St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow: Planning Your Visit

Basil's Cathedral

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

The church most commonly known as St. Basil's Cathedral is one of the most symbolic pieces of architecture not just in Moscow, but in all of Russia. In fact, the salmon-colored church with its onion-shaped domes is likely the first image that comes to mind when most people think of visiting the country. It's located in Moscow's central Red Square, just a stone's throw away from the city's other most important landmarks. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is open to the public as a museum for the chance to learn more about its fascinating history and one-of-a-kind architecture.

History

The church is officially known as the Church of the Intercession or Pokrovsky Cathedral and it has 10 domes, with each dome sitting on top of an individual chapel inside. One of those chapels is home to the remains of Vasily—or Basil in the anglicized alphabet—who's a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and today the entire cathedral is commonly referred to by his name.

The church was first commissioned by Ivan the Terrible—a contemporary of Saint Basil—to commemorate his conquests in the Kazan region and was built between 1555 and 1561. Urban legend says that after the church was completed, Ivan blinded the architects who created it so they would never again be able to create something as beautiful, although that's likely more story than fact.

The building has survived all types of turmoil, from raging fires to nearly being blown up by Napoleon when he invaded the Russian Empire. But perhaps the narrowest escape came after the Russian Revolution as Joseph Stalin secularized the country and considered demolishing the entire church. In the end, he took control of the building from the Orthodox community, banned Christians from praying there, and converted it to a state-run museum. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the government has maintained control of the church but once again allowed worshippers to use it.

Architecture

The church's enduring fame derives from its distinctive—even eccentric—design. The onion domes and vibrant clash of colors have become symbolic of Imperial Russian architecture, although the church has evolved and changed over time. The domes were added a few years after the original structure was completed and damaged by a fire, and the vivid colors were painted on throughout the 17th to 19th centuries. And while much of the church's history is shrouded in mystery, it seems that it was a pioneering piece of architecture in its day and possibly the first church in Russia to feature the onion dome, which is now ubiquitous in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Visiting the Cathedral

Every traveler to Moscow passes through the Red Square to gawk at St. Basil's striking design, but the church is just as impressive from the inside as it is outside. Since the cathedral still operates as a state museum, it's open daily to visitors who want the full experience (although it sometimes closes down for restoration).

The insides of the chapels are surprisingly small and richly decorated, with windows offering unique views of the cathedral as well as the Red Square. The stone floors exhibit the wear marks of nearly 500 years' worth of steps taken by the religiously devoted. The interconnected chapels with their doors, nooks, artwork, and niches make the interior of St. Basil's seems like something out of a storybook, so even young kids get a kick out of this historical church.

Ticket prices for getting in range from 700–1,000 Russian rubles depending on the season, or roughly $10 to $14. For a small supplement, you can also pick up an audio guide—available in English, French, Chinese, and Spanish—to truly learn about the church's history and architecture while you're looking at it.

Getting There

If you're traveling to Moscow, it's almost impossible not to see St. Basil's Cathedral. It's right in the heart of the city in the Red Square, conveniently located just steps away from the Kremlin, the State Historical Museum, Lenin's Mausoleum, and the GUM shopping center. As the city's main center, it's easily connected to the Moscow Metro with the closest stations being Okhotny Ryad, Teatralnaya, Ploschad Revolyutsii, and Kitay-Gorod.

You probably don't want to be out and about in the winter, but when the weather is nice Moscow is a very walkable city. It's also hard to get lost since the streets of Moscow are designed like a giant spiderweb with the Red Square at the dead center.

As you're walking up to the church, it's easy to get distracted by the design and miss the bronze statue right in front of it. The Monument to Minin and Pozharsky commemorates the two men who helped unite a broken Russia in the early 1600s and expel Polish invaders, ending a turbulent period known as the Time of Troubles and giving rise to the Romanov Dynasty.

Was this page helpful?