Top 5 popular places in Moscow to AVOID visiting

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

This is by no means the list of places that you should categorically avoid at any cost. All of them are very recommended and advertised everywhere. So chances are, that even after reading this, you'll still want to visit at least a couple of them just out of curiosity if nothing else.

But that said, not everyone has weeks of free time planned into the trip to visit every corner of the city. Most of you are on a tight schedule and would like to concentrate on the most valuable sights. So if you're one of those people that feel that they've planned too much and will have to trim a couple of places here and there out of their itinerary, then this is the perfect article for you. And those are the perfect places to trim.

In the order from less to more skippable:

5) Saint Basil's Cathedral

This is undoubtedly the most iconic church and the most recognizable building in Russia. 'The most amazing looking church' was, according to the legend, the order of Ivan the Terrible when he was asking to build it in the 16th century. And so it was and still is today. Nothing else to match it in the whole country. If you didn't take a picture with this cathedral on the background during your stay here, it doesn't count as a complete visit of Moscow.

But that all is mostly how it is from the outside. Once you get inside, things get dramatically less exciting.

Even if you order an official guide for your visit, the most interesting story that you'll learn on the tour will be right in the beginning about Saint Basil himself. Who was a homeless person that always walked naked everywhere as a way of self-punishment to better understand God's ways. Then there was an army of followers across the country that also started walking naked, and some, to exacerbate their suffering, even wearing special, heavy iron chains and crosses their entire lives. And those actual tools you'll be able to see on the basement level of the church. If no one told you about what they actually were, you'd certainly think that it's some sort of very explicit BDSM exhibition. All of which might at least bring a couple smiles to your faces but would likely be the only such occasion throughout your visit.

The rest of the tour is usually more about technicalities of how the church was built and why, and how services were conducted there back in the days. As well as something about names of all 10 churches inside. Because there's technically a separate church underneath each cupola, each with its own name. Names that come from random saints and christian feasts that hardly make a congruent storyline together.

The most important fact from the church's history is that there was this incredible church, then came communists and burned all the icons and whitewashed all the walls inside.

So on the visual side of things, what you're going to see will mostly be wall murals that were badly damaged after they scratched the whitewash off, murals that were somewhat not-so-ideally restored afterwards or a couple of rooms that were just left completely white. And also, none of the icons you'd see inside would be original, everything was brought later from other old churches and monasteries from across the country to make it a more legitimate museum.

With all that, honestly, the biggest highlight of the church is the men's a cappella choir that they occasionally have singing inside. Because even the museum administration, apparently, at some point figured that they have to add something else to keep people's attention.

And it would've been all still relatively fine if it had still cost 300-350 RUB as it used to. But unfortunately, the 2018 World Cup made them suddenly reconsider their pricing policies and raise them 2-3 times. Now it's 700 RUB per person with no discounts September through May and 1000 RUB per person with no discounts in summer months.

And I know a lot of people might feel somewhat guilty even looking at the price in such situation (exactly what that museum wants you to feel like). Sort of, 'We've made all this trip across the globe to get here, who cares how much it costs? It's the famous Saint Basil's!' And to be honest, if I were travelling to Russia for the first time myself, I would certainly visit it no matter what. Even if it were completely empty inside with just a sign on the wall saying, "Thanks for paying 1000 RUB'.

But if you have limited time and resources, and have already been looking at it skeptically; you've certainly been thinking in the right direction, and can now skip it with more confidence. Or at the very least leave it for 'if we still have time' scenario.

Better alternatives:

Assumption and/or Archangel Cathedrals inside the Kremlin - for something much older, more important, historic, original and better preserved.

Christ the Saviour Cathedral - for something more modern, bigger, shinier, functional and absolutely free.

4) Arbat street

It is mentioned countless times as one of the top places to visit in numerous guide books. And it somewhat is, but absolutely not for sightseeing reasons.

The street is great for two things: lots of souvenir stores that are not as overpriced as the ones right next to Red Square. And lots of medium and upper low-end priced cafes and restaurants, many focusing on Russian cuisine.

People also mention street artists there as a highlight. Which is true but happens mostly in summer months and wouldn't be too much of an overwhelming reason to visit it.

As sightseeing place it would be more interesting for Russian tourists, as there are many stories and names that most of local people have likely heard of but never bothered digging into details. Leaning more about such things can often lead to wow-effects, with people starting to think, 'ahh... that's what it all means' or 'that's what it was all about'. The effect that is much less likely to produce itself with a foreign audience that likely has never even heard of whatever celebrity, writer or novel that might be the subject of the story.

That's not to say it's completely worthless. It just requires a bit more than average interest in Russian history on your part and a guide that would be able to make sense of it all and make it sound interesting and relevant for you. But even if you plan to do such a tour there, better leave it for a later part of your trip, when you'll have already leaned the basics and are now ready to go in-depth.

If you're anywhere close to it or just looking for a place to stroll nice summer evening, take a cup of coffee in an open air veranda of a local cafe and observe for a moment Russian life simply happening around you, then this street could be one of your options. But don't expect anything too special or extraordinary there. It's similar to many other pedestrian streets here with restaurants.

