In 2018 The Republic of Karelia was among the top ten most popular destinations for Russian tourists, and it is unlikely that 2019 will be much different. So what do they know that you don’t? Karelia’s unique mix of cultures and rugged natural beauty make it the perfect place to recharge and escape city life. The fact that it can be reached from Saint Petersburg in a morning or evening’s jaunt, something rare considering Russia’s size, also makes it the perfect place to spend a long weekend. Expect that you’ll want to stay longer though — Karelia is famous for its allure. But don’t worry, there is plenty to see and do if you decide to extend your stay.
The capital of Karelia, Petrozavodsk, is the natural starting place for most people who come to visit. It can be reached from Ladozhsky station by Lastochka, a fast train that has morning and evening services to the city, or by night train. Many companies offer a transfer service directly from the train station to other parts of Karelia, so even if you’ve booked a small cabin in the woods, you are still likely to catch a glimpse of the city.
Petrozavodsk itself makes a great base for your stay. The city has a large student population, and its laid-back vibe offers a nice contrast to the feel of most Russian cities. It also has an array of hostels, hotels, and rental properties to choose from. A popular choice is the Cosmos Petrozavodsk Hotel with its panoramic views of Lake Onega, but you might consider the historic Severny Hotel which was destroyed and then rebuilt after the Finnish occupation of the city. There are also many tour operators based in Petrozavodsk. Some of the most popular sites can only be reached by boat or helicopter, and unfortunately, the conditions of roads to lesser-known destinations are far from ideal, so you might want to leave the car in town and make use of their help.
Karelia is a republic, which means that things there are a little bit different. Place names like Akonlahti, Kizhi, and Ruskeala sound almost like something out of a Tolkien novel. And they should — Tolkien drew inspiration for his work from the Kalevala, which is Karelia and Finland’s shared national epos. The rune tellers, the people who sang the stories that came to form the Kalevala, lived in an area that now straddles the Finnish and Karelian border. The village of Akonlahti, one of the most important sites where these stories were collected, was even renamed and is now called Kalevala. It is home to a small museum dedicated to the rune singers, but the whole village itself is a sort of living museum that allows you visit an earlier time in the Republic when the majority of the population lived in similar settlements.
Kalevala is an exception. Most villages in Karelia have slowly emptied over the past century as people have gone in search of new opportunities in Petrozavodsk and beyond, but efforts have been made to preserve the culture that has been fading along with village life. Kizhi, whose iconic church is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, is an island near the northern part of Lake Onega. It has become an important destination for researchers and tourists alike. Houses from around southern Karelia have been collected on the island and now form a living museum where visitors can learn firsthand from historians about life in Karelia up to the early 20th century.
Even if you don’t make it to Kizhi, you can still get a taste of what it was like to live tucked away in the taiga on the shore of a calm lake. And we mean literally get a taste. Karelian cuisine still has a strong presence in the Republic, and most cafes and restaurants have at least one dish that features something local. Look out for wild mushrooms or forest berries like brusnika (lingon), moroshka (cloudberry), chyornika (blueberry), and klyukva (cranberry). Local fish, usually forel’ (trout), and wild game are good bets, but the one thing you must try is kalitki: small pastries with a crust similar to a buckwheat crepe and filled with something either sweet or savory.
The forest, rocks, lakes, and streams reign supreme in Karelia, and they are what most visitors come to experience. Ruskeala, a privately-owned park that encompasses a historical marble quarry, offers a more civilized opportunity to get to know Karelia’s wild side. Well-tended paths lead around the edge of a canyon, into caverns, and through the forest. Events like the annual Ruskeala Symphony, an opera festival held every August in the park, only serve to make the combination of cliffs, water, and trees all the more magical.
If you are more interested in testing yourself against the elements, the rivers Shuya, Suna, Okhta and Chirka-Kem’ offer some of Russia’s best rafting and whitewater kayaking for both beginners and seasoned veterans alike. The Shuya has the bonus of being easily reached from Petrozavodsk.
The winter is another excellent time to experience the outdoors. Ice fishing, snowmobiling, and dog sledding are all possibilities, but cross country skiing is by far the most popular way to keep active in winter, and it has a long tradition in Karelia — one that stretches back a few millennia. Petroglyphs near the town of Belomorsk that have been estimated to be 4–5 thousand years old show hunters on skis stalking their prey.
Come for the nature but be ready to be charmed by the history and people. Whether you are looking for a weekend escape or place to spend the summer, Karelia is the ideal destination.