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Insider Guide: Best of Moscow
By Joy Neumeyer, for CNN
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Walk right in to experience the best of Moscow.
CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN)Moscow suggests that age-old cliché, "a city of contrasts:" onion domes and concrete, avant-garde and bureaucracy, Vogue-thin beauties and sour cream-smothered beets -- not to mention a populace as given to partying as it is to quoting Pushkin.
For visitors, the heavier side of the Russian capital has often outweighed the light, but in the past few years the best of Moscow has gained a serious spring in its step.
Now, disused factories host cafés and art galleries. Concrete-heavy parks sport free Wi-Fi and table tennis.
Chefs whip heavy pelmeni and borscht into airy new concoctions.
English-language signs guide visitors through ancient streets.
While this city of 11.5 million residents modernizes (some estimates place the population as high as 17 million), remnants of the Soviet past remain just below the surface.
Behemoths such as Stalin's Gothic Baroque skyscrapers have triumphed against the course of history. But treasured spots like bliny cafés, a proletarian palace, and other landmarks struggle to survive.
While exploring the vanguards of the best of Moscow's current metamorphosis, use this guide to discover these mementos of daily life in the former capital of communism -- before they're gone for good.
The sweeping panoramas seen from the Swissôtel's 27 cylindrical stories outclass those of the low-lying luxury hotels near the Kremlin.
Floor-to-ceiling windows in every room add drama to the scene.
The design strikes a balance between comfortable and ostentatious, with grand marble bathrooms softened by earthy upholstery and simple hardwood floors.
Although slightly outside the city center, Swissôtel has the advantage of being right by Paveletsky Rail Terminal, the station for trains to and from Domodedovo airport.
The highlight of any stay is a cocktail at the flying saucer-like City Space Bar. (See "Nightlife" below.)
The Golden Apple's slick combination of historic and avant-garde makes it the best of Moscow's designer hotels.
It's housed in a 19th-century mansion painted Easter egg blue just off glamorous Tverskaya Street, a 10-minute walk from Red Square.
Every floor is painted a shade of the rainbow (naturally, there are seven in all).
Each of the 92 guestrooms has a different design based on its color.
The best room is the Chekhov Deluxe: a sculpture of a seagull nods to the playwright's best-known work, while the excellent view and heated bathroom floor might inspire you to linger over some Russian classics.
Surly Soviet monoliths on the outskirts of town were once the budget traveler's sole lodging recourse, but the new Moscow branch of this Russian hotel chain is a gracious, relaxing haven just one stop outside the central metro line.
Azimut is housed in a 19th-century textile factory, and maintains many features of the original design: exposed brick, vaulted ceilings and cast-iron columns.
Service is reliable, and rooms come with mini-fridges, flat-screen TVs and free Wi-Fi.
The only downside is a so-so breakfast costing 600 rubles.
A better choice is to pick up fresh bread, cheese and fruit at nearby Danilovsky market and store it in the mini-fridge.
If the sight of dill starts inducing nausea, take a night off Russian food at North Korean restaurant Koryo.
Murals of Korean maidens, hostesses dressed in traditional garb and telecasts from Pyongyang remind visitors of which side of the DMZ they're dining.
Waitresses are serenely gracious, but tight-lipped about the homeland.
Much of the menu is familiar to fans of South Korean food, but also includes regional specialties like Pyongyang naengmyeon: cold buckwheat noodles in broth with meat and egg. Salads must be ordered extra, but the fresh kimchi is worth sampling.
Dining at Koryo is also a good opportunity to see the Yuri Gagarin monument near Leninsky Prospekt metro station, a soaring titanium homage to the first man in space.
They drop verses from Mayakovsky like quotes from "Friends," devour novels in the metro and erect statues in honor of famous writers.
Thanks to several bookshops opening around the clock, bookworms don't have to wait until sunrise to get their fix.
The best, Moskva, is across from the national library. It boasts friendly employees zooming around on scooters, an ample English-language selection (including translations of contemporary authors like Lyudmila Petrushevskaya and Boris Akunin) and a cafe by the windows with wine and macaroons.
The bright white lighting at Respublika creates a faintly operating-table feel.
But it has a reliable selection of art and photography books, as well as slickly designed household goods.
What started in 1938 with a couple of wooden stalls is now where Moscow's top chefs shop.
A trip to a farmers' market, or "rynok," imparts the sights and smells of the countryside without forcing you to leave town.
Babushkas sell sour brusniki (cowberry) jam, pickled tomatoes and honey in more variations than you knew existed, while men from the Caucasus hawk spices, honey-drenched nuts and hand-painted teapots nearby.
Kiosks serve draft beer poured into plastic two-liter bottles for carting home.
Dorogomilovsky is the city's best-known market, but more southerly Danilovsky has more character.
Near the entrance there's a booth selling hot lavash flatbread, which you can watch being baked.
A vast overhaul in 2011 replaced dilapidated amusement rides and an entry fee with paddle boats and free Wi-Fi.
Gorky Park is the Wi-Fi-equipped epicenter of Moscow's metamorphosis into a kinder, friendlier urban space.
