(CNN)Moscow suggests that age-old clich, “a city of contrasts:” onion domes and concrete, avant-garde and bureaucracy, Vogue-thin beauties and sour cream-smothered beets — not to mention a populace as given to partying as it is to quoting Pushkin.
For visitors, the heavier side of the Russian capital has often outweighed the light, but in the past few years the best of Moscow has gained a serious spring in its step.
Now, disused factories host cafs and art galleries. Concrete-heavy parks sport free Wi-Fi and table tennis. Chefs whip heavy pelmeni and borscht into airy new concoctions. English-language signs guide visitors through ancient streets.
While this city of 11.5 million residents modernizes (some estimates place the population as high as 17 million), remnants of the Soviet past remain just below the surface.
Behemoths such as Stalin’s Gothic Baroque skyscrapers have triumphed against the course of history. But treasured spots like bliny cafs, a proletarian palace, and other landmarks struggle to survive.
While exploring the vanguards of the best of Moscow’s current metamorphosis, use this guide to discover these mementos of daily life in the former capital of communism — before they’re gone for good.
The sweeping panoramas seen from the Swisstel’s 27 cylindrical stories outclass those of the low-lying luxury hotels near the Kremlin.
Floor-to-ceiling windows in every room add drama to the scene.
The design strikes a balance between comfortable and ostentatious, with grand marble bathrooms softened by earthy upholstery and simple hardwood floors.
Although slightly outside the city center, Swisstel has the advantage of being right by Paveletsky Rail Terminal, the station for trains to and from Domodedovo airport.
The highlight of any stay is a cocktail at the flying saucer-like City Space Bar. (See “Nightlife” below.)
The Golden Apple
The Golden Apple’s slick combination of historic and avant-garde makes it the best of Moscow’s designer hotels.
It’s housed in a 19th-century mansion painted Easter egg blue just off glamorous Tverskaya Street, a 10-minute walk from Red Square.
Every floor is painted a shade of the rainbow (naturally, there are seven in all).
Each of the 92 guestrooms has a different design based on its color.
The best room is the Chekhov Deluxe: a sculpture of a seagull nods to the playwright’s best-known work, while the excellent view and heated bathroom floor might inspire you to linger over some Russian classics.
Arbat House is an inviting place in the city center.
Located on a quiet side street surrounded by embassies and mansions, it’s several minutes’ walk from the pedestrian-only Old Arbat.
The staff is polite and friendly, and rooms are comfortable and modern.
For the best experience, request one of the freshly renovated ones.
A major plus is the expansive complimentary breakfast served in the restaurant and outdoor terrace.
The only drawback is thumping techno, which provides a clubbier start to the day than you might prefer.
Surly Soviet monoliths on the outskirts of town were once the budget traveler’s sole lodging recourse, but the new Moscow branch of this Russian hotel chain is a gracious, relaxing haven just one stop outside the central metro line.
Azimut is housed in a 19th-century textile factory, and maintains many features of the original design: exposed brick, vaulted ceilings and cast-iron columns.
Service is reliable, and rooms come with mini-fridges, flat-screen TVs and free Wi-Fi.
The only downside is a so-so breakfast costing 600 rubles.
A better choice is to pick up fresh bread, cheese and fruit at nearby Danilovsky market and store it in the mini-fridge.
Cutting-edge culinary trends are slow to hit the best of Moscow, which is still eating its way through a post-Soviet pizza and sushi binge.
But molecular gastronomy has found a following at Varvary (“barbarians”), which whips heavy Russian standards into mind-bending emulsions, ice creams and foams.
Never last to recognize his own genius, chef Anatoly Komm is fond of bemoaning his countrymen’s failure to appreciate his mastery.
But his cooking speaks for itself: Varvary was the only Russian entry on S.Pellegrino’s 2011 list of the world’s 50 best restaurants.
The best way to experience it is the 12-course “gastronomic show,” which includes borscht with duck liver.
Georgian restaurants in the best of Moscow long mirrored many Mexican joints in the United States — spicy, south-of-the-border kitsch, with grape vines replacing sombreros.
But this sunny spot off Tverskaya kick-started the current trend of presenting Georgian food in a simpler, more modern package.
The essential base for any meal is the eponymous khachapuri: flatbread stuffed with salty sulguni cheese and baked or fried.
The simplest is imeretinsky, while the most decadent is boat-shaped, fried egg-topped adzharsky.
Beyond juicy meat dumplings and herby lamb stew, there are abundant vegetarian options, the best being walnut-stuffed eggplant and adzhapsandali, a mix of eggplant, tomato and red pepper.
Unfortunately, the Russian ban on Georgian imports means the country’s succulent wine is conspicuously absent.
Over the past two years, this block on Bolshaya Gruzinskaya has become the best of Moscow’s hottest culinary corner, thanks largely to Ragout.
