Vyborg is my kind of Finland. It's not actually Finland at all, but a border town in the Leningrad Oblast. It looks Finnish, however, and there are plenty of Finns about. Certainly, it's not the efficient, spick-and-span Helsinki kind of Finnishness, and the Finns in evidence look more like the taciturn, vodka-swilling characters from Aki Kaurismaki's movies than modern, mobile phone-carrying Euro-Finns, but if you happen to be in St. Petersburg and want an excursion to somewhere other than palaces and parks, Vyborg makes an easy day trip and is worth the journey.
Being in a border region, Vyborg is one of those places that changed hands a lot over the centuries. It's an old town, as can be seen by a look at the Vyborg castle. Swedes built the castle when they captured the area in 1293, but what you see today has been altered plenty and added to over time. The city later came under Russian rule and then became part of Finland, which was in turn part of the Russian empire. After 1917, when Finland became independent, Vyborg - or Viipuri, as the Finns called it - stayed with Finland.
Stalin's troops took the city in 1939, failed to keep it and finally managed to incorporate it into Russia at the end of World War II, sending the Finns over the border and repopulating the town with Russians. Today, the Finns are back, some for nostalgia tours, others - many others - in search of cheap alcohol. Vyborg's residents are aware of the advantages to be gained from cross-border exchanges and are even learning Finnish - enough Finnish at least to hail tourists at the market and direct their attention to the souvenirs and cheap Finnish pop CDs on display.
If you're looking for cheap Finnish music, Vyborg is the place to go. The town isn't big, and a leisurely wander around the streets will let you take in all the main sights. Buildings have a neglected look and the place could obviously do with some investment, but there is something picturesque in the gently rising old streets, towers and churches. It's one of those small places that seems bigger than it is, because you keep wanting to turn corners and explore side streets to make sure there's not another surprise waiting.
Some of the buildings are architecturally interesting. Famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed the town library, considered a gem of functional architecture. The town's port is full of ships loading up timber. Further out from the center of town is a fairground with a sizeable Ferris wheel, should you want to see Vyborg from a higher perspective. Getting sustenance in Vyborg is not a problem. If you want to forget you're in a far corner of the Leningrad Oblast and feel like you could be anywhere, then go to the eminently civilized Champion bar in the center of town. The walls are decorated in sports paraphernalia and the service is good, though the prices are definitely aimed more at the visiting Finns.
Cheaper fare can be had in the various cafes around the market. We found a place selling decent pizza at a very reasonable price. We also noticed an ostensibly Armenian cafe that sold food that was edible and cheap, but not exactly Armenian. The railway station, with its still-impressive, albeit somewhat run-down architecture, gives the impression of being a place for setting off on journeys grander than an elektrichka ride to Petersburg. Just across from the station is a place called Berry, which tries to attract all and sundry with its shops, plus a restaurant and club where Vyborg beauties strut their stuff.
But it's a pricey place targeting Finns, and if you're not a Finn, or if you're a Finn with not so many euros in your wallet, don't go to Berry. Busloads from the west make straight for the place, and later you see the shoppers climbing back on the buses with their load of alcohol. The more adventurous among them turn up in places like the Armenian cafe, drinking lethal beer-and-vodka combinations and blending in happily with the local populace. Just like something out of Kaurismaki.