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A Guide to Russia's Golden Ring

Russia is known for its magnificent churches, and none are more spectacular than the golden domed churches of the Golden Ring. It is one of Russia’s most ancient and intriguing destinations and remains a culturally significant site that allows a glimpse into the early days of Russia.  

The Golden Ring is a route, specifically, a circular route that includes a collection of principle towns and cities in European Russia. Named the Golden Ring by journalist Yuri Bychkov, the classic route starts in Moscow and heads North taking in Sergiev Posad and traveling clockwise until you reach the city of Vladimir and then returning to Moscow. 

Visiting cities on the Golden Ring is more than simply retracing the early days of the Orthodox Church from before the time of Mongol rule, it also allows you to familiarise yourself with modern Russian culture outside of the big cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, ie. The Real Russia. 

How long is the Golden Ring?

The total distance of the Golden Ring tour is around 800km. However, the distance between each point of interest is minimal with the average road journey taking around an hour or two, dependent on traffic. If you wish to spend a day in each city, you could look to spend 8-9 days completing the tour.  

There are some wonderful package tours available for those of you who prefer travelling all together in groups on a coach. However, if you are feeling more adventurous and prefer to go at your own pace, you can travel the Golden Ring by public train quite easily or hire a car and drive the circuit.

When is the best time to travel the Golden Ring?

The Golden Ring can be completed year-round, it simply depends on your preference for climate. In the spring, there can still be snow on the ground and frost at night, but this usually clears up by May. In April and May the temperature can vary between 3 – 19 degrees. This makes for easy travelling and walking tour climate.  

The summer months tend to be very warm in the daytime and mild in the evening. Temperatures can reach 35 degrees, which means plenty of open blue skies and light packing. However, the hotter months can make walking tours more tiring and of course, this is the main tourist season and so you will have to contend with longer queues and more crowds in significant monasteries and churches.  

September and October are wonderful months to visit Russia as the air can still be quite warm in the day and usually the snow has not set in, making driving tours easier, especially for those of us not used to driving in snowy conditions.  

If you love the snow and cold, take the Golden Ring tour in the winter months from late October until March. There will be snow and lights which make for wonderful pictures. Best of all, there are far fewer tourists at this time and so you will be able to explore the wonderful destinations on the tour in a more relaxed atmosphere. You will have to take your clothing seriously though as the temperatures can get to –20 degrees in the nighttime.

The most popular destinations on the Golden Ring

The Golden Ring comprises many towns, villages and cities, with histories stretching back to the time of Ivan the Terrible. Here, we have included a list of some of the most popular destinations on this legendary route along with a brief introduction.

Sergiev Posad

Travelling 75km northeast of Moscow is the ancient pilgrimage town of Sergiev Posad. The most famous landmark of Sergiev Posad is the iconic Trinity monastery, founded here in the 14th century by the pious medieval church leader Sergius of Radonezh. The Trinity Lavra, as it is also sometimes known, was the center of Russian Orthodox religion. The grounds of the monastery form a religious complex with the stary domed Cathedral of the Assumption and the beautiful and quirky Refectory Church of St Sergei. Given that Sergius is Russia’s patron saint, this complex is worth a visit as there are daily masses open to the public in his honour. If you’re in need of your own spiritual cleanse, we would recommend a visit to the Gremiachy Waterfall with its beautiful wooden church and seeing the Holy Springs there.

Pereslavl-Zalessky

Birthplace of Russia’s favourite hero Alexander Nevsky, Pereslavl-Zalessky is home to the original Kremlin of Medieval Rus and has no less than six fine monasteries to visit. It is a very popular day trip from Moscow and a must-stop on the Golden Ring tour. It is 140km north-east of Moscow and only 70km from Sergiev PosadA must visit is Goritsky Monstery. Originally one of the wealthiest monasteries in the 16th century, it became the unused retirement destination of Ivan the Terrible. It is believed some of his ex-wives took vows at the convent there. In the 1920s, the Bolsheviks transformed the convent into an agricultural cooperative where the nuns worked and prayed until it was closed in the 1930s. In the spirit of post 1990 Russian Revival however, a small community of nuns have started to live in the convent again.

