A few weeks ago I finally got to travel again! This time to Savonlinna in the Finnish East. I had heard a lot about this area before as being especially beautiful and different from other parts of the country.
The conveniences of Finnish trains
The fact that I was going there by train topped my excitement about this trip. Have I mentioned before that I love train rides? Well, I do. Especially in Finland.
Finnish trains are very convenient and comfortable! You get a lot of space and a peaceful working/reading atmosphere including free (and well-working) wifi. The passenger wagons usually are pretty quiet as there are special little cabins marked with a cell phone for people who want to chat during their ride without bothering everyone else with hour long conversations. Families with small children can go to playrooms which are equipped with toys for the kids and comfortable chairs for the parents to watch them. The toilets are spacious and usually clean and there is at least one nice, cozy restaurant on board serving drinks, snacks and also bigger meals. Smoking rooms can be found, too, if desired.
It took me more than 6 hours to travel from Tampere to my destination Savonlinna and I had to change trains 3 times but it was not stressful at all. On the way I got a first glimpse on lake Saimaa, Finland’s largest lake and the 4th largest natural fresh water lake in Europe with Savonlinna being one of the 6 major towns located around it. There is so much more to tell about lake Saimaa and the Savonia area in East Finland that I would like to dedicate it its own article later.
The pearl of Finland’s East
The city of Savonlinna greeted me with sunny and warm weather so I decided to walk from the station to our hotel. The walk took me over the busy market square where locals sold their products surrounded by little coffee places providing delicious snacks and a nice view over the neighboring harbor. I passed a bunch of beautiful, old steam ships offering lake cruises to tourists and continued along the lake shore to our hotel. Savonlinna already won my heart!
Our hotel was located between the habor area and the castle of Olavinlinna which probably is the most popular sight in Savonlinna.
On a boat tour around the city the next day we learned about the history of Olavinlinna. It is the northernmost medival stone fortress still standing which was founded on the island Kyrönsalmi in the 15th century to protect the Estern boarder between Sweden and Russia. It was named after St. Olaf (Olavinlinna = St. Olaf’s Castle). A community started to grow around the castle which later became the city of Savonlinna.
Olavinlinna is once a year location for the famous Savonlinna Opera Festival which has grown into an internationally recognized event lasting one month.
The cruise surrounded the city in about 1.5 hours and interesting information was given in Finnish, English, German, and Russian throughout the tour.
During our stay we visited two restaurants: Restaurant Valo with a big terrace and water view that makes it especially interesting on warm summer days. However, you also have to pay for the view! The main menu included delicious looking (fish) dishes, burgers (smoked salomon, reindeer), and snacks. I tried a white fish salad which really was very tasty.
Our food highlight of Savonlinna definitely was the dinner at a place called Majakka (= lighthouse). The deck-like terrace fit well to the nautical theme of the interior decoration. We were very pleased with the food (we chose liver steak and forest mushroom risotto) and the atmosphere was really special. A highly recommendable place!
Interestingly, the menus of all restaurants are not only translated to English but also to Russian so are many street signs and advertisements. The influence of Finland’s neighbor and former occupant is clearly visible in East Finland.
The second day of our short stay in Savonlinna we spent cruising lake Saimaa on a private boat. It was very impressive to be on this huge lake, to see many small and not so small islands and to enjoy the beautiful and quiet nature.
Savonlinna and lake Saimaa really conquered my heart and I will definitely come back one day, maybe during the bright summer months, to enjoy the full beauty of this area.
Savonlinna in a nutshell
How to get there: except by train Savonlinna can also be reached by plane (Savonlinna airport is located about 15km North of the city; Flybe provides flights to different destinations in Finland but also to Poland and Sweden) or by boat (through the lake and canal system it is even connected to the Baltic Sea).
However, what I can highly recommend is a roadtrip by car. On our way back to Tampere we drove along streets which are beautifully surrounded by the waters of the Saimaa lake. They lead through quiet, little villages, along birch tree alleys and over long bridges connecting different islands. It was very impressive and we stopped more than once to capture and enjoy the great views.
Where to eat (and what): There are plenty of places where you can find delicious (local) food. I would especially recommend to try some snacks from the market places, for example savo pastries called lörtsy (half-moon shaped pastries with a variety of fillings, most common are meat and rice or sweet apple; originally invented in Savonlinna, they can be found all over Finland nowadays, especially on food markets) or kalakukko (fish baked inside a loaf of bread). Another specialty is smoked vendance, very delicious little fishes that come with a garlic dip as finger food or with potatoes and vegetables as main meal.
What to do: Especially during the summer months there is lots to do in Savonlinna! The tourist harbor which presents the heart of the town is lined by beautiful, old steam boats which are partly turned into restaurants and used for tours around lake Saimaa. They depart every other hour (sometimes even more often, depending on the requests) and offer guided tours in multiple languages to affordable prices. The steam boats are accompanied by boats offering tours around Olavinlinna and the city.
The market place over-viewing the tourist harbor invites for a stroll along the little booths where locals sell their products. Cozy, little coffee places surrounding the market offer delicious sweets and snacks and many places to enjoy the sun and watch the busy harbor.
For rainy days, you can find a couple of museums (e.g. a steam boat museum) and interesting art galleries throughout the town. And – of course – a visit of Olavinlinna Castle is mandatory!
Where to stay: Savonlinna offers a selection of hotels, including the popular Casino Spa Hotel but also cheaper options are available. Just make sure you book way in advance during the busy summer holiday season as many places might be booked out. Even in early autumn some places were still fully booked.
The city’s home page provides more information about the pearl of Finland’s East.
I will definitely come back to Savonlinna and bring more time to enjoy this nice, little town and the beautiful surrounding area!
P.S.: Savonlinna also hosts the yearly mobile phone throwing world championships, one of many unique outdoor activities which were invented by Finns and became famous competitions around the globe. More of these events and other interesting facts about Finland I mentioned in my previous article.
Have you ever been to Savonlinna or other places in East Finland? Feel free to share our impressions with us in the comments below!