For a cruise destination with a difference, look to the Baltic and discover a wealth of exciting cultural experiences, an array of fascinating historical attractions and some simply spectacular scenery.
If you’ve done Rome, seen the French Riviera, bought the T-shirt in Athens and sent a postcard from Barcelona? If you’re looking for a new cruise destination or maybe you’re setting sail for the first time and want to choose somewhere a bit different, you don’t have to look far for inspirational ideas.
Five years ago 10 new countries – eight of them formerly under communist rule – joined the European Union, marking the largest expansion in its history. Several, including Malta, Cyprus and Slovenia in the former Yugoslavia, were already firm favourites with British and overseas travellers, but until relatively recently the magnificent capital cities and countries of Eastern Europe had been hidden gems. With Europe now stretching as far as the Russian border several of the newer member countries, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have deservedly established themselves on the cruising map.
As accessible as the Mediterranean, a Baltic cruise offers an amazing array of diverse sights and experiences, from the hip cafe culture of Scandinavia to grand Russian palaces and some of the most magnificent scenery in the world. This region really is a great choice for anyone with an interest in history and culture and, with the exception of Russia, English is widely spoken which means it’s nice and easy to make your way around the different ports of call.
Latest figures from the Passenger Shipping Association show the Baltic is hot on the heels of the Caribbean – it’s currently British cruise holidaymakers’ second favourite destination after the Mediterranean, and North Americans account for an impressive two thirds or 67 per cent of all cruises sold here. Indeed, in the last nine years annual passenger figures have more than trebled to reach 213,000, bringing it almost level with the Caribbean. Last year alone there was a nine per cent increase in Britons heading to the Baltic from the UK, and a 29 per cent jump in fly-cruise passengers booked on a Baltic itinerary.
As Bo Larsen, Director of Cruise Baltic, says, “A cruise in the Baltic Sea region is a real adventure – the destinations and cruise ports offer a wealth of diversity, spectacular scenery, historical attractions and exciting cultural experiences. So a Baltic cruise is not just a holiday, it is a journey to a corner of the world where the nature and the people shaped by it have fostered the legends and fairy tales that have become renowned all around the globe.”
Copenhagen, a 90-minute flight from the UK, is the gateway to the Baltic Sea and starting point for many cruises. Itineraries range from seven to 14 nights, or more, and last year Helsinki, Stockholm, St Petersburg and Tallinn were the most popular ports of call. Large cruise ships visit all the main cities and you’ll often see two or three ships tied up along the dock. Most ships schedule a two or even three-day call at St Petersburg so passengers can be sure of seeing all the main sights – in particular the six magnificent buildings of the The State Hermitage that contain a staggering collection of over 3,000,000 works of art – and enjoy a night or two on the town, with the chance to take in the world- famous Kirov ballet or a classical music performance.
Bear in mind that you can only go sightseeing on your own in St Petersburg if you obtain a Russian visa before your cruise. That said, it can be a challenging city if you don’t speak Russian, so organised shore excursions come highly recommended.
If you’re looking for a cruise destination to write home about, this beautiful corner of Europe will surely provide plenty of inspiration for your postcards.
Copenhagen Port Guide
Scandinavia’s largest city is home to one of northern Europe’s biggest ports, yet the main attractions are within easy walking distance. A shore visit allows plenty of time to stroll through the enchanting Nyhavn canal-side district, where storyteller Hans Christian Andersen lived, buy some hand-painted Royal Copenhagen porcelain and savour one of Denmark’s famous open sandwiches – herring is a typical choice, and at Ida Davidsen (www.idadavidsen.dk) you’ll find a menu that’s 2m long!
- Tivoli Gardens – One of the world’s oldest amusement parks – said to have given Walt Disney the idea for Disneyland – is open daily. There are 38 places to eat, including a floating restaurant, and more than 20 rides. Visit www.tivoli.dk
- Amalieborg Palace – The royal family’s winter residence is one of Denmark’s most outstanding examples of Rococo architecture. The palace comprises four buildings. Two of the buildings, Christian VII and Christian VIII, are open to the public. The changing of the guard takes place daily at noon. Visit www.visitcopenhagen.com
- The Little Mermaid – Found on the shore of the cruise harbour Langelinie in the old port district of Nyhavn, the Little Mermaid is one of the most photographed ladies in the world, but take along a zoom as the statue – on a rock in the water a few feet from the shore – is smaller than most people imagine. Visit www.visitcopenhagen.com
Only in Copenhagen
In 2007 Copenhagen became the world’s first destination to be named Bike City and nearly 40 per cent of Copenhageners travel to school or work by bike, one of the highest percentages in the world. Copenhagen is a very safe cycling city with around 350km of designated tracks for cyclists, including 15km in the heart of the city, all separated from pedestrian paths. Look out for miniature traffic lights, specifically for cyclists.
