Before embarking on my first visit to Moscow, I envisioned the city to be filled with tall dome-topped cathedrals and imposing imperial structures with grandiose interiors - with the red-brick walls of the Kremlin, the official home of the Russian president, in the backdrop.
While the Russian capital has all of the above, I was pleasantly surprised to find a younger undercurrent of creative culture running through its streets.
While there is no escaping from the historical architecture, which gives Moscow a scenic and respectable beauty, it also has an energetic exuberance that peeks out from every corner.
Walking through the streets, I find craft-beer bars and barber shops which house a cafe.
Artisanal markets sell locally produced cheese and jams, alongside rows of international food stalls offering everything from tacos to pho.
Boutiques carrying niche fashion brands sit alongside multi-label designer stores with artistic visual merchandising, reminiscent of the gallery-esque Dover Street Market in London.
I was in Moscow in September last year - autumn had just begun and the cool 19 deg C weather meant that many locals still travelled around on bicycles.
My guide, Anna, a 30-year-old Muscovite who has been living in the capital for most of her life, tells me that the city reached a turning point in 2013.
Before that, Moscow was seen as too expensive for many young people. But a series of urban redevelopments and a creative revolution led to the rise of affordable eateries, cinemas and beautiful parks, and the entry of high-street brands like Swedish fashion label H&M.
Much of the changes in the city's landscape were associated with Mr Sergei Kapkov, the minister of culture at the time. He resigned in 2015.
He pushed for changes in the city, such as more pedestrian walkways and cycling paths, that would cater to the needs of its middle class.
He also oversaw the redevelopment of Gorky Park (park-gorkogo. com/en), which was transformed from a ramshackle weed-strewn area to a world-class park with free Wi-Fi and bean bags to lounge on.
Besides structural changes, the citizens of Moscow changed as well. More, especially those under 30 years old, started travelling and brought back ideas, food and fashion trends from other countries.
Before, service standards were more brusque and functional, but as people became more exposed, they demanded a higher quality of service.
UPDATE ON CLASSIC FOOD A food culture began to emerge. Chefs experimented with traditional Russian ingredients and recipes, putting spins on classic local produce to create modern fare.
Identical twin brothers and chefs Ivan and Sergey Berezutskiy own and run Twins Garden (twinsgarden. ru), a sleek set-up with stellar views of central Moscow, where we stop for lunch.
The twins take a farm-to-table approach, with more than half of the produce they use coming from their 51ha eco-farm in Kaluga, a city which is a two-hour drive south-west of Moscow. The rest of their ingredients come from other parts of Russia.
Though the brothers say they serve Russian cuisine, one will not find on the menu the usual borscht, a sour soup typically made from fermented beetroot juice; or beef stroganoff, a creamy sauteed beef dish.
Instead, we get fresh bread baked in a Russian oven, served with mushrooms and a herb sauce. This is paired with a light curd-like cheese made from goat's milk and served with a fragrant pesto.
For my main, I select a pike perch fillet with peaches, potato mousse and baby zucchini. The fish, caught by fishermen off the east coast of Russia, is perfectly cooked and unexpectedly meaty. The peaches add a refreshingly tangy flavour to the meal.
For dessert, the waiter recommends arctic raspberry, a sweet baked milk dessert. What comes to the table is an adorable bright pink dessert shaped like a large raspberry. The baked milk has a sugar coating that cracks lightly as we scoop into the dessert - almost like a creamy semifreddo.
The entire meal, whipped up using Russian-grown produce and modern culinary techniques, is a great introduction to Moscow's food scene. It cost about 1,400 roubles (S$28.60). NATURE HOT SPOTS For nature lovers, Gorky Park is not the only green area in Moscow.
The newer Zaryadye Park (www.zaryadyepark.ru/en), opened in 2017, is also a great spot to relax.
The public park is close to Red Square, Moscow's central city square, and its wide open spaces and gentle hills are home to more than 200 species of plants and two dozen species of trees.
The park also has a concert hall, an amphitheatre and a media centre. But its most iconic feature is a floating bridge that extends from the park out towards the Moskva River.
Another Moscow highlight which marries old and modern is Danilovsky Market (Mytnaya Ulitsa, 74, Moskva), a Soviet-era farmers' market that was revamped and gentrified in 2015.
It sits under a large dome structure and Anna says young and old come here to shop for groceries as well as enjoy a good brunch.
The market is neat and clean and the air smells like flowers, spices and freshly ground coffee. There are stalls with carts piled high with fruit, vegetables, nuts and spices.
Behind these are stalls selling fish, caviar and red meats. There are also smaller booths peddling artisanal cheese, preserved meats and honey.
A third of the market is taken up by a row of food stalls, where one can find almost every imaginable type of cuisine - from Greek tapas to Chinese noodles to French toast.
We stop at a cart where a woman sells kvas, a fermented drink made from bread.
She pours me some from a tap and it looks like stout, with its dark colour and creamy foam on top.
Rather than bread, the kvas tastes like a sweet cider and reminds me of kombucha, an effervescent fermented tea.
I also try some churchkhela from a friendly stallholder giving out samples. The Armenian snack comprises nuts wrapped in a dried candy made from grape juice. Long strips of the snack hang on display at the stall.
Another shopkeeper offers me a taste of homemade elderberry jam.
He has about 10 types of flavoured jams, including blueberry and ginger, and after tasting one, I cannot help but try a few more. I end up buying a small jar of rhubarb jam to take home.
To end the day-long tour, Anna takes me to Strelka (strelka.com/ en/bar), a restaurant and bar by the Moskva River.
It is near the Red October (bit.ly/2ST7Cb9), a former chocolate factory which has become an art and culture enclave with galleries, designer ateliers, coffee shops selling cold brew and by-invite-only clubs.
When we reach Strelka, there is a photo shoot taking place near the entrance. Two models lean against the building's white brick walls as a photographer snaps away.
On the other side of the entrance, a group of four patrons play a leisurely game of table tennis.
It almost feels like I have walked onto a movie set.
Inside the restaurant, we walk up a flight of stairs to a wood-decked outdoor terrace with spacious seating under large white umbrellas.
We get a table facing the river, order drinks and snacks, and soak in the view as boats full of tourists sail by.
Across the river sits the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, an imposing structure along the horizon with its gleaming gold domes.
As the sun sets, this is perhaps an apt location to reflect on Moscow's mix of past and present, its old monuments and new creative hot spots.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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