Summer in the Baltic can bring plenty of sunshine – a perfect time for cruise passengers to explore the heady mix of history and modern culture, writes cruise journalist Lesley Bellew.
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Let’s start with some trivia
Video chat computer programme Skype was founded by Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, who come from Sweden and Denmark, plus the software was created by Estonians Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu and Jaan Tallinn.
Why have I mentioned this on a piece about cruising? It’s just to prepare you for what is happening in the Baltic’s historic cities – a fast-emerging ultra-cool, hip and happening vibe.
Anyway, back to cruise and let’s start with Sweden…
There are times on a cruise ship when the scenery simply takes your breath away and sailing into Stockholm does just that.
Ships sail past a myriad of small islands where Stockholmers take their holidays and there’s a colourful mix of trees, wooden homes and simple rowing boats moored at the water’s edge.
As the ships weave their way to approach the Swedish capital there is a peaceful, natural beauty that let’s you know Stockholm will be something special.
The city is gracefully perched on 14 islands, connected by 40 bridges, and there are lots of decisions to be made about what to do in your one day ashore. If you can book a cruise with an overnighter in any of the Baltic cities it is well worth doing.
Gamla Stan is the city’s oldest district with winding streets lined with independent shops brimming with homeware, handicrafts, art and antiques.
There’s also a sophisticated coffee culture and going for a ‘fika’ is a very Swedish habit. Fika means ‘meet up for a coffee and a pastry’ and you’ll find funky cafés and cake shops every step of the way. If it’s cold try a cinnamon bun washed down with a bowl of hot chocolate.
The city is rich in galleries and museums - my top four are ABBA The Museum, the Vasa Museum and wildcard finds – Fotografiska and the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design.
Ok, the ABBA The Museum is touristy but it is great fun to celebrate Sweden’s most iconic band, who have sold almost 380 million albums worldwide.
There’s even a chance to be a Dancing Queen in the disco or just drool over the trademark satin costumes!
The museum is on the island of Djurgården and just a walk from the Vasa Museum, where you can see the magnificent Vasa warship which sank in Stockholm Harbour after being launched on her maiden voyage in 1628.
The ship was forgotten until the mid 1950s and was not raised to the surface until 1961. It is now back to its former, heavily ornate glory and presents an authoritative insight into 17th-century maritime life.
Fotografiska is a cutting edge photograph gallery near the cruise terminal. Expect to see edgy, thought-provoking displays and exhibitions, and better still, the upstairs restaurant serves organic produce and there are fantastic views over the water.
Rich in architecture and design
The Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design, in Skeppsholmen, is a fantastic building full of everything anyone could want to know about Swedish construction from the 19th century to present day eco-thinking. Admission is free.
From new to classic architecture, Drottningholm Palace is often included on cruise tours. It is in a glorious lakeside setting and home to the King and Queen of Sweden. In many ways it rivals Versailles with its ornate interiors and formal Baroque gardens.
The official royal residence is Stockholm Palace, next to the Swedish Parliament, in Stadsholem, at the south end of the Norrbro. Fans of baroque and rococo styling will love the hundreds of ornate rooms.
Outside, watch the changing of the guard before stepping back into Gamla Stan for more coffee and cakes!
Related: Explore Sweden without the crowds on a cruise to the Baltic treasures.
Do you remember those Saatchi adverts from the 1970s, proclaiming Carlsberg as probably the best beer the world?
Well, Carlsberg’s first brewery was in Copenhagen and you can take a tour while in the city.
However, I would take that ad one step further and suggest Copenhagen is probably the best and coolest of the Baltic capitals.
It’s beautiful, bike-friendly and easily accessible for cruise passengers. Ships dock near the Little Mermaid statue so there’s really no need for a tour as you can walk along the waterside to the city’s main shopping Stroget and along to Nyhavn's bars and restaurants.
Of course, when in Denmark you should try a Danish pastry and at the family-run bakery Reihn van Hauen, established in 1876, the custard and almond pastries fly off the shelf!
The bakery is at Store Kongen 45 and close enough for a pitstop when visiting the Design Museum or Amalienborg Palace for the Changing of The Royal Guard.
