Lappeenranta and Imatra — Ideal Weekend Getaways

Lappeenranta and Imatra — Ideal Weekend Getaways

In Imatra, people who had lost the will to live would throw themselves into the turbulent waterfall.

Published: October 26, 2011 (Issue # 1680)


A view of the Finnish city Lappeenranta, a favorite weekend travel destination for many Russians, and its boat-filled harbor on a sunny fall day.

Among Russians, the cities of Lappeenranta and Imatra are some of the most visited places in Finland. They’re close to the Russian border — you drive across and you’re already there. In Lappeenranta you can go shopping without having to deal with all of the usual hustle and bustle of Petersburg stores, or simply relax while enjoying Finland’s beautiful nature. In Imatra, it’s easy to find a nice hotel with all the essentials: A room with a view of a lake, a sauna and even a water park. Many Russians nowadays have gotten into the habit of spending their weekends in southern Finland, but there is an element of risk in this — what if these great weekend excursions start to get boring and predictabable? What new and exciting things can be found in what seem to be fully explored Finnish cities?



Tourists in the Majurska Cafe next to the fortress sample Finnish pastries.

If you’ve already stayed at the Imatran Kylpylla Hotel, complete with a spa and water park, but are bored with these amenities, focus on the other things this fascinating and beautiful city has to offer.

Right next to the hotel you can rent bicycles, four-wheelers (only with a valid license) and, depending on the season, paddleboats and even paintball equipment. If none of these activities pique your interest, set out on a nature walk on one of the many wooded paths. Along the trail you’ll be able to see many different types of mushrooms. It’s not true that Finns don’t pick mushrooms, but due to Finland’s good ecology and lower number of mushroom pickers, many mushrooms grow in great numbers right by the road. On these pond-side paths, ducks bravely waddle along, unafraid of tourists and eager to be fed.

Few people know that on the edge of the city you can find the Church of the Three Crosses (Kolmenristin Kirkko), which was built by the eminent Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. The church was designed to have no right angles, great acoustics, and is crowned by big white domes. The inner walls of the church can even be moved, changing the configuration of the room to accommodate the number of church-goers on any given day.


Those looking for a weekend getaway can stay in cottages at the just-opened Holiday Club Saimaa Hotel and Spa.

Despite its fascinating church, Imatra, architecturally speaking, isn’t the most attractive place to visit. Right nearby, however, you can see something remarkable — an incredibly romantic view of a castle-turned-hotel (an inexpensive one at that) located not far from a waterfall that flows into the Vuoksi River. Valtionhotelli consists of two separate buildings: A castle-hotel and a modern convention center, connected by an underground passage. Those who live in Imatra are convinced that their quiet little town is haunted by ghosts and will gladly tell you about the mysterious ‘woman in grey’ who roams the halls of this hotel. Hotels first appeared in Imatra in the 19th century, but they were wooden and frequently burned down. A castle-hotel was finally built (from stone), and is now over 100 years old.

The sluice gates of the Imatrankoski waterfall are opened fifty times a year. Accompanied by the celebrated Finnish composer Sibelius’ music and a light show, water crashes into the rapids and fills the canyon below. Walking along the lower path through the canyon, soon you’ll be able to see cliffs covered not in the scrawl of modern vandals, but in things written by famous visitors who have visited the canyon.

Life in Imatra isn’t all picturesque waterfalls and light shows, however. At the beginning of the 20th century, many people, having lost the will to live, would go to Imatra to end it all, throwing themselves into the foaming falls. St. Petersburg aristocrats and Finland’s highest-ranking officials of the time considered the waterfall and its surrounding area to be their vacation spot and often went there to relax. Tsar Nicholas II often visited the castle-hotel, and the hall decorated for the emperor himself still carries his name.


Imatra’s picturesque and affordable castle-hotel is hidden among greenery and located not far from the Vuoksi River.

Not far at all from Imatra, in Rauhan, the new spa hotel Holiday Club Saimaa has just opened. It’s located on the grounds of an old pre-war boarding house, and the hotel has already built a lot of cottages and apartments, an ice arena, bowling alley, golf course and a very original water park — Cirque de Saimaa — with waterslides, sandbars and waterfalls. For children, they’ve built a small sauna designed to look like an igloo, much too tight for any adult to squeeze into, and for parents — a spa center and banya. This tourist haven is rumored to be the biggest resort not only in the area, but in all of Finland. In addition to the services offered by the hotel, guests are welcome to enjoy the calming peace and quiet as well as the natural beauty of Finland’s northern nature and lakes.



Workers at the market by Lake Saimaa prepare fresh fish for hungry shoppers.

Lappeenranta is a small city in southern Karelia most famous among Russian tourists for its shopping and sales, but that’s by far from all the city has to offer.

On the shore of Lake Saimaa is an old fortress that has left its mark on Finnish, Swedish and Russian history. Being held by all of them at different points in history, the Fortress of Lappeenranta was built on the edge of the lake where the Lappee Market has been doing business since the 18th century. Nowadays the old fortress is no longer characterized by its stone walls, towers and dungeons, but rather its earthen walls and one-floored barracks. Today the fortress grounds are more a place for romantic strolls than the violent battles of the past. Walking through the overgrown grass of the bastion, you get a view of the city and lake from above. As you venture further along the cobblestone roads between the barracks, turn the corner and you’ll see that people, regular Lappeenranta citizens, still live on the fortress grounds. If you speak with them you’ll discover that they consider the fortress to be “a very comfortable place to live. It’s quiet enough, the ecology of the area is good, there aren’t many cars. Tourists walk along the main roads and if they turn down this road, they take a picture of our house. That probably means it’s pretty. We hang our laundry outside to dry and children here play outside on the grass.”

Next to the main entrance to the fortress is what used to be the Russian Mayor’s house. It is now the cozy little Café Majurska you can read about in most any travel guide. It’s known for its unique atmosphere and baked Finnish goods. “I recommend you try the ‘lettu’ (Finnish pancake) with cream and fresh berry jam, amazing!” wrote a Japanese tourist on her blog. By the café you’ll find the Russian Orthodox Pokrovskaya Church, whose services are in Finnish.


The canyon is filled 50 times a year, accompanied by a light and music show.

Just outside of Lappeenranta is a one-of-a-kind restaurant, Säräpirtti Kippurasarvi, with only a single item on the menu: Lemin särä, a traditionally prepared lamb dish. The choice may be limited, but you can have as many helpings as you’d like, all for one price. The lamb is cooked for a long time — no less than nine hours — and is prepared without any herbs and spices, just salt. It is served with potatoes, soup and homemade kvas. When Esko Hietaranta, owner of the family-owned restaurant, was asked how many lambs his restaurant serves up in a year, he said that in all of Finland there aren’t enough to meet the demand, so they are imported from Australia. In order to get a table at the popular eatery, you need to reserve a table well in advance so that the lamb has enough time to cook to perfection.

After a nice meal, you can work off your dinner riding around on a rented motorized bike. If the pedalling gets tough, that’s ok, just turn on the motor. It’ll give you just the boost you need to keep going around the hilly city.

By the docks on the shore of Lake Saimaa you can visit the market, stroll through an area filled with souveniers, boats and kites, and sample freshly fried fish. You can take a ride on one of the many boats that leave the docks for a tour around the lake, or head home to St. Petersburg on a ferry via the Saimaa Canal as you take in the scenery painted bright by the autumn leaves.

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