Cruising is an excellent way to explore the northern seas, which were the waterways of the Vikings. The summer months are the best time to visit and we chose to go the last week of June when the days are endless so we could see the midnight sun. It’s pretty cool to watch the sunset at midnight and enjoy all the extra daylight for sightseeing. At that time of the year it never gets fully dark even in the middle of the night!
We added a few days before our embarkation date to visit Copenhagen and to ensure that we wouldn’t miss the ship because of flight delays or cancellations. To be extra safe, we decided to transit through Amsterdam as this gave us the option of taking a ferry to Copenhagen if we missed our connection.
More travel tips here
Our 9-day cruise was round trip from Copenhagen and with a couple of nights prior to sailing, we had time to visit Denmark’s capital. We found this city quite welcoming and very safe. I remember noticing that people left their bicycles unlocked in front of stores and some even left their parcels in the basket. This could never be done in most places!
A fun way to explore the city is to get on the Hop-on Hop-off tour bus but be sure to pick the one that comes often. We like these buses, especially after a red-eye flight, as they take us around the city to all the major tourist attractions. We find that it’s a good way to get an overview and familiarize ourselves with the city. There’s also a boat tour that goes through the canals and passes in front of important landmarks including the famous Little Mermaid statue.
Tip: Get the combo ticket bus and boat tour.
Many people bike around town so renting a bike to roam around the city would be a nice alternative. There are many dedicated bike paths adjacent to the pedestrian ways. If walking, be sure not to wander into these lanes or risk getting run down by a cyclist.
We were staying near the Tivoli Gardens and that’s where we went for our first night of exploring. There is something for everyone: restaurants, concerts, ballets, shows, rides and even fireworks.
Some of our favorites were the George III Frigate Ship which is a replica of a 17th century Danish frigate, now turned into a restaurant; the Chinese Pagoda dating from 1900 which also hosts a Chinese-Danish restaurant at the top; the Pantomime Theatre with peacock curtains where concerts, ballets, dance shows and stories of Pierrot, Harlequin and Colombine are presented; The Nimb which hosts many restaurants and a hotel that looks like it came right out of Aladdin’s story book with its Moorish architecture. In the evening the park’s numerous lights come on for a fairy tale look. It’s a very nice place to roam around.
For shopping, grabbing a bite to eat or just taking a stroll, head over to the pedestrian area of Strøget or Nyhavn Street which is divided in two by a canal. There are plenty of terraces to choose from so you’re sure to find something you like but be aware that these areas are very touristic and prices are inflated. We walked around and ventured further out to find a place to eat where locals would go as the price and quality both looked better.
Visiting palaces was also on our itinerary
The Rosenborg Castle was built by Christian IV and was used as a summer residence. It is surrounded by a moat giving it a fortress like look.
The lavish interior is decorated like a renaissance palace should be and contains many artifacts including: thrones, tapestries, glassware, porcelain, amber chandeliers and even life-sized silver lions. The royal jewels are kept in the treasury, which is located in the basement.
A memorable moment was our impromptu Viennese Waltz in the ballroom. We couldn’t resist the large dance floor!
The Christianborg Palace has been the site of the Danish parliament since 1918, which is very fitting since it was erected on the site of the founding of Copenhagen. The historic building stands alone on a small island and it encompasses many museums. The ruins of the Bishop Absalon’s castle that lie below are accessible for viewing. The palace can be closed to the public when there is a special event since it’s still in use for diplomatic or governmental functions.
The Amalienborg Palace, residence of the Royal family, is in effect a series of four identical buildings aesthetically arranged around a cobblestone plaza. Time your visit with the change of the Royal Guard that takes place at noon on a daily basis.
Copenhagen is a clean city but this isn’t the case in Freetown Christiania and you should go only if you don’t mind getting out of your comfort zone. It’s a green car-free area with a hippie commune vibe made up of homemade houses, art galleries, concerts, and organic eateries among other things. It has it own set of rules and typically the police do not get involved there. For your safety neither photos nor videos are permitted especially around Pusher Street where cannabis dealings are done openly despite the fact that it’s illegal in Denmark.
For a bird’s eye view of Copenhagen, climb the spiral ramp of the Round Tower, which was built as an observatory by Christian IV in 1642.
Some interesting architecture to see include the Old Stock Exchange with a unicorn like spire crowning the tower which represents four twisted dragon tails; the art gallery Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek opened by the son of the founder of the Carlsberg Brewery has a nice façade and copper cupola; as well as the Nimb in the Tivoli Gardens.
There are many museums to choose from and if viewing Viking artifacts is on your radar head over to the National Museum. This time around we didn’t have time to visit, maybe one day!
Tip: If Copenhagen isn’t your embarkation or disembarkation port but one of your ports of call, the Hop-on Hop-off has a stop at the cruise port so it’s easy to get on and it’s much more economical than a shore excursion with the cruise ship.
Our first port of call was Warnemunden, Germany and we opted for one of the recommended shore excursions to Berlin. It was expensive but we decided to go for it anyways. In retrospect if we had to do it again we would choose to explore closer to port. Let me explain why. Berlin is 3 ½ hours away from the port and this has to be done both ways so we wasted more than 7 hours in port on transportation by train. The train ride was ok but getting off the ship to be ushered on a long train ride followed by a bus city tour only to embark once again on a 3 ½ hour train ride isn’t our idea of fun! That said, Berlin is an interesting city and having only a few hours to visit really doesn’t give it justice.
During our tour we stopped at various landmarks: Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin Wall remnants, Reichstag, Holocaust Memorial, Bellevue Palace and Brandenburg Gate. It wasn’t possible to visit anything in depth but it was still nice to see even if it was raining the day we were there.
Next stop Tallinn, Estonia! This is one of the loveliest ports of call we have ever visited and the best way to discover the old town is to wander around its winding cobblestone streets. No shore excursion necessary if you plan on staying inside the walled city, the city gate is only 500 meters away from the cruise port.
Disembark early, as soon as you’re allowed to get off the ship to experience the city before the swarms of tour groups overtake it and before all the shops open. You will feel as if you were there during medieval times!
To get a bird’s eye view of Tallinn, walk-up to the Kohtuotsa viewing platform and from this vantage point you can admire the red rooftops and turrets for an amazing vista. Close by, there are many shops where you can buy souvenirs, amber jewelry, paintings and other handmaid crafts.
Most of the important landmarks are located around Toompea or Town Hall Square:
In the upper Old City there is the Toompea Castle, home of Estonia’s Parliament; the Alexander Nevskiy Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church with a somber pass for many Estonians; the Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin dating back to 1223 which makes it the oldest in the nation; and the Art Museum of Estonia with a collection of finest Estonian art.
Nearby, there is the 15th-century Kiek in de Kök Tower, which used to be a watchtower but is now a museum on the history of Tallinn. The cannonballs still embedded in the tower bear witness to a 16th-century attack by the Russians.
Town Hall Square is located in the heart of the city and the Gothic Town Hall has been at the center of it all for centuries. The Council Hall and the Citizens’ Hall are opened to the public and climbing the tower will reward you with a splendid view of the square.
The best way to discover this Old Town is to wander around its alleyways. Some other highlights in the vicinity include: the Town Hall Pharmacy, which is still in operation and has a museum with some old remedies on display; the Holy Spirit Church, formerly the Town Hall’s Chapel; and busy Viru Street lined with shops, bars, cafés and restaurants.
Tip: To enhance your visit, reserve ahead for lunch at one of the medieval theme restaurants in the old town. We did and it was a fun to do. To immerse yourself in the experience, it’s suggested to eat with your hands just like they did in the Middle Ages. Also, if trying game meat like wild boar this is the place to do it!
Don’t simply visit Tallinn: experience it!
St Peterburg, Russia
Our next stop was St Petersburg, Russia. This flamboyant buzzing city, nicknamed the Venice of the North, has many lavish palaces, churches and theatres that line the numerous canals. Stories of betrayals and murders bring the city to life. At least we found it so thanks to a talented tour guide.
For many visitors, visas are required to disembark unless you’re on an organized excursion with the ship. We choose this latter option as it was simpler but it also had its negatives. Being in port overnight, we pre-booked three shore excursions and it was impossible to find the right combo to visit all the landmarks we were hoping to see. Wandering on our own wasn’t permitted, even for a few minutes; we had to stay with the group. We lost precious sightseeing time waiting around for people to finish their lunch and our guide was the worst, she extended her lunchtime to 2 hours! It was frustrating not to be allowed to leave and go visit the Church on Spilled Blood that was located only one block away! We had to wait…
Tip: Visas are required for Canadians, Americans and many others nationals and they must be obtained prior to departure.
Our first full day excursion started with a boat tour though the canals of St Petersburg. This outing turned out to be a fun way to experience and see the Venice of the North.
After that we were off to the Yusupof Palace, on the Moika River, where Rasputin was poisoned, shot, clubbed and then thrown in the frigid river to eventually die of hypothermia. The tale was interesting and again told by our guide like a suspense novel.
We then had a much to brief visit to the stunning Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood. The church was erected, as a memorial, on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered. The ornate exterior is unmistakable with its golden and enamel multicolored domes. The interior is a juxtaposition of mosaics, marble and various minerals for a luminous effect in the glow of the sunlight. Absolutely stunning!
Before returning to the ship, a shopping stop was included in the tour (of course). We would have preferred to spend more time to admire the church, but a shopping stop is a good thing for those who want to buy some souvenirs as not all shops accept foreign credit cards or currency.