Many post-Soviet restaurants embraced soulless luxury, with heavy furniture, elaborate textiles and disdainful staff.
But bright, friendly Ragout has been a leader in lightening things up.
The small, unfussy restaurant has simple wooden tables, servers unopposed to cracking a smile and surprising combinations of European and Russian cuisine.
Portions are small and presentations are elegant, with the occasional novelty, such as beet or bacon mousse.
Ragout is particularly good for dessert, the Tula gingerbread and Kostroma cheese ice cream being standouts.
If the sight of dill starts inducing nausea, take a night off Russian food at North Korean restaurant Koryo.
Murals of Korean maidens, hostesses dressed in traditional garb and telecasts from Pyongyang remind visitors of which side of the DMZ they’re dining.
Waitresses are serenely gracious, but tight-lipped about the homeland.
Much of the menu is familiar to fans of South Korean food, but also includes regional specialties like Pyongyang naengmyeon: cold buckwheat noodles in broth with meat and egg. Salads must be ordered extra, but the fresh kimchi is worth sampling.
Dining at Koryo is also a good opportunity to see the Yuri Gagarin monument near Leninsky Prospekt metro station, a soaring titanium homage to the first man in space.
Mayak is a longtime mecca for the best of Moscow’s creative intelligentsia.
Officially connected to the Mayakovsky Theater downstairs, it got its start in the 1990s as a hangout for actors and directors.
Today its crowd is among Moscow’s most diverse, with an unpredictable mix of ages, spoken languages and income levels on any given night.
After ascending a well-tread stone staircase, guests emerge into an inner sanctum of wooden chairs and oval mirrors that facilitate crowd watching.
It’s best to end up here at the end of a night, when the smoke clouds are thick and tongues are loose.
Housed in a yawning industrial space at a former gas factory, Arma is a wilder, more underground version of glossy Krasny Oktyabr.
It’s arguably Moscow’s best spot for no-holds-barred clubbing, with an open dance floor fit for 1,500 revelers.
Arma’s mission is simple: stage raves with the best electronic music around.
It frequently succeeds, bringing in staggering sets of DJs from Russia and Western and Eastern Europe, as well as vagabond international parties like Circo Loco.
The crowd ranges from disaffected hipster to Euro pop. As usual, beware of face control.
Arma17, 5 Nizhny Susalny Lane, 3A; +7 495 410 0414
City Space Bar
The black Mercedes set rides the elevator to the top floor of the Swisstel for 360-degree views and the best cocktails in Moscow.
Forget casual cool: City Space proudly flaunts 1990s-style conspicuous consumption, anointing itself “the epitome of luxury.”
Barman Bek Narzi mixes a showy molecular series with cocktails like “Midnight Rain” topped with vanilla foam, but the real standouts feature ingredients native to the Motherland.
The White Russky contains kvass (a fermented drink made from rye bread), while sour sea-buckthorn jam gives a kick to the Trans-Siberian Express.
To show your social savvy (and get the best view), call ahead and reserve a seat by the window.
Solyanka is the coolly beating heart of Moscow hipsterdom.
Ascending the staircase at this former mansion in historic Kitay Gorod is like stepping through the looking glass to Brooklyn.
The vibe is understated: willowy devushkas eschew stilettos for oversized glasses, and the series of small rooms feels more house party than Moulin Rouge.
This isn’t the place for a liberating dance romp.
DJs can get stuck in dub step, and some patrons prefer to pose languidly rather than let their hair down, but Saturday night’s “Love Boat” party rarely disappoints.
Come morning, Solyanka is an excellent spot to bring a laptop and linger over breakfast.
This former Soviet chocolate factory on an island near the Kremlin rules the city’s new nightlife scene, hosting a raft of trendy establishments.
It’s best in summer, when rooftop terraces provide heady views over the Moscow River.
Its swankiest spot is retro Strelka, which serves tasty tapas, well-crafted cocktails and high society.
Rowdy, smoky Rolling Stone Bar is ideal for drinking sloppily and flirting with abandon.
Gipsy, currently Krasny Oktyabr’s hottest spot, has a little of everything: Turkish rugs, a glittering dance floor, a globetrotting menu and naughty cocktails named after body parts.
Come for frequent shots, tight dresses and all-night dancing.
Sunday Up Market
To discover Russian designers, the city’s best bet is Sunday Up Market, a popular design sale organizer that has recently opened two permanent locations.
The first is in slick new department store Tsvetnoy Central Market, a fresher alternative to longtime favorite TsUM (the Russian Bergdorf).
In the basement and third floor, you’ll find clothing by Russian designers like Masha Tsigal and Maria Rybalchenko, along with vintage items and handmade accessories.
Sunday Up Market also has digs in equally cool Podium Market.
Located in the newly renovated Moskva hotel near the Kremlin, Podium showcases established designers like Stella Ndombi and Cyrille Gassiline for lower-than-usual prices.
