A neighbourhood guide to Moscow

Change has come to Russia’s sprawling metropolis. Today, the capital’s neighbourhoods are shaped by a web of new cycle paths, boutique hangouts and eco-friendly farm shops. Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Does anyone still believe the old, tired stereotypes about Moscow? The city has altered almost beyond recognition in the past decade. After the stunning PR success that was Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup, few visitors arrive expecting surly Soviet-style service, inedible food and unsmiling locals. These days, there are dozens of welcoming cafes and energetic bars, with locally brewed craft beer on tap. Moscow has also embraced digital technologies and was recently ranked the world’s third-best city for public wi-fi access. Even the way people get around has changed: not so long ago, the sight of cyclists on the city’s busy streets was as rare as a winter day without snow. Today, thanks to new cycle paths, bicycles and kick scooters are just another part of a rapidly changing landscape. But despite all this, the timeless essence of Moscow lives on in the picturesque back streets that wind through its oldest neighbourhoods.

Old Arbat
It’s an autumn evening, and the sound of jazz can be heard floating from a courtyard just off the Old Arbat, a pedestrianised street famous throughout Russia for its theatres and Tsarist-era architecture. Stepping through a metal gate leading to the courtyard, I am greeted with the following scene: about two dozen people sitting on benches dotted around a children’s playground, food and bottles of wine laid out on a nearby table. The music is being performed by Sergey Manukyan, a well-known local musician, who sits hunched over an electronic keyboard. Laughing children run between the adults. 

“In our courtyard, we used to hold celebrations on state holidays — Victory Day, City Day and so on,” says Katya Osina, a local artist, who’s lived in the area for three decades. “We’ve now revived this tradition to celebrate the start of autumn and spring. I really like this informal atmosphere.”

Once the home of some of Russia’s most celebrated writers, from Tolstoy to Pushkin, the country’s 19th-century national poet, the Old Arbat remains popular with creative types. It’s not uncommon to see some of the country’s most famous actors wandering its quiet back streets, which are perfect for long, meandering walks in snow or sunshine.

Russians say that if the Kremlin is the heart of Moscow, then the Old Arbat is its soul. Admittedly, that soul has been tarnished somewhat by the cheap souvenir shops on the Old Arbat itself. Avoiding the tacky Putin T-shirts and badly produced matryoshka dolls, I make my way to LavkaLavka, a farm produce shop and cafe tucked away in a nearby side street. One of a chain of outlets dotted across the city, this eco-friendly venture somehow avoids falling into the trap of feeling like a chain: each branch has its own distinct character. I order a bowl of filling, bright red borscht that comes with slices of homemade black bread. I also grab a jar of kvashenaya kapusta, a kind of sauerkraut, and some Russian cheeses.

Since the Kremlin barred Western food imports in 2014, Russia’s domestic dairy industry has come on impressively: the ‘camembert’ I purchase isn’t quite as good as the real thing, but it’s getting there. A few steps away from the cafe, local poets recite the classics, as well as their own works, next to a statue of Bulat Okudzhava. The late Soviet-era dissident singer lived here in the 1960s and immortalised the Old Arbat in song. This centuries-old district has changed a lot since Okudzhava’s heyday, but I like to think he’d still feel at home. 

Pokrovka
A mile-long bustling street a short walk from the Kremlin, Pokrovka lacks bona-fide sights, but more than makes up for it with a buzzing atmosphere and some of Moscow’s best cafes and bars. Kitayskiy Letchik Dzhao Da, named after a semi-mythical Chinese pilot dreamt up by the cafe’s owners in the 1990s, puts on raucous live gigs, while Propaganda, a legendary nightclub, is where Muscovites have been dancing to electronic music since just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A new favourite hangout — weather-permitting — is ‘the Pit’, an amphitheatre built around a surviving fragment of the city’s 16th-century walls on nearby Khokhlovsky Square, as part of Moscow’s ongoing urban regeneration efforts. There’s no official entertainment, but the Pit’s visitors are more than capable of keeping themselves amused.

When I visit, the chatter of scores of conversations — about politics, love, and everything in between — almost drown out the sound of passing traffic. Russian rock blares from portable speakers. “A place like this is such a rarity for Moscow,” says Yelena, a local. “It almost feels like Western Europe.” Not everyone is happy: officials recently temporarily closed the Pit over noise complaints. Heading back to Pokrovka, I walk into a nearby courtyard and up a flight of stairs to Sosna I Lipa, a first-floor bar with a range of fruity craft beers on tap. The design is minimal, with white-brick walls, but there’s a record player, some old vinyl and an eclectic selection of books on the shelves. 

