Recently, I had the chance to take a trip along Russia's most famous tourist route with a delightfully vague name - The Golden Ring. So what is this mysterious pathway? Where did it come from? And why would any sane person want to go there in winter like me and my crew did?
For those of you who are old enough, you probably remember the movie about baseball and ghosts with the famous expression "if you build it they will come" (Field of Dreams, 1989) and surprisingly, those responsible for tourism in the Soviet Union also took that logic to heart. (Normally in Russia, most people think "If it hasn't already been built, then why bother?")
The name 'Golden Ring' came from a series of art historian Yuri Bychkov's essays about these medieval Russian cities that were all in one cluster. The name had a nice ring to it and this loop of historical towns became a cornerstone of Soviet tourism. And if you ever travel to these places, especially in summer, you will see they are still very popular to this day.
Although there is some debate as to who belongs on the Golden Ring (and who needs to be kicked off), in general the route does have a loop shape running tangent to the northeast corner of Moscow.
The Must Sees of the Golden Ring
Large nations tend to have a lot of diversity and Russia is no exception. If you want to see the big city full of action... and Russians, then you go to Moscow. If you want to feel cultured, you go to St. Petersburg. If you want amazing vistas and landscapes, go to Dagestan. If you like trees and crystal clear water, go to the Altai Mountains. You get my point.
So if you love medieval architecture be they fortresses, churches, monasteries (which are kind of like fortress-churches) then, "OMG" (literally), you are going to love the Golden Ring. All of these cities take pride in their past and their Russianess. The buildings are Russian, the food is Russian and the faith is very Russian. Now, if you hate medieval stuff and religion... um... this may not be the ideal holiday for you.
So let's take a look at all these cities so you can get a quick taste of the Golden Ring.
Here's an overview... literally!
Before we get into all the stops along the route check out our 4k drone footage video that we made with footage from all over the Golden Ring. If you like what you see, well, then please keep reading!
This town is not far from Moscow by suburban train and any tourist who visits the big city should take the time to go there. A couple dollars and one hour of sitting on your butt are worth it to see the lovely scenery around the city as you arrive and take in all the old school religious architecture when you get there.
The city is home to a "Lavra", which, put simply, is an elite level ultra hardcore and gigantic monastry that welcomes countless thousands of visitors every year. Please remember that at Orthodox Christian sites in Russia, women need to cover their heads and men should wear long pants/trousers. I'm not sure about flip flops in summer, but they are repulsive regardless and we arrived in winter so I was in army boots anyways.
This is a great stop because it has the Golden Ring experience, while being relatively close to the major international airports of Moscow.
Note from Tim: One time, we filmed Sergiev Posad by chance on October 8, the day of St. Sergius of Radonezh, who founded this and many other cities/sites across Russia and it was like a rock concert. There were people everywhere, it was quite the celebration and I would recommend it to any tourists. Although, it was not the best day to film as the police seemed to be on high alert and we needed to remind them about the nature of the laws of what can be filmed in Russia. That could be hard to do in English, but you won't be visiting with a camera crew, so enjoy the holiday. For being a day to honor a saint, it was a wild time.
This very small town that is impossible to say quickly five times fast is a great example of all the real Russian towns that dot the landscape outside the big city. This is the quintessential heartland of Russia that you can walk across on foot. Most of old time Russia was made of one and occasionally two storey buildings and this city really reminds you of that pre-Soviet past. A nice diversion for a day, but there is not quite enough here for a whole vacation.
The huge lake "behind" the city (from the standpoint of the main road) is a lovely place to stop for a picnic and/or take photos.
The "Veliky" after Rostov means "great" and it sure is a great town to visit. It is just small enough to be very walkable and pleasant, while at the same time having all the lovely places to eat that you want. Or well, at least that I want and demand! The kremlin of this city is quite big and worth checking out, it also has a very unusual style, because it was made after the medieval period, so it is mostly to be fancy, rather than functional. But, if you haven't seen enough churches and cathedrals yet, the Rostov Kremlin has got plenty of lovely architecture on the inside, as well.
