Sergius of Radonezh (1314–92), who would later become Russia's patron saint, founded this famous monastery in 1340. The site rapidly became the nucleus of a small medieval settlement, and in 1550 the imposing white walls were built to enclose the complex of buildings, whose towers and gilded domes make it a smaller, but still spectacular, version of Moscow's Kremlin. The monastery was a Russian stronghold during the Time of Troubles (the Polish assault on Moscow in the early 17th century), and, less than a century later, Peter the Great (1672–1725) took refuge here during a bloody revolt of the streltsy (Russian militia), which took the lives of some of his closest relatives and advisers. It remained the heart of Holy Russia until 1920, when the Bolsheviks closed down most monasteries and shipped many monks to Siberia. Today the churches are again open for worship, and there's a flourishing theological college here.
Gate Church of St. John the Baptist, which was erected in the late 17th century and is decorated with frescoes telling the life story of St. Sergius. One of the most important historic events in his life occurred prior to 1380, when the decisive Russian victory in the Battle of Kulikovo led to the end of Mongol rule in Russia. Before leading his troops off to battle, Prince Dmitri Donskoy sought the blessing of the peace-loving monk Sergius, a move that's generally thought to have greatly aided the Russian victory.
Although all of the monastery's cathedrals vie for your attention, the dominating structure is the massive, blue-domed, and gold-starred Cathedral of the Assumption (Uspensky Sobor) in the center. Built between 1554 and 1585 with money donated by Tsar Ivan the Terrible (1530–84)—purportedly in an attempt to atone for killing his own son in a fit of rage—it was modeled after the Kremlin's Uspensky Sobor. Its interior contains frescoes and an 18th-century iconostasis. Among the artists to work on it was Simon Ushakov, a well-known icon painter from Moscow. The cathedral is open for morning services.
The small building just outside the Cathedral of the Assumption (near the northwest corner) is the tomb of Boris Godunov and his family. Boris Godunov, who ruled as regent after Ivan the Terrible's death, died suddenly in 1605 of natural causes. This was during the Polish attack on Moscow led by the False Dmitri, the first of many impostors to claim he was the son of Ivan. The death of Godunov facilitated the invaders' victory, after which his family was promptly murdered. This explains why Godunov wasn't bestowed the honor of burial in the Kremlin, as normally granted to tsars.
Opposite Boris Godunov's tomb is a tiny and colorful chapel, the Chapel-at-the-Well, built in 1644 above a fountain that's said to work miracles. According to legend, the spring here appeared during the Polish Siege (1608–10), when the monastery bravely held out for 16 months against the foreign invaders (this time led by the second False Dmitri). You can make a wish by washing your face and hands in its charmed waters. Towering 86 meters (285 feet) next to the chapel is the five-tier baroque belfry. It was built in the 18th century to a design by the master of St. Petersburg baroque, Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
Along the southern wall of the monastery, to your far left as you enter, is the 17th-century Refectory and Church of St. Sergius. The church is at the eastern end, topped by a single gilt dome. The long building of the refectory, whose colorful facade adds to the vivid richness of the monastery's architecture, is where, in times past, pilgrims from near and far gathered to eat on feast days. The pink building just beyond the refectory is the metropolitan's residence.
Across the path from the residence is the white-stone Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (Troitsky Sobor), built in the 15th century over the tomb of St. Sergius. Over the centuries it's received many precious gifts from the powerful and wealthy rulers who've made the pilgrimage to the church of Russia's patron saint. The icons inside were created by famous master Andrei Rublyov and one of his disciples, Danil Chorny. Rublyov's celebrated Holy Trinity, now on display at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, originally hung here; the church's version is a copy. The interior's beauty is mainly due to its 17th-century gilded iconostasis (which separates the sanctuary from the altar and body of the church). The upper tier of the church was once used by monks as a manuscript library. A continual service in memoriam to St. Sergius is held all day, every day.
The vestry, the building behind the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, houses the monastery's Museum of Ancient Russian Art. It's often closed for no apparent reason or open only to groups, which is yet another reason to visit Sergiev-Posad on a guided tour. The museum contains a spectacular collection of gifts presented to the monastery over the centuries. On display are precious jewels, jewel-encrusted embroideries, chalices, and censers. Next door to the vestry are two more museums, which are open to individual tourists. The first museum contains icons and icon covers, portrait art, and furniture. The other museum (on the second floor) is devoted to Russian folk art, with wooden items, toys, porcelain, and jewelry. There's also a gift shop here.