Wild East – Kainuu and North Karelia regions of Eastern Finland

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Wolf can be spotted at bear safaris in Kuhmo region, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

Finland’s two easternmost provinces – North Karelia and Kainuu – offer everything a nature-loving traveler could wish for. In Eastern Finland you will find the most famous lookout spot in the whole country, the most popular hiking trail, as well as guaranteed places to see bears, wolves and wolverines.

In this article the best outdoor experiences and other attractions of Eastern Finland are introduced by photographer Ville Palonen, who has spent many summers fishing, paddling and photographing top predators in the wilderness of North Karelia and Kainuu.

Geography of Eastern Finland

Eastern Finland is a remote region by any measure. The largest city in the region is Joensuu with only 75,000 inhabitants – from which Eastern Finland only begins – so it is not worth looking for trendy urban culture here. The main attraction in Eastern Finland is nature.

And how marvelous it is! Gloomy spruce forests cover the hills, and barren wilderness lakes are bordered by golden sandy beaches. Trouts jump in rapids and bears wander along bogs.

For foreigners, this somewhat remote area has remained fairly unknown. It’s a pity, because Finland’s most thrilling outdoor experiences await in the eastern parts of the country.

The best attraction in Eastern Finland: bear watching

Martinselkonen Wilderness Center in Kainuu, Finland, is famous for baby bears. Photo: Ville Palonen

Let’s put it straight: the most unforgettable nature experience in Eastern Finland (and perhaps the whole of Finland?) is to watch the Finnish national animal, the brown bear. From my personal experience, I can promise that watching a wild bear from a photography hide made only of plywood easily compares to tiger safaris of India or watching lions in the African savanna.

And best of all: watching bears in Finland is quite affordable. The price is 100-200 euros, depending on the place.

In Eastern Finland, a wildlife safari means spending the night in a hide. Participants sit inside a booth or small cabin quietly from evening to morning, and watch through tiny windows as the predators arrive to eat the carcass hidden in front of the booth. Bear safaris are 100% safe – as long as you stay inside the hide until morning – but so much patience is required that they are not suitable for the youngest children in the family.

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Bear watching hide in a swamp in Kuhmo region, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

The best places to watch top predators are located near the Russian border. Suomussalmi is the place where you can see the biggest number of bears. There are a lot of bears in Kuhmo, too, but also wolves – sometimes both beasts can be seen at the same time! Lieksa is the best place in the world to see a wolverine, and with some luck you can also spot a bear.

If luck strikes, you can see all three of Finland’s most amazing top predators during the same night: a bear, a wolf and a wolverine. A good friend of mine experienced such a “triple” in the spring of 2020 with his kids.

Read more: Bear Watching in Finland – Guide to Bear Safaris

The best nature attractions in Eastern Finland 

In addition to wildlife, Eastern Finland offers a wide range of outdoor activities – hiking, fishing, kayaking and mountain biking – from which you can tailor a suitable combo for a week or two holiday trip. You can enjoy the great outdoors either independently or on a trip with a local tour operator effortlessly and safely.

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Oulanka National Park, Kuusamo, Finland. Photo: Julia Kivelä / Visit Finland

On the border of the provinces of Lapland and Kainuu, you will find the most famous trekking trail in Finland, the Bear Tour in Oulanka National Park. Highlights of the ring route are the roaring waterfalls and uninhabited forests. The 80-kilometer Bear Tour takes 3-7 days to hike. Thanks to the wilderness huts and other excellent hiking structures like lean-to shelters, campfire sites and dry toilets, the Bear Tour is suitable for all hikers – and that’s why it is the most popular hiking trail in Finland.

Read more: Trekking Trails in Finland – 3 Best Multi-Day Hikes

Kuusamo is the outdoor capital of Kainuu. Nearby are Ruka – one of Finland’s most prestigious ski resorts – and Syöte, which is known not only for its ski slopes but also for its diverse hiking paths and mountain bike trails. A wonderful natural wonder is the Korouoma Canyon, the best ice climbing spot in Finland. Technically, Korouma is located in the province of Lapland.

South of Kuusamo is the youngest of Finland’s 40 national parks, Hossa, founded in 2017. Its attractions include Stone Age rock paintings, a magnificent canyon lake and good fishing. There are 100 kilometers of marked hiking trails with campfire sites and camping areas. In the small lakes of Hossa, you can rent a canoe or rowing boat, even for just a couple of hours.

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Julma-Ölkky canyon lake in Hossa National Park, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

Read more: Day Hikes in Finland – 8 Best Short Hiking Trails

At the Russian border awaits Ruunaa Hiking Area. It’s best known for its roaring rapids – Finland’s wildest whitewater rafting is found here – as well as excellent fishing. Ruunaa also has a good network of hiking trails, so the place is a great destination for a combined camping and fishing trip. What could be better than catching a trout from the river and cooking it for dinner over an open fire?

Read more: Fishing in Finland – Species, Tackle, Permits and Best Fishing Spots

There are many beautiful lakes in Eastern Finland, but hardly any of them can match the wonderful Lentua. The scenery of this wilderness lake, located near Kuhmo, once inspired the Finnish national artist, Akseli Gallen-Kallela. On the sandy beaches of Lentua, you can spot the endangered Finnish forest reindeer, and while paddling on the lake, a huge trout may catch on your lure. There are campfire sites and lean-to shelters in the small deserted islands of Lentua, so the lake is a perfect destination for one or two nights canoe trip.

