Bloom town

Blossom dusts the boulevards and tulip beds trim the Kremlin in red, despite its intoxicatingly dark past, Moscow shines at this time of year, says Phoebe Taplin

After the long, brutal Moscow winter comes a brief, beautiful spring. From late April, you’ll find the Russian capital at its most beautifully romantic. Wander past banks of tulips by the Kremlin walls or through orchards framing golden domes in blossom. Take riverside strolls, breakfast on terraces, find fairy-tale galleries or lay flowers on Chekhov’s grave. Moscow’s rebirth, as it finally shrugs off the lingering cold, feels like a miracle every year.

And a horseshoe of tree-lined boulevards around the centre makes Moscow a flâneur’s paradise. Strolling along the ice-free streets, kept pristine by armies of sweepers, is often quicker than sitting in traffic; while the Mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has widened the walkways, planting fake flowers and bilingual signs, a controversial spring-clean that has made Moscow an easier city to walk in. When your legs are tired, ride the palatial Metro into the city’s surprising suburbs to explore imperial country estates and gold-fountained Soviet exhibition grounds. Here’s how to breathe it all in in one short trip…

Day one: A spring painting of melted snow

First trip to Moscow? Start in the heart: Red Square, approaching from Kitai Gorod Metro station, down Ulitsa Varvarka, past historic spires and polished domes set alight by spring sunshine. You’ll glimpse the medieval palace of the Romanov Boyars (shm.ru/museum/pbr), where the imperial family once lived; also the whitewashed Old English Court (mosmuseum.ru/association/englishyard), a proto-embassy from the days of Ivan the Terrible. Finally, the multi-coloured vision of St Basil’s Cathedral, familiar and fantastical. You can see the twisted onions from below, the Kremlin’s red clock tower looming behind. Cross Red Square’s cobbles and detour through GUM, the colonnaded, 19th-century shopping centre, seasonally decked with faux blossom.

Real flowers lie beyond the brick archways at the far end of Red Square (turn left into the Alexandrovsky Garden): colour-bands of tulips march towards the walls and star-topped towers of the Kremlin, best seen over warm syrniki (cheese curd pancakes) with raspberry jam from the terrace of Bar BQ Cafe (barbqcafe.ru/en).

The traffic-choked bridge at the garden’s end is no idyllic Moscow River crossing. You do it for the photo-opp of the Kremlin over the water, the white Neo-Classical palaces and domed medieval cathedrals stacked above the towers of Moscow’s central citadel, prettied with early-flowering cherry trees. Beyond fountain-ringed Bolotnaya Square, five minutes away, are waterside metal trees where newlyweds fasten symbolic padlocks.

Duck into splendid Tretyakov Gallery (tretyakovgallery.ru/en/; closed Mondays) to gaze at classical art, from early icons to luminous 19th-century landscapes. Among the spring paintings of melting snow, focus on Alexei Savrasov’s The Rooks have Returned, shiver-inducing with its bare branches. Now wander Zamoskvorechye, the surrounding area, all pink-and russet-painted mansions and clapboard cottages, peonies budding outside. Among its treasures is the riverside sculpture garden Muzeon (muzeon.ru), home to the ‘fallen idols’ of Soviet history, including the granite Stalin with a broken nose.

You’re now 3km from Red Square. With sunshine and stamina you can manage six more: along the traffic-free riverbank, through revamped Gorky Park, made famous by Martin Cruz Smith’s eponymous 1981 Cold War thriller. The original Soviet pleasure grounds, laid out in 1928, are now full of cool, riverside cafes with free wi-fi and even yoga. The AC/DC in Tbilisi kiosk (does a brisk trade in Georgian flavours (big in Moscow) and gourmet burgers with smoked cheese, sour plum sauce, purple basil and pickled peppers. Or grab fresh lemonade and retro pelmeni dumplings filled with salmon or cherries, on sale at neighbouring cafes.

West beyond Gorky Park, the riverside woods grow wilder, and carpets of anemones flourish yellow in the shade, as you walk to Moscow’s most famous viewpoint. Sparrow Hills, crowned with souvenir sellers and weekend wedding parties, surveys the skyline: domed monasteries, chimneyed factories, and six of the Gothic skyscrapers commissioned by Stalin, the seventh and largest (Moscow State University) towering behind you.

Around sunset, the panorama may be washed with gold light, domes gleaming. As the temperature drops, end up at Tramplin Restaurant (tramplin-rest.com) its shavel borscht, a soup of lemony sorrel leaves with cucumber, garlic and mushrooms, tastes like spring in a bowl.

Moscow's late springs
Moscow’s late springs

Day two: A picnic of wild strawberries

A ride on the Metro is unmissable – it’s like a huge underground art gallery. Be sure to tour the ornate stops of the circular ‘brown line’, with their stained-glass panels, blingy chandeliers and patriotic murals. Depart from sport-themed Park Kultury, near the Muzeon, and get off, 10 minutes later, at gold-and-white-pillared Prospekt Mira station, for a backstreet wander to Victor Vasnetsov’s wood-gabled cottage, full of carved furniture and bright ceramic stoves. Vasnetsov was a 19th-century artist, whose canvases of flowering woods and folkloric princes are the essence of the Russian spring. Several are on show in the attic where he painted them, and his home has a fairy-tale feel, even amid a thicket of tower blocks.

