Petrozavodsk: Gateway to Karelia

Petrozavodsk: Gateway to Karelia

Published: June 5, 2013 (Issue # 1762)

Adam Sloan / Flickr

Having survived World War II and the Soviet regime, the famous wooden churches on the island of Kizhi were listed as a World Heritage Site in 1990. They date back to the 15th to 18th centuries.

In trying to reach and conquer the Baltic Sea, Tsar Peter the Great declared war on the Swedish Empire in 1700. Three years into a conflict that would last more than two decades, Peter the Great sanctioned the building of a new town on the shores of Lake Onega that would be used as an iron foundry for much-needed weaponry for his northern fleet.

Under the supervision of Prince Menshikov, the settlement and foundry of Petrovskaya Sloboda was established in September 1703 — the same year the construction of St. Petersburg began.

The town grew in the aftermath of Peter the Great’s victory in the Great Northern War, and its industrial heritage remains evident to this day. Several name changes occurred during these early years until eventually Petrozavodsk, which means “Peter’s Factory,” was settled upon.

Today, Petrozavodsk is a small city by Russian standards and has a friendly, European atmosphere. A leafy park in the neoclassical center leads to the grand Musical Theater and former governor’s residence. But Petrozavodsk is also the victim of the blander sides of Soviet construction. Visitors venturing off the main streets and squares — which resemble St. Petersburg — are soon surrounded by characterless housing and the remnants of an abandoned industry.

Petrozavodsk is the capital of the Republic of Karelia — a vast region of rivers and forests that fills the gap between Lake Ladoga and the Arctic Circle. Surrounded by an abundance of natural beauty, it is an ideal launch point for the exploration of hectares of forest and a number of breathtaking waterfalls.

The region’s proximity to Scandinavia has led to a unique blend of cultures and folklores. Hallmarks of this Finnish heritage are visible in the city’s cuisine, traditions and souvenirs. Dance and musical ensembles regularly perform in the Karelian language, which shares the same roots as Finnish and is also written on many road signs and notices. These links and Peter the Great’s progressive tendencies all give the town a distinctly Western feel, a fact that visitors frequently comment on.

Karelia is equally famous for its rich rock deposits. Karelian stone has been highly sought after throughout the centuries, being used in the construction of monuments and buildings in Russia and Europe. Perhaps most famous is the presence of Karelian red marble in the tomb of Napoleon I in Paris and of Karelian quartzite, noted for its dark-red hue, in the structure of Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow.

Several companies export Karelian stone to this day, as it is a popular choice for headstones in Russia’s cemeteries as well as being used in general construction. Many of the town’s own monuments reflect this diverse geology.

On the whole, Petrozavodsk is a mixed bag for the traveler. The town itself has seen better days, and it is certainly outshone by nearby St. Petersburg. In terms of business, however, the town has been growing steadily over the last five years, with city hall’s budget increasing year after year since 2006, and the average wage accordingly.

The energy sector has provided the biggest boom following a restructuring of the Russian energy sector, in which field leader Karelenergo joined the main regional companies in the surrounding area to form parent company IDGC of the North-West. This, alongside a wave of investment that led to the founding of two new companies in 2006, Energokomfort and the Karelian Power-Selling Company, has led to an increase in the sector’s yearly income by a third over five years. Karelians now enjoy some of the lowest fuel prices in the country.

What to see in two hours

Walk along the embankment that borders Europe’s second-largest lake, the Onega — famous for giving its name to Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” and its subsequent opera adaptation by Tchaikovsky — and take in the vast collection of monuments that line it. Look for the minimalist steel monument of two fishermen (easily the best of the collection), given to Petrozavodsk by one of its sister cities, Duluth, Minnesota, in 1991. End the walk by meeting the icy stare of Peter the Great at his monument at the end of the embankment.

Afterwards, sit down for a relaxing cup of coffee and a slice of excellent New York-style cheesecake at Deja Vu, a very reasonable and stylish cafe on the town’s main street, about a 12 minute walk from the train station.

For history buffs, check out the region’s geological and pre-historic heritage at the Karelian National Museum. The collection also features relics dating back to the town’s founding and involvement in the Great Northern War against the Swedes.

What to see in two days

Svetlana Grechkina / Flickr

Enjoy the vast collection of monuments that line the embankment before admiring the sunset over Lake Onega.

To be frank, most people, Russians included, only visit Petrozavodsk due to its proximity to the island of Kizhi — an open-air museum of stunning 15th to 18th-century wooden churches that, having survived World War II and the Soviet regime, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. Highlights on the island, located in the middle of the Onega, include the Kizhi Pogost — an area that houses the stunning Church of the Transfiguration, purportedly built without a single nail. In spring and summer, plan a picnic among the island’s beautiful flora and fauna or simply go for a long walk through its tranquil greenery. Travel there by hydrofoil or ferry from the city port in the summer, but be aware that the island is usually closed off by November.

For culture-hungry tourists who want something even more off the beaten track, book a trip to the house-museum of the Veps ethnic group for a chance to visit the “real Russia,” sample the famous local pastry, the Kalitka, and watch an ethnic folk ensemble. Again, look for tour agencies in town or enquire with tourist information.

