The pressure-cooker vibe of Moscow can lead even a tourist to seek solace in the countryside. In Soviet times foreign visitors were trotted out in monitored groups along a strictly controlled route of the so-called Golden Ring towns, mostly lying to the northeast of the capital. Today the amenities in these towns have been upgraded, as have those at other sites not officially part of the Ring but equally worthy of a visit. These are all a manageable drive or train ride from Moscow. And best of all, now you are free to come and go as you please.
Sergiyev Posad (45 miles northeast of Moscow): With its colorful onion domes and lively grounds, the Holy Trinity–St. Sergius Lavra (stsl.ru) is one of Russia’s most important monasteries. The structure attracts a flood of tourists, but don’t be put off by the crowds—it’s an architectural vision. Be sure to also take in the surrounding area: a provincial Russia that may soon be lost to modern times.
Abramtsevo (45 miles northeast of Moscow): On the way back to the capital from Sergiyev Posad, stop at Abramtsevo. This charming country estate was turned into a kind of Russian Barbizon by a 19th-century industrialist who invited the best artists of the day to live and work there. Galereya (from $210; 4 Ulitsa Muzeinaya; 7-495/725-3195; galereya.name), a hotel and restaurant complex outside the gate, now makes a stay in Abramtsevo possible.
Arkhangelskoye (12 miles west of Moscow): Called the Russian Versailles, Arkhangelskoye (7-495/363-1375; arkhangels koe.ru), built in the 18th and 19th centuries as an estate, was known for its glorious parklike setting and legendary art collection (Tiepolo, Van Dyck). In Soviet times it served as a military sanitarium. Today you can get the best of both its incarnations by taking in the art displayed in the main palace and strolling the beautiful sculpture-dotted gardens. June may be the best time to visit: The Moscow Symphony Orchestra (moscow symphony.ru) performs and the weekend-long Usadba Jazz Festival (usadbajazz.ru) takes place. Lunch next door at Usadba (Krasnogorsky Rayon, Bldg. 6; 7-495/797-5455).
Istra (35 miles northwest of Moscow): The New Jerusalem Monastery is a vivid illustration of 17th- and 18th-century Russia’s spiritual and architectural aspirations. The monastery coexists with a state-run art and architecture museum. The Resurrection Cathedral’s dome, which is being restored, has been described as "among the most sublime domes ever created in history." Le Meridien Moscow Country Club (7-495/626-5911; lemeridien-mcc.com), with an 18-hole golf course, makes a good base for exploring. But be advised: The service and the food at the country club have been known, at times, to disappoint.
Vladimir (110 miles east of Moscow): With some of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in the country, Vladimir is home to the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin. Its in-terior has frescoes by Andrei Rublev, whose spiritual odyssey is depicted in an Andrei Tarkovsky film. The Cathedral of St. Demetrius, meanwhile, is famous for its unique carved reliefs. Achingly beautiful is the white-stone Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, in a meadow outside town.
Suzdal (130 miles northeast of Moscow): This town, which was bypassed by both imperial Russian and Soviet industrialization, is a prime example of local village life. Stay at the Hotel Pokrovskaya (from $100; Suzdal Tourist Center; 7-492/312-0908; suzdaltour.ru), a former convent inside the Pokrovsky Monastery. Eleven log cabins were built here for tourists in the Soviet era and continue to function as a hotel. They are clean and nice but simple.
Yaroslavl (175 miles northeast of Moscow): In 2005 unesco placed the center of this graceful city on its list of World Heritage sites thanks to urban reforms instituted by Catherine the Great. The city center is perfect for meandering and gazing at churches. Yaroslavl Art Museum (art museum.yar.ru; 7-4852/727-838) is one of Russia’s best regional museums, and just outside the city is Tolgsky Monastery, a beautifully restored convent built in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Peredelkino (15 miles southwest of Moscow): For literature lovers, visiting Peredelkino—a village that became famous as a Soviet writers’ colony—is akin to a religious pilgrimage. Boris Pasternak, who wrote Doctor Zhivago here, is buried at the village cemetery. His house is open as a museum (3 Ulitsa Pavlenko; 7-495/934-5175). The restaurant Deti Solntsa (Children of the Sun) has a bohemian atmosphere and holds poetry readings (dinner, $135; 4 Ulitsa Pogodina; 7-495/730-8989).