Colourful city bikes make it possible for cruise passengers to discover Copenhagen on two wheels. They’re free to use with a deposit of 20 DKK, around £2.50. Simply pick up a bike from one of the 110 stations and return it to the same one, or another, when you’ve finished pedalling.
Strøget, the ‘walking street’, is one of the world’s longest pedestrian-only thoroughfares and Copenhagen’s main shopping area. Keep an eye out for beautiful silverware – including jewellery, watches and cutlery – from Georg Jensen on Amagertorv. Visitwww.georgjensen.com
Vesterbro used to be an infamous red light district, but the run down area has been transformed into one of Copenhagen’s trendiest quarters and is now packed with bars and eateries. Formel B, in Vesterbrogade, is one of the most stylish restaurants. Here, there’s always a six-course tasting menu featuring local seasonal produce that’s worth trying (www.formel-b.dk). If you’re on a budget, Det Gule Hus, on Istedgade, is a good bet. Go for brunch – it’s served until 2pm each day and only costs £7. Visit www.cafedetgulehus.dk
Riga Port Guide
The capital of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltic states, Riga combines the excitement of a big city with architectural gems including a medieval old town, an Art Nouveau quarter and the imposing Doma Cathedral.
- Riga Castle – The 14th-century fortress is home to the Museum of Latvian History, Museum of Foreign Art and the president of Latvia. Visitwww.riga-life.com
- St Peter’s Church – One of the best examples of Gothic architecture in the Baltic, the church dates back to 1209. If you’ve got a head for heights it’s well worth paying to take the lift up to the observation platform for a bird’s eye view. Visit www.riga-life.com
- Three Brothers – The trio of buildings at 17, 19 and 21 Maza Pils Iela are the best examples of residential buildings in medieval Riga. The ‘eldest’, number 17, is Riga’s oldest stone house. Visit www.riga-life.com
Only in Riga
A rich merchant was furious when he was exiled from the Great Guild (now home to the Riga Philharmonic Orchestra), sited across the street from his house, so he commissioned two cat sculptures to be put on top of his building with their tails raised and backs facing the guild. After a lengthy court battle he turned the cheeky felines around. Today the Cat House is normally included on a walking tour around Riga.
Audeju is the main street, with Centrs, the city’s oldest mall. Riga’s colourful Central Market is famous for using old Zeppelin hangars as food halls. A bottle of fiery Riga Black Balsam, famed for its medicinal properties, makes a good souvenir.
Latvia claims to have a sausage for every day of the year, so try one or two while you’re in town. For a quirky experience head to medically themed Hospitalis, in Stabu Iela. Waitresses dressed as nurses serve food and you can even eat at an operating table. Visitwww.hospitalis.lv
Helsinki Port Guide
The second most northerly capital city in the world, after Reykjavik, Helsinki is compact and easy to walk around. Standing at the crossroads between east and west, its identity has been influenced by both sides.
- Temppeliaukio church – Hewn into the rock, lit by natural light and topped by a copper roof, this unique church opened in 1969 and has attracted visitors ever since. English-language services are held every Sunday at 2pm.
- The Sibelius Monument – Honouring famous Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and sited in the beautiful green park of the same name, this striking monument is made up of more than 600 hollow steel pipes and stands 8.5m tall.
- Uspensky Cathedral – With golden cupolas and a redbrick façade, this orthodox church is one of the clearest symbols of the Russian impact on Finnish history.
Only in Helsinki
The sauna was invented in Finland and in a country where there are nearly two million saunas (one for every third Finn), taking a sauna with the locals is a fun thing to do. The historic Kotiharjun Sauna, on Harjutorinkatu, is the last genuine wood-heated public sauna in Helsinki. Open to everyone, the sauna has separate areas for men and women. Visit www.aatos.fi/sauna
Serial shoppers can stock up at Stockmann in Aleksanterinkatu, Scandinavia’s largest department store (www.stockmann.fi). For smaller shops selling offbeat items head to the design district centred round Dianapuisto Park.
La Société du Cochon is a bar, brasserie, bakery and cafe combo on Mannerheimintie with menus showcasing Finnish ingredients (reindeer is a Finnish staple). From mini-bite starters to speciality steaks, there’s something for everyone. Visit www.cochon.fi