What a cruise to Northern Europe is really like
On my recent trip to Northern Europe I sailed with Disney Cruise Lines, although based on the research I did of other companies sailing in the Baltic Sea, the itineraries are basically the same (when leaving from the port of Copenhagen, Denmark). So I thought I would do a general run-down on what a Northern European cruise is like on a seven-night sailing.
Most cruises to Northern Europe originate in Copenhagen (an awesome port to leave from if I do say so myself, one of my top five favorite European cities) and visit Tallinn (Estonia), St. Petersburg (Russia), Helsinki (Finland), and Stockholm (Sweden). Cruises that are longer than seven nights will sometimes visit additional locales like Berlin and Amsterdam. I’m listing them in the order we visited.
Tallinn’s Old Town is absolutely gorgeous (as I knew it would be) and I feel even if you don’t end up going on a tour and instead just aimlessly wander its streets filled with the most stunning and brightly colored buildings, you will still have a lovely time. The food tour I went on was not only a great way to try local food but also to learn about the country’s history and culture. The Old Town (where most visitors venture) is an easy 15 minute walk from the cruise terminal. Even though Estonian is an obscure and difficult language (at least pronunciation-wise), everyone in the Old Town speaks English and the Euro is the official currency here, although credit cards in stores and eateries were also widely accepted.
For most people, visiting St. Petersburg is the main reason they book a Northern European cruise. The benefit to visiting Russia via cruise is that you don’t need a visa like you do if arriving by air, provided you book an excursion through your cruise ship OR through a tour company officially recognized by the Russian government (the Rick Steves Northern European Cruise Ports book is a great resource to find these tour companies). If you don’t have a visa, you can’t just walk the streets of St. Petersburg alone (well, I guess you could but you would risk serious trouble were you to ever get stopped by police). St. Petersburg is an incredible place when you take into account the myriad of things you can do there- art, history, cultural pursuits, the list is endless. And cruise ships account for this- you’ll spend the most time by far in St. Petersburg when compared to the other ports. You’ll arrive in the morning and won’t leave until almost midnight. The downside to St. Petersburg is that it is sprawling and with so much to see and do, you’ll feel (more than in other ports) that you barely scratched the surface while there.
Since you have so much time in port, it will be possible to do two port excursions in one day, so don’t feel that once you return to the ship, you can’t possibly get back off again. I ended up booking a private eight hour tour (which I’ll write more about in another post) and then a small group port excursion at night.
St. Petersburg is the only port where you will actually have to go through immigration/passport control every time you leave and return to the ship (plus side is you get a cool passport stamp, a rarity when on cruises). English by Russian speakers varied in terms of skill and level. I did seem to get some appreciative looks when I said thank you in Russian. Russia’s currency is the ruble, and I made a point of getting some prior to visiting, but at every large tourist outfit, cards were also accepted.
If your cruise visits Helsinki directly following St. Petersburg where you spent a significant amount of time constantly on the go, you’ll probably feel a bit exhausted by the time you get to Finland. This, coupled with the fact you’ll have a lot less time compared to the previous day in Russia, makes it seem like Helsinki is getting the short end of the stick which is a shame because I left there feeling incredibly fascinated by such an odd and eccentric country. (I mean only Finland could have a contest where male participants carry their wives on their backs and whoever travels the farthest is the victor.)
Helsinki’s historic city center is pretty compact but their public transportation is wonderfully efficient (as is the case in all Scandinavian countries). So if you’re like me and have interest in seeking out the wacky yet chic-ly designed Sibelius Monument, just hop on a tram. I loved just being in Senate Square and even though Helsinki is a rather “young” capital city compared to places like Copenhagen and Stockholm, it really was a neat place when you think about its intricate history with its former rulers Russia and Sweden.
I’ll admit, Helsinki was the port I was least interested in visiting and yet it turned out to be a port I left thinking, I could totally see myself returning here one day. For most Americans, their knowledge of anything Finnish is scant (and that’s probably being generous) but talk about getting a wonderful unexpected surprise after visiting. If your time there is limited like mine was, here’s the perfect itinerary on how to see Helsinki in a day.
I can’t speak for other cruise lines, but Disney Cruise had buses to transport passengers from the terminal to the city center since the former was quite a distance away. Finland uses the Euro.
Stockholm is a huge city further complicated by the fact that it’s situated on various islands (a true Venice of the north). So a recommendation for Stockholm is to have a set itinerary of sorts even if you’re exploring on your own to make the most of your time there, since many of the popular sights are located on different islands.
There is so much to see and do in Sweden’s capital and if you don’t have unlimited time you’re unfortunately going to have to pick a few things of most interest, especially if they’re popular attractions like the Vasa Museum which draws huge crowds. Gamla Stan is the city’s oldest neighborhood and while it’s pretty, it’s also INUNDATED with tourists and the tackiest of tourist shops. So just be discerning.
Stockholm was the only city in which I hadn’t booked a tour of any kind and this was both good and bad. It was good in the sense I did exactly what I wanted to (eat Swedish meatballs, go on a boat excursion, climb the City Hall tower). A regret was not having booked a private walking tour in Gamla Stan. That particular neighborhood is home to so much history and having a native guide to walk through and explain stuff would have been a lot more worthwhile.
Just as in Helsinki, Disney Cruise Line provided buses which left us off about a five minute walk from Gamla Stan. Sweden has its own currency, the Kroner.
Our cruise took place in mid-August and the weather was stunning, save for the day spent in St. Petersburg which was dismal and featured a brief torrential downpour. That was also the only day in which there was rain. All of Europe had been going through an intense heat wave for the summer, but the cruise started at the tail end of it so thankfully temperatures were never higher than the mid-70s during the day. Tallinn and Helsinki had the best weather in terms of blue skies, Stockholm was hit or miss throughout the day we were there. Our guide in St. Petersburg told us that the city actually receives a ton of rain each year so a beautiful blue sky day is more the rarity than the norm.
Dark & gloomy St. Petersburg
As for packing from a female perspective, I would bring a couple of pairs of jeans but also either a pair of shorts/skirt and some casual dresses along with a light jacket and a cardigan or two (which also comes in handy on the cruise ship). The only time I ended up with an actual jacket (a leather one) was the night I visited the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg as the skies had grown threatening again, along with lower temperatures.
As the cruise was almost two months removed from the Summer Equinox, the sun didn’t “stay up” as long as it did when I was on my Norway cruise in early June but it was still lighter a lot later than here in the Eastern United States (for example, most sunsets were around 9:30PM).
A Baltic Sea sunset-no filter needed.
Unlike in the North Sea and Alaska’s Inside Passage, sailing in the Baltic Sea was a completely calm and tranquil experience. Not to say an unexpected storm couldn’t come and make things difficult some day, but from the staff I spoke to on-board, overall Baltic Sea cruises are definitely mellow. Tons of people I saw were sporting either the motion sickness bands or the things behind their ears, but I’ve talked to so many people who say that just makes things worse. So I was glad to just be fine on my own two legs.
Little islands we encountered after sailing away from Helsinki.
The coolest thing ever
On a Northern European cruise you are visiting four different countries and while they are geographically close to each other, they all have their own language, their own history, their own cuisine. So being able to visit four new countries on one trip and soak in all of that was simply incredible.
Of the four countries I visited on a Northern European cruise, I would absolutely return to each one of them either via cruise or even better, by land. That’s the wonderful thing about a cruise, especially in Europe. It gives you a taste of what those destinations are like, a most pleasing appetizer.
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