It doesn't seem so long ago that the Russian capital, mighty, mysterious, brutal, was out of bounds for the ordinary traveller but these days not only can you come and go at will (with a valid visa, of course) Moscow, from the moment of touchdown, is a visceral buzz. From the highway-width city street grid and vast bridges over the River Moskva to Stalin's seven, monumental skyscrapers built to surround the centre like a fortress wall, Russia's capital is still imbued with the heady scent of Soviet power.
Nowhere is this more palpable than Red Square, scene of religious ceremonies and executions, coronations and Cold War parades of military might. From there you can walk the Kremlin walls, gaze on the riot of colour that defines the domes of St Basil's Cathedral and ponder the place that has been the seat of Russian state rulers since 1156. (St Basil's, built in 1560, actually consists of nine small chapels, clustered around each other like psychedelic flames from a bonfire. Amidst the shadows and passageways, listen out for the choir of male baritones who sing to visitors in heavenly acoustics. They're there most days but carry some roubles to make them smile.)
Moscow, amidst sanctions post the Ukraine crisis, is struggling for tourism business even if officials vehemently deny it. The city is trying to fill the gap by vying for big events with conference venues battling it out for business as inbound tourism from the west has fallen. But a visit here has never been easier as you can zoot in for a weekend break from most European cities - and from London it costs no more than a Sydney to Melbourne flight.
And while rising tourist numbers from China are helping, hotel vacancies rise on the weekends and some great deals can be had, even at the upper end, four and five star hotels like the elegant old (1898) Baltschug Kempinski or The Ritz Carlton, both close to Red Square. The Ritz, with its 19th Century Imperialist style décor and sophisticated, fantastic Russian cuisine, also boasts the 02 bar, (recently re-designed by the Sydney interiors studio, Benhamou) and a terrace with one of the most breath-taking views in the world. Here, (and yes, it costs a bomb but you'll never forget it) they will slice the top off a champagne bottle with a sword via a flamboyant ceremony known as "sabrage'. We drank our flutes of fizz cloaked in fleecy blankets while overlooking the Kremlin (and Vladimir Putin's helicopter pad.).
The familiar Kremlin fortress and walls were in fact the work of Italian Renaissance architects, invited by Tsar Ivan III in the late 1400s to drive his massive reconstruction projects. Lenin's Mausoleum is not to be missed either. Seeing his waxy, mummified face and upper body (they say that beneath the blanket nothing much is left) is an extraordinary experience, requiring patient queuing and a weird total ban on photographs. The day I visited, a group of elderly, perfectly coiffed Chinese grand dames waited dutifully and bowed low before the mass murderer with great respect and ceremony.
A serious cultural tour of Moscow, of course, requires a longer visit. Instead, we decided to check out the quirky recycling of Soviet era buildings and Moscow's inventive and increasingly entrepreneurial new uses for these landmarks. It is great fun – as is looking out for dissonant arrivals like the Krispy Kreme outlet by Red Square. Test your vertigo and take a lift up the Ostankino TV and Radio Tower, opened in 1967 and for 10 years the tallest free-standing structure in the world.
The Russians loved surpassing NYC's Empire State building at the time and today, while slightly faded, it's still a great spot even in swirling clouds and rain. It's a walk away from the nearest metro station and you will need your passport to buy tickets. The exact opposite experience can be had at Bunker 42 where you will plunge 65 meters below the street into the nerve centre of Russia's Cold War anti nuclear defence. Built in the mid 1950s, it covers an enormous 7000 square meters, mostly tunnels and enormous caverns of reinforced steel to withstand an atomic bomb.
Take the tour and you'll experience a simulated bomb attack - both scary and bizarre - and view reams of de-classified paperwork and films as well as conquer your claustrophobia. Odd as it may seem, there is a restaurant, conference rooms, a karaoke bar and, should you want to get married down there, wedding facilities. If, like me, you're intrigued by Stalin's "Seven Sisters" skyscrapers but time or budget are limited, take a walk to what was known as the Hotel Ukraina (now the Radisson Royal) which looks like a massive wedding cake beside the river.
The tallest hotel in the world when it was opened in 1957, it's worth seeing the lobby and the detailed diorama of the city of Moscow. (You can also book a dinner cruise down the Moskva River here; and a feed and a float past the city's greatest sights, including Gorky Park, won't break the bank). Better still in my book, is Godunov Restaurant where you will eat traditional Russian dishes beneath madcap, coloured murals and vaulted ceilings and be serenaded by folk singers in 17th Century garb. It's all a bit outré, eccentric but a lot of fun - a bit like Moscow itself.
Many major airlines, including Qantas and Singapore Airlines, operate flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Moscow with connections from Asian and Middle Eastern ports. From London, for a quick break and cheap flights try the low-fare carrier Easyjet. See qantas.com; singaporeair.com; easyjet.com Australians need a visa to visit Russia; they can be obtained electronically via the Russian Consulate, but you will need a letter from your hotel, so book ahead. See sydneyrussianconsulate.com/en/.
Doubles for two at the Ritz-Carlton Moscow start at $390 plus tax, see ritzcarlton.com. Doubles in a superior room at the Hotel Balstschug Kempinski start at $355 plus tax for two nights, see kempinski.com.
The writer travelled to Moscow from London courtesy of the Moscow Convention Bureau