I was born and brought up in Savonlinna, one of Finland’s most visited and most beautiful towns near the Russian border. Savonlinna is known for its outstanding natural beauty. Situated on four islands in Lake Saimaa, the largest lake in the country, you are literally surrounded by water where ever you are. The town is also famous for Olavinlinna medieval castle, one of the top travel destinations in Finland.
I left Savonlinna when I was 18 but I’ve been back every year. As a student I returned to my hometown every summer to work as a tour guide in Olavinlinna. Now we have our own little lakeside apartment in Savonlinna. We usually spend a month there every summer and at least a week in the winter. It’s the perfect place to recharge the batteries and chill out in a beautiful, peaceful setting.
We’ve just returned to our home in the UK from a restorative and snowy week in Savonlinna. Here’s what we got up to on our four day visit.
FINLAND TRAVEL DIARY: Savonlinna in February 2022
DAY 1: KARELIAN PASTIES AND ICE SKATING
After a 2.5-hour flight from London and a 4-hour drive through snowy landscapes with a rental car, all we had time for was a quick sauna before bed. (Practically all Finnish homes, however small, have a sauna). The first full day started with a typical Finnish breakfast: my mum had baked us some Karelian pasties (rice porridge in rye crust) and left them in our apartment as a welcome treat.
Everywhere was white and beautiful with a thick layer of glistening snow. The temperature was perfect too at few degrees below zero. The conditions were ideal for ice skating which we all enjoy with passion. In winter, the local councils convert most school sport fields into ice rinks. They are free to use and often come with heated changing rooms. And the best thing is that it’s never crowded. Finnish kids learn to skate when they are very young. Ice hockey is a popular sport and in winter most PE lessons consist of ice skating or cross country skiing.
DAY 2: SLEDGING AND LUNCH ON AN OPEN FIRE
Savonlinna has a small ski resort Ruunarinteet and we usually go there at least once. As my husband was recovering from a foot operation and unable to ski we opted to spend the day just sledging. You can of course do sledging practically anywhere there’s a slope and snow. We did however prefer to do it properly at the ski resort where there’s a cafe and free facilities to cook your own food on an open fire. I have so many fond memories of this place: as a teenager I had a season ticket and I came here several times a week to ski and to hang out with my friends. It’s so lovely to be back with my own kids.
DAY 3: JÄRVISYDÄN SAUNA WORLD AND SPA
Järvisydän is a magical nature hotel and spa resort by Lake Saimaa in Rantasalmi, about an hour’s drive from Savonlinna. It consists of unique accommodation, restaurant, bar and an absolutely spectacular spa and sauna world. Made of round logs and natural stone, the resort uses solar and geothermal power as energy source and it’s been awarded the prestigious Sustainable Travel Finland label.
We always do a day trip to Järvisydän when we are in Eastern Finland. It’s an amazing place with its nature-inspired and whimsical architecture and seven different saunas. This time, my kids discovered how much fun it is to dip in the outdoor pool in freezing temperatures and then run back to the sauna to warm up. I loved ice dipping too as a child but nowadays I much prefer relaxing in the soft heat of a proper Finnish sauna.
DAY 4: SAVONLINNA ON FOOT AND TRADITIONAL FINNISH FOOD FOR LUNCH
Our fourth day was a bit nippy at -14C but the sun was out. We decided to go for a walk followed by lunch in my favourite cafe. Everything was looking so beautiful that we didn’t mind frozen toes and fingers.
With its 35 000 inhabitants, Savonlinna is very quiet and peaceful in the winter. There are only a few people about and it’s pleasantly empty in the shops and cafes too. The town comes to life in the summer: It fills up with people, pop-up restaurants and cultural events. Everywhere you look, you’ll see a nostalgic, old steam boat or a private yacht as tourists and local people are enjoying some of Finland’s most beautiful scenery on Lake Saimaa. In the winter, the lake is frozen and the boats are stuck in the ice reminding us of the warmer times.
Olavinlinna Castle is the most famous landmark in Savonlinna and the icon of the town. It’s a 15th-century stone fortress built to ward off Russian attacks from the east (the irony!). Since 1912, it provides an impressive venue for the annual Savonlinna Opera Festival, one of the most famous opera festivals in the world.
We never miss a visit to Saima Kahvila, an idyllic and relaxing café-restaurant situated in the old town of Savonlinna. They have an amazing selection of cakes and savoury treats and a lunch menu that includes traditional Finnish meals. We ordered salmon soup, fried elk and fried vendace. So delicious, so Nordic!
Bye for now Savonlinna! We’ll be back in July.
Thanks for reading my Finland travel diary!