Port and Shore Excursions
It takes more than a day to enjoy this lovely city. Having spent a long weekend here a few years ago, we know Copenhagen reasonably well and had no inclination to do a ship's excursion or the hop-on-hop-off bus tour operating from the quay. There were no quayside taxis offering sightseeing trips. P&O do not offer a shuttle service here, but it is only about a 10/15 minute stroll from the berth at Langeliniekaj along the waterfront to the famous Little Mermaid, and about the same again to the Amalienborg Palace, with the popular Nyhavn another 5/10 minutes beyond. Here you can take a boat trip around the Inner Harbour and adjacent canals - in a short timespan, this is probably the best and most economical way to see many of the major sights.
Clean, safe and as many people speak English - easy to be understood. Infested with tourists most of the year.
There are four possible docks at which cruise ships are berthed. The Oriana docked at Hernesaari and a free shuttle bus was laid on for the 10/15 mins drive into the city centre. There were no quayside taxis offering sightseeing trips, although the hop-on-hop-off bus did venture to the port.
Helsinki is easy to walk around - from the Swedish Theatre through the tranquil Esplanade Park to the Market Square at Etalsatama (South Harbour), where sightseeing cruises can be picked up. The Market itself is worth lingering in - lots of beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables, freshly caught fish, woollen and fur clothing, local artefacts, and so on.
Overlooking the Harbour is the imposing Uspenski Cathedral (Russian Orthodox), which requires a bit of a climb. The other Cathedral (St Nicholas - Lutheran) has a spectacular shimmering white edifice and overlooks nearby Senate Square. This demands an even steeper climb to reach it, but is satisfying to do. From here it is a short walk to the shopping centre and the striking Helsinki Railway Terminus beyond. A little further on is the intriguing Temppeliaukio 'Rock' Church - modern, built into rock, with a copper dome.
There are other museums, theatres, etc within easy walking distance of the centre , and Helsinki is an easy day visit. Clean, safe and as many people speak English - easy to be understood. Not too touristy when we visited, but we were the only cruise ship in that day.
Rating - 3.5*
About halfway through oure tour of the Catherine Palace we entered the Amber Room, the one room where it is not permitted to take photos. The walls are completely decorated in amber with the most intricate designs. The Catherine Palace was on the front line and occupied by the Nazis in WW2. Apparently, after the war all the amber had been plundered and the restoration has been painstakingly replaced using photos and documents to guide an authentic replacement.
The Catherine Palace is in Pushkin (aka The Tzars' Village) in the south-west suburbs of St Petersburg. From the lovely gardens the blue and white facade with golden turrets and details is just sublime. And inside, as you enter room after room of rooms lavishly adorned with mirrors and gold and chandeliers you just keep saying WOW and WOW and WOW. Gradually the rooms change from simple gold and mirrors to walls with crimson or green, etc. About halfway through the tour of the palace we entered the Amber Room, the one room where it is not permitted to take photos. The walls are completely decorated in amber with the most intricate designs.
The glorious Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood has to be the most magnificent church I have ever seen. From a distance you can see the golden and coloured many onion domed turrets - perhaps the most delightful of St Petersburg's many iconic buildings and monuments. Both the exterior and interior are simply WOW - adorned throughout with mosaics and gilt-work in the richest of colours. The restoration work to transform this church (used in Soviet times as a potato warehouse!) must have been immense.
Our extensive two-day tour was at a fairly fast pace, enabling us to see many of the wonderful sites of St. Petersburg. First we had an overview tour of the city centre, plus a visit to the smart and clean subway and an upscale souvenir shop. We had several photo stops and drove along Nevski Prospekt and various other of the main thoroughfares, passing many of the sites we would later stop at and visit.
We had two very full days here. The Oriana docked at the new St Petersburg Sea Port on Vasilevsky Island. It is about a 20 to 40 minute drive into the city centre, depending on traffic. It is very complicated and expensive to obtain visas to enable independent travel and most cruise passengers take ship's excursions. However, we elected to join a small group of other passengers (CruiseCritic Roll Call) and do the 2-Day Extensive Tour of St Petersburg, plus an evening trip to the Ballet at the Hermitage Theatre, all arranged by TJ Travel. They are one of four local tour operators authorised to provide visa-free excursions. We booked on-line a few weeks in advance of travel.
We were lucky that our visit to St Petersburg was over a weekend, enabling us to avoid the worst of St Petersburg's notoriously heavy traffic. Our guide Alex and driver Eduard met us at 7am on Day 1 at the cruise terminal as arranged. Alex is a delightful young woman and has an excellent command of the English language. She never failed to share her in-depth grasp of Russian culture, history and art in an easy, entertaining and enlightening manner. Most of our tour was queue-free, which in St Petersburg is an achievement by itself.
