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Here's Why Northern Europe Is Enjoying a New Renaissance

Stockholm (Photo: Shutterstock)
Stockholm (Photo: Shutterstock)

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Medieval churches, sumptuous palaces, bustling markets, a great culinary scene, extraordinary art -- the sheer breadth of what a traveler can experience when cruising in the Baltic and Scandinavia boggles the mind. We share our favorite ports in the region, both large and small, and spotlight their best treasures, both classic and undiscovered.

Updated October 10, 2019

Stockholm

Stockholm's Gamla Stan (Photo: Shutterstock)

Experience a classic…

There is no shortage of attractions on the island of Djurgarden, accessible via bus, tram or ferry. Relive the glittering ’70s at ABBA The Museum; tour five centuries’ worth of Swedish houses and farmsteads at Skansen, the world’s oldest open-air museum; or learn about life at sea at the Vasa Museet, the centerpiece of which is a grand Vasa ship that sank off the coast of Stockholm in 1628 but was recovered more than 300 years later. Wandering on foot through the cobblestoned alleys of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s medieval city center, is another timeless diversion: The area is home to the Royal Palace, Nobel Museum (devoted to winners of the Nobel Prize) and enough restaurants to feed you for a year.

Now go deeper…

Join the locals for a ritualistic sweat session in the sauna at Hellasgarden, located within the Nacka nature reserve about 20 minutes from downtown Stockholm. There are separate saunas for men and women, with mixed-gender sessions held every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. (Note: You must be fully nude to enter; swimsuits are not permitted.) On Thursday evenings, the changing rooms, showers and patio are lit with candles -- the ultimate hygge indulgence. Because the sauna is perched on beautiful Lake Kalltorp, it’s common to see Swedes leaping off the floating dock for a quick cool-down session. (In winter, they climb through a hole drilled in the ice.) It’s best to pair your sauna session with an outdoor activity: The reserve has walking trails, canoeing, mountain biking and cross-country skiing.

Less-active travelers should book it to Sodermalm, an arty bohemian neighborhood with a bounty of galleries, cafes, vintage boutiques and an excellent international photography museum (Fotografiska).

Hamburg

Hamburg (Photo: Shutterstock)

Experience a classic…

One of the biggest cultural draws in Germany’s second-largest city is the Kunstmeile, or Art Mile, a cluster of five major art institutions all within walking distance. Admire 700 years’ worth of European art, including old Dutch masters, at the grand Hamburger Kunsthalle, and then pop by Deichtorhallen Hamburg for a snapshot of Germany’s contemporary art and photography scenes.

Now go deeper…

With the major museums ticked off, spend the afternoon tooling around Hamburg’s cutting-edge gallery scene. Produzentengalerie, founded in 1973, is a local leader at international art fairs; the gallery represents avant-garde textile artist Ulla von Brandenburg and macabre oil painter Jonas Burgert, among others. At the art salon and studio Heliumcowboy, founder Jorg Heikhaus’ upends the traditional gallery model by hosting solo exhibitions accompanied by intimate artist talks and presentations. Another must-visit space is the Elbphilharmonie in HafenCity, opened in January 2017. The building’s 2,100-seat Grand Hall is an architectural marvel, treating listeners to the most precise acoustics in Europe.

Not so into art and music? How about beer? A traditional biergarten experience awaits at Blockbrau in Hamburg’s St. Paul district; jockey for a table on the rooftop for a panoramic view of the Elbe river. Or, for an entirely different look at Germany’s largest port, sign up for a rollicking speedboat tour with RIB Piraten or a slower, sweeter barge cruise on Maritime Circle Line.

Helsinki

Helsinki (Photo:Scanrail1/Shutterstock)

Experience a classic…

The Finnish capital harbors architectural wonders, particularly for the church-going set. To wit: the stunning Uspenski Cathedral, the largest Eastern Orthodox house of worship in Western Europe; the neoclassical Helsinki Cathedral, a 19th-century landmark with a Greco-white facade and striking green dome; the Temppeliaukio Church, whose dramatic subterranean nave is carved into solid rock; and the nondenominational Kamppi Chapel of Silence, a minimalist space whose walls are fashioned from Nordic spruce.

Now go deeper…

Hit up the Museum of Finnish Architecture for a detailed look at the works of Eero Saarinen, Rainer Mahlamaki and other renown Finland-born architects. Afterward, take an hourlong guided tour of Alvar Aalto’s unique home in the Munkkiniemi area of Helsinki; hire a car to take you out to Haltia, a magnificent nature center in Espoo designed by Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects; or walk over to Amos Rex, the newest entrant to central Helsinki’s jam-packed museum district. The $50 million exhibition space was designed by JKMM Architects on a site used for the 1940 Summer Olympics; it does a remarkable job restoring, preserving and incorporating original design features, including a central clock tower.

