Vodka and forests, matryoshka dolls and domed churches: for a concentrated dose of iconic Russian images head for Izmailovo. Just five stops from the city centre, the labyrinthine Izmailovsky craft market is packed at weekends with patchwork quilts hats delicate lacquered boxes or dodgy Red Army memorabilia. The four tower blocks overshadowing the path from metro to market are the 5000-room Hotel Izmailovo. Built to accommodate visitors for the 1980 Olympics, at the time it was the largest hotel in the world, but is now managed as separate businesses. There is an amusing selection of the med bars and restaurants,offering food from Sweden,Vienna, Central Asia,Russia and elsewhere. The building next to the hotel that looks like a wooden church is also a café, but the area’stop culinary options are inside the market.
This part of Moscow is full of surprises. Hidden in a confusing mess of building work beyond the market, a couple of incongruous tanks mark the entranceway to Stalin's secret bunker, now housing a small display you can visit on a tour. The stadium above it was built as a decoy, while the double doors opposite the museum entrance lead to the start of a 17 km tunnel to the Kremlin, part of a secret “second metro” that some people claim runs under the entire city.
Moscow’s sprawling weekend crafts bazaar serves the best shashlik kebabs in town: skewers of seasoned lamb, chicken or salmon are charcoal-grilled in the open air all year round. The hunks of meat come with salad and flatbread and you can eat them in a wooden cabin upstairs, above the barbecues, filled with savoury smoke from the fires below.
Part of the market is dedicated to traditional crafts, including painted trays from Zhostovo or blue and white pottery from Gzhel. Nearby is the Artist's Avenue, where there are some beautiful paintings to be found among the ubiquitous sunsets and snow scenes. It’s worth a wander through the stalls of mother-of-pearl broaches and embroidered shawls to visit the antiques section at the back, up the stairs by the high-masted boat.
Izmailovsky has an extraordinary mixture of buildings, including a working church, a wooden windmill and wedding palace. In summer you’ll find an enclosure with three live bears near the entrance as well as kiosks selling pirated DVDs and crispy, deep fried pancakes.
An architectural extravaganza of fairy-tale churches and palaces, the nearby kremlin (fort) hosts several museums. Reached by crossing a walkway from the market’s upper levels, the artificial kremlin centres on a fantastical reconstruction of a seventeenth-century imperial palace. Brightly painted buildings stand around the courtyard, including the small Vodka Museum, open every day for a tour that includes a free taster.
The museum boasts over 1,000 different types of vodka, old recipes, posters, labels and distillation equipment dating back to the fifteenth century. The museum’s old- fashioned bar, with its painted walls and carved saloon-style swing doors, serves up sturgeon and fried potatoes to go with a more leisurely tasting.
Izmailovo’s kremlin also has museums of chocolate, bread, folk toys and Russian naval history. The Chocolate Museum, which opened in 2015, displays Soviet candy wrappers and a chocolate “studio” whose edible sculptures look like marble. You can even learn how to paint on gingerbread or fashion chocolate cartoon characters at masterclasses in the ludicrously over-decorated buildings. A descendant of the celebrated icon painter Simon Ushakov dreamt up this brilliantly kitschy ensemble in 2003, inspired by the area’s history.
Buy condensed milk pancakes from the Teremok blini stall near Partizanskaya metro and cross the pedestrian bridge over the Sebebryano-Vinogradny pond onto the nearby island. Only a few buildings survive from the old imperial estate here, but you get a great view of the market’s Disneyland spires and towers across the water.
Peter the Great grew up here, taught himself to sail on local ponds and rivers and trained his model armies in the woods. In a barn on this island, the future tsar found the little English boat that inspired him to create the Russian navy. At the far end of the island, by the wall of the whitewashed courtyard that used to contain the palace, is a statue of Peter, looking suitably maritime with an anchor and coil of rope.
The five-domed Intercession Cathedral nearby is decorated with distinctive peacock's tail-patterned tiles and the ornate Bridge Tower houses a historical museum. Peter the Great’s grandfather, Tsar Alexei, created this artificial island in the 1670s and added a wooden palace, including a dairy and bakery, to be the centre of his huge experimental farm. Nowadays the surviving arched gateways lead to an area of empty grass and birch trees, and the neglected lawns by the pond are generally deserted but for the odd picnicker.
To get even further off the beaten track and escape the tourists altogether, take the metro one stop further to Izmailovskaya station. Here you can step straight off the train into a Russian forest full of winding paths and shady lakes. You can even ski here in winter. The shopping complex near the metro station sells apple pies and hot sand- brewed Turkish coffee to warm you up, while a kiosk nearby does fresh khachapuri.
On the far side of the park, a small produce market on Shosse Entuziastov is heaped with halva and dried figs, redcurrants and rosehips. In between, a series of avenues lead through woods that once witnessed Tsar Alexei’s agricultural visions. His seventeenth-century model farm involved planting a physic garden and big arable fields, where he tried out new crops, growing everything from buckwheat to melons. He had a factory for turning flax into linen, a glass-blowing workshop, watermills and fish farms.
Today it is woodland again, with large, tree-lined ponds and, in the centre of the park, an imperial apiary where bees have been kept since the days of Tsar Alexei. A selection of beehives and an elaborately carved beekeepers cottage stand behind the fence, and two honey-guzzling wooden bears guard the gate.