Looking to discover the beauty and majesty of rural Russia without straying too far from major cities? Then you will absolutely love this short trip to Karelia, which can be made both by car and public transport.
The Republic of Karelia is lush with endless forests, scenic roads and lakes galore. All splendid features that make it so attractive to locals in search of a getaway from the busy St. Petersburg & Moscow.
However, foreign visitors have not yet discovered all the region can offer. I’m here to tell you why you very well should make the trip. From the local sights to accommodation and transport, I’ve got your entire travels covered. So, let’s go on a trip to Ruskeala from St. Petersburg, Russia.
Here are the contents of today's post:
- 1 Can I just go to Ruskeala on a day trip from St. Petersburg?
- 2 Karelia Road Trip Itinerary Overview: Main Attractions
- 3 How to get to Ruskeala:
- 4 Day 1: Ruskeala Marble Quarries & Waterfalls
- 5 Day 2: Travel to Valaam Island & Monastery
- 6 Day 3: Travel to Kizhi Island
Can I just go to Ruskeala on a day trip from St. Petersburg?
If you only have one day, it’s possible to make the trip to Ruskeala Park by taking the train. This will be a travel-intense day as the ride from St. Petersburg takes 5 hours and change. The earliest train departs at 06:15 AM. In this case, you will arrive at the park at 11:40 AM, which includes one train change.
The train back leaves at 5:30 PM and arrives to St. Petersburg at 10:43 PM. Actually, there is an organized day trip to the Ruskeala park that follows this very schedule and you can book it here.
This is the reason why I recommend you make it a 2 day trip from St. Petersburg. This way, the travel times won’t be that big of a drain and you will be able to get to know the regional highlights. There is much more to explore here apart from the Ruskeala Park itself. With that in mind, here is a perfect weekend itinerary for a road trip to Karelia.
Karelia Road Trip Itinerary Overview: Main Attractions
Day 1 in Karelia: Ruskeala
- Travel from St. Petersburg to Ruskeala Park
- Visit the Ruskeala marble quarries & Ruskeala waterfalls (formerly known as Akhinkoski)
- Spend the night in Sortavala
Day 2 in Karelia: Valaam Monastery
- Day trip to Valaam Island & Monastery with a return to Sortavala
- Travel back to St Petersburg OR
- Optional route extension: Travel to Petrozavodsk
Day 3 in Karelia: Kizhi Islands
- Travel from Petrozavodsk to Kizhi
- Kizhi Islands
- Take the train back to SPB through Petrozavodsk in the evening: Optional night train.
How to get to Ruskeala:
Getting to Ruskeala by train
For my travel throughout Russia, I use Tutu.ru which is widely used by Russians and has a great English interface. It’s very useful because it has the layout of each train compartment so you can always pick the nicest seat. To book a train to Sortavala click here. To take a special retro train from Sortavala to the Ruskeala park take a look here. The retro train journey takes about an hour.
For the way back, here are the ticket times that you can take from the Ruskeala Park to Sortavala, or alternatively from Sortavala back to St. Petersburg. The system is very easy to navigate so you shouldn’t have too many issues. You can use the website to book any passage for the trip to and from Petrozavodsk, if you decide to extend your trip.
Getting to Ruskeala by car
Renting a car in Russia is easy because all major car rental providers operate without an issue. If you’d like to avoid public transport in the city and plan on taking a couple of day trips from St. Petersburg, consider renting straight from the airport. To see price comparisons, check out Rentalcars.com or go with a trusted provider like Europcar. Check the deals for your dates here.
The Karelia roads surprised us with their quality. They are well-maintained, smooth and extremely scenic, with plenty of beautiful twists and turns next to gorgeous lakes and shores. For navigation, you’ll need the most basic maps. We used a combo of GPS Sygic which works without the internet.
Google Maps are on point for the region as well which I checked as well. Another popular map provider in Russia is Yandex Maps also created by a search engine. It’s very good at showing congested areas and traffic jams, as well as speed meters.
To get to Ruskeala park from St. Petersburg, take the A-121 to the city Priozersk and then follow it further to the city Sortavala. Then follow the directions for Petrozavodsk while you are still on the A-121.
Distance from St. Petersburg to Ruskeala is 290 km / 180 miles which can take 4-5 hours travel time. As you cross into the Ruskeala settlement, turn left after the T-crossing after the bridge. It’s a country road that will bring you right to the park entrance and parking.
Ruskeala Group Tour Options
For many, the most comfortable option might be an organized group tour that takes care of all the transport and accommodation. After a bit of research, I’ve been able to compile some attractive tours to Karelia that are well-suited for English speakers and are quite trustworthy. Please note that I haven’t taken them myself. Click here to view all tours of the Karelia region offered through Viator.
