Moscow might be plunged into a deep freeze in winter, but Christmas lights, decorations and festivities bring sparkle and a warm atmosphere to the Russian capital.
Words and photography by Brian Johnston
Moscow is a dramatic city, grand and theatrical, crammed with centuries of stories and the bustle and bling of contemporary Russia. As the days grow shorter and the winter chill sets in, its spectacle is only magnified as lights glitter and snow falls. Rug up and head out into the winter wonderland, because Moscow over the festive season is a place of many pleasures.
True, daylight doesn’t last long, but endless strings of lights and some 3,000 Christmas trees brighten the streets. The city is also graced with over a thousand installations such as miniature palaces and giant folk figures made of multicoloured fairy lights. An enormous Christmas bauble in Manezhnaya Square claims a Guinness world record, with 9.5km of LED lights wrapped around its 7 m diameter.
There’s a sparkle in the population too, who flock to seasonal markets and neighbourhood ice rinks. Everyone tucks into jam-slathered pancakes, sbiten (the hot honey drink typical of Christmas) and hot chestnuts, a bag of which will warm both hands and stomach. In Tverskaya Square kids ride the carousel, learn to make Christmas candies and wander through a Christmas village. It’s all part of Moscow’s winter festivities, of which you can get a double hit: the city acknowledges Christmas and New Year in December, and then truly celebrates the two events all over again on January 7 and 14, following the Russian Orthodox calendar.
Kick your festivities off in Red Square, for centuries the historic heart of Moscow: it’s overlooked by the Kremlin, centre of power for tsars, Soviet leaders and current presidents alike. Here four glorious cathedrals are rich in gleaming icons and gold, and the Palace Armoury is crammed with oversized Romanov treasures, from gem-encrusted crowns to Fabergé Easter eggs and gold carriages.
Also in Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral swirls in candy-cane colours; its nine shadowy chapels, linked by corridors and staircases, are an atmospheric taste of medieval Russia. Come back at night,
when the adjacent palace-like GUM department store is lit up and a 25m-high Christmas tree shimmers. It’s the best time to take a spin on Red Square’s fabulous skating rink, the world’s largest and surely the best located, right under the Kremlin’s turrets.
There are plenty of historic sights, monastery complexes and excellent museums scattered all across Moscow. Avoid the horrendous traffic and take the metro, not just a means of getting around but an attraction in itself. Some of its Soviet-era stations, deep in the earth’s warm bowels, down seemingly endless escalators, are spectacularly decorated with beautiful mosaics, busts of Lenin, art deco panelling and grand frescoes. Among the best stations are Komsomolskaya, Mayakovskaya and Revolution Square. Make sure you stop at Revolution Square anyway: it hosts a Christmas village with stalls selling tree ornaments, handicrafts and mulled wine. If Jack Frost is nipping at your toes, you can buy valenki boots, the must-wear item of the Russian winter.
Gorky Park is best known for its summer strolls and amusement-park rides, but in winter the park floods its paths to create wonderful ice-skating lanes along the Moscow River. There are also fabulous ice sculptures of animals and famous monuments, and locals sometimes cross-country ski here after heavy snow. Though much further out of town, Izmailovsky Park also has an ice rink and a sledging zone for kids. Concerts and folk dancing are a lot of fun here, and the traditional seasonal characters Father Frost and the Snow Maiden often make an appearance. The most magical activity is a ride on a troika, a sleigh from imperial days drawn by three horses.
In truth it can be frigid outdoors, but if the cold starts to seep into your bones you only need to head inside. Shopping is surprisingly overlooked by visitors to Moscow, yet the city is bursting with high-end malls, street markets and everything in between, and all especially browse-worthy over Christmas. Quite apart from traditional souvenirs such as matryoshka dolls, you can find lovely
textiles, handicrafts, unusual Siberian jewellery and fashions from across Europe. A good place to start is the Red Square area, with two shopping centres (the partly underground Okhotny Ryad and famous GUM department store) and plenty of variety along Tverskaya Street, which tempts with fashions, high-end delis and top jewellery stores.
The Arbat district also has good shopping, and you’re likely to find traditional Russian products and souvenirs at good prices. One of the big stores here, Arbatskaya Lavitsa, has an old-fashioned appearance, but stocks a fine selection of souvenirs and Russian crafts: linen tableware, wooden toys, nesting dolls and amber jewellery from across the Baltic. In December you’ll also find wonderful Christmas tree ornaments and nativity scenes. In contrast, the enormous Evropeisky shopping mall is the place to head for Western European fashion labels under one roof and over
eight floors. You’ll find affordable Russian labels too.
For a final pleasure of the season, head to the restaurants which, in Moscow, seem to take up every street corner. They range from eye-wateringly expensive mansions serving aristocratic feasts – blow your budget on smoked salmon and Christmas caviar at Café Pushkin – to humble cafeterias. Unlike in the rest of Europe, most serve food all the way through the afternoon, and 24-hour restaurants aren’t uncommon if you suddenly fancy a midnight feast. Tuck into classic, stomach-warming Russian fare such as beetroot soup, stuffed turkey, smoked cod or vatrushka, a cheese
pastry eaten for dessert. And don’t leave without trying the Central Asian food loved by Russians: skewered meats, cheese-stuffed breads and stews from Georgia, or rice pilaf, tasty kebabs and lamb from Uzbekistan. It’s all part of the seasonal celebrations: a good excuse to indulge.
Jakarta to Moscow via Abu Dhabi
Frequency 14 flights per week
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5 Senses – Sight
Founded in 1744 as Lomonosov Porcelain under Empress Elizabeth, this fine porcelain factory was the supplier to royals and aristocrats until the revolution, and remains one of Europe’s oldest porcelain manufacturers. Styles range from the traditional to avant-garde; the signature design is the cobalt-blue-patterned tea and dinner sets, making wonderful Christmas presents or upmarket souvenirs. There are nine outlet stores in the city centre, including inside GUM on Red Square.