In Russia, it’s possible to go back in time. Leave contemporary Moscow and you will discover the Russia of the Tsars like Ivan the Terrible and Boris Godunov, a land of white churches and golden domes, rolling prairies, forests and the great Volga. Eight historic towns form the birthplace of Russian culture. Back in the XII century, Moscow was but a fort in the woods, while life bubbled in fortresses like Vladimir, Suzdal, Rostov and Yaroslavl. It was here, at the intersection of the rivers controlled by the Byzantine and Tatar-Mongol empires, that ancient Russian culture was forged with its incomprehensible yet alluring mentality and that intangible Russian soul.
It was in Suzdal for example, not the bustling and modern Moscow or the elegant and European Saint Petersburg, that you will find babushkas in headscarves hurrying to church. And you will think, this is the real Russia.
The cultural capital of the Golden Ring has been preserved, not by miracle like some guides will tell you, but because these capitals of principalities lost their political and economic influence to Moscow that became the capital of the unified territory. Towns like Suzdal and Rostov thus escaped industrialisation, saving the magnificent architectural works that are now international heritage sites.
The Russian countryside is a place of communal living where families share every moment of the day, even lunch. These small communities have maintained a traditional way of life where the isba and the dacha are an integral part of the rural harmony.
To truly revel in the “Art de Vivre” of Russia, wake up early in a wooden cabin and look out the window onto the Volga where a fisherman is returning with his catch of the morning for breakfast. Savour piping hot blini fresh from the pan, smother them in homemade jam and ask your host for the recipe. All you have to do is show her with your hands. In the countryside, people only speak Russian, but no one is in a hurry. There is time and patience to teach you to some basics like how to pronounce “zdravstvuite” et “spasibo”.
These three elements are fundamental to understanding Russia. They have shaped the culture, character and cuisine. The vast prairies around Suzdal are its wealth. The immaculate vegetable patches, cultivated in rich black soil, are the foundations of Russian gastronomy. When you have visited the garden of your host, you will understand the ingredients that compose each dish served up at lunch. Between Suzdal and Rostov, ask your driver to stop. Go into the forest and inhale deeply: you will catch the gentle scent of mushrooms, wild strawberries, black currants and wild raspberries. There would be no Russian cuisine without these forests.
During the Middle Ages, rivers linked fortified towns. The most beautiful church of all, that of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin on the Nerl, rises up on the banks of the river, blessing travellers setting course away from Vladimir.
The Volga is the wealth of Yaroslavl, a merchant town. The river’s winding course leads it all the way to the Caspian Sea. During your voyage around the Golden Ring, these images will help you to understand the works of Pushkin and Tolstoy.
Since the fall of communism, Orthodox faith has made a comeback and the many cathedrals and churches, as well as historical monuments, are the end destination of millions of pilgrims. The spiritual centre of the Orthodox religion, the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius, attracts pilgrims from across the country. It is not possible to understand Russian history, its literature or music without referencing the nation’s faith.
Follow your guide and watch to see if future priests start to learn English. Visit the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity for which, in the XV century, Andrei Rublev painted the world’s most famous icons. Listen to the choir in the same cathedral as the Tsars. In Rostov the Great, the sound of a dozen bells will swoop across Lake Nero, only to echo back from the forest on the opposite shore. Do you recognise this sound? You’ve likely heard it before in the works of Sergey Rakhmaninov.
The rolling prairies, forests, rivers and lakes of the Golden Ring are perfectly adapted to exercise for adults and children. When your tired spirit starts to confuse the Tsars and Patriarchs, take a break and get the blood flowing. In summer, you can go horse-riding in the valley by the Nerl and, in winter, you can try dog sledding on the frozen Volga.
The classic Golden Ring is composed of eight towns that vary according to size and importance: Sergiev Posad, Pereslavl Zalessky, Rostov Veliki, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Ivanovo, Suzdal and Vladimir. On a map, this famous itinerary extends over 1,000km. From Moscow, it’s easier to get to Yaroslavl, Rostov or Vladimir by train to avoid the traffic leaving the capital, which could take you longer than the whole visit of Suzdal. Around the Golden Ring, it’s necessary to travel by car with a private chauffeur because there are no trains or buses going to these towns. By car, you will get off the beaten track, and you can even ask your driver to stop to enjoy the fairytale wooden isbas or visit a village shop.