Rostov Velikiy

Rostov-Velikiy is the next stop on the Golding Ring tour. Not to be confused with the larger Rostov-On-Don in the South of Russia, Rostov-Velikiy (Rostov the Great) is 213km north-east of Moscow and about an hour’s drive from Pereslavl-Zalessky. Rostov is known for the incredible Rostov Kremlin complex, built in the 16th century next to Nero Lake and demonstrating some of the most important Russian architecture of all time. If you are visiting in summer, it is a good idea to take a boat tour around the complex to appreciate its beauty and construction. Rostov Kremlin is filled with important art works, furniture and teeming with royal and religious history. The city itself is historically famed for painting on enamel so make sure you spend some time in the museums or local artisan shops to see these in finer detail.

Yaroslavl

A short car or train journey from Rostov-Velikiy and you will find yourself in the ‘capital’ of the Golden Ring. The UNESCO world heritage site of Yaroslavl was founded in the early 11th century by Yaroslavl the Wise after whom the city is named. The city’s top site for travellers is Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery, which fascinatingly served not only a religious function, but also was a point of defence for the city. It was actually under siege for months during the ‘Time of the Troublesand its interesting history doesn’t stop there, given that the monastery was the favourite religious site of Ivan the Terrible, who bestowed many gifts on the monastery. Aside from Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery, it is a good idea to take in The Transfiguration of the Saviour Cathedral, covered in important and beautiful 16th century frescoes.

Kostroma

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Just 60km east of Yaroslavl is Kostroma. The city was founded in the 13th century, but it is best known for its 17th century architecture. The incredible Church of the Resurrection in Kostroma is one of the most beautiful churches on the tour. Outside, brick patterns and richly painted accents make this church pop against the sky and inside it is filled with 17th century frescoes. You will need at least a whole day in Kostroma however because it is also the location of the Hypatian Monastery, founded by a Tatar convert to Orthodoxy, Prince Chet in the 14th century. It was here that Mikhail Romanov was declared to be Tsar of Russia in 1613. Patronised by the Romanov dynasty, the interior of the church is rich in decoration. This is the furthest point from Moscow before the tour heads south and back towards the capital.

Ivanovo

Travelling due south for 90km will take you to the undeniably cool Ivanovo. The youngest of the cities on the Golden Ring tour, it offers an exciting glimpse into ambitious 20th century Soviet Architecture. Whilst the rest of the world had Art Deco, Russia had Constructivism. Constructivist buildings can be austere, but they are also delightfully abstract and are imbued with the 1920s and 1930s spirit of industrialisation and communism. You could visit the newly restored Railway Station or Ship House, an apartment block exemplifying utilitarian ideals. You could take in the Museum of Art or visit the region’s famous textile factory shops or museum to take in the history of fabric which Ivanovo is famous for.

Suzdal

If Ivanovo was too modern for your tastes, then Suzdal would be the perfect antidote. 70km south-west of Ivanovo and heading closer to Moscow, Suzdal has been described as an ‘open air museum’. Suzdal is a small town with a population of only 10,000 people, but it boasts over 200 sites of architectural importance and several UNESCO world heritage sites. The town was founded as far back as the 10th century. It has always been an important centre for trade and although it declined in political significance, it rose in religious importance as patriarchs of Russia patronised the many churches and monasteries. The town has been protected with heritage status since the 1960s and so modern industrialisation has not spoiled the town or expanded it. The local domestic architecture of wooden cottages can be found across the town, which makes it a great place to visit at Christmas time. There is even a wooden church built to St. Nicholas! Given that Suzdal’s kremlin, predates that of Moscow’s kremlin, this place is an absolute must see for History enthusiasts.

Vladimir

100km south-east of Suzdal is the slightly more industrious but still extremely historically significant city of Vladimir. Not named after Vladimir Putin, but of Vladimir II Monomakh, Prince of Kievan Rus’ and an Orthodox Saint. Vladimir is considered a medieval capital of Russia and the city experienced it’s ‘Golden Age’ in the 13th century, where much of the impressive UNESCO protected architecture comes from. You can visit the prototype for all other Russian cathedrals, the Dormition Cathedral. It is also worth viewing St. Demetrius Cathedral to take in the exquisitely carved and decorated exteriors depicted in biblical stories. As Moscow rose in importance, Vladimir declined politically, and the city also suffered from Mongol destruction. What was left after the Soviet era of demolishing churches are some of the most glorious medieval Russian architecture available and very much worth a day trip.  

 

From Vladmir you can return West to Moscow, having completed the Golden Ring tour of the most beautiful and historically important places in the whole of Russia.