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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Venturing to Vologda

Growing into a city from a 12th-century monastery on the Vologda River some 460 kilometers north of Moscow, Vologda could have at one time become the capital of Russia.

Ivan the Terrible, who was tired of court turmoil in Moscow, considered Vologda his safe haven and was thinking of moving there permanently. However, when a brick fell from the vault of the St. Sofia Cathedral and almost landed on his head during one of his visits, he considered it a bad omen and abandoned the idea.

Under the Romanovs, Vologda settled into its reputation as a comfortable provincial town with rich cultural life supported by affluent textile and timber merchants. Minus the Romanovs, this is more or less the impression visitors get today from this city of almost 300,000 inhabitants.

The commercial center of the city is Ploshchad Svobody, at the intersection of Ulitsa Mira and Ulitsa Pobedy. Before 1918 the square was called Gostinodvorskaya, because four hotels were located in the stone houses that surround it. Each January it was the site of annual merchant fairs, when hundreds of peddlers from the region sold their goods among performers, merry-go-rounds and magicians.

Activity in the city is concentrated on Ulitsa Mira, location of most of the larger stores and the only 24-hour supermarket in town. In tsarist years, the street was called the Svoboda Embankment -- note the small river Zolotukha that flows next to the street and marks the boundary between the city and Nizhny Posad, two separate areas of historic Vologda. Parades, troops on their way to war and detainee groups on their way to prison all marched along Ulitsa Mira at one time or another.

At the beginning of Ulitsa Mira, you can see the old water tower, built in 1899, that ended years of complaints and epidemics -- studies of the time showed that water in the River Vologda was filthier than that of the Neva, Seine or Thames. After this improvement in water infrastructure, the people of Vologda could buy clean water from several city faucets at the price of 1 kopek for two buckets.

If you take a right and end up on Ulitsa Orlova, you can stop by the beautiful

18th-century church of Pokrova Na Torgu before coming to the Vologda Kremlin complex. The most remarkable monument here is the 16th-century St. Sofia Cathedral with its frescoes and elegant bell tower.

Stop by Dom Aktyora, the Actors House, if the Kremlin wears you out. Located across the park from the Kremlin, this is a pretty wooden building that is the center of Vologda's theater community. Check out old performance posters collaged on the walls and go downstairs for lunch.

Afterwards you can continue to Ulitsa Zasodimskogo -- the only street with exclusively wooden houses, preserving typical Vologda architecture of the 19th century. There are two unique churches here. One, the Varlaam Khutynsky church dating from 1780, is the only remaining church in the Russian north that was built in the neoclassical style.

Vladimir Smirnov / Itar-Tass
Vologda's more offbeat monuments include this dog statue near the Red Bridge.
A bit further, where Ulitsa Vorovskogo meets the river, is the site of the city's ancestor, the Trinity Monastery, which was lost in a 17th-century fire. An obelisk was erected on the spot in 1959 to mark the city's 800th birthday.

Walking down the right bank of the Vologda River takes you past all three of the city's main parts --Verkhny Posad, The City, and Nizhny Posad. The other side, or Zarechye, was historically a residential neighborhood. Nizhny Posad is the location of many administrative offices, stone buildings and other institutions. This part of the city wasn't included in city planning until the 18th century, which is evident in its large squares and architecture.

Ploshchad Revolyutsii is the heart of the city. It is home to the Vologda Philharmonia and many stone buildings that were used by the city administration in the 19th century. The St. Elijah church, hidden in the small park next to the square, is renowned for its unique frescoes.

Under Catherine the Great, a square for mass entertainment and town fairs was essential to any city's town planning. In Vologda, an annual Festival by the Red Swing took place on what is today's Sovetskaya Ploshchad. A huge swing set was built and painted red, and city folk were entertained by traveling circus acrobats and other performers. One of the largest buildings in Vologda, the boys' gymnasium, is also on Sovetskaya Ploshchad. Across the square, several buildings served at one point as salt warehouses for most of Russia's northern monasteries, including Spaso-Prilutsky, about two kilometers from the center of Vologda.

Vologda is a good weekend destination, or a starting point for a longer trip around the Russian north. Standing on the Red Bridge over the Vologda River, you can take in a view that includes the city's gleaming churches, the Kremlin in the background, and the tourist ships that hibernate in the ice during the colder months. In the summer you can come back and ride one of them to such places as Totma, with its dramatic church architecture, or Veliky Ustyug, home of the Russian Santa, Ded Moroz.

Getting There

By train: Night train No. 60 leaves at 8:20 p.m. and arrives at 5:44 a.m. Trains to other cities also pass through Vologda, but the only ones that don't get there in the wee hours of the morning are No. 16 to Arkhangelsk and No. 376 to Vorkuta.

By car: Drive along the M8 (Yaroslavskoye Shosse), which will take you straight there.

Where to Stay

Vologda Hotel is the low-budget successor of the Soviet gostinitsa. Cheap, no-frills and near the train station, it costs 816 to 1,680 rubles for a room per night.

92 Ul. Mira, (8172) 723-079,

Spasskaya Hotel charges 1,200 to 8,500 rubles for a room per night for foreigners, and slightly less for Russians. 25 Oktyabrskaya Ul., (8172) 763-490,

Nikolayevsky Hotel Club offers rooms for 2,000 to 11,000 rubles a night.

14 Kostromskaya Ul., (8172) 765-888,

Where to Eat

Dom Aktyora is a pleasant cafe and bar in the basement of the Actors House. Salmon-filled blini cost 90 rubles. 4 Leningradskaya Ul., (8172) 726-116.

Slavyansky Restaurant is an elaborate venue with waitresses in folk costumes.

51 Ul. Chekhova, (8172) 755-001,


Vologda Kremlin: This ensemble was built under Ivan the Terrible. Besides the St. Sofia Cathedral, take a look at the art museum just outside the walls. 15 Ul. Orlova, (8172) 722-283.

Peter I House: A small house in Nizhny Posad where Peter the Great stayed during each of his five visits to Vologda. The interior has retained many 17th-century details. 47 Sovetsky Prospekt, (8172) 722-759.

A list of Vologda's many museums can be found on the site