There's always been an enchantment to the countries of the Northern Baltic Sea -- from Russia's decadent royal past to Estonia's quirky present and Copenhagen's inspiring future, the desire to cruise the Baltic Sea has never been higher. Now, thanks to a more comfortable political climate, a larger selection of cruise lines visiting and more affordable travel costs, more visitors than ever are embarking on a trip to the once-forgotten world of Northern Europe.
Voyages to Scandinavia and Russia highlight almost every cruise line's Europe agenda -- from Azamara Club Cruises to Holland America Line to Regent Seven Seas -- with fares that hit nearly every budget point. Thanks to the healthy competition, younger audiences are visiting, from younger families to honeymooners to multigenerational trips, and everything in between.
In light of these itineraries and ever-younger demographics, cruise lines are working hard to find shore excursions that appeal to a wide range of passengers, not only those over 55 or retirees. Cruise passengers have been longing to wander the opulent rooms of St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum to view as much of the 3-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 and tour the highlights of Berlin to see what remains after the fall of the graffiti-sprayed and bullet-laden Wall, filling their Instagram feed with the region's exquisite beauty.
With a younger audience in mind, most of these cruise lines are offering more than just standard bus or coach tours. They're offering more interactive tours that appeal to those seeking a more immersive and adventurous taste of a destination -- from rooftop tours of Stockholm, bike rides through Tallinn, walks down Estonia's cobblestone alleyways to kayak adventures along Norway's lush green fjords, and so much more. Most lines offer at least one more adventurous excursion per port, whether it's walking, biking, boating, kayaking, running, hiking or swimming. Plus, the more luxurious lines, like Regent, Azamara and Silversea, can customize adventures just for you, giving you a private glimpse into the beauty of this part of the world without any interruptions.
The Baltic's attractions and astounding beauty will wow you whatever you do -- but to give you a unique, and immersive, experience in each of these countries, we've highlighted a few of our favorite excursions. Please note, although these are offered by most, check with your cruise line before you book to ensure your favorite is offered.
Why Go: Copenhagen is one of the most picturesque cities in the world, with an array of 14th-century cathedrals and churches and pastel-hued harbor-front homes to explore, uncover and visit. Copenhagen's most famous attraction is Tivoli Gardens -- a 20-acre amusement park decorated with stunning rose gardens, amusement rides, restaurants and thousands of twinkling lights. But the city is 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; tour along the canals and view the iconic Mermaid Statue or simply wander your way through fantastical buildings on a bike you rented for free thanks to the city's bike share program.
Tasting Your Way Through Copenhagen
Home to Noma, one of the best restaurants in the world, along with a distinct collection of other Michelin-starred restaurants, pubs, street food and more, there's no better way to experience Copenhagen than with a food tour. This culinary adventure explores the Danish food culture, inspired by Nordic heritage and committed to sustainable, organic and locally produced products. You'll get a taste of Copenhagen's history accompanied by a generous serving of food and fun. Tour highlights include tastings at the famous Torvehallerne market, the fashionable Stroget pedestrian street, Copenhagen Botanical Gardens, the stunning Nyhavn Harbor and other famous landmarks, including Tivoli Gardens.
Who Should Go: Foodies and those looking for an immersive dive into Nordic cuisine. The tour encompasses about 4 kilometers of walking, so you should feel comfortable enough to walk that (along with a few inclines).
Terrific Alternatives: For similarly innovative versions of the city tour, try Copenhagen by bike, Rollerblade or kayak tours instead.
Nordisk Film Studio and Carlsberg Brewery
Most Americans over 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 are just as interested in learning about the brewing process as they are about sampling the end product. The tour is mostly educational, with samplings, so don't expect a full-on pub crawl.
Why Go: A first-timer's tour of Helsinki must include the water -- after all, three sides of the city are surrounded by the Baltic Sea. Boat tours, ferry rides to the many 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 Helsinki Cathedral and onion-domed Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. You might not know it, but Helsinki is also a fabulous shopping destination -- with rows of shops along the Esplanadi Park, an open-air market flanked by the sparkling sea and the pedestrian-only Jomas street.
Lapland and the Arctic Circle
Hop on 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 riverboat. 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.
