With a population of over 10 million, a 24-hour lifestyle and a perennial buzz, few cities are as lively as Moscow, and at no time more so than when the winter chill has finally been banished, trees blossom and the sun comes out.
Summer sees the Russian capital at its best, with café terraces filled with chatter by day and nightclub rooftops providing breeze-cooled city views at night. Naturally, Mother Nature is as bold as this city of outsized ambitions, with its giant palaces, huge squares and monstrous Communist-era apartment blocks. When the sun arrives, it does so flamboyantly, setting temperatures soaring and still hovering on the horizon late into the evening.
Long days give you plenty of time for sightseeing. No matter how many times you’ve been here, you’ll want to start in the historic heart of the city at dramatic Red Square, where the red walls of the Kremlin loom and St Basil’s Cathedral swirls in candy-cane colours. Red Square can be frigidly cold in winter, but in summer you can enjoy an unhurried appraisal from a café terrace. From here, wander into the Kremlin, the seat of power of medieval tsars and current presidents alike. It has four glorious cathedrals where tsars were married, crowned or buried, all rich in gleaming icons and gold. The adjacent Palace Armoury will make your jaw drop, crammed with the oversized treasures of the Romanov dynasty, from gem-encrusted crowns to famed Fabergé Easter eggs, gold carriages and dazzling porcelain sets.
The city’s other top historical sight is far more pleasant in summer too. The 16th-century Novodevichy Convent is topped with gold domes and surrounded by the tombs of famous Russians, from playwright Anton Chekhov to filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and Cold War leader Nikita Khrushchev. But take time as well just to wander some of Moscow’s central streets, bedecked in a profusion of summer flowers. Kuznesky Most is often decorated with garlands of blossoms, and tree-lined Tverskoy Boulevard is especially wonderful: children’s climbing frames sit amongst flowerbeds, and gorgeous climbing plants adorn archways and arbours.
This is a good time of year for street markets too. Go early at weekends for the best of Izmailovsky Flea Market near Partizanskaya metro station, much loved by locals (and well-frequented by tourists as well), for the chance to rummage for antiques, porcelain, amber jewellery, lacquer boxes, Soviet-era cast-offs, music boxes and plenty more. If you’re after quirky craftwork, paintings and vintage clothing stores, head to Pyatnitskaya Street. For music, videos, computer games and computer software, visit the amazing Gorbushka electronics market, which offers goods at discount prices – though you have to be careful you aren’t picking up fakes.
Although you won’t have to worry about frostbite as you browse, admittedly it can sometimes get very hot at the height of summer. That brings with it its own pleasures, however. Ice cream kiosks – some of which date back to Soviet days – are found all over the city. Particularly Russian flavours include condensed milk (often with added jam or nuts) and plombir, which is studded with candied fruit and flavoured with kirsch.
Locals hit shady parks and riverbanks for picnics and barbecues as the temperatures warm up. The 1821 Alexander Garden was the first public garden created in Moscow, lodged at the western side of the Kremlin. It has lovely flowerbeds, though most people are distracted by the fine views it supplies of the Kremlin’s cathedral domes and towers. Equally flower-filled is Pharmacy Garden (Aptekarsky Ogorod), which started life in the 18th century as the herb garden for a hospital. It’s compact but rather romantic on a summer’s evening, when water lilies flower on the pond and the smell of roses hangs in the air.
Hermitage Garden, first laid out in 1894, is wonderful if you think of parks as an outdoor social venue. In summer there are concerts here almost every week, as well as art and food festivals and an outdoor cinema. Locals relax on benches and lie on the lawns. Gorky Park, however, is the most famous park in Moscow, and not so much a green escape as a leisure and cultural venue designed in the 1920s as a showcase for Soviet downtime. Today it’s filled with Muscovites cycling, playing volleyball, jogging, boating on the lake or even trying their luck at the shooting range. It still hosts exhibitions, arts fairs, festivals and several open-air bars and restaurants. Rent a bicycle or in-line skates and you can head several kilometres along the riverside pathways to the wooded Sparrow Hills (Vorobyovy Gory), where you’ll be rewarded with views of the Moscow skyline, studded with skyscrapers and monastery bell towers.
If your tastes tend to the classical, then the summer season is in full swing at the Russian National Ballet Theatre, which puts on Russian greats such as Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.The troupes of the famous Bolshoi Theatre are generally on tour overseas mid-year, but international companies will be performing there instead. Really, you might want to focus on contemporary music at this time of year,since the summer sun brings out music events and festivals across the city.
Among them is the wonderful annual International Military Music Festival, which runs between August 26 and September 3 this year and takes place against the fabulous backdrop of Red Square. Russian and international military bands march and play classical music as fireworks and laser displays light up the sky. The festival finishes on Moscow City Day, when the city celebrates its 870th birthday with events across the city, including more fireworks, street parades and markets, sporting contests and music concerts – plus free admission to some 60 museums.
Celebrations are even held at Kolomenskoye, a former summer estate of the tsars just outside the city, providing the perfect blend of history, culture and sun-soaked fun that characterises Moscow in summer.