Moscow is a true mega-city, with a population topping 12 million. Famous for its opera houses, oligarchs and onion-domed cathedrals, this is a city at its dazzling best in winter, when snow crowns the Kremlin (the fortified base of Russian political power) and the centre lights up with decorated trees. Despite plunging temperatures, central heating keeps everything toasty, while locals warm up with saunas, hearty soups and hot drinks. At any time of the year, the city’s impressive art galleries unlock the world of Russian painters such as Kandinsky, Chagall and the Soviet impressionists, while smart restaurants attract big-spenders. Its atmosphere is more serious than St Petersburg, but a visit to the capital is essential to understand modern Russia.
A comfortable bed
The Ritz-Carlton Moscow (www.ritzcarlton.com/moscow) arguably has the biggest wow-factor and swankiest suites of all the hotels in the city. But that's not all. There's a swimming pool lit by coloured fibre-optic Swarovski crystals, a cafe dedicated to sushi and a glass relaxation area with Instagram-worthy views of the Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral. Rooms cost from 53,100 roubles (Dh3,001) per night.
A five-minute walk away, in the direction of the Kremlin, is the Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com/moscow). Housed in a giant Soviet building that was once the legendary Hotel Moskva, before the luxury hotel brand took over in 2014, it offers unobtrusive service, superior suites and one of the best spas in the city with 14 treatment rooms and a sunlit lap pool. Rooms cost from 33,500 roubles (Dh1,893) per night.
Find your feet
Start at the southern end of Red Square, the oldest part of the city and the country’s symbolic centre, where history and power hang heavy in the air. This is where you will find the colourful, candy-striped onion domes of the 16th-century St Basil’s Cathedral, one of Russia’s most iconic buildings. In winter, sparkling lights, decorations and artisan markets crowd the cobbled square.
Look to the other end of the Red Square and you will see long queues of people in front of a boxy red-and-black structure. These queues are almost a permanent fixture and they snake in front of Lenin's marble mausoleum (www.lenin.ru).
From there, head to the landmark Nikolskaya Tower, identifiable by the red star atop its steeple. Then, keeping the State Historical Museum to your right, walk down Tverskaya Street until you reach Yeliseyevsky Store (www.eliseevskiy.ru). Originally an 18th-century palace, this gilded grocery store is more like a surreal museum, with chandeliers, ornate columns and colourful cans of pricey caviar.
Meet the locals
Moscow’s Metro – once named Lenin Metro – is one of the world’s deepest undergrounds. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful. A visit to the capital isn’t complete without a ride or two. In centrally located stations, you will find imposing columns, mosaics and statues. Locals use the Metro heavily to commute to work, so avoid rush hours (8am to 10am; 5pm to 8pm), but at other times, you can marvel in more comfort at its interiors, check out the latest Moscow fashions and see how locals travel. Two of the most striking stations are the busy Komsomolskaya, with its cupola, spire and columns, and Ploshchad Revolyutsii, with its bronze sculptures depicting athletes, writers and aviators. A single ticket costs 32 roubles (Dh1.81).
Book a table
Decked out like a Russian intellectual's apartment, Kvartira 44 (www.kv44.ru) has creaky old chairs, book-strewn tables and, if you're lucky, a pianist playing in the corner. It's a friendly, laid-back place popular with locals and tourists. The buckwheat noodles with beef (400 roubles [Dh23]) is a good choice, as is the borscht with sour cream (240 roubles [Dh14]).
Many Russians class Georgian food among their favourite cuisines, and there are no shortages of Georgian restaurants to choose from. One of the best is Saperavi (www.saperavicafe.com). They serve what is best described as advanced peasant food, such as chicken with blackberry sauce (590 roubles [Dh33]) and lamb with tarragon and cherry plums (450 roubles [Dh25]).
Known as the solemn-sounding State Department Store during Soviet times, Gum (www.gum.ru) is as much a landmark – located in Red Square – as a place to shop. Inside, jostle with well-heeled Muscovites who shop for big brands such as Louis Vuitton and Hermès.
For more cutting-edge fashion, Kuznetsky Most 20 (www.km20.ru) is a concept store close to the Moscow Operetta Theatre that stocks niche international brands such as Christopher Kane and Manish Arora.
What to avoid
Don’t visit during the first week in January, when Moscow is deserted because of the New Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays. Many museums are closed during this time.
The Muzeon Park of Arts (www.muzeon.ru), a sculpture park on the Moskva River and the Krymskaya embankment. The final home for Soviet statues expelled from Russia's parks, expect the usual Lenins, but also look out for colossal monuments to the Red Army.