Europe's Baltic Sea Cruises

| Thursday, 29 Aug. 2013


Map of the Baltic Sea

A guide for people considering a European cruise to the Baltic Sea

Highlights of the Baltic Sea Consulting the map to the right you can see the Baltic Sea connects to the North Sea and the Atlantic through the Danish Straits, with Denmark reaching out from the top of Germany like a finger to the south and Norway in the north. Inside the Baltic Sea to the north are Sweden and Finland. On the southern shores are Germany and Poland next to the "Baltic States" of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the east which leave just enough room for one small but very important strip of land to Russia's only major Seaport; St. Petersburg. The typical Baltic cruise usually ends or begins in Copenhagen, Denmark or Stockholm, Sweden, but the highlight of a Baltic cruise for most people is St. Petersburg, (now Russia) but once known as Leningrad, the "Jewel of the Soviet Union."

Although the Baltic Sea is as far north as the major cities of Alaska, the weather can be surprisingly temperate and even hot in summer. Winter can come quickly, however, and you probably don't want to cruise there past mid-September. The area is certainly far more populated and rich in history than Alaska. With some 250 million people living within the Baltic Sea drainage basin, the history of the region goes back thousands of years. Some of the region's cruising highlights include:

The Kiel Canal: The mainland of Denmark (also called Jutland) juts north like a tall finger attached to the coast of Germany on the southern shore of the Baltic. To give ships a shortcut from sailing around Denmark, Germany's Kiel Canal traverses this peninsula just below the border. Both shores of the Kiel Canal are covered in greenery with bike trails, roads and traditional homes.

Denmark: Known as the home of Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark has some 300 cruise ship visits each year. The capital, Copenhagen -- on the island of Zealand east of Jutland -- was founded in 1167. With 1.2 million inhabitants, it is a major trading center. Highlights for visitors include the Tivoli Gardens amusement park and the Stroget, a pedestrian street with buskers and souvenir shops. The Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen (1606) is open for guided tours and contains the Danish Crown Jewels. Kronborg Castle, south of the city, was built in 1420 and is also known as "Elsinore," the setting for William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

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Brandenburg Gate   Tivoli Gardens   Checkpoint Charlie

Germany: The second stop on a typical Baltic cruise is Warnemunde, Germany. This former Eastern Bloc beach town is the gateway to Berlin. The ship dock is just a five-minute walk to the train station, where the Warnemünde-Express offers hourly trains all day long between the port and Berlin.

The train is primarily for Berliners who want to spend a day at the beach, but it is also handy for cruise tourists going the other way. One can disembark early and take the train to Berlin for a reasonable cost. The ride is almost two hours, however, so plan to make it a full day and see as much of Berlin as you can in a short time.

Berlin is a big and sprawling city, so you might choose the ship's excursion there to guarantee you will get back in time. Most cold war vestiges of this once-divided city are gone, including Checkpoint Charlie, but the Brandenburg Gate and a recently renovated Reichstag (formerly the seat of Germany's government) still stand. The TV tower offers an awesome view of the city.

Poland: Gdansk, the fourth largest city in Poland, is usually the next port. The city's shipyard is famous for spawning the Solidarity Union, the organized movement credited with destroying the Communist Party and leading to the election of Lech Walesa as president of Poland. The main attraction is Old Town. This long public square is full of shops selling locally derived amber jewelry and other arts and crafts. There are concerts, shops, outdoor restaurants, puppet shows and beautiful, historic Orthodox churches. A taxi from the pier to Old Town should cost under $15.

Baltic States: Your cruise may stop in Riga (Latvia), Tallinn (Estonia) or Lithuania. By this time you will start to notice a sameness in the region's architecture, which is attributed to the Hanseatic League, a centuries-old trading partnership that linked many cities along the Baltic shore. This generally means tall, four-story buildings with elaborate facades, but somewhat plain and cramped on the inside. The lowest floor is for commercial purposes, with the upper floors built as apartments. The three Baltic States are famous for being the first former Soviet satellites to withdraw from the USSR, but capitalism has not exactly flourished since then. The highlights are their Orthodox churches and antique shops.

Russia: St. Petersburg, Russia, is the jewel of a Baltic cruise. Most ships stop there for at least two full days, some even for three. The city was the de facto capital of Russia until the Communists moved it to Moscow. It is famous for the first home of Peter the Great, and the Czarist Palaces -- including the Summer Palace and Catherine's Palace, both outside the city; and the Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace, in the heart of town. Other attractions include Lenin's office from which he ignited the Russian Revolution, the home of a former Ballerina who had an affair with Peter the Great. The building now houses the Political Museum of Russia with several amazing artifacts of the Communist era.

The more time you have there the more you will see. Other attractions include the Kirov Ballet, the onion-domed Church of the Spilt Blood, and an elaborate private residence called the Yusopov Palace, where citizen friends of Tsar Nicholas attempted to murder Rasputin.

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Peterhof in St Petersburg   Red Square - Moscow   The Back fountains Peterhof

This city is one of the highlights of Europe and the main reason to take a Baltic cruise. Whether you are interested in the Middle Ages, the Tsarist era, the Stalin era or World War II, you should find the city and surrounding area fascinating.

Helsinki, Finland: In truth, many ships do not stop at this stark Scandinavian city with few distinguishing sites. The Helsinki Cathedral is one of the main attractions. It is a lovely city, however, and the ship will dock close to a very busy shopping district perfect for finding inexpensive and authentic souvenirs.

Stockholm: One of the best things is the ship's long, meandering approach to the city through an archipelago of beautifully lush islands. Be out on deck or on your balcony to watch the scenery go by. When you finally reach the city, you'll see statues on the waterway alongside Gamla Stan, Stockholm's old town, where pedestrian streets are lined with shops selling art, glass and other unique crafts.

The city is the home of the Nobel Prize committee and museum. A nighttime attraction is one of the first ever Ice Bars, a vodka tavern constructed purely of ice blocks and where the chairs, bar and drinking glasses are all made of ice. But Stockholm's must-see attraction is the Vasa Museum, built to house one of the largest and best-preserved wooden warships ever built (in 1612). The Vasa was rescued from the bottom of Stockholm's bay, where it sank immediately after being christened. The museum is a huge closed structure large enough to contain the entire ship, and to let visitors walk all the way around it from the keel to above the top deck. See http://www.vasamuseet.se/InEnglish/about.aspx

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The Ice Bar - Stockholm   Danish Crown Jewels   Norwgian Fjord

Norway: A starkly beautiful country, a special Norwegian cruise will go up the Atlantic coast to what is called the "North Cape," the top of the Scandinavian land mass above the Arctic Circle. Along the coast are beautifull fjords cut from ancient glaciers. Ships can traverse these fjords like threading a needle as long as their is room at the end to turn around.

The Baltic Sea is one of the "must do" cruises of Europe, although it also tends to be a more expensive cruise due to the robust economies of the Scandanavian states and the distance required to fly there. Some cruises leave from Britain and get there surprisingly fast, which makes airfare less expensive. But you will have to traverse the North Sea, notorious for high seas, especially in early autumn.

For some recently announced bargains to the Baltic Sea (as of Aug 2013) please consult Fran Golden's Blog "All about the Baltic" over at the site for Porthole Magazine.

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