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Ballet, jewels and Red Square: A cultural guide to Moscow

By Laura Allsop, for CNN
  • Moscow is a must-stop destination for mainline culture lovers
  • City is steeped in 900 years of history
  • Visit state museums and galleries for fine art treasures and jewels
  • Stay in art nouveau hotels, eat traditional Russian dishes

(CNN) -- Whether seen through a flurry of snow, or against a bright blue summer sky, Moscow's architectural landscape is awe-inspiring.

From the onion-shaped domes of St. Basil's Cathedral to the grand facade of the Great Kremlin Palace, through to the Soviet-era towers of the Seven Sisters buildings, the vista is rich with history.

For culture lovers, Moscow boasts world-class museums displaying precious religious icons and Modernist treasures, stunning ballet productions at the world-famous Bolshoi Theater and elegant classical concerts at the Conservatory.

CNN World's Treasures selects some of the city's main heritage spots, from museums to hotels, restaurants and cafes, that will make visitors feel as if they have entered the worlds of Leo Tolstoy or Alexander Pushkin.

SEE: Any trip to Moscow should begin with a trip to Red Square, the heart of the historic center of the city, which contains such contrasting monuments as the 16th-century St. Basil's Cathedral, Vladimir Lenin's mausoleum, the 19th-century Great Kremlin palace and the plush, modern arcades of the GUM shopping center.

St. Basil's Cathedral was built from 1555-1561 by Grand Prince Ivan the Terrible. True to his name, Ivan ordered its architect to be blinded on completion to prevent him from replicating the structure -- or so the legend goes.

Moscow's vista is rich with almost 900 years of history

The cathedral features nine domed chapels decorated in a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns, opulent galleries within, and the casket of "holy fool" St. Basil, after which it is named.

Take a stroll in the elegant Alexander Gardens before gazing at the majestic Great Kremlin Palace, once the Moscow residence of the Tsars.

Unfortunately closed to tourists, its impressive building is a feast for the eyes but if you feel short-changed, head to the State Historical Museum, where you can gorge on its dazzling displays of imperial royal wealth, including jewelry and Faberge eggs.

For great works of art, take the metro to the State Tretyakov Gallery, where you can trace the progress of Russian fine art, from 12th century gold leaf icons, through 18th and 19th century oil paintings, and on to the modernist masterpieces of Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich.

Also worth visiting is the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, whose galleries feature antiquities from Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as later European paintings and statues.

GETTING AROUND: Be sure to take a trip on the city's metro system, a subterranean tourist destination in its own right, and enjoy its palatial stations boasting stained glass windows, mosaics and bronze fittings.

In springtime, when the snow melts, stroll around the city's cobbled streets, parks and squares, or take a tour of the grounds of the Moscow aristocracy's ornamental suburban estates, such as Izmailovsky Park, where Peter the Great spent much of his childhood, or Kuskovo Park and Estate.

Decorated in gilt and velvet and adorned with copious chandeliers, the Bolshoi theater itself is as much of a must-see as its world-class productions

Alternatively, take a boat trip on the Moskva river and enjoy a serene view of the city's famous landmarks from the water.

EVENING: Soon to be reopened following extensive restoration work is the world-renowned Bolshoi Theater, home to the Bolshoi Ballet and Opera. Decorated in gilt and velvet and adorned with chandeliers, the theater itself is as much of a must-see as its world-class productions.

Music lovers can take in a concert at the famed Moscow Conservatory, where the celebrated Romantic composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky taught music in the 19th century.

For eating, head to the Pushkin Cafe, located not far from Pushkin Square. Though it was opened in 1999, its interiors are distinctly Old World, featuring book-cases stacked with leather-bound books, 19th-century wall fixtures and paintings, and antique-looking furniture. Caviar, dumplings and mouth-watering sweet desserts are must-orders on the menu.

Alternatively, head to The Most, a restaurant kitted out to resemble the interiors at the palace of Versailles, and serving largely French fare.

STAY: Modern, boutique and luxury hotels are springing up all over Moscow, but for visitors looking for some old-world atmosphere, head to the five-star, art nouveau Metropol Hotel. Opposite the Bolshoi Theater, and a short walk from Red Square, this plush hotel has been patronized by A-list celebrities as well as visiting statesmen.

Also near Red Square, the Hotel National, built around the same time at the Metropol, features grand rooms and suites that recall interiors from the turn of the 20th century.