Grand Neoclassical architecture and 17th-century monasteries line the twisting streets of this charming and historic quarter, which has evolved into the place to be for the city’s trendsetters – laced with stylish wine bars, exclusive nightclubs, cafés and high-end fashion stores
Having moved to Moscow from Saint Petersburg, fashion photographer Oksana Babenko found a perfect home in Kitay-Gorod about a year ago. “I see it as a cosy, small world within a huge city,” she explains. “I like that you can walk from one good place to another – a rarity in a city of Moscow’s proportions.”
As a freelance photographer and occasional model, Babenko has a good eye for work-and-talk places. She recommends the recently opened café ABC Coffee Roasters. “A flat white there is perfect. You can also eat cupcakes or something healthier, such as yoghurt with chia or mango purée. It’s a good place when you’re in a hurry,” she says.
Pinsa Maestrello is another popular grab-and-go spot, offering both vegetarian and meat pinsas (a spin on classic pizza with slightly different dough and a rectangular shape). “My favourites are the Nordica pinsa with salmon and Tartufina with mushrooms,” Babenko offers. “When it’s warmer outside, the best option is to get it to go and eat it on Yama Square, which is just a few steps away.”
For a convenient dinner and drinks combo she recommends starting at Italian restaurant Officina and then crossing the street to Bambule, a new and bohemian Berlin-inspired bar that has one of the most impressive and stylish basements in the city, with high ceilings and a huge selection of good wines – a great place to escape the winter chill outside. “It’s a place where you’re encouraged to experiment,” she says. “I always end up trying something new, thanks to the helpful staff. Organic orange wine is all the rage in Moscow at the moment. If you come during the weekend, there’s a DJ on the first floor, so for relaxed wining and gossiping, go downstairs.”
Record shop founder
An enduring establishment in the area is Mir Kino, one of Moscow’s last few remaining record shops. “We have both newly pressed records and rare 1970s and ’80s Soviet pressings,” says the shop’s founder, Alexander Kucherov, who adds that Kitay-Gorod is “as democratic as it gets, with no false glamour”. One new local project he rates is Rynok, a Soviet food market that has been reinvented into a trendy hangout spot packed with a wide variety of delicious food stalls. Kucherov’s favourite? The melt-in-your-mouth ribs at El Gaucho Steak House.
As for a proper restaurant experience, he directs visitors to the recently opened Polkovniku Nikto Ne Pishet (“No One Writes to the Colonel”). “It occupies an old reconstructed building and has great views of Gorka Park and a local synagogue. It’s also a very quiet place: not something you can easily find in Kitay-Gorod. I go there to gather my thoughts.”
Personal coach, blogger and local resident
Over the last few years, Moscow has undergone a somewhat controversial urban renewal program called “My Street”. It did result in the emergence of something new for the city: cleverly designed squares and parks.
Moscow’s forward-thinking media, architecture and design hub, Strelka Institute, played a significant role in turning a “constantly-closed-for-construction square” in Kitay-Gorod – which even featured the remains of a 16th century guarding wall – into an amphitheatre-shaped public space known as Yama Square. It soon attracted the youth from all over the city. Olga Polishuk, Strelka Institute’s former chief operations officer, calls the place “the heart of the neighbourhood”. “It’s a perfect, well-executed example of old Moscow meeting new trends.”
Another new space bursting with young energy is Gorka Park, located right in front of Moscow Choral Synagogue. “It’s a sort of anthropological sanctuary,” Polishuk says with a laugh. “It is where you go to see what Russian teens look and behave like.”
“Kitay-Gorod is famous for its alleys, where you can easily get lost,” Polishuk adds. “As for the coffee, you should go to Kooperativ Chernyi – these guys, who work as a proper co-op, are the best in the game.”
Speaking of beautiful locations, Polishuk recalls a “wildly gorgeous” building on Yauzsky Boulevard, where Australian-inspired café One Teaspoon lives. “The first thing you have to try there is porridge with parmesan and pesto. It sounds crazy, but tastes incredible.”
For a loud night out, she dares tourists to venture to Veladora, a Mexican bar which has no sign but offers plenty of fun: “The road [to get there] itself is a total adventure and the vibe is great. Come for delicious tacos and stay for the huge collection of mezcal.”
DJ at Propaganda
With its proximity to several big universities and a range of diverse spaces for rent, it’s no surprise that Kitay-Gorod has become one of Moscow’s main party districts. Lively bars and clubs sprout in this neighbourhood continuously, however most don’t seem to hold much longevity due to a tough economic climate and fast-changing trends – several years is the average lifespan of many hotspots.
This makes café-by-day, nightclub-come-midnight Propaganda quite the anomaly – since opening in 1997, it has not once changed its location, relaxed attitude and busy schedule (there’s a party here every single night).
Sergey Sapunov has been the nightclub’s resident DJ for 20 years and has lived in the neighbourhood for 15. “[Propaganda is] pure magic… a well-oiled machine with great music, great food, affordable prices and a chill door policy,” he says. “There are also two smaller restaurants in Kitay-Gorod [affiliated with Propaganda] worth mentioning – Lyudi Kak Lyudi and Filial,” he adds. The former is a cosy café serving moreish baked goods, while the latter is a hipster affair known for great steaks, a strong wine and cocktail list and the occasional laid-back DJ set.
If you’re looking for a suave, sophisticated bar, Sapunov points out the new Black Swan Pub: “It’s my local pub where I get my Guinness and soak in the pub’s antique atmosphere.” To get to Sapunov’s other favourite bar, you will have to walk a little, although it is still fairly close to Kitay-Gorod: “Mandy’s Apothecary Irish Pub is for anyone who’s looking for a classic Irish pub,” he says.
A (very brief) backgrounder of how this suburb came to be
The literal translation of Kitay-Gorod in modern Russian is “China Town” however there has actually never been a Chinese settlement here. The origin of the word kitay is disputed; it may come from the Tatar word for fortress, but most likely it derives from the Russian word kita, in reference to the twigs that were used to reinforce the earthen wall that once surrounded the area. Some historians believe that the name was borrowed from a Ukrainian village, where Ivan the Terrible’s mother lived.
The history of the area dates back to the mid-11th century, but it was in the 16th century that a 2.5km-long medieval brick wall was built around it to protect the area and connect it to the Kremlin.
Different eras saw dramatically different types of residents inhabiting Kitay-Gorod: from merchants to aristocrats and back to merchants again. Tougher times in the Soviet era contributed to the area once having a somewhat menacing atmosphere, yet ever since 1991’s dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kitay-Gorod has continued to grow into one of the trendiest parts of the capital.
This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine