For those planning a trip to Russia and wanting an experience that goes beyond the walls of Moscow‘s metropolitan kingdom and St. Petersburg‘s splendid palaces, consider extending your holiday to Karelia! With the help of this Karelia Travel Guide, you won’t have to travel as far as Siberia to be surrounded by the authentic taiga. One night by train and you will find yourself in a land of white nights, boundless forests and crystal-clear lakes.
Bordered by Finland to the west and the White Sea to the east, Karelia is rapidly becoming one of the top destinations for travellers all around the world to visit. With a fantastic mix of untouched nature, outdoor adventure and cultural discovery, every traveller can (and will) find a reason to fall in love with this near-magical frontier country.
Our Karelia Travel Guide will take you through everything you need to know about this spectacular Northwestern region of Russia. Whether you’re searching for the best time of the year to visit, the top attractions or how to travel to Karelia, we have you covered.
Densely forested and gloriously remote, Karelia is a paradise on Earth for any nature lover. Be enthralled by the region’s untouched wilderness and diverse wildlife, from picturesque hills and winding rivers to lush green forests and idyllic lakes, such as Europe’s two largest lakes – Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega. Jump at the chance to encounter and photograph over 370 species of vertebrates, including bears, wolves, otters, reindeer, lynxes and endangered wolverines.
For those seeking an exciting and action-packed holiday, Karelia has a wide range of summer and winter activities to get the blood pumping. Water tourism is highly sought after during the summer months. Navigate your way around the region’s vast waterways on a canoe, kayak across crystal-clear lakes, go on a whitewater rafting adventure or try your hand at fly fishing. The landscape is also threaded by hiking routes, and its forest roads are ideal for bicycle or quad bike tours during this time of the year. In winter, you will have the opportunity to engage in all types of skiing, embark on a dog or reindeer sledding adventure or speed across the lands on a snowmobile. Other outdoor pursuits include snowshoeing, ice fishing and sledding.
While a large portion of Karelia’s appeal is its untouched wilderness, it is by no means a simple no-mans land. Instead, Karelia can be considered a living museum of human history. Inhabited by the Scandinavians for 6,000 years, Karelia has been intermittently contested by the Finnish, Swedish, and Russian forces over the centuries. Today, despite having much of its territory ceded to the Soviet Union in 1939, the region still retains a strong cultural connection with eastern Finland. You can still find distinctly Karelian culture living on in the peasant traditions of poetry, music and folk ceremonies that reinforce the people’s bond with the land and sea. Those interested in history and archeology can discover some of the most complex and expressive prehistoric stone carvings on the shores of the White Sea and Lake Onega, which also keep the secrets of the ancient Sami’s labyrinths on the islands.
Karelia houses some of the best-preserved traditional wooden architecture in the country. The intricate beauty and unique architectural framework specific to Northern Russia would make even the most experienced traveller stand in awe. From ancient villages and saunas to collections of 17th and 18th-century churches skillfully crafted entirely out of wood, anyone with even the slightest bit of appreciation for architecture must visit Karelia at least once in their lifetime. Noteworthy architectural jewels include the Church of Transfiguration and the Assumption Cathedral on Kizhi Island.
Petrozavodsk is the capital and the largest city of the Karelia, stretching along the western shore of Lake Odega for around 27km. While travellers mainly use Petrozavodsk as a launching point for Karelia’s main attractions (Kizhi and Valaam Island), it has so much more to offer. Multifaceted and diverse, this modern city draws in tourists with its neoclassical architecture and evolving cultural sphere. Noteworthy museums include the “House of the Doll” Tatyana Kalinina, the house-museum “Karelian Hut”, the Karelian State Museum of Local Lore, and the Museum of Fine Arts of the Republic of Karelia. Those interested in theatre should also visit the Musical Theatre of the Republic of Karelia, admire its gorgeous architecture and take a stroll through its surrounding square and park. Petrozavodsk is unique in nature due to its location, as it has a blend of Russian, Karelian and Finnish culture. This is expressed through the local cuisine, language and everyday lifestyle. Furthermore, being the capital of Karelia means that it is a local hub for nightlife and shopping, with several new shopping centres popping up around the city over recent years. Petrozavodsk also hosts several festivals, such as the International Contest of Snow and Ice Sculptures “Hyperborea”, Vozdukh live music festival, “White Nights of Karelia” music festival, and the landscape festival “Harmony of White Nights”.
