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Northern Europe Cruise Smackdown-Norway versus the Baltic Sea

Northern Europe Cruise Smackdown-Norway versus the Baltic Sea

While I’ve yet to sail the Mediterranean (and frankly, seen that much of it either), I have now taken two Northern European cruises. While both sail from one of my favorite European cities, Copenhagen, the ports you visit and experience will be quite different. So if you have your heart set on doing a Northern European cruise but aren’t sure which one is right for you, read on.

A Norwegian cruise 

Best for outdoorsy types, families with children, individuals more interested in seeing natural sights than city ones.

Outdoorsy types:

For someone who loves the outdoors, Norway is truly a paradise. Despite being just under 150,000 square miles, Norway is home to more than 300 waterfalls, including nine of the 20 highest in the world.  I absolutely adored my day in Geirangerfjord when my ship sailed past the famed Seven Sisters waterfall. If you’re wondering about the name,  the waterfall consists of seven separate streams, and the tallest of the seven has a free fall that measures over 800 feet (around 250 meters).

Northern-Europe-cruises

And then there’s hiking. When you have majestic mountains and fjords for as far as the eye can see, well, Norway’s incredible landscape would provide motivation to the couchiest of couch potatoes. One of my biggest regrets from my cruise to Norway is that I didn’t hike to Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock in English). It’s a steep cliff which rises nearly 1000 feet (600 meters) above the Lysefjorden and atop the cliff there’s an almost flat top  approximately 82 by 82 feet (25 by 25 meters). I was worried there wouldn’t be enough time to sail the fjord (you leave from Stavanger), hike, and make it back in time to the ship but numerous people did. Next time…

Families with children:

I think it goes without saying that young children are going to dig the great outdoors a lot more than being pushed through a royal palace in a stroller. In a country like Norway, most of the ports where the cruise ships stop  are non-city (or at least big cities, I should say). So less traffic, fewer people, less chaos having to navigate and more places to run around and be loud (when the occasion calls for it), and the chance to have truly once in a lifetime adventures. And at least for the little girl demographic, when you say you’re going to the country that inspired the mythical land of Arendelle (of Frozen fame), well, you know you’ll have those votes of support. I think more children would be enchanted by waterfalls and going to the top of a snow-covered mountain than a walking tour of a European city center. As much as I am the latter now as an adult, as a child, I too would have dug a Norway cruise more.

Cruising-Geirangerfjord

Individuals more interested in seeing natural sights than city ones:

I know there are many people who would be fine if they never visited a major city. So obviously, a cruise that visits four major cities, all with populations of over half a million (well, Tallinn comes close at 426,000), would be a major turnoff for people who don’t find charm in heavy traffic, throngs of people on sidewalks, and queues for attractions out the wazoo. Granted, while the capital of Norway is fairly large (Oslo’s population is around 634,000), most seven night Norwegian cruises don’t stop there. In fact, the largest city you’d visit is Bergen which is around 270,000 people.

Bergen-cruise-port

If sailing through  many fjords is your thing and you get an intense rush out of driving up a crazy road with too many switchbacks to keep track of, then by all means, sail to Norway. The total population of Norway is just over five million people, so don’t worry, you’ll see more scenery than people (minus your cruise mates, of course).

A Baltic Sea cruise

Best for country counters, individuals who have always dreamt about visiting Russia, and lovers of history.

Country counters: 

Don’t get me wrong, each and every one of the cities you visit on a Baltic Sea cruise is phenomenal (including Helsinki, which I  loved much more than I thought I would ). And yet, it’s extremely cool to take one cruise and in the course of  seven nights, have visited four separate countries (five if you count Denmark which is where the cruises typically leave from). While the only passport stamp you’ll get will be in Russia, you’re still physically stepping foot in four European countries, all with  abundant  charm and unique offerings.

What-a-cruise-to-Northern-Europe-is-really-like

Individuals who have always dreamt about visiting Russia:

Granted, there are some people that will go on a cruise because they want to, or because the overall itinerary  appeals to them. And then there’s one destination in particular the cruise stops at, and individuals book said cruise because of said destination and that would be Russia.

Most-beautiful-metro-stations-in-St-Petersburg

Russia can be difficult and expensive to visit on your own;  for starters you need a visa, which isn’t cheap. However, if you visit via cruise ship, you won’t need one. For more information on that, click here where I go into greater detail about what it’s like to visit St. Petersburg, Russia on a cruise.

St. Petersburg is one of the most incredible cities I have ever visited (if not the most incredible). Even though I was born at the very end of the Cold War, Russia, its people, its culture, had always intrigued me since it was off limits to Americans for decades. And unlike many ports one visits on a cruise that feel lacking in authenticity, experiences done more for the part of the tourists, etc, in St. Petersburg, authenticity is de rigueur.

Cruises-to-Northern-Europe

The only bad thing about visiting St. Petersburg? You won’t have nearly enough time to see and do everything you could possibly want to. My recommendation is if you splurge only once on your cruise, let it be in St. Petersburg. Maximize your time there to the fullest.

Lovers of history:

It goes without saying that St. Petersburg is replete with history-Czarist history, world wars, Communism. I mean, I don’t think you can visit a more historically rich nation than Russia, even if a good deal of it is tragic and sad. I’ve always loved anything having to do with the history of the czars and yet once I was there, I was captivated by all things having to do with the former Soviet Union.

Best-time-for-Baltic-Sea-cruises

But lest you think Russia is the only place with interesting history,  the Swedish and Finnish capitals were two places  I knew very little about.  However, it was  fascinating learning about  the Stockholm Bloodbath of the 16th century or how Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire until the Russian Revolution in 1917. But what amazed me even more was the statue of a Russian czar outside of Helsinki’s famed Lutheran cathedral, even though the country had long resented being under Russian rule. But it was a sign of how much the Finnish people  respected that czar.

And then there’s Estonia, a country whose total population is only a little more than a million but whose history is intense and staggering, including being occupied by both the Nazis and the Red Army during World War II but whose beautiful old town suffered little to no damage during the war, unlike the fate that befell how many other European historical centers.

Exploring-Tallinn-old-town

My final thoughts? Both cruises are amazing. My cruise to Norway was also around the time that I really started getting into more nature/landscape themed trips. Ten years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of going all the way to Europe and not hitting up a capital city. And yet, Norway changed all of that. But I equally love cities too, and the cities found along the Baltic Sea are truly spectacular with sights that rival anything you’d find in Paris or London. However, if you’re clearly more inclined towards nature or more inclined towards cities, then you know which cruise is right for you.

Northern Europe Cruise Smackdown-Norway versus the Baltic Sea

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Northern Europe Cruise Smackdown-Norway versus the Baltic Sea

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