But first... when it comes to packing for the journey, you probably won't want to end up climbing mountains in sweltering weather without a hat or getting eaten alive by mosquitos in beautiful forests. To avoid any vacation disasters on your way, make sure you have all the essentials:

Life-savers: checklist

  • documents
  • cash
  • comfy clothes, backpack, and hat
  • water bottle
  • first aid kit
  • bug spray
  • sunscreen
  • raincoat
  • portable charger
  • hand sanitizer and mask, etc.

Although I might’ve forgotten just one or two from this list, you’re now fully ready to head north.

St. Petersburg – Sortavala

Located 300 km away from St. Petersburg, the Republic of Karelia, with its wonderful and picturesque nature, is a beloved tourist destination. Luckily, there are plenty of travel options to suit all tastes and wallets – from trains (about four hours and 500-2,000 rubles) to buses (about five hours and 500-1,500 rubles). However, the best way to get to Sortavala is by car (about four hours). Not only will you enjoy the ever-changing and diverse landscapes but also get to fully immerse yourself into the adventure – truly feel how curvy the road is and get that pic on a haystack. 

On the way to Sortavala. Photo courtesy of the author

On the way to Sortavala. Photo courtesy of the author


The town of Sortavala is a lovely place at the northern tip of Lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe. Blending natural wonders and historical sites, it is the best starting point for all tourists heading out into the wilderness. The place is surrounded by lakes and forests. Plus, it has a rich history; throughout its life, the town was part of Sweden, the Russian Empire, and Finland. So, you’re sure to find a place to stay (hotels, airbnbs, etc.) and things to do there: starting from walking down its peaceful streets and moving on to explore its attractions.

Historic Park Bastion

When you ask people about Karelia, you keep hearing about Ruskeala and waterfalls. So imagine my surprise, when one of my personal discoveries became the historical park, which just happened to be near the place my friends and I stayed at. The park is a place where different epochs meet. There, you may become a real Viking: put on authentic clothes, taste medovukha (a traditional Russian alcoholic beverage), try your luck at archery or axe throwing, and set forth on a Viking ship. Or… if you feel like it, you might want to learn more about the Russo-Finnish wars or even the history of board games. Nothing to say but wow!

Side note: the entrance ticket is 700 rubles but some activities like archery, axe throwing, and horse riding may not be included in the price. And don’t forget to bring some cash!

Valaam and islands

Karelia is unthinkable without its rocky islets called Ладожские шхеры and, of course, the Valaam Monastery, one of Russia’s most significant and oldest religious sites. Regardless of your faith, you will enjoy a boat tour to the monastery and the nearby islands. Some of them are extremely fascinating: for instance, there is an island where peacocks live and rest and make funny noises when caught by surprise (not literally). You won’t find it difficult to get to the archipelago: there are always small boats and hydrofoils at the pier of Sortavala but it’s better if you take care of it beforehand.

Ruskeala park and waterfalls

Of course, while being in Karelia, you can’t miss visiting the Ruskeala park (200 rubles for students). 

Hop on a retro-train from Sortavala for some extra vibes. A good warm-up before the jaw-dropping view is Ruskeala waterfalls, which are just on the way to the park. Although smaller than Niagara Falls, they are still well worth a trip. 

What is so special about the park? Once an abandoned quarry site, it is now a symbol of Karelia: a marble canyon, crystal-clear lakes, and underground caves. There, you will find no shortage of things to do: from hiking and exploring the history of marble mining to riding a zip-line and even diving.

Ruskeala park. Photo courtesy of the author

Ruskeala park. Photo courtesy of the author

Sortavala – St. Petersburg

After such an eventful trip, there always comes a time to leave. Sadly or not, you’ve checked off all the spots from your travel list and now you will spend several hours enjoying the views from your seat. It’s time to finally have a rest (and stop by the one cozy cafe along the way for some deliciousness, road trippers!).

Discover more of Russia with our best stories about Kazan and Yekaterinburg, as well as ideas for weekend getaways.