Travel Tips: St. Petersburg to Finland

When St. Petersburg was founded three centuries ago, Tsar Peter the Great envisioned it as a bridge between his country and Europe. Even today, St. Petersburg is likely the most international city of Russia, and it is a great starting point for journeys to its neighboring countries. In our series “Window to Europe”, we will examine the many places you can visit from St. Petersburg, suitable for both weekend trips and longer journeys. In this first article, we’ll be looking at Finland – our closest neighbor both geographically and at heart.

Getting there

There are several ways of getting to Finland from St. Petersburg. You can go by ferry, bus, train, or even by car.

Ferries travel between St. Petersburg and Helsinki at least two times a week from April to December, and the entire overnight trip takes just 14 hours, with an added bonus of scenic views for the whole trip. As for trains, the Allegro speed train and Leo Tolstoi sleeper train will take you from St. Petersburg to Helsinki in just 3.5 and 7 hours respectively. Traveling by bus is the cheapest, especially if you buy tickets in advance, but comes at the cost of comfort and takes 7 to 9 hours depending on the amount of traffic at the border. Finally, companies like AMG and Scandinavia provide minibus travel between St. Petersburg and numerous destinations in Finland.

Do keep in mind that in order to cross the border you must have a visa that permits you to enter Schengen Area countries. If you’re going by car, try to cross the border on a weekday – Russians are very fond of taking weekend shopping trips to Finland, and the queues can get really massive. It’s also highly advisable to take out a travel insurance policy if your current one doesn’t apply to Schengen Area; besides providing you with safety, it’ll spare you any complications at the border crossing.

As for traveling within the country – VisitFinland, Lonely Planet, and Rough Guides have some great, comprehensive write-ups on the subject.

Near the border

Once you’re past the border, you don’t have to travel far – there are plenty of great sights just a short ride away. One of the must-sees is the Imatrankoski rapid in the town of Imatra, just a few minutes away from the Svetogorsk border crossing. In the summer people come in droves to see the daily “show” as the massive dam opens and releases a monstrous stream down the prehistoric channel – an impressive spectacle for sure.

Imatrankoski rapid
Imatrankoski rapid

Just 60 kilometers away from the border is the seaside town of Kotka, which is a part of the Eastern Gulf of Finland National Park. The nearby area includes over 400 islands, making it the perfect place to experience Finland’s unique nature.

The town of Savonlinna is home to the Olavinlinna Castle - the world’s northernmost still-standing medieval fortress. Situated on an island and only accessible by a floating bridge, it was built by the Swedes to guard the kingdom’s borders; nowadays the castle is a popular venue for concerts and medieval festivals.

Olavinlinna Castle
Olavinlinna Castle

For the past century and a half, the town of Sippola remains Finland’s cheese capital. Dairy lovers will appreciate a tour of the old dairy and, of course, a tasting of its products, including such rarities as salmiakki (salty licorice) cheddar cheese!

Exploring Helsinki

A lot has been written about Helsinki, but here are a few of the less well-known sights in the city:

The beehive-shaped Kamppi Chapel of Silence serves as a place of calm and relaxation amid the bustle of the city center. Adherents of all religions, philosophies, and ideologies are welcome here to enjoy the silence and contemplate on matters of life.

The Temppeliaukio Church is yet another example of unorthodox Finnish architecture – the “building” is quite literally carved out of a massive rock formation and covered with a metal dome that lets in natural light. Rough stone provides incredible acoustics, and church organ concerts are held regularly.

Temppeliaukio Church
Temppeliaukio Church

After a walk through the city, take the time to review what you’ve seen from up high – the Finnair SkyWheel is a 40 meter-high Ferris wheel with great views of the historical Helsinki and the bay.

When you’re in Helsinki, it’s a good idea to dedicate some of your time to visit the city of Porvoo, the country’s second oldest settlement. Quaint and perfectly preserved traditional houses create an almost fairytale-esque setting. The town is also home to the Brunberg chocolate factory, so pop into the local shop to load up on sweets.

Picturesque Porvoo
Picturesque Porvoo

Museum experience

If you ever manage to get tired of exploring the nature, Finland also has plenty of awesome museums. The Vapriikki museum complex in Tampere includes a whole slew of museums, from natural history and postal service to dolls, minerals and even shoes. Of special note is the fully interactive Gaming Museum, where you can play with board games dating back a century, 80’s arcade machines, gaming consoles of all generations and a few dozen video games – including those made by Finnish developers.

The "1990's room" at the Finnish Museum of Games
The "1990's room" at the Finnish Museum of Games

And if you happen to be in Kotka, check out the Vellamo National Maritime Museum. The impressive wave-shaped building conceals a variety of ships and boats of different periods, as well as interactive displays and exhibitions.

Forests constitute 75% percent of all area in Finland, so it’s no wonder that it consistently remains one of the world’s most eco-friendly countries. Just a short ride away from Savonlinna is the Lusto Museum of Forestry. The exposition explores the Finns’ centuries-old close relationship with forests and nature, as well as the history of wood-cutting tools and machinery – from the first wooden plows to the hi-tech walking machines that feel more at home in a Star Wars movie than in a forest.

Lusto Museum of Forestry
Lusto Museum of Forestry

Finally, if you’re a sweet-tooth, try the Fazer Experience in Vantaa. The famed chocolate company’s relatively new project lets visitors learn about the company and how it makes its chocolates. Most importantly, during the one-hour guided tour, you’re allowed to eat as much chocolate as you can!

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