Stylist contributor Edwina Langley is in search of a real winter wonderland – and she’s found it in Moscow
Russia has it all: royalty and revolution. War And Peace. Steaming hot stroganoff and ice-cold shots of vodka. Horse-drawn carriages and elaborate metro stations. Fairytale ballets, and all-too-real politics… I had no idea what to expect from Russia or its mighty capital, Moscow, save this: in winter, it would be cold. And it is: on average -10°C, in fact.
Where better to hole up then, than the five-star Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Moscow? As one of the tallest buildings in Moscow it’s easy to spot by the riverside if you happen to lose your bearings. And the food is outstanding: the best I ate in Moscow. For breakfast, plates of smoked fish – salmon and, er, catfish (surprisingly delicious) – and for lunch and dinner, the Acapella Restaurant offers Russian plates like homemade borscht with beef, and fare from nearby regions, such as the Georgian ‘khachapuri’ (a deconstructed version of cheese and egg-filled bread). Wash it all down with a tumbler of vodka in the sky-high, 360-degree-view City Space Bar afterwards.
It’s possible to see many of Moscow’s main attractions in a weekend, but do stay longer. A guided tour of the Moscow Kremlin and Red Square is essential. Yes, you can look around it on your own, but learning the history really brings it to life.
Simply translated as ‘fortress’, the Kremlin houses a number of the capital’s most historic sites and artefacts, such as the Tsar Cannon (the largest in the world) and the Tsar Bell – also the world’s largest, that was broken upon casting and never tolled. In Cathedral Square, the Dormition Cathedral – so gold inside it could have been crafted by Midas – played host to imperial coronations for centuries.
The Kremlin Armoury is worth a visit too, mainly to see the coronation dress of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna: woven from a 1km-long solid silver wire and weighing a hefty 10kg. While it is a dirty grey now, only a little imagination is required to envisage its resplendent impact in the 18th century.
Backing onto the Kremlin is Red Square. Originally a market square dating back to the 16th century, it’s home to St Basil’s Cathedral – almost toy-like with its multi-coloured, multi-patterned onion domes – and Lenin’s Mausoleum (worth every minute of the 20 I queued to get in). In December – arguably the best time to visit the city – there’s also a Christmas market. It runs until mid-January and consists of colourful stands selling fur hats, Russian dolls, mulled wine and biscuit-cakes called ‘cracknel’. There’s also a skating rink for the particularly energetic.
For perusing Christmas presents, head to nearby GUM, Moscow’s famed 19th-century department store. Lit up by panels of lights it looks like Harrods from the outside, and has the curved glass ceilings of a major train station inside. Here you’ll find all the big designers but it’s worth a visit just to warm up over a reassuringly expensive coffee if nothing else, or embrace the cold like the locals do and order an ice cream – even in minus temperatures.
It would be remiss to visit Moscow without a trip to the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre. Even if you don’t get tickets to a ballet or opera, the impressive Joseph Bové building looks magical lit up at night.
For alternative evening entertainment, the modern Russian cuisine at White Rabbit restaurant was recommended to me several times, but I opted for restaurant-club Soho Rooms.
A favourite haunt of celebrities, from Naomi Campbell to Jared Leto, you can feast on everything from stir fries to stroganoff while the restaurant’s acrobatic dance group, the Soho Dolls, perform in front of you. Their show is – how to put it? – alternative, and a trip to the in-house nightclub, Discoroom, similarly, interesting… Scantily clad women dancing on podiums, a lot of flashing lights and the thud of never-ending club remixes.
Sunday mornings are best spent walking along the south side of Moskva River to the Patriarch Bridge, crossing it, and beholding the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in front.
A masterpiece in glistening white with a far from peaceful history (it was blown up by Stalin in 1931 and rebuilt in 2000). Head in to the morning service to really savour the atmosphere.
Things I wish I’d known before I visited this extraordinary city: do not cross roads randomly – you’ll get shouted out by pedestrians, so use the crossings and underpasses. Carry a map in your pocket at all times, and learn your destination’s name in the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet if you want to navigate the streets or travel on the city’s exquisite metro. Your bag will get searched and you’ll be scanned by metal detectors every time you enter a building of note, including your hotel, but you get used to it. And you should never venture out without your passport.
Moscow is not the easiest of cities to get around, but if you plan ahead, a historic, exciting and mesmerising wonderland awaits – for both you and your thermals.
A Swiss Business advantage twin room starts at £224 including breakfast; Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Moscow; swissotel.com