Insider’s Guide to the Kremlin

The most important thing to bear in mind about the Kremlin is that once upon a time it was a fort. In a way, it still is. It’s not just the cannons or the thick redbrick walls or the guards who blow their whistles every time a tourist strays from a designated walkway. It’s the complexity, the inscrutability—closed, hunkered down, vaguely hostile.

You needn’t worry about finding guides. They will find you (except at the churches, where they are forbidden). Just get in a line and speak English or dangle your digital camera. You shouldn’t pay more than $60. Be sure to get someone over 50 who speaks fluent English; a guide that age is likely to be well educated and know all the stories you’ll want to hear. But before you hire anyone, before you fight your way to the front of the ticket line and trudge through the metal detectors, it is good to be sure of what you want to see. To take in everything here—the cathedrals, palaces, tombs, museums, jewels, cannons—you’d need days. You’d also be wasting your time. A lot of it (the exhibits on the first floor of the Ivan the Terrible Bell Tower and the Church of the Deposition of the Virgin’s Robe, for instance) is probably best to skip.

So make the most of your time. Pick the things that will justify the hassle. Here’s our guide to some surefire hits. And remember, the Kremlin is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but Thursday—unless it closes without notice. Welcome to Moscow.

  • Cathedral Square is the heart of the Kremlin. Every visit should start here. Circumscribed by churches and palaces, it’s often overrun with tourists. Go anyway— it’s worth the aggravation.

  • The wall of icons in the Patriarch’s Palace, one of six structures surrounding Cathedral Square, is gold, turquoise, burgundy, and full of ghostly splendor.

  • In the Cathedral of Archangel Michael you’ll find the remains of Muscovite czars. The background music is haunting and beautiful, and the whole experience feels a tad medieval.

  • Everyone takes a picture in front of the Czar Cannon. You should, too.

  • Each czar and czarina wanted a bell made in his or her honor, with the lowest tone possible; hence, each successive bell was bigger than the last. The Czar Bell was intended to be the largest (and lowest).

  • The Armory Chamber is the state repository of Russia’s grandest jewels and imperial regalia. Here you will also find Fabergé eggs along with other Fabergé fantasia. There’s the ivory throne of Ivan the Terrible, too, as well as the 320-carat Alexander Pushkin diamond, the world-famous Orlov diamond, sabers, dinnerware, engravings, embroideries, and 900-year-old necklaces.

  • The Grand Kremlin Public Garden and the Tainitsky Garden next door are the loveliest swathes of greenery inside any fortress in the world. For the full experi-ence, get one of the prepackaged ice-cream cones—it’s a dollop of France in the middle of Moscow.

  • The 450-year-old St. Basil’s Cathedral is much more impressive on the outside than it is inside.

  • From outside Lenin’s Mausoleum the Soviet leadership once watched all those soldiers and missiles marching by on Victory Day. You can view the embalmed leader of the USSR—who died of a stroke in 1924— between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. (it’s closed Mondays and Fridays).

  • Around the corner from Red Square are monuments to the cities where World War II battles took place as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The war, which claimed 27 million Soviet lives, remains a powerful force in the Russian consciousness.

  • Parades were once a huge part of the Kremlin; today they are less so. Perhaps the grandest one now is on May 9, Victory Day, when Russians celebrate the end of World War II.

  • A café table for lunch, say, outside the department store GUM, is a perfect place to watch it all: the people, Red Square, Lenin’s Mausoleum.