When planning a trip we usually have a general idea of the places we want to visit but we make sure to leave enough time unplanned, to discover new places, be surprised or just wonder about. That proved brilliant in Helsinki. Searching for the perfect Finnish lake to chill for a couple of days before entering Russia, we realized that the fast train from Helsinki to Petersburg stops in the forgotten old town of Viipuri – Vyborg. It turned out to be the perfect place to say goodbye to Finland and hello to Russia. What could be better? Other than organized tours, we were the only foreigners in town. So as you can tell, leaving time for the unexpected is a must!
History of Vyborg
Vyborg has a strategic geographical location. In 1293 the Swedes built the fortress we can see today. Sweden established the city as the northern capital of Christianity and border town against the now-defunct Novgorod Republic. However, the Russian Empire eventually conquered Vyborg in 1710. The city remained an essential part of the empire until 1917. As you know, Finland was part of Russia until its independence that year. Therefore, Vyborg left Russia together with Finland. Finally, Russia got back Vyborg as reparation when World War II ended. Probably that’s why Vyborg’s architecture is so diverse. Walk or bike amongst its streets and look for influences from these three countries.
What to See in Vyborg
The town lies on the Baltic Sea, at the end of the Vyborg Bay, scattered with islands, peninsulas and sea inlets everywhere. The city center is full of crumbling neoclassical palaces, Finnish art deco and gray buildings from the soviet era. Don’t rush and take your time to intake the beauty. The oldest points of interest are in the peninsula and the islet where Vyborg Castle is. Mon Repos, Vyborg’s most beautiful park, is on the much bigger island behind. The other historical buildings are in the center. Do not miss the Round Tower, the Old Town Hall Tower, and the famous Alvar Aalto Library.
Mon Repos Park
The sea surrounds Mon Repos Park, a fine example of an English garden and our favorite place in Vyborg. Its history dates back to 1760 when the commander of Vyborg’s fortress, Peter Stupishin, acquired the ‘Old Vyborg’ manor. In 1788 the park’s new owner, Baron Ludwig Heinrich von Nicolay, established the Mon Repos Manor. He urbanized the park and built several wooden pavilions and a neoclassical house. Today, the park is full of granite rocks, enormous trees, numerous species of plants, and diverse fauna. We biked to the park. You cannot bike within the park, so we tied ours and walked through this magical place.
The Kingdom of Sweden established Vyborg Castle in 1293 as its easternmost frontier. Since it was built to defend Swedish Karelia, the city was tremendously important, only second to Stockholm. What’s more, the castle and the surrounding area were given autonomy and became a principality. Vyborg Castle occupies practically the entire islet. When you get there, you will see the museum and Saint Olav’s tower to the east. The four-story tower is part of the ancient fortress. All you have to do is climb up for splendid views.
The Round Tower on Market Square is another building that will catch your attention. The Swedes built it in the 16th Century as a part of their medieval fortification. Initially an arsenal, it was later used as a prison, a warehouse, and in 1938 a restaurant. The restaurant got shut down after World War II when the tower became a warehouse until 1976 when it became the restaurant we see today. We ended our day having dinner at the Round Tower. What a memorable experience: the place is over 500 years old and the food delicious. Frescoes that depict scenes from the past cover the tower’s interior.
Old Town Hall Tower
The Old Town Hall Tower was also part of the medieval fortification. Together with the Round Tower it is the only surviving structure of the fortification. The rest of the city walls and towers were destroyed in the late 19th Century to make room for new projects. The tower dates back to 1470, though the spire from the late 18th Century. Built as an arsenal, it was then the tower of a Dominican monastery and of a Lutheran church. Unfortunately, in 1942 during World War II the structure was heavily damaged. It finally got a full reconstruction in the 70s. It now belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Alvar Aalto Library
Not everything is old in Vyborg. The city has a lovely Alvar Aalto Library. Built from 1927 to 1935 it is one of the best examples in the world of what is known as functionalist style. The celebrated Finnish architect won a competition to build the library. Though his original design was Nordic Classicism, Aalto later designed the purely Modernist Functionalist building we see today. Some of the elements he designed for the library became regular on his later works, such as the free-flowing ceiling and the cylindrical skylights. From 1994 to 2014 it was completely refurbished and is now open to the public.
Some of the many crumbling buildings in Vyborg have an interesting past. For instance, the Old Cathedral of Vyborg dates back to 1494. Since it was severely damaged in 1710 and again in 1939, we can only see one of the towers today. The views from the top are worth the trouble. The Catholic church of Hyacinth from the 16th Century was a school for a Franciscan monastery. It was later a House of Nobility, where knights used to gather. The Church of Saints Peter and Paul built in 1799 is Vyborg’s only Lutheran church, used by the German community. On the other hand, the Transfiguration Cathedral is the city’s main Orthodox Church. It was built in 1790 by the orders of Empress Catherine the II.
Where to Stay in Vyborg
We stayed at the Druzhba Hotel, a brutalist building perfectly located with great views to the lake and free bikes to discover the town. We got a Japanese inspired suite, so there we were in a Japanese room in a Swedish-Finish-Russian city! If you are looking for something more contemporary, stay at the Viсtoria Hotel Vyborg, the fanciest hotel in town. If you don’t have much time, the Viking Hotel is just in front of the Train station. Two other good choices in the center are the Atlantik Hotel and the Sampo Hotel.
How to Get to Vyborg
Vyborg is conveniently on the railway route Helsinki – St Petersburg. Four fast trains named Allegro cover the route daily. From Helsinki to Vyborg it takes 2,5 hours. Upon leaving the train in Vyborg, you must go through the border control before entering Russia (the station and the city). From St Petersburg, there are more than 20 trains a day, and the journey usually takes between 1 to 2 hours. Additionally, you can take a bus to the Finnish cities of Helsinki, Turku, Lappeenranta, and Jyväskylä. If you are in Petersburg and don’t have much time you can take one of the Bus excursions. They start from the Gostiny Dvor on weekends. Vyborg train station is close to the city center, some 20 minutes away from the castle.