For many of us, a first venture to Europe targets England and France, Barcelona and Rome. The sights and history of Northern Europe are saved for subsequent visits, sometimes much later.
Don't wait. Cruise itineraries that focus on Northern Europe and Scandinavia offer a tremendous variety of cultures, languages and lifestyles. Want to dive into one of the world's great art collections? St. Petersburg's Hermitage ranks as the second-largest museum in the world, stuffed with masterpieces by Rembrandt, Picasso, da Vinci and van Gogh. How about reveling in the world's greatest horde of fjords? That would be Norway, where more than a thousand of these glacier-carved inlets are said to lace a stunning coastline. And the Viking stories of trade routes and conquest? Trace their history through Scandinavia, as far as the Scottish Isles, Greenland and Russia.
Itineraries offer huge range. In the Baltic, your cruise most likely would call at ports in Sweden, Finland, Russia and Estonia, among others. A Scandinavian Voyage would focus on Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Germany. And a Viking-themed fjords cruise would focus on Norway's western coast, along with Scotland.
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Which cruise is best for you? We think you should sail them all! Regardless of which itinerary you choose first, we share some of our favorite Northern Europe and Scandinavian ports of call.
East meets west in St. Petersburg, Peter the Great's grand tribute to European capitals. It's a planned city of long, broad boulevards and imposing public squares. It's also home to one of the world's most dazzling repositories of art, the Hermitage, the former private collection of Catherine the Great. In addition to 16th-century Renaissance masterpieces, the complex includes the monumental Winter Palace, home to the tsars -- up through the Russian Revolution, that is.
But that's just the start of the optical feast. There's the lavish onion domes of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, lined inside with more than 80,000 square feet of exquisite mosaics; take in St. Isaac's Cathedral, the world's third-largest domed cathedral; and at the Russian Museum you'll find a vast collection of Russian fine art. Then, unwind in the Versailles-inspired Peterhof Palace on the outskirts of town, where fountains and statues and peaceful formal gardens let you soak in the glory of St. Petersburg in a relaxed setting.
Independent travel in Russia is not exactly free-and-easy, but cruise lines and tour operators handle tourist visas when you book a St. Petersburg excursion. Most cruise lines give you plenty of time to explore by scheduling an overnight in port here, allowing two days to explore the city. A handful of cruise lines offer two night, three day visits for even more sightseeing. And if you come in mid-June, look forward to White Nights when the sun never quite sets and the city is ablaze with festivals, concerts and partying.
Great tours: Go behind closed doors at the Hermitage for an insider's look at one of the world's most prestigious art collections. Of all the palaces, our favorite is Peterhof, the Versailles of St. Petersburg; don't miss the gorgeous gardens and fountains. Attend the ballet.
Sweden's gorgeous capital city spreads across 14 islands, and the sail into (and out of) this port provides a full-frontal immersion into Stockholm's idyllic summer lifestyle, one seaside dollhouse vacation home after another. Once in Stockholm, catch a ferry to venture through the archipelago. There are thousands of islands -- most of them uninhabited -- but a good day trip target is Vaxholm, which is compact enough to explore on foot in a few hours, fortress included.
Two dozen of Stockholm's museums are concentrated on the island of Djurgarden, a green oasis right near the city center. The Vasa Museum holds a Swedish warship that sank just minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628, preserved in the harbor mud and later restored, making it the oldest fully preserved warship in the world. Skansen was the world's first open-air museum -- traditional architecture encompassing five centuries brought in from all over Sweden. Pop fans won't want to miss ABBA: The Museum, replete with the costumes, gold records and other memorabilia.
In Stockholm proper there's a medieval old town (Gamla stan), public parks, sculpture gardens, the Nationalmuseum (Rembrandt and Monet), Nobel Museum (exhibits on the Peace Prize and its laureates) and Royal Palace, the hub for most of Sweden's official receptions. When the shopping bug bites, head to Drottninggatan, a shopping street offering both international name brands as well as only-in-Sweden boutiques.
Great tours: A panoramic tour of Stockholm will give you your bearings, and then we encourage you to try new experiences. How about a culinary-themed city adventure, complete with tastings? Other options include paddling a kayak around the island of Långholmen or take in a performance at the Swedish Royal Opera.