Day 1: Ruskeala Marble Quarries & Waterfalls
Travel from St. Petersburg to Ruskeala Park: 4-5 hour drive
Discover the Ruskeala Park
Whichever route you’ve taken to the Ruskeala Park, prepare to be astonished by the mix of natural and man-made beauty. Something I hadn’t discovered until setting foot in the park is that Ruskeala is an abandoned marble quarry filled to the brim with groundwater.
The water here has a beautiful teal color, shining like a gem against the surrounding rock. There’s plenty to do from walking the perimeter, discovering the recovered quarry passages, and exploring the grottos. The entrance tickets cost 300 RUB or around 5 USD. There’s good infrastructure around the entrance, with a couple of cafes and nice souvenir shops with prices identical to those in Sortavala. The parking is free.
If you are a professional diver with your own equipment, and for some crazy reason, you’re traveling through Russia with your gear, you can come to the lake and dive for only 300 RUB. You have to have a license and sign a waiver or something, but there’s lots to explore as two-thirds of the quarries are concealed underwater.
If you are a mere mortal, however, and you do not plan to fly over to Russia with a diver suit, read on to discover more accessible diversions. There’s plenty to do during winter too, including snowmobiles, a 2 km banana boat route adapted for the snowy winters and an ice sculpture gallery in one of the grottos.
Walk around the marble canyon
If you come with a tour group, you will undoubtedly get a guided tour of the premises. There are no English speaking tours as the main volume of the visitors are Russian or Finnish, so they have to be arranged in advance and you’ll need to bring your own translator.
What you can do, however, is walk around and admire the beauty around you. Meanwhile, I’ll attempt to relay some of the historical tidbits that I heard from our Ruskeala guide.
Nowadays the giant canyon is filled with water almost to the top. When it was operational, however, it was three times taller than what is visible right now, and the beautiful grottos you see on the pictures are just the spaces in between the giant columns carved by the workers for production.
The park’s main zone is the lake, but as you go further you will see more tunnels, wells, and passageways that you can explore.
Take a tour of the quarries
The quarry used to produce marble and lime in large quantities. Ruskeala marble was used in the facade of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the floors of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg. After a long break, the quarries resumed operation from 1947 till the 1990’s but the workers were so used to producing limestone that they didn’t know how to work with pure marble properly.
They ruined the foundations of the rocks with powerful explosives, leaving only a small part of their stone usable. Those parts were used in the construction of the St. Petersburg metro stations “Primorskaya” and “Ladozhskaya” before the administration realized the stone was of poor quality. The quarry was shut down afterward.
Zip-line across the blue waters
If you’re after unforgettable memories, take advantage of the attractions. For 1200 RUB (around 18 USD) you can take the zip-line down the whole length of the lake. If you’re a tad more adventurous, you can also bungee jump for 1500 RUB (around 24 USD). It’s safe and looked very fun, I’m kind of regretting not having a go!
Rowboat on the lake
Rent a boat for 600 RUB per hour and go into one of the grottos or just enjoy the peaceful surroundings. An hour is probably too long to spend on the lake as it’s quite small, but if you’re looking for a relaxing pastime, it’s definitely worth it. You can only go into the smaller grottos so if you’re after seeing more, take the tour into the grotto instead.
Take an underground tour
Even if you don’t speak Russian, I recommend going along for the tour anyway. It’s pretty short but memorable as the guide will bring you through the quarry tunnels all the way into one of the grottos. The water has been covered with stable walkways floating on air cushions.
You will see some stalactites and stalagmites forming, hear the echo under the archways and will even get a magical moment from the installed light show accompanied by etherial singing. Everyone who goes in is equipped with a helmet and a life vest. You go in through the quarries and come out onto the lake where a ferry boat will be waiting to bring you back to the shore.
While this tour costs more than the park entry ticket (1200 RUB equals 19 USD), I found it absolutely enchanting and well worth the money. All in all, the tour lasts an hour including the preparations. It’s also quite a bit colder down there, with the temperature around +6 – +8°С / 43 – 46 F. The temperatures stay consistent regardless of the season, so it might be considered warm during the winter.
Visit the Ruskeala Waterfalls
The Ruskeala Waterfalls are located only 5 km away from Ruskeala Park. If you visit by car, the waterfalls are perfect for a short stop before the park while it’s not very crowded. Some industrious lads have created a wooden walkway with bridges so now the entry is 200 rubles.
The visit takes about half an hour which is enough to walk around at your leisure at a relaxing pace and take some pictures. Keep some cash with you to buy the tickets and souvenirs that are sold on the road-side. The waterfall is not very high but beautiful regardless.
