Have you ever considered visiting North Karelia in winter? First-time visitors rarely consider this region in Eastern Finland, but here we’ll show you why it should be on your radar, with 8 memorable winter experiences!
Yes, Finland! Yes, in winter, again! It’s our fourth winter visit to Finland, after visiting Mikkeli in 2015, Salla and Kemi in 2016, and Oulu last November, and we never, ever tire of it. If you’ve been to the North in winter, you’ll know what I mean – from the soft Arctic light and the silence after a snowfall, to all the cool activities you can enjoy, it’s truly a magical place to be.
This time, our destination was North Karelia, a region in the eastern part of Finland, close to the Russian border. If you’ve been to Finland, you’ll probably have tasted Karelian pies at some stage – small pastries made with buckwheat flour, filled with rice and served with egg butter.
Even after 7 trips to Finland, Karelian pies were the only thing we knew about Karelia. Time to change that we thought, so we jumped at the opportunity to visit North Karelia in winter during our last visit!
Where is North Karelia?
North Karelia in Finland is part of the wider Karelia region, currently divided between Finland and northwest Russia. The Finnish part of Karelia was once much larger, extending to the shores of Lake Ladoga – after Finland’s defeat in the Winter War, most of Finnish Karelia became part of Russia.
Joensuu is the largest city in North Karelia, and the access point to the region. If you are pressed for time, the best way to get to Joensuu from Helsinki is a 50 min Finnair domestic flight, otherwise you can drive or take a train from Helsinki Central Station (4.5 hours travel time).
North Karelia is known for its lakes (it sits in the middle of Finnish Lakeland), unique culture, language, and food, extending way beyond Karelian pies! Our itinerary took us to Bomba, in the northern part of the region on the shores of Lake Pielinen, then to Koli National Park, and finally to Joensuu.
3 days were just enough to experience some of the fun activities on offer in North Karelia in winter – most of which are unique to the area and can’t be experienced elsewhere in Finland. Let’s take a look!
8 Fun Things to do in North Karelia
1) Visit a Karelian House in Bomba
The first stop of our trip to North Karelia was Bomba, a unique tourist complex not far from the town of Nurmes. The complex includes a hotel and a Karelian village, where visitors can stay in lakeside cottages.
The main building in the Karelian village is Bomba House, a huge two-storey mansion built with logs in traditional Karelian style. The Bomba house you see now dates back to 1978, but it’s the almost-exact copy of the original Bomba House, built in 1855 by farmer Yegor Bombin in the village of Suojärvi, now in Russia. It was a true mansion, with 27 rooms and a special entrance for visitors on horseback.
After WW2, it was decided to build a Karelian village on the shores of Lake Pielinen, and the Bomba House ‘replica’ was first discussed. The current house is slightly bigger than the original, and it houses a restaurant, a café, and a small museum with traditional Karelian clothing and handicrafts.
Outside Bomba House you can visit a memorial with white crosses symbolizing the victims of the Winter War, mainly elderly people and children, and a short walk away there’s also a small Orthodox chapel. It’s worth spending some time wandering around the Karelian village, admiring the wooden architecture and brightly painted wooden shutters. In winter, it’s even more beautiful!
2) Taste Finnish Berry Wine
Have you ever had Finnish wine? When I was offered a glass, I wondered how on Earth grapes would grow in Finland. A greenhouse, perhaps? Guess what – grapes don’t grow in Finland, but you can also make wine with berries, something Finland has plenty of!
At Break Sokos Hotel Bomba you can enjoy a delicious tasting menu, with four courses and berry wine pairing. The wines are made in Valamo Monastery, a functioning Orthodox monastery. Valamo monks started using berries to make wine for church services, but soon extended the range and started selling it to local restaurants.
Red wine is made from blackcurrant, strawberries, and raspberries, whereas white wine is made from white currants and gooseberries. They tasted sweeter than regular grape wine, and the red was a little too sweet for my palate, but I found the white berry wine really excellent.
In the hotel, there’s also a great spa, with heated outdoor pools, two saunas, and a 25-meter swimming pool lit with green and blue lights, reminiscent of the Northern Lights. It’s a great place to spend a winter afternoon before one outdoor activity and another!
3) A Sibelius concert with Jussi and Nazig
North Karelia is also home to Jussi Makkonen, a cellist and one of Finland’s best-known musicians. Together with pianist Nazig Azezian, Jussi holds storytelling concerts, with the aim of introducing people to the music of Jean Sibelius, Finland’s greatest composer.
Once again, besides having visited Sibelius’s monument in Helsinki, I knew nothing about the composer. Jussi welcomed us to his house in Nurmes, with large windows from where we could see the snow falling gently outside. Over the course of one hour, he and Nazig told us stories about Sibelius’s life and work, and played some of his pieces including Finlandia, composed to celebrate the country’s independence from Russia.
I understand that a private concert is not an activity available to most people – we were lucky enough to enjoy it because we were with a group of visiting media. However, if visiting North Karelia in winter or any other season, check out Jussi’s Facebook page to see if they are holding a concert during your time in the region.
