Moscow is a fascinating city, with landmarks of its colourful and turbulent history around almost every corner. So what could be better than staying in a place that has borne witness to all that turmoil, played an active role in much of it and managed to withstand it all. The majestic Baltschug Kempinski is just such a hotel, with a facade dating back to 1898 and a position on the site of the city's first drinking tavern, opened in the mid-16th century by order of Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of Russia. The grand nine-storey building, with corner towers topped by spires, has been home to artists, government officials, revolutionaries and now guests from around the world, including royalty and heads of state.
Its position is unbeatable. Right in the heart of Moscow, the hotel is directly opposite the Kremlin, Red Square and the candy-striped domes of St Basil's Cathedral, with many of its rooms, as well as its rooftop library terrace, offering great views of them all. Many of the city's main attractions are therefore within easy walking distance and, even better, there's probably not a single taxi driver who doesn't recognise the name when spoken in very bad Russian, and know exactly where it is.
As the very first international luxury hotel in Moscow, the 227-room Baltschug has certain standards to maintain, and it does so with aplomb. Recently renovated, its lobby area is exquisite, with white columns of Italian marble, glittering Murano glass chandeliers, a spiral staircase with a wrought-iron balustrade, and art-deco furniture, all reflected in vintage-framed wall mirrors. It's a great place to drink coffee or cocktails, have afternoon tea and snacks and, most of all, to people-watch.
The rooms are over-sized - even the smallest ones are 35 square metres - and they're prettily fitted out with classic maple and walnut furniture, deep pile carpets and good-quality linens, all in warm pastel shades. Many have views from the deep windows, while there are bathtubs and stand-alone showers in the bathrooms, flat-screen TVs, desks and free Wi-Fi. The poshest room is the 180-square-metre Princess Suite, designed to look like an English estate – which makes the view of the Kremlin seem even more astonishing – by Princess Michael of Kent.
Astrakhan caviar, seafood from the far east, premium steaks - executive chef Maxim Maksakov believes in starting with the very best of ingredients. The Baltschug Grill is cosy and relaxed, and the breakfasts are startling in their range – more than 100 different dishes, by his count. In pride of place are blinis with red caviar and sour cream, Champagne nestling in buckets of ice (only the Russians were going for that at breakfast, I noted), fresh vegetable juices, buckwheat porridge and eggs every which way. The lively Cafe Kranzler by the lobby offers exotic salads, traditional beef stroganoff and its own vodka degustation.
The hotel has a long history as a patron of the arts – it was originally home to well-known artists who painted its views of the local landmarks. Now it is the partner of St Basil's Cathedral's art projects where more than 1000 keen painters gather each year to draw the cathedral. As a result, the hotel concierge can give guests access to the parts of the cathedral not normally open to outsiders, such as the bell tower.
A stay at this hotel gets you into the mood of Moscow straight away. It's both a precious introduction to the power, glory andmagnificence of Russia, and a wonderful extravagance.
Rooms from $308 a night for two guests, including taxes. Breakfast 2,300 rubles extra. Hotel Baltschug Kempinski Moscow, Balchug Street, 1, Moskva, Russia, 115035. Phone (+7) 495 287 20 00. See kempinski.com/en/moscow/hotel-baltschug.
Eating breakfast with Red Square and St Basil's visible in the distance is a great way to start any day in Moscow.
Cafe Kranzler is a gorgeous space, but $10 for a coffee ... The waitress saw the look of shock on my face, however, and brought me not one, but two, dishes of miniature biscuits to make up for it. They almost did.
Sue Williams was a guest of APT Tours, on a cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg. See aptouring.com.au