In a more recent era, Gdańsk is best known as the birthplace of the anti-Communist movement known as Solidarity in the 1980s. Gdańsk is also where the first shots of World War II were fired and, by the end of the war, the city had been virtually leveled. Yet, the Polish city was painstakingly restored during the Soviet era, brick by brick. The result is that the Gdańsk city center offers much of its historical character, and the old town, Stare Miasto, retains the ambience of a medieval merchant settlement, its Old Town Hall -- completely destroyed during the war -- now lovingly rebuilt.
Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement spread throughout Eastern Europe but its most enduring symbol might be the former Lenin Shipyards, where the social movement took hold. Three towering crosses adorned by crucified anchors commemorate the protest's 44 martyrs and exhibits detail the history.
In the historic city center, St. Mary's Church is the largest brick church in the world, with 30 individual chapels lined with paintings and statues. Oliwa Cathedral, just north of the old quarter, was constructed in various periods and wears its Gothic, Renaissance and rococo stylings proudly. The 17th-century Neptune Fountain is an iconic symbol for Gdańsk, underlining the city's relationship with the sea.
Great tours: Spend some time going in-depth about the Solidarity Movement, also known as the People-to-People Movement, that put Gdansk on the map for generations. Or, experience culinary and cultural arts via cooking demonstrations that showcase local fare, like pierogi, and a chance to learn about amber, produced here since the Stone Age.
Scotland's majestic capital is dominated by its medieval castle, which sits atop a volcanic throne, reached by following the Royal Mile, a ramp just a few hundred feet wide, lined with shops and restaurants. Sounds regal? Ascending Edinburgh's backbone is a rite of passage for visitors, leading to the Stone of Destiny, where Scotland's monarchs were crowned on this lofty perch.
At the base of the Royal Mile is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where Mary Queen of Scots lived, and today is the official residence for Britain's monarch, when in town. In the port of Leith, you can also visit the Royal Yacht Britannia, which served Queen Elizabeth II until 1997 before being decommissioned and converted into a museum (fun fact: Prince Charles and his then-wife Princess Diana honeymooned onboard). A trio of National Galleries -- one for Old Masters, another for portraits and the third for modern art -- provide excellent museum-going, and St. Giles' Cathedral is Scotland's most important church, dating to the Middle Ages.
Stretch your legs with a ramble to Arthur's Seat, the craggy, 822-foot-high extinct volcano that defines the city's topography. Reward yourself with a stop in a pub where you can tip back a shot of Scotch whisky from the Highlands.
Great tours: Experience two of Scotland's national treasures -- whisky and bagpipes -- while tasting a wee bit of dram and learning the ins and outs of the bagpipe. Or, in a rare history-themed opportunity, visit Broomhall House, the ancestral home of the Bruce clan, for an exclusive visit. A member of the family will escort you through its 1,000 years of history via a private tour of the castle.
Two cities divided for three decades by an insidious wall were famously rejoined in 1989. If at times it's hard to denote East and West Berlin today, this dynamic city is all the better for it. Berlin is one of Europe's most fascinating destinations, upbeat and forward-looking, yet with remembrances of a dark past never far from sight.
Ironically, the city's star tourist attraction -- the Berlin Wall -- is one that has virtually disappeared, though fragments have been preserved and now serve as memorials. The longest stretch is found at the graffiti-laden East Side Gallery; a bike tour tracing the route of the wall can be quite memorable. Otherwise, top sights include the regal Brandenburg Gate; Museum Island, where five of the city's best museums are located; and Potsdamer Platz, where Berlin's go-go economy shines brightest. The Topography of Terror museum sits on the site of the former Gestapo and SS Police headquarters and covers the events leading up to and following WWII, while the Berlin Holocaust Memorial serves as a more literal touchstone to the past.
Note that ships arrive in Warnemünde, a cruise terminal located 150 miles north of Berlin. Fortunately, the Warnemünde train station is close to the dock, and departures for the three-hour journey are frequent. Most cruise lines charge $275 and up for a guided shore excursion to Berlin, but a few include the visit in the cruise fare.
