The city was first recorded in the chronicles for the year 1213, but historians believe it could have been founded by Yury Dolgoruky more than half a century earlier, in 1152. Like other towns of the Eastern Rus, Kostroma was sacked by the Mongols in 1238. It then constituted a small principality, under leadership of Prince Vasily the Drunkard, a younger brother of the famous Alexander Nevsky. Upon inheriting the grand ducal title in 1271, Vasily didn't leave the town for Vladimir, and his descendants ruled Kostroma for another half a century, until the town was bought by Ivan I of Moscow.
As one of the northernmost towns of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, Kostroma served for grand dukes as a place of retreat when enemies besieged Moscow in 1382, 1408, and 1433. In 1375, the town was looted by Novgorod pirates (ushkuiniks). The spectacular growth of the city in the 16th century may be attributed to the establishment of trade connections with English and Dutch merchants (Muscovy Company) through the northern port of Archangel. Boris Godunov had the Ipatiev and Epiphany monasteries rebuilt in stone. The construction works were finished just in time for the city to witness some of the most dramatic events of the Time of Troubles.
Kostroma was twice ravaged by the Poles; it took a six-month siege to expel them from the Ipatiev monastery. The heroic peasant Ivan Susanin became a symbol of the city's resistance to foreign invaders; several monuments to him may be seen in Kostroma. The future Tsar, Mikhail Romanov, also lived at the monastery. It was here that an embassy from Moscow offered him the Russian crown in 1612.
It is understandable why the Romanov Tsars regarded Kostroma as their special protectorate. The Ipatievsky monastery was visited by many of them, including Nicholas II, the last Russian Tsar. The monastery had been founded in the early 14th century by a Tatar prince, ancestor of the Godunov family. The Romanovs had the magnificent Trinity Cathedral rebuilt in 1652; its frescoes and iconostasis are a thing of beauty. A wooden house of Mikhail Romanov is still preserved in the monastery. There are also several old wooden structures transported to the monastery walls from distant districts of the Kostroma Oblast.
Town status was granted to Kostroma in 1719.
In 1773, Kostroma was devastated by a great fire. Afterwards the city was rebuilt with streets radiating from a single focal point near the river. They say that Catherine the Great dropped her fan on the city map, and told the architects to follow her design. One of the best preserved examples of the 18th century town planning, Kostroma retains some elegant structures in a "provincial neoclassical" style. These include a governor's palace, a fire tower, a rotunda on the Volga embankment, and an arcaded central market with a merchant church in the center.
The First Workers' Socialist Club based in Kostroma was one of the best documented workers' clubs run by Proletkult. Organised around the principle of a "public hearth" (obshchestvennyi ochag) this club combined both practical support for workers in need of accommodation, food or furniture, as well as providing a focus for popular education.
Kostroma is the administrative center of the oblast and, within the framework of administrative divisions, it also serves as the administrative center of Kostromskoy District, even though it is not a part of it. As an administrative division, it is incorporated separately as the city of oblast significance of Kostroma—an administrative unit with a status equal to that of the districts. As a municipal division, the city of oblast significance of Kostroma is incorporated as Kostroma Urban Okrug.
The city is served by the Kostroma Airport. Since 1887 there has been a railway connection between Kostroma and Moscow.
Built in 1559-1565, the five-domed Epiphany Cathedral was the first stone edifice in the city; its medieval frescoes perished during a fire several years ago. The minster houses the city's most precious relic, a 10th-century Byzantine icon called Our Lady of St. Theodore. It was with this icon that Mikhail Romanov was blessed by his mother when he left for Moscow to claim the Russian throne. They say that just before the Revolution of 1917, the icon blackened so badly that the image was hardly visible; it was interpreted as a bad sign for the Romanov dynasty.
The Ipatyevsky monastery survives mostly intact, with its 16th-century walls, towers, belfry, and the 17th-century cathedral.
Apart from the monasteries, most of the city churches were either rebuilt or demolished during the Soviet years. The only city church that survives from the 17th-century "golden age" is the Resurrection church on the Lowlands (Russian: церковь Воскресения на Дебре). As the story goes, the church was commissioned by one merchant who ordered in England ten barrels of dye but received ten barrels of gold instead. He resolved that the unearned gold was the devil's gift and decided to spend it on building a church, beautiful within and without. Two other 17th-century temples, of rather conventional architecture, may be seen on the opposite side of the Volga.
Among the vestiges of the Godunov rule, a fine tent-like church in the urban-type settlement of Krasnoye-na-Volge (formerly an estate of Boris Godunov's brother) may be recommended.
The Nuclear Power Referendum was arranged in 1990 in the Kostroma area. 90% of the voting population were against nuclear power in the area.
Kostroma is twinned with: