While visiting Moscow, I was very curious about seeing some of the historic cities along the Golden Ring outside of Moscow. When my Russian friend suggested that we visit Yaroslavl, a beautiful Russian city with a UNESCO recognized historic center, how could I say no?
This post is about our experience in Yaroslavl, including what we did during winter in Yaroslavl. I emphasize the winter bit as Yaroslavl is a popular summer destination, however we didn’t let the cold bother us too much. I also include tips on where to stay and eat in Yaroslavl.
Why visit Yaroslavl?
Yaroslavl is a historic city dating back to the 11th century whose commercial centre is recognized by UNESCO. This city, about 250 kilometers from Moscow, has remarkably well preserved churches dating back to the 17th century and a well-designed radial city center thanks to Catherine the Great. The town center is cheerful with pastel painted houses (some of which were briefly painted white during Soviet times).
One of the most stunning attractions of Yaroslavl is Spassky Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in the region dating back to the 12th century. You can visit this stunning monastery as well as view many of the well preserved churches!
If you love bears, you’re not alone. The bear is the symbol of Yaroslavl… and you’re likely to end up with at least one (if not five) photos with various bear statues. Unlike Moscow, Yaroslavl was quiet during the winter lead up to Christmas with a smattering of Russian tourists. It’s the perfect place to get away from the crowds in Moscow.
Where to stay in Yaroslavl
We stayed at Alesha Popovich Dvor (Алеша Попович двор), a traditional 3* Russian hotel with a gorgeous wood exterior and a feast of a breakfast included in the price.Check prices for hotels in Yaroslavl!
What to do in Yaroslavl
Although many people stop off in Yaroslavl for only a day, there’s actually a lot of things to do in Yaroslavl and I kept getting the feeling that it would be easy to spend at least three days in the city.
We had a weekend (2 days) and we did our best with fighting the cold, but I hope that this little guide to Yaroslavl inspires you to see a bit more of this historic Golden Ring city!
Spassky Monastery / Yar Kremlin
One of the major attractions of Yaroslavl is the Spassky Monastery. This monastery is one of the oldest in the Upper Volga region, dating back to the 12th century, when it was built to replace a pagan temple. Slightly later, it was given wooden walls to keep it safe, although most of these were rebuilt with stone in time.
Within the complex, you have several well preserved buildings, including the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, Holy Gate, and Bell Tower. Although the monastery was rebuilt in a neoclassical style at a later period, it still remains remarkably well intact. Within its walls, you can imagine going back in time to a period when Yaroslavl was a major trading hub. Traders followed the Volga river bringing back goods from Persia and beyond, which helped Yaroslavl become a wealthy city.
When you’re in the Yar-Kremlin, you have the option of visiting multiple museums in the complex. We were a bit overwhelmed trying to visit all of them as each one had quite a bit of things to see. One of the most unique features of the museum is that you can rent costumes to pretend to be part of the nobility while touring the grounds. As a heads up, foreigners will pay more than Russians and it’s very easy to spend at least one full day here as we did.
As a warning, the Yar-Kremlin wasn’t the most foreigner friendly museum and the explanations were primarily in Russian. The staff was friendly enough, but if you’re visiting without a native speaker, I can imagine that the objects are significantly less interesting as you lack some of the context…. You can hire a guide for the day who will speak English for a reasonable amount who can accompany you to the museum and the city at large if you ask at your hotel.
I really enjoyed the historical objects museum, which held Russian tiles that were inspired by the Chinese tiling, jewelry, and Orthodox Russian icons. Similarly, the museum showing off daily life of Yaroslavl within the 1800s was fascinating and even came with a selfie spot for dressing up in typical clothes from the period. I also enjoyed the literature museum, which showed early Russian manuscripts.
Animal lovers, be warned that there is a bear enclosed on the grounds and it was bit awkward to explain my uncomfortableness with enclosed animals as animal rights in Russia are still catching up. I wasn’t really thrilled to hear this, however it’s very possible to visit the Yar-Kremlin without seeing its enclosure. There is a little cafe on the grounds where you can buy a snack and a tea.
Walk around the old town
It’s interesting to walk around Yaroslavl, which was at odds with much of Russia during the 1800s. You see a lot of Western European influence, in particular with the opera. During this time, Yaroslavl’s elite almost entirely stopped speaking Russian and instead of spoke French as their primary language.
Much of the buildings date back to this period with neoclassical touches and colorful pastel colors. For this reason, I’d recommend doing a city tour with a knowledgeable guide who speaks your language, which you should be able to find if you ask at your hotel.
One notable feature is the fact that much of the city used to sit within the fortressed walls with a buffer zone where traders would wait for arrivals from abroad. As a result, you can can admire the beautiful old city gates that used to be surrounded by log walls. To be fair, there’s not much left as the city has grown around it, but you can imagine Yaroslavl in the past.
Take photos with bear statues
It’s good luck to rub the paw of the bear statue in front of Alesha Popovich Dvor. The bear in the statue is not the kind of bear native to Russia, but you gotta roll with the punches–and rub the paw.
In case you miss the first bear statue, don’t worry: there’s another bear statue close to the craft beer bar mentioned below. To the delight of our friend’s parents and strangers who also took photos of us after realizing that we were foreigners, we took a photo there too! Don’t worry, there’s photo evidence thanks to our friend Nikita.
Winter: visit the Christmas market
For some reason, Russia isn’t known for Christmas markets as much as other parts of Europe, however if you’re visiting Russia close to New Year’s Eve, be sure to enjoy glintwein and delicious cookies! (You can always get tea. For something extra warming, ask for a bit of cognac in your tea.)
Stroll along the Volga
One of the most romantic thing to do in Yaroslavl is to stroll along the Volga, where you can see the city of Yaroslavl first developed. The city has grown a lot, however I was surprised how many people braved the cold to enjoy the waterfront views, which was pretty damn cold with the windchill.
There’s a pavilion (Ротонда) where its considered to be very lucky to kiss your husband or wife if you want your marriage to last . Naturally, we had to follow the lead of our friend’s parents.
Admire Yaroslavl’s stunning churches
There are so many churches in Yaroslavl and it’s not possible to visit all of them as many are in use, however you can pass many of them on foot while taking a city tour.
We ended up entering Uspenskiy Kafedral’nyy Sobor, an opulent church built in 2010 based on the former church that was destroyed during Soviet times.
Where to eat in Yaroslavl
Although Yaroslavl is a historic trading point, we found that most restaurants did not have menus in English, so it’s far more important to know vaguely what you want. The best app for maps, navigation as well as finding coffee and food in Russia is Yandex Maps (Google / Apple).
How can you go wrong with Georgian food? We ended up at Khinkali House (Хинкали Хаус) and the food was as delicious as you can imagine. There’s nothing like warm khinkali on a cold Russian winter day….
On another day, we feasted at a Russian buffet called Bazar where you pay for whatever you take. We ended up enjoying Herring under a fur coat (a traditional Russian specialty), the many salads, and the desserts.
At another point, we stopped for blini and tea. Подбелка (Podbelka) is a cozy dumpling restaurant with retro interior guaranteed to take you back in time. For craft beer beer, consider stopping off at Kraftovyy Bar Krapiva Yaroslavl.
Have you been to Yaroslavl?
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