For elevenses, you need Prospekt Mira, one of Moscow’s huge radial roads. Here, serving homemade honey cake, not far from Vasnetsov’s cottage, is one of the Karavaev Brothers’ canteens (karavaevi.ru), overlooking Russia’s oldest surviving botanical garden.

Moscow’s late spring ensures crocuses, daffodils and grape hyacinths bloom

at once in this little beauty (hortus.ru), founded by Peter the Great in 1706. Paths wind among dinky white Star of Bethlehem flowers and waves of pink corydalis, like little bells; by the ornamental pond is a 300-year-old willow, that’s said to be central Moscow’s oldest living thing.

If it’s warm, you could picnic. Ride the orange Metro line from Prospekt Mira one stop to Rizhskaya, for the Farmers’ Market behind the Metro stop. The scents of its exuberant flower stalls overpower even the smells of warm bread, dried apricots and pickled garlic. Outside, under umbrellas, foragers sell tiny wild strawberries. Add them to your picnic of smoked cheese and apricots, and take the orange line three more stops to VDNKh station.

A decade ago, a Scooby-Doo-theme-park air of dereliction hung about the abandoned pavilions and fountains of the Soviet exhibition grounds called VDNKh (vdnh.ru/en). In shiny new Moscow, as canned patriotic music serenades young couples skating past flowerbeds, they’re a bit creepy: central among the new museums is an exhibition of Russian history with images of tsars on the outside walls, presided over by a giant portrait of Putin. An authoritarian makeover. Yet VDNKh is enjoyably eccentric, its cafes, shops and galleries ideal for uncertain weather. The real joy? Simply meandering past steel statues 30m high and jasmine-scented gardens – there’s even a Soviet-age Vostok rocket. At nightfall, endless fountains are lit up in different colours and you sip glowing bulbs of liquid under the cupola of the Armenian Pavilion, while neon jets play about the 16 gold women and water-spouting wheatsheaf representing the ‘friendship of nations’.

Strolling from Tretyakovskaya Metro station through restaurant-lined Zamoskvorechye, Strelka bar where a terrace overlooking the edifices that span Moscow’s tempestuous ages awaits. On colder nights, there’s warm mango punch to sip, as the wide Moscow river flows by, under moon-silvered clouds

The grave of circus clown Yuri Nikulin at Novodevichy Cemetery
The grave of circus clown Yuri Nikulin at Novodevichy Cemetery

Day three: Scenic stories among apple orchards

Spring is a season for love stories. Moscow has hundreds, haunting every street, and you can ease any weariness in the company of romantic ghosts. Take the T15 bus to Novodevichy Cemetery. Hop on it opposite Kropotkinskaya Metro, and trundle along Prechistenka, one of Moscow’s most elegant streets. Isadora Duncan once ran a ballet school at No. 20; she married Soviet poet Sergei Yesenin, who hanged himself three years later, having written a final poem in his blood.

After a scenic 20 minutes, disembark by the red-and-white walls of the Baroque Novodevichy Convent. The cemetery next door, full of dead clowns and cosmonauts, is an atmospheric place to wander and idle among the picturesque tombs. In the older part, Anton Chekhov lies buried under the same May-flowering cherry as his wife. A rippling Russian flag marks Boris Yeltsin’s resting place. A white-marble ballerina, flower-bedecked, contrasts with Yuri Nikulin, actor and circus clown, sitting smoking by his sleeping bronze dog.

It’s time to bus it back, exiting at Nikitskiye Vorota Square, near the fabulous Art Nouveau Gorky House (museum.ru), with its pink-mosaic frieze of orchids and irises around the walls. Inside, organic designs include bronze dragonfly door handles and writhing silver lizards above the wave-form marble staircase. Or, to escape a shower, you might step into the yellow church opposite, where the poet Alexander Pushkin married beautiful Natalya Goncharova, dying in a duel over her six years later.

Return to the bus stop and turn left along the lilac perfumed boulevard bordered with cafes for lunch, then explore the Metro itself. Five minutes up the boulevard is Tverskaya, a stop on the ‘dark green’ line, one of Moscow’s oldest and finest. One stop north (and a two-minute detour), the mosaic ceiling panels of Mayakovskaya present a 24-hour cycle of swimmers and sunflowers, oranges and parachutes. Four stops south is vaulted Avtozavodskaya station, named after the car factory that operated nearby. One stop further is Kolomenskaya station and Kolomenskoye Park, Moscow’s ultimate spring wonder. From the early 16th century, a succession of tsars added to the formal gardens and wooden cottages seen today. It is always lovely, with its honey-scented limes and flowering fruit trees. In late spring, it’s a must-see.

Paths head uphill, past a blue clifftop spire built by Ivan the Terrible’s father to celebrate his son’s birth. A staircase lifts you to the highest orchard, its ways scattered with white petals where, weeks earlier there was snow. On one side: apple trees and river views; on the other, steps down to the ‘Golosov Ravine’, said to be named after a pagan god. Beribboned trees surround revered rocks near a spring. Unearthed settlements date to millennia before Moscow’s 12th-century founding. Heading back to the Metro, stop at one of the outdoor log-cabin cafes. Amid drifting blossom, charcoal smoke and views of churches in orchards, enjoy barbecued kebabs, honey-rich mead, buttery pancakes and, for one last time, the Moscow spring, in all its timeless splendour.

Pheobe Taplin/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing