Generally, a visit to Russia by foreign tourists consists of a stop in Moscow and/or St. Petersburg. The infrastructure of those two cities is well developed and therefore easy to navigate even for novices. However once you’ve stepped outside of the imaginary city boundary separating Moscow and St. Petersburg from the rest of the country you are presented with a lot of unknown. The major difficulty is a lack of tourist infrastructure stating from basic things like signage in Latin alphabet and ending with hotel accommodations. Therefore, hidden gems of inner-Russia are remaining undiscovered by the general mass of tourists. The good news is that you can get unique experiences that casual travelers can’t expect to get, but be ready to do a little work.
Day trips out of Moscow
It is safe to say that a trip to Russia, for most foreign visitors, consist of a visit to Moscow. The capital city provides plenty of entertainment for tourists and an overabundant supply of attractions year ’round. Yet curious travelers might ask themselves what lies outside of The Capital? After all, Russia is the largest country on the planet that spans eleven time zones (give or take). So how do you get to taste a slice of real Russia and tour “the regions” (perhaps even the illusive district 13? Neah – just kidding, there is no District 13, it was bombed during the war, of course)? Let’s see what we can do in a day, without breaking the budget. Let’s see how to reward oneself with one of a kind experiences that others cannot get.
Day in Suzdal and Vladimir
Our destination on this day trip will be a little town east of Russian capital, that is called Suzdal (Russian: Суздаль; Pronunciation: Sue-z-dahl). Since we’ll be travelling through the city of Vladimir (Russian: Владимир; Pronunciation: Note that Russians are stressing first “i” in the Vlad-EE-mir, otherwise it is what it is) we’ll take an opportunity to look around there as well. You’ll need to plan on roughly 9 hours on the ground for this adventure, which is more than enough for a no-rush tour (that is from an American tourist perspective… for all Europeans who are reading this… feel free to take the whole week of your seemingly endless holiday days to accomplish the same thing. :-) ) and you’ll have plenty of chances for spectacular photo-ops and experiences.
How to get there:
This day-trip (stress on the word “day”) only recently became possible due to the high-speed rail that was built between Moscow and the third largest city in Russia – Nizhniy Novgorod (Russian: Нижний Новгород; Pronunciation : Neezh-knee Nov-Gaw-Rad; Note: Russians simply refer to it as [Neezh-knee]). Although multiple regular-service trains are available between Moscow and Nizhniy, we are going to stick with an early morning high-speed service that is operating under brand “Sapsan” (Russian: Сапсан; Pronunciation: Sup-sun). With slightly under two hours trip-time between Moscow and Vladimir you’ll be spending most of the day on the ground, exploring town of Suzdal, as well as City of Vladimir on the way back to Moscow.
Buying a ticket:
Unless you are familiar with the Russian railroad ticketing system, or have an RR office near/in your hotel you might want to consider purchasing tickets a day (or more) in advance instead of buying them the morning of departure. I don’t believe it will affect the cost of your tickets, but rather will give you some peace of mind, since Russian culture of overburden bureaucracy extends to the realm of railroad ticket purchasing. You’ll need to have your passport, as a picture ID, and cash to purchase the ticket. I was able to use my American-issued Visa card, but you need to make sure that the office you are buying tickets from is equipped with the card-readers, which is a normal thing in Moscow yet I would not rely on it. Budget about 10-15 min to buy your ticket, plus possible wait time in a queue. Like the airplane ticket you’ll have your name printed on it and seat assigned to you. And with the Russian affinity for bureaucracy and paperwork, issuing those tickets might take a few minutes… multiply it by number of people in your party.
Here is the official English language train time table you might want to consult: http://eng.rzd.ru/statice/public/rzdeng?STRUCTURE_ID=4211
Getting to the train station:
Moscow is the hub of the Russian railroad system. Nine major/main train stations that Russians are calling Vokzal (Russian: Вокзал; Pronounces: VOK-sawl), are located in the center of Moscow.
[There is an anecdotal story about the origin of that name… namely that Russians have adopted the name from London's train station Vauxhall as a misunderstanding that word meant "the mail station"]
Each of nine “main train stations” of Moscow is named after the city the original railroad line was heading towards. So there are Leningrad Station, Yaroslavl Station, Kazan Station and so on. All stations are easily reachable by the metro and several are located on the same square appropriately named by Muscovites as [Vokzalnaya Ploshad'] aka Train-station Square. Anyhow… you’ll be departing from Kurskiy Vokzal (Kursk Station) (Russian: Курский Вокзал; Pronunciation: Coor-ski Vok-sawl). To get to the Kurskiy Vokzal you’ll need to look for “Kurskaya” metro station. Remember, your train departs at 6:45AM, the metro start running at 5:30AM, so should be just fine, as long as you have your tickets figure out in advance. Train service in Russia is generally timely and reliable. Trains (unlike people) are rarely late and if you have missed your departure time, you’ll have to figure out your alternatives or postpone your day-trip to another time.
If you have just arrived to Moscow and not familiar with the metro, you might want to familiarize yourself with Moscow metro system ahead of the time. I suggest making a “dry run” from your hotel to the Kurskiy vokzal day or so before your trip, you can also use that time to actually purchase your train tickets.
I promise that Moscow metro is not very difficult to navigate. Most city-dwellers from around the world will find it logical. Moscow metro operates like a clockwork, aside from getitng from point A to point B, a lot of the stations are a tourist destination on their-own. Moscow metro is reliable and efficient with trains leaving nearly every 30 (!) seconds in the peak hours. As I’ve noted before, service starts at 5:30AM, which is just in time for you to catch your ride to the Kurskiy Vokzal from wherever you are staying. Also, do spend a few minutes locating an exact platform from where the train will be departing while you are on your ticket-purchasing dry-run. First time I was looking for the platform I felt like a character in the Harry Potter movie trying to locate the platform 9 and 3/4 at 6:40AM and hearing loud-speaker announcements that train is still departing on time in just about 5 min! Note that I could actually read signs and understand announcements… In the end it was simple, of course, but learn from my stress and take a look at the actual platform location during your dry-run, since under-caffeinated morning rush might not be the best time to search for it. You’ll stress yourself, your companions and you owl… and who wants to deal with stressed owl?! Neh-ha, not in Russia, no thank you! You’ll find that high-speed trains are departing form newer platforms that are “lower” to the ground and therefore those new platforms are extensions to the their original “taller” counterpart with the same number… you know those “Number 9 and 3/4″ kind of platforms, phew!
On the train:
Lucky for us, the “Sapsan” train makes only one midway stop between Moscow and Nizhniy Novgorod; that stop is in Vladimir. Other benefits of taking the high-speed train, aside from the fact of saving nearly 3 hours each way, when compared to regular service train, is that announcements are made in Russian and English and that you hardly can miss your stop, it’s the very first stop that train will make.
You’ll have an assigned seat and as soon as train leaves the city, or shortly thereafter, you can head to the restaurant-car to get some overpriced airline-like breakfast for yourself. Delicious it is not, but hey! who’s got the time to have breakfast at 5AM before heading to the train station, right? You have just under two hours before your stop in Vladimir.
Although you’ll be near Vladimir’s city core upon your arrival, I suggest leaving it to the last, and heading straight to Suzdal, which is only 22 miles away and about 30-40 min drive on the old rickety inter-city bus. The bus departs from the train station you’ll arrive to, and runs about every hour or so. You will need to purchase tickets ahead of the time at the “Bilety” kiosk (Russian: Билеты; Pronunciation: Bill-let-tee). Frankly I cannot remember how much each ticket cost, what I do remember is that it was extremely cheap, something like $0.25 per person. They up-charge you about $0.10 more, later on, when you have arrived to the town of Suzdal and bus becoming part of the local bus service. Alternatively cab ride is also pretty good transportation option, it will cost you about $20 one way and should take less than 20 min. Cab drivers are generally waiting for passengers at the same train station. Suzdal
What to see:
Suzdal is one of the towns making-up the “Golden Ring of Russia“. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and unlike many other towns in Russia it was designated as “museum under an open sky” during the Soviet time, and therefore preserved in its historical appearance as oppose to being scared by Soviet mas-produced “architecture”. Large monastery and dozens of churches are located in a very concise area which makes it ideal for walk-through kind of experience. Most personal residences are traditional Russian-style log houses with elaborate hand-made gingerbread ornaments that are still required if/when new residence is build. Suzdal is long popular with local tourists, however relatively few foreigners are visiting that town. Town is small enough to cover entirely by foot and packed with architectural gems well suited for quaint photo-ops that could make some postcard artist a fortune. I’ll leave you with your own Wikipedia research to find more historical data about the town – it is often having festivals and events.
The museum of wooden architecture
One of the stand-alone attractions you might want to consider visiting is The Museum of Wooden Architecture. It consists of a collection of traditional Russian log houses ranging from small church to several peasant houses grouped together and open to public. Some houses, seemingly at random, are having guides dressed in traditional Russian costumes and willing to show you around with seemingly old-fashioned way of speaking about the way of living back to whatever time they are representing. If you don’t speak Russian – well…, nod and smile :-) wooden architecture is pretty enough to just take a look at and admire craftsmanship of whoever build those structures… and those costumed folks are happy to take a picture with you.
What/where to eat
I suggest eating in the old monastery which you really cannot miss, since it’s THE LARGEST church with walls in the whole town. I don’t believe the monastery is actually functioning as such any longer, and was converted to a museum and therefore restored and preserved. Not so good for monks – and very good for you. You can stop at traditional Russian restaurant that is located on the ground floor of the monastery building. I bet that that restaurant is probably overpriced by local standards, yet compared to Moscow prices or any other western city you should find it affordable.
Getting back to Vladimir
Personally I’ve taken a cab to get back to Vladimir. I was able to hitch a ride for less than $20 and be back to the Vladimir’s city core in 20 min or so. I was a bit tired from walking most of the day and being waken up at 5AM. However same bus service that took you into Suzdal can take you back. $0.40 beats $20 any time, if you are willing to spend a little more time.
What to see and Why:
Vladimir is an old Russian town that used to rival Moscow back in 1200s and was a seat in the “Great Russia” empire. However, it was under perpetual siege by Mongols back in 1200 and never really regained its full status of importance since. The core of the city still contains plenty of old architectural artifacts that are well worth the visit.
Similarly to most Russian cities (including Moscow and Saint Petersburg), the outskirts of the town are badly scarred by soviets with prime examples of “craptitecture”. So if you’ve ventured outside of historical core (like on the drive to Suzdal) marvel at the remnants of mighty Soviet Union in its glorious decaying state, you are probably (and hopefully) the last generation that will see it. Eventually those towns will get cash and get rid of the scar-tissue build-up, so to speak, however in the current state it is not particularly attractive, unless you are scouting for the newest gloom-and-doom-futuristic film set for your Hollywood flick, in that case I want my cut for the referral and humble mentioning in the end-titles.
I’ll let pictures speak for themselves instead of trying to make up your mind with words on how long you’ll need to spend in Vladimir. Vladimir is relatively large town and you might want to consider taking public transportation to look around, it is very cheap, plentiful and pervasive.
Personally, I would concentrate on Suzdal as a primary destination for your trip and will leave Vladimir as a fill-in kind of stop where you can spend an hour or two before catching your ride back to Moscow. Yes, there are TONS of pretty cathedrals and monasteries and building of all sorts… but after the day in Suzdal it might all look about the same to you… that is of course a grand assumption that I am making, but never the less… it is what it is. Enjoy a stroll through the city, pay a visit to the landmark Assumption Cathedral (which is Unesco World Heritage Site as well), grab cup of coffee in a local café, take pictures, relax.
Returning back to Moscow:
If you have returned back to Vladimir by car and stopped right at the city center, try to locate the train station ahead of time, so you’ll know where to head when time comes. The train station (vokzal) is very close to the city core. In fact you can see the Assumption Cathedral’s tower from the bus station/train station where you have started your trip to Suzdal. So, it is very much walkable. There is a set of stairs connecting train station, that is lower in relation to the main street of the city. Alternatively, you can hitch a ride on city’s electrical trolley-bus or a regular bus to the train station just for a few cents.
Note that “Sapsan” train only stops in Vladimir for two minutes (literally). In 2012 the departure time was scheduled at 16:53. You arrival time to Moscow’s Kursky Vokzal should be 18:40… which is perfect timing to get back to your hotel and get ready for dinner. If you have missed your ride don’t worry too much, you can catch numerous “slow-trains” back to Moscow that are passing through Vladimir regularly. Head to the “Kassa” and see if you can get new tickets to “Moskva”.