seemed to be able to operate it anyway. They also tried their hands at a bit of rule-oblivious jousting on wooden horseback to finish.
Moscow holiday Day 6 - Lenin's Tomb and Red October
moscow holiday activity 18: lenin's tomb
An unusual Moscow holiday activity this one – viewing the dead. The body of Lenin was embalmed when he died, and is still on display, in the mausoleum just inside Red Square. Entry is free and the tomb is open 10-1pm Tue-Thur (not public holidays). The queue is usually 30-40 mins. The added organisational sting in the tail here, which we were alerted to by our guide book, is that bags are not allowed inside. We really needed bags. Gloves, photocopied documents, inhalers – it was a deal breaker.
There was hope, in that a nearby military museum offered, for a small fee, a bag drop. Amongst the many oversized buildings in Red Square we thought we’d identified the museum, but were unable to find an entrance. On the 3rd circumnavigation of the most likely building, we happened to glance over at the Lenin queue to see that everyone had a bag and they were all being let through security. The “no bag” top tip was a tissue of lies.
Having made it past the soldiers at the checkpoint, we walked past the graves of all the previous Soviet rulers, Stalin, Gorbachev et al, and shuffled slowly into the dimly lit mausoleum itself. Child 1 had a little giggle at the overt solemnity, but was shushed aggressively by an armed guard, which turned out to be very effective in establishing the absolute silence required within the tomb.
No photos allowed – but he was quite small and a bit plasticy. Time had not been kind, even with the embalming.
moscow holiday activity 19 : tomb of the unknown soldier
Emerging from the tomb, we dined in another McDonalds situated right in front of the Kremlin with a view over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The restaurant filled with fatigue-clad solders who had also popped in for a Big Mac before the arrival if King Abdullah of Jordan at the Kremlin that afternoon. It was such a spectacle that I was prepared to risk arrest for being a spy by surreptitiously taking photos of the regiments of military police ordering their happy meals. I ended up just getting a fuzzy feet shot before chicken-nuggeting out. (I did take one of some generals later, though, by cunningly placing a child in the foreground and moving my camera at the last minute. Maybe I do have the makings of a spy.)
moscow holiday activity 20: red october
On our last Moscow holiday afternoon we were scheduled to visit Red October, a former Chocolate factory, and now an artsy hub home to bars, restaurants, shops and general merriment. The dot in the guide book locating it was a bit splodgy, covering a large area of map. This had quite an impact on the day. Unable to find the huge hub, we decided to look for the Sculpture Park which was supposedly nearby, which also somehow failed to exist.
At this point we spotted across the wide and icy Moscow River some large signage on an old warehouse-type building. A bit of alphabet transposition later, this turned out to spell out the word “Chocolate” and was in with a good chance of being the building we (and Charlie) were looking for. The dot had definitely been on the wrong side of the river. Grr. There was a growing intolerance for lengthy walks over slippy bridges but for want of any other plan, we ploughed our way through the snow, towards Red October – where it would be warm and there would be bars. Yay.
Needless to say, there were no bustling street entertainers or kooky shops for browsing. There was a very grown up (in a seedy way) looking bar and a fairly small sweet shop. We bought sweets.
As I had run out of scheduled activities (and importantly because we knew it existed and where it was), in a groundhog day style, we decided to go to the ice-skating rink again, and afterwards crossed the icy river one more twinkly time to have, as a grand Moscow holiday finale, a Mcdonalds’ tea.
Moscow holiday - Lessons learned
- English is not widely spoken. Learn the Russian alphabet before you go so you can read signs, Metro stations and menus. Try the Duo Lingo app.
- Maybe fit in trip to St Petersburg (4 hours by train from Moscow) into the same visit, as getting a visa to come back is an administratively heavy burden.
- Buy waterproof socks and Gortex boots for everyone (and all carry a working phone).
- Is Moscow safe? Is Moscow for kids? Is Moscow too cold? We had worried about this but we did feel safe walking around the city, even at night and the February snow was fabulous – definitely worth the trip!
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