Moscow is a massive place with tons of history, but it, just like any other major international city, is not the heartland of the country. All the big global megalopolises blur together with their crowds, international products and cookie-cutter airports. As an American, I can say that the real soul of my home country is nowhere near Manhattan. Going beyond the borders of Moscow to see the “real Russia” is really worth it and it is pretty darn cheap and easy to do. So here is our guide (with plenty of video) for visiting some neat small towns right outside of Moscow that you can easily get to, in order to get that authentic Russian experience that you’ve been looking for!
When you combine the cost of airplane tickets, a visa and many days of hotel stays, you’ve already invested a pretty decent sum of money to come visit Russia. We at Russia Beyond appreciate this very much! Yet, it is probably still not as much as going to England or Norway. In these countries, just looking at the price of bottled water makes you consider just drinking from the river. Russia is “cheaper” to visit than much of Europe, but it is still an investment that you want to pay off with a great adventure.
So, if you are going to all this cost and effort to come here, then why not literally drop $3 on a train ticket to a small town outside of the big city to see the heartland of Russia? Considering hotels outside of Moscow are a bit cheaper you may even wind up saving money by going outside the big city!
First, let’s take a quick look at how to get almost anywhere you need to go in Moscow Region (the area surrounding the capital). All of the city’s suburban trains leave from a major train station, which all have a dedicated subway station, i.e. it is very easy to get onto any suburban train station from the Moscow Metro. You can buy a ticket from a human casier or try your luck using the automated ticket machine. Сheck the availability of train tickets all over Russia on rasp.yandex.ru or tutu.ru. To find out exactly how to use Moscow’s suburban trains watch our video.
Now let’s take a look at some neat little towns that will surely satisfy your Russophilic touristic desires for at least a day trip.
Kolomna is like being in the middle of a thunderstorm of quaintness. It really gives off a great old time Russian vibe and yet the whole city seems freshly renovated. Interestingly, the local kremlin is actually filled with houses and even schools! Most of the time, a city’s kremlin is like the ones in Moscow or Tula that only have government buildings in them, plus a church or two. But the one in Kolomna is alive with locals going about their daily lives, which you can see with your own eyes in our video below.
A great gift option are the local “pastillas” made from the reddest of Russian apples that turn into a sort of marshmallow-like stick. They are ideal for travel and are not bad on your wallet. They are light so you can take them back with you in an airplane quite easily or just eat them in your hotel room, because it’s your holiday and you can spend it how you like!
Much of the city has been renovated, making all the streets clean and orderly while leaving all the old buildings intact. Lots of history and quaintness can be found in Kolomna, for sure, but it is probably the farthest cool city from Moscow that remains within the Moscow Region, so make sure your phone is charged before leaving.
Note from Tim: I stayed at the VKolomnye Hotel, which was relatively close to the Kolomna Kremlin. I had a great experience and slept very well, but they were totally stunned to see a foreigner show up. If you go there, get ready to practice your Russian! Note the hotel is located down an alleyway that could be scary to certain people at night.
Many locals and one American YouTuber complain about the speed skating rink they built next to the amazing full-of-life Kolomna Kremlin. It looks like an early 90s beige-box computer fell over on its side. Truly hideous so make sure to always keep your back to it when taking photos!
If you appreciate architecture on holiday/vacation, then Sergiev Posad is for you. The area is filled with a massive amount of churches and monasteries, as well as other surviving bits of Russia’s medieval times. At the core of the city is its ‘Lavra’ the number of which in the former USSR you can count on one hand. A Lavra is what happens when so many churches and monasteries are built together that their critical mass draws them into one titanic monastic zone.
There are all sorts of interesting designs and frescos to be enjoyed all around the Lavra, as well as the holy atmosphere of the region. And getting to know some of the pilgrims visiting it could prove very enlightening about Russian Culture. But why describe architectural beauty when you can just see it in our video below.
There are plenty of places to get great Russian food in the city. I would recommend real pelmeni and vareniki made by locals. Although it isn’t considered a classic Russian dish there is a place that offers ‘lagman’, which also happens to be my favorite food of all time. If lagman is available it just has to be consumed. Not far away from the Lavra, they produce the handmade old school candy that is the perfect gift to take with you on your way back home and you can also stop by some cafes along the way.
If you are not “churched out” by this point, there is a massive wooden church that has somehow survived all these years outside the city in the village of Blagoveshchenie. Sergiev Posad is considered the spiritual heart of Russia so that is really all the reason you need to pay the town a visit. It is definitely worth your time.
