One of Russia’s best kept secrets, Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea are an oasis of fresh air for all of us looking for something different. Six isles and islets form an archipelago that separates the White Sea from the Onega Bay. The largest Bolshoi Solovetsky Island is home to an astonishing 15th century monastery, witness of a very turbulent history. It is the only inhabited island and the one with tourist infrastructure. Largely overlooked by tourists it’s not impossible to get there. Due to its harsh weather Solovetsky also known as Solovki Islands can only be visited during summer.
How to get to Solovetsky Islands
Train from Saint Petersburg
A long 15 hour night train From Saint Petersburg took us to the small town of Kem (the train’s final destination is Murmansk). We bought tickets for the 2nd class sleeping compartment (with 4 beds). There are also sitting wagons, 3rd class open sleeping and 1st class wagons with 2 berth compartments. The 3rd class wagon is the most authentic one, typical in Russia, but we found it to be too crowded and noisy. Since the 1st class was fully booked, we took the 2nd class and had a comfortable ride plus we got to meet local people. We shared our compartment with a nice lady and her little daughter who were traveling all the way to Murmansk.
Regular ferries to the island
From Kem you can take a local bus or a cheap taxi to the even smaller town of Rabocheostrovsk from where boats leave to Bolshoi Solovetsky Island. On their website, a company called Prichal mentions two daily departures, but tickets should be bought in advance. Since we didn’t have them, we had to talk the boat driver to let us onboard. Once every passenger with a ticket got in, he let us directly into the crew’s compartment, when the boat departed, we were able to mingle with our fellow travelers, all Russians, who sang and played accordion through the voyage. The views from the boat were stunning, but unfortunately we didn’t get to see white whales.
On the island we realized that the Solovetsky Monastery organizes at least three additional departures for pilgrims and tourists for the same price. A kind nun sold us our ticket back! This time the boat was a bit smaller, but equally comfortable. The upper deck was full of nice Russian ladies who were heading back after visiting Solovetsky Monastery. There was a storm and the boat moved a lot, so we were feeling nauseous. Immediately our lovely companions offered candy and made sure we were comfortable. There we were, two married guys being pampered by religious ladies, isn’t that great? Another way of getting to the island is by boat from the city of Belomorsk, but it’s a 4 hour journey instead of the 2 hours from Rabocheostrovsk/Kem.
Train – boat connection
Bear in mind that train schedules from/to Kem are not synchronized with boats leaving to Solovetsky. Therefore the best option is to take the overnight train from Saint Petersburg. Since it arrives in Kem early in the morning, you can take any of the boats that leave for the islands during the day. On the other hand, to go back to Saint Petersburg you can take an overnight night train. However, there are no evening boats from the island to Kem. That’s why it’s better to take an afternoon boat and spend time in Rabocheostrovsk or Kem. We found a nice restaurant near the port and had tasty Russian cuisine. They called a taxi for us and in no time we were at the station waiting for the night train.
You can check train schedules and buy tickets here
Arriving by plane
Another way to get to Solovetsky Islands is by plane from Arkhangelsk city. Administratively speaking, the islands are part of Arkhangelsk Oblast. Bolshoi Island has a small airport called Solovki, located 500 meters northeast from the monastery. On the other hand, Arkhangelsk airport is much bigger with direct flights to many cities around Russia. Supposedly, an airline called Nordavia has 2 flights a week from Arkhangelsk, again only in summer. That said, we checked Nordavia’s website and couldn’t find any flights. Maybe they are currently suspended!?
Our suggestion on how to get to Solovetsky Islands
The best option is through a combination of Train and Boat since you can:
- Meet locals and see how they travel (it’s very authentic).
- Enjoy the outstanding landscapes both on land and sea.
- Save money, it’s much cheaper than the plane ticket plus you spend one night onboard.
- On your way back you can stop in Petrozavodsk and visit the magnificent Kizhi Island.
Staying on Bolshoi Island for a couple of days is an absolute must, there are plenty of things to see and do and there are quality tourist facilities.
