Beneath the Hammer and Sickle: Touring Red Square in Russia

Blending centuries-old architecture, monuments to history, and modern-day shopping, Red Square in Moscow is truly an iconic destination.Read More

Red Square looms in the center of Moscow (Source: iStock / yulenochekk)

Few things represent Russia as iconically as Moscow’s Red Square, the very site where czars were crowned, archbishops processed, battles were waged, and revolutions ignited. It is, indeed, the epicenter of Russian history and continues to serve the country as a governmental hub, historical complex, and modern day cultural center.

Red Square features: Churches, shops, museums, and more

As an intersection of past and present, Red Square boasts a unique perimeter made up of religious buildings, museums, government housing, a shopping center, and a tomb. Few other places in the world have this incongruous meeting of landmarks — and yet, this is part of what makes Red Square so unique.

The strangely irreligious St. Basil's in Red Square (Source: iStock / numbeos)
The strangely irreligious St. Basil’s in Red Square (Source: iStock / numbeos)

To its south lies St. Basil’s Cathedral and its many, flame-like minarets — the very ones frequently depicted in popular media. Commissioned in 1555 by Ivan the Terrible, the church has a remarkably unreligious original purpose: to commemorate the czar’s capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. Carrying the areligious theme forward, 1928 saw the commandeering of the church by anti-theists who turned the building into a museum. It remains as such today, though in 1997 reintroduced Orthodox Christian services. If you’d like to visit the church and surrounding gardens, you can pay about $8 for a ticket; more information is available on the website for the State Historical Museum, which operates St. Basil’s.

Lenin's Mausoleum at night (Source: iStock / Kengoo)
Lenin’s Mausoleum at night (Source: iStock / Kengoo)

To the southwest of Red Square sits Lenin’s Mausoleum, constructed after the revolutionary’s death in 1924. Originally, the Russian leader was laid in a simple wooden tomb; this is the one crowds numbering 100,000 or more visited in the early days of Communism. Seven months later, architect Alexey Shchusev replaced the wooden tomb with a larger one, as well as a sarcophagus. Additionally, the state committed to embalming Lenin’s body, and while this ongoing effort has suffered from insufficient funds over the decades, it seems to have found favor with Russia’s current government. You can visit the mausoleum for free, but it’s only open select days of the week and often requires a wait of 30 minutes or more. For the most up-to-date schedules, check hours onsite.

An illuminated look at the Kremlin palace (Source: iStock / Mlenny)
An illuminated look at the Kremlin palace (Source: iStock / Mlenny)

Beyond Lenin’s Mausoleum to the southwest — preceded by Senate Square — is The Kremlin. The site has included several structures, dating as far back as the second century BCE. Currently visible structures originated in several periods: in the 1400s and 1500s, when successions of Ivans added walls, churches, and the Ivan the Great Bell Tower; in the 1770s under Catherine the Great, who conscripted architect Vasili Bazhenov to build her a home on the property; and in the 1800s, when Czar Nicholas I added a palace and re-built the existing armory. Since then, occupations by Napoleon and invading leaders led to several periods of demolition and rebuilding. These days, the Kremlin is both housing for the president and a museum honoring the country’s past. You can purchase tickets to the museum online.

For more on Russia’s history, you can visit the State Historical Museum to the north, which boasts exhibits on period jewelry, art, and more. There’s even a game lab for kids. As noted above, you can purchase tickets on their website.

An odd fixture of Red Square is the indoor mall, GUM. (Source: iStock / Pavliha)
An odd fixture of Red Square is the indoor mall, GUM. (Source: iStock / Pavliha)

Last of the major landmarks flanking Red Square is GUM, the “home department store of Russia.” Not only do they offer a massive indoor complex filled with top-name shops (Hermes, BOSS, and Louis Vuitton among them) but they often outfit the area around the mall into a wonderland of games and activities. During the winter, you can fine webs of strung lights and an ice rink drawing visitors, while summertime fairs encourage warm-weather, outdoor meandering. If you need a little retail therapy after learning about murderous czars, then shop some GUM.

Bonus: Red Square gardens and towers

Park Zaryadye offers tourist a tranquil respite from all that history. (Source: iStock / koromelena)
Park Zaryadye offers tourist a tranquil respite from all that history. (Source: iStock / koromelena)

While Red Square is most noted for the buildings and landmarks we just described, there are many other features worth exploring. The area is surrounded by parks and gardens (tops on our list is Park Zaryadye to the east, which sports an archaeological museum), plus the many towers the dot the Kremlin walls — each with unique character representative of a specific time in the country’s history. If you get hungry, you’re only a hop, skip, and a jump from good eats along Ulitsa Bolshaya Ordynka to the south, which takes you across the Moskva into a key commercial strip of downtown.

For more on the tourism opportunities in Moscow, visit the official tourism website of Russia.