By Simon & Susan Veness
From Norway to Russia, and Finland to Germany, there is a region of the world that is so steeped in maritime history it has become renowned for culture, landmarks and natural beauty in abundance.
With evocative cities like St Petersburg, Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn, plus vast areas of natural wilderness, it offers a wealth of variety from 10 contrasting countries, and makes for the ideal two-week summer voyage, when the days are long, the weather is benign and there are around 80 ships to choose from in 2019.
This year’s Baltic cruise ‘season’ is now underway (until September), so what are the top Baltic shore excursions you should look out for if you’re heading to that part of the world? Here’s a few of our favourites:
St Petersburg, Hermitage
Yes, it’s going to be crowded, and yes, you can only do it under a ship-organised excursion, unless you want to apply for an individual tourist visa to visit Russia, but this is the one you want to do on any visit to the fabled capital of Peter the Great. Like the Louvre in Paris and the Acropolis Museum in Athens, the State Hermitage is one of the grandest repositories of world art, from the Stone Age to the 20th century, including works by Cezanne, Picasso, Da Vinci and Van Gogh.
Finland is one of the most laid-back of all the Baltic states, and the port of Helsinki offers a lot of touring possibilities, from historic Sibelius Park (paying homage to the great composer) to Market Square, with its dazzling array of local produce. But take the short ferry ride to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Suomenlinna Sea Fortress and you can tap into an 18th-century treasure trove of beautifully maintained historical references, including the Russo-Swedish War of the 1700s.
Oslo, Viking Ship Museum
Very often the first port of call on the Baltic route, Oslo is a wonderful city of open, inviting architecture and eye-catching gardens – “the largest village in the world,” we were once told – but you can’t visit here without going full Viking. And that means taking the bus ride to Bygdøy, where the Vikingskiphuset takes you back to the 9th century and the story of the world’s most redoubtable sea-going folk. The three ships, salvaged from peat bogs, are fascinating to see up close, along with numerous artefacts from the period.
Stockholm, Vasa Museum
Want more Viking heritage? Then the Vasa Museum is definitely the place for you, bringing the story of the great Baltic mariners up to the 17th century with this look at the mighty Swedish warship that sank in 1628. The astounding preservation of this near 400-year-old vessel is remarkable enough on its own, but the Museum does a great job of showcasing the period and putting it all in vivid context, marking it out as one of Scandinavia’s foremost historical centres.
Most people will tell you that the world-famous Tivoli Gardens (dating back to 1843) are the must-see highlight of Denmark’s capital, but history fans – and Shakespeare lovers – should really make a beeline for another UNESCO World Heritage site a 40-minute train ride from Copenhagen. The fabled ‘Elsinore Castle’ of Hamlet, Kronborg is one of Europe’s most striking Renaissance castles and an eye-catching triumph of soaring towers and grand reception rooms.
Germany’s big Baltic port is most often associated with excursions to Berlin, but those can take up to three hours just to get there and you’ll be hard-pushed to see much of the city in the time available. Instead, head for the beautiful seaside suburb of Warnemunde, where the pretty fishing port is a major sailing destination and there may be hundreds of yachts out on the water at any one time, making for a beautiful panorama accentuated by the town’s rows of timber-framed houses.
Gdansk, Malbork Castle
Poland’s principal port city boasts plenty of Hanseatic League history of its own, but take the 45-minute journey south-east to Malbork by car or train and you will discover one of the wonders of the Middle Ages. Malbork Castle is a spectacular brick-built fortress dating back to the 13th century and set on the River Nogat for extra eye appeal. A major Prussian site, it was heavily damaged in World War II but lovingly restored to its full glories in 2016.
Riga, Old Town
The largest city of the three Baltic Republics and capital of Latvia – the ‘Little Paris of the Baltic’ – Riga richly rewards the casual wanderer, and you can comfortably get a firm grasp of the impressive Old Town on foot, although a good guide will put everything in context. Another World Heritage site (yes, the Baltic region has a few!), this early 13th-century gem is packed with medieval culture and Art Nouveau architecture, most notably in Riga Castle and the Dome Cathedral.
Klaipeda, Curonian Spit
Lithuania may be hard to find on many cruise itineraries, but it is worth it for this German-influenced port, and, very possibly, the best beach in the Baltic. The nature preserve of the Curonian Spit is only a short ferry ride from the main town – which boasts rich Medieval Teutonic architecture – and whisks visitors into a beguiling dual-aspect vista of white-sand beaches, on both the Baltic coast and the inland Curonian Lagoon, which are separated by 98km of beautiful sand dunes and forest.
Tallinn, Kadriorg Palace
Arguably THE great surprise destination of the region for anyone who has yet to visit, Tallinn is a visual feast in its own right, with the magnificent Medieval Old Town that is eminently walkable. But venture just outside to Kadriorg Palace, the great Baroque home built for Catherine I by Peter the Great, and you will discover this crown jewel of royal residences, with its ornate architecture and manicured gardens. Verily, the best of the Baltic.
Have you cruised to the Baltic? What was your favourite port, and why? Give us your thoughts in the Comments section below.