Neighborhood Watch: Moscow’s Kitay-gorod
Moscow’s landmark-rich district covers centuries of fascinating history and Cold War intrigue in the space of a few walkable city blocks.
With its centuries of history, world-famous sites, and stately, center-of-the-Russian-world attitude, Moscow has an allure unlike any other city on Earth. The heart of that center is Kitay-gorod. Bounded by the Kremlin, Staraya and Novaya squares, and the Moskva River, the rayon (district) has served as the axis for Russian economic and political power since the 11th century. A host of Soviet-era landmarks, grand cathedrals, and historical sites dedicated to the country’s magnificent imperial past are all concentrated within reasonable walking distance of one another, making this section of Moscow one of the most-visited districts. Yes, it will likely be a little busy, but with so much to see and do packed so close together, you can still manage to check a dozen must-see sites off your list in a single day. Moscow is a fascinating place, and it all starts here.
The Moscow Kremlin
In the Russian tongue, the word kremlin applies to any fortified governmental citadel, but Moscow’s is by far the most famous. The center of Russia’s political life since its construction in the late 15th century and official residence of the Russian Federation’s president since 1991, the imposing structure’s red-brick walls and gleaming spires command respect. Much more than a mere government building, the Kremlin is home to several churches (including Assumption Cathedral), the Armory Chamber, the Russian Senate, the Patriarch’s Palace, and the Ivan the Great Bell Tower. Everything flows from here (in more senses than one), which makes it the best place to start exploring.
A dominant culture for centuries, Russia boasts an extensive collection of historical treasures. For a glimpse, be sure to visit the Kremlin’s Armory Chamber, which houses thousands of Russian artifacts from the 4th through the 20th centuries. The 19th-century museum, built in the ornate Russo-Byzantine style and founded on the site where Russia’s imperial treasures have been kept since the 1300s, tells the tale of the country’s dramatic history through jewels, decorative artworks, royal thrones, armaments, vehicles, and extravagant Fabergé eggs. The Armory’s collection of weapons, armor, and textiles is particularly astonishing in its scope, featuring Tsar Michael’s bejeweled helmet, chain mail worn by Boris Godunov, Peter the Great’s gold coronation robes, and a vast array of sabers. A definite highlight: the double throne of child tsars Peter I (Peter the Great) and half-brother Ivan V, which contains a secret compartment from which Ivan’s mother, Sophia, directed them.
Diamond Fund Exhibition
The Armory’s jewels are an eye-opening sight, but the riches on display at the nearby Diamond Fund – home to the dazzling 190-carat Orlov diamond and the Great Imperial Crown – are positively eye-popping. The Orlov, a flat-bottomed rose-cut gem originally from India, is said to have once been the eye of an idol smuggled out of a Mysore temple by a French soldier before bought by Count Grigory Orlov in 1774 as a gift for Catherine the Great. The dazzling Imperial Crown, worn by Catherine on her coronation day, is studded with 4,936 diamonds and is far and away the most flamboyant piece in an already mind-blowing collection of tsarist regalia. Cameras aren’t allowed in the Armory or Diamond Fund, but trust us – you’re unlikely to forget what you see here.
If the Kremlin is Russia’s calculating mind, the 18-acre (73,000-square-meter) Red Square is its beating heart. The site of famous speeches, military parades, the occasional riot and more than a few public executions, the square was known by several names since its founding in the late 15th century, but the current moniker – inspired by the red wall that lines its northeast side – has stuck since the 1600s. Bounded by St. Basil’s, the State Historical Museum, the famous GUM department store, and Lenin’s Mausoleum, there really isn’t anywhere more quintessentially Moscow than here.
St. Basil’s Cathedral
Moscow is loaded with famous landmarks, but none can top the grandeur and flamboyance of St. Basil’s, one of the world’s most instantly recognizable buildings and an enduring symbol of Russian might since 1560. It’s namesake saint, Vasily Blazhenny, was an eccentric “holy fool” who often wandered the streets named and draped in chains and gave items he stole to the poor to shame the wealthy for their miserliness. Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) himself served as a pallbearer for Blazhenny’s funeral. (Contrary to popular legend, Ivan did not blind the cathedral’s architects to prevent them from building anything that could rival St. Basil’s beauty.) Despite its chaotic outward appearance, the cathedral follows an intricate design that incorporates nine chapels, each one commemorating one of Ivan’s victories over the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan.
The Soviet Union is long gone, but one of its most curious (and definitely most macabre) relics remains inside a blocky red-and-gray granite pyramid at the foot of the Kremlin wall. Inside lies the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and architect of the Soviet state, its waxy countenance dressed in a tidy silk suit and encased behind a layer of bulletproof glass. The preservation of Lenin’s body is a delicate business; the sarcophagus is kept at a constant 61°F (16°C), and the corpse itself is misted with bleach every week to keep fungus and mold away. In the Kremlin wall nearby, you’ll also find the graves of nearly every Soviet leader, as well as those of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, KGB chief Felix Dzerzhinsky, and American journalist John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World, the seminal first-person account of the revolution. Don’t expect to linger, though; the mausoleum is chilly, and visits are limited to just five minutes. Be advised that the site closes every eighteen months so Lenin’s body can be removed for a glycerol-and-potassium “longevity treatment.”
For centuries, the Archangel Cathedral hosted the coronations, weddings, and funerals of Russia’s ruling elite. Rebuilt into its current Russo-Byzantine incarnation by Italian architect Alevisio Novi, the cathedral’s quintet of golden domes stand over the tombs of virtually every monarch from the 14th to the 17th centuries, before the capital was relocated to St. Petersburg. The already impressive structure became even more special once the now-famous murals depicting the cathedral’s eternal residents were unearthed during restoration work in the 1950s.
Tsar Bell and Ivan the Great Bell Tower
Amid the dozens of impressive landmarks scattered throughout Kitay-gorod, you’ll also find a few eccentric oddities. Perhaps the most obvious is the Tsar Bell, a 200-ton cast-bronze monster that’s never been rung, rests atop a pedestal at the foot of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower. The bell has a checkered past; commissioned by Empress Anna in 1735, the ridiculous demands of its construction led to at least two devastating fires, the latter of which caused a 20-ton piece to break off. (For a while, the bell was used as a chapel, with visitors entering through the enormous hole in its side.) Near the bell is the Tsar Cannon, a 39-ton bronze artillery piece purported to be the world’s largest. Like the Tsar Bell, the cannon has never been used but is inlaid with decorative reliefs of royal portraits and filigree.
There’s just too much to see and do in Kitay-gorod – the State Historical Museum, Alexandrovsky Garden, the glitzy GUM department store, and many others – to cover in a single post, and a visitor could easily dedicate a week to exploring the district in depth and still not exhaust its possibilities. Fortunately, that gives you a built-in excuse to come back!
No visit to Moscow is complete without at least a half-day in Kitay-gorod, and most of Kensington Tours’ itineraries dedicate a full-day’s exploration to this fascinating place. Best bets include the seven-day “Russia Highlights” the 10-day “Moscow, Golden Ring & St. Petersburg Discovery” and the luxurious eight-day “Russia Exclusive.” Looking for something even more personalized? One of our dedicated Destination Expert would be more than happy to design a custom experience just for you.