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The Holy Fortress

Travelers often visit Vyborg, one of the most ancient cities in Russia near the border with Finland, on their way to Karelia. Well, it’s convenient because the fast train "Lastochka" from St. Petersburg to Sortavala makes a stop in Vyborg. However, this amazing city deserves a visit of its own. I will tell you how to spend a long weekend in the Middle Ages on the Gulf of Finland.


Swedish, Finnish or Russian?

The choice to visit Vyborg at the peak of the golden autumn was clear - social networks were full of bright northern landscapes, the forecast showed unusually high temperatures for this season. It seems that the Fall of 2020 has partially compensated for the lost Spring and Summer of the pandemic. After a short flight to St. Petersburg, an easy transfer at the Finlyandsky railway station, and an hour on the "Swallow" (“Lastochka"fast train) - here I am at the walls of an ancient Swedish fortress... "How is this Swedish? Isn’t it a Finnish city?"- many will be surprised. Well, let's take a closer look. Let’s walk to Castle Island - where the story began.

Vyborg Castle

If we dig very deeply, the first settlers of Castle Island were the Korela tribe (the ancestors of our Karelians). The name of their village has not survived, and the name Vyborg was brought here by the Swedes. They burned the Korela in 1293 and built the "Holy Fortress" on the island, this is how Vyborg is translated from the Old Scandinavian languages. It is interesting that in almost all their variants it sounds similar: Viborg - in Swedish; Wiborg - in Old German; Viipuri - in Finnish. Of course, any guide in the city will tell you the glorious "Slavic version" of the name from the word 'vybor' (choice) - after all, the city is located on the northern trade route from the Gulf of Finland to Lake Ladoga. Even though it was not a member of the Hanseatic League, it was famous for trade. They say that the word 'vybor' was used here so often that they called the city that way. All this is nothing more than a local legend. But the name Vyborg is documented. By the way, if you google it, you will find several towns with the samе name in the Scandinavian regions. There is one in Denmark and a village in Finland, which helps prove the origin. “Holy Fortress” was a popular name among the Scandinavians at that time. 

The Vyborg Castle

Vyborg Castle

The founder of Vyborg was the "deputy" of the Swedish king Tyrgils Knutsson (Lord High Constable of Sweden). You will see a monument to him on the Rathaus square of the ancient city, right in front of Castle Island. The fortress was founded by Knutsson and for many centuries was a tasty morsel for conquerors, including the Novgorodians, but until 1710(!) it remained Swedish. And then Peter came... For the newly founded St. Petersburg, the Vyborg Castle (aka a fortress) was a serious threat. But even Peter the Great was only able to conquer the fortress on the second try. The local history museum is now located in the castle. The main attraction of the island, and of the entire city, is the tower of St. Olaf (in honor of the Baptist King of Scandinavia).

  • Orange fact
    The last four digits of the Vyborg United Museum-Reserve’s phone number are equal to the year of Vyborg’s foundation: +7 (812) 980-1293.

View from St.Olaf Tower

Several centuries after its foundation, the castle was rebuilt and added on to. As a result, an octahedron was added to the original tetrahedron of Olaf's battle watch tower, increasing the height of the tower to 7 floors. It has survived to this day in this shape. There is an observation deck on the dome of the tower, with the best views of not only medieval Vyborg, but also the port, Cape Smolyanoy, the island part of the city (where the Russian fortifications of Annenkrone and Park Monrepos are perfectly visible in good weather) as well as the Vyborg Bay, and the North and South harbors. And, perhaps, this is one of the main reasons for climbing the 230 steps through scaffolding and beams. 

Башня Олафа внутри Vyborg

Moreover, it is desirable to do this twice. Daytime and nighttime views are both magical, each in its own way. And here we come to the most unpleasant "but". The Vyborg Castle has been under restoration for a long time. Walking through the oldest courtyards and streets is now inaccessible, they are closed to visitors. The exterior of Olaf's Tower, and therefore the observation deck, was closed for 2 years during its restoration. In January 2019, the tower finally opened. But! In the next month or two, even more global work on the restoration of the interior will begin, a special elevator for the disabled will be installed inside the tower so that the landmark fully meets European museum standards. And when it will open again ... no one can say for sure. So, "hurry up to see it"!


However, gorgeous views of the old city can also be seen from below, along the fortress wall which you can walk near the edge of the coast. Entrance to the Castle Island is free and it is open from 9 am to 9 pm. You will want to look at the fortress itself from different sides! From the city's island, there is a completely different picture. You just need to walk past the Castle island across the bridge to the monument to Fedor Apraksin.

Along Vyborgskaya street...


As well as Krepostnaya, there are Vodnoy zastavy and other iconic streets. Let's walk through the medieval "stone" city. Please, wear comfortable shoes! The historical part of the city is all about cobblestones. So, we return from the Castle Island to the "main" land. As soon as we leave the bridge, we find ourselves on Fortress Street - Krepostnaya.  Where the asphalt road becomes a cobblestone road, we see fragments of granite walls on the left and right. These are the remains of the fortresses that defended the ancient stone city, back then the water splashed right next to these walls. By 1470, Vyborg had grown over the entire rocky part of the peninsula. Hence its name as 'a stone city'. 

Rathaus platz

Two postcard "gingerbread" houses are the first thing that catches your eye on Rathaus Square, they have been standing since ancient times. Well, the original stones are still visible at their base, everything else, of course, was repeatedly rebuilt through the 21st century. The Rathaus Square was the center of medieval Vyborg - people bought and sold here, they were executed and pardoned here. A monument to the founder Torgils Knutsson was also erected here, much much later though - in 1908. At this time, Vyborg was a part of the Russian Empire, but as part of the Grand Duchy of Finland.

Now we will turn onto Podgornaya str, towards the port, and in just a few steps we will find ourselves in the picturesque ruins of the 15th century Cathedral. Remnants of red brick overgrown with green moss and a snow-white Clock Tower in the background...no wonder there are crowds of photographers here. In my case, the 'saturation button' was twisted to the fullest - a piercing blue sky and dazzling yellow foliage added to the existing splendour. The cathedral was first destroyed in Peter's time, then restored and given to an Orthodox church. During the Soviet-Finnish war, the cathedral was finally destroyed, it has survived to this day as this ruin.

The bell tower of the cathedral was much more fortunate. It not just survived, but also “blossomed” over the centuries. Under Catherine II, a bell was hoisted on the tower (we still hear it today), but the main thing is that the clock was installed. The tower was converted from a Bell Tower into a Clock Tower. A century later, the Finnish company Connie replaced the clock and connected it to the bell. 

Clock Tower in Vyborg Clock Tower in Vyborg

Surprisingly, the Clock Tower survived all subsequent wars and the clock was silent only during World War II, in the early 90s and for 3 years during the 21st century. That was until when in 2015 a schoolboy named Vanya Pershin climbed onto the then abandoned tower and somehow started the mechanism... Now he is the official watchmaker, winding the clock once a week, as required. In fact, Vanya understood what he was doing. Throughout his childhood, he communicated with the former watchmaker of the tower and knew some things about this mechanism. But nevertheless, he is proud of his position. Now the restoration of the tower has been completed, and when the Olaf's Tower is closed for reconstruction, the Clock tower will re-open for tourists. They say the view from it is no worse, but definitely completely different than the one from Olaf’s. The tower stands at the highest point of the city, and 132 steps lead to the observation deck. But do you know what you will see from there? A crazy mixture of the restored early medieval houses, the devastation of the 90s (the buildings stand side by side), and the ruins of the 14th-15th centuries. It was such a pity that I could not persuade the museum superintendent of the tower to secretly take me there, he even had the keys.

Rathaus in Vyborg Rathaus in Vyborg

Literally around the corner on Vyborgskaya Street, the next must-see attraction is waiting for us - the Rathaus Tower. It had no particular relationship with the Town Hall, except for at one time it was its warehouse. The structure itself seemed to me more beautiful from the outside. The interior is still empty, there is no particular view from it. And all of its interesting history is on interactive panels, showcases with exhibits and other entertainment for tourists have not yet been installed. But the tower keeper will tell you about them with rapture.

