For many travelers, visiting the countries that ring Northern Europe's Baltic Sea -- Denmark, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia, among others -- is extraordinary because for so many years, we just couldn't get there. Chilly political climates and mind-numbingly high travel costs made us swap St. Petersburg, Russia, for St. Petersburg, Florida, and Stockholm's "Venice of the North" for the real Venice in Italy.
But the world has changed and the Baltic is now more accessible … and more affordable. Voyages to Scandinavia and Russia highlight almost every cruise line's Europe brochure -- from NCL to Holland America to Regent Seven Seas -- with fares comfortingly charged in U.S. dollars. Even Carnival -- everyman's affordable cruise line with a fun-loving, all-American spirit -- will launch its first-ever Baltic cruise season when the new Carnival Splendor debuts this summer. With mainstream lines now sailing these once-exotic itineraries and producing lots of healthy competition, families, Baby Boomers and honeymooners are suddenly able to consider a vacation in Northern Europe.
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In light of these itineraries and ever-younger demographics, the cruise lines are working hard to find shore tours that appeal to a wide range of travelers. Not that it's such a difficult job, as the excursions practically sell themselves. Cruise travelers have been longing to wander the opulent rooms of the Hermitage Museum to view as much of the three million-piece art collection as possible before fatigue sets in. They want to experience the romance of Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens when its acres of flowers are lit by thousands of twinkling lights. They want to cruise along Norway's fjords, filling up their camera's memory cards with the region's exquisite beauty, and tour the highlights of Berlin to see what remains after the fall of the iconic Wall.
And the cruise lines are happy to comply by providing plenty of mainstream tours of these admittedly exotic touristic mainstays. But they've also outdone themselves inventing excursions the casual tourist would never have thought of. Instead of just offering standard bus tours, they've come up with city tours by bike, kayak, rollerblades and hot air balloon. They're offering the chance to walk on roofs in Sweden, trek across bogs in Estonia and cross the Arctic Circle in Finland. Interestingly, in this region, the most extraordinary of excursions are often offered by one line only (the luxury lines are especially creative). If you seek experiences outside the ordinary, you may want to read up on the proffered excursions before you book.
The Baltic's attractions will certainly wow you all by themselves and, by all means, if more traditional tours appeal than stick with them. But if you want to experience these countries in a truly unique way, here are our favorite extraordinary excursions currently offered by the cruise lines. One note: the tours we mention are generally offered by most, if not all, lines. In some cases, we single out lines that offer unique tours.
Why Go: Copenhagen's most famous attractions are the Tivoli Gardens -- a 20-acre park full of flowers, amusement rides, restaurants and thousands of twinkling lights -- and the Little Mermaid statue. But the city is picture-postcard perfect as well -- you can masquerade as royalty on tours of Christiansborg Palace and Rosenborg Castle; view Rubens, Rembrandts and Hals at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts; promenade along canals, munching on the city's famous hot dogs; and even wend your way through picturesque old buildings on a bike you rented for free.
Why Not Try This? Rollerblading through Copenhagen
So you want to see the city's main attractions, but you can't bear to board another motorcoach and listen to a guide drone on through a staticky microphone. Instead, try a new twist on the old city highlights tour, and traipse across Copenhagen in the fresh air … on rollerblades. You don a pair of inline skates and glide along with a professional rollerblade instructor through the streets of the city. Tour highlights include visits to the Little Mermaid statue, Amlienborg Castle, the fashionable promenade at the Nyhavn Canals, the park next to Rosenborg Castle and the tiny painted houses of Nyboder.
Who Should Go: This is not the time for a first-ever attempt to balance on a thin line of wheels. You should feel comfortable on skates already and be able to rollerblade for two hours straight on flat and cobblestone roads, as well as traverse small inclines.
Terrific Alternatives: For similarly innovative versions of the city tour (with less balance required), try Copenhagen by bike or kayak tours instead.
Or Why Not Try This? Nordisk Film Studio and Carlsberg Brewery
Most Americans above the age of 21 have probably heard of Carlsberg beer. Fewer may know it's brewed in Copenhagen, and fewer still are probably aware that the city also boasts the world's oldest movie studio. You can learn about Copenhagen's past and present exports in an excursion that combines a tour of the Nordisk Film Studio and the Carlsberg Brewery -- a combination reminiscent of a really good Friday night. Start at Nordisk's Studio 2, founded in 1906, where you'll get tidbits about the silent film industry and its stars, as well as view a controversial silent film (who knew such a thing existed?) from 1907 called "The Lion Hunt." After the tour, kick back at the Carlsberg Brewery's Visitor's Center and have a taste of the famous beer.
Who Should Go: People who like to know the history behind their recreational activities. As much fun as beer and a movie sounds, this is still an educational tour, so don't expect Movies Under the Stars.
Why Go: A first-timer's tour of Helsinki must include the water -- after all, the city is surrounded on three sides by the Baltic Sea. Boat tours, ferry rides to Suomenlinna Sea Fortress (historic buildings and museums set on interconnected islands) or just drinks at a waterfront cafe are de rigeur. Travelers with an artist's eye flock to the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Design Museum for contemporary style, and history lovers will gaze at the Lutheran Cathedral and onion-domed Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. You might not know it, but Helsinki is also a fabulous shopping destination; you'll find distinctive buys on Finnish crafts, glassware, woolens and chocolates.
Why Not Try This? Lapland and the Arctic Circle
Hop a plane in Helsinki and in one hour, you'll be in Rovaniemi -- a city in Lapland, the country's northernmost region that you've probably never heard of. On your day north of the Arctic Circle, you'll get a taste of Lappish culture and geography. Take a cruise along the Kemijoki River, which straddles the Arctic Circle, in a wooden river boat. Visit a reindeer farm, participate in an Arctic Circle crossing ceremony and try the local cuisine at a special lunch featuring native dancing. And just when you're feeling overwhelmed with so many new sights and experiences, you'll get to embrace the familiar: a trip to the Santa Claus Village, where you can send postcards and start your holiday shopping.
Who Should Go: When all the Scandinavian cities start to look alike to you, take this tour to experience a very different culture and way of life. Plus, if you're one of those travelers with a checklist of must-dos (visit all seven continents, cross the equator, sail round the world, etc.), you can tick the box for "cross Arctic Circle" and participate in a special ceremony to commemorate the occasion. Plus, you get to meet Santa. No one gives you that when you hit your seventh continent.
Or Why Not Try This? Helsinki by Jopo Bike
For a truly Finnish experience, tour Helsinki on a Jopo bicycle -- the famous bike designed in Finland in the 1960's. The bikes are unisex, have no gears, use pedal breaks and can be adjusted to fit anyone. Your city tour will take you by Sibelius Park, Hietaranta beach, Market Square, and various waterfronts and marinas for scenic views.
Who Should Go: If words like "hip" and "retro" describe you, you'll want to get your hands on these icons of Finnish culture. But, remember, this is a biking tour, so you'll need to be able to ride for about 2.5 hours, which can be hard on your legs, not to mention your bum.
Why Go: Oslo may be better known for the fjords surrounding it than its city center, but there's much to see. The waterfront area is a lively hangout with cafes and street musicians, boat rides are always on offer and many of the city's museums have to do with seafaring (such as the Viking Ship Museum and Fram Museum). Land-based must-sees include the Nobel Prize Peace Center, the Munch Museum (think "The Scream") and Vigeland Sculpture Park.
Why Not Try This? Hiking the Nordmarka Forest
There aren't many cities where you can take the subway into the nearby hills and emerge at a hiking trailhead. Hike through the hills of Nordmarka, a popular weekend destination for Oslo residents, and visit the Holmenkollen Ski Jump with its far-reaching views of the city, fjord and islands below. You'll find some great photo ops while getting the chance to stretch your legs.
Who Should Go: When you're ready to trade city sightseeing for a little bit of nature, sign up for this tour. You must be able to hike for four miles -- it's up to you whether you want to carry your photographic gear with you.
