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Northern Europe travel guide from the Baltics to the Fjords - where is best for you?

Author: Lauren Ho

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Cruises to Northern Europe plenty to offers holidaymakers whether you want rich culture in Russia, gourmet delights in Denmark or countryside idyll in Finland - so where is best for you?

From the beautiful Baltics to the fabulous fjords, the north of Europe offers a voyage of discovery – with cultural treasures, incredible landscapes and foodie treats galore.

Encircled by the Scandinavian peninsula and Europe’s northern shore, the Baltic Sea is a natural cruise destination. Once sailed by the Vikings, then criss-crossed by the merchants of the Hanseatic League, today it offers a whole chain of beautiful and historic ports – some world-famous, others less explored.

Sail east and you’ll reach the great city of St Petersburg, packed with imperial treasures (it’s no coincidence that most cruises stay for one, two or even three nights here). Head north and Norway’s stunning fjordland opens up before you.

Whichever itinerary you choose, you can be sure that discoveries lie round every corner – and if you travel in the summer, when darkness barely falls, you’ll be joining the locals in one long, sunlit celebration.

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Russia best for… Romantics

As the world’s largest country, Russia would take several lifetimes to explore. But getting to know its two greatest cities is a little easier, since they lie a mere 400 miles or so apart, connected by the Volga River. Board Emerald Cruises’ MS Nizhny Novgorod at Moscow and you can meander north through bucolic countryside to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Yaroslavl, and traditional villages such as Mandrogi with its colourful izbas – pretty wooden houses with finely carved roofs.

You’ll end your journey on the shores of the Baltic in the great imperial city of St Petersburg, whose sheer grandeur, elegant canals and beautiful baroque bridges never fail to impress, and where the Hermitage Museum houses one of the world’s great art collections.

Get on board

Emerald Cruises 11-night ‘Imperial Charms of Russia’ cruise aboard MS Nizhny Novgorod, from Moscow to St Petersburg to via Yaroslavl and Mandrogi, departing July 23, 2022, from £2,695 including flights

Royal Caribbean seven-night ‘Scandinavia & Russia’ cruise aboard Voyager of the Seas, round trip from Copenhagen via Tallinn, St Petersburg and Helsinki, departing May 8, 2022, from £493

Norway best for… nature lovers

With its vertiginous fjords slashing deep into a mountainous interior, its magnificent ice-blue glaciers and thousands of miles of dramatic coastline, Norway offers some of the most stunning scenery on earth – and you’ll get the best possible view of it from the deck of your cruise ship.

Book with Viking and you’ll make a stop in Oslo, the country’s compact capital, where you can spend a day soaking up Nordic culture at the newly opened Munch Museum.

Then, after several days of jaw-dropping views, you’ll arrive at the lovely fjordland village of Flam, where you can go hiking among soaring peaks, narrow valleys and thundering waterfalls. Or you could let the train take the strain and step aboard the famous Flam Railway, which climbs more than 900 metres up into the mountains on one of the world’s truly great rail journeys.

Get on board

Viking Ocean Cruises seven-night ‘Viking Shores & Fjords’ cruise aboard Viking Jupiter, from Amsterdam to Bergen via Skagen, Oslo, Stavanger and Flam, departing May 12, 2022, from £3,440

Celebrity Cruises seven-night ‘Norwegian Fjords’ cruise aboard Celebrity Silhouette, round trip from Southampton via Olden and Molde, departing April 30, 2022, from £1,049

The fjord-facing Scandinavian city of Olso rewards a visit. Credit: Shutterstock

Sweden Best for… solitude seekers

Despite being spread out across 14 islands, Stockholm is surprisingly easy to explore on foot – in fact there’s no better way to discover the cultural riches of Sweden’s capital.

If you’re short of time, make a beeline for Gamla Stan, home to the Royal Palace and some of the best-preserved medieval streets in Europe, where beautiful gabled buildings face each other across the narrow cobbles.

With some cruise lines – such as Holland America – you’ll spend a day among the Stockholm archipelago, a scattering of some 30,000 islands in the Baltic Sea, just outside the city centre. Here, yachts criss-cross the waterways and the tiny islets are dotted with red-painted cottages and waterside saunas, busy with locals enjoying the long summer days.

Travel beyond the capital and you’ll soon discover that Sweden combines great natural beauty with one of the lowest population densities in Europe – perfect for space and solitude, whatever the season.

