Lift the lid on the treasure box that is the Baltic Sea and discover Northern Europe’s most precious gems.
The Baltic Sea crashes against the coastlines of Northern Europe, a region best explored from the water. Port-rich itineraries take you to some of the world’s most cultural capitals, from medieval Tallinn, to cosy Copenhagen, vivacious Berlin and cutting-edge Helsinki. The land of the Vikings and the Tsars holds history and mystery in spades.
Dramatic, flamboyant, opulent; it’s hard to believe that St Petersburg was once little more than swampland. Built by Peter the Great in 1703, the city served as Russia’s imperial showcase capital until the Russian Revolution and remains the country’s cultural capital today.
Strolling through St Petersburg sends you down the rabbit hole and back to the time of the Tsars. From the extravagant onion-domed exterior of the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, to the mint green, white and gold façade of the Hermitage and the antique gold walls that have witnessed a lifetime of performances in the Mariinsky Theatre; the city is a work of art in itself. For full effect, revel in the regalia of a changing of the guard ceremony in the grounds of the grand Palace Square, before casting your eye across some of the three million or more treasures contained within the neoclassical walls of the sprawling Hermitage Museum complex.
St Petersburg’s Romanov residences and imperial palaces reflect in the still Neva River, but venture a little deeper into the streets beneath the bejewelled skyline and you’ll discover a self-assured city that has two feet firmly in the present. St Petersburg holds its own against Moscow, its city-dwellers as chic and its social scene as sophisticated. The ‘white nights’ of midsummer bathe
St Petersburg in a glorious glow, dusk’s moody skies stretching into the early hours of the morning as the sun fails to set fully between mid-June and July. Locals raise a raucous toast to the start of summer, casting off their clothes to sunbathe at the Peter and Paul Fortress Beach during the day, before spending evenings at the Mariinsky Theatre, catching operas, theatrics and the world-famous Russian ballet, ending with a nightcap at tables outside bars that stay open late into the night.
Despite its popularity, St Petersburg remains one of the most difficult destinations in the world to visit independently, due to Russia’s stringent visa restrictions. Travellers on an organised excursion are covered within a ship group visa held by the cruise operator, making a cruise the simplest way to see the city by far.
Aside from the multi-coloured merchant houses of nautical Nyhavn and the smaller-than-expected Little Mermaid statue, Copenhagen is most famous for being the coolest Nordic capital and the happiest city in the world.
The concept of ‘hygge’, a near-obsession with getting cosy, has been recreated across Europe in recent years but in Copenhagen’s quaint cafes it is truly at home. In summer, you feel it as you eat outdoors on the harbour. In winter, hygge comes into its own, wrapping you in a warm hug as you eat warm pastries and sip hot chocolate in chintzy cafes. It’s an entirely unique Nordic concept but it doesn’t half make the city feel like home.
The largest city in Scandinavia has become one of Europe’s must-see destinations in recent years. Its diverse neighbourhoods are incredibly bike-friendly, your two wheels taking you from the historic harbour district of Nyhavn, through the Vesterbro neighbourhood’s cool Meatpacking District, to the lively shopping street of Strøget, one of Europe’s largest and oldest pedestrianised streets.
Tivoli Gardens was established in 1843, making it not only one of the world’s oldest theme parks but also one of the most tasteful. The attraction comes alive in November, when the festive markets transform it into a winter wonderland. Spring sees the park fill with locals and summer brings music festivals and long laissez-faire days of flitting between vintage fairground rides, shows in the Glass Hall Theatre and meals in one of over 30 different restaurants.
Copenhagen is one of the Baltic’s most family-friendly cities, not only thanks to the Tivoli Gardens and the National Aquarium Denmark (the largest aquarium in Northern Europe), but also because there is an endless list of activities to keep the kids entertained, from burning off excess energy in the gorgeous grounds of Rosenborg Castle, to picnics on the solar-powered ‘GoBoats’ that work their way along Copenhagen’s canals.
With a thriving gastronomical scene attracting foodies from around the world, plus chic Scandinavian design boutiques that’ll make you appreciate the lack of luggage limits when you sail to and from the UK, Copenhagen’s popularity is well-deserved.
The night before arrival into Stockholm sees alarms set and cameras readied, the anticipation for one of cruising’s best port approaches reaching fever pitch. There are 30,000 islands, islets and rocks in the Stockholm archipelago, and your ship will negotiate hundreds of them on its approach into the city, making for some seriously stunning views on route.
Stockholm itself is spread across 14 islands, with 57 bridges making its many neighbourhoods surprisingly accessible. Each has its own unique character, from bohemian Södermalm, with its leisurely vibe, vintage shops and hip SoFo area, to the Old Town of Gamla Stan. Stockholm was founded here in 1252 and the city’s central island continues to be considered its historic heart and soul. The medieval Stortorget square and the buildings along the streets of Köpmangatan are some of the oldest and best preserved in Europe. The Royal Palace, whose 600 rooms make it one of the largest palaces in the world, Stockholm Cathedral and the Nobel Museum are all found in the Gamla Stan neighbourhood.
