“The Kalevala”, Shungite stones and Kalitki pies: Things to do in Karelia

November 22, 2019 - 18:12

Immerse yourself in the fairy-tale atmosphere, in poetry, and Karelia’s national epic, “The Kalevala”. Learn to play the Kantele — a Karelian plucked string instrument. Bake festive Kalitki pies, Karelia’s favorite dessert, and find out what makes shungite such a useful mineraloid.

Things to do in Karelia

All year round:

Visit the Karelian capital Petrozavodsk and the town of Sortavala;

Enjoy an unforgettable trip to Kizhi Island which has been used as an exchange route since the 14-15th century, and see the wooden churches of Kizhi Pogost;

Discover Pomeranian culture in Kem;

Visit the Ruskeala Mountain Park;

Treat yourself to a healthy break at Russia’s oldest balneotherapeutic spa resort, Marcial Waters (Martsialnye Vody).


Snowmobiling, reindeer and dog sledding, cross-country skiing and mountain skiing;

Go for a walk at the Kivach Nature Reserve and see the cascading Kivach waterfall that keeps on flowing with an icy glaze;

Visit Karelian Santa Claus, Talvi Ukko.


Enjoy a break at one of the guesthouses along the banks of rivers and lakes;

Hiking and horse riding;

Rafting and fishing.

Top-7 places to visit in Karelia

Founded by Peter the Great along the western shore of Lake Onega, the Republic of Karelia’s capital city Petrozavodsk is an excellent starting point for trips around the region. From Petrozavodsk, you could head out a trip to Kizhi Pogost or the Kivach Nature Reserve. The city has many interesting museums, including the National Museum of the Republic of Karelia, the Kantele House cultural and historical center, and the Museum of Industrial History of Petrozavodsk.

Kizhi is an island in the rocky Kizhi skerries on Lake Onega. It is adorned with Karelia’s crown jewels and the main attraction — picture-postcard Kizhi Pogost — a masterpiece of wooden architecture. The historical Kizhi Pogost is a Russian Cultural Heritage Site.

The picturesque Kivach Nature Reserve is not far from Petrozavodsk, and is partially open to visitors. Its main attraction is the Kivach Waterfall.

Sortavala is a cozy town with a number of unique buildings in the National Romantic architectural style, and the unusual triangular Vainamoinen Square and Kirov Square. The town is a good starting point for trips to the Valaam Archipelago and the Ruskeala Mountain Park.

The fairy-tale Marble Lake in Ruskeala was artificially formed by work on the site of the former marble quarry. It is now it a tourist attraction with mountain walking trails, grottoes and underwater galleries. Plan your route on the map before heading out on a walk through the Ruskeala Mountain Park, so that you do not miss the Italian Quarry and the site of the damaged mine, which are located some distance away from the Ruskeala Lake. The Lake is a nice place to row a boat. The Ruskeala Waterfalls are fairly near the Lake. The Soviet film “The Dawns Here Are Quiet” was filmed here.

The Valaam Archipelago on Lake Ladoga is famous for its stunning natural beauty and the Valaam Monastery, which some sources say was founded in the 14th century, while others suggest it dates back to the 10th century.

The towns of Kondopoga, Kostomuksha and Medvezhyegorsk and the surrounding traditional Karelian villages are wonderfully preserved examples of traditional wooden architecture.


The Republic of Karelia is located just north of St. Petersburg and stretches over a vast territory, most of which is covered with forests and lakes. The eastern side of the region is almost completely submerged, with Lake Onega and Lake Ladoga and the White Sea, and borders with Finland in the west. A Highway connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg to Murmansk runs through Karelia, and stretches all the way from the South to the North of the Republic. Karelia’s capital is the historical city of Petrozavodsk.

Summers are warm and mild, and you can enjoy the white nights, but there a lot of mosquitoes, midges, gadflies and ticks in the wild. Use the right insect repellents, wear suitable clothing, and make sure you check your whole body and all your things for ticks once you get back after spending time in the outdoors. July is the warmest month of the year, the average temperature is about plus 15 degrees Celsius, but sometimes temperatures do reach almost 30 degrees.

Winter in Karelia is a real fairy-tale winter: a snowy, beautiful, frosty, but relatively mild winter. The average temperature for January is about minus ten degrees Celsius. Snow begins to fall in November and can last until mid-May.