For example, that originally it was a four-sided watchtower of the fortress wall of the 'stone city’; that in the 14th century it served as a bell tower for the Dominican Cathedral, whose ruins look directly at the tower. By the way, the walls of the cathedral are well preserved and will begin to be restored in the near future.

Dominican Cathedral in Vyborg

Earthen city

In the 15th century, Vyborg became cramped and expanded further into the peninsula. The new part was called an earthen city, because it stood on drained swamps, not on rocks. Part of the Earthen City’s new fortress wall (built in the 16th century) was the Round Tower with massive 4 meter thick walls. Nowadays, within its walls there is a “historical” restaurant, where knights open the doors to guests, and 'ladies of the heart' serve food.

Round Tower in Vyborg

It stands on the current Market Square. On weekends, there is a "medieval" fair, stalls and souvenirs are stylised accordingly. Here you can take a closer look at watercolour paintings and textiles with cats (yes, there are as many cats in Vyborg as there are stones in the cobblestone streets; and they are as much a symbol of the city as is Olaf's Tower). The market itself, although it is inside of a historical building, looks more like a bazaar. 


If you walk from the market square towards the Railway Station, you will pass by the drakkars. Viking boats will catch your eye from the opposite side of the Salakka Lahti bay, they are located along the embankment, which itself is worth walking along. The ships look impressive ... but these are replicas. Copies of such ships were used as scenery in the film about Vikings called "And trees grow on the stones" (1985). Initially, the boats from the set were here, but 10 years ago, those battered ships were replaced with new ones.

Finnish Traces

Aalto's Library in Vyborg

There are a lot of Finnish traces in Vyborg, but perhaps, the main attraction for the sake of which tourists from all over the world come here - is the Alvar Aalto Library in Viipuri (at that time Vyborg was part of Finland). I can even say that this unique example of Scandinavian Art Nouveau architecture attracts even more tourists from all over the world than Russian sites. The legendary architect and designer built a library, developed unique lighting, heating and storage systems, and designed furniture specially for it in 1935! With his ideas, he was decades ahead of his time. Yes, the ideas of furniture at the famous Swedish brand, which conquered the world with “their” Scandinavian style, grew from here. By the way, it was this library that initially brought Alvar Aalto world fame for its simplicity, minimalism and functionality, cost effectiveness, and environmental friendliness.

Well look:

Aalto's Library in Vyborg

  • Light. It is all natural. The massive thick ceiling of the main halls is punctured with 72 conical wells 2 meters long - "skylights". From above, they are covered with 1.5 cm plexiglass lenses, so that direct rays never enter the room. At any time of the day, light enters at a 52-degree angle, providing soft, comfortable lighting, protecting books and the reader's eyes.
  • Heating. It is watery and hidden in the same thickness of the ceiling. Warm air flows gently from top to bottom. It doesn't get hot or cold here. Always warm and comfortable. And snow does not accumulate on the roof.
  • Windows. These are essentially the progenitors of modern double-paned windows. Alvar Aalto's concept is to use only natural materials. Therefore, double (insulated) glass with frames made of copper or wood. And in general, absolutely all finishing materials are natural, even the linoleum on the floor!
  • Curved lines. They are everywhere in here. This is the “trick” of the master. But not only for the sake of beauty. Each element is functional. For example, a wave-like ceiling in a lecture hall blends into a smooth oak floor for excellent acoustics. The stair railings indicate the direction of movement for visitors. Spiral stairs save space. In general, each element of the room smoothly flows or complements the neighbouring one.

Aalto's Library in Vyborg Aalto's Library in Vyborg Aalto's Library in Vyborg

But! What we see now is a complete restoration. For many years, the building was assembled piece by piece. Indeed, in 1939, during the Soviet-Finnish war, Viipuri was again under Russian rule, and the Finns left the city quickly without taking anything with them. They say: when the soviet soldiers entered the houses, kettles were heating up on stoves, and linens were in the washing machines (yes, the Finns already had them). The Finns already had a lot of household appliances, but the conquerors, not knowing what it was and how to use it, got rid of it. So the library building was also “taken away” for parts. It was in a deplorable state. The reconstruction lasted from 1994 to 2013. For the restoration of the library, the Russian-Finnish team received 3 top awards in the field of architecture and restoration. Now the object is identical to the original. A must-see is the Esplanade Park, which houses the library. After all, it is not accidentally here either - the view from each window is like a landscape in an art gallery.

