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 also happens to be one of the most interesting, Sergiyev Posad. It’s 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.
On a Cruise:
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.
Suzdal is almost certainly the single most picturesque stop on the circuit, with its cobblestone plazas and peasant farmhouses appearing like a scene from a Russian storybook and has inspired artists and writers for centuries. Wander its quiet laneways passing horse-drawn buggies and medieval churches and try to produce fresh from the local farms where things are still done the old fashioned way.
Yaroslavl was the first Christian city on the Volga River. Many of Russia’s greatest craftsmen, stonemasons, painters and sculptors came together to create this city of magnificent churches and monuments, dating back to the 12th century.
Rostov is the oldest town in the Golden Ring and the most architecturally impressive, rich in elegantly restored monuments dating from the 12th to the 17th It also has a rather unique local food scene – the Rostov locals seem to have more recipes and ways to cook onion than just about anyone!
Sergiev Posad is one of the most important spiritual centres of the Orthodox Church, sometimes referred to as the ‘Russian Vatican’ for its magnificent white churches with their signature blue and gold cupolas.
While the more modern part of Vladimir looks like a typical, not-so-interesting Soviet-era city, beyond the medieval Golden Gate, the old part of the city is a dense collection of elaborate churches and cathedrals, some of them among the oldest in Russia. Vladimir is a goldmine for lovers of traditional Russian handicrafts. It even has a museum dedicated to crystal and lacquer miniatures and embroidery in the 1913 Old Believers Trinity Church, whose red brick Russian revival style architecture ironically exposes it as one of the youngest religious buildings in the city!
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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