But definitely consider it as one of your top destinations to go buy some souvenirs. It's the most central area in the city with good prices and great variety.

But even then, there are places in the city that do both walking and souvenirs better.

Better alternatives:

Nikolskaya or Kuznetskiy Most streets - for the same chill experience of a pedestrian street with restaurants and many great-looking light decorations at night, but much closer to Red Square.

Izmailovo Market - for a much greater selection of souvenirs (especially on Saturdays and Sundays) with much greater potential for haggling, but slightly further away from the center.

3) Gorky Park

A quote from the park's Russian Wikipedia page:

"In 2014 the park landed on the 2nd in Russia and 6th place worldwide by the number of Instagram geotags at the end of the year surpassing places like Red Square and Louvre".

Ayaaaaay... I mean... Why?

Here's my most precise, deep and comprehensive review of the park for you as foreign tourist - 'It's just a park!' Literally. You won't find anything special there beyond that. Any other place where local people walk around, sit on benches, ride bikes and drink coffee will work just as well as Gorky Park for you.

It's a good park as far as parks go, don't get me wrong. Even a great one. Everything is new, neat and clean. Everything works. You can rent a bike, you can rent a boat or catamaran on an artificial lake in the middle. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere. Free bean bag chairs scattered around lawns. A perfect place to come to spend a day on fresh air and socialize.

And that's exactly what you have to do if you're going there. Either to bring someone along that you have something to talk about, and who would make a great company; or to be ready to try to meet new people and talk to some random locals there. The place provides a great platform for that, but doesn't really provide much beyond that in terms of special tourist attractions or sightseeing.

You might really want to visit it, though, if you're a fan of modern art. There's that museum called Garage inside that shows exactly that. Mostly temporary exhibitions by modern artists from all over the globe, most of which tend to produce this keen 'Whaaat? What in the world was that?' effect, as modern art does. If you're into that, it'll be a great reason for you to combine the two and visit both the park and the museum. But the latter is rather a niche place.

In all other aspects the modern Gorky Park is, essentially, a completely re-worked place almost from the ground up. As if they literally bulldozed everything that was there around 2010 and built anew. The only original Soviet piece there is those massive entrance gates with a bunch of Soviet symbols. If you've seen that, you've pretty much seen everything there. Here:

See? Done! Now you can skip the rest.

I get it. It's an iconic place mentioned in so many songs, movies and spy novels. And you would probably imagine to see on any given day shady men in gray trench coats passing top secret documents to one another there. But can assure you that unless you're an actual spy on duty coming there for a secret meeting yourself, you're going to feel exactly zero percent of that mysterious, thrilling atmosphere. Gorky Park is mostly just a name now.

Better alternatives:

Zaryadye Park - for the same kind of very modern and sleek outdoor experience with people, small local concerts and coffee. It's just this one is right next to Red Square and has that weird half-way bridge that on its own might be more interesting to see than the entire Gorky Park. Albeit Zaryadye is significantly more compact.

VDNKh Park - for a true Soviet park experience, but slightly further away from the city center. It has all the same park modern park features plus impressive Soviet buildings with interesting shops and exhibitions inside, huge statue of Lenin in the middle, absolutely amazing massive functioning gilded fountains all over, working Ferris wheel and live-size mock ups of the first Soviet space rocket and space shuttle. It provides significantly more tourist value and is everything you'd imagine Gorky Park to be. It just doesn't have that same iconic name.

2) Pushkin Fine Arts Museum

This place makes somewhat below average amount of sense as a museum and much less so as an attraction for foreign tourists.

First of all, it just deceives you right off the gate. It has absolutely nothing to do with Alexander Pushkin (famous Russian 19th century writer). It was renamed like that under Stalin in 1937 to commemorate 100th anniversary of the poet's death.

And second, about third of all exhibits inside the main building of the museum today are replicas of renowned works from other museums and collections from around the world. It was first opened as a special educational museum for students of the Moscow State University. And it's been carrying that educational nature all throughout its history even after being opened to the general public.

The idea was, basically, that, 'Hey! We already have that incredible educational facility there about art and culture of different nations around the world. Since not everyone in our country really travels abroad that much, wouldn't it be great if we opened it to the public; so that people can learn more about what's 'out there?''

Yeah, of course, great and very noble idea! And the museum still provides a very good introduction into the art of foreign countries for Russian visitors, especially if they've never been abroad.

But for you, people who come from 'out there' themselves, learning more about the art of Italy and France while being in Russia should present quite a dubious value. You might as well go Uzbekistan after that and try to learn more about art and culture of native people of South America and the Caribbeans from there. Would make as much sense.

While in Russia, please, use the moment and learn about Russia or at least about the surrounding former Soviet world. And not about David statue by Michelangelo.

And also, the originality question. You know how everyone's criticizing Louvre every now and then about having so many robbed pieces from around the world in their collection? It's, sort of, similar here. With the difference that the Pushkin Museum didn't even bother robbing anyone. Just made replicas. And I would've certainly recommended the museum more if they had taken that David statue by force at some point. I mean... With all due respect to Italy. At least they would've had the real thing to show.