Where to stay in Solovetsky Islands
Solovetsky Islands have a couple of hotels and guesthouses which can be booked online. We stayed at the fabulous Solovki Hotel, where we enjoyed outstanding hospitability in a superb location. Our room was warm, comfortable, nicely decorated and with plenty of hot water. We even had a decent internet connection. Additionally, the hotel’s restaurant offered delicious food. There are two more hotels on the island: fancy Ostrovito Morushko and a bit more basic Solovetskaya Sloboda. Out of the dozen of guesthouses that dot the island, Guest House PinaGor, located right next to the monastery, seems to be the best choice. We advise you to book your stay in advance, since all hotels tend to get fully booked pretty quickly. If you haven’t booked anything in advance, don’t panic. Local people offer rooms as soon as you get off the boat.
Solovetsky Monastery is one of the largest citadels in Northern Russia. For centuries it was the centre of Christianization in the region. During the Stalinist era it was converted into a gulag prison camp. Although it was founded in the 15th century most of the existing structures are from the 16th century such as the massive city walls, Uspensky Cathedral, Preobrazhensky Cathedral and the Church of Annunciation. In 1992, Unesco declared the Cultural and Historic Ensemble of the Solovetsky Islands a world heritage site. According to Unesco the islands represent an outstanding example of a monastic community in an inhospitable environment. The environment may be inhospitable, but the community is still alive, using the monastery.
What is Bolshoi Solovetsky like
Solovetsky village is located at the end of Solovetsky Bay, on the southwestern coast of Bolshoi Solovetsky Island. The central point of the village is Solovetsky Monastery. The sea and Svyatoye Lake surround the building. From there you can access the entire island. Two of these roads go to the north. Another one takes you to two isolated churches. There is one that goes all the way to the tiny village of Rebalda. Of the ones that go south, two lead to different capes and one towards the dam that connects Bolshoi Solovetsky with Bolshaya Muksalma.
Nature in Bolshoi Island is practically everywhere. The island’s outline is jagged with beaches and rocks all over the place. Most of the island is flat, but there are few low hills. It is almost entirely covered by forests with pine, spruce and birch trees. There are plenty of lakes and canals connecting them and much of the land is swampy. The most beautiful landscapes are those on the coast, especially the one around the dam connecting it with Bolshaya Muksalma Island. A dense forest inhabited by moose occupies the northern part of the island. These are new residents, supposedly a family of moose arrived through the ice a couple of years ago.
What to do on the island
The island itself is relatively large, but its infrastructure concentrates around the monastery. The village has a supermarket, bakery, and a couple of restaurants, bike rentals and souvenir shops. The best way of getting around is by bike, although it can be quite challenging (across the wetland and mud). One day we went biking all the way to the dam. The next day we walked along the coast south of the village. On a nearby beach we found several man-made spiral mounds made of stones and earth. It turned out these labyrinths are quite old. According to local legend the labyrinths were built to trap dead souls, so they don’t disturb living creatures.
Solovetsky Islands Weather
As mentioned above, the weather in Solovki Islands is harsh. In fact, the archipelago is located just 165 kilometers from the Arctic Circle. The temperature goes above 10 degrees Celsius only in summer: 14 in June, 17 in July, 15 in August and 11 in September. The rest of the year the sea frequently freezes thus there are no boat services. We were there in August and wore light jackets the whole time. Luckily all hotels and guesthouses have good heating system. Don’t forget to dress warmly for the boat ride if you plan to admire the views from its open air deck.
Don’t skip Solovetsky Islands
Our initial route through Russia did not include Solovetsky Islands because of its remote location. But as soon as we realized there are direct trains from Saint Petersburg and after few people strongly recommended it we decided to go. And what a great decision it proved to be! Going to the islands was an unforgettable experience in itself. Until now Solovetsky islands are our favorite place in all Russia. Nature there is outstanding, with lush forests, lakes and the endless sea melting with the blue northern sky. The monastery is under heavy reconstruction, but still imposingly beautiful and authentic. The village life is calm; locals are friendly and sunsets unforgettable. Getting there is a bit of an adventure, and that’s a good thing. Tourist masses have yet to discover it, so you will have the whole archipelago for yourself.