Karelian traditions

Karelian traditions are closely related to a work of epic poetry compiled from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology, “The Kalevala”. The Kaleva deciphers the local runes and tells the story of the region and its inhabitants. It tells the story of the hero and demigod Vainamoinen. According to legend built the first boat and created the Karelia’s national musical instrument, the Kantele. There is also the story of Ilmarinen the Eternal Hammerer, the blacksmith who forged the wonderous Sampo mill, and Louhi the sorceress, the shamanic Lemminkainen, and other fantastic heroes. The folklore in “The Kalevala” is not linked with a common plot, it is more of a collection of descriptions of the world and creation as the ancient inhabitants of Karelia understood it.

Do you want to surround yourself with an atmosphere of fairy tales and legends?

Pay a visit to the Kantele House and the Museum of Fine Arts of the Republic of Karelia in Petrozavodsk. There are also plays based on Karelian legends and in the Karelian language at the National Theatre of the Republic of Karelia — make sure you look up the program of events before your trip.

Take a trip to the Pomeranian town of Kem, where you can visit the Pomorye Local Lore Museum, the wooden Assumption Cathedral founded in the early 18th century and the more modern Annunciation Cathedral.

In the village of Kalevala, check out the Kalevala Museum of the Runemaster — well worth a visit.

In the village of Voknavolok you can visit the House ethnocultural center and see traditional buildings that have been well-preserved. By the way, it was in this village where Finnish poet Elias Lonnrot recorded most of the runes in “The Kalevala”.

Culture, traditions and the national cuisine have been carefully preserved in the ethnographic village of Kinerma, at the Karelian Farmstead complex and the ethnocultural Center Elama (the Karelian word for life).

Make sure you try the rye flour kalitki pies, creamy fish soup, and the berry and oatmeal dessert at one of the ethnic theme parks or traditional Karelian restaurants.

Karelian festivals

The most important holiday in the traditional calendar for all northern peoples is the Summer Solstice, Midsummer Day. The longest summer day falls on June 22. Celebrations begin in the evening and last all night, during the Karelian white nights. Young people traditionally go to the forest to gather for ferns, dance around bonfires and swim in the lakes.

The Elonpu (the Tree of Life) Festival, a holiday from Veps culture, is celebrated in mid-July on the shores of Lake Onega near the village of Sheltozero. There are no more than four thousand Vepsians left, and most of them live in Karelian villages.

On August 9 every year, ethnic groups in Karelia celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

Souvenirs and things to try in Karelia

You have to try the local kalitki pies and the smoked fish. Especially the trout! They will keep for half a day to a full day on the way home if you want to take some with you, especially in the colder weather. In the warmer months, you should pack the fish in a thermal bag to stop it from going off.

Souvenirs made from Karelian birch wood. There is a wide range of birch souvenirs: trinket boxes, pens, watches.

Souvenirs and jewelry made of shungite stone. This mineraloid was named after the Karelian village of Shunga, near the site in which the first shungite deposits were described. The black stone with silver veins is used in industry, but it has gained great popularity as a folk medical treatment. Do note that many of the souvenirs and pieces of jewelry are not made from real black shungite. The real thing is rather expensive and can stain. Cheap varieties of the mineraloid rock are lighter, do not leave any black marks, and has no effect on the body and certainly does not reduce electromagnetic radiation.

How to reach Karelia

The most convenient way to get to Petrozavodsk is by rail. There are trains from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Pskov, Sochi and Rostov-on-Don. The train from St. Petersburg takes about six hours, seats and bunks in the couchette cars cost about 1500 rubles, and more comfortable compartments are priced from 2000 rubles. The train from Moscow takes 13 hours, ticket prices are from 2000 rubles for a bunk in a couchette car, and between 3000 and 7000 rubles for a place in a more comfortable compartment. Every four days there is a train that runs from St. Petersburg to Sortavala.

There is an airport in Petrozavodsk, but there are very few flights there. S7 Airlines operate daily flights from Moscow. There are flights between Petrozavodsk and Arkhangelsk on Tuesdays and Thursdays operated by Arkhangelsk Airlines.

Getting around Karelia on your own is convenient, but it is easier if you drive an SUV. While the main roads that link Petrozavodsk with Moscow, St. Petersburg and Murmansk are usually in good condition, they are indeed affected by the weather conditions, and many rural roads are a little worse for wear.   (Based on a research into Russian sources)

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