Helsinki by Jopo Bike
For a truly Finnish experience, tour Helsinki on a Jopo bicycle -- the famous bike designed in Finland in the 1960s. 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 you're a hipster (or hippy) at heart, and flock to all things vintage and retro, 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, there's an incredible collection of wayfaring inspired city museums (such as the Viking Ship Museum and Fram Museum) and boat tours aplenty to take you to and from the breathtaking fjords. Land-based must-sees include the Nobel Peace Center, the Munch Museum (think "The Scream") and Vigeland Sculpture Park.
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 4 miles with a camera on your back -- or smartphone in your hand -- since the views will too beautiful not to capture on camera.
Terrific Alternatives: For a bigger adrenaline rush, opt for a two-pedaled adventure through Oslo's city center and the stunning nature parks around it. You'll see most of the city's famed landmarks, like City Hall Square, site of the annual Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Parliament Building, National Theatre, University of Oslo, the Royal Palace Gardens and the neo-classic neighborhood of Frogner. Plus, you'll get incredible views of the harbor and surrounding hills along the car-free path of the Oslo Fjord.
Why Go: People flock 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 Palace in Pushkin and Peter the Great's Peterhof, bulbous-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 port.
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 more than 3-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 wear comfortable walking shoes.
Terrific Alternatives: As extraordinary as this excursion is, look for more unusual variations, such as evening tours combined with musical performances, such as trips to the ballet or opera, or visits that include behind-the-scenes tours of the restoration rooms.
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 one-hour flight or four-hour high-speed train ride 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 iconic St. Basil Cathedral. Most trips include lunch or dinner at a Russian restaurant for some edible culture and the obligatory shot (or glass, if you're lucky) of coveted Russian vodka.
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: Try the Russian ballet. It's hard not to visit the historic city of St. Petersburg and not visit the ballet -- it's as integral to the culture as the vodka you sip during dinner. On Princess Cruises' tour of the ballet, you'll visit one of St. Petersburg's traditional concert halls, like Mariinsky Theatre, and will be transported into a world of grace, elegance and timeless beauty. You'll watch classics, like Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Giselle or Sleeping Beauty, or you might see a selection of scenes from a variety of shows. During intermission, toast to this lovely evening with a complimentary glass of sparkling wine. This is the one excursion you'll want to be dressed to the nines -- so don your finest gowns and suits for this unforgettable evening.
Why Go: This beautiful 13th-century city, known as the Venice of the North, is a stunning mosaic of old and new, with a tapestry of 14 islands and bridges connecting to and from Stockholm's center. 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. More than just landmarks, it's easy to spend the day strolling along Stockholm's Instagram-worthy canals, flower-filled alleyways and past the stunning waterfront homes and bistros.
Historical Rooftop Walk
See the city like few have seen it before with a historic and panoramic rooftop tour. You'll start in Riddarholmen -- the former home of a 13th-century Franciscan monastery -- and 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. Afterward, 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 and tricky climbs.
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 definitely one of the quirkiest. Most cruise travelers make a beeline for the Old Town with its cobblestone streets, medieval architecture and domed Russian cathedrals. 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, and give you a taste of this picturesque, and eccentric, city.
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.
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 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, Azamara Club Cruises "Old Tallinn 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 Pierre Chocolatier. There you'll learn everything you need to know about chocolate from a master chocolatier, ending with the chance to prepare your own truffles to take home, ranging in flavors from chipotle chili to fresh Nordic fruits.
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, Gustrow, Rostock and Schwerin.
The Highlights of Berlin
Most of the top-tier cruise lines will offer a highlight of Berlin tour, which will take you from the port of Warnemunde to the bustling city of Berlin. This 12-hour tour is nonstop, but is the perfect an introductory tour for those who've never been. You'll see Cold War relics, including a surviving section of the Berlin Wall and the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, you will take a boat tour through the canals, which once separated the Eastern and Western sections of the city, pass the sprawling Holocaust Museum, walk through the Brandenburg Gate and enjoy lunch in the glistening glass dome top of the Reichstag (Parliament) Building.
Who Should Go: Those who've never been to Berlin and want a crash course in the history and the must-see landmarks. It's incredibly intensive, so people need to be able to stand for long periods of time or walk for miles.
Terrific Alternatives: Check out the East German Bunker and Countryside. Say "East German bunker" and the words conjure up images of Cold War spy movies. Twenty-five 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.