Opened during the Great Terror of the late 1930s, the park showcases Stalin's imperial style: the central concrete strip down the middle was designed for tanks to lumber through after parades in Red Square.
A recent overhaul has transformed Gorky Park into the city's most happening place to hang out.
Gone are the rusting roller coasters of yore, replaced by Italian cafés, an outdoor cinema, lounge chairs and free dance and yoga classes.
Gorky Park, 9 Krymsky Val Street
The Bolshoi's recent presentation of "Carmen."
Russia's beloved Bolshoi recently reopened after a 23-billion-ruble renovation shuttered its main stage for six years.
Improved acoustics, new seating and touched-up mosaics have restored the decomposing theater to its imperial luster.
The opera and ballet productions are more popular than ever, but it's not just the same old "Swan Lake."
Experimental new stagings of classics like "Ruslan and Lyudmila" are sending traditionalists into a tizzy -- and winning the theater new cultural relevance.
After a major scalping scandal, the Bolshoi now runs an online booking system. Reserve early, as tickets can sell out months in advance.
Winzavod, a cluster of galleries, shops and cafés in a former wine factory, has been at the heart of Moscow's cultural transformation.
Although a recent rent hike has prompted several galleries to leave the center, Winzavod still reveals an excellent swathe of contemporary Russian visual art and photography, with highlights including the venerable Regina Gallery.
Performing arts space Platforma is presided over by hot director Kirill Serebrennikov, who has staged controversial new productions for the Bolshoi and often adds a political edge.
A post-show coffee at Tsurtsum café frequently allows a closer glimpse of artists and impresarios.
Nearby Artplay, a younger art and design center in a Soviet-era factory, is Winzavod's late-night counterpart.
While it stages hot exhibitions, Artplay's real draw is rooftop parties and concerts.
Winzavod, 4th Syromyatnichesky Ln., Building 6; +7 495 917 4646
A casualty of Moscow's modernization has been the loss of some of its treasured relics. But there are still several holdovers with fight left in them.
Beginning in the 1960s, Soviets grabbed quick bites at pelmennayas, blinnayas, cheburechnayas and other spots named after the dish they served -- i.e., pelmeni (meat dumplings), bliny (pancakes) or chebureki (meat-stuffed fried dough).
Most of these spots have vanished in the era of McDonald's, but a handful remain.
Customers order at the counter and eat while standing at raised tables, a plastic cup of tea or vodka customarily in hand.
Poet Joseph Brodsky frequented the pelmennaya on Krasina Street, with its fake wood interior and Constructivist-style sign.
The blinnaya on Vorontsovskaya Street has barely changed since opening in 1962, making it a popular filming location.
Another 1960s spot, Druzhba, is less atmospheric, but cheap vodka and chebureki keep customers coming.
Blinnaya, ul Voroncovskaya, 8 Metro Taganskaya, Moscow Russia;
Praga sweets shop
Praga opened in the 1950s, selling Czech specialties like salted pork fat.
But it's best known as the birthplace of ptichye moloko (bird's milk) cake, a fluffy marshmallow coated in chocolate.
The Soviet cake is still sold in red and blue boxes alongside cases of Russian foods like syrniki (sweet cheese pancakes), pirozhki (meat or vegetable pies) and Krasny Oktyabr chocolates.
Candies like Mishka (the blue wrapper with the bears) remain hugely popular, though their synthetic taste can disappoint.
The only part of the Palace of Soviets -- which was planned in the 1930s -- that actually got built is this little-noticed gas station next to the Pushkin Museum.
The palace's towering congress hall was supposed to stand on the spot formerly occupied by Christ the Savior Cathedral, and was due to be topped by a representation of Lenin taller than the Statue of Liberty.
When the Palace never materialized, it was repurposed as a filling station for official Kremlin cars.
Today its paint is peeling, but flashing light-topped Mercedes still occasionally pull up for a tank.
Due to the expansion of the Pushkin Museum, this unique gas station is scheduled for demolition by 2018.
Palace of Soviets gas station, Volkhonka St., between Buildings 14 and 16
This picturesque spot atop southern Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills) makes for a trip back to Khrushchev's thaw along with its sweeping city views.
Completed in 1963, the Pioneer Palace was to be the utopian heart of the Soviet youth organization, complete with a concert hall, football fields and a planetarium.
Little has changed: a statue of Pioneer mascot Malchish-Kibalchish stands by the entrance, and the central building is covered in mosaics of Lenin and energetic youth.
Meanwhile, music from Soviet films blares from the loudspeakers.
The Pioneer Palace is still in use as a school and arts space, but recent renovation proposals could soon bring an end to its time-capsule feel.
The Pioneer Palace, 17 Kosygina St.
The Central Museum of Armed Forces
One of the world's finest military museums offers an exhaustive look at the entire history of the Soviet military.
Most of the 24-room museum is devoted to the Great Patriotic War (known in the West as World War II).
Among thousands of artifacts, the original Soviet victory flag hoisted over the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945 is here.
Cold War relics include weaponry, spy technology and pieces of Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane, which was brought down over the USSR in 1960 and has been in display here ever since.
Outside, more than 150 weapons, planes, missiles and battle vehicles are on display.