Our next excursion was an evening outing to the ballet. Going to see “Swan Lake” seemed like the perfect way to see one of St Petersburg’s beautiful theatres, unfortunately this wasn’t the case. We were taken to a school auditorium with no air conditioning and saw students perform. This wasn’t what we expected from the description of our shore excursion with the ship and a far cry from a ballet at the Mariinskiy Theatre!
The next morning we headed off to Pushkin to visit Catherine’s Palace, the summer residence of the royal family. During WW2, the palace was badly damaged but everything has been restored.
The exterior is decorated with 100 Kg of gold and the interior’s highlights include: the Picture Gallery, the great hall and the world-famous Amber Room. Amber covers all the surfaces and overlays mirrors or gold leaf for one of the most sumptuous décor we had ever seen. No pictures were permitted so we had to settle on the souvenir book. No pictures can give it any justice, as it simply has to be seen!
Our final stop was to the Hermitage, a world-renowned museum, with an extensive art collection. Highlights include the Winter Palace States Apartments, the Pavilion Hall and Raphael’s Loggias. More than 3 millions pieces of artwork are housed in the museum with many more in storage in the basement where the true custodians reside, the Hermitage’s cats. For almost 300 years, the rat-catching cats have been on duty in exchange for food, shelter, care and love.
Our time in port didn’t allow time for visiting the Peterhof Palace and its magnificent cascading fountain. Perhaps one day we will have the chance to return to St Petersburg, Russia and visit Moscow as well via a river cruise on waterways of the Tsars.
Next port of call, Helsinki, Finland! Helsinki isn’t very big and it’s easy to get around but since we wanted to see more of the country we opted for a shore excursion. Here, we choose an excursion that included a visit to Porvoo, which is located 50 km (30 miles) away from the port followed by a city tour of the capital, Helsinki. Porvoo is a charming old medieval town with many little shops selling handmaid goods as well as Christmas ornaments. Walking around is the best way to explore this small coastal town.
In contrast, the contemporary architecture of Helsinki gives it a look of modernity. Some highlights include: the Helsinki Cathedral with its green cupolas that contrast with the white building for an elegant look; the pink granite Central Railway Station; the Uspenski Cathedral with green copper roofs toped with gold onion domes; the Temppeliaukio Church, also known as Rock Church, embedded into the granite; and the Sibelius monument dedicated to the composer of the same name, the sculpture is made of steel tubes reminiscent of an organ.
For shopping be sure to stop by the open-air Market Square overlooking the harbor and enjoy the views. During our visit it was unusually warm and people were swimming. We rolled-up our pants and tested the waters, just to say we “swam” in the Gulf of Finland.
Our final stop was Nynäshamn, Sweden, located approximately one hour away from Stockholm. The easiest way to get into town is to take a shore excursion or a transfer with the ship. Other alternatives are the train or the Hop-on Hop-off bus. Some passengers told us that the bus wouldn’t leave with just a few passengers aboard and ended-up wasting precious sightseeing time.
We opted for a shore excursion that included a visit to the Vasa Museum, a city tour and free time. It turned out to be a good choice to go to the popular Vasa Museum first thing in the morning as the wait time was much longer later on.
The main attraction is the 17th century warship Vasa that capsized shortly after its maiden voyage. The ship was salvaged 333 years later in 1961 and has been 95% restored to its original state. The museum was built to accommodate the Vasa’s three masts, and the ship is quite impressive to see as well as the numerous decorated carved sculptures.
Our city bus tour was an easy way to get an overview of the city. Unfortunately, with no photo stops, it wasn’t possible to take any good pictures. We were dropped–off by the Royal Palace in the Old Town, Gamla Stan, one of the most well preserved medieval cities in Europe. The best way the discover this area is by roaming around the narrow streets.
The 13th century Royal Palace is a must see and is open to the public even though it’s the official residence of the King. We were fortunate to see the Changing of the Guards that takes place in the interior court. The palace encloses various museums including the Hall of State, the Halls of the Order of Chivalry, the Museum of antiquities, the Treasury and the Armory.
Adjacent to the palace there is the Storkyrkan cathedral dating back 700 years. Close by there is the Stortoget square, site of the Bloodbath of 1520 where 80 Swedish noblemen were beheaded following a successful invasion of the Danes.
This time around we didn’t have time to take a boat tour on the waterways that surround the city but we did the next best thing by walking along the esplanade by the water. We had enough time to stop for a bite to eat on a retired boat, now transformed into a restaurant and a hostel, to enjoy the view.
Our cruise came to an end after a relaxing sea day. Since we had visited Copenhagen before sailing, we started our journey back home in the hopes of returning to Scandinavia and the Baltic one-day again.