The perfect retreat from million-miles-an-hour Moscow, the medieval cities of Russia’s Golden Ring are nestled amid green hills and floral meadows, with rambling country roads surrounded by forests, lakes, orchards and wooden farmhouses. The idyllic ‘Mother Russia’ of old still exists, and it’s right here.
Russia may be one single, colossal nation, but within its borders, there are many Russias. Everyone knows a bit about some of these Russias – the chaotic thrills of megacity Moscow or the frozen wilds of deepest Siberia.
But those who understand a little more about Russia may associate its thousands of years of rich human history with a different Russia. A much older Russia, still largely sheltered the rapid development and industrialisation, it’s generations of inhabitants living much of their lives almost unchanged for centuries.
Incredibly, this bucolic vision of village and rural life in Russia still exists in many ways, particularly in one picturesque region just a few hours northeast of Moscow. The Golden Ring is a string of provincial towns and cities, some dating back to at least the 10th century. The towns of the Golden Ring are living museums – you can feel the history in the air as you explore the ancient forts, gaze up at towering monasteries, and admire the magnificent cathedrals that have helped several historic precincts in this region UNESCO World Heritage status.
A true taste of old Mother Russia, the Golden Ring is a rare destination where tight-knit communities of locals still lead a large traditional Russian lifestyle – where the dacha (country house) is still an integral part of every harmonious rural society, and many of ‘the old ways’ of cooking, craft-making, religion and ritual are still followed and revered.
The name ‘Golden Ring’ actually refers to an overland tourist route – a return loop from Moscow that became a popular journey among Muscovite travellers in the 60s. The region is located northeast of Moscow and south-east of Saint Petersburg – both are easy jumping-off points for the area, although Moscow is closest to the most popular sites. For years, tourists and locals debated about which cities were “officially” part of the Golden Ring, eventually prompting the Soviet authorities to come up with the following list:
These eight travel hotspots are arguably the region’s most interesting and impressive cities, and you’ll find most tours concentrate on these places, but if time allows, there are many lesser-known villages with their own secrets to offer. The setting of these towns couldn’t be more picturesque – scattered across a rural landscape of rolling hills, flower blanketed meadows, fast-flowing rivers and crystal clear streams.
Whether your approach to history is fanatical, or more along the lines of “I’ll learn about it while I’m on holidays”, Russian history, above most other civilizations, is exceptionally captivating – no, let’s face it, awesome – with more political intrigue, wars, revolutions, heroes, villains, bizarre dynasties and enigmatic characters than the writers of Game of Thrones could ever hope to come close to.
Many Golden Ring cities date back to at least the 10th century. Yaroslavl, the oldest still-existing settlement on the Volga River (and home to several of Russia’s oldest significant buildings) celebrated its thousandth birthday in 2010. Many of these cities were once important trade settlements and played vital roles in both the rise of the Tsars and the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The region came under attack by invading Mongol forces in the 13th century – hence Golden Ring cities like Vladimir sporting impressive fortifications and even a few 700 years old battle scars.
The compact cities enjoy of the Golden Ring enjoy a more relaxed sense of time, making them the perfect antidote to the relentless pace of Moscow. Many of these medieval cities are so well preserved that there’s a palpable sense of entering another, much older time and place – somewhere which stayed remarkably unchanged for centuries. As well as taking great pride and reverence in their status as the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, these cities have carefully preserved time honoured traditions, folk, art, music and cuisine. Sit down at a quaint family-run café to try heart-warming fare cooked from old family recipes.
Some of Russia’s most iconic handicrafts originated here. Visit the colourful flea market and admire matryoshka dolls (wooden nesting dolls) in their home town, Sergiyev Posad, or find the perfect gifts in intricately decorated wooden tableware, lacquer boxes and enamel paintings.
Virtually every town is a living museum, with historic city centres made up of one meticulously preserved architectural masterpiece after another. Several landmarks have been recognised for their artistic merit and culture importance by being granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
These include the monasteries and onion-dome cathedrals of Yaroslavl, the white stone monuments of Vladimir (the Golden Gates, the church of Boris and Gleb, and the medieval wooden houses and windmills in Suzdal.
Full of vibrant colours and incredibly intricate craftsmanship (the astonishing church frescoes in Yaroslavl have few equals in Russia or elsewhere), almost every city on the Golden Ring circuit is a visual feast and a photographer’s paradise
The closest Golden Ring town to Moscow, Sergiyev Posad, is only 70km north of the city, which is close enough to visit as a day trip. There’s also a rail connection between Vladimir and Moscow which takes about two hours. So, it is possible to get a taste of the area in a day but to really understand what has shaped the Golden Ring into such a unique region, a stay of several days is definitely the way to go. If you’re pushed for time, at least try to stay overnight. Consider an organised 2-day tour to make the absolute most out of the time you have.