Get on board

Holland America Line 28-night ‘Baltic Jewels & 150th Anniversary Transatlantic’ cruise aboard Rotterdam, from Amsterdam to Fort Lauderdale via Stockholm, departing October 2, 2022, from £4,759

Seabourn seven-night ‘The Baltic & St Petersburg’ cruise aboard Seabourn Ovation, from Stockholm to Copenhagen via Tallinn and St Petersburg, departing July 9, 2022, from £4,999

Elegant, effortlessly cool, and beautiful, Stockholm rewards a visit

Denmark best for... foodies

Visiting Copenhagen? Be sure to arrive hungry. The Danish capital is a culinary powerhouse with no fewer than 13 Michelin-starred restaurants, including Geranium – which boasts three stars – and Noma, rated the best in the world by Restaurant magazine.

The epitome of urban cool, Copenhagen reflects Denmark’s love of understated design. The inspiration for this lies outside the city, in the country’s bare landscapes, and you can get a flavour of these on the island of Bornholm, more than 100 miles out in the Baltic Sea.

Here you’ll find long stretches of white sandy beach, red-roofed fishing villages and enchanting beech forests. You can spend a morning meandering around the museums and galleries of Ronne, the island’s neat capital. Then, if your budget allows, treat yourself to lunch at Kadeau, the Michelin-starred beachside restaurant just along the coast.

Get on board

Fred Olsen 12-night ‘Islands & Archipelagos of Scandinavia’ cruise aboard Balmoral, round trip from Newcastle via Ronne, Visby and Copenhagen, departing July 30, 2022, from £1,799

Crystal Cruises 10-night ‘Gateways of Baltic Beauty’ cruise aboard Crystal Symphony, from Stockholm to Copenhagen via St Petersburg and Helsinki, departing July 31, 2022, from £3,985

The epitome of urban cool, Copenhagen reflects Denmark’s love of understated design. Credit: Shutterstock

Finland best for… design aficionados

While Finland’s interior of vast, unspoiled forests and breathtaking lakes is the country’s most famous asset, nearly 3,000 miles of rugged coastline and countless pretty islands make it a wonderfully scenic cruising destination too.

In the far south of the country, surrounded by water on three sides, lies the capital. A stylish city filled with spectacular architecture and innovative design, Helsinki also offers a dynamic culinary scene, featuring locally sourced, seasonal and foraged ingredients in dishes of reindeer, elk and freshwater Arctic char.

Spend a morning meandering among magnificent art nouveau buildings or picking up homeware essentials in the Design District before getting a taste of Finland at the historic Vanha Kauppahalli covered market. The country’s only metropolis, Helsinki offers a famously high standard of living – but if you long for the great outdoors, it’s easy to escape for a hike in the surrounding forests.

Get on board

P&O Cruises 14-night ‘Baltic’ cruise aboard Britannia, round trip from Southampton via Kiel, Helsinki and Stockholm, departing September 18, 2022, from £1,249

Saga Cruises 16-night ‘An Exhibition of the Baltic’ cruise aboard Spirit of Adventure, round trip from Southampton via Stockholm, St Petersburg and Helsinki, departing June 22, 2022, from £5,053

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

Latvia best for… something different

Like Finland, Latvia is mainly a land of forests and lakes, but its capital, Riga, is a Baltic jewel. Founded in 1201 at the mouth of the Daugava River, the city combines tradition with cutting-edge cool and a new-found energy. Its historic core – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is a gorgeous display of art nouveau architecture, rich in sculptural detail and punctuated by gothic spires.

From the top of St Peter’s church, admire the red roofs and cobbled streets of the Old Town, then head to the Central Market for lunch. Here, pick up local delicacies such as smoked fish, sausage and black bread to enjoy as a picnic in one of the city’s many parks (Bastejkalna is especially lovely, with its canal and its boats for hire).

As the sun sets you may want to head for Miera Iela, the city’s hipster strip, where bars serve cold craft beers and potent cocktails featuring Riga Black Balsam – a unique blend of botanicals, usually mixed with vodka.

