On April 12, 1961, Yury Gagarin became the first human in space. The day is now celebrated around the world as "Yury's Night", but in Russia it is known as Cosmonautics Day and has been chosen this year as the appropriate time for the long awaited re-opening of Moscow's Space Museum near VDNKh. The VDNKh, or Exhibition of Economic Achievements, now officially known as the VVTs, or the All-Russia Exhibition Centre, is always an interesting place to visit. This tour focuses on the space-related sights in the area, but takes in churches, palaces and pavilions on the way. The huge, curving cliff of the Cosmos Hotel, which was built for the 1980 Olympics, is one of several oversized landmarks in the area. It has hosted numerous international conferences, including the first Global Forum for Nuclear Disarmament, at which Andrei Sakharov was a speaker, the 1995 Chess Olympics and a Convention of Astronauts. The hotel is on the other side of Prospect Mira from the park and the 70s-style lobby has several cafes and a planet sculpture. If you decide to start here, you might want to visit the red Church of the Tikhvinsky Ikon with its piled up gables. Built in the 17th century, it was an imperial staging post on the pilgrimage to Sergiev Posad.
Crossing straight under the underground perekhod from the church brings you out at one end of the Avenue of Cosmonauts near two giant globes, covered in terrestrial and celestial maps. These, and the bronze solar system at the far end, are part of the area's recent face-lift. The unmissable 1960s Monument to the Con querors of Space is straight ahead, soaring up on its titanium exhaust plume, which catches fire in the spring sunlight. As you walk towards the rocket, you pass a series of star-shaped plaques charting the history of the Soviet space programme from 1957. The first statue you reach on the left is a new tribute to Sergei Korolyov, chief rocket designer during the 1950s and 1960s. The row of busts on the right represents famous cosmic "firsts" including Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and - of course - Yury Gagarin.
The seated figure in front of the giant monument is Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the pioneer of astronautic theory. A reclusive figure, he spent most of his life in a log cabin near Kaluga. The sides of the memorial are decorated with socialist realist friezes, celebrating the space programme. The base of the monument contains the Memorial Museum of Cos monautics due to reopen this week with new interactive exhibits. The original exhibition included the stuffed space dogs, Belka and Strelka and a huge amount of Soviet gadgetry. Coming out through the back gate near the museum, you can see space-age monorail station ahead of you.
If you want to visit Korolyov's house-museum, which is nearby, turn left and follow the overhead monorail (and tramlines) until you can see the next station ahead and then turn right along 6th Ostankinsky Pereulok. The detached house is on your right and is open Wed.-Sun. for tours at 11 a.m., 12 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Ring the bell and wait. The tour costs 100 roubles and there is a stirring short film you can watch, for 30 roubles, about the life and achievements of this legendary man. You might manage to negotiate a cheaper, shorter tour. As much as anything else, the 1950s house, where Korolyov lived until he died in 1966, is a museum of mid-20th century décor. If you visit the museum, you can walk back to the tram and continue on to Ostankino. Or you can take a short cut through the elegant side gate into VVTs (see map). The circular building, just inside this gate, houses a Chinese teashop and an incredible old-fashioned panoramic cinema where you can sit on benches and watch travelogues projected onto 11 giant screens round the walls.
If you want to skip the house-museum, but take in the palace at Ostankino get straight onto the monorail or tram; the monorail drops you further away, but has a better view. Get off near the massive Ostankino TV Tower, still closed after two fires, at the stop called Teletsentr and head round the pond towards the pink and white palace and the many-domed Trinity Church. The fantastic palace interiors and theatre will reopen next month, but in the meantime you can still admire the church with its regular services with singing.
Walking back past the church and palace, turn left into Ostankino Park, past the palace gardens, and skirt left past the pond. There is a café here with a great business lunch. Turn right at the café and walk along the avenue through the gates back into the VDNKh with its eclectic mix of buildings. Use the huge dome of the Cosmos Pavilion to orient yourself, passing a green amphitheatre and some gardens to arrive on Industry Square near the Vostok rocket. The huge domed building was created as the Mechanisation Pavilion in 1939 and the hall was used in 1964 for an Aerospace exhibition that drew huge crowds. It is relatively empty now, but it is still worth walking past the kiosks selling seeds and garden equipment to look up inside the dome.
Walk past the rocket, a genuine model and similar to the one that took Gagarin into space, heading back towards the main gates and metro. Pavilion 58, originally the Ukrainian Pavilion, has an incredible stained glass doorway and is covered with ceramic decorations. Between the Stone Flower fountain and the golden figures at the far end, this square is lined with interesting buildings where you can see everything from live sharks to waxworks.