Whenever you visit the All-Russia Exhibition Centre, or VVTs, you are sure to find something new: a forgotten architectural gem, a group of Socialist Realist statues or murals, a hidden flowerbed or fragrant tea shop. At two kilometres long, the landscaped grounds are enormous - and full of surprises. The pavilions now host constantly changing specialist exhibitions of everything from ice cream to bell ringing.
On August 1, 1939, the centre first opened its doors as the hugely successful All-Union Exhibition of Agriculture. It had more than 250,000 requests to present displays, involved 2,000 craftsmen in construction and received 3.5 million visitors in the first three months alone.
Although it was originally planned as a one-off event, this popularity kept the exhibition open until World War II forced it to close. It reopened in 1954 with still more pavilions, fountains and an even larger area. Many of the original pavilions were reconstructed in line with the prevailing taste for lavish architectural details. The characteristic Stalinist spike was added to the roof of the central pavilion and the monumental main gate replaced a more elegant archway, which is now a side entrance.
In 1956, the All-Union Industrial Exhibition was opened around Mechanisation Square and, in 1959, the whole thing became the All-Union Exhibition of People's Economic Achievements, or VDNKh - a name still popular in unofficial usage, perhaps because the local metro station has retained it. Since 1992, it has officially been the All-Russia Exhibition Centre or VVTs and has been forced to rely on commercial income to the detriment of many of the original buildings - so visit now while you still can.
Navigating your way around the grounds is complicated by the fact that many of the pavilions have had at least two different names as well as a number. The official VVTs website (www.vvcentre.ru) has information in English and a fantastic interactive map to help you out. In spite of the centre's fragmented history, a number of buildings do survive in some form from the original 1939 exhibition grounds. Here are a few highlights:
Pavilion 66: The Uzbek Pavilion (later the Culture Pavilion) was reworked in 1954, but the design and decoration were largely preserved. There is a huge white rotunda outside, stained glass windows and walls decorated with an oriental-style pattern in majolica. The idea was to showcase Uzbek craftsmanship, including intricately carved wooden doors and a lacy plasterwork frieze inside. The interior is quite spectacular, even though it is now broken up into kiosks.
Pavilions 64 and 59: The Leningrad and Moscow Region Pavilions, on the corner by the Stone Flower Fountain, have some nicely contrasting architectural details, supposedly representative of the contrasting styles of the regions they represent. The Leningrad Pavilion has a more classical feel with columns and stucco work while the Moscow Pavilion is reminiscent of one of the Kremlin towers, especially after it was topped with a star in 1954. The architect who worked on the Moscow Pavilion, Dmitry Chechulin, also designed a number of famous Moscow landmarks, including the Pekin Hotel, Kievskaya and Komsomolskaya metro stations and the huge Stalin skyscraper on Kotelnicheskaya Naberezhnaya.
Pavilion 58: The unmissable Ukrainian Pavilion (later the Agriculture Pavilion), with an elaborate doorway topped by what looks like stained glass (it's actually plastic), was decorated even more in 1954. The alabaster panels and gold spikes are original, as is the wheat-sheaf arch over the doorway. The farming motifs and the giant, spiked crown of metal herbs and flowers were added later. The door is very rarely open, although it's advertised as a party venue, and the building is beginning to crumble.
Pavilion 18: The Belarussian Pavilion (later the Electrical Equipment Pavilion), with a statue of a woman farmer on top, seems to be doing better. Renovation work has been going on for some time and, although you still can't get into the main hall, there are promising signs of maintenance. The most beautiful feature here is the colonnade with wreaths of majolica fruit and flowers wound round the pillars.
Pavilion 32: The Mechanisation Pavilion (later and better known as the Cosmos Pavilion) is the huge domed hangar behind the Vostok rocket. The original exhibition featured what was then state-of-the-art agricultural machinery, on constantly-moving conveyor belts on both levels. In the 1960s, the pavilion housed a hugely popular exhibition of authentic cosmonautic paraphernalia and a huge portrait of the first man in space, Yury Gagarin. It's now a garden centre.
Fountains: The fountains were added in 1954 and have become a major attraction, even though they are not very often in action. The circle of golden ladies round yet another wheat sheaf, representing the Friendship of Nations, has become the park's unofficial emblem. The glass-mosaic-covered Stone Flower fountain, surrounded by spouting geese and fish, is supposed to be based on fairy tales from the Urals. In the summer, it is sometimes screened off for dancing fountain concerts, which you need a ticket for.
Other shows and museums: A host of entertaining museums help to add interest to a day out at VVTs. There is a circus and a Museum of Fairy Tales (Pavilion 8). One of the most popular museums is the Ice Age Show in Pavilion 71: a pricey couple of rooms of coloured lights and stuffed mammoths, but kids often enjoy it. In other pavilions, you can see - for a fee - all kinds of things from butterflies (2) to live sharks (11). One of the best value and most interesting entertainments on offer is a Soviet-style IMAX experience in the circular Pavilion 74. Old-fashioned projectors and a gramophone create a nostalgia trip that lasts 20 minutes and costs 60 roubles. Their most popular show is a panoramic recreation of a journey on the trans-Siberian Express.
Nearest metro: VDNKh
Refreshments: The whole park is riddled with cafes of various kinds. Check out the Armenian restaurant in Pavilion 68. Be wary of the idyllic-looking cafes by the lake at the far end -- they frequently rip off customers with overpriced shashlyk. You're probably safe with a coffee.
Bus: If you get tired of walking there is a toy train doing the rounds, and a shuttle bus service (25 roubles) back to the metro from outside the Cosmos Pavilion.