Visitors can sometimes be a little wary of Russian zoos, but there's no reason to be - the dedication of the keepers to the animals is evident, and under-funding problems have by and large been resolved. Moscow Zoo, Russia's largest, is an increasingly respected conservation institution, but the main emphasis is on children's education and entertainment - it's more about giving the city's children a chance to see and touch farm animals than about big cats in small cages.
The idea for the Moscow Zoo was first put forward in 1857 by zoology Professor A.P. Bogadanov. The plan came to fruition 7 years later, when 300 animals, including 2 tigers and 2 lions, went on display. The Zoo's pavilions were made of wood and built in traditional Russian style, and up to 200,000 people a year came to visit. Nonetheless, the zoo suffered severe financial problems and, in the 1905 revolution, found itself the scene of heavy street-fighting during which the infrastructure was badly damaged and several of the animals perished.
After the Bolsheviks came to power, the zoo became state property, and considerably more funding was found. The zoo expanded rapidly, and in 1926 the New Territory was established on the other side of Bolshaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa. The zoo now covers over 20 hectares in total. During the war, the zoo remained open and, from 1941 to 1945, received 6 million visitors.
By the eighties, the zoo was in a terrible condition due to decades of Soviet neglect, and it wasn't until 1991, when the new Moscow city government under Mayor Luzhkov took control, that serious reconstruction began. The results have been impressive.
The main entrance to the zoo, built in 1997 during wide scale reconstruction to mark Moscow's 850th anniversary, stands opposite Barrikadnaya Metro. It was made to look like a fairy-tale castle with towers and a waterfall. This leads to the old part of the zoo, where the highlights include the big cats, and a neat underground viewing space below the penguin pool, as well as the sea lion enclosure that lets you watch them swim from below.
A pedestrian bridge takes you across the street into the New Territory, the most interesting parts of which are probably the primate house and the tacky but fun children's zoo, where younger visitors get the chance to see animals from various fairytales, watch chicks hatching in an incubator, and pets some of the more docile domestic breeds.
In total, about 5,000 animals of 750 species are kept in the Zoo, making it Russia's largest. If you're coming to Moscow with young children, it's probably one of the best ways to keep them entertained. Be warned, though, that it can get very crowded on weekends.
Getting there: across the road from Barrikadnaya Metro Station.
Opening hours: Daily from 10:00 to 17:00 (20:00 in summer), closed on Mondays.