Great circuses, dozens of quirky museums and huge green spaces make Moscow a surprise hit with young visitors
A city built on an inhuman scale, with towering skyscrapers and gridlocked traffic, Moscow may not sound like a child-friendly destination. The first day in town with a stroller, for instance, can be a bewildering experience. How does one cross the 10-lane street to get to the cat theater on the other side? Over time, the city reveals itself. Expat parents and their children become intoxicated by the fairy-tale nature of the place, and enjoy the pleasures of outdoor ice skating on Red Square or watching Bolshoi matinees. Observing trapeze artists swoop like birds through the world’s biggest big top is a great experience. Strolling through waterside Gorky Park or peering into the original Vostok craft that carried Yuri Gagarin into space, visitors might even start to think Moscow is perfect for children. There is plenty here to amuse kids and new venues open all the time.
Clowns and crocodiles
But it is the Russian circus that fuels the most magnificent daydreams. Moscow’s oldest circus is on Tsvetnoi Boulevard, just twenty minutes’ walk north of the Kremlin. Albert Salomonsky, a bareback rider-turned-businessman, built it in 1880 and framed his first ever ruble of profit to put on the wall of the box office for luck. His catch phrase was ‘clowns are good; ticket sales are good’. The circus operated throughout the devastation of World War II. Clown Yuri Nikulin, Russia’s Buster Keaton, joined the circus immediately after the war and worked there for fifty years. Since Yuri’s death in 1997, his son Maxim has run the show, now known as the ‘Nikulin circus’.
A statue of Yuri Nikulin getting into his car stands on the pavement outside and several bronze clowns unicycle around a fountain across the leafy boulevard. The show promises bears, monkeys, dancing poodles and aerial gymnasts, the ‘White Birds’. Last year’s spectacle included snakes and crocodiles, horseback dancers and acrobats, along with the perennial clowns.
The newer Bolshoi (Great) Circus, near the Moscow State University, also continues to attract huge audiences with its mixture of animal acts and human skill. The 1971 building, the largest permanent circus in the world, is high enough to accommodate flying trapezes and wide enough to host parading elephants. Below the 118-foot high big top are subterranean levels plunging half as deep again, containing six interchangeable arenas, suitable for horse-riding, optical illusions, electronic lighting spectacles and even aquatic shows with marine animals and water ballet.
Coaches and Felt boots
Children with particular passions, like dinosaurs or space, will find world-class, relevant museums in Moscow. The Central Museum of the Armed Forces allows kids to climb all over the tanks and rocket launchers in the garden. Some of the more impressive elements of the Moscow’s biggest attractions, like the Egyptian gallery in the Pushkin Arts’ Museum or the coaches in the Kremlin’s Armory can appeal to kids too, but sometimes what you need is a tiny bite-sized museum like the Museum of Valenki (Russian felt boots). It’s only one room, but the guide speaks English and you can see the huge woolly shape that boils down into durable footwear before trying on sauna hats in the factory shop next door.
New Gorky Park and spacemen
Just over a year ago, oligarch Roman Abramovich bought up the dilapidated funfairs of Moscow’s Gorky Park and transformed them into a utopian expanse of beanbags and juice bars, deck chairs, outdoor art and yoga classes. The setting for Martin Cruz Smith’s gruesome novel disappoints cold-war connoisseurs, but delights kids. Instead of frozen bodies, it has traditionally been full of decommissioned space shuttles and rickety roller coasters. This past summer it had become a really great place for riverside relaxation. Recent additions to this burgeoning paradise include a mini-zoo, summer cinema and a café with a swimming pool. In winter, the paths are flooded to create miles of skate-able ice.
The All-Russia Exhibition Center, known as VDNKh, was a 1930s agricultural show, full of golden fountains and ornate pavilions. The surviving architectural wonderland has its own circus, fairgrounds and seasonal ice rink. It is also the home of the Cosmonautics and Ice Age museums, the monorail, a butterfly house, and kiosks full of lava lamps and energy balls.