Republic of Karelia, located 200 km north of Saint Petersburg, covers a distance of 700 km, spanning from the Arctic Circle to the Finnish border. 85% of the region’s territory is covered by forest. The rest is a vast labyrinth of 60,000 lakes and whitewater rivers. You won’t find any place more untamed within reach of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, so if you are longing for wild forests and blue lakes you should travel to Karelia! Orthodox monks in quest of solitude have founded insular monasteries here. Lake Ladoga, the largest in Europe, is home to the Monastery of Valaam. 500 km north, in the icy waters of the White Sea and close to the Arctic Circle, is the Solovetsky Monastery.
The summer is short but the days are long. In the northern reaches of this region, the sun sets but remains above the horizon, hovering over the forest, before rising again: these are the White Nights. It is an excellent occasion for a night-time boat tour or reading Dostoevsky outside!
In the middle of Lake Onega, on one of its main islands, is the famous architectural ensemble of Kizhi. This pogost (i.e., parochial enclosure) contains 2 wooden churches that rise above the mirror-like lake. In the centre of Lake Ladoga, you will find the archipelago that is home to the Valaam Monastery. Nestled in the central part are gardens, a bakery, vegetable patches and a farm, surrounded by pine trees, rolling prairies and granite cliffs. 200 Orthodox monks live here permanently.
The Solovki archipelago is in the cold waters of the White Sea. It was here, in the 15th century, that 2 monks called Sabbas and Zosime founded a monastery in their quest for solitude. It then rose to become the centre of Orthodox belief in the Great Russian North and is one of the richest monasteries in the whole of Russia. During the 20th century, the medieval fortress was turned into a prison that was part of the concentration system “Gulag”. Nowadays, the Solovetsky Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a destination for tourism and Orthodox pilgrims across Russia.
«In Russia, the Solovki Islands are presented like the end of the world. Here reigns a particular atmosphere and unique light that only exists in the North.»
Like in Finland, chalets are built on lakeshores and in the forest. These wooden homes are ecological and local resources abound. A perfect place for Karelia holidays! Just a few steps from the door, you can pick wild blueberries, cranberries and even cloudberries. Have you ever tried them?
Dreaming of Karelia, it is easy to imagine nature walks and fire-heated banyas. It is one of our favourite traditions. After sweating it out in the hot banya and being beaten with birch twigs (i.e., venik), plunge into the fresh lake water before trying the locally smoked trout and kalitkis stuffed with potato, topped off with homemade herbal tea from the taiga.
How to get to Karelia?
Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia, is 700 km north of Moscow and 400 km north of Saint Petersburg. The region is still on the same time as Moscow (UTC +3). Petrozavodsk is on the railroad that goes from Moscow to Murmansk.
The most comfortable solution is the night train from Moscow to Petrozavodsk. Leaving the capital at 20h23, it arrives in Karelia at 08h33, allowing you to plan a weekend trip: leave Friday and return on Monday at 10h00.
From St Petersburg
The fast train “Lastochka” can take you to Petrozavodsk in 5 hours, leaving at 18h00 and arriving at 22h55 the same day. The return trains leave at the same time: 18h00–22h55. In summer when the days are long, you can enjoy the Russian countryside from the train. Save a night’s accommodation by taking the night train from Saint Petersburg (departure 23h20, arrival 07h00). Taking a night train is also the best option if you want to reach the Solovki archipelago: it leaves St Petersburg in the evening and reaches Kem in the morning.
How many days should I spend in Karelia?
If you live in Moscow, take a weekend (2 or 3 days) by night train to Petrozavodsk.
Kizhi and Valaam from May to September
Spend a weekend on Kizhi, an island just 68 km for Petrozavodsk on Lake Onega. From May to September, hydrofoils link Petrozavodsk to Kizhi in only 1h15. The frequency makes it possible to visit the island and come back on the same day.
You can also escape to Valaam for a weekend and even include Kizhi in your programme. If you want to get to Valaam, you need to reach Sortavala from Petrozavodsk (200 km, 3h by car). The road to Sortavala is good but it will still take a few hours to get to this town on the lakeshore. From here, catch a hydrofoil (May–September) to Valaam.
Solovki Islands from June to September
From June to September, take at least 3 days to visit the Solovki Islands. Located 500 km north of Petrozavodsk, they are part of the Arkhangelsk region. Nevertheless, it’s still easier to get to the Solovki archipelago from Karelia. From Kem (on the railroad Moscow–Murmansk), get to the Port of Rabocheostrovsk on the White Sea where the boat leaves for Bolshoy Solovetsky. These boats only circulate for 3 months, from June to mid-September, and the trip lasts just 2 hours. Due to the many pilgrims and visitors, we recommend booking this trip in advance.
To the Solovki Islands from Moscow by night train
The train ride lasts nearly 24h and covers a distance of nearly 1,500 km. The Moscow–Murmansk train leaves Moscow in the evening and after one day and one night, you arrive in Kem. The next day, you will venture out to the Solovki Islands. If you want to spend 3 days on the island, you must plan for a total of 5 days including travel.
To the Solovki Islands by plane from Arkhangelsk is another solution to reach this archipelago. From Moscow, you can reach Arkhangelsk by plane or train (22h–24h trip). In winter, the only way to reach the Solovki Islands is by plane when maritime navigation is not possible on the White Sea.
Kizhi Island was fantastic and our tour there was amazing. We came home with a couple of keepsakes (wooden shingles from the original dome) that we are very proud of. This tour was exceptional and we really enjoyed going back to where the work is being done for the reconstruction. The bell ringer was also a highlight.
Solovki was very good. The guest house was wonderful! Ludmilla did a fantastic job cooking beautiful meals for us and always with items fresh from her garden. The lunch box that she supplied was more than substantial and very tasty.