With its cooler climes compared to the Mediterranean, some cruise ship passengers are not keen on booking a Baltic cruise.
Don’t, though, and you miss out on the chance to sail in the wake of the Vikings through a fascinating corner of the world awash with grand imperial cities and epic history, interwoven with cutting edge Nordic design and laden with myriad experiences. In summer the mercury does soar and you benefit from far longer hours of daylight than the Mediterranean.
The countries around the Baltic Sea can be split between the main rump of mainland Europe and Scandinavia. On its southern shores Denmark and Germany tempt in the west, before moving east there is Poland and on to the trio of Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, before the most easterly point of Russia. On the northern flank of the brackish Baltic Sea lies the Scandinavian Peninsula, home to the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland, all of whose northern extremities veer into the Arctic Circle.
The big decision is whether to cruise from a British port or save time by booking a fly-cruise. The former involves a fair deal of sailing before you actually get to the Baltic cities that you want to explore, though a number of cruises use the Kiel Canal – an engineering highlight in its own right – to save time as it slices underneath Denmark in its 59 mile length, cutting out the need to head up and around the country’s northern reaches.
The fly-cruise option allows you to sweep out to various cities, saving days of travel in the process. In essence the further east you fly the more time you will save and then the more cities you will be able to cover on the way back west. It is also possible to arrange your own city break in the place you fly to, or have this included in your cruise package.
Weather affects cruising more in the Baltic Sea than it does in the Mediterranean, particularly in the duration of the season, which is generally May to September, though some companies have been trying to extend this. The issue is that even if there is no ice or poor sea conditions temperatures can become chilly, especially in the evenings.
The best time to go is June or September. The weather tends to be warm, but the summer crowds have not all arrived yet. You may need a jumper at night or even a jacket, but that’s a small price to pay for smaller queues at museums and being able to get a seat in cafes and restaurants. These are a real joy in the region as people across the Baltic region embrace the warmer months after the deprivation of a light-starved winter.
The summer crowds are most acutely felt in three of the most popular destinations of St. Petersburg, Copenhagen and Stockholm. Elsewhere many of the Baltic cities, unlike the Mediterranean, remain pleasantly devoid of the tourist hordes.
It is impossible to cover everything even given the standard 10-14 day cruise duration in the Baltic, but here are some places that will be highlights:
St. Petersburg: The grandaddy of all Baltic cities and truly one of the world’s great cities. There is Visa-free access for cruise ship passengers on excursions. You can stroll with the ghosts of Tsars along its famous canals, take in the weight of history and enjoy the remarkable art treasures of the sublime Hermitage.
Stockholm: The Swedish capital for most Baltic Sea passengers is the most attractive capital city in Scandinavia. Water abounds, as do palaces, leafy parks and a flurry of world-class art galleries and museums. A grand city on a human scale that is supremely easy to get around with plenty of cafes and restaurants to savour en route.
Copenhagen: Perhaps the hippest city in the region at the moment with its illustrious Michelin star restaurants and its pivotal role in the fashion for all things Nordic. The much-vaunted Mermaid may be surprisingly small, but little else disappoints in the canal-studded Danish capital.
Helsinki: It’s no wonder that the Finnish capital often stands in as a Hollywood double for St. Petersburg as this stately city boasts a palpable grandeur and remarkable architecture. Then there are the lively markets and a sprinkling of islands to explore, each awash with its own history.
Tallinn: The Estonian capital is the most visually stunning of the Baltic Republic trio. Stroll the cobbled streets and savour the church spies and fairytale castles whose romance Disney could only dream of.
Gdansk: A real fulcrum of Polish and indeed European history as both World War Two and the fall of the Berlin Wall really kicked off in Gdansk, or Danzig in German. Today Gdansk’s Unesco World Heritage listed old town stars alongside its tumultuous twentieth century history.
There are a number of less well-known places worth seeking out around the Baltic Sea too. Here are two highlights:
Riga: The Latvian capital is seeing cruise ship numbers rise as savvy passengers head to explore the picturesque delights of its Unesco World Heritage listed old town and its dramatic Germanic Art Nouveau district. Its lively café and bar scene tempts too, as does the nearby beach resort of Jurmala.
Klaipeda: The chief attraction of this Lithuanian city is the easy access it offers to the otherworldly escape of the Neringa Spit, a massive dune kissed expanse of sand you can tour on excursion or cycle around. The city’s compact old quarter also tempts near to port….