Terrific Alternatives: For a bigger adrenaline rush, Crystal's the only line offering tours to Lillehammer, home of the 1994 Winter Olympics. In addition to sightseeing, you'll have the opportunity to ride in a four-person wheelbob steered by an expert. This may be your one chance to feel like an Olympic competitor.
Why Go: Tourists come to St. Petersburg to see the city, an incredibly well-preserved, 400-plus-year-old metropolis, as it used to be: the Hermitage (a former home of royalty, now the world's second largest art museum), Tsarist-era palaces like Catherine's Palace in Pushkin and Peter the Great's Peterhof, onion-domed churches, even the Russian ballet. The city's art and architecture are charmingly European, but don't let the pickpockets, confusing signs and stern officials take some of the glamour away from this beautiful place.
Why Not Try This? Hermitage Museum
Visiting St. Petersburg and skipping the Hermitage is like touring Paris without visiting the Louvre. St. Petersburg is home to one of the world's most impressive collections of fine and applied art, and you can spend several hours gawking at it. The museum complex includes five buildings -- as former royal residences, they are practically works of art themselves -- and over three million exhibits. You won't get to see it all, but what you do see will take your breath away.
Who Should Go: Art and architecture enthusiasts, as well as anyone interested in seeing one of the most famous attractions in St. Petersburg. But watch out for museum fatigue and make sure you bring a pair of comfortable walking shoes.
Terrific Alternatives: As extraordinary as this excursion is in the first place, look for more unusual variations, such as evening tours combined with musical performances or visits that include behind-the-scenes tours of the restoration rooms.
Or Why Not Try This? Journey to Moscow
Moscow used to be a far-off land, only seen on the news and in spy movies. But now it's just a quick flight away from the port of St. Petersburg. Debark your ship first thing in the morning for a full day of sightseeing in the Russian capital. Be prepared for a long day that squeezes in all the highlights, such as Red Square, Lenin's Tomb, the Kremlin (including its Armory Chamber full of royal jewelry and Faberge eggs) and St. Basil Cathedral (the one with the onion-shaped domes). Most trips include lunch or dinner at a Russian restaurant for some edible culture.
Who Should Go: If you've already visited St. Petersburg, this is your opportunity to tour another remarkable Russian city. Russia is still not a big vacation destination for Americans, so you may not get the chance to see Moscow again.
Terrific Alternatives: Crystal really is a standout on fantastic tours here; you can spend more time in Moscow on an overnight tour or, more exotic still, you can visit the Sormovo Airbase on their second day and have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly in a MiG fighter jet. Or if you've booked your Baltic cruise on Silversea, you can be a "Cosmonaut for a Day" at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. You can try your hand at the docking simulator for the Soyuz-TM space vehicle, and then go back to tourist life with a tour of the facility.
Why Go: Yes, there's more to Stockholm than the Ice Bar. The beautiful 13th-century city is made up of 14 islands connected by bridges and is referred to as the "Venice of the North." Its old town, Gamla Stan, combines historic palaces and cathedrals with fabulously modern shopping and dining venues. And the Vasa Museum is ingeniously built around a salvaged warship.
Why Not Try This? Historical Rooftop Walk
It sounds like something from a movie -- "Mary Poppins" perhaps? -- but this excursion does indeed let you tour Stockholm from the rooftops of the city's buildings. In Riddarholmen -- the former home of a 13th-century Franciscan monastery -- you will ascend to the top of the Old Parliament Building, don a safety harness and begin a guided sky-high walking tour. The guide will share stories and views of Stockholm as you stroll above the buildings. Afterwards, you can feel the ground beneath your feet once again with a street-level walk around Stockholm's oldest quarter, Gamla Stan. Dramatic sunsets and dancing chimney sweeps not included.
Who Should Go: This tour is geared for cruise travelers who want a little bit of adrenaline and romance with their city tour. But you've got to be comfortable with heights for this one.
