Karelia is located in the north-west of Russia, north of St. Petersburg. Karelia is a republic within Russia: it has its own emblem, flag and anthem. Russian and foreign tourists have long laid eyes on this region due to its picturesque nature and historical and architectural monuments. The tourist season in the republic is not limited to three summer months – tourists continuously travel to Karelia throughout the year. Karelia is good for fans of active tourism and those who love quiet travelling with the family.
About 50% of the territory of the republic is covered with forest, and a quarter by water. Karelia is the land of lakes, incredibly, there are more than 61 thousand of them, and another 27 thousand rivers and 29 reservoirs. The lakes Ladoga and Onega are the largest lakes in Europe.
The Republic of Karelia is conventionally divided into 5 districts: the only large city – Petrozavodsk, Lake Onega, Priladozhie, Belomorye and the northern part of the region bordering Finland.
Priladozhie (Ladoga lakeside)
Priladozhie is a southern region of Karelia with a very beautiful nature. The climate is mild, and the forests and cliffs are classic, Karelian. Tourists come here to see the ancient town Sortavala, the picturesque islands of the Valaam archipelago and the monastery.
Very interesting is the center of the Sortavala where the old layout has been preserved. Despite the fact that the whole city can be bypassed in an hour, almost every house here has historical and architectural value.
The Valaam Archipelago is one of the most famous cultural sites in Karelia. The natural park (created in 1999) includes several picturesque islands. On the largest of them there is the old Valaam (Preobrazhensky) Monastery, the first mention of which dates back to 1329.
Ruskeala Mountain Park, an old marble canyon that has been experiencing its rebirth since 2005, is also located in Priladozhie. Marble for St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg was taken from this beautiful place, and now guests can admire not only steep slopes and turquoise water, but also spectacular lighting and caves.
Lake Onega is the most popular place among tourists. Here we find the famous petroglyphs, the world famous Kizhi reserve, and the surroundings of Medvezhiegorsk – the notorious graves of victims of political repression. The Murom Monastery and Vodlozersky National Park deserve a visit as well.
The petroglyphs – the Neolithic rock paintings are the most famous monument of Karelia. These cave paintings dated between the 4th and first millennia BC depict deers, fish, marine animals and people. Some of them reach three meters high. They are found along the shore of Lake Onega over a length of 20.5 km, in total there are about 1,200 drawings.
Kizhi, an island on Lake Onega, is a small but world-famous open-air museum showing the wooden architecture of the Russian North. The Kizhi architectural ensemble, consisting of two churches and a bell tower, is on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List. Numerous wooden constructions from other areas were also brought there.
The Church of the Transfiguration that was built in 1714 is one of the outstanding monuments of traditional wooden architecture of Karelia and the North of Russia. According to legend, the church with a height of 37 meters was built without a single nail. Although nails were still used to create domes.
The museum exposition is constantly widened with items brought from ethnographic expeditions. For tourist, there is an interactive folklore program “Music of the Northern Village”, visitors can also get acquainted with the traditions of shipbuilding and participate in a master class in traditional crafts.
Petrozavodsk is the capital of Karelia, it was founded in 1703. The history of the city is associated with the name of Peter I. Over the years of its existence, Petrozavodsk turned from a provincial town into an administrative, industrial and cultural center of the republic.
Petrozavodsk lies on the shores of Lake Onega and is famous for its not very long but rich history. The embankment of Lake Onega showcases the sculptures donated to the city by its twin cities.
Also in the city there are several cathedrals and an impressive private art gallery “Doll House”.
In addition, you can go to the picturesque suburbs: Svyatozero, Kokkoilo, Sampo mountain and Marcial Waters.
Marcial Waters is the first resort of Russia founded by Peter the Great in 1719 on the basis of iron mineral springs with unique healing properties. The resort operates year-round.
Kivach waterfall (11 meters high) is one of the most popular tourist sites, its water falls down in cascades from small ledges. Around the waterfall the Natural Reserve Kivach was created. A unique biosystem that developed on the territory of this small park attracts biologists from all over the world.
In the north, Karelia is bordered by the White Sea. The main tourist attractions here are the Solovetsky Islands, the Solovetsky Monastery and the unique Neolithic labyrinths (4th to 1st millennia BC) which is still a mystery to scientists. There was also the largest labor camp of the 1920s for political prisoners.
Closer to the border with Finland you can explore the towns of Kostomuksha and Kalevala, as well as the Paanajärvi National Park and Kostomuksha Nature Reserve. This area is the least explored by travelers because getting to these places is not easy.
Tourism in Karelia
Karelia attracts tourists primarily with environmentally clean nature, low population density and competitive prices. However, the tourist industry in the republic is still in its infancy.
In summer, Karelia is popular among lovers of water tourism, travelers on bicycles and cars, fishermen and hunters. Cruise ships of various companies cross the Ladoga and Onega lakes. The best time to travel to the lakes is the second half of summer – the weather is warm and the water is already suitable for swimming.
In winter time in Karelia there is an opportunity to engage in all kinds of skiing, take part in a dog or reindeer safari, make a trip on snowmobiles. Travel agencies offer a variety of itineraries with sightseeing, historical and cultural monuments. Since January 2012, the international dog sled race “Over the Land of Sampo” is held annually. Equestrian tourism is developing too.
The main treasure of Karelia is the forests that are called the lungs of Europe. A unique climate and a combination of natural conditions contribute to the general health improvement. On the territory of the republic there are several large sanatoriums.
To get to Karelia, you can use any convenient way: go by train to various cities of the region, arrive there by bus or fly to the main city of Petrozavodsk. In Petrozavodsk there is an opportunity to rent a car.
Karelia offers a variety of opportunities for staying: from campgrounds to good hotels. Hostels and campgrounds are very cheap, but the conditions are truly spartan. For those traveling together, it is more convenient to rent an apartment or live in a guest house. There are a lot of hotels in Karelia, from 10 to 100 EUR per night. For a group of 4-10 people it makes sense to rent a cottage (150-200 EUR per day).
The most popular Karelian souvenirs are the products made of Karelian birch (from key chains to boxes and watches). The wood gives an unusual pattern and color to the finish. Another popular material is shungite – black stone with a characteristic metallic luster and healing properties is used to make bracelets, rosaries, beads, balls and pyramids. In addition, it is included in the composition of special creams that help with diseases of the musculoskeletal system.
A good gift for relatives would be Karelian herbal balm and various tinctures and jams made of local berries: cloudberries, cowberries, cranberries and shadberries.
Many are fascinated by Zaonezhskaya embroidery: simple and picturesque ornaments of red color on unpainted linen. The most practical gifts are towels, napkins, tablecloths and potholders.
Cuisine and restaurants of Karelia
Karelian cuisine is closely intertwined with the nature of the region. For a long time, local residents were engaged in fishing and picking berries, therefore these products occupy a special place on the table. Pies with fish, mushrooms, peas and turnip are very popular. Veal with vegetables in pots is called “Petrovsky meat”.
But the most famous dishes are the Karelian “kalitki” – a special type of open pies with a filling, and “kalarooka” – an unusual fish soup which is cooked in milk and sometimes passed through a layer of birch coal.
Nowadays, finding Karelian restaurants is not so easy, although in Petrozavodsk there is a restaurant “Karelian Gornitsa” which positions itself as the first and only restaurant of Karelian cuisine in the world.