Great tours: An included tour to Berlin, some three hours away by train, is a long day but it's worth it to see Checkpoint Charlie; the City Hall of Schöneberg, where President Kennedy gave his momentous speech; the Reichstag; and the majestic Brandenburg Gate. Staying closer to the "home" of your ship? Nearby Rostock has a great craft beer scene. Board the Molli Railway's steam train for a trip along the Baltic Sea.
The Bergen harbor edges right into the heart of Norway's second-largest city, planting cruise visitors close to the sights. Laced with islands and harbors, Bergen is known for its seven fjords and seven mountains, so perhaps the best way to appreciate the undulating cityscape is from above -- a funicular leads to the scenic viewpoint atop Mount Floyen and a cable car rises to lofty Mount Ulriken.
Bergen was Norway's capital in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the city's original wharf, Bryggen, is a beautifully preserved collection of steep-gabled buildings, all brightly painted and slightly askew, each bisected by alleys that invite window-shopping through the boutiques and art galleries. Norway's great composer Edvard Grieg spent his summers in Bergen, and his house Troldhaugen still has the lakeside hut where he would craft his concertos, along with a concert hall where piano recitals are performed daily. The city's art museums, four in all, are grouped under the name KODE, each with its own focus -- Edvard Munch, contemporary, modern. These bite-sized chunks of art offer quick glimpses into the Norwegian identity.
For lunch away from the ship, follow the cobblestones to the city's fish market Torget -- the sea's bounty is always fresh, and fast, informal lunches can be assembled on the spot.
Great tours: Native son Edvard Grieg, Norway's most famous composer, lived just outside of Bergen; a tour takes you to his home, set on a lake in the most beautiful countryside, and to a performance of his music in the adjacent concert hall. If you're traveling aboard a Viking Ocean Cruises ship, don't miss The Kitchen Table, a chef-led trip to Bergen's fabulous market, where you help pick out ingredients for the evening's meal (and later help to prepare it).
Bounded on three sides by the Baltic Sea, Finland's capital city is a creative hub for Scandinavian design. There's no medieval or Old World architecture -- instead, 20th-century buildings contrast boldly against pure neoclassical, neo-Renaissance and Byzantine-Russian influences. Head first to Market Square, on the dock. It lies at South Harbour, the heart of the city, and bubbles with outdoor cafés and bars -- a good spot for a quick, inexpensive lunch. It's also quite close to other major sites to see, like the Presidential Palace and the gleaming white Lutheran Cathedral.
Close to South Harbour is the Esplanadi. It's a huge grassy parkland, flanked by roadways, where you'll find street food, cultural performances and Helsinki's best shopping, including flagship stores of three renowned Finnish designers. Artek features the furniture of Bauhaus-inspired Alvar and Aino Aalto; the glassworks Iittala produces decorative and functional glass pieces; and Marimekko is the Finnish fabric company that made a colorful splash in the 1960s and still inspires designers today. A visit to the Design Museum provides an expanded take on one of Finland's major exports. Among Helsinki's noteworthy places of worship, Temppeliaukio Church is the standout: a modern structure carved into the rocks and capped with a copper dome.
Saunas are essential to the Finnish experience, and they're easy to locate, even in Helsinki -- stripping down is common, but not required, and the social experience is such that some Finns say that more important decisions are made in saunas than at formal meetings. After the sweat, it's a quick ferry ride to Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed sea fortress dating to 1748, where battlements and museums stand alongside gardens in a breezy island setting.
Great tours: Live like a Finn via a tour, by private RIB boat (an inflatable speedboat) to the countryside and experience a traditional wood sauna – and a lunch cooked over an open fire. Feed a reindeer at the Nuuksio Reindeer Park. Embrace your inner artisan with a visit to Fiskars Arts Village, a one-time industrial site that's now a campus and community for artists, from blacksmiths to glassblowers.
Perhaps Scandinavia's most cheerful capital city, Copenhagen is defined by promenades along sparkling canals, a maze of pedestrian streets through its old city, and inviting gardens and public spaces, including the grand-daddy of them all: the quaintly sophisticated amusement park Tivoli Gardens.