Norrmalm is the city’s modern centre, where on any given day you’ll find Sweden’s stereotypically beautiful people shopping for beautiful Scandinavian interiors and fashion. Many retire to upmarket Östermalm, a neighbourhood whose exclusive Bibliotekstan shopping district and grand seaside boulevard, Strandvägen, make it a worthwhile stop for visitors.
The Swedish are famous for their love of the great outdoors. Follow the locals to Djugården by foot or ferry and you’ll find the perfect place to enjoy summer in the city. The greenest of Stockholm’s islands isn’t only home to an abundance of natural beauty, but also some of the city’s top attractions, including the must-see Vasa Museum. The Vasa capsized and sank just a mile from the Stockholm shore in 1623 and was preserved by the ice cold Baltic Sea in the 333 years that followed. It has since been recovered and is exhibited at the Vasa Museum as the world’s only preserved 17th century ship. The mighty warship is an arresting sight.
If sunken ships aren’t your idea of fun, perhaps you’d prefer to get a little more familiar with Sweden’s four most famous figures; the ABBA Museum can be found on Djugården.
Estonia’s compact capital is more chocolate box charming than Soviet-era stark. Tallinn is one of the Baltic’s most walkable cities and you needn’t venture far from the port to discover its pride and joy. Tallinn’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval towns in the world. The gentlemanly Hanseatic League left behind a warren of cobbled streets, pastel merchant houses and 14th century alleyways leading to suntrap squares that still serve as the social hubs of the city.
Despite its reputation as a living, breathing museum of medieval life, there is nothing antiquated about Tallinn. Locals are quick to point out that the city is one of the best connected in the world, with over 98% of it covered by free Wi-Fi. Some of technology’s leading start-ups were conceived within these centuries-old city walls. There may be sleek skyscrapers and chic restaurants popping up between the ancient church spires and fortifications, but Tallinn hasn’t sacrificed an inch of its historic integrity. Instead, these great strides into the 21st century only add to the city’s charm, creating a destination that effortlessly merges the very best of both worlds.
For those who seek a glance of yesteryear, there are the landmarks; olde-worlde Raekoja plats and its Gothic town hall, Peter the Great’s Petrine Baroque Kadriorg Palace and its endless gardens, and the 400ft tower of St Olaf’s Church on Toompea Hill, from where the scene stretches across the red roofs of the Old Town and past the onion domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. For those who prefer their days spent in a more modern metropolis, there are the swish shops of the Rotermann Quarter, the cutting-edge architecture of the Kumu Art Museum, and the ateliers, artists and off-beat eateries of Talliskivi Loomelinnak, or Creative City, Estonia’s bohemian hangout.
This old city is young at heart. Once described by its own mayor as ‘poor but sexy’, Berlin has a tendency to leave all those who visit immediately enamoured. Eclectic, cool and just a little addictive, the historic German capital has become the place to be.
Berlin and its residents have every right to bask in the glow of the city’s renaissance. World War II ravaged the city and the resulting occupation, along with the wall that came with it, saw the city literally divided in two. Decades later, with the wall felled and Germany unified, Berlin celebrates by refusing to take itself too seriously. There is the sense of possibility in the air, an influx of creatives bringing with them their art, their words and their free-spirited approach.
As the seat of the Nazi headquarters, Berlin was bombed tirelessly during World War II. As a result, most of its neoclassical palaces were destroyed, replaced quickly with far more austere structures after the war. Unlike the medieval squares of many Baltic cities, the design of Berlin’s main square, Alexanderplatz, dates back just 50 years. Bebelplatz is more reminiscent of pre-war Berlin, the beige stone and turquoise-topped Staatsoper, Catholic St. Hedwig’s Cathedral and the Royal Library all offering an inkling of the grandeur the city once held. Sadly, Bebelplatz made history in an unfortunate manner on 10 May 1933, when it became the site of the Nazi ‘book burning’ in which 20,000 literary works were destroyed. Look beneath your feet in the centre of the square and you’ll see the subterranean monument commemorating the incident; a library with endless empty shelves.
Berlin has a way of reminding you of the importance of the past, whilst striding towards the future. Many of the city’s museums are free to visit, a conscious decision made to remove financial boundaries that might stop visitors educating themselves and appreciating Berlin’s background story. You can almost feel the sense of division when you stand on the same spot on which the Berlin Wall once stood and you can almost feel the relief of walking through the Brandenburg Gate. At the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, sloping slabs of varying heights recreate a sense of claustrophobia akin to that which must have been felt by Berlin’s Jewish residents as their situation deteriorated.
Against the odds, Berlin has picked itself up and brushed itself off, steadfastly refusing to wallow in its grief. Since its divisive walls became rebirthed as painted monuments of freedom, the future has never looked brighter for the city.
Few destinations can claim to combine an idyllic waterfront, ultra-modern city centre, forested hills, mountainous fjords and stratospheric ski slopes. Oslo can and it does so in style.
The Norwegian capital benefits endlessly from its enviable location between the Oslofjord and hundreds of acres of forest, natural beauty enveloping an ever-growing city centre. Whilst it may not court as much attention as its Scandinavian neighbours, Oslo has become a force to be reckoned with. Eye-catching architecture has sprung up across the city, concentrated on the skyscraper-stacked waterfront and the aptly named Barcode District. If you only visit one attraction before heading off into the great outdoors, make it the Oslo Opera House, a ground-breaking building that emulates the Norwegian mountains and encourages its visitors to take a walk…on the roof.
Oslo offers the best of both worlds. Its world-class museums, urban cafes and vibrant social scene has led to it becoming one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities, but its proximity to endless swathes of greenery means you can be in the countryside in minutes.
Located just outside of the city centre, Vigeland Park is the largest sculpture park in the world by a single artist and one of Norway’s most-visited attractions. The park’s 212 bronze and granite sculptures are the life’s work of Norwegian Gustav Vigneland and though some are a little bizarre, a morning in the park is one well spent.
The Oslofjord isn’t the largest or most commanding of all Norway’s fjords, but its islets and rocky shores are within easy reach of the city and the city ferry will take you there for free. The pretty painted village of Fredrikstad is one of the best preserved fortress towns in Scandinavia and many make the trip to see it. The scenic ferry ride departs from downtown Oslo and arrives into the heart of Fredrikstad’s charming Old Town, Gamlebyen.
Helsinki often finds itself overlooked in favour of other Baltic cities, but this means that it feels like something of a secret. Crowds are non-existent here and there’s a peace and quiet in the air that is instantly relaxing.
It is several years since Helsinki was appointed World Design Capital, but the design scene here remains one of the world’s most cutting-edge. The Design District is the heart of Helsinki, its 200 plus shops, galleries, design studios and museums connected in a hive of creativity across 25 streets.
While other Baltic states cling to the grandeur of the past, Helsinki strides confidently towards the future with its most celebrated structures. The Kamppi Chapel is a curved wooden creation, designed by the Finnish K2S Architects to provide a haven of calm amidst the bustle of Narinkka Square, one of the busiest places in Finland. We guarantee that you have never seen a church quite like it.
Helsinki’s position at the water’s edge makes getting out onto the sea a must. Take a boat trip to picturesque Porvoo, one of the world’s largest archipelagos comprising thousands of islands and islets. The wooden houses, pink city hall and cobbled main square of Porvoo’s Old Town look just as they did in the Middle Ages and you’ll notice a charming lack of chain restaurants and shops on the quaint streets.
Another must-see is Suomeinlinna, an inhabited sea fortress built across six islands at the entrance to Helsinki’s harbour. Take the ferry over in the winter or the water bus in the summer and follow the blue trail along the fortress’s miles-long fortifications, ducking into dusty tunnels and through handsome parks. There are also six museums spread across the various islands, including one which houses the submarine Vesikko, used during World War II. The Finnish are fiercely protective of their heritage and there are more than 80 museums around Helsinki, celebrating everything from Finnish art and folklore, to mammals and the military. Back on the mainland, the Steven Holl designed Kiasma building is one of Helsinki’s most modern, an art museum that has proven as popular with visitors as it has with locals.
Kiel is a major maritime city at the eastern end of the Kiel Canal; the world’s busiest man-made waterway.
This city by the sea lives and breathes its maritime traditions, the most renowned of which is the Kiel Week regatta. This annual international sailing festival has earned the city a reputation as the sailing centre of Europe, attracting over 500 sailors and millions of spectators from around the world. The event features heavily on themed Baltic cruise itineraries, granting sailing enthusiasts the opportunity to watch the high-tech yachts and historic ships from the Hindenburg Embankment.
Kiel was almost completely destroyed in World War II and has been almost entirely rebuilt since. As a result, much of the city centre is relatively austere in comparison to other Baltic Sea destinations. That said, as a city which lives its life around the water, the Kiellinie waterfront promenade is as impressive as you might expect. An assortment of cruise ships, sailing boats and full-rigged ships litter the atmospheric harbour, where locals gather for ever-changing views across the water and great German cuisine in the cafes and restaurants along the promenade.
It isn’t often considered complimentary to suggest that the best thing about a place is the road out, but for many cruise fanatics and sailing enthusiasts this is the case with Kiel. The Kiel Canal is up there with the Suez and the Panama as one of cruising’s most iconic crossings, the ships proximity to shore showcasing local life lived alongside the river’s 60-mile stretch.