Note from Tim: When we went to film it just so happened to be the memorial day of Sergey of Radonezh, who is the man in Russia responsible for a lot of the medieval churches that still stand today. Since we have filmed his construction projects numerous times all over the country, I decided to make Sergey of Radonezh the Patron Saint of Russia: Tips, Tricks & Travel. Why not? We could use some holy spirit on our side!
Needless to say, the amount of pilgrims on that day was absolutely insane. If you want to experience a Monastery that has a rock concert atmosphere then make sure to come on October 8 during the annual celebration.
End of the line, it’s Zvenigorod time. This town is at the end of a rail line so it is really hard to miss your stop. But, as we mention in our video, the train station is actually very far from downtown Zvenigorod. Download the ‘Yandex Go’ (formerly ‘Yandex Taxi’) app and for a couple dollars you can get to everywhere that you need to go.
But once you get to the center of the city, enjoy the walk, because it is a very lovely and very European-looking location. Moskovskaya Street is really the main drag of the town where there are plenty of places to stop for a snack or cup of coffee to recharge yourself. The tourist epicenter of Zvenigorod is Kupchy Dvor, where you can buy all sorts of different gifts, have lunch in the old courtyard enjoying the weather, or do the most Russian thing of all in the 21st century… order sushi.
If you jump in a taxi, you can visit Zvenigorod’s legendary Savvino Storozhevsky Monastery, which takes you right back to medieval times. Despite what Hollywood movies often depict, Old Russians wanted to make life as colorful as possible and this is really reflected in the monastery’s bold palette. Every building is unique and as bright as it can be. This is the magical ancient Russia that you came for! But before you file for your visa, check out our video to see if Zvenigorod floats your boat.
Note from Tim: As the cheapest human being on Earth, I did not think of going to the local fashion stores in Zvenigorod. On Moscovskaya Street there seemed to be a lot of places to buy clothing both locally designed/sewn and foreign factory produced. This could be important, because while we were filming the city a massive rainstorm caught us totally unprepared and, let’s just say, the rest of the day meant walking around in wet shoes and socks.
Dmitrov has the most surprising central kremlin of any Russian city - it’s made of dirt! Yes, the walls rotted away long ago, leaving mounds that remind me of the Native American burial sites scattered around my home state. This crumbled architecture gives you the unique chance to climb your way up to the highest point in this old Russian town. The view from the “walls” was epic and inside of them are active churches and even an elementary school! We actually saw the kids having a blast at P.E. class as we filmed. I personally loved P.E. class, but, then again, I was the biggest kid, so I had the advantage.
Not far away from the Dmitrov Kremlin, as in literally 100 yards, there are some cafes and a lovely walking street filled with statues commemorating those who lived in the city long ago. The idea of making bronze statues of former residents of Dmitrov who are no longer with us is very heavy metal and appreciated as a modern form ancestor worship via bronze. To see what I am talking about click on our video below and see for yourself.
The nearby Borisoglebsky Monastery (which also sounds just as strange in Russian) is very well taken care of and bustling with visitors. During the warmer months, you can enjoy the gorgeous gardens found on its grounds.
On the very edge of the city there are hills sloping down from the east to the west and, in 1941, Nazi Germany decided to literally fight an uphill battle to take Dmitrov and neighboring Yakhroma to later encircle Moscow. Many lives were lost, but Dmitrov held out in the end and that is why there is a giant military monument on this unassuming hill. The area around Peremilovskaya Vysota was the exact reason to go outside of Moscow. Up on the hills, you can see for miles in every direction and really appreciate the vastness of Russia. The really cool brutalist Soviet monument that’s up there added even more to the setting!
Note from Tim: As we were filming, a very drunk man with beer, bread and a fluorescent light bulb came up to us screaming that he was “the guardian of all pigeons” and that we owed him 50 rubles for the right to film “his” birds on the central square. One of the cameramen brought to his attention that there were four of us and one of him and that ended the issue… a half hour later. There aren’t many beggars in Russia compared to what I have seen and most of the ones you do see tend to be just brokenhearted and somber… but not this guy. So if you want to film pigeons in Dmitrov bring a crisp pale blue 50 ruble bill with you.
People always say that they want to visit a “different” country, but if you only go to Moscow, then you have visited the most similar possible place to any other major city in your home country. Outside the city the air is colder but people’s hearts are warmer and you will certainly feel down to your bones that you are in a different place. And isn’t that what you wanted when you applied for your visa!?
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