Known around the world for its grand architecture, rich history, a packed schedule of cultural events, and a multitude of entertainment options, Moscow has been fondly referred to by its residents as the “white-stoned capital.”
The origins of this name, i.e. "white-stoned capital," take shape during medieval times at the 12th-century Kremlin, Russia’s most famous fortress complex. The original Kremlin walls were built with wood which was prone to frequent fires. Tired of rebuilding the fortress over and over, the grand prince of Moscow at the time ordered limestone and dolomite to be used instead. The gleaming white stones of the Kremlin only lasted a few centuries, but the name stuck.
To this day, every street, avenue, or boulevard in the Russian capital boasts wide-ranging examples of grandiose architectural stories. Here you can travel back to the time of Ivan the Terrible, study the modernist style of the Soviet era, or marvel at the sleek skyscraper shapes in Moscow City, the city’s financial district. But the Kremlin remains the true heart of Moscow, from which the city expands in several concentric rings. Understanding these rings will make it easier to navigate Moscow’s chaotic streets while getting closer to its ineffable spirit.
The first ring of Moscow, the Boulevard Ring, surrounds the city’s oldest part called Beliy Gorod (White City) from the western, northern, and eastern sides (the southern side is bordered naturally by the Moskva River). Beliy Gorod and within it, the Kremlin, is where the city’s nobility used to live. Raids were frequent in the tumultuous times before Russia became a unified country and Beliy Gorod, as many settlements in that era, was protected by formidable defense walls. During the rule of Catherine the Great, the walls were torn down and wide, bowed boulevards were built in their place.
Taking a stroll through the Boulevard Ring is a pleasant walk that can take about two hours. Many of Moscow’s not-to-miss sights lie within. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior towers over the western side and its golden onion domes can be seen from far beyond. But it is the multicolored onion domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral that capture the imagination of most Moscow visitors. This cathedral is situated at the south end of Red Square, the heart of the Boulevard Ring where cultural events, festivals, bazaars, and celebrations have been hosted for ages. Built in the 16th century by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the capture of the city of Kazan from the Mongol army, the cathedral is now the most famous architectural site in the city. Legend has it that by the tsar’s orders, the main architects were blinded upon completion to prevent them from ever building such a fine structure again. Over time, the cathedral with purportedly dark beginnings has turned into a vibrant symbol of Russia and a museum where regular exhibitions and art installations are held.
To the left of Saint Basil’s Cathedral lies another iconic structure, the GUM department store. This well-known destination is much more than a shopping mall. To many Russians, it serves as a nostalgic reminder of a bygone era, when shopping at GUM (State Department Store) was the embodiment of prestige. Today, GUM is the spot to discover both global and up-and-coming Russian brands; its best asset, however, may be experienced free of charge around dusk when the stunning lights hung over GUM’s palatial facade illuminate Red Square.
Moscow sometimes holds a reputation of being a bleak, grey, industrial megalopolis. Yet, not too many visitors know that there are more than one hundred parks within the proper city limits alone. The latest addition to Moscow’s green lineup is Zaryadye, an urban park just a stone’s throw away from Red Square. The park creates a space not only to relax and enjoy the views of the city center and the Moskva River that unhurriedly flows by, but also educates guests about Russian nature. Zaryadye is divided into four landscape sectors: forest, tundra, steppe, and grasslands -featuring all of Russia’s climate zones in an area larger than New York’s Madison Square Garden!
The historic significance of the Boulevard Ring does not stop at Red Square. The Bolshoi Theater, the iconic ballet and opera powerhouse, is a short walk away. Several important museums, such as the Moscow House of the Artist with contemporary exhibitions by local artists and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts with an extensive collection of antiquities, paintings, and sculptures, are located here.
As Moscow grew, more people began living outside of the Beliy Gorod defense walls, expanding into what came to be known as Zemlyanoy Gorod (Earthen City). The defense walls surrounding Zemlyanoy Gorod have, over time, fallen and the roads that followed turned into the Garden Ring. During the Tsarist times, this area was indeed known for gardens that the Zemlyanoy Gorod homeowners were obliged to maintain for the beautification of the capital. In the 20th century, the gardens were replaced by massive avenues, but the Garden Ring name stuck.
The Garden Ring is home to many of Moscow’s essential establishments. It is here that one of the oldest pedestrian streets in the city, the Old Arbat, draws visitors and residents alike to its ever-changing kaleidoscope of street vendors, artists, musicians, cafés, and souvenir shops. Nearby, several museum homes explore the works of Russia’s most prominent literary minds. The lives of beloved poet Marina Tsvetaeva, phantasmagoric writer Nikolai Gogol, and children’s author and novelist Aleksey Tolstoy, among many others, are all captured here, within the Garden Ring.
On the north side, the pedestrian-only Tsvetnoy Boulevard connects the Boulevard Ring with the Garden Ring through a wide historic promenade where Moscow residents have been gathering for a stroll since the 18th century. Here, a world-class circus established by Russia’s favorite comedian, Yuri Nikulin, gives weekly performances. The southern Zamoskvorechye (Behind the Moskva River) area is home to the State Tretyakov Gallery -the world’s largest collection of Russian fine art- and Google’s Moscow offices. If the Boulevard Ring is where the city’s heart is, then the Garden Ring is where its mind resides.
In modern times, the city of Moscow grew and expanded beyond the Boulevard and the Garden Rings to the Third Ring and the MKAD (Moscow Ringed Automobile Road). With a population of well over twenty million residents, the city has long since spilled over these boundaries. Yet another ring, humming far underground, deserves special attention. The Moscow Metro structure mimics the Garden and the Third Rings, with separate lines running vertically through the two circular routes. Built in the early 20th century, this metro is a feat of subterranean architecture that created some of the world’s most stunning stations. Many feature designs typical of the Soviet era, while others, like the magnificent Komsomolskaya station, are decorated in Baroque style with tall chandeliers and intricate ornaments adorning the ceiling. Some of the other stations worth traveling to include Kievskaya station with vaulted ceilings in marble, granite, and mosaic detail; Novoslobodskaya station with its stained-glass installations; and Taganskaya station with its medieval triangular arches. But no matter where in Moscow one travels to, the city’s spirit is best understood through the shapes of its famous rings.