I just recently visited my 60th country, so I think it's fair to say I've seen a good number of subway stations. In my experience 95% of them are a utilitarian hodgepodge designed with efficiency and low cost in mind. They get a commuter from Point A to Point B with little fuss or delay and have little regard for style or flair. Can't blame most cities for this - times are tough and running a city is expensive. But then there's the other 5%. The ones who has the power, prestige, or sheer lack of financial prudence to keep it simple and serve up a chic, designer station that elevate the commuting experience with their beauty and innovation.
Need examples? There's the rainbow streak of Munich's Candidplatz station. The stained glass dream of Kaohsiung's Formosa Boulevard stop. The vaulted yellow-tinged atrium at Singapore's Changi Airport stop. These stations make commuting a pleasure, even if just for one stop. Sadly while many systems have one or two iconic station, few really can claim they've woven an appealing aesthetic throughout their maps. A few do their though - Washington D.C.'s system features quite a few brutalist dreams and Stockholm's is a playful homage to fanciful imagination.
Nothing holds a candle to Moscow's gloriously retro masterpiece though.
I recently spent an entire day riding the rails through Moscow's Metro system on a single ticket going from station to station, line to line and taking in the grandeur of what I am convinced is one of the city's greatest tourist sights. Make no mistake, I am definitely sitting here and telling you that if you make your to the Russian capital you should spend an entire day underground looking at subway stations. Trust me - you won't regret it!
I'll give some more detail at the end of the post about how to use Moscow's Metro system, but for now let's get into the meat of things - my six favorite stations! Of course this is a subjective listing based on my personal preferences, so keep in mind that there are actually quite a few other station in the city's system worth seeing. If you really want to do an in-depth dive, you could spend several days exploring glorious stations throughout the city and surrounding suburbs. But for now .....
Funny story about this station ..... I spent five days in Russia's capital on my recent visit and spent the 4th day exploring the Metro system. Komsomolskaya was the station I based myself out of since it was literally across the street from my hotel - the Hilton Leningradskaya, located in one of the city's famous "Seven Sisters" buildings. I was in and out of this station multiple times over several days and not once did I see any of the beauty you see above you. Why? Well like many of Moscow's stations, Komsomolskaya is a transfer point for more than one train line. I had been using the Sokolnicheskaya Line (Red 1), who's platform is rather boring. It's only when you head over to the Koltsevaya Line (Brown 5, the inner circle) that the real majesty is seen.
Transfering from the Red 1 to the Brown 5 you head down a long escalator to by greeted by the giant chandelier and Soviet mosaic artwork of the Order of Victory, a Soviet military award of the highest level. At first I was stunned by how beautiful they both were, which was silly in retrospect. If you head down the long corridor pictured on the left you can take another short escalator up to the yellow dreamscape that is the main station space at Komsomolskaya. A baroque masterpiece of yellow and white accent pieces. Octagonal columns run the length of both sides of the station providing vaulted arches for commuters to scurry through on their way to and from everyday life in Moscow.
While the station itself is quite stunning on its own, there's actually a deeper meaning to the design and decor as there's a "theme" to the entire experience - the historical Russian fight for freedom and independence. "Under the Sea", "Time of Our Lives" or some other horrible high school dance theme might have been easier, but the Soviets pulled this off flawlessly.
The station features 8 mosaic artwork pieces featuring famous military battles and victories in Russian history ranging from Alexander Nevsky's victory over Crusaders at the Battle on the Ice in 1242 to the Soviet storming of the German Reichstag in Berlin near the end of World War II in 1945. Smaller decorative pieces feature renderings of various types of weaponry through the ages. There's even a bust of Soviet revolutionary and (to some) luminary Vladimir Lenin.
I'm not sure Komsomolskaya was my absolute favorite station in Moscow, but it's definitely in consideration.
This is the station that made me feel like I had chased a rabbit down a hole and fallen into Wonderland. Something about the dark, moody lighting and the vibrant glow of stained glass artwork punching through the gloomy vibe. I almost felt like it would be completely normal for a Mad Hatter tea party to be set up in the middle of the hustle and bustle.
LIke Komsomolskaya, Novoslobodskaya features a prominent mosaic along one of the walls of the station. The rose and gold hued work is meant to depict world peace, which despite feeling very beauty pageant is actually a nice sentiment and is (as you can see) quite beautiful.
Unlike Komsomolskaya, this one didn't really have a theme though. The designer, Alexey Dushkin, wanted the stained glass to be the focal point of the entire station. There are a total of 32 panels designed by three Latvians, which was an integral part of the Soviet Union at the time of construction. This isn't the station you'd want to come to and casually read a book while waiting for a friend as it's a rather dim and dark atmosphere, but it's certainly got a moody charm and the illuminated glass gives an almost ethereal feel to the whole place.
