There are actually only 3 Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. However, 9 countries have a shoreline along the Baltic Sea: Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia.
Much like a cruise in Alaska (see out post), a Baltic cruise is an efficient and relaxing way to explore the maritime regions of these countries, which is why cruise lines for all budgets cruise the Baltic Sea.
A fair wind at our back is best – Norwegian proverb
Silversea has some of smaller ships (about 200m) perfectly suited for the Baltic Sea – the smaller ships, for instance can dock on the Neva river in Russia either at the Lt. Schmidt’s embankment (see below) or the English embankment, which is even closer to downtown. Either way, it’s at most a 30 minute walk to the Hermitage Museum.
Sea conditions can be influenced by rogue events like earthquakes, but conditions usually depend on ocean currents and wind speed, wind duration, and fetch (the distance over water that the wind blows in a single direction). Cruises are only available in summer months, and winds are typically calmest during July, August and September. One of the highest waves ever measured was observed in January 2017 during storm Toini, which produced a 14 meter (42 foot) wave.
The Baltic Sea is connected to the ocean only through the Danish waters via shallow and narrow straits, resulting in virtually no external ocean current or wave energy. So when the wind is calm, the sea is calm, as shown above during our cruise in August.
TIP: Westerly winds predominate over the Baltic Sea and storms that pass eastward over central Scandinavia have the most impact on severe wave conditions, so weather forecasts of Copenhagen and Stockholm may help forewarn you.
5 Ports of Call on a Baltic Cruise:
The popular ports of call are Helsinki (Finland), Tallin (Estonia), Stockholm (Sweden), Copenhagen (Denmark) and St. Petersburg (Russia), and the latter was the highlight of our Baltic Sea cruise.
Copenhagen, Denmark is the starting point for most of the Baltic Sea cruises. It’s a wonderful walking city with a strong culinary tradition. The city’s historic center is comprised of an 18th century rococo district, and still home to the royal family. There are many notable sites to visit.
The Little Mermaid, a bronze statue by Edvard Eriksen, depicting a mermaid becoming human and based on the 1837 fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen has become a major tourist attraction. It is among the world statues that symbolize cities.
The Stroget area of Copenhagen is a walking area in the old centre, one of the longest pedestrian shopping streets in Europe at 1.1 km. It has long been one of the most high-profile streets in the city.
There are two iconic castles within the city of Copenhagen, Christiansborg Castle and Rosenberg Castle, both worth a visit. Just outside the city (44 minutes by car), and worth the short trip is the Kronborg Castle (Unesco World Heritage Site) in the town of Helsingor, Denmark, immortalized as Elsinore in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Elsinore is right where the distance between Denmark and Sweden is the shortest. Built in the renaissance style in 1420s, It’s been burned to the ground and rebuilt since, but always maintained its vital position at the head of the Sound. Ships passing into the Baltic Sea paid tolls at Kronborg Castle and the town was once one of the most important towns in Europe.
Denmark’s early culinary tradition was a simple one. It was the Danish farmers’ lunch, a local favorite delicacy, that is now even served in high-end restaurants and considered its national dish. The open-faced sandwich consists of a slice of rye bread, fish or meat, vegetables, and sauce on top. The heavier dishes consisted of crispy pork with parsley sauce and potatoes or breaded pork patties or meatballs. Such dishes satisfied the appetites of Danes for centuries. Since the 2000s, partly due to the fact that it has the most important cooking school in Northern Europe, Danish cuisine has undergone a transformation. Using local and international produce, the visionary chefs have adopted a new philosophy of cuisine, and the international community has responded enthusiastically, patronizing the high end, Michelin starred restaurants. It is home to Noma, voted the World’s Best Restaurant in five years: 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014 and 2021 (Noma 2.0) with three Michelin stars, Geranium which holds three Michelin stars and was voted the fifth best restaurant in the world in 2019 and second best in 2021, after Noma. In the 2021 guide, 14 restaurants across the city received at least one Michelin Star and 23 total stars.
Tallinn, Estonia is an adorable capital with a 15th century defensive tower and a Gothic town hall built in the 13th century. The old historic center is easy to navigate and is filled with restaurants and cafes.
The origins of the city of Tallinn date back to the 13th century, when a castle was built there by the crusading knights of the Teutonic Order, who constituted a small mercenary military for the protection of Christians in the Holy Land and the Baltics. It developed as a major centre of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe.
Much of the modern history of Estonia involves the Soviet Union and Russia today. As a relatively small country (the size of Dallas, Texas), its three-decade-old independence doesn’t mean that it is free from Russia’s gaze. With Russia’s increased influence in the region, and as the Russians are only two hours away from its capital, Tallinn, Estonia remains in a difficult position and is doing all it can not to provoke a Russian re-entry.
The Estonians do not have a positive view of Russia and its far reaching aspirations, throughout history Estonia has been in and out of the Russian sphere. The Estonians desperately would like culturally and politically to be allied with the northern European countries, the likes of Denmark and Sweden. The Cathedral of Alexander Nevky, built in the old Russian orthodox style of the 1894 to 1900s when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, gives us a glimpse of the past Russian presence.
Estonia’s culinary tradition incorporates elements from Germany, Russia, Sweden and Denmark. The basis is one of seasonal peasant food, including sprats, sauerkraut, jellied meat and blood sausage. The kiluvõileib is a sprat sandwich much like the Danish open sandwiches, with a greyish fish on top of dark bread and a sauce, sometimes served with egg. From the Russian tradition, Kohuke is basically freshly pressed sweet curd covered in chocolate or caramel. One Estonian dish not adapted from other cuisines is the Mulgipuder , a porridge of potatos and grouts, usually served with bacon.
Stockholm, Sweden is the capital and a relatively large metropolis (1 million). The city has a very European feel, a global city that is one of the top 10 regions in Europe by GDP. Its location is the junction of Lake Mälaren and Salt Bay, an arm of the Baltic Sea, opposite the Gulf of Finland. The city is built upon numerous islands as well as the mainland of Uppland and Sodermanland. The charm of its setting lies in the intermingling of land and water – the intricate pattern of waterways encompassing the city. The city has world-class museums, theaters, galleries, and gorgeous parklands, with an extensive public transit system, the underground railway system, the Tunnelbana (T-bana), takes you almost anywhere in the city. A highly efficient and regular bus network fills in any gaps between destinations.
Dating from the 1200s and crammed with must-see sights, attractions, cafés, authentic restaurants, and boutique shops, the area of Gamla Stan (Old Town) is a living museum in its own right. This is the original nucleus of the city, consisting of Stads Island, Helgeands Island, and Riddar Island. The buildings in this area are mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries. This well-preserved city nucleus, with the original network of streets and many of its buildings dating from the Middle Ages, is legally protected from change. Across the bridge from the Old Town is Monteliusvagen, a 500 meter long walking path with views of Lake Malaren. It is the iconic Stockhom view and makes for great photography.
Generally, the Changing of the Guard ceremony – including a military marching band and parade – is held every day from April 23 to August 31. The Royal Guards Ceremony at the Royal Palace of Stockholm lasts about 40 minutes. It starts at 12:15 pm in the palace outer courtyard on weekdays, and at 1:15 pm on Sundays.
Sweden’s culinary history dates back to the Vikings, who inhabited all of Scandinavia more than one thousand years ago. The Vikings were some of the first to develop a method for preserving foods. In preparation for long voyages, foods were salted, dehydrated, and cured. Although there is no longer a need for such preservation methods (refrigeration, etc), the Swedes continue to salt, dehydrate and cure. Swedish cuisine has not been as popular as other European cuisine and modern-day restaurants in Sweden tend to serve more foreign dishes than their own. The Kanelbulle or the cinnamon bun is delicious spiced rolls, which can be found in every café, bakery and food shop around the country. Herring is plentiful in the area and Swedes are pros at cooking, pickling and smoking these small, flavorful fish. Husmanskost is a style of cooking, roughly translated as ‘house owner’s fare’, comprising the peasant-style cooking that was meant to sustain you through a long day. These days, the owner’s fare is made up of many of the dishes Sweden is most famous for, including meatballs. However, being a major metropolitan centre, Stockholm does not lack fine dining establishments. There are also several Michel starred restaurants, Frantzen (3 stars), Oaxen (2 stars) and Aloe (1 star).
Helsinki, Finland’s capital sits right on the Gulf of Finland and was rebuilt in 1812 by the Russians, along the same lines as St. Petersburg. In 1809 Finland had been ceded to Russia by the Swedes, although the Finns did retain a considerable amount of autonomy. They kept their own legal system, religion, and were exempt from Russian military service. From 1917 on, Finland was independent until it was invaded by the USSR in 1944. Even though Finland had to concede some land, it was able to defend its territory and was never a Soviet State. It retained its independence after WWII. As a result, unlike the Estonians, Finnish attitudes toward Russia are warm and cold, depending on the time.
Today, Helsinki has a very small town feel, even though it is an international metropolis. Mannerheimintie is the central avenue and is full of iconic institutions including the National Museum, tracing Finnish history from the Stone Age to the present as well as the Parliament House and Kiasma, the contemporary museum.
Helsinki’s cathedrals are well known icons throughout the world. Uspenskin Cathedral is an Eastern Orthodox cathedral built during the period 1862-1868. The Helsinki Cathedral is Lutheran, and a neoclassical masterpiece of western and Russian styles designed by one of Finland’s greatest architects, Carl Ludvig Engel. The Temppeliaukion Church is a Lutheran Church built in 1969, and built directly into solid rock.