Or Why Not Try This? Hot Air Ballooning
Stockholm is one of the only cities in Europe to allow hot air balloons over the city center. On your day in port, you can take a magical ride above the islands, bays and channels for a bird's-eye view of this Swedish capital -- just don't forget your binoculars and wide-angle camera lens. The balloons fly at about 1,000 feet but can lower down to float just above the treetops. For an added thrill, lend a hand with filling and dismantling the balloons at the beginning and end of the excursion.
Who Should Go: A hot air balloon ride is magical for pretty much everyone. However, if you're a white-knuckle flyer, you might want to think twice about this open-air flight.
Why Go: Of all the Baltic cities on your itinerary, Tallinn is the one you're likely to know the least about. Most cruise travelers make a beeline for the Old Town with its cobblestone streets and medieval architecture. You'll find 13th-century Toompea Castle, a possibly older church (Toomkirk), a 14th-century square with 21st-century boutiques and shops, and a flower market. Walking tours in the city and cycling tours outside it are popular first-timer excursions.
Why Not Try This? Bog Hike
Here's a new one for hiking enthusiasts -- trekking across a bog. Sign up for this tour and depending on your cruise line, you will travel to the North Korvemaa Landscape Reserve or the Lahemaa National Park, both located in northern Estonia. Follow in the footsteps of your guide across the mossy trail and enjoy the fresh air. Some tours even include a picnic on the bog.
Who Should Go: Hiking enthusiasts who are looking for unusual terrain. Bogs are wetlands, full of moss and lichens, so if you're squeamish where mud and bugs are concerned, you might want to opt out of this one.
Or Why Not Try This? Kayak and Walk Along Pedassaare Island
You can find kayaking tours in almost every cruise destination, but there's something more fun about using the kayak to go somewhere rather than just tool around a bay. On this tour, that destination is Pedassare Island, the highest and most forested island in the Kolga Bay. From Tallinn, you'll transfer to the Valkla Seaside Center where guides will give you instructions and get you settled into your kayak. The group will paddle to the island, which is inhabited only by the forest keeper and his family. Learn about the nature and culture of the area on a short walking tour of the island, and then grab a quick snack before paddling back across the bay.
Who Should Go: Nature lovers, water sports enthusiasts and other active travelers.
Terrific Alternatives: If food calls to you more than nature, Regent Seven Seas' "Old Tallin and Chocolate Making Workshop" tour is a must. The excursion begins with a walking tour of Tallinn's old city and ends at the famous Cafe and Chocolaterie Pierre. There, Master Confectioner Pierre himself will teach you to make truffles with varying flavors, ingredients and spices. You may never look at the Midnight Chocolate Buffet the same way again.
Why Go: Warnemunde is the gateway to Berlin, and most shore excursions from this port are either tours of the city or tours of the surrounding countryside. You can visit the iconic sites of Berlin, such as the Brandenburg Gate, East Side Gallery (a remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall), the Reichstag Building and Checkpoint Charlie. Or choose to tour other nearby destinations such as Lubeck, Wismar, Guestrow, Rostock and Schwerin.
Why Not Try This? East German Bunker and Countryside
Say "East German bunker" and the words conjure up images of Cold War spy movies. Twenty years ago, you probably would have been shot if you tried to enter Troposphere Bunker 302, but now you can visit with just a swipe of your cruise card. From the port, you'll set off through the countryside, learning about the East German way of life as you go. You'll then get a 40-minute guided tour of this top-secret atomic radio bunker, which was completed in 1986 and is still equipped with its original electronic monitoring devices. The tour ends with a snack at a field kitchen on the bunker grounds.
Who Should Go: If you're intrigued by military history and the Cold War, you'll likely enjoy this tour.
Terrific Alternatives: Crystal passengers, again, have the choice of the most thrilling tour departing from Warnemunde. Board a chartered plane to Leipzig, home of the Porsche factory, and after taking a factory tour, you can test drive a Porsche Cayenne at the on-site racetrack. For a more sobering and historical excursion, Crystal cruise travelers can instead opt for a tour of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, where thousands of political prisoners and dissidents died from starvation. The trip also includes a highlights tour of Berlin.
--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor