In our new Stopover Series, we share our tips to see different cities around the world in 72 hours.
First stop… Moscow!
There’s no escaping it – direct flights to world cities are expensive and during peak season prices can be crippling. But if you’re willing to be flexible there is another way that is not only easier on the wallet, but might add a new dimension to your trip: The Stopover.
Long regarded as the solution of choice for cash-poor and time-rich backpackers, while most families regard it as the seventh circle of hell – unnecessarily prolonging the torture that is flying with small children. But now the stopover has evolved. Cities such as Singapore are actively encouraging families to take a pause when flying via the hub, while China now allows 72-hour visa free travel for passengers in transit in key cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu – to enable exploration.
Many airlines, provided you are flying to their ‘flagship airport’, make it easy for you to break up the journey with a short stay – so why not added a mini-break to your break?
If you are flying from Hong Kong to Europe’s main capitals, then travelling with Aeroflot via Moscow can significantly reduce the price. So why not make the most of it and instead of spending the extra hours in an airport lounge – take a few days to amble around this extraordinary place before carrying on your way. From medieval churches and elaborate metro stations to stark soviet-era architecture and stunning parks, the city is one of contrasts and a joy to explore. The weak rouble means foreign currency stretches much further, which is an added bonus for visitors.
Most visitors stay relatively close to the centre, so it is easy to navigate the main sights by foot, though if you go in the winter make sure you are prepared (and dressed) for temperatures as low as -20C. This can be hard on tiny travellers so keep them well wrapped and well hydrated. Try to do short bursts, taking frequent refuge in cafes or using the metro and cabs where possible. Summer is surprisingly hot.
Travelling around Moscow is a little like being a time traveller, different eras burst through with the architecture. Gilded opulence – both of past Tsars and aristocracy, as well as today’s oligarchs – battles blocks of uniform communist grey.
At the historic core is Red Square and the Kremlin. The former home to iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s Mausoleum, the latter nation’s political heart. A simple walking tour around the area and Moscow’s main stretch – Tverskaya Ulitsa – can be done in around an hour but it is easy to spend half a day or more taking in the streets around this ancient fortress. If you’re worried about tired little feet – there are a number of sight-seeing bus tours, which can be booked through your hotel.
It is worth wandering further afield. Even if you are not fan of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita a visit to Patriarshy Prudiy, (Patriarch’s Pond) is a must for a glimpse of Stalin’s Russia. Surrounded by apartments from that era, is surprisingly peaceful and there is a sculpture garden close by. The nearest metro station is Mayakovskaya.
Take a stroll also along the Old Arbat, it’s the city’s main tourist stretch so expect all the souvenir stalls that come with that, but the cobbled street – once home to some of Russia’s finest writers and composers – is quite charming and there are plenty of cafes to make a pit stop.
One of the best places to dine in town, Cafe Pushkin embodies the style of early 19th century Russian aristocracy – which is no mean feat considering it actually opened in 1999. Somewhere between a time capsule and a fantasy this five star restaurant in a baroque mansion on Tverskoy Boulevard was a one-time home of a nobleman. It has since housed a pharmacy and a grand library – elements of which remain today. It is something of an homage to Alexander Pushkin, who spent time in the area, the menu even includes favourites from his time. Order the black caviar, pancakes, stroganoff, and borscht as well as one of their famous desserts – the magic chocolate ball is always a favourite. This place can be incredibly romantic so might be best saved for when you can use the hotel babysitting service. That said older children will love all the period details. Close to Pushkin Square, the nearest metro is Pushkinskaya Ploshchad.
Hugely popular with the young hip crowd Lepim i Varim serves delicious hand made dumplings and excellent soups. Tucked away in a small square, it’s a good lunch or afternoon snack pitstop and plenty of children seem to wolf down the fare. Uzbek restaurant Chihana is a chance to sample something more unusual.
Pavillion overlooking Patriarch’s Ponds is a great little spot overlooking the water. The menu (think chicken kiev and smoked fish) and decor remain true to the Soviet era. The walls are adorned with old photographs and waiters are dressed in white tuxedos adding to the ambience.