Traditional Finnish cuisine include Karjalanpiirakka or Karelian pies, as they are also known, small pies that fit into your hand. The crust was traditionally made with rye flour and filled with potatoes, rice or carrots. Kalakukko are similar to karjalanpiirakka, but bigger in size and made with fish. They are most commonly filled with muikku, a small herring-like fish found in the Lake District of Eastern Finland. In the summer especially, grillimakkara are popular. These big, fat sausages made for grilling and are eaten with mustard. Reindeer are found in Finland’s northern province of Lapland and their meat is cooked in a stew and served with mash potatoes. Crayfish parties or “kraftskiva”, were originally a Swedish tradition that the Finns adopted.
St. Petersburg, Russia
St. Petersburg, Russia was founded by Peter the Great in 1703, and was the imperial capital for 2 centuries. It is the cultural center of Russia, with 221 museums and with the incomparable, world famous Hermitage.
TIP: small cruise ships dock closer to downtown. Large ships can’t sail into the city center and must dock at Morskoy Fasad on Vasilyevsky Island, a few miles from the city.
TIP: a port side cabin looks onto the beautiful orthodox Church of the Assumption of Mary (Tserkov’ Uspeniya Presvyatoy Bogoroditsy) cathedral, but the starboard side views onto an industrial shipyard. At the English embankment, both sides have a view, but port side is still better for noise at night.
The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is the second-largest art museum in the world, it was founded in 1764 when Empress Catherine the Great acquired a collection of paintings from Berlin. It is the home to the largest collection of paintings in the world, with the total number of pieces to be somewhere around 3 million. Not all the paintings can be displayed at one time.
One of the most memorable cruise experiences was the private music performance that Silversea was able to obtain for its guests (booking required in advance). The event began after the museum was officially closed so we had the Hermitage museum completely to ourselves without the throng of daily tourists. Truly memorable.
30 km south of St. Petersburg is Catherine’s Palace, named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great who ruled Russia for two years after her husband’s death. Originally a modest two-storey building commissioned by Peter for Catherine in 1717, Catherine’s Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who chose the location Tsarskoe Selo as her chief summer residence. Starting in 1743, reconstruction began to completely redesign the building on a scale to rival Versailles. The resultant palace, completed in 1756, is nearly 1 km in circumference, with elaborately decorated blue-and-white facades, it took over 100 kg of gold to decorate the palace exteriors, an excess that was deplored by Catherine the Great when she discovered the state and private funds that had been lavished on the building.
A visit to Catherine’s Palace is highly recommended.
The basis of the old Russian cuisine (9th-16th century) was grain products, baked pancakes, rye pies, boiled flour. The Old Moscow cuisine (17th century) introduced at the table of the nobles included foreign meals and culinary techniques, roast meat, game and poulty. Cuisine under Peter and Catherine the Great (18th century) borrowed heavily from West European traditions as the Russian nobles brought French chefs to Russia. Minced meats, casseroles, pates and French and German soups. St. Petersburg cuisine (from the 1860s) imported extensively from all of Europe. Tomatoes for side dishes were brought in as were sausages, omelets and compotes.
The influence of French traditions is evidenced in Russia’s most famous dish, Beef Stroganoff. The dish takes its name from one of the wealthiest noble families in Russia, and primarily consists of small beef pieces in a sour cream sauce, with different vegetables often added into it. The story is that the French chef named Charles Briere invented the dish in St. Petersburg while working for the Stroganoffs in 1891 in order to enter a cooking contest (he won). Part of the story includes the reason for such thin slices of beef – the count had failing teeth.
Of Ukrainian origins, the staple Russian dish loved by families across the country is borscht, a beetroot-based soup that’s bold in color and flavor.
Russian dumplings, known as pelmeni, are made from paper-thin pastry, shaped into parcels and packed full of meat and herbs before being boiled and served fresh from the pan, garnished with dill and a spoonful of sour cream, or in a warm broth. The general thought is that pelmeni were carried by the Mongols to Siberia and the Urals and then gradually spread as far as Eastern Europe.
Mondisti’s Baltic Cruise Trip Tips
- The luxury cruise lines that travel the Baltics are Silversea and Regent amongst others;
- Crowds are biggest in St. Petersburg, Copenhagen and Stockholm, but that’s because they’re great cities and fun to stay at least a couple of nights.
- Because of the northern latitude, days will be long: from 18 to 21 hours of sunlight depending upon the month of the tour;
- Hire a private guide before hand, and avoid the crowded shore excursions organized by the ship. Some of Silversea’s excursions should not be missed, however. The Hermitage excursion was priceless.
- A trip to Catherine’s Palace in St. Petersburg is a must.