NICK BOULOS spends the ultimate 48 hours in Moscow
FURRY hats and shots of vodka are all very well but Moscow is shedding its tired stereotypes. As city breaks go, they don't get much better than the political powerhouse that is the capital of the world's largest country.
It has a fascinating culture that shows no sign of subsiding in this age of modernisation. In fact, few places blend old and new as well as Moscow does.
Dating back to the 12th century there is much to keep you busy: ornate churches and cathedrals to marvel at, ancient treasures to covet and an embalmed leader to pay your respects to.
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Add to this a thriving café culture, innovative restaurants and bars that wouldn't be out of place in Paris or New York and Moscow is fast emerging as a destination to tempt travellers who want it all.
Start at the Kremlin. Within the looming red walls of this fortified compound are the President's office and the world's largest bell weighing 201 tonnes. During a fire in 1737 a huge piece cracked off it and this chunk remains on display.
Check out the burial chambers of the tsars and the armoury which houses some serious bling. Rooms are filled with priceless jewels, elaborate Fabergé eggs, coronation gowns belonging to past empresses and gilded carriages.
Opposite the Kremlin and taking centre stage on Red Square is St Basil's Cathedral.
Its iconic 16th-century swirling domes feature on nearly every postcard of the city, and its rich interior is a warren of chapels decorated with beautiful frescoes, icons and oil paintings.
Make it a Red Square hat-trick by visiting Lenin's Mausoleum. The founder of the Soviet Union has been lying in state since his death in 1924 and devotees still flock to his side.
Elsewhere, take a cruise along the Moscow River, contemplate the ice sculptures at Krasnaya Presnya Park and enjoy a night at the ballet.
The world-renowned Bolshoi (www.bolshoi.ru) performs almost daily and it's a spectacle that should not be missed. Book tickets in advance online.
There's more to Russian food than borscht and beef stroganoff but it's a good place to start so head to Ded Pikhto (Ulitsa Myasnitskaya 37), an endearing restaurant modelled on an idyllic Russian cottage.
Homely and snug with family portraits hanging on the kitsch wallpaper, the food is equally comforting, including borscht (beetroot soup) and rabbit stew with buckwheat porridge.
For something a little more exotic, book a table at Expedition, 6 Pevchesky Lane (www.expedicia.ru), quite possibly the only restaurant in the world with a helicopter in the middle of the dining room.
Delicacies include salted muksun - a white fish found in Siberian waters - and reindeer stew with vodka. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a fan.
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Hip and hedonistic, Moscow's nightlife is legendary but it can be a little intimidating with the notorious "face police" turning people away if their visage doesn't fit. Arty types head to Didu (Myasnitskaya 24 St 1). This quirky bar with sophisticated cocktails, good music and a trendy clientele encourages punters to get creative by placing boxes of plasticine on each table. The finished products adorn the walls.
For something less intoxicating but no less indulgent, visit Café Pushkin (Tverskoy Boulevard 26s) for Moscow's best hot chocolate bar none.
Thick and obscenely rich, it's well worth the 20-minute wait as the bar staff disappear to slowly melt the chocolate for you.
Savour a cup by the hushed bar basked in romantic candlelight or on the delightful rooftop terrace.
Moscow is one of Europe's leading shopping destinations but don't expect too many bargains.
Department store GUM on Red Square houses all the luxury brands. Created over a century ago it is regarded as the country's greatest store.
Elsewhere, palatial Yeliseev (Ulitsa Tverskaya 14), Moscow's most famous food hall, is where the wealthy have filled their pantries since 1901.
Glistening chandeliers illuminate the shelves stacked high with eye-wateringly expensive caviar and other luxury goods.
Izmaylovo Market offers an altogether different shopping experience and is the place for Soviet memorabilia.
Choose from gas masks, old coins, KGB passports and retro propaganda posters.
While you're there why not pop into the gift shop inside the nearby Vodka History Museum.
Browsing the many souvenir shops along Ulitsa Arbat will ensure you don't return home empty handed. A Matryoshka, the iconic Russian nest of dolls that decrease in size, is top of most people's list.
The most intricate cost upwards of £800 but savvy bargain hunters can pick one up for around £5. Arbat is also a good place to buy a bottle (or two) of smooth, good-quality vodka. Prices from £8 per bottle.
Cox & Kings (0207 873 5000/www.coxandkings.co.uk) offers three nights at the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya hotel from £825pp (two sharing), room only. Price includes return BA flights from Heathrow. A visa is required in advance for entry (from £26.40). More information: ru.vfsglobal.co.uk. Russian National Tourist Office: 0207 495 7570/www.visitrussia.org.uk