Karelia Russia Travel Guide
Karelia, in Northern Russia, is one of Europe’s least known beauty spots. Breathtaking landscapes comprising of lakes, rivers, waterfalls, forests, unique culture, and fantastic monuments of traditional Russian architecture are just a few reasons to come. Karelia welcomes guests all year long and offers multiple attractions for adventure seekers, nature lovers, culture and history enthusiasts, and families with kids both in the summer and during winter. Karelia is also one of few regions in Russia which implements ecological projects and promotes ecotourism initiatives in order to preserve its pristine nature, culture and to support the local economy.
A land of a thousand lakes
Karelia is divided between Finland and Russia and stretches from the Gulf of Finland in the South-West to the White Sea in the North-East. Around 50% of the territory of The Russian Republic of Karelia is covered with forests, and 1/4 with water. Not by coincidence Karelia is called the land of thousand lakes. Actually, there are 61 thousand lakes, 27 thousand rivers, and 29 reservoirs. The largest lakes – Ladoga and Onega, are also by far the largest lakes in Europe.
Great place for active holidays all year round
If you love the exhilaration and a challenge you’ll find plenty of adventure sports in Karelia. Karelia is a great place for cycling, rock climbing, swimming, windsurfing or kitesurfing but the most popular activity is definitely rafting. From easy 2-hours rafting down Shuja river to one week extreme rafting trips, everyone will find something suitable. Winter in Karelia can be even more exciting than the summertime. Go for cross country skiing, dog sledding or snow walks in special snowshoes (both loved by kids), or something more challenging like ice-diving on White Sea (and see incredible underwater landscapes). In winter, you also have to try ice swimming, a very old Russian custom – after hot banya (sauna) jump into an ice-hole!
Experiencing nature to the fullest
Karelia promotes tourism which doesn’t harm nature, supports economic growth and preserves the cultural heritage of the region. The most developed ecotourism initiatives can be found in two national parks, Vodlozerskiy and Paanajarvi, where different scientific and ecological programs are realized. Anyone can join one of the smartly designed tours on rivers and lakes, hikes on natural and ecological trails, or even educational programs for specialists, students, and schoolchildren. In Karelia, you won’t find luxurious hotels but if you’re happy to stay in a tent or in a private guest house, and you want to dive into the unexplored wilderness, this definitely is the place for you! Check our tips on how to travel responsibly in Russia.
So, what are the main attractions in Karelia?
Karelia is a vast area. Below we’ve selected for you main attractions which everyone who comes to Karelia should visit.
Karelian State Museum of Local Lore in Petrozavodsk
Karelian State Museum will give you the best introduction to Karelia. Its exhibitions consist of over 225 thousand objects, which bring visitors closer to the history, archaeology, culture, and nature of the region. The museum is pretty modern, with information written both in Russian and English. There are also several attractions prepared especially for children, so it’s a place to visit if you’re staying in Karelia on family vacations. Petrozavodsk is the capital of the Republic of Karelia, so except the State Museum, you can take a walk along the embankment, around the city center and visit the privately owned Doll House Gallery.
Kizhi State Open-Air Museum of History, Architecture, and Ethnography
Kizhi is one of the one thousand six hundred and fifty islands of Lake Onego and serves as the open-air museum of wooden architecture. This historical, cultural and natural complex includes more than 80 monuments of folk wooden architecture of XV-XX centuries, including old chapels, houses, and windmills. Museum’s main attraction, the Kizhi Pogost Ensemble, is inscribed under the UNESCO World Heritage List. In Kizhi, not only can you see how people lived in the past, but also observe and learn traditional Russian crafts. Masters wearing national costumes will demonstrate for you handicrafts, agriculture, and carpeting. The Kizhi Museum is probably the best place in Karelia to buy high quality, hand-made souvenirs from this region.
Valaam Archipelago and Monastery
Valaam Archipelago is a cluster of more than 50 islands on the Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest freshwater lake. Its landscapes are truly gorgeous, with pine and spruce trees growing directly on the rocks above the water. The Archipelago is mostly famous for the Valaam Monastery, said to have been founded by missionaries sometime in the 10th century. When visiting the Monastery, starting from its most important building – the Transfiguration Cathedral built in the 19th century. One of the proofs of the unspeakable beauty of Valaam is the fact that even Vladimir Putin owns a dacha on one of the islands of the Archipelago:)
Kivach Nature Reserve and Waterfalls
The Kivach Waterfall on the Suna River is 10.7 meter high, which makes it the second largest waterfall in Europe, after the Rhine Falls in Germany. The Kivach Waterfall gives its name to the Kivach Nature Reserve, which was created to study and protect Karelian taiga. Located 60km from Petrozavodsk, it is easily accessible by a beautiful road through the forests.
Marble mine park Ruskeala
Marble mine park Ruskeala is a one of a kind sight, natural and artificial at the same time, located on the territory of the Ruskeala Mountain Park. This huge man-made bowl is 460 meters long, up to 109 meters wide and in some parts, over 150 meters deep. It amazes tourists with its emerald green water, whose clarity reaches 18 meters. The mine was created as a result of marble excavation. Fun fact: the mining rock was initially utilized for burning the lime and only Catherine II the Great appreciated marble as a decorative stone.
Northern Lights in Karelia
Karelia is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. Northern Lights are called the Eighth Wonder of the World because of its beauty but it’s not just a miracle.
Northern Lights are a physical phenomenon caused by the collision of nitrogen and hydrogen with millions of tons of particles ejected by the sun. It is best seen in the Northern hemisphere of the planet near the magnetic poles. Russia is not an exception. The bravest ones go to Chukotka to see the phenomenon but it can also be observed in the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions. For those who are dreaming to see the miracle and travel across Moscow or St. Petersburg it is better to go to Karelian villages.
In Karelia, winter months are the best time to see it. Experienced observers always choose the darkest nights and frosty ones (the temperature sometimes drops below –40 degrees Celsius) to go to the remote villages of Karelia. Why villages? In the city, because of the city lights, it is impossible to find such a dark place.
The Northern Lights can be observed in the middle of the solar cycle, the duration of which is 11 years. The last period ended in 2013, so this year is the last chance for the period to take an adventure and find the Northern Lights in Karelia.
Paanajärmi National Park
Go to Paanajärmi National Park which is mostly visited because of the unprecedented beauty of the peaks. The unique nature and all the conditions for the rest of travelers made the place a tourist Mecca. The main advantage of the park is that even if you miss the Northern Lights you won’t be upset that much because you can find what to do there. There is an izba (the traditional wooden house for Russian peasants), sauna and a picturesque pier.
Karelian village Nilmoguba
One more place is Karelian village Nilmoguba. The place is located right on the White Sea, near the mouth of the river Nilma. Adventure seekers and lovers of rare photos take thermoses, warm clothes and having filled a full tank of gasoline go to the old Karelian village Nilmoguba.
Let luck be with you and if you are dreaming of observing Northern Lights!
How to get to Karelia?
Petrozavodsk (the capital of Karelia) is located 940 km from Moscow. The distance from St Petersburg to the Republic of Karelia is 425 km. If you’re traveling from St Petersburg, the easiest way is to take a train from Ladozhsky railway station to Petrozavodsk (7-8h trip) or a night bus (departs daily from the Saint Petersburg bus station). If you’re traveling from Moscow, you can take a flight from Domodedovo to Petrozavodsk.
In case you have more questions about Karelia, don’t hesitate to contact us. Or, if we’ve already convinced you to visit this beautiful region in Northern Russia, book Tour to St Petersburg and Karelia today!