Get on board

Costa Cruises nine-night ‘North Europe from Kiel’ cruise aboard Costa Fascinosa, round trip from Kiel via Stockholm, St Petersburg and Riga, departing August 2, 2022, from £999

Oceania Cruises 28-night ‘North Sea Wayfarer’ cruise aboard Marina, from Oslo to Lisbon via St Petersburg, Tallinn, Riga and Bordeaux, departing September 13, 2022, from £8,739

Latvia is mainly a land of forests and lakes, but its capital, Riga, is a Baltic jewel. Credit: Shutterstock

Estonia best for... the culturally curious

No Baltic cruise would be complete without a visit to Estonia. Just across from Helsinki, on the south shores of the Gulf of Finland, Tallinn is the capital and cultural hub – an alluring and photogenic city of cobbled streets, medieval merchant’s houses and ancient churches.

As well as enjoying the Old Town, make sure to explore the city’s hip cafés and independent galleries, particularly in Kalamaja, a former fishermen’s neighbourhood where you’ll also find the Maritime Museum and the Fotografiska Tallinn gallery.

If you have time, just outside Tallinn lies the baroque palace of Kadriorg, built by Peter the Great of Russia, which has a splendid art collection. And if the sun shines on your visit, the nearby suburb of Pirita offers a mile-long golden beach to rival anything found on the Mediterranean.

Get on board

Costa Cruises seven-night ‘North Europe from Stockholm’ cruise aboard Costa Favolosa, round trip from Stockholm via Helsinki and Tallinn, departing June 18, 2022, from £649

Cunard Cruises 14-night ‘St Petersburg and Baltic Explorer’ cruise aboard Queen Victoria, round trip from Southampton via Hamburg, St Petersburg and Tallinn, departing June 19, 2022, from £1,819

Tallinn is best known for its old town of cobbled streets and conical, red-tiled roofs. Credit: Shutterstock

Germany best for... outdoor lovers

Stretching for almost 1,500 miles, Germany’s Baltic coast – also known as the German Riviera – is a swathe of dune-fringed white-sand beaches, national parks and dizzying cliffs.

From the port of Kiel, hop along the rugged coast to pretty Hanseatic towns like Wismar, with its gabled façades and cobbled streets; Warnemünde, where you can sip cocktails on the promenade; and Binz, a classic seaside resort on the island of Rügen.

Along the way, make sure to sample some of the region’s world-famous cuisine, including Fischbrötchen – soft white rolls filled with either herring or mackerel and garnished with onions, pickles and a creamy horseradish sauce.

Get on board

Seabourn 14-night ‘Baltic Gems & The Low Countries’ cruise aboard Seabourn Ovation, from Stockholm to Dover via St Petersburg, Helsinki and Wismar, departing September 3, 2022, from £8,999

Celebrity Cruises 12-night ‘Scandinavia & Russia’ cruise aboard Celebrity Apex, round trip from Amsterdam via Warnemünde, Helsinki and St Petersburg, departing August 20, 2022, from £2,249

Germany’s Baltic coast is a swathe of dune-fringed white-sand beaches, national parks and dizzying cliffs. Credit: Shutterstock

Poland best for... history buffs

While Warsaw is deservedly popular for its energy and cultural treasures, a host of other Polish cities are equally worth a visit.

Outstanding among these is Gdansk, thanks to its distinctive architecture, its history – which dates back to the 10th century – and its location on the Baltic coast.

With streets of elegant red-roofed buildings, many housing busy bars and cafés, this port city is made for exploration. Stroll along Mariacka Street, the Old Town’s most picturesque thoroughfare; admire the urban panorama from the tower of St Mary’s Church, or from AmberSky, a 50-metre ferris wheel on the island of Olowianka.

And don’t miss the striking Zuraw Crane, the city’s 600-year-old dockside landmark that commemorates its past as a great Hanseatic trading port. Before your day is over you’ll also want to visit the wonderful amber altar in St Bridget’s Church. Then relax with a drink at a dockside beer garden, while reflecting on the timeless allure of this truly historic Baltic port.

Get on board

Azamara 12-night ‘Baltic & Amsterdam Voyage’ aboard Azamara Pursuit, from Copenhagen to Amsterdam via Tallinn, St Petersburg, Gdansk and Warnemünde, departing August 25, 2022, from £2,799

Princess Cruises 28-night ‘Iceland, Norway & Baltic Medley’ cruise aboard Sky Princess, round trip from Southampton via Reykjavik, Helsinki, St Petersburg and Gdansk, departing June 25, 2022, from £4,029