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Snowmobiles in Kizhi - photos courtesy of North West Travel
Snowmobiles in Kizhi - photos courtesy of North West Travel

GoNOMAD Destination Guide

Karelia, Russia: Outdoor Recreation and Lively Nightlife

By Rina Galaktionova


The Republic of Karelia is situated in the North West of Russia, just to the east of the Finno-Russian border.  Its capital Petrozavodsk is about 300 miles to the north from St Petersburg.

Why go?

Karelia has about a million hectares (about 2.5 million acres) of national parks and reserves; 63,000 lakes framed with pine woods; the UNESCO-protected Girvas -- at 3 billion years, the oldest volcano on Earth; Kivach -- the second biggest waterfall in Europe; numerous healing water sources and many tour operators specializing in active and outdoor travel. 

Another plus is Petrozavodsk's intense social life featuring folklore and jazz festivals, top music performers, an opera house, local food and drink, and numerous outdoor events. 

When to go:

Winter, if you're looking for some quality skiing, skating, or snowmobile racing followed by a steamy sauna and a night in the opera;  summer, if you plan on hiking and biking, then partying the night away under the almost-never-setting midnight sun.

The Girvas volcano, the oldest on Earth
The Girvas volcano, the oldest on Earth

Getting there:

By air from Helsinki, in which case you'll need a Russian visa to get in (see under "Visas and Documents").  But if your travel plans include St Petersburg, schedule a weekend off to hop on a night train from St-P's Ladozhski Station:  the train fare is under $20, and you'll arrive in Petrozavodsk at about 7 a.m.

Getting around:

Besides the omnipresent taxis and public transportation, Karelia's privately owned nets of mini buses will take you virtually everywhere for under a dollar per ride, regardless of the distance.  Consult tour operators (see below) about their routes and schedules.

Best major attraction:

Karelia's signature sight, the UNESCO-protected Kizhi Historical Reserve and its outdoor museum of folklore and wooden architecture housing numerous folk shows and international events. 

Rafting is only one of many outdoor activities available in Karelia
Rafting is only one of many outdoor activities available in Karelia

Best unusual attraction: 

Flying saucers!  Karelia boasts some of the most numerous and impressive UFO sightings on Earth.  Even I saw one... at least I like to think so.

Best activity and tour:

For outdoor activities, contact the North West Travel Agency to arrange a calorie-burning holiday of hiking, biking or quad-racing.  They will also take care of your accommodation and other needs, including an interpreter. 
phone: 7-8142-76.47.18 or 7-8142-78.20.86

For a more quiet agenda, nothing like the good old Intourist Bureau with their time-tested experience and contacts.
phone: 7-8142-76.63.06

Kizhi in summer
Kizhi in summer

Best alternative:

Go on a helicopter pilgrimage to one of Orthodox Christianity’s most sacred places, the Valaam Monastery, to take in majestic aerial views of the island.  To book the trip, call the monastery pilgrimage office in St Petersburg at 7-812-271.22.64.

Best Lodgings:

The Severnaya ("North") Hotel in the city centre remains the most comfortable and popular place to stay, with single and double rooms at $60 to 100.  As an alternative, all tour operators offer a choice of city hotels or inexpensive accommodation at their own cottages and guest houses.

Best Eats:

Petrovski Restaurant is situated in the historical heart of the city, built in the early 1700s.  They specialize in Karelian and medieval Russian dishes.

Snowmobiling is popular in Karelia.
Snowmobiling is popular in Karelia.

Best Entertainment:

What do you prefer--folklore shows, jazz, opera or rock concerts?  Make sure your visit coincides with one of the many festivals and venues held in Karelia throughout the year.

Best shopping:

The place is so cheap you'll laugh.  Aim for beautiful hand-made jewellery, ceramics, art and souvenirs. 

And while you’re at it, pick up a luxuriously illustrated copy of Kalevala, the ancient Karelian epic, to see for yourself why, in 1910, its English translation inspired an 18-year-old philology student (J.R.R. Tolkien) to come up with his answer to it -- Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

Visas and Documents: 

A Russian visa is necessary.  Contact for information and assistance, but keep in mind that in some cases Russian consulates do not accept visa support paperwork sent by fax and demand hard copy originals.  Always double-check with the nearest Russian consulate and if this is the case, have the originals sent to you by registered mail.  

Kalevala, Karelia's ancient epic was the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien's book, The Silmarillion.
Kalevala, Karelia's ancient epic was the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien's book, The Silmarillion.

Health and Safety: 

In winter, wear warm, oversize boots and pack plenty of thick woolen socks!  Ditto for gloves or, even better, fur-lined leather mittens.  You'll need them on those sunlit snowy paths. And in summer, don't forget the sunblock cream -- day temperatures in July and early August can hit 100 degrees F. 

Money and communications:

The currency is the Russian rouble -- there are about 30 roubles to a dollar.  Exchange offices are everywhere, but they deal almost exclusively with dollars and euro so if you carry other currencies on you, it's best to exchange it in Helsinki or St Petersburg first.  Traveller's cheques and credit cards are not widely accepted.

The public telephone functions with cards which you can buy at post offices, telephone exchanges and savings banks.  Internet cafés are attached to most city libraries. 

Best Internet Resources:  This Karelia’s outdoor travel site covers everything from the best tours on offer to insurance advice.  Useful transportation tips in English, including detailed plane and train timetables and prices.  The official Kizhi Historical Reserve site also contains lots of information about Karelia’s nature and ecology.  The ultimate trip-planning site with up-to-date advice on everything from hotels and restaurants to the venues schedule.

Rina Galaktionova

Rina Galaktionova
is a Russian/English non-fiction writer and journalist who has lived in Karelia for the last 20 years.

Check out more GoNOMAD stories about Russia:

Building Trails, or Trying To, In Baikal, Siberia

Sakhalin Island, Russia

Ring Around the Kremlin: History, Art and Excitement

Ten Tips for Travel in the Former Soviet Bloc


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Location: Asia, Russia
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