Even those who’ve never been to Moscow recognize the colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, which sits on Red Square below the ramparts of the Kremlin. The Kremlin’s tower-studded, walled complex of domed cathedrals and palaces, which dates to 1156 but occupies a site used for far longer, was the religious center of the Russian Orthodox Church and also the residence of the tsars.
Taken together, these sites symbolize Russia itself and have spent long centuries at the very heart of the nation.
The Kremlin sits on Borovitsky Hill, rising above the Moscow River in the center of the city. Its first white-stone walls and towers went up in 1367-68, and a rebuild little more than a century later employed skilled artists and architects from across Europe to shape the site into roughly its modern form and appearance.
During the early decades of the Soviet era, the Kremlin became an exclusive enclave where the state’s governing elite lived and worked. The site remains the official residence of the president of the Russian Federation but access to other areas within the walls has loosened considerably. Museums now display some of Russian history’s cherished relics here, and church services are once again performed in the Kremlin’s numerous cathedrals.
The Kremlin stands on the west side of the massive, bricked Red Square, which separated the fortified citadel from the city at large. The square area has served as a marketplace, festival ground, gathering place and, during the Soviet era, a parade ground for displaying the might of a military superpower. Lenin’s tomb lies along the Kremlin side of Red Square. The former leader’s embalmed body has been on view inside since 1924.
The 16th-century St. Basil’s Cathedral was built by Ivan the Terrible (Tsar Ivan IV) to commemorate his victory over the Tartar Mongols. The interior is rich with painted walls and icons from different periods of the church’s long history. But its exterior tents and domed spires, each capping one of nine separate chapels, are nothing short of iconic. Its impressive architecture and rich history earned the Kremlin and Red Square UNESCO World Heritagestatus in 1990.
Moscow is justly famed for its subway system. The closest stations to the Kremlin are Borovitskaya and Biblioteka imeni Lenina. (See pictures of Moscow's beautiful subway architecture.)
The Kremlin is closed Thursdays. On other days it and the adjacent Red Square are must-see attractions for any visitors to Moscow. Russia is a cold-weather country so winter visitors should plan accordingly—but a fresh snowfall only enhances the appearance of these iconic sites.
There is much to see in this area where so many events in Russia’s long history have played out, and one great way to hit the highlights is by going on a free walking tour. Discover Russia's treasures on a private expedition or via the epic Trans-Siberian Railway with National Geographic Expeditions.