Suzdal is 215km (134 miles) NE of Moscow; Vladimir is 175km (109 miles) NE of Moscow
Suzdal's conservative, tranquil beauty complements Vladimir's grand heritage, and together they form an ideal weekend trip away from Moscow's madness. Vladimir was a major political, religious, and cultural center when Moscow was still an unremarkable provincial capital. Suzdal houses a fortress and a collection of riverside convents and monasteries that date back to the town's heyday in the 11th to 13th centuries. Its populace and architecture stay loyal to tradition despite the steady flow of tourists. Vladimir, once a provincial capital more prosperous and holy than Moscow, centers around its incomparable Cathedral of the Assumption, whose architectural features caused a sensation when it was completed in 1158 and inspired cathedral designers for centuries to come. The town has grown and modernized more than Suzdal; it has more tourist services, but less charm. Both towns are lush and breezy in summer. They are inviting in winter, when snowflakes glisten off the cathedral spires and bilberry bushes along the road, and when the thick walls of the cathedrals lure you in from the cold.
Planning Your Trip -- The distance, Moscow traffic, and lack of direct train routes make it nearly impossible to visit both these towns in 1 day. If you're short on time, you could take a day trip to Vladimir alone. Visiting Suzdal as a day trip from Moscow is worthwhile only if you have a car, preferably with a driver or guide who knows the roads and the town. I strongly recommend spending the night to savor both these towns. Vladimir's city website has a comprehensive English-language link, including hotel advice (www.vladimir-city.ru/welcome/).
Tours that arrange transportation and accommodations will save you time and energy and are probably your best bet. The main drawback is that they favor the drab hotels of Vladimir over the romantic overnight offerings in Suzdal. Of the English-language tour companies, Patriarshy Dom (tel. 495/795-0927; www.russiatravel-pdtours.netfirms.com) offers occasional trips here, but check before you leave home since the dates might not be convenient. Intourist (11 Stoleshnikov Pereulok; tel. 495/923-8575) offers more frequent but very standard trips. Intourist also has offices in the Ukraina and Cosmos hotels.
Getting There -- Tour buses are the most convenient way to see both towns. Otherwise, intercity buses run direct to Vladimir from Moscow's main Shcholkovsky bus station a few times a day on weekends, and just once or twice a day during the week. To get to Suzdal, you need to transfer at Vladimir's run-down bus station and find the bus labeled SUZDAL in Russian. The trip to Vladimir takes 2 hours, with another 40 minutes to get to Suzdal. The train to Vladimir leaves from Moscow's Kursky Train Station and takes 2 1/2 hours, for about 400 rubles for a standard seat or 1,100 for a seat in a private, four-person cabin. You can also arrange for a car and driver from Moscow, either at your hotel or by calling a taxi company.
Getting Around -- There are no official tourist offices for either town, so if you can't read the Russian alphabet, you'll have a hard time getting around on your own. Taking a walk along the Kamenka River in Suzdal gives you a great perspective of the city, and it's hard to get lost since the domes of the monastery cathedrals are visible from almost anywhere in town.
Vladimir, on the other hand, is too large and spread out to be able to enjoy fully on foot, though Bolshaya Sadovaya and Bolshaya Moskovskaya streets have some concentrated dining and shopping. If you stay at a Vladimir hotel, you can hire a taxi for an hour to show you the city sights. Prices are negotiable and should be much lower than in Moscow -- no more than 400 rubles or so an hour.
What To See & Do
Vladimir -- The Golden Gates mark what was once the western entrance to Vladimir when they were built in 1164, and are a logical place to start viewing the town. The massive arch supports a church and is flanked by two castle-like structures added later. The enormous wooden doors that once kept outsiders away are long gone, and the city has grown up all around the gates. You'll find the gates at the intersection of Dvoryyanskaya Ulitsa and Bolshaya Moskovskaya streets.
Next, head to the Cathedral of the Assumption (on Sobornaya Ploshchad, or Cathedral Sq.; tel. 492/222-4263) overlooking the Klyazma River. The key Russian building of its era, it was founded in 1158 by Vladimir prince Andrei Bogolubsky (whose name means "god-loving"). The cathedral suffered massive looting and violence during Tatar invasions, but was restored in the 18th century. The heavy tiered bell tower and unadorned white walls dominate the adjacent square. English-language brochures are available for a small fee. It's open Saturday through Thursday from 1:30 to 5pm. Admission is 30 rubles.
The Cathedral of Dmitry (tel. 492/222-4263), across the square from the Cathedral of the Assumption, is unlike any other Russian church in the region, and its exterior is more fascinating than its interior. Detailed carvings climb the cathedral's steep stone walls on all sides. The images are surprisingly secular, depicting princes of the period at their various activities. The carvings at the base are more precise and two-dimensional, while farther up the facade the carvings are cruder but set in deeper relief so as to be visible from street level. The interior is almost austere in comparison, light and free of excess. The cathedral is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5pm.
Suzdal -- Suzdal thrived between its founding in A.D. 1024 and its sacking by Mongols in A.D. 1238, and has remained peripheral ever since. Its residents have retained a quiet dignity and sometimes the town feels untouched by Russia's past century of upheaval. The town centers around Trading Square (Torgovaya Ploshchad) and nearby Red Square (Krasnaya Ploshchad), which hosts the town hall and post office. The 11th-century Kremlin -- the word means "fortress" in Russian -- retains some of its original walls and houses a museum and restaurant. The Kremlin's rather run-down state reminds you how old it really is.