He has a granite stone in his chest 

Monrepos Park

This is another Vyborg object. The famous Vyborg rapakivi “granite” is everywhere - below your feet, around you and above you. Massive granite walls in their natural state can be seen in Monrepos Park. This is an amazingly beautiful 'English landscape garden' park. One of the most spacious in Eastern Europe. It’s large. Just a walk through there will easily get you your daily recommended steps. There are hiking routes, photo locations, paved paths for a leisurely walk, gardens, and caves... The best way not to miss any interesting places is to download an audio guide and “walk according to the plan”. But…. At the moment, most of the park is under construction. You can only sneak into the most beautiful places with the secret permission of the guards. But it's worth it! The photos of reflected autumn views are fantastic.

Monrepos Park

  • Orange fact
    Most of St. Petersburg is covered with Vyborg rapakivi granite: buildings, bridges, sidewalks, cathedral colonnades, porticoes, embankments, as well as the Alexander Column and its pedestal.

More things to do in Vyborg:


  • Find the oldest residential building in Russia on the streets of Vyborg
  • Walk along Cape Smolyanoy to Petrovsky beach at Vyborgsky Bay, admire the panorama of the 'gingerbread' houses near the Vyborg port, find a wooden elk and a concrete ship
  • Walk through the entire historic center to Park Monrepos through the Russian fortifications of Annenkrone
  • Take a look at the new Museum of Chocolate in Petrovsky Park
  • Feel like a knight or a prisoner in a torture chamber in the Knight's House
  • Take the historical 'quest in reality' ('The Whip and Gunpowde’ or 'The Secret of the Treasures of the Order of the Rose and Sword')
  • Visit a Knight Tournament
  • Take a look at the exhibition in the Hermitage-Viborg center
  • Have a cup of coffee in the historic Vyborg tram
  • Take a photo with the Kalevala elk in the Esplanade Park
  • Count the statues in the Park of Sculptures
  • Learn the history of Red Square
  • Find the house of Lenin, where he prepared for the revolution
  • Try the famous Vyborg pretzel and smoked almonds in the 'Wiborg' Delicious Shop
  • Rent a room in Packhaus (hotel with only two rooms right in the heart of the town)
  • Stay for a couple of days more and rent a summer cottage in the Primorsky District at the Gulf of Finland: pick blueberries and porcini mushrooms among the granite deposits of rapakivi and tall ore-pines; go fishing in the Gulf of Finland; drive to the Finnish Church of St. Mary in Koivisto (Primorsk), completely folded from granite blocks; enjoy incredible landscapes and listen to the dead silence ...

Where to eat:

  • Coffee, Viborg pretzels, marzipans in the “Krendel” cafe on the Rathaus Square, in the “Wiborg” shop on Krepostnaya street.
  • Dinner in the medieval "Tavern" on Krepostnaya street (order dishes according to recipes from cookbooks of the 15th century: beer stew with smoked meat, brisket and hoppy ale served in bread; dried venison; meat balls with juniper under lingonberry sauce; Karelian pies 'kalitki'; shank with stewed cabbage; sweet Viborg pretzel for desert)


Important notes during the pandemic

Vyborg Tram in Vyborg Forest in Vyborg

In short, everything is complicated. All locations have a temporary, special schedule and requirements. Before the trip, I strongly recommend calling all the sights directly and booking excursions, or if the option is available, buy tickets for a certain time on the official sites. The number of visitors is limited everywhere from 5 to 10 people. Restaurants, cafes, shops close early, at 10 pm the city dies out, there is not a soul on the streets.

How to get to Vyborg:

Round Tower un Vyborg

  • By car from St. Petersburg along the Scandinavia highway (E18 / M10) 137 km, 2 h, or along the scenic A123 along the Gulf of Finland 180 km, 2 h 45 min
  • By high-speed train "Lastochka" from the Finlyandsky Railway Station in St. Petersburg 1h
  • By bus from the Parnas or Devyatkino metro stations of St. Petersburg 2h
  • Direct train from Moscow 8h

Finnish bayTranslation and Photos: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1


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