That being said, in the two and a half weeks I spent there, a few things did really impress me.
1. The Tretyakov Gallery. When I wrote about visiting the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, I admitted that I was not much of an art aficionado. So you might be wondering, how did an art museum make it as one of my top five favorite things? Well, put simply, it was different.
The Tretyakov Gallery is all about Russian art and in that sense, it looks and feels different from a museum like the Hermitage or the Louvre. The artists are different, the portraits are different, the landscapes are different. The curators of the Tretyakov Gallery seem to understand that as well and very helpfully provide large explanation cards in nearly every room, in Russian and in English. They tell about the life of the artist or group of artists featured in each room, as well as about the inspiration behind the most noteworthy pieces. My visit coincided with reading a book about the progression of Russian culture, so it was especially interesting to see firsthand some of the works of art discussed in the book.
2. Ismailovo Kremlin and Vernisage Market. Ismailovo merited barely a mention in my guidebook and I probably would not have visited if my host, Olya, had not suggested it. The Kremlin is less than twenty years old and was designed to resemble the Tsar’s Palace from the 16th-17th centuries. Inside the Kremlin are a few small museums, including a History of Vodka museum, complete with a large sign listing 365 reasons to drink. The Vernisage Market is adjacent to the Kremlin and is a large arts and crafts fair featuring goods made by craftsmen all over Russia.
We visited during the week when, as it turns out, it is pretty dead. However, I went back on the weekend for the market and it was truly alive then – even in early November. If you like markets, local crafts and the art of haggling, this is the place to come in Moscow. Rows and rows of stalls sold every type of Russian souvenir imaginable – matryoshka nesting dolls in all shapes and styles (one vendor even sold a series of NFL team dolls), carved wooden boxes, painted dishes, handmade tablecloths and aprons and a variety of children’s toys. Prices generally were far less than you might find in the city center and, as I discovered right off the bat, the vendors were open to bargaining. My only regret is that I did not bring enough cash with me to buy everything I wanted!
3. State History Museum. It should come as no surprise that this was one of my favorites, given my strong interest in Russian history. The museum was well worth it, with interesting displays that presented the country’s history dating back to ancient times. The exhibits flowed in chronological order and the audio guide (expensive at 300 rubles – $10) provided good insight into most of the displays.
4. Children Are the Victims of Adult Vices Sculptures. It isn’t often that you stumble upon a sculpture or monument that really moves you, but this group of sculptures by Mihail Chemiakin on Bolotnaya Polschad, across the river from the Kremlin, did just that. It makes a powerful statement, with vices such as prostitution, sadism, war and poverty represented. A sculpture meant to signify indifference is positioned to watch over smaller sculptures of a young boy and girl in the middle of the group.
5. Arbat Street. Yes, it is touristy. And yes, it is lined with overpriced souvenir shops. But I still enjoyed historic Arbat Street – perhaps even for those very reasons. From what I could tell, it is really the only pedestrianized area in Moscow, which made it a good break from the busy, crowded streets elsewhere in the city. It also provided some great people watching – from the local youth teasing and flirting with each other around the Princess Turandot fountain to a small parade of traditional dancing making its way down the street and a group of girls running around giving away free hugs.
I also found it useful to check out the prices in the souvenir shops on Arbat so I knew what kind of a deal I was getting when I visited the Vernisage Market.
Have you been to Moscow? What were your favorite things to see or do?