The banks of Lake Nero are long and calm and, as we were there filming, plenty of people were taking a morning walk/jog along the lake. We were not alone, as some historical movie was being filmed at the time. There are plenty of untouched old school looking buildings along the water, many of which are for sale... hint, hint!
Around the city, there are plenty of monasteries. In fact, there are about five, which is amazing for such a small place. Rostov Veliky is definitely a highlight of the Golden Ring that could justify taking days from your limited vacation time in Russia.
This city is the biggest on the Golden Ring, for sure. It is known for its high quality theaters that are a fraction of the cost of Moscow per ticket, as well as having a very nice and built up downtown. There are plenty of stores (by the way, stores in Russia stay open way later than Europe), so you will surely find everything you need and, if you want, you can just wander around till you find a place that suits you to have a bit to eat or a coffee. Bigger cities always require far less planning in advance.
The most unique thing about Yarslavl is that it gives you the chance to see the entire Golden Ring at once by visiting their big diorama. When I was a child, I would go once a year to 'Train O'Rama' in my native Ohio and marvel at all the awesome terrain and trains. This was sort of the same idea, but the landscape is the entire path around the Golden Ring. Every city's major highlights are depicted and there are plenty of humorous things to find hiding in the display, like a certain president with his shirt off riding a bear.
Note from Tim: Our filming schedules tend to be pretty dense, but, in Yaroslavl, we had free time, so I wandered around, found a surprisingly good pizza place (I have more cheese than blood in my body) and had a lovely chit chat with the waitress about life in Yaroslavl. The pizza was also fantastic, by the way.
The big intermission!
As I mentioned above, we had some free time in Yaroslavl, because we needed a break from work. The drone guy's neck hurt. The cameraman wanted to sleep. And, my director Misha was unable to keep tabs on his many ladies, so he had lots of messages to write on the VK social media platform. So, since we were all a bit tired, at this point, we decided to break our video trip around the Golden Ring into two parts. After a nice evening of relaxation and a nice stroll, I was ready to film even more churches! I'm not sure if my colleagues were though... anyway, enjoy watching part one, because part two starts right now!
This city has an unusual downtown area that is not dominated by churches, but instead has a titanic fire station that looks like a temple to a Greek god. It really makes me miss life before the modern era, when people would invest so much time and effort into making public buildings look this beautiful.
Right across the street is a small old school style market. Our main goal was to get some local cheese. Everyone says that it is a great region for it and they weren't lying. We bought many kilos of "the good stuff" aka "Kostroma gold" to take with us along our journey.
The city is located on the Volga River, which means it is accessible by all the boat tours/river cruises that use Russia's biggest waterway. The river is really the defining feature of the city, as many other places we visited had that "Mid-Western'' feel of lying in an empty plain, but closer to Kostroma, there are lots of hills and the big Volga. Ironically, we did not see any Volga cars.
Plyos (Bonus Town)
Plyos is not officially part of the Golden Ring, but Misha, the Martin Scorsese of our team, had a good gut feeling about the place and it was more or less on the way, anyway. One of our big missions was to show you all just how pretty Russia is during the winter. Snow covered ancient cities can be very romantic, but the problem was that as we left Moscow, there was a warm streak in the weather, meaning that, up until this point, we were only able to show you Russian slush (and mud), as opposed to the desired Russian snow.
Thankfully, Plyos was protected from the evil sun by sitting in this sort of valley by the Volga, so there was snow everywhere and we got the footage we needed. Thank goodness! And big thanks to Misha!
Now, rumor has it that a lot of rich people like to hang out here in summer and, judging by the quality of the new old houses here, this is a believable story. One thing though, of all the locations we visited, Plyos seemed to be the most dead in winter. Every hotel and cafe looked dark on the inside and, besides some construction workers and locals, there weren't many people around. There were plenty of gorgeous homes to check out, but if you are not a big architecture fan, then Plyos in winter could be a bit boring for you.
This city is sort of the odd one out of the Golden Ring. It is the only city that has a distinctly Soviet feel to it. This could be good or bad depending, but if you are going to visit only one city on the Golden Ring, this is probably not the place to go, as you won't get any "medievalness" from your visit.