Travel to Sortavala from Ruskeala Park (1 hour): Overnight Stay
Settle into Sortavala and prepare for the next day’s journey to Valaam. Please remember that you need a group tour to visit Valaam. If you have some knowledge of Russian, you can buy a Russian group ticket in a booth by the pier. Alternatively, check this group tour HERE.
Where to stay: Best Hotels in Sortavala
My mom and I arrived in Sortavala on a weekday evening without any prior hotel bookings. This allowed us to intimately get to know the hotel scene in Sortavala and how easily booked out it can be. Once we acquired a map with all the hotels marked on it (there were around 10), we set out to ask around and inspect rooms.
Eventually, we found a very cheap apartment option in a true Russian manner – by asking around, then calling the owner directly and bargaining until we agreed on a price. However, this is not something you will be able to replicate. Nor should you, if you value your peace of mind.
Keep in mind that Sortavala is a small town so the choice of hotels is incomparable to a big city. This is a great chance to see what life outside of the biggest Russian cities looks like. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice your comfort!
So where should you stay? We found two great hotels that are up to European standards.
The first one is Hotel Piipun Piha, located right on the Ladoga lake, a 5-minute drive from the city center. Prices start at 51 EUR per double room. Since it’s pretty close to the border, there are many Finnish tourists coming over to the region. You’ll find all the essentials plus a beautiful view.
The luxury option is definitely Dacha Wintera which is a park hotel 9 km away from Sortavala, also located at the edge of the lake with incredible views. This modern hotel has options for different budgets. Their hotel rooms start at 66 EUR, but you can also upgrade to one of their cottages. The property has a great Nordic feel. The downside is that you’ll definitely need a car.
Day 2: Travel to Valaam Island & Monastery
One of the main attractions in the area is Valaam Monastery of the Orthodox Church. The Monastery was founded in the 14th century and managed to survive the Soviet era when religion was forbidden. There’s a whole lot of history here, and a lot of splendid nature. Rugged cliffs, beautiful treeline, and lone sketes – small dwellings meant for the isolation of monks.
The island where the Monastery is located sits in the Ladoga river, which is the second-largest river in Europe. To get there you have to book a ticket on a boat, and the ride itself lasts an hour. It’s a beautiful journey with all the small islands popping up on the way.
Weather on the Ladoga is notorious for being unpredictable, which is why it’s preferable to take a trip from Sortavala, instead of sailing for hours on the river all the way from St. Petersburg.
Nowadays you can visit the island with a group tour only so booking tickets beforehand is a must! The monastery is all-male, and there are few hotels on the island, which means it’s perfectly suited for a day trip. You will see many people on a religious pilgrimage.
A typical tour includes a tour of the monastery premises, including the main monastery. You will also get to eat a typical monastery meal and hear Clergical singing. The islanders have some great local produce and the cheese, in particular, is great. It was made by blending Italian cheese-making technologies with the milk of Finnish cows.
Depending on the tour, you may get a chance to walk to the sketes (the solitary residences of monks). There is also an optional walk to the monastery farm that comes with taking an extended tour. Our tour has taken us to the other side of the island by boat, where we walked among the churches and took in the scenery.
Important to know: Women need to cover the head with a scarf inside the main building. There are also skirts prepared that you can wear over your clothes so you don’t have to take one with you.
Travel from Sortavala to Petrozavodsk
Petrozavodsk is a 3-hour drive from Sortavala. Alternatively, you can take a train.
Day 3: Travel to Kizhi IslandTravel from Petrozavodsk to Kizhi
Kizhi is is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is worth a separate trip on its own accord, but can easily be woven into this Karelia itinerary. While I have not been to Kizhi myself yet, I thought it necessary to include in this post so that you can plan your trip better and pick and choose the destinations you want to see.
Kizhi Island is famous for its beautiful Russian Orthodox Churches that tower proudly with dozens of cupolas. Aside from the churches of the Kizhi Ensemble, you can explore all around the island and even rent bikes. The open-air museum is dedicated to replicating the lifestyle of peasants in the end of the 19th-century, beginning of the 20th-century.
Kizhi Island is available to visit with tour groups and on your own. Viator actually offers an admission ticket through them, so that you don’t have to go through the hassle of buying it on the spot. This will require you to arrange your own transport to the island, which can be tricky to the unprepared traveler with no knowledge of Russian. Here is an official guide from the Kizhi museum on how to get there.
Luckily, Viator also offers a selection of English language group tours if you’d like to do more than just walk around:
- Winter tour to Kizhi
- Architectural Gem within Lake Onega – Kizhi Island (High season Private tour)
- The best of Kizhi Island Walking tour
Getting from Petrozavodsk to St. Petersburg