Day 1: The tour was at a fairly fast pace, enabling us to see many of the wonderful sites of St. Petersburg. First we had an overview tour of the city centre, plus a visit to the smart and clean subway and an upscale souvenir shop, before visiting the glorious Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. We then took the 30 mins hydrofoil to the amazing Petergof Gardens. We had lunch nearby, before being driven to the fabulous Catherine Palace in the SW suburbs, after which we finished at the stunning St Isaac's Cathedral back in the city centre.
We were delivered back to the ship at 18:00, with just enough time to freshen up, change and have a quick snack before leaving at 19:00 for the ballet. A group of 8 had opted for this at the Hermitage Theatre. This accommodates an audience of only about 250, so everyone had an unhindered and close view of the excellent performance of Swan Lake (although it should be noted that in this rendering nobody died!). Eduard drove us to the theatre and he was waiting for us when the performance finished. We were back on board by 23:30 - oh so many superlatives in one very full day! One comment - TJ Travel informed us that the dress code for the ballet would be semi-formal, so we all dressed appropriately. However, the audience, mainly East Asians, had clearly not heard this message and you could say that either we were the smartest set in the theatre, or we were terribly over-dressed!
Day 2: Next morning we started at 8am and it was again a very full but most enjoyable day. After a 'champagne' canal cruise, we visited the incomparable Hermitage Museum. TJ even arranged entry before the official opening time, enabling us to see some of the wonderful treasures and artworks, a good 30 minutes ahead of the crowds. Our only regret was that there was no time to dwell at leisure over such an unrivaled collection.
Following a good lunch we proceeded to the Peter & Paul Island and its cathedral, where the Romanov Tzars are entombed. We then proceeded to Kalinka, an excellent souvenir shop with good quality and service and reasonable prices, where Tatiana, a partner in TJ Travel was on hand to collect payment for our tour. Alex then fitted in an unscheduled visit to a real practicing church, the beautiful St Nicholas Cathedral, where there were both a wedding and a baptism going on in different parts of the building. Then we had our last visit of the tour to the Yusupov Palace, the site of Rasputin's murder. After so many opulent and absolutely stunning sites, this palace, although good anywhere else, seemed a little underwhelming!
Alex & Eduard delivered us back at the port in good time for our departure and after bidding fond farewells our exhausted group staggered aboard the Oriana with so many great memories to last a lifetime. Everybody aboard our ship thoroughly enjoyed St Petersburg, but only our intrepid little TJ group saw so much, and at considerably less cost than had we taken the ship's offerings. The only downside was that nowhere else compared and it took us the best part of a week to recover!
Caution should be exercised if travelling independently - typical security concerns in a very large city, compounded by very few people speaking English and everything written in the Cyrillic alphabet - so you can't even make best guesses about public notices, where you are, etc.
However, we have no hesitation in recommending T J Travel, they are professional, reliable, charming and easy to deal with. Full details of their tours can be found on their website: http://www.st-petersburg-tours.ru
We visited the incomparable Hermitage Museum. TJ even arranged entry before the official opening time, enabling us to see some of the wonderful treasures and artworks, a good 30 minutes ahead of the crowds. I was spell-bound at the wealth of art on display and of course the fabulous interiors of the Winter Palace, which forms part of the Hermitage. Our only regret was that there was no time to dwell at leisure over such an unrivaled collection of art masterpieces.
Day 2 of our excursion commenced with a 'champagne' cruise along several canals and into the Never River. This trip afforded lovely views of many of St Petersburg's iconic sites including the Church on Spilled Blood, The Hermitage & Winter Palace, and the Peter & Paul Fortress. I took some great photos from the boat. Being early in the morning it was quite cold on the river, but blankets were supplied for those that wanted them.
Following a good lunch we proceeded to the Peter & Paul Island and its fortress and cathedral, where the Romanov Tzars are entombed. The golden spire of the cathedral dominates the St Petersburg skyline. Not as spectacular within as St Isaacs or the Church on Spilled Blood, the cathedral is still undergoing some rennovation, but is still very much worth a visit. I would have liked time to explore the fortress and walk around its wall, but . . . alas . . . time!
We took the 30 mins hydrofoil from the city to the amazing Petergof Palace. We didn't have time to visit the palace, but immensely enjoyed the magical gardens. I have never seen such spectacular fountains with golden statues and features abounding. The palace from the outside gleams in yellow and white, with golden turrets, etc.
A group of 8 had opted for this at the Hermitage Theatre. This accommodates an audience of only about 250, so everyone had an unhindered and close view of the excellent performance of Swan Lake (although it should be noted that in this rendering nobody died!). Eduard drove us to the theatre and he was waiting for us when the performance finished. We were back on board by 23:30 - oh so many superlatives in one very full day! One comment - TJ Travel informed us that the dress code for the ballet would be semi-formal, so we all dressed appropriately. However, the audience, mainly East Asians, had clearly not heard this message and you could say that either we were the smartest set in the theatre, or we were terribly over-dressed!
