To choose what to see when visiting the largest country in the world can be a challenge even for the most experienced traveller. Should one choose nature or cities? Countryside or historic towns? Luckily you don’t have to choose. A visit to Russia’s Golden Ring gives you a bit of everything and more!
The so-called Golden Ring of Russia is a collection of historical, medieval towns located North-East of Moscow. These ancient towns played a significant role of Russian history in general, and more specifically, for the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Golden Ring consists of eight principal cities, and we take you to two of them; Vladimir and Suzdal.
First stop Vladimir
With a location on the Klyazma River, 200 km east of Moscow, Vladimir with its approximately 345.000 inhabitants is well worth a stop along the ring. The centre of Vladimir, where most sights are located, is walkable from the train and bus station.
Vladimir plays an important role in Russian history. The city served as the country’s capital city in the 12th-13th century. Because if its importance, many historical building were once constructed in the city. Some of these builings are today a part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
The Russian churches
The churches and monasteries are the main sights in Vladimir. Already on a distance, one can spot the many onion-shaped domes towering majestic over the lush green landscape.
For us, the two main sights were the Assumption Cathederal (Dormition Cathederal), and the Cathederal of St Dmitry. These hundred-years old cathederals are a must-visit when in Vladimir. They are richly decorated in both interior and exterior. Also, when visiting the Assumtion Cathederal, don’t miss the view point on the other side of the church. From here you will have great views over the area below. Both of the churches are added to the Unesco World Heritage List.
Other places of interest in Vladimir
The Old Vladimir Museum shows everyday items from Vladimir’s history. They also have an observation deck that offers great views. The nearby Georgievskaya Ulitsa (a pedestrian street) with houses restored back to its old days is also worth a visit. The most interesting part of this street is actually the viewing terraces with great views over the surroundings.
The Golden Gate was contructed between 1158 and 1164, and it houses a museum. Today, this is the only preserved ancient Russian city gate. The gate is a Unesco World Heritage site as well, as part of the “White Monuments of Vladimir and Suzdal“.
There are several nice cafes and restaurants around the town. We found great coffee at Kurtosh & Coffee and Four Brewers Pub (unpaid advertisement) serves good craft beer.
Suzdal – a Russian treasure
From Vladimir you can take the local mini-bus 40-45 minutes to beautiful Suzdal, another city of the Golden Ring. This is such a nice and calm town. It’s green, quiet and has so much to offer. There is a small center in the town, where you find cafes, restaurants and some shops.
The scenery of Suzdal is lush green. A small river nestles through the landscape. The sights are dominated by churches and monasteries also here. One more beautiful than the other.
The town is not big, but the sights are many. Also, what we really liked was the calmness, and the greenery (we visited late May). We spent only one night here, due to a tight schedule, but we could easily have spent another night without getting bored in any case. After a while one can get a bit tired of all the churches and monasteries, but the town itself with its surroundings is just a really nice place to be. Buy a drink, find a place with river views, and enjoy life.
Start with visiting the Kremlin, Suzdal’s historic fortress. This oldest part of Suzdal, dating from the 10th century was the religious and administrative center of the city.
The main sight in the Kremlin is the Unesco-listed Nativity of the Virgin Cathederal. With its blue domes spangled with gold stars this is a masterpeice of a church. The inside has several frescoes worth a look. The white building next to the chuch is the Archbishop’s Chambers, now housing the Suzdal History Exhibition.
Between the cathederal and the river is the Nikoskaya Wooden Church from 1766. It’s not originally from the Kremlin, as it has been moved from a nearby village, but still it’s a nice sample of the wooden churches of Russia.
It is possible to purchase a ticket for the grounds only, if you do not wish to see the exhibitions. For the cathederal you can purchase a seperate ticket.
Saviour Monastery of St Euthymius
In the northern end of the town lies a magnificent monastery. Originally built to protect the entrance to the town, it is the biggest monastery in Suzdal. It grew in importance in the 16th and 17th centuries after donations from Vasily III, Ivan the Terrible and the noble Pozharsky family.
Notable buildings of the complex are the Annunciation Gate Church, the bell tower and the Cathederal of the Transfiguration of the Saviour. With its seven domes it’s an impressive sight, with some amazing frescoes inside, uncovered during restoration.
The monastery was used as a concentration camp by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution. German and Italian officers captured in battle were kept here during WWII.
Today the monastery is a museum complex with several interesting exhibitions. The Hospital Chambers & St Nicolas Church have a rich collection of gold church treasures, while the Assumption Refectory Church and the adjacent Father’s Superior’s chambers shows Russian icons and native art.
Across the river – for more great sights
After a visit at the monastery grounds, take a walk along the high walls towards the river. From here you will have nice views over the surroundings. If you continue on the path, you will find a small bridge below the walls. From here it’s only a short walk to another great monastery, the Holy Intercession Convent. With its whitewashed walls it is also definitely worth a stop.
If you continue from here, you will soon find more residential areas full of colorful, wooden houses. Getting lost in time is easy here, as one house is more pretty than the other. Check out the detailed wood carvings of some of the houses. This is first class handicraft.
On the same side of the river, located opposite of the Kremlin is the Museum of Wooden Architecture & Peasant Life. This open-air museum shows a glimpse of the traditional live in the rural areas. A highlight at the museum is the Transfiguration Church, a wooden masterpiece. After a visit here, you easily can reach the centre by crossing the bridge below the Kremlin. Or better, continue to walk along the streets, and you will find even more of these incredible cute, colorful wooden houses.
Sleeping & eating
There are some nice hotels in the town, and also several guest houses. Many families rent out rooms, or perhaps small cottages in their garden.
There are several restaurants in the town. Most of the restaurants offer Russian cuisine. Some also serve international food. We had an excellent dinner at Gostiny Dvor located at the Trading Arcades. The town also has a beer hall for those who are in for that. (unpaid advertisement)
Getting there and around
The easiest way to visit the Golden Ring of Russia is maybe to go on an organized tour. This can be a day trip, or least for one or more nights. You can arrange this from Moscow, or before arrival to Russia. For us this was not an option, as we prefer the independent way of travelling, and to arrange things ourselves.
There are several daily trains from Moscow to Vladimir (around two hours), while Suzdal has no train connections. From the train station in Vladimir its only a short walk (uphill) to the attractions. You can purchase the train ticket at the train station in Moscow, or online if you have a profile at Russian Railways.
We bought our ticket at the station in Moscow, but somehow we could not buy a return there. Apparently, this we needed to buy when we arrived Vladimir. Upon arrival we only found out that the remaining tickets for the next day were very expensive, and sold out on the best departure times. With this in mind we did not buy a return ticket, and continued to Suzdal, planning to take the bus from there to Moscow.
A bus from Moscow can be a more affordable, although it’s said to be a poor option. The trains are much faster and more convenient.
The bus station in Vladimir is located at the train station. From here several buses an hour runs to Suzdal, 40-45 minutes.
Getting from Suzdal to Moscow turned out not to be so easy. At the time of our visit (May 2019) there was no bus service to Moscow. The better option then was to hire a taxi for 8000 rubels (around 100€). This was a more affordable alternative then the train from Vladimir.
Be aware of the traffic towards Moscow. The roads are crazy packed. We experienced heavy traffic jams most of the way. We were told the trip should take 4-4,5 hours. It turned out to take over 6 hours. As a result we lost our booked night train out of Moscow direction Veliky Novgorod, so if you go for the option with taxi, please keep this in mind!