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The Motherland is the place to be in February.
Should the Sochi Olympics bring you to Russia this winter, perhaps for the first time, a trip to the country’s capital (1,600 kilometres due north of the Games) will be an imperative. Summon your inner Olympian before you go, however. As a former expat once told me, “Moscow doesn’t do user-friendly.” The effort required to “do” Moscow, on the other hand, is what makes even a 48-hour stay ultimately gratifying—even invigorating.
Check in at the Mayakovka House ($150; d-mayakovka.ru) on its winding, narrow side street bordering the historic Tverskoy district in Central Moscow. Rates are half those of larger establishments, but the renovated rooms in this 19th-century building are spacious and fashionable.Before dinner, wander into Patriarch Ponds, a leafy refuge of the elite throughout the city’s history. The eponymous park here surrounds a single pond (the plural name was appropriate 200 years ago when there were several) in which a pair of swans glide from end to end. Chekhov, Pushkin and Gorky have all lived in the area, which is dotted with museums for each, but the writer most associated with “Patriki” is Mikhail Bulgakov. His surrealist novel The Master and Margarita unfolds in this district.Stroll down Malaya Bronnaya ulitsa, just off the park, and shop its boutiques for ironic souvenirs, French tea or haute shoes and handbags, then retrace your steps to find the unpretentious Café Margarita (cafe-margarita.ru). Although named for the hostess of the fictional Satan’s Ball from Bulgakov’s novel, the borscht and pelmeni will lift the darkest of spirits, as will the sing-along dinner music.
Before descending into the gorgeous Mayakovskaya subway station, a Stalinist neoclassical gem, detour to the Chaihona #1 cafe (chaihona.com) in Mayakovsky Square, next to the monument of poet Vladimir, the square’s namesake. This is one in a small chain of chic Uzbek restaurants in town; for breakfast, try warm Uzbek tandoor bread with a side plate of cheeses, chopped veggies and tea by the pot.Now it’s time to tackle the subway system—easy, once you can recognize a few Cyrillic characters—for a short trip to Red Square. (On foot it’s a 15-minute straight shot down Tverskaya Street.) The hit list of sites are well-covered in any guidebook: Lenin’s Tomb, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin and Gum, the now über-upscale 120-year-old shopping arcade with a soaring glass ceiling and at least one affordable coffee shop. Mingling with tourists and costumed animal mascots, you might recall that Ivan the Terrible liked to send real bears into unsuspecting Red Square crowds and delighted in the gory results.Speaking of eating, lunch awaits across the Moscow River on the grounds of the former Red October Chocolate Factory, now a hub for galleries and cafes. Your destination is Strelka Bar (strelka.com), the self-proclaimed “social heart” of the Strelka Institute of Architecture and Design. It offers a fine Euro-bistro menu, views of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and a chance to chat with local creative types.Later, walk further southwest to reach Tretyakov Gallery (tretyakovgallery.ru), whose collection spans 1,000 years of Russian art held in a complex of several buildings. Just outside the New Tretyakov Gallery building is the less highbrow but more Instagram-ready Fallen Monument Park where stone figures of Lenin, Stalin and other socialist heroes have been put out to pasture.Your evening belongs to the Bolshoi Theatre (bolshoi.ru), of course. First opened in 1825, it emerged from an almost $1 billion renovation in 2012, and although allegations of graft during the construction process led to an investigation (though no charges were laid), the theatre’s crystal chandeliers, multi-balconied interior and neoclassical facade are nevertheless breathtaking. Post-ballet, pile on the glamour with dinner at White Rabbit (whiterabbitmoscow.ru), adored for its avant-garde, Russian-influenced European menu and panoramic views of the city.
Rise early, grab a kofe, and hustle out by subway to the massive Izmailovsky flea market a fair distance east of central Moscow. The stalls—an unpredictable mix of affordable souvenirs and Soviet-era relics—go on forever.At 11 a.m., Kafe Khachapuri (hacha.ru), across town opens for breakfast. Order the Georgian cheese bread (“khachapuri”) with egg and healthful sides. There are a handful of locations around the city, but this one will put you closest to the 500-year-old Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery where you’re going after brunch. Tour the cloisters, then purchase a guide to the adjacent graveyard for 150 rubles (about $3) and locate the final stops of the who’s-who among Russia’s writers, scientists, politicians and philosophers. For a livelier atmosphere, hit Gorky Central Park of Culture and Leisure. The park and its buildings are mid-facelift by billionaire Roman Abramovich. Later, walk the Arbat, the famous pedestrian shopping street through Moscow’s formerly bohemian district, but eat elsewhere, specifically at the plush Cafe Pushkin (cafe-pushkin.ru). This mansion, built to resemble the 1820s home of a Russian aristocrat, is open 24 hours. Take your time with plates of Russian pancakes with caviar, and more ambitious seafood or meat dishes—you’ll need some sustenance for the flight home. WL