Located on the northern end of Lake Onega, the tiny island of Kizhi is home to one of the largest open-air museums in the world. The museum is a spectacular cultural site comprised of over 80 monuments of wooden architecture collected from the 17th to the 19th centuries and skillfully crafted and restored to form a glimpse of the past. Old chapels, peasant houses, windmills, threshing barns and granaries can be found scattered all around the island. The crown jewel of Kizhi is the Church of Transfiguration, otherwise known as Preobrazhenskaya. This architectural masterpiece features 5 tiers of 22 wooden domes, gables and ingenious decorations designed to prevent rain from ruining the walls. Built in 1714 without the use of a single nail, it has withstood the elements for over 150 years. The Kizhi Pogost, which is a fenced area including the Church of Transfiguration, Church of the Intercession of Holy Mary (9 domed church) and the Bell-Tower, has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List as the most prominent monument of ancient northern wooden architecture. Other must-see attractions include the 14th century Church of Ressurection of Lazarus and the Chapels of Archangel Mikhail. With local villagers and artisans still living on the island to this day, they demonstrate rural life in Karelia, its traditional crafts from the 18th and 19th century, such as weaving, woodcarving, and painting, and tasks of peasant life. Rent a bicycle and explore the stunning landscapes and impressive architecture that Kizhi Island has to offer, or join a tour for an insight into the gradual development of a unique Karelian culture that differs greatly from the rest of Russia.
Valaam, dubbed the ‘Russian Vatican’, is an archipelago located in the northern region of Lake Ladoga. As one of the most popular Orthodox tourist destinations, the main attraction that draws visitors to its shores is the 14th century Transfiguration Monastery on Valaam Island. The central monastery is a monumental structure that sits on top of the high hill, making it visible from many locations on the island. In the past, the monastery had been subjected to numerous accounts of destruction and devastation from fires and invasions. However, despite that, it was revived to live again. Now, nestled in its central part are gardens, a bakery, vegetable patches and a farm, surrounded by pine trees, rolling prairies and granite cliffs with around 200 Orthodox monks living within its walls permanently. While visiting Valaam is mostly a religious kind of tourism, it does not stop non-believers from visiting the island to enjoy its charming wooden architecture and beautiful landscapes. Moreover, if you are looking to avoid large crowds of travellers, you can also explore dozens of other smaller churches and chapels that are scattered around pretty headlands, quiet inland bays or bridged islets.
The Solovetsky Islands, otherwise known as Solovki, is a place that many travellers fantasise about visiting when in Russia but few actually ever end up doing so. This is part of the attraction, however, as it means that you won’t encounter hoards of tourists in this largely unspoiled part of Russia, yet you can have an ‘off the beaten track’ experience without having to rough it up too much. Located in the Onega Bay of the White Sea, the archipelago is made up of 6 main islands and many smaller ones. The largest island is the Bolshoy Solovetsky and it is home to the main monastery, which dominates the rural idyll of Solovetsky Village, the islands’ main settlement. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Solovetsky Monastery is a real stronghold for orthodox Christianity and for a while, Solovki was seen to symbolise nothing but asceticism, faith and spirituality. This took a drastic change in the 20th century as Stalin transformed it into one of the USSR’s most notorious prison camps. Even if you’re not a history buff, the island’s main museum is worth a visit as it is dedicated to those who were incarcerated here during the Stalinist era. There’s no English translation but the photos, pictures and artifacts more than speak for themselves. The monastery was rehabilitated after the fall of the Soviet Union, and today the islands’ natural beauty, spiritual significance and solemn history draws travellers from all corners of the Earth to its shores.
The historical village of Kinerma, situated 100 km from Petrozavodsk, is a unique complex of wooden architecture specific to the Karelian-Livviki and a living example of the traditional settlements in Karelia. Said to be the most beautiful village in Russia, no new houses are allowed to be built on the lands. Everything seen today has been erected and restored according to the ancient plan of the village. With 17 houses, 7 baths, and an old cemetery, the main attraction and spiritual centre of Kinerma is its chapel, built in the second half of the 18th century in honour of the icon of Virgin Mary from Smolensk. According to legend, the icon was brought to the village by a passing soldier and has since protected the village from any harm and misfortune. Another noteworthy attraction is the black banyas, typical of Karelian villages. Such banyas are built without a chimney and use the smoke from its primitive stoves made of stones to warm the sauna. We would highly recommend experiencing a session in a black banya, as the temperature inside is not too high, but the humidity is high enough to free yourself from all toxins and stress.