The Baltschug Kempinski has exceptional views across the city – so much so that it can be hard to stop staring out of the window and actually go and explore. It is across the river from the main sites, giving an arguably unrivalled panorama. All river-facing rooms offer a vista out of the ordinary, but it is worth opting for the Kremlin Suite for something unforgettable. Plus the suites have connecting rooms and can be set up for families – giving the children a space to play or watch movies if you want a lie-in next door.
It’s perfectly located, just a few minutes walk from the key sites but set away from the crowds. Service too is a class apart, they also have a “ladies in red” – a twist on traditional concierge – who can help with any element of your Moscow visit.
For lovers of history Metropol is an excellent choice. This Art Nouveau hotel has stood at the centre of the city for more than 100 years. Ostentatious, antiquated, it’s glamour is fading but glimpses of its former glory as a favourite of European royalty as well as stars such as Michael Jackson, Giorgio Armani, and Julio Iglesias, shine through. Staying there it is impossible to shake the charming comparison with Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. Breakfast is an event in itself – served in the hotel’s Great Hall, which was designed by artist Sergei Chekhonin at the turn of the 20th century. The ceiling is stained glass, there are internal fountains and a harpist serenades as you eat.
Stunning Bosco Bar ticks all your needs – cocktails are potent and fun, the vodkas have been careful selected, and the interior decor is beautiful. Extra points go for its location just off Red Square so it’s an easy sundowner spot to end a days wandering.
For great views head to Time Out bar on the 12th floor of the Peking Hotel on Bolshaya Sadovaya. The fact it used to be a KGB building adds to the intrigue.
Brix Bar tucked away on Maly Kozikhinskiy Lane, is hugely popular with locals, or for something completely different try Mendeleev Cocktail Bar, a speakeasy, which from the outside looks like a Chinese noodle shop.
Explore the nation’s seat of power with a visit to Red Square and the Kremlin, where Russian flags and the scarlet star of communism are scattered everywhere. St Basil’s Cathedral, Cathedral Square and Monastery of St Sergius are also must visits – their brightly coloured multi-domed rooftops are a visual treat (and a photographers dream) and the sites offer an insight into Russia’s complex relationship with religion.
Some of Moscow’s metro stations are so grand they are worth a visit in themselves. Taking a stroll along the banks of the Moskva, even though it is flanked by highways, affords some lovely views of the city but a far better way around is by river boat – enjoy a leisurely tour and put your feet up.
Head to Gorky Park, named after writer Maxim Gorky and made famous by Martin Cruz Smith’s novel (and subsequent film adaptation) to spend an afternoon like a local. This is where Musovites come to picnic, play and generally take it easy. One side has funfair rides, carousels, horse rides to keep the kids occupied – in the summer there is even a small beach, and in winter an ice skating rink. The other side of the park has more formal gardens and a summerhouse, while nearby is Green Ampitheatre – an outdoor space for gigs and plays. Arrive via Park Kultury metro station and enter the park through a grand structure reminiscent of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
If you only have one evening out then it should include a performance at the Bolshoi, showcasing the best of local and international talent, in a historic venue, it’s almost guaranteed to be a night to remember. Moscow has a rich and varied art scene, so if you have limited time then the Tretyakov Gallery with more than 100,000 pieces across its collections, gives a good overview. History buffs should visit the Cold War Museum and the Gulag Museum, while Soviet Arcade Games Museum, which is home to a range of mid-20th century classics that suddenly seem like ancient relics, is good for a rainy day with kids
For something a little different, why not visit the Sandunya Bathhouses. This elegant mansion first opened in the 19th century, and still has the opulent gentlemen’s club ambience, though there is a hairdresser as well as a beauty and nail salon. The steam rooms are grand and the pools are beautiful. There are different classes to choose from, a little like train travel, and separate sections for men and women (it seemingly remains a more popular past time for guys). Children are allowed when accompanied by adults – though its best suited for older kids.
Aeroflot flies from Hong Kong to Europe’s major cities via Moscow and their long haul fleet has recently been upgraded. Service needs improvement but the aircrafts are generally clean and spacious. Use a travel agent to take the hassle out of organising multi-stop family travel. We recommend Flight Centre as their buying power, experience and price-guarantee make a big difference when organising this kind of trip.
So what’s stopping you mamas? Plan your next family stopover in Moscow!