Credit: Shutterstock

Back to the Baltics: Why you should cruise to Northern Europe this winter

Author: Sarah Freeman

Published on:

Updated on:

Whether you’re a foodie, a history buff or a lover of the great outdoors, Northern Europe’s winter wonderland is packed with interest all year round – with or without a Russian port stop.

Once sailed by explorers of the Viking age, this inland sea of northern Europe is surrounded by historic cities and colourful trading ports.

Baltic cruises typically depart from Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Southampton or Warnemunde in Germany, with voyages usually lasting between seven and 14 days.

And although the glories of St Petersburg are off limits since the war in Ukraine, cruisers have no need to feel short-changed.

From the Baltic states to Sweden, and from Finland to the German coast, you’ll
find world-class culture and cuisine, dramatic landscapes and even sun-drenched golden sands.

Here’s our run-down of what to see and do...

Related articles

Good for nature


A land of glaciated mountains, forested islands, glassy lakes and wild sand dunes, Sweden is a playground for lovers of nature and the great outdoors.

Located where lake meets sea, the famously friendly waterfront capital, Stockholm, is one of the busiest ports for Baltic cruise traffic. Visitors come for Gamla Stan, the colourfully painted old town, but if time allows there is so much more to discover.

Built on an archipelago of 14 islands, this is a city with pristine wilderness almost within hailing distance of its cosmopolitan streets. Sculpted by the last ice age, these pine-scented granite islands are perfect for trekking and kayaking, from early May through to late September.

Most adventures begin from the pretty town of Vaxholm, just 40 minutes’ drive from central Stockholm. Named for a castle built 400 years ago to defend the capital against hostile Scandinavian neighbours, this is your springboard for kayaking adventures along forested shorelines.

Here, with just the sound of your paddle dipping in the water, you get a whole new perspective on white-tailed eagles, ospreys, grey seals and great cormorants.

Another highlight is Bogesund Nature Reserve. Here you can watch beavers in the wild, learn about the Vikings who lived here 1,000 years ago, and hike through broadleaf forest where nightingales provide the soundtrack.

Guests will be able to view the magnificent Norwegian fjords. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for adventure & scenery


The westernmost country of the Scandinavian peninsula, this one-time land of the Vikings is a paradise for adventurers.

You’ll find towering mountains and majestic turquoise fjords, where even the biggest cruise ship looks like a toy. Natural wonders like the Northern Lights and the midnight sun only add to the allure.

Sandwiched between fjord and forest is Norway’s capital, dubbed one of Europe’s greenest cities. Oslo is packed with architectural and cultural interest, as is Bergen, another fixture on Baltic itineraries.

But it’s Geiranger that will really quicken the pulse. Sitting at the head of the S-shaped Geirangerfjord, which inspired Disney’s hit movie Frozen, it’s the gateway to a landscape of breathtaking beauty (for an eagle’s- eye view, don’t miss the 1,500m-high Geiranger Skywalk).

Another hugely popular port stop in fjordland is Flam (pronounced ‘Flom’), nestled between mountains on the banks of Aurlandsfjord. Here you can get your thrills on the longest zipline in Northern Europe, cycle to a brewery past waterfalls and flower-filled valleys, or enjoy one of the many hiking trails past gushing streams and grazing sheep.

This truly is the land of friluftsliv, or open-air living – something that Norwegian doctors are known to prescribe for their patients.

Find your ideal cruise

Search for your ideal cruise to Northern Europe

Finland’s interior of vast, unspoiled forests and breathtaking lakes is the country’s most famous asset. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for design & shopping


With nearly one-third of its landmass inside the Arctic Circle, Finland is best known for its winter charms – from husky-sledding to visiting the home of Santa Claus in Lapland. But this charismatic country also sizzles with summertime allure.

Helsinki, the stylish capital, is renowned for its striking Nordic architecture and has Scandi-cool in its DNA. Get your bearings at the neo-gothic Design Museum, which introduces visitors to the development of Finnish style, then explore the city’s dedicated design district.

