Moscow has its many ring roads driving you crazy while circling this huge metropolis. But a couple of hours outside Moscow lies another ring, the Golden Ring. This imaginary circle links several ancient Russian cities. These Golden Ring cities, once were the heart of Russian culture and power before the supremacy of Moscow. Most of these cities have been spared the devastation of the Second World War and Communism. They offer a rare opportunity to travel back in time to medieval Russia. And they make for ideal day trips from Moscow.
As it’s a circle, you can choose which way to go. We choose to go counter-clockwise as this maximizes our time and divides the days evenly. It’s also possible to do the Golden Ring by public transport but it’s easier to go by car. Alternatively, you can also join one of the organised golden ring tours. Most of the roads are in good condition and signage is both in Cyrillic and Roman alphabet. Since every phone is a sat nav, there shouldn’t be too many obstacles to navigating the Golden Ring. If you’re going to rent a car, try to get one in the eastern part of Moscow.
The first stop is Vladimir some 180km east of Moscow. Expect a lot of traffic inside Moscow and on the M7 towards Vladimir. This will be one of the busiest parts of the Golden Ring road. If you leave early, you can be in Vladimir in the early afternoon.
Vladimir is said to be founded in 1108. During the second half of the 12th century, Vladimir experienced its Golden Age. This Golden Age lasted until the Mongol invasion of 1237. The Golden Horde sacked the city in 1238 and the city never truly recovered.
There are two cathedrals which survived all this carnage, both belong to the World Heritage of UNESCO. The most important one is the Assumption Cathedral. Grand Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky built the cathedral in 1158. Inside some of the original 12th-century murals have been restored. This cathedral was the place where all Grand Princes of the Grand Duchy of Vladimir were crowned until Moscow became the seat of the Grand Princes in the 14th century. From then on, the coronations would take place in the Assumption Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin, which is a loose copy of this one.
Cathedral of Saint Demetrius
The second cathedral is the Cathedral of Saint Demetrius. It served as a private chapel of Grand Prince Vsevolod III Yuryevich and was part of his palace. Usually, most of the splendour of a cathedral is on the inside, but this cathedral stands out for its exquisite exterior. The stone caving of this cathedral is one of the best in Russia.
The Golden Gate of Vladimir is the only surviving ancient city gate in Russia. Although much of the present-day building is the result of the 18th-century reconstruction by Catherine the Great.
2. Church of the Intercession on the Nerl
Just outside Vladimir lies a beautiful little church. The 12th century ‘Church of the Intercession on the Nerl’ was also built by Grand Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky and looks a lot like the Cathedral of Saint Demetrius in Vladimir. It lies on an island in the Nerl river and is not reachable by car, so you must walk there. It’s a 15-minute walk through the flower-filled floodplain. The church is also on the UNESCO World Heritage List as part of the site White Monuments of Vladimir and Suzdal.
Some 35km to the north lies Suzdal, the ancient capital in a time when Moscow was just a small outpost. Suzdal was founded around 1024 and became the capital of the Rostov-Suzdal Principality in 1125. The capital moved to Vladimir in 1157 but it remained an active trade hub even after the Mongolian invasion. Suzdal was annexed by Moscow in 1392. From the 16th century onwards it became a religious centre. First, it was sponsored by the Tsars. Later, wealthy merchants tried to outdo each other by building dozens of churches. Thirty of these churches remain until this day.
The Kremlin is the oldest part of Suzdal and dates back to the 10th century. This Kremlin can be seen as the predecessor of the more famous one in Moscow as it was from here that Grand Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy fortified Moscow and laid the basis for the Kremlin there.
Saviour Monastery of Saint Euthymius
The monastery was founded in 1352. Originally it had a wooden palisade but that was destroyed by the Poles. Nowadays it has a red brick wall from 1640. The monastery also had a prison, from the 19th century onwards this became its main function. Its most notable prisoner was the German field marshal Friedrich Paulus who was imprisoned here after the surrender of the 6th Army at Stalingrad. Both the Kremlin and the monastery are part of the UNESCO World Heritage.
From Suzdal northwards, the road is much quieter. The next stop is Plyos, this small town on the banks of the Volga wouldn’t be that interesting if it wasn’t for the residence of Isaac Levitan. Levitan was one of Russia’s most famous landscape painters and painted many of his paintings in this town and its surroundings. There is a nice museum exhibiting his works. On top of a hill stands the ‘Wooden church of the resurrection’. From here you will have a marvellous view of the surrounding hills and the mighty Volga. And you will understand where Russian painters such as Levitan got their inspiration from.