The mood is laid-back ambience; guests range from students to young media professionals to older, arty types. Yet the Pokrovka district isn’t all about nightlife: nearby, on Lubyanka Square, stands the imposing Soviet-era headquarters of the FSB state security service, the successor agency to the notorious KGB. It was here that countless victims of Stalinist terror were executed after summary trials in the 1930s. Their lives and grisly deaths are commemorated in Moscow by a series of tiny metal plaques installed on the facades of their last addresses, including in the Pokrovka district. I find a plaque commemorating one Eduard Bekker, who was shot by the KGB on trumped-up espionage charges at the age of 38. 

“I want children to see these plaques, and ask their parents about them,” says Sergey Parkhomenko, the veteran Russian journalist responsible for the project. Every doorway tells a story.

Patriarch’s Ponds
This affluent area likes to think of itself as a little slice of Western Europe in the heart of Moscow, and it does a good job of maintaining the illusion. Walking through the narrow streets of Patriarch’s Ponds — an appealing jumble of cosy cafes, plush restaurants, delicatessens and bakeries — it’s easy to imagine yourself in Paris or Barcelona. I start the morning with a breakfast of syrniki — cottage cheese pancakes — in Receptor, a cafe with an eclectic, but appetising selection of Indian, Korean and Russian food. 

Despite the name of the district, there’s only one pond here; the others were filled in after the massive blaze that devastated Moscow during its occupation by Napoleon’s forces in 1812. In the long years since, the surviving pond has become a Moscow landmark. In summer, swans glide across its tranquil waters, while locals and tourists relax on benches on its banks. In winter, the pond is transformed into a skating rink, while children also slide down its snowy slopes. Mari Vanna, a nearby restaurant that specialises in traditional Russian dishes from caviar to pickled mushrooms all washed down with vodka shots, is a popular place to refuel whatever the weather. 

For most Russians, though, Patriarch’s Ponds is associated with Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita. This hallucinatory satire was written in the 1930s, but only published in full more than three decades later. It tells of a visit to Moscow by the devil, in the guise of a mysterious professor and his demonic entourage, which includes a huge, talking black cat. 

Bulgakov wrote the book while living in a cramped kommunalka (communal apartment) just around the corner from the pond — the setting for its opening scene. Bulgakov’s former residence, which was squatted by Soviet hippies (yes, the Soviet Union also had hippies) during the 1980s, is now a museum containing his writing desk and other personal items. “Close the door behind you!” growls the ticket seller when I enter, her gruff manner in keeping with the tone of Bulgakov’s diabolical masterpiece. “There’s something so magical about this area,” says Tatiana Murzina, who’s lived in a flat overlooking the pond for the last 20 years. “Walking here at dusk, I sometimes feel like I’m a character in Bulgakov’s novel.” 

When in Moscow...

Red October
This former chocolate factory is now home to loft bars and cafes, along with a banya (sauna), photo gallery and independent shops. The view of the river from the rooftop terrace of Strelka Bar is worth checking out.

Kvas
Sometimes dubbed the former Soviet Union’s cola, this fermented rye bread drink has a unique taste that you’ll either love or hate. Mildly alcoholic, it’s on sale everywhere in Moscow, from supermarkets to restaurants. 

Georgian Food
There are numerous Georgian cafes and restaurants around Moscow, but try the fairytale-like Genatsvale on Arbat for khachapuri (cheese-filled bread) and spicy lobio, (bean stew) all washed down with Georgian wines.

Red Square Ice Rink
It’s crowded, noisy and the skating is probably better elsewhere, but when else are you going to get the chance to skate on Red Square, under the Kremlin’s famous walls? 

Muzeon
Set on the banks of the Moskva River near the Kremlin, this gloriously landscaped park was formerly a desolate ‘graveyard’ for statues of Soviet-era leaders. Today, however, Muzeon is all about picnics in the summer, and snowball fights in the winter.

More info

Tourist information desks, staffed by friendly, English-speaking employees, are found at train stations and airports. The main office is on Triumfalnaya Square (Mayakovskaya metro station). discover.moscow

ESSENTIALS

Wizz Air has started a low-cost service between Luton and Moscow from £26 one-way.

Hotels range from the luxury Metropol (doubles from around £160 a night) to Godzillas (doubles from around £35 a night), to a basic but decent hostel where a room costs from around £20 per night.  

Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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