Suzdal's highlights are its convents and monasteries. The oldest and the first on most tours is Rizopolozhensky Monastery (20 Kremlyovskaya Ulitsa; tel. 492/312-1624), founded in 1207. Most structures inside date from 300 years later, including the three-domed Rizopolozhensky Cathedral at the center of the complex. Monks again wander the grounds, seemingly unperturbed by tourists. It's open Wednesday through Monday from 10am to 4pm (closed the last Fri of every month).
Your next priority should be Pokrovsky Convent (Ulitsa Lenina; tel. 492/312-0908), which came to be used as a storehouse for the first wives of Russian czars seeking younger companionship, including Peter the Great's wife Evdokia Lopukhina. The solemn grounds are again a functioning convent, and include an unusual inn of wooden cottages open for tourists. In summer, the nuns graze cows at dawn in the surrounding fields. The convent is open Thursday through Monday from 9:30am to 4:45pm.
Across from the convent is Euthimiev Monastery-Fortress (Ulitsa Lenina; tel. 492/312-0746), which earned political popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries and substantial donations from czars and nobility. Its high, thick stone walls reveal its dual purpose as a fortress as well as a monastic refuge, and served it well when Catherine the Great founded a prison here for political opponents. The central Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral combines several styles of Vladimir-Suzdal architecture from the 11th to the 16th centuries. It's open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm.
One of the few Soviet contributions to Suzdal was the Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life (Pushkarskaya Ulitsa; tel. 492/312-0937), across the Kamenka River from the Kremlin. It includes izbas (small wooden homes), mills, and wooden churches brought here from surrounding Vladimir Province. The museum costs 100 rubles and is open May through October, Wednesday to Monday from 9:30am to 4:30pm. In June the town hosts a lively crafts festival.
A newer addition is the Wax Museum, with some traditional Russian figures as well as internationally known faces (10B Ulitsa Kremlovskaya; tel. 985/763-8451; www.wax-museum.ru; 300 rubles).
A wander around Suzdal gives you good glimpses of the decorative wooden frames of typical Russian houses, and a peek at the compact but rich vegetable gardens that feed many rural families.
Where To Stay
Vladimir -- Accommodations here are much cheaper and generally more intimate than in Moscow, but the selection and services are limited. Because Suzdal lacks any large hotels, most organized tours put groups in Vladimir, often at the Golden Ring Hotel (27 Chaikovsky St.; tel. 492/260-0028). It's a bland, Soviet-style tower 4km (2 1/2 miles) from the center of town, meaning you rely on buses or taxis to get around. The advantage is that it has plenty of space (170 units) and that a basic double costs only 1,800 rubles (www.amaks-hotels.ru/hotel8/index.htm).
A more creative and environmentally friendly option is the Russian Village (Russkaya Derevnya; 5A Moskovskoye Shosse; tel. 492/238-3690) complex, on the edge of town abutting a forest. Recently built of local pine and with energy self-sufficiency and respect for nature in mind, it has three motel-like buildings all with a view on the woods. The hotel can help arrange transport to the key sites. It runs about 2,000 to 2,500 rubles a night.
Suzdal -- Small groups and individuals prefer to stay in Suzdal's more romantic inns and lodges. A top choice is Likhoninsky House (34 Slobodskaya Ulitsa; tel. 492/312-1901; firstname.lastname@example.org), a wooden home with a small museum of local history and seven cozy guest rooms, located just behind Rizopolozhensky Monastery. One single has a fireplace with a mattress over it, so you can sleep on top as Russian families did for centuries. (There's also a regular bed.) Most rooms have traditional country furniture. The house is a 5-minute walk from the center and costs just 500 to 1,400 rubles per night. Reserve a few weeks in advance.
If you've ever fancied monastic life, try a night at Pokrovskaya Hotel (Ulitsa Pokrovskaya; tel. 492/312-0889) on the grounds of Pokrovsky Convent. The wooden cottages are basic but quite roomy and comfortable. It's run by Intourist so the service is less than effusive but doesn't spoil the experience. Rates are about 1,650 rubles per night for two people.
A higher-end option is the bright and inviting Hotel Sokol (2a Torgovaya Ploshchad; tel. 492/312-0987), a sunny yellow building next to the Kremlin with recently renovated rooms for 3,300 rubles per night (www.hotel-sokol.ru).
Where To Dine
Vladimir -- Restaurant options are expanding more quickly than hotels, though they remain limited. The best restaurants are along Bolshaya Moskovskaya Street. Most bars (several of them quite seedy) are on Bolshaya Sadovaya Street. Stary Gorod, opposite the Cathedral of Dmitry, is a pleasant restaurant with European-influenced Russian cuisine at reasonable prices, and unusually competent service for a provincial town. Main courses run around 400 to 600 rubles. Sobornaya Ploshchad, the restaurant next door, is almost as good and costs a bit less, with main courses about 250 rubles.
Suzdal -- Though its name means "monastic dining hall," the Trapeznaya in the Kremlin is one of the most cheery, colorful restaurants in Suzdal. It's housed inside the fortress, up a set of steep stone stairs. Try their zhulien, wild mushrooms baked in sour cream and cheese; or the juicy meats cooked in clay ovens. Main courses run 250 to 500 rubles. (Kremlin; tel. 492/312-1639).
A dining hall at Pokrovsky Convent, also called Trapeznaya (Ulitsa Pokrovskaya; tel. 492/312-0889), serves hearty food in a more austere setting, with hard wooden benches and narrow windows in the stone walls. Try the fresh cranberry juice or home-brewed mead. Local residents prefer the raucous atmosphere of the Kharchevnya (73 Ulitsa Lenina; tel. 492/312-0722) restaurant and bar. The pancakes with honey and cream are divine and the rich soups nourishing. They serve very reasonably priced, main courses from about 150 rubles.
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.