If you’re looking for wilderness, powerful history, and even the Finnish soul, your search starts here. Densely forested and gloriously remote, the region is a paradise for nature lovers. Bears, wolverines, and wolves roam freely across the Russian frontier, and animal hides allow visitors a close encounter. Opportunities to get active abound: the landscape is threaded by hiking routes, whitewater rapids, and waterways navigable by canoe, and lakes offer idyllic kayaking and boating. In winter, outdoor pursuits include fantastic skiing, dog-sledding, snowshoeing, and ice fishing. Karelia straddles both sides of the Finnish–Russian border and has a distinct culture, language, religion, cuisine, music, and architecture. In Finland’s Karelian regions, lakeside Lappeenranta is still strongly connected to its sister cities that have been part of Russia since WWII. Once-battle-scarred Joensuu is now a vibrant university town, and Imatra still recalls its 18th-century golden age as a Russian aristocracy playground.
POINTS OF INTEREST
On the banks of Lake Saimaa, Lappeenranta has encountered dramatic swings of fortune. Once famous for its scarlet-clad garrison, the 17th-century ‘Cavalry City’ was a humming trade port at the edge of the Swedish empire. In 1743 it came under Russian control, where it remained for the next 68 years, becoming an exclusive spa town. Much of the town was destroyed during the Winter and Continuation Wars, but its massive fortress and spa endure. Russia still owns half of the 27-mile Saimaa Canal, which links Lappeenranta to the Gulf of Finland. It’s currently ‘leased’ to Finland until 2063 – popular day trips run through its eight locks and across the Russian border.
Imatra was once the darling of Russian aristocracy – one of the first tourists to the area was Catherine the Great who in 1772 gathered her entourage to view Imatra’s thundering rapids. Although the rapids were harnessed for hydroelectricity in 1929, the water pours forth again during dramatic daily summer shows. The town has a number of dispersed, mostly modern ‘centers’ separated by miles of highway. Imatrankoski, the site of the rapids, is of most interest to visitors and has the majority of services. Boaties, beachgoers, and spa seekers may prefer the Imatran leisure area, 4 miles northwest of Imatrankoski.
At the egress of the Pielisjoki (Joensuu means ‘river mouth’ in Finnish), North Karelia’s capital is a spirited university town, with students making up almost a third of the population. Joensuu was founded by Tsar Nikolai I and became an important trading port following the 1850s completion of the Saimaa Canal. During the Winter and Continuation Wars, 23 bombing raids flattened many of its older buildings, and today most of its architecture is modern. It’s a lively place to spend some time before heading into the Karelian wilderness.
The closest North Karelian town to the Russian border, Ilomantsi has an Orthodox religion and its own dialect. There is a handful of interesting sights here, but with little tourist infrastructure, you’re better off visiting during the day and then heading for the national parks and scenic areas beyond.
About 25 miles northeast of Ilomantsi, Finland’s most easterly settlement was famous for poem-singers, such as Arhippa Buruskainen who is thought to have inspired tales in the Kalevala. The Runon ja Rajan tie (Poem and Border Rte) runs through Hattuvaara as a tribute.
At the heart of northern Karelia is Pielinen, Finland’s fourth-largest lake. On its shores, precipitous Koli National Park has epic views and winter skiing. Bring your hiking boots because this is a place to be active; towns here are really just bases for getting into the great outdoors.
KOLI NATIONAL PARK
The magnificent 1138 ft-high Koli inspired Finland’s artistic National Romantic era with artists including Pekka Halonen and Eero Järnefelt setting up their easels here. Koli was declared a national park in 1991 after an intense debate between environmentalists and landowners. The area remains relatively pristine with more than 56 miles of marked walking tracks and superb cross-country and downhill skiing.
Lake Pielinen’s largest island, Paalasmaa, is the highest in Finland at 738 feet above sea level. The best view is from the 60 ft-high wooden observation tower, 2 miles along a marked trail from the Paalasmaan Lomamajat campground. From the mainland, first take the free summer chain-ferry, followed by bridges across four smaller islands to reach Paalasmaa. The mainland’s ferry terminal is 4 miles east of the Nurmes–Koli road (Nurmeksentie; Rd 6); the turn-off is 2 miles north of Juuka. In winter, an ice road runs via the island en route between Koli and Vuonislahti.
Little more than a train station in a field, this rural lakeside hamlet is a peaceful place to break your journey.
On the banks of Lake Pielinen, Lieksa is unlovely in itself, but from here you can easily explore Koli or go whitewater rafting, horse riding, canoeing, and bear-watching.
PATVINSUO NATIONAL PARK
This large marshland area between Lieksa and Ilomantsi is a habitat for swans and cranes, and if you’re extremely lucky you might see bears. Using the pitkospuu (boardwalk) network, you can easily hike around; there are 50 miles of marked trails in all, including three marked nature trails (between 2 and 3 miles long), and several challenging hiking routes (mostly half-day walks). It’s an easy 2-mile stroll through forests and wetlands to a birdwatching tower at Teretinniemi on Suomunjärvi’s southern shore. In winter, cross-country skiing is possible on the unmaintained Mäntypolku and Nämänpuro Trails. Both start from Suomu car park.
RUUNAA RECREATION AREA
Just 19 miles northeast of Lieksa, Ruunaa is an outdoor activities hub with 24 miles of waterways. Designated campsites (with fire rings) are also provided and maintained. Keep your eyes peeled as the area is home to otters, deer, and sometimes bears.
Renowned for its canoeing routes on the Jongunjoki, the Nurmijärvi area (also known Lieksan Nurmijärvi) is wild and remote. Nurmijärvi village has enough services to get you to the Jongunjoki or Lieksajoki, or to the Änäkäinen area for fishing and trekking.
On the northern shores of Lake Pielinen, Nurmes is a great base for activities such as snowmobiling, ice-fishing, dog-sledding, and cross-country skiing tours in winter, and wildlife-watching, canoeing, hiking, and more come summer. Founded in 1876 by Tsar Alexander II, the town is pleasant in its own right, with an Old Town area (Puu-Nurmes) of historical wooden buildings along Kirkkokatu.