Similar to Novoslobodskaya, Kiyevskaya features arched walkways with a central corridor featuring dangling chandeliers and intricate mosaic work around the vaulted entrances to the train platforms. It's not quite as dark and brooding though, with a marked increase in light in this station. I suspect the need to highlight the stained glass translates into a need for lower light levels in the former.
The station is named because it is located next to Kiyevsky railway station, Moscow's historic train gateway to Ukraine and its capital - Kyiv/Kiev. The subway design itself was selected from a public competition in Ukraine out of 73 entries. The mosaic artwork that features on the pylons between every archway focuses on the historic friendship between Ukraine and Russia, which is quite interesting considering the rather tangled mess of hate and love happening between the two today.
At the end of the station platform is a rather small and unassuming portrait and memorial to Lenin, which is a common theme in the Moscow Metro. And Moscow in general to be quite honest. At this point in my exploration of the system I took up a post next to the memorial and simply watched Muscovites go about their daily routines, darting in and out of the little archways that remains one of the hallmarks of many of Moscow's most glamorous and glitzy stations. Coming from a city with relatively decent public transit coverage but rather abysmal aesthetic, I was a bit awestruck that people in Moscow were treated to such beautiful surroundings on a daily basis.
Taganskaya was the station that "broke the mold" a little bit for me while exploring as its white and baby blue color scheme was a departure from many of the darker and moodier atmospheres I had seen up to that point. Despite being one of the more crowded and chaotic stations I visited on my jaunt (likely due to the time of day, I arrived here around 515PM), the soft white and blue hues helped created a more serene environment compared to others in the system. A but of an oasis of calm tones in the raging sea of one of the world's busiest Metros.
The central decorating element in this station are the intricate maiolica panels along the pylons. Maiolica is a style of glazing utilizing tin that rose to prominence during the Renaissance . The panels all feature a profile of a Soviet servicemember along with decorative flourishes and military accolades. Each profile is intended to represent various types of military positions such as sailors, pilots, or infantrymen. Each face is unique but familiar, square jaws and noble brows.
The interior coordinator features panels with the vibrant baby blue while the panels along the exterior walkways where the trains are boarded retain the white color used for the walls and thus have a single hue throughout. One cute element I noticed was that the glass centers of the chandeliers in the central hallways were tinted to mirror the blue paint used on the interior panels. A little matchy-matchy but it works in this instance.
The first thing I saw as I stepped off the train at Novouznetskaya station was a big mural of an airplane soaring above the central corridor, which is an instant way of catching my attention. I'm an aviation geek and putta plane on something pretty much guarantees I'm endeared and enthralled. The overwhelming color scheme in this station seems to be auburn and rust, a fitting juxtaposition to the station's theme of honoring Soviet military heros as well as the war-time industrial boom that fueled victory.
As you make your through the station platform you can see various murals on the ceilings highlighting the aviation, construction, and weapons manufacturing industries. Smaller decorative pieces along the pillars between the platforms feature dedications to various Soviet war heroes. The repeating hexagon pattern above contrasted with the elaborate wartime scenes running along the rust-colored border makes for a lovely visual treat.
The station also features a rather stirring mural featuring Lenin leading the revolution when you exit the platform and attempt to leave the station or transfer to another line that uses this area as a hub. If you're lucky you'll meet with some buskers just like I did, playing first a stirring rendition of Michael Jackson's "Dirty Diana" followed by a perhaps more appropriate piece by Tchaikovsky.
Save the best for last? Depends on your aesthetic but Mayakovskaya is considered by many to be the most beautiful in the entire Moscow Metro system. Just look at that art deco beauty! The entire station has a bit of a different vibe than any others featured on this list so far, which is quite intentional by the station's designer. The inspiration was pulled from the literary works of a famous Russian poet who explored the concept of a "future" Soviet Union. The sleeker lines, stainless steel, and pink accents are a completely different world than many of the other stops in the system.
The theme of this station is called the "24 Hour Soviet Sky", which admittedly is a bit beyond my grasp as a relatively uninformed art critic. The station features a total of 34 (!!!) ceiling mosaics depicting various futuristic interpretations of Soviet life. The station is named for the Russian poet mentioned before - Vladimir Mayakovsky. His poem "Moscow Sky" is a large inspiration for the overall aesthetic of the station and also features prominently in the surface vestibule of the station.
The station also is a rather historic location in the city. As it is located quite a distance below the surface, it was used as an air raid shelter by notable Soviet leaders. The notorious Josef Stalin gave a famous speech during World War II as they sought shelter from German bombs that were peppering the streets of Moscow above. It was also the very first station utilizing a design dubbed the "deep column" which is now quite common around the globe. If you're a Chicago resident or a frequent visitor to the Windy City you'll recognize this style as it's used in many of the CTA's underground stations in the Loop.
Loving the look of Moscow's Metro so far? Feeling that little tingle in your belly telling you this is something you'd love to see for yourself in person? GOOD! My job here is halfway done! Now let's go over some quick logistical tips to help facilitate your exploration!