For lovers of active leisure, Ruskeala Mountain Park is the place to be. Formerly a marble quarry, this 109 metre wide canyon is a unique and multidimensional monument to both nature and the history of mining. Mined by the Karelians, Swedes, Finns and Russians for nearly three centuries, the marble has been used in the construction of some of the most significant structures in Russia, such as the floors of the Kazan Cathedral, St. Issac’s Cathedral and the window sills of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Now, tall pines line the top of the steep canyon walls while its sides are riddled with caves and grottoes just waiting to be explored. Over the years, the canyon has also filled up with the purest emerald-green water from underground springs. Karelia travellers can navigate through its system of open and underwater galleries, drifts and shafts, all of which stretch a total of several hundred metres. Apart from hiking along some of the most breathtaking tracks, you will also have the opportunity to ride trolleys (mechanized bungees) over its waters, rent a boat and explore the beauty of Marble Lake, go down into abandoned mine shafts and ice-skate over the icy bottom of its caves. It is also only in Ruskeala that you will be able to find preserved exotic mosses, lichens, orchid plants and shrubs, as well as rare species of reptiles, amphibians and even bats.
In contrast to the action-packed Ruskeala, Paanajärvi National Park is all about reconnecting with nature and finding your own zen away from civilization. Located in the north-west region of Karelia, the main purpose of establishing the Park was to preserve the unique nature of the Olanga River and Lake Paanajärvi. The landscapes are exceptionally breathtaking; mountain ridges are split by deep ravines, fast-flowing streams with frothing rapids cut through the terrain, and crystal-clear lakes sparkle under the sun’s gentle rays. Its valleys and hills alike are covered with virgin forests, where giant pines and spruce dominate the lands. You can also find numerous fauna roaming around freely, such as bears, elk, wolverines, foxes, and reindeer. On the rare occasion, you may even be able to spot muskrats or beavers. The pearl of the park is Lake Paanajärvi – the biggest lake in the region. It is situated in a large bedrock rift and extends for about 15 kilometers from the East to West.
Created during the Neolithic era, the petroglyphs of Lake Onega and the White sea are considered as some of the most complex and expressive samples of Late Stone Age art in northern Europe. The drawings depict elaborate scenes of warfare, seafaring, hunting, religious rituals, skiing and enigmatic figures. With more than 70 different ancient settlements identified in relation to the carvings, they constitute the largest Neolithic site in the region. The Onega petroglyphs are located along the eastern shore of Lake Onega for a distance of about 18.5km, while petroglyphs of the White Sea are found about 6 to 8km from Belomorsk. Carved into stunning locations such as on huge flat boulders on islets in the middle of untouched forests, these petroglyphs are easily accessible to study and photograph.
For the Russian food lovers out there, Karelian cuisine is nutritious and diverse. Karelia is famous for its baked dishes. A must-try appetizer dish of Karelia is Kalitki with potatoes. Served hot, it is an open pie made from rye flour dough with a filling usually made from millet kasha, potatoes, rice, tvorog or meat. Salted and marinated Karelian mushrooms are also very popular as a snack.
For the mains, local freshwater fish such as the delicious Northern salmon are often added into hearty fish soups or are marinated, salted and served as a separate dish. Remember to save room for dessert, as they make sweet northern pies, pastries and pancakes with delectable local wildberries. Finally, wash down the food with freshly squeezed berry juices or robust liquors made from cranberries, red bilberries and cloudberries.
Karelia’s climate is transitive from maritime to continental, and typically carries much milder winters in comparison to other northern regions near the Arctic. This is due to the warm, humid air masses from the west, though incursions of Arctic air can cause bitter cold spells. Karelia’s climate has therefore gained a reputation for being unpredictable, so no matter the season, Karelia travel guide readers should be prepared for practically any weather.
April – May
Average temperatures: – 2ºC to 13ºC
Spring is arguably one of the best times to venture outdoors into the beautiful Karelian forests. Tree leaves turn green, flowers start to bloom, rivers flow faster, and the mighty Kivach Waterfall is at its most affluent and picturesque form during this season. Try your hand at fishing in one of the many lakes and rivers, as early May is a time when Northern Pike and Perch spawn by the thousands. As a rule, the first half of May is also the start of hunting season for migratory birds.