Also consider asking locals about scenic spots for a picnic, although you may need to find a reliable guide (and some hiking boots) to get there. One popular spot is the waterfall at Kivach, which takes about two hours to reach by car. Look out for several tour groups in town or try online providers like


Petrozavodsk’s nightlife has its fair share of nice bars and hangouts. The same cannot be said for clubs, with the exception of the relatively new Das Kapital, which plays a typical mix of contemporary pop and dance music.

If you fancy heading to a nice bar, Prospekt Lenina’s Bar Neubrandenburg is a safe bet. Named after the city’s German twin city, it offers a great selection of beers and snacks in a German beer-hall atmosphere, complete with wooden benches and old Czech posters.

Theater-goers are spoiled for choice in Petrozavodsk thanks to several theaters that perform in a number of languages. By far the most impressive place to see a show is the Musical Theater of the Republic of Karelia. This huge, columned building runs a program of classical concerts, ballets and operas, but be sure to dress up to blend in with the locals.

Where to eat

Karelia is famous for its diverse cuisine, which is heavily influenced by its Scandinavian neighbors. For a chance to sample its merits, visit Karelskaya Gornitsa, a cozy restaurant styled like a traditional, wooden Karelian house. This is the best restaurant in town, and a three-course meal for two costs 1,800 to 2,500 rubles ($56 to $78) without alcohol. Look out for the chance to try elk-meat stew or a host of tasty Karelian-style fish dishes. Fans of seafood should consider trying the Finnish restaurant next door, pitched at similar prices.

Light lunches, Russian salads and a particularly good vegetarian pizza can be bought from Kafe Kivach, which also provides menus in English and free Wi-Fi. Although not the best place in town for food or atmosphere, this tends to be a focal point for foreign visitors and students at the nearby Petrozavodsk State University. A lunch and a drink for one costs 300 to 600 rubles ($9.40-$18.80).

For an easy family meal, head to the cheerful restaurant Bellissimo, which has the best pizza in Petrozavodsk. Pizzas cost in the region of 300 rubles ($9.40), and the restaurant frequently runs buy-one-get-one-free offers.

Where to stay

Onego Palace is a four-star hotel sitting right on the lakeside embankment with stunning views over the Onega and is considered Karelia’s premier place to stay. Guests can enjoy the comforts of a much-lauded restaurant, a modern well-equipped fitness center, a Finnish sauna and numerous beauty and therapy treatments. Prices range from 4,250 rubles ($133) per night for a single to 20,000 rubles ($627) for a double suite.

Ninara / Flickr 

For a real Karelian experience, be sure to take the time to visit the Veps house museum to sample ethnic food and music.

Hotel Severnaya is a reliable and comfortable hotel situated in the city center and just a 10-minute walk from Lake Onega. Family doubles start at 3,100 rubles ($97) and suites range from 4,000 to 6,000 rubles ($125-$188). This member of the Intourist Hotel Group is functional and well-located, if a little dated.

Conversation starters

A respectful nod to the town’s famous first governor, 18th-century poet Gavrila Derzhavin, would be an easy way to endear yourself to the local intelligentsia.

For equally light conversation, be sure to ask about local points of beauty like the Devil’s Chair (a stunning cliff-top with views of the city from the other side of the lake) or simply praise the town’s marble embankment.

However, be sure to avoid mentioning the German occupation (the Nazis set up a concentration camp here) or the 1941-44 Continuation War with Finland, unless you’re feeling brave or want a history lecture.

How to get there

Petrozavodsk is served by Petrozavodsk Airport, situated 12 kilometers from the city. Rossiya Airline offers two direct flights from St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport from 3,500 rubles ($110), flying on Monday and Thursday. Flight time is one hour and 15 minutes.

Trains also run six times a day from St. Petersburg, and the journey takes about seven hours. Evening trains are, of course, overnight journeys and tickets start from 500 rubles ($15.70) onwards.

Restaurants and Bars

• Deja vu, 20 Prospekt Lenina, +7 142 78 20 85

• Kafe Kivach, 28 Prospekt Lenina, +7 142 63 23 08

• Bellissimo, 20 Ulitsa Antikainina, +7 142-76-10-53

Galina Gorbacheva/ wikimedia

Head off the beaten track to uncover hidden churches and monasteries tucked away in quiet and picturesque surroundings.

• Das Kapital, 1A Prospekt Karla Marksa, +7 142 63 64 35

• Bar Neubrandenburg, 13 Ulitsa Engelsa, +7 142 78 50 38

• Karelskaya Gornitsa, 13 Ulitsa Engelsa, +7 142 785 300

Cultural Highlights

• Karelian National Museum,

1 Ploshchad Lenina, +7 8142 78 27 02.

• Veps Museum, 28 Pochtovaya Ulitsa, Prionezhsky District,

+7 142 53 91 50.

• Musical Theater of the Republic of Karelia, Ploshchad Kirova, +7 142 78 44 42.

• Kizhi, Ploshchad Kirova 10a,

+7 142 76 70 91.


• Onego Palace, 26 Ulitsa Kuibysheva, +7 142 79 07 90.

• Hotel Severnaya, 21 Prospekt Lenina, +7 142 59 97 77,

Leave a comment