Golden Ring, the famous route through the oldest cities of Central Russia traditionally includes eight cities: Sergiyev Posad, Pereslavl-Zalesskiy, Rostov Velikiy (Rostov the Great), Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Ivanovo, Suzdal and Vladimir. Sometimes the route includes other localities like Kasimov and Kaluga, so even the most famous route in Russia has variations. But originally, in a series of essays under the general title «Golden Ring» by Yuri Bychkov, there were only eight cities. This is a kind of tourist classic: the streets and quays depict nearly complete multiple century evolution of Russian architecture, from ancient churches to constructivism. Russian history started here, in the Golden Ring cities.
Many attractions of the Golden Ring are on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, for example the historical center of Yaroslavl, a city with a long history. UNESCO site here is 110 hectare territory with more than a hundred monuments of architecture.
One of the main city attractions is Strelka, a small cape at the confluence of two rivers, Volga and Kotorosl. This is the place where Yaroslavl was founded, and a monument erected to the 1000-year anniversary of the city serves a constant reminder of it. Panoramic view from the Strelka's high bank is breathtaking, and there's a whole ensemble of churches along the Volga shore. Volga Tower, a preserved part of the old fortress that was used for weapon storage, is also worth visiting, as well as the richest collection of icons in the Metropolitan Chambers. They were built in the 17th century as the ceremonial residence of Metropolitan Jonah Sysoyevich, head of the Orthodox Church of Yaroslavl. Tourists usually finish their Strelka tour by resting in another symbol of Yaroslavl, the six-pillar Volga Gazebo.
UNESCO also protects the white monuments of Vladimir and Suzdal; there are eight of them on the list in total. Church of the Intercession on the Nerl is probably the most famous of them, and perhaps the most perfect. Surrounded by a river, it was built on a hill that was artificially constructed out of clay and stones to prevent flooding during the spring flood. Church walls are slightly tiled inwards, which visually increases its height.
The Golden Gate in Vladimir was considered the main entrance to the city in the 12th-13th centuries and served to welcome guests of honor. Its oak strips were covered with sheets of gilded copper and shone brightly in the sun, hence the name. A white stone triumphal arch, reaching a height of 14 meters, gave the building an even more majestic look.
The gate was a symbol of wealth and princely power. Many still consider walking under the Golden Gate arch and making a wish a token of good luck. Due to frequent fires and enemy raids, the current appearance of the Golden Gate is significantly different from the original one. Today, there is a historical military exposition: arrow- and spearheads, chain mails, rifles, banners and awards.
Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir is another white monument from the UNESCO list, but that's not the only reason to visit it: it still has several frescoes painted by Andrei Rublev and Daniil Cherniy, such as The Last Judgment and the Procession of the Righteous into Paradise... Another must-see place is the Dmitrievsky Cathedral in Vladimir, covered with elaborate stone carvings you can look at for hours. And of course, the Golden Ring tour necessarily includes a visit to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, a symbol of Russian Orthodoxy that has magnificent museums.
Without a doubt, the Golden Ring has an incredible number of unique cathedrals and churches of a huge historical value. One of the most famous monasteries in Russia, the Ipatiev Monastery, is located in Kostroma, an old merchant city supposedly founded almost nine centuries ago. The Ipatiev Monastery was the Romanov dynasty family shrine. It was here in 1613 that the ambassadors came to invite Mikhail Romanov, who was hiding in the monastery at the time, to reign.
Nikitsky Monastery in Pereslavl-Zalessky was particularly favored by Ivan IV the Terrible: he made significant investments in the monastery and was a frequent visitor. According to legend, the monarch had a son after praying before the tomb of St. Nikita Stylites, and he was grateful to the monastery for that. Another version is that the monastery was a reserve oprichnina fortress: like many other monasteries, the Nikitsky Monastery is a citadel. It's surrounded by a fortress wall with loopholes, including «varnitsas» — openings designed to pour tar or boiling water on the enemies. During the Time of Troubles, the monastery the Poles and fell under the onslaught of the Lithuanians only after a two-week siege.
Another amazing historical monument is the Metropolitan Court in Rostov the Great, often called the Rostov Kremlin. Constructed by the order of Metropolitan Jonah Sysoyevich, it's surrounded by a wall with towers, but unlike the Nikitsky Monastery, the Metropolitan Court is in no way suitable for defense — it was designed to be a ceremonial residence, as well as an imitation of a «Heavenly City»: a garden, fenced off by walls, with a pond in the center.
But churches isn't the only thing the Golden Ring is famous for, it also has a wide selection museums: during your Golden Ring journey you can see the collections of irons, samovars, advertising signs, vases, jugs, teapots, spoons, coins... Samples of ancient arts and crafts are collected in museums of many cities: carving on wood and bone, lace, lacquer miniature, enamel painting and much more.
Cities of the Golden Ring often hold various public festivals: you can move from celebration to celebration all year round if you want. In the summer, Suzdal Museum of Wooden Architecture and Folk Life celebrates the Trinity with a festival and fair, and there's the Summer of the Lord bell-ringing festival held in August in the same city. Pereslavl-Zalessky and Rostov the Great are worth visiting at least for the Golden Ring of Russia balloonist festival. During the festival you can fly over these ancient cities in a hot air balloon, watch the amazing show called the Night Glow of Balloons, take part in the Air Fiesta festival, and even help teams to assemble and prepare the balloons for a take off if you want. And you should see the fireworks bloom over Volga during the Silver Rook firework festival in Kostroma.
Cities of the Golden Ring attract even... fishermen, in spite of them being insular people who value silence and good nibble over everything. For example, there's a lot of fish in Lake Pleshcheyevo near Pereslavl-Zalessky, including the famous vendace that was served to the royal table. Alexander Dumas came to Pereslavl to try the «royal herring» during his trip across Russia in the middle of the 19th century.
By the way, Lake Pleshcheyevo is called the cradle of the Russian fleet: Peter the Great arranged his toy flotilla, a miniature squadron, the forerunner of the Russian navy, here. Legend has it that Peter planned this venture on Lake Nero in Rostov the Great at first, but he angrily called Nero «a dirty puddle» when he saw it and chose Lake Pleshcheyevo instead. It's wouldn't be fair not to stand up for Nero. The lake might be shallow (and this is exactly what the Emperor didn't like), but it's very wide and picturesque, fishing here is excellent, and there's a lot of game on the shores during the hunting season.
That's what's great about the Golden Ring of Russia: each city has its own charm, you can find entertainment to taste in every single one of them and play a dozen travel scenarios: from a short trip for the weekend to a month's trip to all the cities of the Golden Ring. Shrines or architecture, quiet streets or high river banks, museums or fishing — every traveler can find their own Golden Ring that will become dear to their heart.