How to spend a perfect weekend in Punkaharju, the heart of Finland's Lake District
Ringed by forests and quiet islets, this wildlife-filled region of the Finnish Lakelands offers a maze of waterways where visitors can retreat for kayaking trips, summer swims and waterside hikes.
Relatively little-known outside Finland, but just under four hours northeast of Helsinki by train, Punkaharju is a tranquil land of birch and spruce trees, pristine waters and clear, crisp air. Located in eastern Finland, within the Saimaa region and part of the vast Finnish Lakelands area, it’s one of the country’s designated National Landscapes — an accolade reflecting its wild beauty and the important role forest culture plays in the Finnish psyche.
A haven for wildlife and outdoors lovers, Punkaharju is where Finns come to retreat and recharge. It’s easy to see why the area has long been a magnet for artists, writers and poets — rumour has it, it even inspired JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth fantasies. The labyrinthine waterways of Lake Saimaa, Finland’s largest with just over 9,300 miles of coastline, dominates the landscape. On long, light-filled summer days, visitors come to swim, hike, paddle, cruise and cycle — but, given its size, you’ll often not encounter another soul.
Delve deeper and discover contemporary art galleries and gastronomic delights inspired by foraged forest foods. Go slow and explore Punkaharju’s forests by foot or on two wheels, or dip a toe into the wider Saimaa region to find world-class opera, quiet towns such as Mikkeli and Imatra, and a bounty of farm-to-fork producers.
Day 1: Heritage & Lake Views
Get to grips with the area’s heritage at the elegant, pastel-pink Hotelli Punkaharju, Finland’s oldest hotel. Lying in a pine forest on a ridge overlooking Lake Saimaa, it’s a place of pilgrimage for Finns. In 1803, when Punkaharju was occupied by Russia shortly before the Finnish War, the Russian Emperor Alexander I was so entranced by the area’s beauty that he passed a law declaring it protected land. In 1845, a forest ranger’s house was built on the site, rooms for travellers were added and the hotel was founded. Today, the property is owned by Finnish supermodel and mushroom forager Saimi Hoyer and has become the beating heart of Punkaharju’s cultural scene.
Hike or bike along the lovely 1.5 mile Topeliuksen polku Nature Trail (mountain bikes can be hired at the hotel). It’s part of the 17.4 mile Harjureitti Trail and winds its way along the edge of Lake Saimaa. Don’t be in any rush — you’ll want to linger to inhale the sweet scent of pine, listen for the call of a tree pipit and spend time gazing at the calm water. The trail ends in the grounds of Kruunupuisto, an old-school health resort offering various treatments. From here you can join the stunning, narrow-ridge road back to Punkaharju village. Finns voted the road the most scenic in the country and it lives up to the accolade. Follow it to the village and pick up a korvapuusti (cinnamon bun) at the local bakery for the slow journey back.
Thirty minutes from Punkaharju by train or car is Savonlinna, a city on an archipelago, noted for its world-class opera festival. The annual event is held at the medieval Olavinlinna Castle throughout July and is worth visiting whether you’re an opera buff or not. Built in the 15th century on a rock in the middle of Lake Saimaa and accessed via a bridge, the stone castle is wonderfully atmospheric. Before the performance, snack on mustikkapiirakka (blueberry pie) at Cafe Saima, a family-run cafe-restaurant near the harbour. Alternatively, opt for a 90-minute sunset sightseeing cruise on the S/S Punkaharju steamboat for unique views of the castle and cityscape.
Day 2: Museums, art & relaxation
Walk to the Finnish Forest Museum Lusto, housed in a striking building with a cylindrically shaped core designed to mimic the ring of a tree. From Hotelli Punkaharju, it can be reached via a path that crosses the Pususilta, a wooden kissing bridge built in the 1930s. The museum explores the Finns’ relationship with the forest, which revolves around berry-picking, hunting and hiking, and plays an important role in the country’s green building revolution, which champions wood and other renewable materials. Not to be missed is the fascinating mythology exhibit, celebrating forest lore, mysticism and the powerful creatures that inhabit the forest depths, in particular the bear.
After a lunch of rieska (Finnish flatbread) with smoked fish or mushroom toppings at the Finnish Forest Museum restaurant, cross the road for a visit to the Aseman Taidelaiture gallery in Lusto train station. This eccentric art house is the private home of two Finnish collectors. Wander through rooms bursting with colour and expressive paintings by contemporary Finnish artists, including rock musician Andy McCoy, who’s said to use his own blood in his paintings. A 30-minute walk from here is the Johanna Oras Gallery in a charming manor house surrounded by spacious grounds. Nature is a major inspiration for the Finnish contemporary artist’s works.
Join a guided ‘Wine in the Woods’ sensory experience. It begins with a 30-minute stroll through the woods near the north shore of Laukansaari, in the Punkaharju Research Park area — home to the tallest tree in Finland, a European larch. The walk segues into a delicious Finnish-style tapas and wine-tasting. This takes place next to a log shelter at Karjalankallio lookout point, overlooking the waters of Lake Puruvesi, with small bites starring local seasonal ingredients and wild herbs, and wine from the Finnish Noita Winery. Alternatively, spend the early evening on a canoe, kayak or SUP board, paddling around Lake Saimaa to explore little bays. You may hear the splash of pike or even spot a seal.