We finished Day 1 of our exhaustive tour at the stunning St Isaac's Cathedral back in the city centre. Its golden dome can be seen as a major feature on the St Petersburg skyline, but the interior is where you really say WOW. Magnificent mosaics cover every inch of the walls and ceilings in the most glorious of colours. The iconoclastas is beautiful and the lofty grandeur of this cathedral leaves you awestruck.
We had our last visit of the tour to the Yusupov Palace, the site of Rasputin's murder. After so many opulent and absolutely stunning sites, this palace, although good anywhere else, seemed a little underwhelming!
I had not been here for 25 years and my memory played no tricks - Stockholm remains one of the most spectacular cities in Northern Europe. The enjoyment starts three hours before docking as you cruise through the Stockholm Skrgrde (Archipelago). There are three main docks where cruise ships tie up. The Oriana berthed at Fryhamnshaven, about a 15 minutes free shuttle ride to the city centre. There were no quayside taxis offering sightseeing trips. Sister ship Aurora was berthed at the much more walkable and picturesque Stadsg?rdskajen - probably luck of the draw.
There is far too much to see than can be achieved in a day. For a brief overview you have the option of a ship's excursion, a hop-on-hop-off bus available in the city centre, or a hop-on-hop-off ferry (several similar operators), which will take you around the central harbour areas. We took this as it was the cheapest option and offered lovely views of most of the downtown cityscape. Price 220SKr pp (c. Â£10.00 / US$15.00) from the Gamla Stan (Old Town) waterfront, beneath the Royal Palace.
One of the stopping points is the 'must visit' Vasa Museum, where a huge salvaged and restored 16th C. sailing ship is on display - absolutely remarkable and the 200SKr entrance fee (C. Â£9.00 / US$14.00) is well worth it, whether you stay for an hour, or all day (which you could easily do).
A walk around the Old Town is a 'must do' and the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace is the best I have seen anywhere. It happens daily at Noon and I recommend getting into the square in front of the Palace at least 45 minutes before hand in order to have a clear view.
Clean, safe and as many people speak English - easy to be understood. Lots of tourists, especially in Summer.
The port of Tallinn is about a 20/30 minute walk from the Old City, although the Oriana provided a free shuttle bus, which took 5 minutes. Note: the Old City is not the modern City Centre - this is at Kesklinn about 2 or 3 kms south and not particularly noteworthy. There were six cruise ships in on the day of our visit - potentially about 11,000 passengers! There were no quayside taxis offering sightseeing trips.
I last visited in 1992, shortly after Estonia's independence from the Soviet Union. At the time there was the excitement of freshly won national emancipation, freedom of speech, and so on. The old town was a living and working city and Town Hall Square was the site of real local businesses serving the community - butchers, bakers, candlestick makers . . . and so on. I was able to stroll the medieval streets in peace and tranquility and I remember the city with immense fondness.
So it saddened me deeply to see what has become of the place. The medieval architecture is much the same and no doubt to some degree usefully restored. However the spirit has died; or at least changed from innocent idealism to hedonistic commercialism. Gone are the shops that served the community and in its place are a plethora of restaurants, bars and tacky souvenir shops. The town was heaving with tourists and I felt I could just as well have been in Los Angeles, Milan, Frankfurt or London, as opposed to the capital of a tiny Baltic State. In 'deference' to its visitors, prices were super-inflated as compared with the cost of living in the real local economy. The tourism business in Tallinn is certainly thriving, but at the cost of the soul of the city. Having had my whinge, I would confess that I expected little different!
The old city of Tallinn is still beautiful architecturally and it is reasonably easy to get around if you are able bodied. Buses are not permitted in there. However cobbled streets and a steep climb to the Upper City make it difficult for some. The hop-on-hop-off bus would help here as it drops people off close by both the Lower Town and the Upper City.
The view from the viewing platforms of Toompea (Upper Town) across the red roofs of Vanalinn (Lower Town) should not be missed. The Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevski Cathedral is worth a visit, but if you have been to St Petersburg it does not hold a candle to the churches there. The lanes between Toompea and Vanalinn are quaint and there are many delightful old lanes off Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square) in the Lower Town. You just need to ignore the throngs of visitors and look behind the tourist enterprises to see how the city used to be.
Whilst we just walked, there should be time to do a hop-on-hop-off tour that embraces some of the outlying areas, besides the Old City. The Tallinna Lauluvljak (Tallinn Song Festival Grounds) are reasonably nearby and will be interesting if you discover the role the site played in Estonia's long fight for freedom from the Soviet Union. Further along Tallinn Bay is Pirata Harbour, which today is a yacht marina, but which was the venue for sailing for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.
Clean, reasonably safe - just badly marred by tourism.