Exit from Mayakovskaya metro station onto Triumfalnaya Ploshchad, turn left under the arcade of the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall and past the gates of the Aquarium Gardens. Walking along the Garden Ring is never ideal, but you can break the noisy monotony by popping into the courtyard of Bulgakov's flat at No. 10. The flat itself, now a museum, is through a locked door at the top of the second staircase on the left. More accessible (and free), is the Bulgakovsky Cultural Centre, open from 1 pm, through the first doorway, decorated with owls and galloping horses. It contains a small museum and funky cafe.
Further along Bolshaya Sadovaya at No. 4, you reach a house that Shekhtel built as his private residence in 1909 in a neo-classical style. This was the third house he built for himself and has none of the bizarre and fantastical elements associated with his early work. Here, instead, the portico with Doric columns and bas relief sculpture over the archway show how restrained this versatile architect could be. Go back a few steps along the main road and cross the tiny park on the right, turning left along Yermolayevsky Pereulok on the far side.
The lovely house on the corner at No. 28, which is now the residence of the Uruguaian ambassador, was an earlier house that Shekhtel built for himself in 1896. Here the style is morphing between the 19th century gothic and the early 20th century art nouveau (or Style Moderne as it is called in Russia). The arched windows and turrets hark backwards, but the irregular form and iris mosaic over the doorway hint at experiments to come. The unignorable modern building across the road, with pillars and a semi-circle-topped facade, is the canteen of the Military Academy built in 1988.
Following the road round to the right, the miniature chateau at No. 11, Trekhprudny Pereulok also combines medieval motifs with the decorative elements of the new Style Moderne. This is a Printing Works built for Levenson in 1900. It is decorated with an arts-and-crafts-style relief of a printer at work and stone thistles. Take the second right turn along Maly Kozikhinsky Pereulok and go straight on past the Patriarch's pond with its pavilion and duck house.
Turn left on Ulitsa Spiridonovka and stop opposite No. 17 to admire Shekhtel's early, gothic masterpiece, the Morozov Mansion. This baronial castle, complete with gargoyles and lancet windows, was built in the 1890s for the wealthy Morozov family. The mansion is now owned by the Foreign Ministry. Only very lucky visitors are allowed inside to catch a glimpse of the stained glass windows by Vrubel, wolf-guarded staircase and grand fireplace that are said to adorn the interior.
Luckily, the art nouveau house that Shekhtel built for Stepan Ryabushinsky, just 500 metres away at the end of Spiridonovka, is not only open to the public, it is - wonderfully - free. The Ryabushinksy Mansion (also known as the Gorky House since it houses the Gorky house-museum) is open 11 am-6 pm, Wed.-Sun. Like the Morozovs, the Ryabushinksys were merchants and old believers and Shekhtel was asked to incorporate a secret chapel in the attic. You can visit the chapel by going up the staircase on the left through the door. In the adjoining room, there is a small exhibition (in Russian and English) about the Ryabushinsky family.
The organic, wave-form main staircase is the most striking feature of the interior design. The decoration of the downstairs rooms is rich with underwater motifs and a stained-glass jellyfish lamp is washed upstairs on the rippling marble Newel post. It is easy to see the influence of Shekhtel's early career as a freelance theatre designer. The rooms are as much stage sets as living spaces, every detail from door handles to window frames crafted with an eye to flowing form and thematic unity.
The outside of the house, by contrast, is more angular. The geometric planes are softened by rounded windows, wrought iron and a mosaic orchid frieze. The buildings next door, surrounding a courtyard and home to the Alexei Tolstoy Museum, were also designed by Shekhtel as part of the Ryabushinsky Estate. Turn left along Malaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa, cross over the Boulevard Ring and go on a little way along Bolshaya Nikitskaya to see one of Shekhtel's earliest projects.
The red brick Paradise Theatre (now the Mayakovsky) at No. 13 was redesigned around 1890 and shows the architect's mastery of the Russian Revival style which was popular then. The Mayak restaurant is upstairs. Walk back to the Boulevard Ring and turn right along the avenue in the middle of the road for a leafy 15 minute stroll to the metro at Tverskaya/Pushkinskaya. Don't miss one more Shekhtel creation, on the right at No. 18. The elegant green building with Style Moderne plaster work and balconies was built for the Smirnov family.
An architectural tour might not sound like a hit, but there are some things in its favour: it's short, it's central and some of the houses are bizarre enough to impress even cynical modern children for a few minutes; the family-friendly Starlite Diner is located in the Aquarium Gardens near the start; there are playgrounds by the pond and on the Boulevard Ring and Macdonald's at the end.
Landmark of the week
The Gorky House or Ryabushinsky Mansion, 6/2 Malaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa.
Commissioned by Stepan Ryabushinky, the art collector and chair of the stock exchange, Shekhtel's Art Nouveau Masterpiece was completed in 1903. Almost every detail was designed by the architect himself and preserves a perfect example of the versatility of the Style Moderne. Shekhtel's use of organic forms and colour make it particularly enjoyable to visit.