Bikes are de rigueur for getting around, though the city is compact enough to be easily explored on foot. Top museums worth a visit include the National Museum of Denmark, which holds antiquities from the Bronze Age along with Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Viking pieces. The New Carlsberg Museum has a great collection of Impressionist masterpieces plus the largest trove of Etruscan art outside Italy. Visitors can also explore the canal-wrapped, granite Christiansborg Palace, home to the Danish Parliament and Supreme Court, along with the reception chambers where the queen officially receives visitors.
With more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in Scandinavia -- 66 in all -- Copenhagen is a buzzy hotbed of innovative cuisine. Recently reopened Noma has been voted the top restaurant in the world by several authorities. The city is also design-forward: Whether you're talking mid-century modern furnishings, or the jewelry and ornamental pieces of silversmith Georg Jensen or the city's grand new opera house, this is the place to appreciate the spiritual home of Danish design.
Great tours: No visit to Copenhagen is complete without a trip to Tivoli, a 19th-century amusement park that's so charming it is said to have inspired Walt Disney. There are beautiful gardens, critically acclaimed restaurants and theatrical venues and, yes, you can also take a ride on its iconic Ferris wheel and roller coaster. Another terrific option: Head out to the countryside for a day spent visiting the castles of Frederiksborg and Kronborg.
Cloaked in a Baltic blend of Nordic, Teutonic and Russian cultures, Tallinn, Estonia, is one of Europe's newest capitals, having hit its stride in the post-Communist era. It's one of the region's most tantalizing ports. Tallinn's Old Town was spared the physical ravages of war and the compact, walled city is an exceptionally well-preserved medieval trading port -- a worthy addition to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites.
Old Town is divided into two distinct sections. The lower town (Vanalinn) was the Hanseatic trading center filled with merchants and laborers. Today, it's jammed with contemporary restaurants and galleries. Town Hall Square is a lively hub that recalls its heritage, including the oldest working pharmacy in the world. The Tallinn City Museum explores the city's maritime might, and St. Olav's Church -- the city's tallest building -- can be climbed for swell views. The city wall and its towers are worth exploring, including the six-story artillery tower Kiek in de Kök, which harbors a collection of contemporary art and ancient maps.
Toompea, the upper town, sits on a limestone hillock and is crowned by a castle overlooking the city wall. This is Estonia's seat of government today, but also check out St. Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral, lathered in gold and incense, and the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin, a history-filled Lutheran church.
Great tours: Learn about communist life in Tallinn, occupied for nearly 50 years, from the 1940s to 1990s, by the Soviet Union. Sights may include the Unfinished Bridge to Finland, Lasnamae housing complex and the Maarjamae Memorial. For something lighter, select an Old Town tour with beer tastings along the way.
Lavished with forests and green spaces, stuffed with trendy cafés and bars, and brimming with intriguing museums, Norway's booming capital is the Scandinavian city reinvented. Oslo is on the rise, and with most of the main sights concentrated within a mile or so of the docks, it's an easy city to take in on a cruise visit.
You'll probably dock close to Akershus Castle and Fortress, the bulwark that has successfully defended Oslo from invaders for seven centuries. Top museums worth a gander include the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, which houses works by Gauguin, Picasso and van Gogh, plus the iconic "Scream" painting by Munch. There's also a Munch Museum, featuring another 1,100 paintings by the Norwegian artist; the Kon-Tiki Museum, which is dedicated to the exploits of South Pacific explorer Thor Heyerdahl; and the home of playwright Henrik Ibsen.
You don't have to be an opera fan to appreciate the sprawling concept of the Oslo Opera House, which resembles a glacier descending into the harbor (be sure to amble onto the gorgeous rooftop). Oslo's most popular attraction is Vigeland Sculpture Park, where 212 granite and bronze works by sculptor Gustav Vigeland, some of them gently provocative, perk up a tranquil corner of Frogner Park.
Great tours: A new twist on the usual panoramic tour is a cycling expedition that takes in all the key sights, from Akershus Fortress to the gorgeous Bygdøy peninsula. Go behind closed doors at the Munch Museum, where you can see private collections and learn about the inner workings of a museum.
A native of San Diego, David Swanson has sailed on all of the big-ship cruise lines, but most enjoys the undiscovered ports and offbeat journeys of smaller cruise vessels. His writing and photography has been featured in the pages of National Geographic Traveler, American Way and the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years, and he has served on the board of directors for the Society of American Travel Writers since 2009.