Apart from being incredibly charming and astonishingly beautiful, the Golden Ring also owes some of its popularity to being so accessible from Moscow. As the name suggests, the Golden Ring forms a reasonably circular route that’s easily undertaken by road, starting and finishing in Moscow. The distance between points of interest is minimal, so you can spend most of your days actually getting out and appreciating the sights rather than sitting in a car.
An organised tour from Moscow is an excellent way to ensure you maximise your sightseeing opportunities in the Golden Ring, preferably with a knowledgeable guide who can fill you in on the people, events and legends behind the places you visit. A small group are reasonably affordable, and you can also opt for a private tour – great if you have a special interest in Russian history or culture.
A few of the most stunning cities in the Golden Ring are set along the banks of the majestic Volga River, the longest river in Europe. That means it’s possible to visit some of the most famous sites of the Golden Ring via a river cruise from Moscow.
A typical itinerary, like our 13-day Volga River Cruise, includes day excursions to Uglich and Yaroslavl. You won’t see all the Golden Ring (you will see a lot more of Russia however), but you’ll experience a tantalising slice of it. Travelling on the Volga, you start to learn to appreciate these ancient cities vital connection with the river at the source of so many livelihoods.
Sergiev Posad is often one of the first cities to explore on a Golden Ring tour, situated just 75km north east, or roughly just over an hour’s drive from Moscow.
Sergiev Posad’s monastery, The Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, found in 1340, is one the oldest and most beautiful examples of a religious building showcasing the sapphire blue and gold cupolas and pure white walls that represented the Orthodox perception of divinity.
The monastery is one of the holiest sites in Russia. Founded by the country’s most revered saint, St Sergius of Radonzh, it is one of the most important spiritual centres for the Orthodox Church, sometimes referred to as the “Russian Vatican.” Orthodox pilgrims have made long journeys here to pay their respects to its patron saint sin the 14th century.
Another site not to miss in Sergiev Posad is the Chernigovsky skete, is a monastery standing unique in central Russia for hand-dug monk cells and prayer caves. Now about 10 monks live in the skit famous for its everyday unction sacrament with anointing. Pilgrims come here to bow to Elder Barnabas’ relics and 2 miracleous Chernigovskaya icon copies.
There are several small and cure museums, which worth visiting, especially with kids, such as:
Of all the charming historic towns of the Golden Ring travelers often rate Suzdal as the most charming enjoyable of all the cities on the tourist circuit. 2-day itinerary of the Golden Ring cities includes this charming city, together with Sergiev Posad and Vladimir.
With wooden houses straight from the pages of a storybook and horse-drawn buggies plying the quiet cobblestone streets, Suzdal recalls a Russia from centuries past.
On a visit to Suzdal, you must walk ramparts of the old Kremlin, admire the frescoes of the Spaso-Evfimiev Monastery and the classic wooden architecture of the Church of the Transfiguration. Strolling the quiet village streets and country roads just outside town, you get a real sense of what life was like for the rural folks living under the Mother Russia of Old.
Other attractions with the town are the Suzdal Kremlin, the Cathedral of the Nativity and the Monastery of Saint Euthymius, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A 1,000-years-old city of Vladimir was a former medieval capital of Russia, and the city is blessed with the highest concentration of 12th-century buildings anywhere in Russia. Today, Vladimir is a bustling city of around 350,000. While it lacks some of the laidback charm of more rural cities like Sudzal, it more than makes up for with its extraordinary concentration of grand, UNESCO listed architectural marvels, crammed into the compact city centre.
The Golden Gates were built in 1164, both as defence rampart and a grand triumphal arch. Vladimir’s great princes would ascent the thrown by entering the town through the Golden Gates. Inside the Golden Gates is an exhibition hall with a collection of medieval weapons and an impressive diorama depicting the storming on Vladimir by Mongol Troops in 1238.
At the right side of the gates is the tiny white stone Church of the Deposit of the Virgin’s Robe. It was commissioned by Prince Andrei to celebrate the miraculous survival of 12 workers who were buried alive on the day of the Gate’s unveiling. Complete with its charming church companion, Vladimir’s Golden Gates have no equal in medieval European architecture.
The Uspensky Cathedral was one of the most outstanding works of religious architecture ever completed in Russia. After opening in 1158, it became the most influential church in the region at that time.