As any design fan can tell you, Helsinki is also home to the Marimekko textile factory. Visit the brand’s revamped flagship in the Galleria Esplanad mall (where other boutiques showcase Finland's newly emerging fashion design) to shop for brightly printed napkins, tablecloths, pillowcases and other souvenirs in one of the brand’s signature floral patterns. Elsewhere in the Design District is Wild, a cafe in the back of the hip concept store World of TRE, where chef Jouni Toivanen experiments with Nordic ingredients like forest mushrooms, wild herbs, fish and reindeer heart. For a quickie snack, you can’t beat his spruce-spiced buns.

Bergen

Bergen (Photo:Mark_and_Anna_Wilson/Shutterstock)

Experience a classic…

Bergen is one of the most attractive cities in Norway, but there are two spots in particular known for their postcard-perfect scenery. The first is Bryggen wharf, a UNESCO World Heritage Site facing Vagen Bay. The rows of wooden merchants' homes demonstrate the importance of Bergen as a trading post at the height of the Hanseatic League.

The other million-dollar view can be found at the top of Mount Floyen, 1,309 feet above the city and sea. Hitch a lift on the Floibanen funicular, just a 10-minute walk from the cruise ship docks and a 5- to 8-minute ride to the summit. Once you’re up there, take one of 10 scenic walks in the woods, nosh on freshly baked toffee muffins at the Floistuen Cafe, or simply enjoy the scenery.

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Hidden in plain sight on the old wharf is Theta Museum, a secret World War II cell once used by a Norwegian resistance group to radio messages to England during Nazi occupation. Another spot that flies under the tourist radar is the Leprosy Museum inside the now-defunct St. George’s Hospital. In the mid- to late-1800s, Bergen was home to the largest concentration of lepers in Europe. The museum does a fine, if somber, job documenting what life was like for people who lived in shunned colonies. For a livelier scene, head to the city’s historic Fish Market, one of few places in the world that serves whale meat, or hit the shops in search of souvenirs. Danish chain Illums Bolighus trades in stylish home goods and toys, including minimalist Nordic dishware, geometric candlestick holders, and charming oak and maple teddies.

St. Petersburg

Church of the Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg (Photo: Shutterstock)

Experience a classic…

It has been said that the architecture in St. Petersburg is so beautifully preserved, the entire city may as well be a museum. (To wit: The spectacular Peterhof and Catherine palaces!) But there’s only one museum topping every cruiser’s bucket list, and that’s the Hermitage. You could spend years wandering the gilded halls of the imperial winter palace and still not see all 3 million works of art in the state-owned collection. Still, you should try -- and don’t forget to check out the neighboring General Staff Building, home to celebrated Impressionist works by Monet, Degas, Renoir and Matisse.

Now go deeper…

The Hermitage is just the tip of the museum iceberg in Russia’s second most populous city. The Faberge Museum, founded by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, houses more than 4,000 decorative works of Russian art, the creme de la creme of which are nine exquisite Easter eggs handcrafted by jeweler Carl Faberge for the imperial family. At the F.M. Dostoevsky Literary-Memorial Museum, you can tour the actual apartment where the great Russian author worked on his early story "The Double" and penned his last novel, "The Brothers Karamazov." The Pushkinskaya-10 Arts Center, meanwhile, takes a free-spirited approach to curation: Its complex comprises the only Museum of Nonconformist Art in Russia, plus two concert venues, a recording studio and a dozen experimental galleries devoted to everything from Soviet rock 'n' roll to push pins. For traveling epicureans, a meal at Russian Ampir, inside the opulent Stroganov Palace, satisfies any caviar taste -- literally. The degustation menu includes pike, salmon and sturgeon, or you can order a la carte. Notable dishes include the borscht with veal cheeks, lamb tongues in celery root puree or, if you’re feeling adventurous, a cutlet of bear meat with bulgur and fir-cone jam.

Greenland's Nuuk

Greenland's Nuuk (Photo: Shutterstock)

Experience a classic…

More than 4,500 years of history are on display at the Greenland National Museum and Archives, making these converted harborfront warehouses a must-see for any first-time visitor to the world’s largest island. Exhibitions are arranged chronologically and include info and artifacts charting the lives of Stone Age Paleo-Eskimos, early Norse settlers and the Thule migrants from Alaska.

Now go deeper…

The small but mighty Nuuk Art Museum is located in a former Adventist church. The permanent collection includes an array of soapstone, wood, bone and ivory carvings found throughout Greenland, plus important holdings by Christine Deichmann, J.E.C. Rasmussen and Harald Moltke. The learning doesn’t end when you walk out the door, either. Save a copy of the museum’s 19-stop ArtWALK map and 27-minute podcast to your phone to hear stories about Greenlandic myths and legends as they guide you to public sculptures made by local artists. The walking tour starts at Blok 10, a stone’s throw from Nuuk Art Museum.

Estonia's Tallinn

Tallinn (Photo: Shutterstock)

Experience a classic…

With limited time in port, make a beeline to Tallinn’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best preserved medieval cities in Northern Europe. Start at the storybook-magical Viru Gate, a pair of 14th-century towers guarding the entrance of the historic city, and then hoof it over to Town Hall Square or down any cobblestone street for an eyeful of colorful merchants' houses. For 360-degree views of Old Town and beyond, climb 232 steps to the observation deck atop the nearly 800-year-old St. Olav’s Church, once the tallest building in the world (back in the Middle Ages, anyway).