Ivanovo was very important during the Soviet Union, as it produced a lot of fabric for clothing and, by chance, became an epicenter for stereotypically female professions. This is where it gots its moniker as Ivanova "the city of brides". Due to Communist planning, it worked out that there were vastly more women than men laboring in the town, making it nearly impossible to find a husband. Will foreign men immediately be attacked by lonely Russian women in today's Ivanovo? Probably not. When Communism died, the system that kept the gender imbalance went with it. But, Ivanovo still produces fabric and clothing.
As someone who basically promotes and lives off of tourism in Russia, I recommend Suzdal to really anyone who isn't afraid to leave a big city and travel. Although it has grown in recent years, it spans for about 3 km, meaning that you can walk anywhere, given you have the fitness! The place is small, but there is plenty to do, as this time-capsule town with its old school look has been a tourist hotspot for decades.
They have some lovely hotels, I once stayed at this one with my family and we had a lovely time, the food was fantastic and there was even a jacuzzi! The price was very reasonable and fit in my budget, for sure. This other hotel was also family friendly and has its own petting zoo and farm. Nothing distracts children quite like farm animals!
You can also rent inner tube sleds to go sliding down the big hill in the exact center of town. There are also plenty of places to buy local handicrafts. Basically, Suzdal is the cute family friendly tourist town of the Golden Ring - and Russia - and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Vladimir, unfortunately, has the role of being a big city that everyone drives straight through. It is located between Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod, which means it certainly has big competition to attract tourists. Furthermore, with Suzdal just a short drive to the north of the city, the situation is even tougher for Vladimir to get travellers to stay.
Downtown, the gates to the city are lovely, as are some of the churches, but there is a problem... you cannot hear anything. The noise of a constant stream of economy-class sedans drowns out anything you could possibly say to your friends while enjoying the city. What I mean to say is that, holy cannolis, there is a lot of traffic going both ways through the middle of town, despite the fact that there is a highway that goes around the city.
But, on the plus side, if you are not driving, we found a great store filled with locally made mead and once the mead starts flowing, you can't even hear the cars anymore!
Vladimir, like Ivanovo, is a place that had and still has a lot of production and some parts of the town have a very industrial feel, while retaining a classic Russian downtown area. This would be a great place to stop if you want to see ancient, Soviet and modern Russia all at once.
Note from Tim: So, at the very end of our trip, Misha the director says in his deadpan voice: "Guys, there is a church that we need to film outside of town, it's only a 2 km walk." This idea was met with great skepticism. But after seeing probably over 200 churches, why go to one more? But as we walked... and walked... over a gusty snow covered plain, we finally approached a very unique site - the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl.
Apparently, it used to be a much bigger complex, but now it stands as a single, perfectly square white building in the absolute middle of nowhere. There is nothing around it but nature and emptiness, which adds something mystical and spiritual to the location. So, if you really like Churches and Eastern Orthodoxy like I do, then this is a true "must see" for you, just get ready to walk! But there is one thing. Apparently, the Nerl River floods at times (especially in spring during the big thaw), so judging by pictures, there is a small chance this church will be completely inaccessible, unless you take a boat with you on vacation.
And, well friends, Vladimir was the end of the line for us... please enjoy watching the second part of our Must See series about the Golden Ring!
But we haven't talked about one key feature of the Golden Ring yet... Russian food! So let's do it!
The Must Eats of the Golden Ring.
Well, I can remember many years ago that Moscow had one big problem for foreign visitors - there was no Russian food at any restaurants other than the Pushkin Cafe in downtown Moscow, which is more famous for its outlandish prices than high quality. Yes, during the Yeltsin and early Putin days, real Russian food could only be made by the loving and sometimes violent hands of "babushka". But times have changed and now your grandma has been completely eclipsed by the skills of professional chefs, who are cooking great Russian food all over the country.
If you cannot get outside of Moscow, don't worry, the best Russian food, made by Russians for Russians (with an English menu), can be found at Uhvat. Tell them (the head chef) that Tim sent you and you may even get a small surprise... maybe.
So, the one thing that defines Russia as a civilization is that it is land-based. Yeah, Russia has a navy, but the core ethnicity's eating habits come from living on one titanic territory crisscrossed by rivers and dotted by some beefy lakes and if you haven't noticed in our videos, it gets darn cold and snowy.