In all honesty, about two thirds of the main exhibition today consist of original works, and there's an additional building solely dedicated to paintings, both Russian and foreign, all of which are supposed to be original. But somehow it doesn't really dramatically change the overall picture. In which almost none of their genuine works really rise to the status of world-renowned masterpieces and get to be one of the key reasons to visit the museum, instead functioning as padding in many places. With copies Michelangelo and the rest still stealing the spotlight from them.

Here's the list of all the replicas presented in the museum at the moment on the 'English' version of their official website. Go google where the originals of those works are actually located, travel and see them there and skip the Pushkin Museum.

Better alternative:

Any other museum

1) Bunker 42

And here it is. The unbeatable and undefeated absolute champion of this list - Bunker 42. And oddly enough, I want to start by complementing it.

The main thing about it, is that today it's an entirely private enterprise. And from every different angle it looks like it is, if not owned, then at least managed by younger-ish, entrepreneurial people, who care about their customers, about investing in their own business and making it more profitable.

You've got to give them credit. In just over a decade after buying from the government that abandoned dusty hole in the ground in 2006 they managed not just to renovate it and constantly add something new ever since, but somehow also stick their ads pretty much everywhere you can possibly imagine. So much so, that whichever physical or online guidebook about Moscow you open today, it's always mentioned there. As if it's supposed to be the main highlight of everyone's visit.

Absolutely commendable results. For an independent company to gain so much presence everywhere is quite incredible. Especially, considering that the underlying promise of what people are going to get inside is usually quite blurry at best.

Over the last 7 years of doing walking tours in Moscow and meeting hundreds of foreign tourists who had visited it, I've never seen a single person who told me that it was absolutely the most amazing thing that happened to him/her in Moscow. But surprisingly, neither has there ever been a person who would be angry, wanting to punch someone and get his money back after going there.

The level of fun/excitement is, sort of, maintained on the level just high-enough to make people keep spreading the word or at least not spreading anything at all in worst case scenarios.

And if there's anything good to be said about their tours, then it's that everyone inside is really trying. All the good emotions that could come out of there are almost entirely based on the fact that everyone from the owners to the guides of this thing seems to be genuinely interested in making you like it in the end.

Which is not something you can say about almost any of the major state-owned museums here today. In which it seems like the main policy towards tourists is, 'We have a famous name, people are ready to come no matter what, so let's charge them, and... that's it'.

I feel like if young, enthusiastic people like Bunker 42 employees were in charge of things like the Kremlin or the entire tourist industry of Russia, this city and the entire country could've become infinitely more tourist friendly in no time.

But... All that being said, is there anything truly important to see in the bunker that would make it one of the top places to visit on your list? Absolutely not.

Seriously, the bunker itself, that space underground, is supposed to be real, maybe a couple of doors here and there. But almost everything else is just a bunch of random old Soviet items that they decorated everything with for better atmosphere. As well as a bunch of mock ups, pictures and other exhibits that are all more or less connected to the topic of bunkers and the Cold War and help them build a coherent narrative around something that would've been, basically, an empty underground space otherwise. Objects, most of which on their own bare no historical value whatsoever.

Yes, kitschy, exaggerated Soviet atmosphere is well set, the guides are all dressed up and, sort of, acting, musical and visual accompaniment follows you where needed, and the tour is structured the way that it mixes up storytelling, walking and exploration, and a weird but potentially quite funny role-playing experience in the end (which you can totally spoil for yourself by watching this 6-minute-long piece of a 2014 Stewart's Daily Show episode (scroll to 5:28), definitely watch it if you're not going to the bunker at all).

Everything is there to make it qualify as an entertainment product, and coming there at the right time of the day, with the right mood and in the right company could leave you with a couple of good emotions or at least turn into one of those bizarre places that you can later discuss with someone who was there with you and make a coupe of jokes about.

But there's also a chance that, if you afterwards stop for a second and try to reflect on what just happened, you might as well think, 'Wait, what exactly was it?'

So visiting it is certainly not going to kill or leave you wanting to kill someone instead. But in terms of the ratio of how much this place is advertised to how important it really is, it's the absolute champion of this rating and would likely be here for years to come.

And if you're in the situation where you need to fit only the most important things to see in the limited schedule, this should absolutely be the first place to cut out of there. Do not let any advertisement trick you into thinking that Bunker 42 is at the same level of importance as other serious museums with any real historic objects and exhibits. If you have any other alternative to go to in mind, go there first, whatever that other place might be. And then, if you still have time left, you can return to the bunker.

It's not hideously bad, it's just one of those places: slightly overhyped, slightly overpriced and with mixed reviews. And yet, through the power of marketing tourists keep coming there by thousands every year no matter what.

Ohh... if only there was a way to describe it all in one single word...

Thank you, Admiral!

Better alternative:

Almost anything else

Here you have it! The list of top places to cut from your Moscow itinerary to free some time. Hope it helps.

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