Kizhi Island, Russia
Hidden deep in Russia’s off the beaten track Republic of Karelia are the UNESCO churches on the Island of Kizhi. This is the real Russia, small remote wooden villages whose locals still primarily make a living from farming and hunting. Kizhi couldn’t feel further from Russia’s glitzy high life in the capital. Hopping aboard a Soviet-era hovercraft we blast across the frozen lake ice passing by these intriguing villages before the giant UNESCO wooden church towers emerge from the black forested island deep into Karelia’s wilds. This is the Russia I was looking for, the Russia many believe to be long gone! Welcome to Kizhi Island deep in the heart of remote Russia!
Getting to Karelia from Saint Petersburg
Karelia is known for its wild bears, massive dark forests and remote communities, thus making it a bit of an adventure to get to. Luckily the Russian trains are very well connected and offer a direct train from Saint Petersburg to Petrozavodsk the capital of Karelia.
I took the evening train which departs at around 6 pm. The total journey takes about five hours and costs about 40 USD. There are multiple classes, but honestly, the 3rd class is fine, you get a padded chair in a comfy cabin.
Leaving the city, it doesn’t take long before you get the sensation of heading into the wilderness. The black forests are only broken from sight every so often from small wooden towns and frozen lakes.
Petrozavodsk, the Capital of Karelia
If you have been traveling from Moscow or Saint Petersburg and are arriving directly to Petrozavodsk, you might be in for a bit of a shock. The glitzy high rises of Moscow or historic centers of Saint Petersburg are miles away. Petrozavodsk is the “Real” Russia.
Here old decaying Soviet buildings make up most of the avenues. In the downtown, you will find a statue of Lenin and other Soviet-era monuments. Although at first sight is gritty and grim, Petrozavodsk is a pleasant place. It has plenty of restaurants featuring Karelian cuisine, fine local museums, interesting churches and in my opinion, it is more Russian feeling than the major capital cities.
Another great sight in Petrozavodsk is the Lake Onega Embankment. The shorelines here are the location of a pretty walkway, multiple modern artistic statues and great views over the lake. I found it a great place to meet locals as well!
Hovercraft to Kizhi Island Across Lake Onega
During the summer months, Kizhi Island is much more accessible as the local ferry makes the trip across Lake Onega several times a day. In the harsh Northern Russian winters, the only way to get there is with snowmobile or hovercraft.
Of course, the Snowmobile is always an alluring option, but boarding a Soviet-era hovercraft and blasting across the ice seemed much more my style. A local travel company known as Nordic Travel runs its very own hovercraft which is decked out in skull stickers and the driver is ex-military…. Trust me, he really makes the drive fun!
The hovercraft can get up to speeds of 60km per hours, it’s quite comfortable, but when you see a break in the ice approaching be sure to hang on as the machine truly begins to fly at some points.
Watching the island pass by out the window on the sea of ice was hypnotic. Every so often we stopped in the middle of the lake to get the sensation of how gigantic Lake Onega truly is! We also stopped by the lighthouse located in the middle of Onega and walked around the ice before landing at Kizhi Island.
Be sure to keep an eye out the window nearing Kizhi as you pass by some of the most traditional villages in Russia I have ever seen. Made of all wood these villages still live primarily off the lake and farming.
The UNESCO Wooden Churches of Kizhi Island
Approaching Kizhi Island the grand wooden domes of the church emerge above the darkly forested islands. It’s amazing how massive these ancient wood churches really are! Disembarking the hovercraft onto the shores of Kizhi Island you are greeted by UNESCO guides who will take you through the 17th-century churches and provide valuable information into the historic treasures that are located here.
Entering under the wooden walls you will see two churches. The smaller one being the intercession of the virgin which was uses in winter times because its smaller six was easier to heat. This church is open for you to enter and see the ancient iconography, some of which are from even older churches from surrounding villages.
The larger church which is known as the Church of Transfiguration has been under renovations for the past twenty years. Although you are not allowed to currently enter it, just witnessing the craftsmanship put into locking together the intricately detailed pieces of wood to make this church is stunning.
The churches of Kizhi Island are amongst some of the most beautiful feats of architecture I have ever seen on this planet. I was also lucky enough to arrive on the day of unveiling the newly restored domes on the church of Transfiguration.
Surrounding the churches are smaller wooden villages. Many of the houses are open for you to visit and you can see how life is in Karelia. At the end of the island is a small café where you can sample local cuisine. I recommend the sweet bread with cheese and local berries!
Nordic Travel – Kizhi Island and Lake Onega
Karelia is a remote and widely undiscovered region of Russia. Although the odd cruise ship makes it here in the summer, traveling Karelia in the winter is a unique off the beaten track experience. Nordic Travel is pioneering this unique kind of tourism here and apart from setting up the hovercraft to Kizhi are now trying out other unique tours as well! I loved working together with this company and cannot wait to head back to Karelia and Kizhi Island with them for more adventures! Nordic Travel Kizhi Island Tour