This means we have seafood from rivers (and not the sea) and lots of root vegetables that deal with the cold very well. Also, medieval Russians, fearing for the worst, very often kept their animals alive as long as possible before slaughtering them, which is why eggs and dairy products are such a big part of the cuisine. And honey was the country's first export, as it keeps well over time.
Okay, enough history, so let me tell you about the food we had on our trip. At the Sobranie Restaurant in Rostov Veliky (which was inside their kremlin!), they treated us to all sorts of fish dishes from local lakes and rivers and, in true Russian fashion, they gave us many 40% alcohol "tinctures" that they make themselves.
Everything was lovely and I am sure you'll like it... if you like fish, that is. But, the main dish was a full sturgeon and, to be honest, no matter how you cook that fish it always has a very earthy taste to it. Not my thing, but if you like sturgeon or don't care what you eat after getting hammered you'll enjoy everything for sure.
At Sobranie and many other Russian restaurants that we visited, they offered mini pies with various fillings, both sweet and savory. A great starter and very Russian!
The people at the Sobranie restaurant in Rostov were so happy to have us, they invited us on the spot to visit another one of their locations in Yaroslavl. Considering round one went very well, we thought, "hey, why not?" But this restaurant has a completely different theme - everything is cooked in a wood fired oven... the Most Russian way possible.
Now, this is what I am talking about! I love food from the oven, be it soup or stew or whatever. I will be a happy man. As a foreigner, in some ways, I have assimilated into Russian culture, but in other ways not. Salo (cured pork fat on a plate) is something I will eat any day of the weak. Combined with vodka, it is something absolutely repulsive to the american palette, but I love it. How Kholodets... the mysterious beef jello... well... even if it is made well like at Sobranie... I just can't do it. Kholodets reminds me that I will always be a foreigner in Russia.
But the key thing is that I got an amazing soup and stew from the oven in those classic Russian "vessels" that you see in old paintings. Somehow, they add something to the taste that I cannot put into words. I was a happy man!
Unexpectedly in Kostoma, we ate on a boat that is at the end of what they call 'The Old Pier' ('Staraya Pristan'), which was an absolutely lovely setting for a place to eat. Definitely a good date location, wink, wink.
Like all good Russian restaurants, they offered up some tinctures and mini pies, but the real treat came when they brought a big plate with an assortment of local cheeses. As stated above, Kostroma is known for its cheeses and they did not disappoint and this opinion comes from a true cheese enthusiast. One time as a child, I asked Santa for cheese... seriously.
They also gave us a plate of local marinated mushrooms, which from an American perspective is even more exotic than Japanese shiitake mushrooms, which you may actually see at a store. But you will only find 'lisichki' in the realm of Rus!
The real hit for me was the main course - moose meat. And let me tell you, Bullwinkle was delicious! It was extremely soft and meaty and yet very sweet to the taste. It is hard to describe, but I would say that any meat eater would love it.
Another restaurant that we tried near the end of our journey was 'Ogurets' (Cucumber/Pickle) in my beloved Suzdal. Not only is this city a tourist hotspot, but it is also known for its honey and cucumbers, the latter of which is somehow present in every dish served at the restaurant including the vodka! Friends, let me tell you something, you haven't lived until you've had pickle vodka. I took one sip and started hearing 'Purple Haze' by Jimi Hendrix, it was that good.
So there was pickle jam, pickle vodka and rassolnik, which is a soup that always has pickles in it and you would think that having this pickle gimmick would be "too much" or "get old", but it honestly didn't.
And, let me tell you one thing, although it was pricey, the mead they had was the best I've ever drank and I bought a bottle to take with me... along with the pickle vodka of course, that's a given.
So friends if you want to see all the lovely things that I ate check out our video Must Eat video right here...
Big Snow, Big Eats, Big Golden Ring.
So, all in all, I think we drove 800 km and I gained 5 kg. Hopefully, I have been able to convince you that the Golden Ring is a trip worth your time, even in the middle of winter! It was great to see so much in such a short time. If you like hearty food, snow, churches and heartland Russianess, then this is the vacation experience for you!