Centred around Diana Park, this network of 25 streets is lined with some 200 galleries, ateliers, craft shops and hybrid spaces such as Local – a café, shop and museum all in one.

Even Helsinki’s churches are a hit with design devotees. A peaceful refuge from the bustle, the Chapel of Silence in central Narinkkatori Square is like a giant plant pot with a gleaming skin of golden timber.

Also timber-clad – and even wackier – is Oodi, the city’s new cultural centre. Behind its undulating exterior, you’ll find a cafe, a cinema and a gallery for pop-up events.

Equally dramatic is Löyly, a sauna-cum-restaurant (only in Scandinavia!) that resembles an unusually geometric mountain rising from the pedestrian-friendly waterfront. And don’t miss the Amos Rex contemporary art museum, housed in a subterranean space that feels like the HQ of a Bond villain.

Ships dock at the beautiful Tallinn in Estonia. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for history


Equidistant between Stockholm and St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, this compact country is a highlight of many Baltic cruises.

Ships dock at Tallinn, the Baltic’s oldest capital and one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe. First marked on a map by an Arab cartographer in 1154, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tallinn’s Old Town still has many of its original fortifications, complete with fairytale ivy-clad watchtowers.

Within the city walls, you’ll find a village-like maze of lanes and ancient shops (don’t miss atmospheric St Catherine’s Passage, nicknamed ‘medieval street’). Explore to your heart’s content, then take a coffee break in Town Hall Square, with fine views of no fewer than five historic steeples.

Beyond the city’s pocket-sized Old Town, cruisers can make a pilgrimage to the magnificent onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and 13th-century Toompea Castle, perched side-by-side on the city’s limestone cliff.

Then hop aboard one of Tallinn’s retro blue-and-white trams for a visit to the Maritime Museum. Housed in a 1920s seaplane hangar, the centrepiece of its collection is the Lembit, a British- built submarine that saw service during the Second World War.

Best for foodies, visit Denmark. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for foodies


Theirs may be the smallest of the Scandinavian countries, with an equally compact capital of just 650,000 people, but the Danes punch way above their weight when it comes to gastronomy.

In charismatic Copenhagen you’ll find every possible palate-pleaser, from classic French cuisine to ultra- contemporary ‘no-waste’ and New Nordic restaurants, where seasonality, sustainability and local provenance are upheld with something close to religious fervour.

Check out the hip restaurants of Kodbyen district for sourdough pizza and artisan coffee, before splashing your kroner in Reffen, an open-air street food market in harbourside Refshaleoen. Then move on to multicultural Norrebro for cellar tastings of orange wine.

Copenhagen also has a thriving plant-based food scene, with vegan fine-dining restaurant Ark winning a Green Michelin star.

But if you’re really pushing the boat out, it has to be Geranium, the city’s only three-starred restaurant and the proud holder of top spot in this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. You’ll pay for the privilege, of course, but superstar chef Rasmus Kofoed’s creations are once tasted, never forgotten.

Whatever your budget, be sure to sink your teeth into a smorrebrod at least once. Offered with a variety of toppings, this open sandwich was once a simple farmers’ lunch but is now Denmark’s unofficial national dish.

Should you overindulge in all this fabulous food, simply cycle it off. With cycles outnumbering cars by five to one, and handily flat terrain, Copenhagen is a city best explored on two wheels.

Content search image

Read more about Northern Europe

Poland is a hidden gem, popular for sailing. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for sailing & beaches


It may not be at the top of your bucket list, but here’s one North European country that’s way underrated as a travel destination.

Studded with high cliffs and mysterious lagoons, Poland’s 480-mile Baltic coastline has stacks of summery beach appeal. Known as Poland’s sailing capital, the city of Gdynia welcomes cruise guests with a white sandy urban beach, located just a short stroll from the pier.

Make like the locals and have a shot of vodka with your fish and chips, then walk it off along the pretty mile-long promenade. Other shoreside attractions include a seafront amusement park, an aquarium with sharks and piranhas, and a historic three-masted tall ship, the sailing frigate Dar Pomorza.

