Being a tourist in my own city: testing out Moscow Free Walking Tours.
Updated: Nov 6, 2018
Whenever visiting a new city, I always try and join a walking tour on the first day. Just to get a taster of what the the destination has to offer, receive some first-hand insights from a local and mingle with like-minded travelers. Back in May, upon return from another journey abroad, it suddenly struck me... I always say I love being a tourist in my own city. However, being busy all these years relentlessly searching and testing out new great spots for dining, keeping up with Moscow’s busy exhibition and nightlife schedule, showing foreign friends, colleagues and guests around, I have never been on a guided walking tour myself.
This act of neglect was decided to be addressed without a delay. By no means the intention was to make any breakthrough discoveries. No, I was not hoping to find out a great deal of new information about the city centre (although one never knows...). Rather, I was interested in what kind of welcome, first impressions and knowledge the dear guests of Russian capital receive on their first days of exploring.
I started with a provider search, finding which was a complete no brainer. As expected, a quick google inquiry returned gazillions of results, out of which my choice randomly fell on Moscow Free Walking Tours. No particular reason, I just thought I would go with my instinct. Maybe worth mentioning at this point, that the post is in no way sponsored and is based on my voluntary experience and contains genuinely unbiased opinion.
On a chosen Sunday, in order to add up to joyful mood for the day, we started off in Severyane with breakfast. Where incidentally managed to make friends with a Dutch, who turned out to be new to the city and decided to join the tour too. Walking up to the Red Square, somewhere deep inside I was slightly apprehensive to be greeted by a frowning tour guide lady from a Soviet movie. Even though Tripadvisor reviews were all flawlessly cloud-free and had no mention of this whatsoever. Might be just the image I have made up watching the pavement salesmen at Kazansky Railway station, who actively urge passers-by to join a fascinating Moscow tour on board of ‘comfortable’ tourist buses which glory days have clearly long gone.
Our tour guide lady turned out to be no frowns at all, if anything she was beaming with smiles. It was easy to spot Tatiana under her branded umbrella, right in the heart of the city near the Marshal Zhukov monument, where we waited for the rest of the group to gather. Let me just mention here, the umbrella was to protect from the sun, not rain. Mind you, it was between 25 and 28 degrees Celcius in the middle of May. So much for eternal frost in Russia.
After a more detailed introduction, we found out that Tatiana was also a radio host and a creator of a project called Aliens in Moscow: Foreigners thoughts about Russia (which we happily took part in after the excursion by the way). It is essentially a compilation of interviews filmed and edited by our guide. This background has certainly brought a lot of richness to the excursion experience too. Throughout the tour, all commentary contained much passion for the city, as well as humour and true intent for the guests to get to know Moscow and its culture. At least to the extent which is possible within given 2,5 hours we had for the walk. All in all, to run a bit ahead of the story, it was much more that I expected from a free tour.
Greetings down the line, our multinational jolly crowd of 12 commenced on the historical journey around the city centre. The tour covered the classic central locations: Red Square and its attractions, Alexander Garden, Nikolskaya street, Bolshoi theatre. All stops were accompanied with up-to-time annotation, illustrations and historic references. And importantly, all without overloading us with numerous dates that we’d have never remembered. Needless to say, we were also treated to what every visitor craves for: offbeat facts, legends, stories of past and present. I must admit, a couple of those stories I heard for the first time. I am not going to give away here all the particulars, as you just have to see for yourself.
Tatiana also shed a bit of light on some elements of the major revamp that Moscow had been undergoing in the past recent years. Most of the changes (depending on who’s evaluating of course) being positive, not just for Muscovites but for numerous visitors too. Increasing grandiosity of public holidays celebrations are a part of it as well. Look at star-fall decorations in Nikolskaya for instance, a heritage left from New Years festivities. which have been lighting up the street and pedestrians’ mood since. It was just decided not to take the decorations down, as public loved them too much.
Another great case, on a much bigger scale is Zaryadye park. It opened in 2017 after 4 years of construction works, and has definitely become of the go-to places in the heart of Moscow. In this blog post I mentioned some of the favourite things to do in the park.
Below I have put together some practical points to consider about the tour:
The excursion lasts about 2,5 hours with a 15 mins break in GUM provided for WC stop and refreshments.
The tour is free of course, but nobody in the group including myself took off without leaving a tip. Have some cash at hand if you are willing to show gratitude to the guide.
Best to book the tour in advance over Internet, but as practice proved just showing up at the start of tour is also fine.
Most of the tour takes place outside, so be sure to check the weather on the day, and bring jackets/umbrellas/warm hat/SPF if necessary.
I recommend doing this tour at the start of your visit as an introduction to the city.
The company also offers paid tours (metro, night Moscow, etc), which we didn’t have time to do yet. Definitely something to consider for the future.
In closing, I can only say I highly recommend taking a walking tour to anyone who visits Moscow, ideally on the first day of the stay. It doesn’t have to be this particular one, could be even a self-guided walk if you don’t feel like meeting a bunch of great people and having someone enthusiastic sharing stories along the way. I personally simply find a guided excursion to be more enriching as a source for deeper understanding not just the city, but the mentality of its people too. Given you are as lucky with a guide as we were of course.
Oh, and the afternoon couldn't have gone on better. After the tour we teamed up with some of the participants to walk further to one of the favourite Russian cuisine spots in Patriarch ponds. I think our newly acquired friends quite enjoyed their borsch along with other Russian specialties.
If you only have 24 hours in Moscow, be sure to check out my version of essential places to visit and things to do for inspiration. A walking tour would fit perfectly right after breakfast in the itinerary.
If you would like a more detailed consultation on planning a trip to Moscow or inspiration for activities in general, send me a message . I would love to hear from you.