Baltic Sea Cruise Shore Excursions & Port Tips
April 5, 2019
Where To Visit At Each Port on Your Baltic Sea Cruise
This past September, my family and I took a Baltic Sea cruise round-trip from Copenhagen. We started in Oslo, headed to Gothenburg, Warnemünde (Berlin), Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Nynashamn (Stockholm) on the Regal Princess. My family and I spent hours upon hours reviewing all of the best things to do in each city and tried to navigate exactly how we could fit everything into the alloted time we had at each port. While we were ultimately extremely successful in our research and planning, it is important to note that not everything goes as planned as weather, transportation, and severely infected mosquito bites can alter your day. Yes, I ended up in the cruise hospital because my bites were so massive they were worried I had a flesh-eating bacteria. Turns out, a heavy dose of antibiotics was all I needed. Sorry, tangent! The point is that doing your research prior for a trip with so many large cities on the itinerary will have an enormously positive impact.This Baltic Cruise port guide outlines each port city on your Baltic Sea cruise and help you determine exactly what sights to see.
Travel tip: Purchasing a Rick Steve’s Northern European Ports guide book is a must for your trip. At each port, rip out the pages for your current city. That way, you won’t have to carry around a heavy book all day but you will still have restaurant recommendations, transportation tips, etc. accessible if you have no internet. Props to my mom for reading that somewhere and implementing on our trip.
BALTIC SEA CRUISE PORTS:
If you have a day in Oslo, I would recommend taking a harbor cruise via the Bogdoy peninsula, visiting the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, walking around the Vigeland sculpture park, and ziplining down the Holboken ski jump. Realistically, you will probably have to choose 3 of 4 of these excursions as everything is spread out in Oslo. The Baltic Sea cruise port is in walking distance to the city center, but to get around to these attractions you will have to take some form of transportation. We opted for taxis which are incredibly expensive because it was raining heavily and since it was our first port we were overly excited. This allowed us more time to pack in as many things as possible into our day and kept us relatively dry during the heavy rain. Due to the inclement weather, the zipline was unfortunately closed; however, there is still an interesting museum at the ski jump as well as the ski jump itself which is a fun activity. Also, make note of the seasonality of certain attractions. For instance, the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History was technically open during the first week of September, but there were no open air markets or festivities happening whatsoever which was a disappointment. We had heard so many great things about the museum, so just make sure you double check the dates and know that outdoor activities majorly decrease by the end of August.
While planning my trip excursions for our Baltic Sea cruise, I dismissed Gothenburg as somewhat of a throwaway city, partially because we were only in port for a half-day and also because I was just really excited for Stockholm. I could not have been more wrong about this city. As soon as we made it to the city center, I instantly had that feeling of comfortability and connection to a city. The history was very interesting and the city itself is absolutely stunning.
Upon arrival in Gothenburg, your cruise ship should have some sort of shuttle bus to the main square. From there, I highly suggest taking the Stromma-The Paddan tour around the city. The boat cruise is in walking distance from where the shuttle bus drops you off and is a great 50 minute tour of the canals and the waterfront. It was raining during the tour and we had to wear obnoxious, bright blue ponchos and it was still so fun. After the tour, I suggest strolling around the city center, perhaps getting a cup of coffee and just getting acquainted with the city in the short period of time you have there. We actually went into a market and had the best time comparing the foods in the Swedish market to the ones in the States. Who knew people actually buy paste of crab and paste of bacon? If there were any specific sights on The Paddan tour that you were interested in checking out more extensively, you would have time then to do so.
WARNEMUNDE (BERLIN), GERMANY
Depending on the size of your cruise ship, you will most likely dock in Warnemünde, which is a port town about 3 hours away from Berlin. So now you must decide if it is worth it or not to schlep to Berlin for just a few hours as it is such an expansive city. While there are typically cruise ship excursions to closer towns such as Rostock, I think that it is worth it to take the time to visit Berlin if you have not been before. People are generally divided on this decision though and many would tell you to stick to exploring Rostock. We hired a private tour guide and driver to take us around Berlin and show us as much as they possibly could in about a 6-hour period. Our guide’s name was Jeremy Minsberg and he did an excellent job of highlighting Berlin in such a short time. I learned more in that brief period than I did spending four days in Berlin on my own a few years prior. I also heard positive feedback from my Baltic Sea cruise-mates that went on the Princess shore excursion to Berlin. However, they probably didn’t have a driver going 180 kph on the autobahn the whole time.
I hate to spoil the fun, but there is a strong possibility that Tallinn will surprise you as your favorite city you visit on your Baltic cruise. Tallinn is the cutest medieval town with some of the best food that I have ever eaten. The only down side is that there are tons of tourists walking the small narrow medieval streets right along with you. In Tallinn, I suggest taking a brief tour to get yourself acquainted with the city and then spend the rest of your time exploring, eating, and drinking on your own. It is only a 20 or so minute walk from where the cruise ship will dock. There is a free walking tour that meets every day at 12:00 PM in front of the Tallinn Tourist Info Center. The tour is very well done and you will learn loads of information; the only thing to keep in mind is that during high season, there will most likely be at least 20-30 people on the tour with you. If a large group doesn’t appeal to you, I would suggest doing a paid tour. Since the food is so phenomenal in Tallinn, you could consider doing a food tour such as Food Sightseeing Estonia’s 3-hour tour which will combine a visit to the must-see sights in Tallinn Old Town plus many food stops along the way.
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
Due to visa restrictions, it is important that you book a tour in St. Petersburg either through your Baltic Sea cruise ship or with a private tour guide. We opted for a private guide as we wanted to personalize our itinerary in St. Petersburg as much as possible. However, we did book a night excursion through our cruise ship to see the ballet. While I still recommend the ballet because well, it’s Russia, you should know that the Kirov ballet tours all over the world so you might be seeing a student production.
Since we went with a private guide and not a Princess Cruise shore excursion, we had much more flexibility to tailor our perfect itinerary. Some of the main sights that we wanted to see on our two days in St. Petersburg included the following: The Hermitage, Catherine’s Palace, Peterhoff gardens, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (watch out for pickpockets), and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. As beautiful and magnificent as the city is, I was shocked by the crowds of people at all the famous sights. I have been to many festivals with tons of crowds and have never felt so overwhelmed by the amount of tourists ever. I think it is important to note that as you plan your trip, make sure to discuss with your guide what time is is the best time of day to visit each sight.
On your port stop in Helsinki, make sure you don’t leave without getting a coffee! We started off with a Winter Wonderland shore excursion that was part of the Princess cruises excursions and the guide commented on how much Finnish people love their coffee at least six times in the three-hour tour. All that coffee talk made sense when we finished the tour, sat down for lunch, and were brought the most gorgeous and decadent coffee, we had ever seen. I don’t recommend the Winter Wonderland tour though. The idea of it was really cool but the actuality was a small room with nothing to do except pay extra money to ride in a circle on a sled dog one time. If you want to ride sled dogs, do the shore excursion on an Alaskan cruise. Now that was incredible! Apart from the coffee and lunch in the city center, you should stroll around Market Square. There are some nice souvenirs that you can purchase for friends and family. One of the main sights in Helsinki is the Rock Church, a Lutheran church with incredible architecture. Don’t expect to have a peaceful moment here as it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city and consequently there are a ton of tourists. Another popular spot is the Suomenlinna fortress which is just 15 minutes on the public ferry from Market Square.
Prior to visiting Helsinki, I was completely ignorant to Finnish sauna culture. But, you learn quite quickly that this is an integral part of the Finnish lifestyle. Knowing this now, I would absolutely recommend visiting a sauna during your day in Helsinki. This Finnish sauna guide outlines some of the best spots to get your sweat on in Helsinki.
The cruise ship will have shuttle buses to take you from the port to the city center if you decide to be on your own in Helsinki, so you don’t have to worry about arranging your own transportation from the Helsinki port.
NYNASHAMN (STOCKHOLM), SWEDEN
Stockholm was the most difficult Baltic Sea cruise port to plan for two reasons. 1) Our cruise ship, the Regal Princess, was so large that we actually docked in Nynashamn which was an hour away from Stockholm. There aren’t any taxis so you needed to take the bus provided by Princess. The price of a tour guide to take us from Nynashamn to Stockholm was outrageously expensive, so we opted for the shore excursion through Princess that was transport only. 2) Even before we knew we had extremey limited time, there are just so many things to do and see in Stockholm that you really have to “trim the fat.”
One of the non-negotiables for our family was the Vasa Museum which completely held up to its reputation of being an outstanding museum. I highly recommend watching the movie first and then taking a look at the recovered ship. There are also short guided tours several times daily. We also wanted to go to the Icebar by Icehotel. I had never been to an ice bar and wanted to go to the original ice bar. Although it is an overpriced tourist trap, you will still have a blast donning the huge capes, picking your beverage and taking a zillion photos with everyone on your trip. I would highly recommend emailing them in advance to make a reservation so that you don’t have to wait in a long line and lose out on any more time in Stockholm. The third “must” was walking around the stunning old town of Stockholm otherwise known as “Gamla Stan.” This is the perfect spot to grab lunch in between your activities and window shop a bit as well. While you won’t have too much time to pause, you can also take a fika which is a popular Swedish ritual that every nationality can get on board with – cruise puns :). A fika is not just a coffee break. It is a Swedish tradition. You take time out of your day to pause and have a coffee (tea is acceptable too) and a baked good with friends or on your own. If you’re reading this and thinking…umm, we do this everywhere. Yes, but coffee in many places is a grab-and-go culture whereas “taking a fika” means being intentional about slowing down.
Other sights that I unfortunately had to miss out on included the Abba Museum and the Stockholm Rooftop tour where you climb 43 meters above the streets of Stockholm to see the city. While it was disappointing to not be able to fit everything in, Stockholm is not a city that can be done in one day and deserves a second visit.
Best Time to Cruise the Baltic Sea?
Typically, I always recommend shoulder season (May/September) for European travel for mild temperatures and lesser crowds. But, the Baltic countries are so far north, that June-August would be my preference, with mid-late June being the most desirable time to visit. The Hermitage will be insufferable, but in reality, it is all the time. We went end of August – early September, and it was cold and raining the entire time.
What was your favorite port on a Baltic Sea cruise? Was there an activity that I missed that really stood out to you on your Baltic Sea cruise? Or, do you have any other port tips to recommend? Please share in the comments below!
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