For more than 100, years Holland America Line has cruised northern Europe, introducing travelers to the rich history and beauty of the region. Year after year Denmark, Finland and other northern European counties are counted among the happiest and healthiest in the world. One might think that the northern climates would come with somber moods, but these friendly Baltic countries prove otherwise.
From Sweden to Russia, and everywhere in between, over half of the Baltic population lives within 50 miles of the sea, and cruising remains the best way to travel from city to city, absorbing unique cultures and varying landscapes. See for yourself what makes the Baltic region so special with Holland America Line’s top 10 Baltic shore excursions (in no particular order)!
The Baltic Sea reaches into the heart of the city of Kiel, capital of the state of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, creating a truly traditional maritime city. A 90-minute panoramic drive takes you past the city’s highlights, including the Town Hall and a view of the impressive Kiel Canal, connecting the North Sea with the Baltic. Watch for submarines, which use this marine highway quite frequently. Travel along the eastern shore of Kiel Fjord to the town of Laboe, with its impressive Navy Memorial. Learn more about the history of the German Navy — a detailed exhibit here reveals fascinating information and you will step aboard a sub. It’s hard to beat the view from the top of the building — it includes the World War II submarine U-995. Finish your tour with a delicious snack of a fish roll and a beer, a typical Kiel treat. Guest Cruisingguy from Vancouver took the tour and said,
“Part of the success of any tour is the guide. We had an excellent guide, Hans, who was a retired Germany Navy officer who had a passion for history. I think he knew all there could be to know about this area. He talked non stop as the bus was driving along and everything he said was interesting.” – Guest Cruisingguy
Tallinn’s beachside region of Pirita may bring back memories of the 1980 Olympic Games, held here at the yachting complex. You will see the 16th-century ruins of St. Bridget’s Convent and the Song Festival grounds. In Tallinn’s Old Town, disembark the motor coach at Tall Hermann Tower; then walk up Toompea Hill to Palace Square. The Baroque palace at the top is now the seat of the Estonian Parliament. You will visit the outstanding Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, complete with gorgeous mosaics and icons, dominating the Upper Town’s skyline. Narrow cobblestone streets take you to the Gothic Dome Church (St. Mary’s Cathedral). Step inside to see more than 100 Coats of Arms on display. Then, finally, you will look out over the rooftops of the Lower Town from a scenic viewpoint before walking back to your motor coach.
Fun Fact: Tallinn is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been called the “best preserved medieval city in Europe.
Overnights at St. Petersburg afford more time to get to know the city. This tour, in particular, combines a number of fabulous tours offering guests the opportunity to see the sights and mingle with the locals. The first day of the tour takes you from the bustling markets of St. Petersburg to the magical mosaics of the Church on the Spilled Blood to the ornate tapestries of the Hermitage Museum.
Day two begins with a drive to the countryside where you’ll visit the magnificent Catherine’s Palace, restored over the past 40 years to its original splendor. Then it’s off to Peterhof, the collection of Palaces, fountains and parks built by Peter the Great to rival Versailles. Peterhof lies on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, and the layout of the 300-acre park and its spectacular fountains were designed by Peter himself. Upon return to St. Petersburg, you’ll visit Yusupov Palace, on the banks of the Moika Rivers. It was here, in 1916, that the notorious Grigori Rasputin was assassinated. He was lured to Yusupov’s home, and fed poison-laced food, which failed to kill him. He was then shot several times, which he also survived, and was later thrown into the Moika River, where he finally drowned. Climb down the narrow, winding staircase to see the very place where Felix Yusupov, with his accomplices, tried to assassinate Rasputin.
This tour is designated for a small group of 16-20 guests and covers St. Petersburg extensively, so it is recommended for energetic guests who want to see it all. One such guest, “Little Aussie,” took the tour and said,
“The palaces, churches and the Hermitage were amazing!!!! I was blown away by the opulence … You will enjoy this tour if you love the detail in the architecture, the gold and opulence and want to maximise what you see in St Petersburg.” – Little Aussie
Those who prefer a one-day tour can see the top highlights of St. Petersburg as well. This tour also visits Peterhof, with plenty of time to stroll through the beautiful gardens and elegant interiors. Enjoy lunch at a local restaurant near Peterhof then take the hydrofoil back to St. Petersburg for a fabulous tour of the Church on the Spilled Blood. You will also have some free time to shop for traditional Russian souvenirs and drive by Decembrists’ Square, where you will see the famous Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
Fun Fact: St. Petersburg is the world’s northernmost city with a population over 1 million.
Leaving the ship, you’ll pass the colorful open-air market, the Presidential Palace, Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, the icebreakers docked for the summer, the Bank of Finland and the House of Estates. Stopping at Senate Square, you’ll hear about the history of Helsinki and take in the neo-Classical-style buildings that date from the mid 1800s. Head out to the farming community of Sipoo, close to the city yet very typical of the Finnish countryside. In Sipoo, you will view St. Sigfrid’s — the oldest church in the community dating back to the 15th century. Continue your drive through the forest to a Finnish countryside home beside a beautiful lake. Stroll the grounds and hear from your hosts about Finnish life. Enjoy refreshments of coffee or tea with seasonal berry pie and ice cream. A leisurely drive back to the city takes you along Mannerheim Street, the main street of Helsinki. Here you will see Parliament House, Finlandia Hall, the National Museum, Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum and the Olympic Stadium.
Fun Fact: Helsinki claims the number one spot in Monocle’s 2011 Quality of Life survey, which ranks the top 25 cities in the world to call home.
There are a number of great ways to get to know Stockholm, and historic Stockholm nears the top of the list. Tour the major points of interest including the oldest street in Sweden, the Stora Gatan and the stunning Vasa Museum. Enjoy the historic elegance of the exterior of the dominating Royal Palace and stroll along the narrow, twisting alleys and cobblestone streets of Stockholm’s oldest quarter. Savor the romantic atmosphere and the sense antiquity of buildings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, with Baroque doorways and regal Coats of Arms. You will also see the Stortorget (Great Square), which is the hub of the Old Town, and the old Stock Exchange — now home of the Swedish Academy. Passing through the city center, continue to the nearby island of Djurgården, once the royal family’s private hunting grounds. Here you will visit the stunning Vasa Museum. In its day, the early 17th century, the Swedish battleship Vasa was the pride of Sweden’s mighty navy. While preparing to set out on her maiden voyage in 1628, she capsized and sank in Stockholm’s inner harbor. In 1961, 333 years after the mishap, a Swedish team succeeded in salvaging the great ship, which was astonishingly well preserved. Leaving the Vasa Museum, continue through the northern outskirts of the city into the scenic countryside en route to Sigtuna, an idyllic little town with wooden houses, narrow alleys and the smallest Town Hall in Scandinavia, dating from 1744 and made of wood.
Try something sensational and unique — a guided walk conducted along a historic rooftop in Stockholm (as seen on the blog). Begin with a drive from the pier to Riddarholmen, the small island in the Old Town of Sweden’s capital. During the 13th century, Franciscan monks built a monastery here, parts of which still remains in the cellar vaults of the many impressive buildings that stand here today. Riddarholmen Church is the final resting place of most Swedish Kings. Next to the church is the Old Parliament Building which you’ll enter and take the elevator up to the top floor and, via the attic, step out into the open. Buckle up with your safety harness and take your first steps along the narrow rooftop path offering fantastic views and fascinating stories that your guide will share en route. This rooftop tour is conducted according to rigorous safety standards. Even though the height (up to 130 feet) may be a challenge to some, this is the perfect starting point to learn of the history of Stockholm and take in some breathtaking views. One guest from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, took the tour and said,
“We loved seeing Stockholm from this vantage point! The day we went was glorious, but they do provide rain gear when necessary. Two guides with each group of 10, both very professional, well-experienced, and knowledgeable, covering basic history, pointing out sites, and even taking photos of people with their cameras.”
An excellent way to get acquainted with any historic city is on foot. With a lightweight audio-player and a detailed map, you’ll find that this program offers an easy walking tour of the historic sights. Spend as much time as you’d like, or as little, at each spot. And since there are no schedules to keep, you are free to have a meal, take a break for refreshments, or spend time shopping whenever you want. Listen to all the facts and history of this memorable city while walking through the streets at your own pace. Simply consult the customized map to find each location and then go to the indicated number on the player for a detailed description of the site and its history. Follow the suggested route or set out on your own adventure, moving about the city with ease.
An approximately 2½-hour escorted train ride takes you from Warnemünde to Oranienburg, located 20 miles north of Berlin. During the journey, your host will hand out a light breakfast snack and coffee. Arriving in Oranienburg, meet your local guide and board a motor coach for the drive to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Site. Sachsenhausen, built in 1933, was one of the first Nazi concentration camps. The first internees were communists and other political prisoners. Although this was not a ‘Death Camp’ like Auschwitz or Treblinka, thousands of prisoners died here, mostly of starvation. In 1958, the camp became an international memorial site in what was then East Germany and has been preserved to honor the memory of those who lost their lives here.
Set off on a panoramic drive to view the city’s main highlights. Snap photos of the remnants of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie — the point separating East and West Berlin. Continue to the Gendarmenmarkt — a 17th-century square and the site of the twin French and German cathedrals and the Schauspielhaus (Concert Hall). Pass Unter den Linden Boulevard — a tree-lined, east-west thoroughfare through the city of Berlin, the State Library, Alexanderplatz (a beautiful town square), and the Humboldt University—Berlin’s oldest university. Have lunch by the Brandenburg Gate, the only remaining city gate of Berlin and stroll to see the Reichstag—seat of the German parliament. Originally constructed to house the parliament of the newly founded German Empire, the glass dome designed by architect Sir Norman Foster is one of the city’s major landmarks today. Drive by the Victory Column — a landmark that celebrates the military successes of Prussia over Denmark. Pass Bellevue Palace — the official residence of the President of Germany — and Congress Hall. The tour culminates with a visit to the Allied Museum. Here you’ll find the original Checkpoint Charlie guardhouse, a Berlin Wall watchtower, an aircraft from the Berlin Airlift, and an American spy tunnel. When it’s time to call it a day, relax and enjoy the coach journey back to the ship.
Fun Fact: Berlin is the most multi-cultural city in Germany. Its 3.5 million inhabitants include over 470,000 residents with foreign passports.
Several Holland America Line ships will visit the Baltic in 2015 including Eurodam, Prinsendam and Rotterdam. Itineraries range in length from 12 to 28 days, giving guests ample time to explore the region, and many itineraries feature an overnight at St. Petersburg.
If you’re taking a cruise that visits these ports, the shore excursions can be pre-booked so you get the tour of your choice.
Have you cruised the Baltic? Share your top tips in the comments!