4) Smoke Sauna and Ice Swimming in a Secret Place
After our first trip to Finland, we quickly learned that sauna is a favourite pastime of most Finns, and you’re bound to enjoy one (or more) during your time in the country. During our trip to North Karelia we had what was probably the best sauna experience of all time. It was in Korven Kota, a place in the middle of nowhere – we drove through dark, snowy forests, until we finally stopped in a place marked by a little bonfire.
In Finland, a kota is a simple wooden cone-shaped building, with a fireplace in the middle where people enjoy coffee and roasted sausages after spending time outdoor. Korven Kota includes both a traditional kota, a sauna, and a little hole for ice swimming. There is no electricity at all, everything is built in wood and lit by burning torches.
The sauna is a traditional savusauna (smoke sauna), heated by a wood-fired stove with no chimney, allowing the smoke and steam to remain inside until it’s time to enter, at which point the room is aired out. It’s a very time-consuming process, requiring several hours of work and specialist knowledge to heat the sauna and let the smoke out in the proper way – our host said he started preparing the sauna at 7 AM for our 7 PM arrival!
After spending about 10/15 minutes in the sauna, we walked out to the ice hole, large enough for a quick dip. It may sound scary at first, but I find the switch between hot/cold to be very refreshing and invigorating. If you can experience a smoke sauna, in North Karelia or elsewhere in Finland, I highly recommend doing so!
5) Snowshoeing in Koli
I love Finland with all my heart, but there’s one department where the country is kinda lacking – mountains. The tallest peaks in the country are all around 100o/1500 meters above sea level, all located in the far north of the country close to the Norwegian border.
However, North Karelia is home to Koli National Park, with tree-covered hills rising about 300 meters above the lakes, making for some truly spectacular views – without having to hike too much. The landscapes of Koli are among the best-known in Finland, having inspired artists, painters, and musicians with their beauty. Trust me, Koli National Park definitely needs to be on your North Karelia in winter itinerary!
Koli is known for being one the southernmost place in Finland where you can see pine trees really stacked with snow, a sight you’d typically have to travel to Lapland for. We stayed at Break Sokos Hotel Koli, just steps away from the ski slopes and the hiking trails.
Since it had been snowing heavily, we went on a guided snowshoeing excursion to reach Ukko, Akka and Paha Koli hills – in one hour and a half we managed to reach all three, each offering different views over frozen Lake Pielinen.
6) Biathlon at Kontiolahti Stadium
Biathlon is very popular in North Karelia, and Kontiolahti stadium just outside Joensuu often hosts biathlon world cup competitions. If you are curious about biathlon, the team that manages the stadium can organize ‘biathlon experiences’ including skiing along the course and shooting in the dedicated range. They also guide mountain biking tours in the surroundings of the stadium, and other tours in the region.
We were supposed to go try ‘fat bike biathlon’, combining fat biking and shooting. Sadly, the weather was too warm and wet, melting the snow along the track – so we had to make do with only shooting, which was fun anyway. We started indoors, shooting with laser guns, and then we moved onto the official range, where we had a go at shooting with official biathlon rifles.
If you happen to be in North Karelia and a biathlon race is on, we recommend making time to attend – otherwise, if you are curious about the sport, get in touch with Kontiolahti stadium to arrange a visit.
7) Learn how to make Karelian Pies
Winter in North Karelia is often bitterly cold, so while outdoor activities like biathlon and snowshoeing are always fun, sometimes it’s fun to do something indoors. Naturally, you can’t leave Karelia without learning how to make its most popular export, pies!
We had a Karelian pie-making class in Pihlajapuu, a guesthouse just outside Nurmes in a stunning 100-year-old wooden building that used to be a school. Our hostess Minna had laid out a table with already-made pastry and fillings, and showed us how to roll the pastry in a perfect circle, how to place the filling and how to make the signature ‘curly edges’ to close up the pies. We made pies with two different fillings – rice and barley, both really good.
The class was followed by lunch, where we ate our own pies alongside soup, salad, and homemade dessert. The pies were the best we’ve ever had, but I may be a bit biased since we made them!
If you’re after a truly adventurous thing to do in Karelia in winter, Minna also organizes 3-day cross-country ski tours, where you ski 20/40 km from one guesthouse to another while your luggage is carried for you. You need to be a good skier – but if you ask me, it’s worth learning, as cross-country ski is the best activity to enjoy nature in winter!
8) Visit a Tropical Botanical Garden
Your North Karelia winter itinerary will more than likely include time in Joensuu, the largest town in the region. If you only have time for one sight, we recommend visiting Botania, a botanical garden with a greenhouse where you can see tropical plants.
Botania also includes an outdoor section – naturally, in winter you won’t be able to see much in terms of plants. But you can see something even better! The owner of Botania is Kari Kola, one of the best-known Finnish light artists, and creator of spectacular large-scale installations. Have a look at his YouTube channel to know what I mean!
Every winter, Kari Kola recreates a life-size snow and ice replica of sights around the world, and decorates it with light installations. In 2022, he and his team built an icy version of Stonehenge at Botania, and at the time of our visit in early 2023, they were in the process of building a 1:1 replica of the Easter Island moai. Who knows what 2024 will bring?
Our visit to North Karelia was supported by Visit North Karelia and Toolbox Consulting as part of the Discover Finland, Estonia and Sweden 2023 media tour project.