The oldest Christian city on the Volga River, Yaroslavl has earned World Heritage status, with its rich legacy of neoclassical buildings and a unique radial-style urban plan (a pioneering initiative of Catherine the Great). Between the 12th and 17th centuries, the city was home to many of Russia’s greatest craftsmen, who transformed Yaroslavl into a city of magnificent churches and monuments.
Of special interest is the Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, which was one of the richest and most heavily fortified monasteries by the 1500s.
Rostov Veliky is the oldest town in the Golden Ring and the most architecturally impressive, with elegantly restored monuments dating from the 12th to the 17th century. Famous as ts may be, Rostov Kremlin’s was never really built to withstand a well-coordinated attack, although its elegant white-washed walls and textured onion times cut a magnificent figure, standing at the edge of the Don River.
Rostov’s Cathedral Square is dominated by the Kremlin and its main cathedral, the golden-domed Dominion Cathedral, which dates back to the early 1500s and stands a massive 60m high from base to cross.
Rostov also has many newer, slightly quirky museums dealing with the tumultuous Tsarist and Soviet influences in the region. As a popular tourist stop with a reasonable population, finding relaxed, tourist-friendly eateries in a pleasant old-town atmosphere is a breeze.
The furthest from Moscow (344 km) and therefore the least visited city of the Golden Ring. It contains well-preserved merchant houses from the 19th century, and one of its main treasure – a few rows of shopping complexes from the 18th-19th centuries. Brisk trade thrives in them to this day.
One of the most significant places in Kostroma is the Ipatiev Monastery. It is known as the “cradle of the tsarist dynasty”. Once, it was here that the founder of the Romanov dynasty, Mikhail Romanov, hid from his enemies, while his coronation ceremony took place in the Trinity Cathedral of the monastery.
Lovers of art and history will enjoy the Romanovsky Museum, housed in a beautiful pseudo-Russian-style building. Some of its rooms tell of the royal dynasty – here, you can see the royal throne, clothing, old documents and books. Other exhibitions are devoted to the life and art of the 19th century – they exhibit antique furniture, porcelain and crystal glassware, and clothing. Also worthy of attention is the Museum of Theatrical Costume, and the Museum of Ancient Architecture with its ancient wooden churches.
Founded in 1,152 by Prince Yuri Dolgoruky, the city was devastated numerous times by the Mongols between the mid-13th century and the early 15th century. Its charm is its location on the bank of the Lake Pleshcheyevo and its provincial feel. There are 5 monasteries and 9 museums in the town, which considering its size is quite an achievement.
The Cathedral of Transfiguration is one of the oldest buildings in Russia; over 850years old. One of the more well-known museums is the Botik Museum which houses the sailboat, Fortuna, which is one of only 2 Peter the Great’s boats to survive. Peter the Great spent time in Pereslavl-Zalessky when he was younger and this is supposedly where his love of ships grew.
There is no train service to Pereslavl-Zalessky and so can only be accessed by road. There are several buses a day from Moscow, which takes 2-3 hours.
The history of Ivanovo began in the 19th century with the unification of two settlements, the village of Ivanovo and Voznesensky Posad. Today Ivanovo attracts tourists with its unique architecture – especially private residences, trimmed with marble, rare wood, bronze and granite. Travelling to Ivanovo you can also visit such well-known villages as Paleh and Holuy, which are located not far from the city. Ivanovo is still a textile center of Russia and this is why it is often called “Russian Manchester” or “City of Brides”.
The sights not to miss
To get from Moscow to Ivanovo, you can take an overnight train which leaves late at night. The most popular destinations by bus from here are Yaroslavl, Kostroma and Vladimir.
The Golden Ring can be visited all year round, with each season bringing a new and inspiring palette of colour to the surrounding countryside. Visitor numbers peak in the summer months of June to August, when you’re most likely to get the vivid blue skies that make the iconic backdrop to so many stunning images of the region’s cathedral domes and cupolas.
Spring is when the rural scenery is at its best, with April and May being the wildflower months in the meadows. Days are still usually sunny and pleasant, but you’ll feel the chill at night without a good warm jacket.
In autumn, the woodlands and orchards take on rich hues of red, orange and yellow and day time temps are still reasonably mild. The freezing temperature of the winter (November to March) often cover the parks and meadows with thick blankets of snow. If you don’t mind the cold, this time of year really is a dreamy wonderland, with frozen lakes and rivers perfect for ice skating.
We hope this introduction to Russia’s Golden Ring has encouraged you to put this utterly charming destination on your travel radar. If you’re basing all or part of your Russia trip around Moscow, the Golden Ring is undoubtedly the best place to see, taste and experience authentic old-world Russian culture within such effortless reach of the capital.
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