June – August
Average temperatures: 11ºC to 21ºC
For the most part, Karelian summers are short but the days are long and cool with a fair amount of rainfall scattered in between. Plenty of outdoor activities are available during this time, such as fishing, quad biking, kayaking, cycling and whitewater rafting. The height of summer is during July, where you’ll be able to go for a swim in the many crystal-clear lakes scattered across the region. The summer heat often rolls over to August, but the nights start getting longer and cooler. This is a perfect time to pick berries as they start to bloom!
Summer is also when you can experience the amazing spectacle of White Nights in Karelia, otherwise known as midsummer night or polar day. This is a time where the sun sets but remains above the horizon, bathing the landscape with a pearlescent all-night glow until the early mornings. Take advantage of this occasion and enjoy a night-time boat tour or a midnight stroll.
September – November
Average temperatures: -1ºC to 12ºC
The month of September is a fantastic period as temperatures are still relatively warm, but you no longer have to worry about pesky mosquitoes and midges. Lingonberries, cranberries and mushrooms are in full bloom, carpeting the forest and tundra. Trees start to turn yellow and gold, and the ground vegetation a deep red. This is what we like to call ‘Flaming Autumn’. As temperatures start to cool in October and November, dip your toes in a steam bath and enjoy a hot beverage by the fireplace. This is when lakes begin freezing over and snow starts to fall in preparation for a winter fairytale.
December – March
Average temperatures: -10ºC to -4ºC
In December, snow covers the land and forests, turning the region into a winter wonderland. The air is cool and frosty, but it doesn’t feel cold because of the low humidity and lack of wind chill. This makes it one of the most comfortable destinations for experiencing winter in the Arctic zone. Explore the frosty ethereal taiga forests on a snowmobile or try your hand at dog-sledding with the famous Siberian huskies. Later on, settle down around a fire in a local dacha and soothe your muscles in a Russian-style sauna. Its proximity to the Arctic Circle means that the Karelian skies are sometimes graced by the stunning Northern Lights.
At the moment, the only flights coming in and out of the Karelian capital of Petrozavodsk are from Moscow. S7 Airlines has flights that leave between 5 to 7 times a week from Domodedovo Airport, taking approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes. Be sure to keep an eye out on S7’s flight schedule as the timetable changes fairly frequently.
Once you arrive at the Petrozavodsk airport, it is about a 12km drive to the city centre. Taxis or private transfers are typically the preferred method of transportation to get to town.
There are several daytime and overnight trains running from the St. Petersburg Ladozhsky railway station to Petrozavodsk (approximately 7 hours). Prices of reserved seats start from 925 rubles, and a coupé from 1300 rubles.
Alternatively, trains from Moscow to Petrozavodsk run daily, and a twice-weekly train to Murmansk (capital of Kola Peninsula) also makes a stop in Petrozavodsk. The journey from Moscow to Petrozavodsk takes around 16 hours. Prices for reserved seats start from 2118 rubles, and a coupé from 2650 rubles.
You can book your train tickets via the RZD (Russian Railways) website with no fees or markup.
Catching a bus is one of the cheapest ways to travel to Karelia. There are bus services running 4 to 5 times a day that travel between St. Petersburg and Petrozavodsk, with the journey taking between 5 to 6 hours. Tickets range between 700 to 800 rubles, depending on the time of departure.
There is also the option of catching a bus from Joensuu in Finland to Petrozavodsk that runs from Thursday to Sunday and takes around 4 hours and 40 minutes.
Get the complete bus timetables from the Petrozavodsk Bus Station website.
There are two main routes to Karelia: by the M-8 and R-5 from Moscow via Vologda, and the M-18 from St. Petersburg (from Moscow you can get on the M-18 bypassing St. Petersburg through A114 Zuevo-Volkhov-Novaya Ladoga). If you were to choose any route other than the M-18, it should be noted that Karelian roads are in mostly bad conditions, quite bumpy and often include stretches of unpaved roads.
The approximate travel time from St. Petersburg to Petrozavodsk is 5 hours (430km), and 12 hours (996km) from Moscow to Petrozavodsk.
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