The hop-on hop-off bus is good value, particularly if you have an overnight port of call, being a flexible way to see the main attractions such as Tivoli Gardens (which is much more atmospheric in the evenings), City Hall Square and perhaps hop off at Ved Stranden, a lovely area by the canal which is lined with pavement bars.
Do not miss another architectural masterpiece, the Black Diamond, a modern waterfront extension to the Royal Danish Library on Slotsholmen.
This stunning polished granite building hosts concerts, shows and literary events, and is home to the National Museum of Photography and the Museum of Danish Cartoon Art.
One for the road? The Carlsberg Brewery tour awaits at Gamle Carlsberg Vej 11.
Related: Cruising the beautiful Baltic seas.
The capital of Finland, Helsinki, is Design Central for lovers of the contemporary Scandi Modern style. Of note, it features 20th century architect Alavar Aalto’s wonderful Finlandia Hall and the Design Museum.
Helsinki was also the birthplace of composer Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) and cruise ships offer tours to Sibelius’s former home near Lake Tuusula.
The journey doubles nicely as a city tour, driving past the Market Square, Swedish Theatre, Parliament Building, the National Museum and the Finnish National Opera House to the suburb of Ainola.
Sibelius’s home has been preserved as it was during his family’s lifetime and often a performance of his greatest works is featured during tours.
There is usually another stop at the Sibelius Monument in Sibelius Park, set in the nicely named district of Töölö.
The 24-tonne monument is made up of 600 hollow steel pipes welded in a wave-like pattern to look like organ pipes. It’s a striking piece of abstract art, although purists complain Sibelius barely wrote organ music and give it some criticism. I love it and abstract is the key word!
Related: Hidden gems to visit in the Baltic.
The BBC One period drama War & Peace renewed my fascination with Russian history; it all seemed so confusing at school but to see St Petersburg in all of its opulent glory encourages you to find out even more.
Most ships stay two or three nights to allow passengers to visit the magnificent palaces and museums. First on the list is the Hermitage Museum, home of the Winter Palace and about three million individual pieces of art by some of the greatest European masters including Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt.
Do take a private tour if you can stretch to it as it includes the State Apartments, the halls of the Winter Palace plus the Small Hermitage where Catherine the Great held musical receptions.
A recital of classical music by the Hermitage Academy of Music’s Symphony Orchestra tops the tour.
Related: Things to do in St Petersburg.
One of the newest attractions in the city is the Fabergé Museum which opened in 2013, in the Shuvalov Palace, an elegant 18th-century neo-Classical mansion. It contains 1,500 works by jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé.
Although Fabergé is best known for his eggs, he produced a range of other beautiful items such as silver tableware to fine jewellery. The museum has nine of the Imperial eggs, including the first - the Hen Egg, complete with a golden yolk and tiny gold hen.
Another tour option is the hour’s drive to Tsaskoye Selo to see the lavish Catherine Palace which is painted in pale blue and adorned with more than 200lbs of gold leaf.
In 1752, Empress Elizabeth asked architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to rebuild the palace on a grand scale and the present rococo building was the result.
An evening at the ballet
Dance enthusiasts can also enjoy a Russian classical ballet performance. There are several options including visiting the Aurora Hall, by the River Neva, to see the Russian Ballet Theatre accompanied by the State Symphony Orchestra.
Do remember that if you are on a ship's tour you can go ashore without a visa; to explore alone, you will need to obtain a Russian visa before leaving the UK.
Stay overnight in Stockholm and St Petersburg on Saga's White Nights of the Baltic cruise. Find out more here
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, can be easily reached by walking 15 minutes from the port, but there are usually shuttle buses for those who want a lift.
The medieval walled city is beautifully preserved with fairy-tale spires and watch towers, red gabled roofs and cobbled streets - a magical place to wander past old merchants’ houses and into the Town Hall Square.
The walk into the city takes you past the equally fascinating Linnahall, a giant piece of abandoned brutal architecture just along from the port.
The concrete V.I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport was built by the Russians to host yachting events during the Moscow 1980 Olympics. It was never used and is now abandoned, except for the helipad. If ever there was a great film set it’s here!
Those fascinated by the Soviet Era can join a tour to Lasnamäe - a typical district of Soviet-era apartment complexes - and visit Hotel Viru which is home to the KGB Museum (on the 23rd floor).
The hotel was built in the 70s and from here the KGB would spy on foreign hotel guests and locals.
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