If you want to see the very best of Russia but don’t know where to begin then you should definitely start with the Golden Ring. This is classic Russia at it’s very best; a group of cities (yes, they do actually form a ring) showcasing gorgeous onion-shaped domes, colorful kremlins and gingerbread cottages. The best part is that they are all located close to Moscow and pretty easy to get to.
Featuring Russia’s oldest towns, the Golden Ring formed the core of eastern Kievan Rus. The beauty remains intact as they managed to somehow avoid industrialization during the Soviet period and today the various towns attract trigger-happy tourists with their cameras strapped looking for a scenic escape from Moscow.
A word of advice when you venture out there. You are going to be overwhelmed with a constant supply of iconic images including architectural landmarks to some of the most beautiful churches that inhabit old Russian artwork.
Although there is no official list of which cities make up the Golden Ring, there are 8 principal cities that I think worth visiting for tourists. If you would like to learn more about Russia, take a look at my other post “Top 18 places to visit in Russia“.
- 1. Yaroslavl
Surrounded by two rivers, the small Kotorosl and its larger compatriot Volga, Yaroslavl is packed with more onion-shaped domes than any other place in Russia. The grand Volga is the longest river in Europe and walking along its banks will give you as much of a cultural appreciation equivalent to a hike. Yaroslavl is also home to St. John the Baptist Church, a record-breaking 15 dome structure which goes back to the times of Kievan Rus.
A visit to Yaroslavl is best enjoyed through the lens of history. Start at the Transfiguration Monastery which dates back to the 11th century and has now been converted into an informative museum. After that, go see some great art at the Governor’s house museum which boasts an extensive collection of the Yaroslavl school of icon painting. For an authentic Russian meal in a medieval Russian setting, consider dining at “Ioann Vasiliyevich” restaurant.
Yaroslavl is a four hour train journey away from Moscow.
- 2. Suzdal
Situated a mere 16 miles from Vladimir you will find the beautiful town of Suzdal. If you had to pick the jewel of the Golden Ring, it would probably be this town which has so many historical sites that you could almost call the entire place a gigantic museum. A total of eleven monasteries have been erected in the town and the row of merchants which lead to the Suzdal Kremlin have been around for centuries.
Due to the local merchant’s failure to convince the government to add Suzdal to the Trans-Siberian Railway line, Suzdal has retained its original essence. Everything from cute wooden cottages to soft hills and flower dense meadows come together to make Suzdal the most enchanting town in the Golden Ring.
If you want to escape from history, head over to the market square of Torgovaya ploshad to look for local honey, mushrooms and Russian souvenirs. The Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life is also a great stop if you want to see some unique architecture.
To get to Suzdal, you’ll need to catch a bus from Vladimir.
- 3. Sergiev Posad
Sergiev Posad represents the heart of Russian Orthodoxy and at the pinnacle of it lies the stunning monastery of Trinity Lavra of St Sergius. This ancient structure is made of creamy white walls that look like snow topped with sky blue and golden cupolas, making it one of the most beautiful buildings in the Golden Ring. It was founded in the 14th century and today it continues to operate.
A good tip is to come here during the week when there is less of a crowd. Explore the Lavra’s gorgeous building and drink in the tranquility you will feel by taking your time. There are a total of two cathedrals and eight churches on the property as well as two cafes where you can try a couple of local delicacies; homemade bread, pastries and a bizarre drink made of fermented bread known to locals as kvas.
A hop and a skip away from the monastery lies the restaurant “Gostevaya Izba”, where you can feast on local cuisine made with produce from the ministry.
Sergiev Posad is a mere 90 minute train ride from Moscow which makes it a perfect day trip destination.
- 4. Vladimir
Upon arrival, Vladimir will look like a typical Soviet city but don’t worry because once you go past the medieval Golden Gate you will be met by a dense collection of stunning churches and cathedrals which represent some of the oldest structures in Russia.
Vladimir is one of Russia’s oldest cities and it’s a must-see for anyone who wants to witness ancient architecture made of white stone and monumental cathedrals are abound.
After getting lost in the plethora of cathedrals and churches, take your time to visit the Museum of Crystal and Lacquer Miniatures located in the Old Believers Trinity Church for a look at local embroidery. If you have time on your hands, then a side trip to the nearby ancient village of Bogoluybovo is just 20 minutes away from Vladimir.
Vladimir can be reached by train from Moscow and the journey can take anywhere from 90 minutes up to 3 hours.
- 5. Rostov Veliky
Rostov Veliky is marked by the perfectly proportioned towers of the local Kremlin which sits above the gorgeous Lake Nero. With its origins dating back as far as AD 862, Rostov Veliky is one of the oldest towns in Russia. Today it is a quaint village which makes for the perfect escape if you are looking for a peaceful environment. Aside from the beautiful Kremlin, there is a breath of great attractions including four monasteries, churches and the tranquil Lake Nero.
A big plus is the local food scene. As a start, pop over to Lukova Sloboda, a museum, and cafe which follows the importance of onion in the region. Try the onion soup and buns and pick up a jar or two of onion jam on your way out.
Rostov Veliky can be reached via a three hour train from Moscow.
- 6. Kostroma
Kostroma is situated the furthest from Moscow but certainly worth visiting if you are on the Golden Ring trail.
It is believed to be found by Yuri Dolgorukiy in the 12th century and the city is famous for the Monastery of St. Ipaty which sits at the confluence of the Volga and Kostroma Rivers. There is also a host of interesting museums and a moose farm worth checking out.
It takes about 6 hours to get from Moscow to Kostroma by train.
- 7. Pereslavl-Zalessky
This old lakeside town is a popular escape for people living in Moscow due to its proximity to the city.
There are a lot of attractions scattered everywhere including a 12th-century cathedral, six monasteries, and earthen mounds. It’s worth walking along the banks of the Trubezh river which takes you on a 2 km pathway starting from the Kremlin and finishing at the lake. At the south of the river sits the picturesque Forty Martyrs Church.
While visiting Pereslavl-Zalessky, make sure to ride a hot air balloon which is one of the top 10 adventurous things to do in Russia.
The best way to get to Pereslavl-Zalessky from Moscow is to take a bus from Central Bus terminal (Shchelkovo bus station). The journey is about 2 hours long.
- 8. Plyos
This peaceful town is situated between Ivanovo and Kostroma. It is characterized by a wide array of wooden houses and hilly streets which come together to create a romantic atmosphere that’s perfect to explore for a day.
The most ancient part of this little town is along the river, where you will encounter an old fort from 1410 and at the top of the hill sits the 1699 Assumption Cathedral which is supposedly one of Levitan’s favorite painting subjects.
These 8 cities mentioned above are some of the best places to visit in the Golden Ring, Russia. Make sure to check them out on your next trip to Russia! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask me in the comments below! I’ll be more than welcome to give you an advice!