I will never forget Kizhi Island, located in massive Onega Lake, Europe’s second largest. This is Taiga territory at its best, an ocean of trees second in biomass only to, well, the ocean. All we did was bike around wooden beauties and green pastures under a blue sky. We couldn’t believe the atmosphere and the plethora of colors. Luckily for us, we managed to escape the masses and be one with nature. After traveling around Russia for two months, we realized that the entire country is blessed with outstanding nature and architecture. However, to us Kizhi Island is truly special, a place you must visit!
- 1 Karelia
- 2 How to Get to Kizhi from Petersburg and Moscow
- 3 Petrozavodsk
- 4 Boat Trip to Kizhi
- 5 Kizhi Pogost
- 6 Local Legends
- 7 Kizhi Island
- 8 Other Interesting Places in the Region
- 9 Is it Safe to Travel around Russia?
Karelia is a region in Northern Europe that stretches from Russia to Finland. Russian Karelia is additionally divided into the Republic of Karelia and the Karelian Isthmus (where Vyborg is located). The Republic of Karelia is one of Russia’s 22 republics, an entity with its own constitution and official language – Karelian. This vast territory encompasses endless untouched forests and more than 50000 lakes, including Europe’s biggest two, Ladoga and Onega. Onega Lake is home to 1650 islands and islets. Among them the most famous one: Kizhi.
How to Get to Kizhi from Petersburg and Moscow
The island is accessible by boat from the city of Petrozavodsk. It takes 5 hours to reach Petrozavodsk from St. Petersburg on a fast train. We bought the tickets from the Russian Railways official site and enjoyed the journey. Take note that most trains from Moscow to Petrozavodsk stop first in St. Petersburg, and the journey takes between 11 to 16 hours. However, there is a faster way through Chudovo Moskovskoe where you have to change trains. Trains depart at 15:30 from Moscow Leningradskiy Vokzal Station and take less than 9 hours. Connecting trains from Veliky Novgorod pass through Chudovo Moskovskoe and reach Petrozavodsk after midnight. You can book your tickets here.
The capital of Karelia, Petrozavodsk, is a relatively young city, founded in early 18th Century. It is a pretty neoclassical city with plenty of charming squares and buildings from 19th and 20th Centuries. Surprisingly for a rather smallish city, there are many museums, galleries and theatres. Among the most interesting museums are the Marine Museum Polar Odyssey, the Museum of Fine Arts of Karelian Republic, and the National Museum of Karelia. There are also plenty of beautiful green areas. Strolling around the promenade by the Onega Lake you’ll see some cool wooden houses, enjoy great views and meet bunch of locals; it’s their favorite place to hang out.
Moving around Petrozavodsk
Trains coming from St. Petersburg, Moscow, Murmansk, and Veliky Novgorod arrive at the same station, Petrozavodsk Train Station. From there it’s a half an hour walk to the boat station, Rechnoy Vokzal. Once you exit the station, walk along Prospekt Lenina Street and turn right on Ulitsa Engelsa Street. You will loop around Lenin’s mausoleum and continue along Karla Maksa Street all the way to the coast. There are buses from the train station too, and taxis are inexpensive. Ask at the station. You can buy your hydrofoil boat ticket to Kizhi Island at the boat station or at most hotels. Please contact Hotel Karelia if you want to buy your tickets in advance.
Where to Stay in Petrozavodsk
We wanted to treat ourselves with a little luxury. Petrozavodsk has two interesting options, Piter Inn next to the train station and Hotel Karelia in front of the lake. Since we are obsessed with views it was an easy choice. The train arrived pretty early, so we headed to the hotel’s spa to wait for our room. As usual in Russia, we got the top floor room we asked for (Russians are very professional). The room was comfortable, cozy, and yes, the views didn’t disappoint. The hotel’s restaurant has great food too. Plus as a hotel guest you get a 20% off the boat tour to Kizhi Island!!
Boat Trip to Kizhi
Several modern hydrofoil boats operate tours to Kizhi Island every day from June to August. The boat travels through beautiful scenery. The second part of the journey is especially dramatic. The boat glides through labyrinths of flat islands, covered with pine, fir and birch trees. Though most are uninhabited, a couple of islands do have villages. Colors here are special. I had never seen before so many different shades of blues, greens and browns. Overjoyed we admired everything in silence. Please take note that there are 4 boats each day to Kizhi Island at 8:15, 10:15, 12:30, and 13:30. Boats back to Petrozavodsk leave at 14:45, 15:45, 19:30, and 20:30. Please take note that in September the boats back to the city leave one hour earlier. The boat ride takes an hour and fifteen minutes.
Please arrive at the hydrofoil 15 minutes before departure. The ticket office is next to the pier. Once on the island, you have to buy a ticket to visit Kizhi. Follow the road that starts at the pier until you reach the small ticket booth. They also rent bicycles there. There is a local guide on every boat. He then takes tourists around the island. The tour is in Russian only, but you can skip it anyway. Please bear in mind that there is a language barrier in most parts of Russia, except in large cities. Thus, be patient and download an online translator if necessary.
