Russia’s Golden Ring has become a bit of a tourist brand in recent times, yet the number of tourists that make their way to this string of historical towns located within driving distance of Moscow is still relatively small for European standards.
Here you will find some of Russia’s oldest towns, complete with their own kremlins (a word that, despite its more recent geopolitical meaning, denotes actually a “fortress”) and ancient churches with their traditional onion-shaped domes.
Perhaps one of the easiest and most interesting Golden Ring towns to get to, and one whose dimensions make it perfect for a weekend away from the buzz of the Russian capital, is the charming old city of Suzdal.
How to get to Suzdal
Suzdal is some 200km East of Moscow, or some 4 hours by car (and option I would not recommend unless you are used to driving on the Russian roads)
The train provides a faster and more convenient option, in my opinion.
We travelled from Moscow to Vladimir on a fast train called “Lastochka” (Falcon) and for the last 15km between Vladimir and Suzdal (the town is not linked to the railway network) we took a local taxi. As Vladimir is on the main trunk line to Nizhny Novgorod (and beyond), train service is quite frequent. The Lastochka trains are modern and comfortable, on a par with fast intercity in most Western European countries.
The ride between Moscow and Vladimir takes about 1h 45min and costs about between 1,400 and 4,800 rubles (€20-64/$22-73 at the time of writing this) depending on the carriage class (there are three class, first, second and third). We travelled on second class and was fine.
As per the taxi, the Yandex Taxi mobile app (recommended if you are to travel to Russia), provides almost immediate availability at ver decent prices.
First of all, you need to know that Russian historical towns (or at least those I have visited in the Golden Ring outside Moscow) differ a bit in structure from the typical old towns in Western Europe.
Instead of a tightly packed, compact historical center with a maze of narrow streets and stone walls, Russian historical cities like Suzdal tend to have more spaces. There is usually a kremlin or a monastery acting as the focal point, with other buildings of historical interest, such as churches more widely scattered. Most buildings are low rises and many of them are made of wood (places like Suzdal were, luckily, left untouched by concrete-heavy Soviet-style architecture)
It is therefore advisable that you have the exact address of your hotel with you (in case you plan to stay in town have bags with you), as you do not want to walk around for miles in the town’s long and windy avenues as you look for directions!
Although today is a town of about 10,000 (feels much smaller, to be honest!), once upon a time, in the Middle Ages, Suzdal and some of the neighbouring Golden Ring towns were larger and more important than Moscow.
And although, as we know well today, this state of things did not last, Suzdal found its niche of specialization by becoming an important religious center in the XVI and XVII centuries.
It is actually its many churches that give the place its unique character, and the status of World Heritage Site by UNESCO, although, as we will see, there is a lot more going for it.
Things to see in Suzdal
The Saviour Monastery of Saint Euthymius (Спасо-Евфимиев монастырь)
There are so many churches in Suzdal (more than 40 on some counts) that you’d better focus on just some of the main ones. Luckily for visitors, most of the buildings of note are concentrated around just two separate clusters at both ends of the city center, one around the 14th Century Monastery of Saint Euthymius, the other at the old Kremlin.
The Monastery of Saint Euthymius is, actually, a wall-enclosed complex that contains several buildings of religious, artistic and cultural significance.
Transfiguration Cathedral (Преображенский собор)
Uspenskaya Church' (Успенская церковь)
Nikol'skaya Church (Никольская церковь)
We joined a guided tour to visit the whole monumental ensemble. At the entrance it is possible to get guided visits in several languages and this is something I would recommend to anyone that is not well versed in Russian medieval history and art. Our guide was very professional and engaging.
The monastery is enclosed by quite a solid red brick wall, not unlike the one at the Moscow Kremlin, with several defence towers alongside it.
One of the curious facts about this monastery is that German marshal Paulus was imprisoned here after his defeat and surrender at the Battle of Stalingrad, during WW2.
There is a small museum that recalls this episode.
Even those that are little or not religious at all, will likely be awed by the amazing, colourful frescoes that decorate Suzdal’s churches.
They say an image is worth a thousand words, so here you have a small sample of what’s inside the churches at the Monastery of Saint Euthymius
The other focal point of interest in Suzdal is, of course, the Kremlin.
This is also a sort of sprawl within a closed territory (although the walls are partly gone, some of the ramparts are still visible). Here you will find:
The Cathedral of the Nativity (Рождественский Собор)
The Cathedral Tower Bell (Соборная колокольня), which is separate from the cathedral itself
Bishop’s Palace (Архиерейские палаты), which is currently a museum
But before you get a bit of an art overload, this chronicle wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the other things to do in Suzdal:
Conveniently located between the Monastery of Saint Euthymius and the Kremlin, in what passes for the town’s most central square (although, again, do not imagine the typical town square of most European historical towns, this concept can have a different meaning in Russia), there is a market.
Here you can get a feel of provincial Russia, with sellers in both indoors and outdoors stalls peddling an eclectic mix of products, from homemade jam and pickles to oil paintings.
If you are looking for souvenirs to take home, there are also several shops nearby.
Two local products that may be worth checking:
1) Medovukha, a sort of honey-flavoured beer
2) “Valenki”, traditional Russian felt boots, which are very useful for the Winter
Where to eat in Suzdal?
I can speak of two places:
Restaurant “Trapeznaya”, that advertises itself as serving 300-year old dishes (with fresh ingredients, hopefully!). When I dined there it occupied part of an old building by the Kremlin complex. Food was good, with some large dining halls and stone walls that gave it quite a “historical” atmosphere (however, it when I checked it again to write this post the restaurant seemed to have moved to a new location further down the road, so better double check the exact address or, even better, call to confirm before going!)
Restaurant Chainaya, Kremlyovskaya St., 10G
Located on a wooden building next to the river and also right by the Kremlin, this is quite a cozy place serving traditional Russian dishes (see the pics below). It has a courtyard lined with some souvenir shops. Definitely recommended.
Places to stay in Suzdal
Hotel Zolotoy Ruchey (Отель Золотой Ручей)
Address: Ulitsa Lenina, 72; http://www.gold-river.ru
Relatively small hotel with big rooms. The whole building is also in the traditional wooden Russian style. Be warned, the decoration can be a bit kitsch (nothing to do with the contemporary minimalist style that is in fashion nowadays), but the facilities are modern and clean and service good. Very centrally located.
…and, there are some bears throughout the property! You are in the heart of old Russia after all!