Here's a relatively basic map of the Moscow Metro system with English translations for station names. I've circled each of my favorite stations on the map in red. Since I was staying right at the Komsomolskaya station I ended up starting my tour there and simply taking the Brown line (Circle) counter clockwise to Taganskaya and then backtracking one station to head north on the Dark Green (Zamoskvoretskaya) line. Of course your journey will differ depending on where you're starting and whether you'd like to add or substitute other stations to the list. I'll emphasize again that the above were only my favorite six stations - they were not, by ANY means, the only beautiful locales you can stop and enjoy.
Moscow's Metro uses an electronic "tap" payment system that will be familiar to many who've used mass public transit in other major cities across the globe. Single ride tickets currently cost 55 rubles, which converts to about .88 cents in USD. A single ticket is good for a ride anywhere on the Metro system and includes most transfers as long as they are done without exiting the payment barriers. So in theory if you're doing a Metro tour you could buy a single 55 RUB ticket and simply ride the rails from station to station without needing to make any additional payment. This is an excellent value when you consider that many tour companies in Moscow charge upwards of $40 USD for a guided tour of the system. Note that if you're in Moscow for more than a day or two and will be making use of the Metro system, you can opt for a Troika card which allows you to store value and provides discounts on rides. You simply make a deposit of 50 RUB (.80 cents USD) for the card and then can add currency for rides. Using the Troika card reduces the cost of a single ride to 36 RUB (.58 cents USD) and it reduces your need to wait in line at stations to purchase paper tickets. You can return the card at the end of your stay for a refund of the deposit.
There are also option for 1, 3, 7, 30, and 90 day passes but I never used these as the value was minimal to me. I largely prefer to walk between my itinerary stops during a day of exploring if at all feasible. If you're less inclined to walk or simply prefer jetting off to your next sight as quickly as possible, you may want to research the passes.
A few quick tidbits to keep in mind on Moscow's Metro:
The Metro is a living, breathing part of Moscow, so there are definitely times when it will be packed full of people. Standing around marveling at the glorious detail on the ceilings above will likely result in loud huffing or brusque shoulder shoves if you go during the wrong time of day. Common sense says you're least likely to encounter crowds before morning commute (8AM), between work hours (10AM - 3PM), and later at night (after 9:30PM). I didn't do a great job of sticking to this time frame sadly but didn't have any issues. If you're touring during rush hour just make sure you're conscious of your body and not getting in everyone's way.
Moscow's Metro had some of the shortest wait times been trains I've seen in the world. Often times I would see my train taking off as I arrived only to see another train sliding into the station a minute or two later.
There are tons of escalator's in Moscow's Metro system. My five days in the city indicate to me that this is very much a "stand on the RIGHT, walk on the LEFT" city. Muscovites are not afraid to shove you aside if you do not follow etiquette.
I found the often quoted lament of travelers online that "nothing is in English" on Moscow's Metro system to be rather overblown. Or perhaps because I visited just two weeks before the launch of the World Cup things have drastically been improved. Regardless, I would say 90% of the trains I rode on Moscow's Metro had scrolling marquees that informed you of the next station in Russian and English. Announcements on trains were also almost always made in Russian and English. The signage inside the stations were much less visitor-friendly though. Station signs along the walls were almost always only in Cyrillic. Signs telling you which direction each train was moving were also almost never in English. Same for signs telling you which way to exit for various streets and sights. You definitely will want a working knowledge of Cyrillic to translate a bit. The good news is that some letters in English and Cyrillic are the same and picking up the translation for the other letters shouldn't be too difficult. If you're terrible with languages, get the Google translate app. The Russian dictionary is downloadable and has the ability to use your camera to directly translate words into English on your screen. See below for an example of what your phone screen shows just by opening the camera with the Google translate app.
Unfortunately Russia's Metro networks are not strangers to terrorism. Both St. Petersburg and Moscow have seen various bombings on their systems over the years. Security is tight at most stations with agents screening large bags with airport-style x-ray machines and use metal detector wands on many smaller bags as passengers go into stations. I would say that about 70% of the time when entering a Metro station my backpack was "wanded" by a security officer. They simply wave you over and run the wand over your bag. No speaking needed. As long as nothing beeps you can walk on to the gates.
English language usage by Metro staff was virtually nonexistent in my experience. I made my way using my very limited Russian and hand gestures (holding up one finger to indicate one ticket, etc) whenever it was mandatory for me to speak with someone (which was very rarely). Ticket machines in Metro stations all have an option for English.
I'll be honest - Moscow was a fascinating city that took me by surprise. I really wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived and was faced with a city that was charming, beautiful, and charismatic despite some of its shortcomings and gruff personality. The Metro system with its almost dreamlike stations is by far one of the most interesting and worthwhile sights to see when in the city. This is a cannot-miss sight for visitors and I strongly urge anyone with more than one day on the ground in Russia's capital to set half or even a full day aside to explore this treasure.