Gdynia is the northernmost of Poland’s tri-city conurbation, which also includes the historic port of Gdansk and the resort town of Sopot, famed for its huge sandy beaches and 200-year- old wooden pier.

For an altogether different beach experience, cruisers can venture to
the shifting, wind-sculpted dunes of the ‘Polish Sahara’. Located 50 miles west of Sopot, Slowinski National Park is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, laced with hiking trails and observation towers for bird-watching.

Owing to its music, wining, and dining, Riga has developed a reputation as the Paris of the north. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for culture & architecture


With some 300 miles of Baltic coastline, Latvia is prime cruising territory. Many ships call at the compact capital, Riga – a lovely city built on a series of islands where the Daugava River meets the sea.

As well as the largest medieval church in the Baltic States – the 13th-century St Mary’s Cathedral – the city has its very own White House, a gleaming marble-clad, neoclassical auditorium that’s home to the Latvian National Opera and Ballet.

Also not to be missed is the Art Nouveau Quarter with its stock of 800 delightfully decorated buildings, mostly built between 1904 and 1914, which miraculously escaped destruction during the Second World War.

Another must-do is a guided tour of Latvia’s National Library. Located on the Daugava’s left bank, this futuristic temple to literature is a cultural treasure in its own right, housing more than four million artefacts. The building is said to be inspired by the glass mountain in a Latvian folk tale, and the view of Riga’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town is certainly enough to inspire poetry.

If you’re up for a walking tour, get your caffeine fix at one of the pretty cafes off Town Hall Square before you hit the galleries on bohemian Peace Street.

Then continue your cultural exploration in Bastejkalna Park on the east side of the Old Town. Filled with flowers and sculpture, this attractive 19th-century public garden is bisected by a tranquil canal where you can hire a pedalo or enjoy a sedate splash in a rowing boat among the swans.

Klaipeda’s cobblestoned Old Town has a distinctly Teutonic flavour. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for culture


Throughout its long history, the southernmost Baltic state has known conquest and freedom by turns, most recently gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.

Vilnius, the medieval capital, gets the lion’s share of attention, while Lithuania’s oldest city, Klaipeda, is more of an unsung beauty. Situated at the mouth of the Dane River, the most northerly ice-free port in the eastern Baltic has been welcoming ships since the 1200s.

On the left bank of the river, Klaipeda’s cobblestoned Old Town has a distinctly Teutonic flavour, a legacy of centuries of Prussian rule (when the city was known as Memel). Laid out in the chessboard pattern of 17th- century German towns,
and featuring many intricately timber-framed structures known as Fachtwerkhäusen, the Old Town is perfect for exploring on foot.

History buffs should visit the archaeological museum on the site of Klaipeda castle, while music fans might catch a live performance in Theatre Square, especially during Klaipeda Jazz Festival, which attracts international names every summer. And everyone will enjoy the waterfront warehouses now turned into restaurants and pubs.

The country’s largest cruise terminal is at Warnemunde. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for a bit of everything


Germany’s Baltic coast extends from Flensburg in the west to Swinemunde at the German-Polish border. The country’s largest cruise terminal is at Warnemunde, a seaside resort with a fabulous Blue Flag beach, stretching for almost two miles.

Take a seat in one of the town’s historic hooded deckchairs (called Strandkorbe or ‘beach baskets’) and don’t leave without trying a Fischbrötchen (fish sandwich with pickles). Time your visit for May and you can see the city’s annual Sandwelt sand sculpture competition along Pier 7.

A few miles south, a little further down the estuary of the River Warnow, lies the great Hanseatic trading port of Rostock. Once home to the largest trading fleet on the Baltic, it now hosts the world’s biggest sailing regatta, held every August.

Here you can walk the medieval city walls, still studded with defensive gates, and marvel at the Dutch-gabled merchants’ houses clustered around New Market Square.

Rostock also boasts one of the world’s most ancient universities, where green-fingered visitors will find botanical gardens featuring more than 10,000 different species

Most recent articles