Sunday Up Market, +7 495 688 5867
Russia’s beloved Bolshoi recently reopened after a 23-billion-ruble renovation shuttered its main stage for six years.
Improved acoustics, new seating and touched-up mosaics have restored the decomposing theater to its imperial luster.
The opera and ballet productions are more popular than ever, but it’s not just the same old “Swan Lake.”
Experimental new stagings of classics like “Ruslan and Lyudmila” are sending traditionalists into a tizzy — and winning the theater new cultural relevance.
After a major scalping scandal, the Bolshoi now runs an online booking system. Reserve early, as tickets can sell out months in advance.
Winzavod and Artplay
Winzavod, a cluster of galleries, shops and cafs in a former wine factory, has been at the heart of Moscow’s cultural transformation.
Although a recent rent hike has prompted several galleries to leave the center, Winzavod still reveals an excellent swathe of contemporary Russian visual art and photography, with highlights including the venerable Regina Gallery.
Performing arts space Platforma is presided over by hot director Kirill Serebrennikov, who has staged controversial new productions for the Bolshoi and often adds a political edge.
A post-show coffee at Tsurtsum caf frequently allows a closer glimpse of artists and impresarios.
Nearby Artplay, a younger art and design center in a Soviet-era factory, is Winzavod’s late-night counterpart.
While it stages hot exhibitions, Artplay’s real draw is rooftop parties and concerts.
Winzavod, 4th Syromyatnichesky Ln., Building 6; +7 495 917 4646
Vanishing Soviet Moscow
A casualty of Moscow’s modernization has been the loss of some of its treasured relics. But there are still several holdovers with fight left in them.
Beginning in the 1960s, Soviets grabbed quick bites at pelmennayas, blinnayas, cheburechnayas and other spots named after the dish they served — i.e., pelmeni (meat dumplings), bliny (pancakes) or chebureki (meat-stuffed fried dough).
Most of these spots have vanished in the era of McDonald’s, but a handful remain.
Customers order at the counter and eat while standing at raised tables, a plastic cup of tea or vodka customarily in hand.
Poet Joseph Brodsky frequented the pelmennaya on Krasina Street, with its fake wood interior and Constructivist-style sign.
The blinnaya on Vorontsovskaya Street has barely changed since opening in 1962, making it a popular filming location.
Another 1960s spot, Druzhba, is less atmospheric, but cheap vodka and chebureki keep customers coming.
Praga sweets shop
Praga opened in the 1950s, selling Czech specialties like salted pork fat.
But it’s best known as the birthplace of ptichye moloko (bird’s milk) cake, a fluffy marshmallow coated in chocolate.
The Soviet cake is still sold in red and blue boxes alongside cases of Russian foods like syrniki (sweet cheese pancakes), pirozhki (meat or vegetable pies) and Krasny Oktyabr chocolates.
Candies like Mishka (the blue wrapper with the bears) remain hugely popular, though their synthetic taste can disappoint.
Palace of Soviets gas station
The only part of the Palace of Soviets — which was planned in the 1930s — that actually got built is this little-noticed gas station next to the Pushkin Museum.
The palace’s towering congress hall was supposed to stand on the spot formerly occupied by Christ the Savior Cathedral, and was due to be topped by a representation of Lenin taller than the Statue of Liberty.
When the Palace never materialized, it was repurposed as a filling station for official Kremlin cars.
Today its paint is peeling, but flashing light-topped Mercedes still occasionally pull up for a tank.
Due to the expansion of the Pushkin Museum, this unique gas station is scheduled for demolition by 2018.
Palace of Soviets gas station, Volkhonka St., between Buildings 14 and 16
This picturesque spot atop southern Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills) makes for a trip back to Khrushchev’s thaw along with its sweeping city views.
Completed in 1963, the Pioneer Palace was to be the utopian heart of the Soviet youth organization, complete with a concert hall, football fields and a planetarium.
Little has changed: a statue of Pioneer mascot Malchish-Kibalchish stands by the entrance, and the central building is covered in mosaics of Lenin and energetic youth.
Meanwhile, music from Soviet films blares from the loudspeakers.
The Pioneer Palace is still in use as a school and arts space, but recent renovation proposals could soon bring an end to its time-capsule feel.
The Pioneer Palace, 17 Kosygina St.
The Central Museum of Armed Forces
One of the world’s finest military museums offers an exhaustive look at the entire history of the Soviet military.
Most of the 24-room museum is devoted to the Great Patriotic War (known in the West as World War II).
Among thousands of artifacts, the original Soviet victory flag hoisted over the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945 is here.
Cold War relics include weaponry, spy technology and pieces of Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane, which was brought down over the USSR in 1960 and has been in display here ever since.
Outside, more than 150 weapons, planes, missiles and battle vehicles are on display.