Now go deeper…

About 2 miles from Old Town is a cluster of world-class museums nestled in an immaculately manicured park. Kadrioru Art Museum, housed inside the former Baroque palace of Peter the Great, is the only museum in Estonia devoted primarily to foreign art. The 9,000-piece collection spans the 16th to 20th centuries, with an emphasis on paintings by Russian, Italian and Netherlandish artists. In a rare departure that ties into Estonia’s Centenary, the Kadrioru’s next show, “In the Beginning There Were … Koler and Weizenberg,” explores the legacies of Estonian painter Johann Koler and Estonian sculptor August Weizenberg. Time your visit right and you might catch one of the museum’s monthly classical music concerts.

Modern and contemporary art more your speed? Hop over to the neighboring Kumu Art Museum. At 269,000 square feet, it’s the largest art space in the country. Galleries are carved up by period and include an exhibition of Estonian works made during the Soviet occupation (1940–1991).

Denmark's Aalborg

Aalborg (Photo: Anders Riishede/Shutterstock.com)

Experience a classic…

Passengers porting in this handsome Danish city are gobsmacked by its recently revitalized waterfront. There’s a lot to take in, from exhibitions on Nordic architecture at the Utzon Center to a quartet of concert halls tucked inside the visionary Musikkens Hus, home of the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra and Centre for Danish Jazz History. Even the harbor’s CF Moller-designed promenade, a half-mile stretch dotted with recessed terraces and moss-covered benches, is a treat to wander.

Now go deeper…

Though it’s only a 25-minute walk from the port, the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art doesn’t receive nearly as many cruisers as it deserves. The stylish marble building with copper lamps was designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Exhibitions in five light-flooded galleries draw from more than 4,000 works of mostly 20th-century art. There is a lovely cafe on the ground floor and an outdoor sculpture park with an interactive water pavilion designed by Jeppe Hein. On your way back to the ship, go for a stroll through the nearby Almen Kirkegard, a peaceful cemetery where several notable Danes are buried.

Faroe Islands' Torshavn

Torshavn, Faroe Islands (Photo: Shutterstock)

Experience a classic…

Located halfway between Iceland and Scotland, these 18 wind-swept islands in the North Atlantic are best known for their spectacular scenery. What gets less attention is the fine art all that unspoilt nature inspires. The National Gallery of the Faroe Islands in the capital of Torshavn, on the southeastern coast of Streymoy island, surfaces brilliant works by Faroese artists. Notable pieces include an early 20th-century funereal painting by Samuel Joensen-Mikines, capturing the harshness of life in the remote archipelago, and a kaleidoscopic high seas-inspired installation by Trondur Patursson, a master of mirror art.

Now go deeper…

Though big for the Faroe Islands, Torshavn is still a small town (population: 12,713). Once you’ve knocked out the National Gallery and squeezed in a hike or two, head a half-hour south to Kirkjubour, Streymoy’s medieval heart and soul. The highlight of this village is Roykstovan, aka King’s Farm, a 900-year-old turf-roofed farmhouse and museum. The Patursson family has lived here continuously for 17 generations, making it the oldest inhabited wooden house in Europe. Directly behind the farm are two churches: St. Olav’s, a humble parish erected in 1111 and still in use today, and the roofless ruins of Magnus Cathedral, an imposing stone structure built in the year 1300. When it comes to mealtime, there’s no better way to immerse yourself in Faroese culture than by dining with locals. Families throughout the islands invite travelers into their private homes to experience what is called heimablidni, or “home hospitality.” At Roykstovan, for example, you can tuck into a three-course meal with a seafood appetizer, lamb and rhubarb trifle, prepared entirely on the Patursson family’s farm. (Reservations required; email patursson@patursson.fo or call +298 328089 for details.)

Iceland's Husavik

Iceland's Husavik (Photo: Shutterstock)

Experience a classic…

They don’t call Husavik the “Whale Capital of Iceland” for nothing. Whale-watching on Skjalfandi Bay is the most popular activity in this town of 2,182 people. A quartet of local companies will take you on the excursions; for a three-hour spin on a traditional oak fishing boat, book with Salka Whale Watching.

Now go deeper…

In addition to its thriving marine life, Husavik is known for its abundance of geothermal springs. The town’s man-made swimming pool and naturally bubbly lake are good local haunts. For a more refined dip, head to the months-old Geosea Geothermal Sea Baths, perched high above the port town. The spa facility pulls its mineral-rich seawater from two drill holes in the Husavikurhofdi headland. The baths feature a half-dozen interconnected infinity pools heated between 100 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit, including one with a built-in waterfall and swim-up bar. Float to the water’s edge to see the whale-watching boats coming and going in the harbor below. If you’re lucky, you might spot a humpback or minke breaching the stillness of the bay.


Ashlea Halpern is the co-founder of Cartogramme, editor-at-large for AFAR Media and a contributor to Condé Nast Traveler, Airbnbmag, Bon Appétit, Wired and New York Magazine, among other titles. She has traveled to more than 50 countries and won’t stop until she’s dead.


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