You can visit the Golden Ring throughout the year. In winter, from December to March when the golden blue onion domes sparkle like stars over Bethlehem in a setting like that of « Doctor Zhivago ». Summer traditionally starts in May when everything becomes green and ends in September. The “golden” autumn lasts until October – it was Pushkin’s favourite season.
How to get to the Golden Ring and where to go next
As you know, Russia is not only Moscow and Saint Petersburg. This is why, after visiting Moscow, we recommend spending a few days in the Golden Ring. Don’t know how to choose what towns? The most remarkable ones are included in our 4-day circuit, after which you can catch a night train to Saint Petersburg. It’s one of our best itineraries in Russia.
Visiting every town in the Golden Ring during one trip is not particularly recommended. It would be like visiting every National Trust heritage site in a week. Our ten years of experience in the business have taught us how to prepare a selection of itineraries depending on how long you want to dedicate to the Golden Ring.
1 day: Sergiev Posad or Suzdal
Sergiev Posad, 70km from Moscow, is the best choice for a day trip from the capital. The Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius is a famous pilgrimage destination and home to the most important monastery in all Russia. The town is also the oldest place known to make the famous “matryoshka” (nesting) dolls.
Another option is to visit Suzdal and Vladimir. The express train (1h40) makes it possible to visit both these towns in a day and immerse yourself in provincial life 200km from Moscow.
2 days: Yaroslavl or Suzdal
Take the express train to Yaroslavl and have a stroll under century-old linden trees along the Volga. For a change of pace, head to the charming town of Rostov Veliki. Lake Nero reflects the onion domes of the famous Kremlin churches and the magnificent Cathedral of the Assumption. In Yaroslavl, you will be accommodated in a hotel on the river, falling asleep to the gentle sounds of lapping water. In Rostov Veliki, a 200-year old merchant house is waiting for you. From Yaroslavl, return directly to Moscow or continue north to Saint Petersburg or even further to Vologda and the Arkhangelsk region. In two days, you also have the time to take the express train to Vladimir, the medieval capital of the Rus. You can learn to decode secret messages of XII-century architects at the Cathedral of Saint Dmitri. Head to Suzdal to spend the night where there are no trains or motorways. The town has been preserved and greets visitors with dozens of bright onion domes that belong to its many monasteries dating back to before the Revolution. From Vladimir, catch the express train back to Moscow or take the night train to Saint Petersburg, unless you would prefer to visit Nizhni Novgorod, an old merchant town to the South, before hopping on the Trans-Siberian.
4 days: our best itinerary!
Do you prefer to get off the beaten track? Then you will enjoy our 4-day itinerary around the Golden Ring. It links Vladimir, Suzdal, Rostov and Yaroslavl using various modes of transport: express train from Moscow to Vladimir to admire the pine forests, from Suzdal to Rostov by chauffeur-driven car on the narrow country roads through the fields, villages and old kolkhozes, then on from Yaroslavl to St Petersburg by night train in a sleeper compartment.
5 days or more: the whole Golden Ring
Do you dream of seeing the full Golden Ring? Start by Sergiev Posad, then on to Rostov Veliki before following the banks of the Volga to Yaroslavl and Kostroma, the old merchant town. Then head to Plyos, a picturesque village popular with many famous Russian artists. From there, you head south to Suzdal and Vladimir. You can also choose to do this itinerary in the other direction.
North from the Golden Ring to the land where birds know no fear
Our tourist agency develops unique itineraries that go deep into the heart of Russia. Yaroslavl is a great place to start before heading towards the Great North (Arkhangelsk region). One night train and you will land in Kargopol that, just a few decades ago, had no road access, only a dirt track. Here in the taiga, life is tranquil and traditional. The author and traveller, Mikhail Prishvin nicknamed this region “the land of fearless birds”.
Small log-cabin hotel with 11 rooms on two floors in a remote part of Suzdal. 1 km from the centre and away from the road.
The largest hotel complex in Suzdal with traditional wooden isbas and classic rooms. 155 bedrooms in total.
The Surikov family guest house is in a quiet street just 200 metres from the Convent of the Intercession that dates back to the XIV century.
So interesting to see the countryside and these smaller cities. Suzdal and Yaroslavl were lovely places to see and walk around. A highlight at Suzdal was a small group of monks who sang a psalm at one of the churches. Magic!