The first things you’ll notice are three wooden structures that appear to be rising from the water: Kizhi Pogost. Unesco included this two churches and a bell tower in its World Heritage Site list. The Transfiguration Church was closed when we visited, but we did admire the interior of the Intercession Church. We also climbed the Bell tower where we enjoyed some outstanding views. Kizhi Pogost is the epicenter of Kizhi Island. Therefore, most organized tours go directly there. If you are traveling on your own, go in the opposite direction, as we explain further below.
The Transfiguration Church was built using only axes and chisels, without a single nail or metal part. According to legend, Carpenter Nester built it. After finishing the church he threw his axe in the lake and said: “This church was built by master Nester; there is no such church in the world, nor will there be one!” He might have been a bit egocentric, but entirely right he was. The church is quite unique! It is generally accepted though, that unknown folk artists in the 17th Century built the complex. Every single dome is sublime. The 35 meter tall Transfiguration has 22 domes while the 27 meters tall Intercession church has 9.
The strange thing about Kizhi Pogost is that it was built on one of the smallest islands, sparsely inhabited by peasants and only later by blacksmiths. The island was mostly abandoned in the mid 20th Century. At the same time many historical wooden buildings were brought from all over Karelia to guarantee their preservation. Among these, 5 small chapels stand out: the Three Saints Chapel close to the northern tip, the Chapel of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Chapel of the Miraculous Savior (from Vigovo village) and the Chapel of Peter and Paul in the center, and the Chapel of Archangel Michael (from Lelikozero village) near the southern tip.
What to Do on the Island
Once on the island you’ll have 4 hours to wonder around. The boats arrive roughly 1 km north of the Pogost close to a nice coffeehouse next to the pier. After you pass the coffeehouse you’ll see a ticket booth where you have to pay the entrance fee. To our great amazement they rented bicycles! A small but very clever move: escape the crowds by taking the opposite direction. Most people follow the organized tour directly to the Pogost. We hopped on our bikes and left for the north. We visited the chapels, two villages and enjoyed outstanding views almost entirely on our own. By the end of the day, when crowds move to the north, we strolled relaxed about Kizhi Pogost.
Where to Stay near Kizhi
If you are into a more exotic experience you can stay in a couple of places just across Kizhi Island. The tiny village of Yersenevo has two guesthouses: Kizhanin and Kizhi Grace. Supposedly there is a small pier next to the village with boats to the island. South of Kizhi, on the Big Klimetsky Island (Большой Климецкий) there are two other guesthouses: V Seredke and Holiday home on Vorobi. We can’t guarantee you’ll find organized boat transfers to Kizhi though, so you might have to manage on your own. The best thing to do is to contact the guesthouse in advance. Remember, Russians will do their best to accommodate your needs.
First and foremost, remember that whatever you bring to the island, you should take back. Obviously, try not to bring plastic bags. Actually, avoid all single-use plastics. There are no big restaurants on the island. However, next to the pier there is a very convenient coffee shop with a couple of pies, coffee, and snacks. No worries, you won’t go hungry. What we did was have breakfast at our hotel, a snack at the coffee house on the island, and a big dinner once we came back. We took a recycled bottle of water. We were never hungry or thirsty.
Kizhi Island Organized Tours
Though going to Kizhi Island on your own is relatively easy, some of you may want to go on an organized tour. Most Kizhi Island tours leave from the Rechnoy Vokzal boat station on the coast on the same hydro boat you would take on your own. However, tours do include all tickets and a very knowledgeable guide. They are a fun way to meet people too. You can find tours here. Likewise, some tour companies operate two-day Kizhi Island tours from St. Petersburg. Even with the fast train, you need to spend the night in Petrozavodsk.
Kizhi Island is an open-air museum, one of the nicest you will ever see in your life. However, the churches are still part of the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, some are still in use. Russians visit Kizhi Island not only to enjoy its beauty but as a religious pilgrimage too. Therefore, be respectful. Please take note that smoking on the island is strictly forbidden to protect the wooden structures. Besides, both the island and the lake are natural wonders, so do not leave any garbage around nor go off-road when biking. We have to take care of this incredible place!
Other Interesting Places in the Region
While you are here, you might consider going further up north. The Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, are another fascinating place worth visiting. This stunning archipelago of six islands and islets is one of Russia’s best-kept secrets. It is home to a unique ecosystem and there is an impressive 15th-century monastery. Actually, we stopped in Kizhi on our way back to St. Petersburg from Solovetsky Islands. The trains leave from Kem, across the islands, and take almost 8 hours. There are 2 daily trains and one night train. The journey offers views that will redefine your concept of nature. You won’t be able to close your eyes, delighted by the beauty of our planet. Be sure to grab a window seat. That’s all you need.
Is it Safe to Travel around Russia?
Absolutely! Trains in Russia are reliable, safe, and comfortable, and the Russians great travel companions: warm, quiet people that do get nature. We never had a single glitch in buying tickets. You will always find someone at the station office that speaks English and even if you don’t, someone will help you, no worries. The same thing applies to taxis. No one ever tried to cheat us or drove us around to increase the fare. Russians are pretty honest and professional. Also, we never felt unsafe while walking about, both in urban and natural settings. On the contrary, we knew that if needed, someone would for sure help us.