Three more Lakeland nature reserves
There’s no shortage of spectacular spots to explore in Finland, so if you’re seeking even more in the way of forests, lakes and mountains, consider one of these three unspoilt destinations.
With vertical cliffs that rise above the lake channels, mysterious ancient art and pristine forest, Kolovesi is a special wilderness. Just over 30 miles from Savonlinna, it’s one of the few parts of the Saimaa Lake system where motorboating is prohibited to preserve the peace. With few hiking trails, it’s best explored through its waterways. Kayakers will enjoy the maze of water trails, charming islands and crystal-clear waters. You can also paddle to see rock paintings on the side of Ukonvuori Hill. Disembark at a small landing and walk along the rocks to a viewing walkway. The paintings include depictions of human figures that suggest hunting and fishing activity flourished in the area more than 5,000 years ago.
Located in the clear waters of Lake Puruvesi, this secret island is a nature reserve and part of a small archipelago, but it’s also home to an unusual collection of stone art and old buildings. The outdoor museum of sorts is the legacy of one of Hytermä’s former inhabitants, Heikki Väyrynen, an eccentric ex-police chief and forest caretaker known for his love of collecting old objects. On the island, there’s a nature trail and a sandy beach, ideal for a quick dip in the lake. Hytermä is accessible only by water. Hire a rowing boat online and you’ll be given a code to unlock keys and equipment. Alternatively, book a guided trip. The landing is 18.5 miles from Savonlinna, but from here it’s only half a mile paddle to the island.
A three-hour drive south of Punkaharju, Repovesi is a mosaic of forest, granite hills, streams, bays and lakes. It’s a wildlife haven — butterflies flit through trees and foxes prowl at night. With around 28 miles of marked trails, from short wheelchair-accessible routes to steep climbs, it’s also ideal for hiking. A favourite route is the three-mile Ketunlenkki Trail, which includes a crossing on a hand-operated pull ferry. The 164ft vertical rock face of Olhavanvuori is one of the top rock-climbing destinations in Finland. The less agile can watch climbers’ antics from the shores of Olhavanlampi Lake or ascend a set of sheer steps to the summit of Katajavuori Hill, one of the most tranquil spots in Repovesi.
Top three wildlife experiences
The Saimaa ringed seal is one of the rarest seals in the world. Known for its distinctive patterned coat, it can only be found in Lake Saimaa. Get a glimpse of the chubby creature on a small-group safari in Linnansaari National Park, led by a wilderness guide.
Between spring and autumn, migratory birds flock to Siikalahti Nature Reserve in Parikkala. A 30-minute drive from Punkaharju, it’s one of Finland’s prime bird-watching spots and home to nesting species, too. Walk the half-mile Siikalahti birdwatching trail and you may glimpse the great bittern, horned grebe, western marsh harrier or one of 20 species of dragonfly.
These antlered creatures live deep in the forests of Punkaharju and venture out at dawn or dusk. The two-mile Kokonharju Trail through primeval forest, adjacent to the Punkaharju Research Park, is a good place to keep an eye out for the elk, or their footprints.
Top five food experiences
Not far from the market town of Mikkeli, Tertti Manor is a family-run, wild-food farm and gastronomic haunt, where pheasant, pike, forest herbs and garden produce feature on the menu.
Departing from the Savonlinna passenger harbour, embark on an unusual day-long boat excursion searching for mushrooms among the forested islands in the Saimaa Lakeland. Trips run in August and September, and guides include a biologist.
The traditional pie of the region is made with rice porridge in a rye crust and often served with butter mashed with hard-boiled eggs. Learn how to make the addictive treat in a Finnish country home on Niinisaari Island in Puumala, an archipelago on the Lake Saimaa waterways.
Wehmais, in rural Juva, is home to the country’s only teahouse-bistro, offering over 100 varieties of tea. It’s presided over by one of Finland’s few tea sommeliers, Anna Grotenfelt-Paunonen.
Lörtsy at Savonlinna market
Finland’s half-moon-shaped pasty, lörtsy, was invented in Savonlinna. Every weekend morning you can try both sweet and savoury versions at the market in the town square, close to the harbour.
The spectacular yellow wooden 19th-century Church of Kerimäki is one of the largest wooden churches in the world and, astonishingly, seats more than 3,000 people. With its striking chandeliers, stained-glass windows and high ceilings, it’s worth the 30-minute bus ride from Savonlinna to see it.
How to do it: Finnair flies direct from Heathrow and Manchester to Helsinki. Punkaharju is three hours and 40 minutes from Helsinki by train to Lusto, Retretti or Punkaharju stations. Car rental agencies operate at the airport.
Hotelli Punkaharju from £199 for a villa room or from £129 for a forest cabin with shared facilities, both B&B.
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