22 reasons to cruise the Baltic Sea
By Sue Dobson | 7 Sep 2010
Some of Europe’s most stylish cities and prettiest islands lie along the beautiful Baltic Sea and a cruise is the ideal, and sometimes the only, way to see them.
Few regions of the world pack in as much interest and variety as the Baltic. Cruising there can introduce you to 10 countries, each with its own long and fascinating history, culture and architecture. Follow in the footsteps of kings and tsars, walk along medieval streets and stride through glorious countryside, marvel at colourful onion domes, grand castles, great art and sleek modern design. Only on a cruise can you see so much, so easily.
Arriving in Stockholm by sea is magical. Position yourself for a view, as your ship weaves among an archipelago of tree-covered islands shimmering in the early morning light. Ahead lies a colourful waterfront vista of this 700-year old city on the water. The narrow cobbled streets and atmospheric squares of the medieval Old Town beckon. View the vast Royal Palace or head for City Hall, setting for the glittering Nobel Prize banquet, but don’t miss the Vasa Museum. Rescued from the deep and superbly restored, the Vasa, the world’s only surviving 17thcentury sailing ship, is magnificent, as is the museum that tells her extraordinary story. Read our Stockholm Port Guide
2-ELSINORE & HELSINGBORG:
Crowned by Kronborg Castle, immortalised in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Elsinore is a pretty little town of cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses. Here you can laze on sandy beaches, walk in the woods, cycle along the scenic coastline or hop on a ferry and be in Helsingborg, Sweden, in 20 minutes. There the striking new marina and Dunker Culture Centre, by Danish architect Utzon, contrast with architecture from the Middle Ages.
Helsinki buzzes with life on the long, warm days of summer. Quayside stalls draw crowds and the Old Market Hall is a foodie treat. Pavement cafes spill out onto tree-filled Esplanadi boulevard, where shops display stylish glass, ceramics and the iconic Marimekko fabric designs. To get a feel for the city and its striking Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) architecture, hop on tram 3T or 3B. Their circular route takes around an hour. The Tourist Information office has a leaflet about the route and sells See Helsinki on Foot, an excellent booklet. Suomenlinna fortress is just a short ferry ride away. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, with museums and cafes, it’s a great place to explore.
Craggy Bornholm is Denmark’s easternmost island and its capital, Rønne, is the largest of a clutch of idyllic little towns and fi shing hamlets scattered across countryside and coast. Glass blowers, ceramicists, textile artists, weavers and woodworkers welcome visitors to their studios. 5kRISTIANSAND Norwegians love flower-filled Kristiansand. They holiday on the region’s beaches, sail among its islands, hike in the mountains and play golf on an 18-hole course designed by Robert Trent Jnr. The 2010 Tall Ships Race calls in here on 31 July.
Viking ships and ski jumps, a Sculpture Park, a fabulous City Hall and the unmissable Nobel Peace Centre all make Oslo intriguing. Surrounded by forested hills, Norway’s capital lies at the head of a fjord and the newly developed dockside has a dramatic modern Opera House as its centrepiece. 8COpENhAGEN Copenhagen has real charm. Gaze on the Crown Jewels at pretty Rosenborg Castle then cross to the Amalienborg Palace for the Changing of the Royal Guard at noon. Visit Nyhavn, the lively old sailors’ quarter, to catch a 50-minute canal cruise. Follow the spiral walk in the Rundetaarn (Round Tower) for panoramic views. Borrow a free city bike, it’s a great way to get around. Stroll through Tivoli’s magnificent gardens and immerse yourself in the magic of this fairytale amusement park. Wander along the mile-long Strøget, branching off on to side streets for innovative boutiques. The best Danish design stores are towards the Kongens Nytorv end of this shoppers’ heaven.
In lively Aarhus, join the university students in the trendy Latin Quarter and riverside cafes, find peaceful reflection in the Zen Japanese Garden, buy innovative art and design in the myriad boutiques and delight in the atmospheric Den Gamle By, an Old Town open air museum. See why the ultramodern ARoS Art Museum is attracting attention and look for the Millboard set into the pavement outside Aarhus’s soaring Cathedral. It’s the design of a 1000-year-old game still played in Denmark today.
Famed for its shopping, food, music and nightlife, for centuries Gothenburg has been Sweden’s western link to the world. A trip along its canals on a flat-bottomed Paddan boat is a fun way to sightsee, or view the city from a glass-enclosed gondola.
The imposing Renaissance castle and 17th-century downtown tell of an era when Kalmar was Sweden’s centre of power and nobility. Stroll through the relaxed town centre, take a bus to the famous Orrefors glassworks and its factory shop, or hire a bike and head into the surrounding countryside.
Island forts guard Karlskrona, a UNESCO World Heritage Maritime Town at the heart of an archipelago that’s home to Sweden’s only naval base. See the Italian influence in the 17th-century town grid of broad streets and the impressive Great Square (Stortorget) flanked by two magnificent churches.
Old and new coexist comfortably in Malmö. The atmospheric Old Town, with its narrow cobbled streets, splendid squares, step-gabled and half-timbered houses, grew up inside the city’s winding canals. The amazing Turning Torso is a 21st-century highlight and there are great views of the magnificent Oresund Bridge, which links Malmö with Copenhagen, from the cafes of the Western Harbour. Some of Sweden’s best golf courses are nearby.
Visby is a treat. This medieval walled city on the Swedish island of Gotland is a delight of red-roofed, colour-washed, stepgabled and half-timbered houses. Shops and galleries cluster along narrow streets and winding alleyways, where every turn brings another surprise. Roses scramble across ancient walls, musicians play and museums fascinate. Not surprisingly, this lovely old Hanseatic town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mariehamn is the capital of the 6,500 Åland Islands, an autonomous region of Finland strung between Helsinki and Stockholm. Charming wood-built villas sit alongside tree-lined avenues in the little town that was founded by the Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1861. Traditional crafts are a strong feature here. The two golf courses in Kastelholm have sea and castle views.
Sailing through an archipelago of 40,000 skerries and islands is a memorable introduction to Turku, Finland’s oldest city, the country’s former capital and a 2011 European Capital of Culture. Turku Castle dates back to the 1280s, its Cathedral to 1300, and it’s a lovely riverside walk between the two. Have a drink in one of the quirky pubs – especially the Toilet.
Jewel in the Baltic crown, treasurefilled St Petersburg dazzles the senses. Everything here is on a grand scale. The countless rooms in the Hermitage Museum are as stunning as the art on their walls, churches astound with their sheer size and grandeur, while the opulent imperial palaces and their parks are guaranteed to leave you breathless. Panoramic vistas along the wide Neva River, the third largest river in Europe, take in magnificent architecture, pastel painted and iced with white, and a skyline like no other. Read out St Petersburg Port Guide
Peaceful and natural, with fields, farms, coral cliffs and sandy beaches, Saaremaa, the largest of Estonia’s islands, is a special place. See the well-preserved 14th-century fortress in Kuressaare, the Angla hill of windmills, manor houses and medieval churches, and walk along headlands where seabirds wheel and cowslips grow wild beneath juniper bushes.
In Tallinn’s Old Town, elegant colour-washed buildings and Hansel and Gretel merchants’ houses line narrow streets and cobblestone squares. Church spires rise above red tiled roofs. Medieval walls, strung with fortifying towers, reach down from the hilltop heights like sheltering arms around the atmospheric, busy and buzzing Lower Town, full of tempting shops and outdoor cafes. Estonia’s hugely popular capital will be a European Capital of Culture in 2011.
Gdynia, city of modernist architecture and forested hills, is the gateway to Gdansk, whose shipyard workers shaped Poland’s recent history. It’s hard to believe that in 1945 the historical centre lay in ruins. Framed by a Dutch Renaissance palace, the grand square Dlugi Targ, has tall, gabled burgher’s houses, Baroque façades, Rococo twirls and Renaissance mansions. St Mary’s Basilica, accommodating 25,000 worshippers, houses some superb medieval works of art.
Latvia’s lovely, lively capital Riga was born as a trading port in 1201 and boasts Europe’s best collection of Art Nouveau architecture. The cobbled streets of the riverside Old Town are packed with medieval treasures, soaring spires, sculpted façades and decorated portals, alongside buildings reminiscent of Florentine and Venetian Renaissance palaces, all beautifully restored. See the towering Freedom Monument, shop in stylish stores and visit the Central Market, housed in five vast First World War Zeppelin hangars. Riga is a city to enjoy. Read our Riga Port Guide
Warnemünde, a delightfully pretty little seaside town, is the port for Rostock, where the town centre, pedestrianised and packed with shops, has the graceful, gabled architecture of Hanseatic merchant times. There are step-gables, towers and spires wherever you look, and modern buildings cleverly incorporate elements of traditional architecture in their design. Don’t miss the fascinating astronomical clock in the spectacular 14th-century Marienkirche or the 19th-century lighthouse, currently still in use, located near the beach promenade.