Lake Lentua in Kuhmo, Finland, has small deserted islands with amazing beaches. Photo: Ville Palonen

Patvinsuo is one of Finland’s most magnificients bogs and due to its small size is quite a relaxing national park for the whole family. In addition to the duckboard trails in the swamp there is a beautiful wilderness lake, Suomunjärvi, where you can hike a day or two. Lake Suomunjärvi has wonderful tent sites on its sandy shores – and if you rent a canoe, you can go catch a pike for dinner. Nearby is a similar (but much larger) lake, Koitere.

Duckboards cross a swamp in Patvinsuo National Park, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

One of the best and most popular outdoor experiences in Eastern Finland is the Finnish national landscape, which opens from the peak of Koli hill.

The best cultural experiences in Eastern Finland 

For us Finns, Eastern Finland is a mythical region: many of the stories in our national epic, Kalevala, originate in these parts.

The border region with Russia, Karelia, was once inhabited by bearded poets. In the 19th century, the Finnish national epic Kalevala was compiled from their songs and stories. Inspired by the Kalevala, both the composer Jean Sibelius and the painters of the golden age of Finnish painters arrived in the wilderness of Eastern Finland. They found their inspiration in Koli.

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Lake Pielinen seen from Ukko-Koli hill in Koli National Park, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

Finland’s most famous landscape opens from the top of Koli. The artists believed that Koli’s landscapes best reflected the Finnish soul, and Sibelius even chose Koli as the destination for his honeymoon. 

Today, Koli has a wonderful touch of luxury: at the top of the steep hill there’s an elegant hotel, where you can relax in a spa with aview after a long day on hiking trails.

The Koli hill overlooks the magnificent Lake Pielinen. At its northern end is the small town of Nurmes, whose attraction is the Karelian Bomba House. In addition to the traditional dishes offered in the restaurant of Bomba, you can get to know Karelian culture by participating in an hour-long cooking course, where you learn how to bake traditional Finnish delicacies, Karelian pies. Bomba, too, has an excellent spa hotel.

The most peculiar cultural sights in Eastern Finland are the Paateri Church on the eastern shore of Pielinen, built of sturdy logs, and the Silent People, the army of several hundred hay-headed figures standing next to the highway north of Suomussalmi.

Hiljainen kansa ( Quiet People) is one of the most famous environmental art projects in Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

The battlefields of the Second World War bring a historical addition to the cultural attractions of Kainuu and North Karelia. Fierce major battles took place on Raate Road (Suomussalmi), Rukajärvi Road (Lieksa) and Möhkö village (Ilomantsi), where the trenches and ditches of the battlefields have been restored to a fine exhibition.

Winter War (1939-1940) memorial at Raate Road (Raatteen tie) near Suomussalmi, Finland. Each of the 17 000 stones represents a fallen soldier – either a Finn or (mostly) a Soviet. Photo: Ville Palonen

One of the most entertaining summer events in Finland is the Swamp Football World Championships, held in Hyrynsalmi in July. As the name suggests, this is a football tournament where matches are played on wet bog. Swamp Football is hilarious to watch: over one weekend, thousands (yes, you read that right) of mud-covered players crawl, tumble, and sway in a sinking swamp like zombies. Crazy, but fun!

Swamp football world championships in Hyrynsalmi, Finland, is a crazy festival with some serious moments. Photo: Ville Palonen

The best time to travel to Eastern Finland 

You can travel to Eastern Finland all year round. 

The bright nights of summer are the best time to watch brown bears. In winter the bears hibernate, and in early autumn they are cautious, as the hunting season begins in late August.

Hiking trails are at their best in summer and especially in the autumn, when foliage is colorful and mosquitoes no longer bother. Winter is a challenging time to hike, as the Bear Tour, for example, can be dangerously slippery because of snow.

In winter you can go skiing, tour skating and ice fishing on the lakes of Eastern Finland. One of the highlights of the winter is to dip into a freezing lake from the sauna. In winter, you can find a real rarity near Koli: the seven-kilometer-long Koli Ice Road. Believe it or not, you can drive across Lake Pielinen over the thick ice, even with your own rental car!

Read more: Best time to visit Finland – the four seasons

How to travel to Eastern Finland?

Places of interest in Eastern Finland are far from Helsinki. Despite the long distance, driving a rental car is not a bad idea: along the way you can visit the beautiful Lakelands, which is one of the most popular regions of Finland in the summer. 

Route to Eastern Finland goes along Highway number 5 that runs from Helsinki to Kuusamo. Driving takes many hours, with breaks a whole day. That’s why a good duration for a trip from Helsinki to Eastern Finland and back is at least a week – or even two weeks, if you want to see most of the highlights. 

Read more: Driving in Finland – Tips and 4 Best Road Trips

The fastest way to get to Kuusamo is by plane. There is an airport in Joensuu, too.

The public transport network in Eastern Finland is quite modest compared to the rest of Finland. You can get from Helsinki to Joensuu, Lieksa and Nurmes by train, and to smaller places by bus.

Map of Finland’s best travel attractions

The map below shows the best tourist sights, museums, family attractions, hiking trails, outdoor activities, wildlife safaris and ski resorts of Finland.

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Ville Palonen (born 1976) is a freelance photographer and travel writer who loves mountains, wildlife and road trips. He has visited 80 countries and travelled in adventurous destinations like Amazon, Himalaya and Borneo. In Finland Ville spends his time photographing, hiking, fishing, hunting and mushrooming. Ville's favourite destinations in Finland are treeless fells of Lapland and wild parts of East Finland.

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