Rurikid Prince Yury Dolgoruky also founded Kostroma in 1152. It became part of the Duchy of Moscow in the 14th century and served as a refuge for the grand dukes in time of danger. Mikhail Romanov spent 13 years in exile here, until he was offered the Russian throne and started the Romanov dynasty.
The monastery is the main sight of Kostroma. It was founded in the early 14th century. It was in this monastery that Mikhail Romanov lived and excepted the Russian throne. His wooden house is still preserved and can be visited. Many of the buildings here were sponsored by the Romanov who paid tribute to the place where they rose to power.
In the centre of the city lies the Susaninskaya Ploshchad square. Here lied the Kremlin until a great fire destroyed most of the city in 1773. Catherine the Great redesigned the city including the great central market with all its arcade just south of the square.
Further upriver lies Yaroslavl. This industrial city was a place of early Viking activity in the 9th century. Yaroslavl the Wise, Grand Prince of Kiev, founded the city at the turn of the 11th century. It remained a small trading town in the Principality of Rostov until 1218 when it became its own principality. It would remain independent until 1463 when it was absorbed by Moscow. Nothing remained of this time as the Golden Horde razed and burned the city a couple of times. The city saw more destruction in the 20th century. First in the Russian Civil war and later in the Second World War by German bombing. What remained or was restored now is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005.
Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Saviour
The oldest buildings of Yaroslavl are in the ‘Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Saviour’. The monastery itself was founded in the 12th century but the oldest remaining buildings, the Holy Gate and the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, date from 1516.
The Annunciation Cathedral dates to 1215, the present-day building, however, is a 2010 reconstruction as Communists destroyed the original cathedral in 1937. Next to the cathedral lies the new Strelka Park, a popular spot for Russians to spend their evenings walking along the Volga.
John the Baptist Church
The most beautiful church in Yaroslavl and one of our all-time favourites is the ‘John the Baptist Church at Tolchkovo’. It lies on the other side of the river surrounded by industrial buildings. Nevertheless, it’s worth the detour. The church has 15 domes and extensive frescoes inside. Sadly, the frescoes look like they are deteriorating due to mould and water damage. So, visit this church now when it’s still in decent shape and contribute to the funds to care for the building. This church is also depicted on the banknote of 1,000 roubles.
As we head south towards Moscow, we drive towards Rostov. Nowadays a sleepy provincial town, but one of the oldest cities in Russia. The main sight is the beautiful Kremlin.
The Rostov Kremlin was founded in the 12th century but most buildings are from the 17th century. The Kremlin is dominated by the Assumption Cathedral with a big bell tower. The largest bell weighs a stunning 32,000 kilos and is named Sysoy.
Monastery of Saviour and Saint Jacob (Spaso-Yakovlevsky Monastery)
On the outskirts of the city alongside Lake Nero lies the Spaso-Yakovlevsky Monastery. This colourful monastery was founded in the 14th century but the oldest building is from the 17th century. You can climb the walls for a great view of the lake and the monastery itself.
Some 70km to the south lies Pereslavl-Zalessky. This lakeside town is the birthplace of Alexander Nevsky who would successfully battle German and Swedish invaders. And Lake Pleshcheyevo is considered the birthplace of the Russian fleet. Here Peter the Great built his toy fleet and developed his obsession for the sea.
The Kremlin is little more than a grass ring, but within is one of Russia’s oldest buildings, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour from 1152. It’s a small church in a similar style as the little, but beautiful, churches of Vladimir.
Just outside the town lies the Botik Museum, dedicated to Peter the Great’s toy fleet. One of the buildings houses one of the two remaining ships, the rest was destroyed.
9. Sergiev Posad
The last stop is Sergiev Posad. Named after Russia’s patron saint Sergius of Radonezh, it is the holiest town in Russia. Until 1983 it was the seat of the Russian Orthodox church.
Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius
The spiritual centre of the city and of Russia is the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius monastery. It was founded in 1337 and grew ever greater until the Russian revolution when it was closed. Nowadays it’s once again an active monastery.
The monastery is colourful and photogenic. The most important churches are the Trinity Cathedral built in 1422 and the Cathedral of the Assumption built in 1585. Here you find the grave of Tsar Boris Godunov.
Now we have completed the Golden Ring and most of its highlights. It’s time to return to Moscow and its big city life.