Venturing outside Moscow demonstrates how deeply the capital differs from the rest of the sprawling country it represents. Beyond the clogged beltway that marks the city limits, the casinos, chain stores, and English signage quickly vanish, revealing an ungroomed landscape of rivers, oak groves, and clusters of wooden houses. Moscow's outskirts look nothing like the suburban sprawl so familiar to North Americans and Europeans. Here, the "inner city" is the most elite place to live, the urban fringes are depressed districts of dreary apartment blocks for those not rich enough to afford a Moscow address, and beyond that is endless countryside -- and the occasional enclave of multi-million-dollar estates for Russia's expanding new rich.
The most-visited and most historically revealing destinations around Moscow are along the Golden Ring (Zolotoye Koltso), a circle of eight cities, dating back to the 11th century, that served as a nucleus of Russian culture and politics. Their splendid Orthodox cathedrals and monasteries and their medieval fortresses form their key attractions. I've included three of them here: Sergiev Posad, considered Russia's holiest Orthodox site, plus Vladimir and Suzdal, two towns usually visited together. Sergiev Posad is a feasible day trip and can be reached relatively easily on your own. Vladimir and Suzdal are farther afield, so I recommend an overnight trip. The other stops are closer to Moscow and focus on the secular: the landscaping marvels of the estate at Arkhangelskoye, and the simple charms of the writers' village at Peredelkino.
To get the most out of these trips, go with a tour group or get an individual tour guide. Unless you've done extensive background reading, you'll miss much of the context and significance of these towns if you tackle them alone.
Be warned that roads outside the big cities (and sometimes within them) are rough and potholed, so if you take a bus, be prepared for some bouncing. Watch how quickly traffic thins as you leave town, as urban turns to rural and high-rises abruptly give way to rickety outhouses.
Moving to the Suburbs -- The character of Podmoskovye ("the region surrounding Moscow") is evolving as the city's ever-expanding upper classes set up camp -- in other words, build multimillion-dollar homes -- in the exclusive villages once reserved for dachas (country cottages) of the Communist Party elite. Meant to complement their luxurious Moscow apartments, these nouveau riche homes often reach absurd levels of extravagance and incongruity. Keep your eyes peeled as you take your side trips and you're sure to spot some of them. Look for castle-like modern constructions surrounded by massive security gates or fences, often fronted by armed guards. Turrets, buttresses, and Japanese gardens are common architectural features. These new homes are the only places in Russia you're likely to see a closely mowed lawn.
Day Excursions for Everyone
Stalin's World War II bunker -- hidden beneath a football stadium but big enough to accommodate and entire tank battalion -- has been open to the public since 1996. When it was build 1934-1936, in response to increasing German militarism, newspapers announced the construction of a 120,000-seat stadium, academy and art institute -- none of which was ever completed. Whether tasteless Soviet kitsch or a unique insight into the cult of personality, Stalin's bunker is simply surreal. At $160 each for a group of two (dropping to $55 for groups of three-plus), it's easier and cheaper to visit with an organized tour. Russkie Prostori (tel. 495/983-0334; www.russkieprostori.ru) make regular visits.
Restreat of the Tsars since the 14th century (and childhood home of Peter the Great), Kolomenskoye is host to numerous free festivals throughout the year. These include Maslenitsa (the orthodox answer to Mardi Gras) and an Easter Sunday procession to the white-steepled Church of the Ascension. Entrance to Kolomenskoye's grounds is free. Purchase tickets for the museums to the right of the Front Gate -- prices vary but start from 200 rubles (tel. 499/615-2768).
Much of Star City is still accessible only to its employees -- or to "space tourists" willing to pay. But ordinary earthlings can get access to the world's largest centrifuge, a full-size model of the Mir space station, and a well-stocked museum chronicling the glory years. Thos old enough to remember Gagarin's flight will feel a pang at the sight of the model Vostok capsule: and anyone under the age of 10 will be fascinated to learn, once and for all, how astronauts cope with no toilets in space. Best seen as part of an organized tour. Patriarsky Dom Tours visits every two months or so ($85 or 2,100 rubles). Visitors to the museum will need to contact its administration department separately, in advance (tel. 495/536-2612; www.gctc.ru/eng/).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.