Until very recently, the appeal of traveling by cruise ship never made port in our lives. Any piqued interest was mostly extinguished by the notion of staying aboard a ship for week(s) alongside rowdy party goers and exuberant families enjoying vacation – crowds typically associated with cruise ships. Fortunately cruise providers like Viking Ocean Cruises offer itineraries catering to interests in art, architecture, culinary adventures, and history through numerous ports, including the six city itinerary that delivered us across the Baltic Sea.
WHERE TO STAY
For the purpose of our trip across the Baltic – starting from Stockholm into days in St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Tallinn, Gdańsk, and Berlin – accommodations were singular and all-inclusive. After flying in from Los Angeles by way of Frankfurt, we’d board the Viking Jupiter at port in Stockholm, Sweden, joining approximately 900+ other guests onto what was practically a new ship (launched earlier in 2019). Greeted by the Jupiter’s numerous crew and offered hot towels with a cool drink, the introductory service would be indicative of the exemplary attentive and friendly team aboard the Viking Jupiter enjoyed throughout our stay.
Our stateroom accommodations were modest, but tastefully decorated, furnished comfortably with a king size bed, desk, and two sitting chairs. Plenty of upgrade options are available, including a 1,448 sq ft multi-room suite with its own private veranda for those who describe their income ending with “-illionaire”. But our standard room more than sufficed, equipped with all necessities, and featuring an impressively large bathroom outfitted with ample counter space and a shower producing a surprising amount of water pressure. Perhaps best of all: every room is afforded their own outdoor deck with seating, which we’d end up enjoying every time our ship left port.
While the rooms are agreeable, they’re mostly non-descript in decor and reflective of seafaring priorities, where guests tend to congregate and socialize in common spaces between ports. Thus, Viking Cruises has dedicated much of their attention and efforts throughout numerous public areas aboard the ship. Spaces like the sunlight-filled Wintergarden – where guests are invited to enjoy the delights of afternoon tea service daily – are decorated with contemporary Scandinavian furnishings mirroring the colors and textures of the landscape, with Nordic-Viking motifs like Celtic knots and raven silhouettes noticeable amongst the keen eyed.
A plenitude of seating in the form of chairs and upholstered sofas give sections like the Atrium, the Viking Living Room, and Explorer’s Lounge the function and feel of a hotel on land, inviting natural socializing amongst passengers, but also offering spaces for the enjoyment of quiet pastimes like reading, playing games, and for the especially wild spirited like my wife, a table to tackle a 3,000 piece puzzle.
Other amenities aboard include a spa, pool, gym (working out at sea is highly recommended), live performance/screening theatre, smaller 360-degree movie theater, and even its own salon. Viking Cruises also invites historians and other academics to present talks onboard revolving around history and culture, going as far to schedule meeting hours for more detailed discussions if desired.
Movie screenings and a dance club would offer guests entertainment for those looking to let loose at night, but since we were averaging 30,000 steps per day, we found ourselves comfortably in bed most evenings before 10pm, eager to get enough rest for our next port adventures.
WHERE TO SHOP
Because our ship was scheduled to stay in port typically for a single night, shopping was a secondary consideration when we’d make landfall. We’d still find plenty of opportunities to do some shopping in every city while exploring each city by foot. A few standouts:
We’ve reported upon numerous design shops in cities like Stockholm, Helsinki, and Berlin; those dedicated guides offer more detailed options for anyone whose travel objectives lean toward retail. Our return visit to these cities during out cruise would nevertheless offer several new surprises, like the small but wonderful design shop inside the Designmuseo in Helsinki and at their satellite shop downtown.
Smaller art, craft, and design boutiques like Lokal in Helsinki were our favorite to come across, selling wares representing homegrown talent and stocked with designs we had never seen before.
If you’re in Saint Petersburg, Russia, make it an imperative to drop into Eliseyev Emporium for a bite and to shop for some souvenirs. Grandiose and charmingly garish, the Art Nouveau exterior and interior exists in a time capsule, and doesn’t hold back in the gilded ornamentation department. An enormous palm holds court as the centerpiece of an otherworldly retail experience.
WHERE TO VISIT
Because we knew time was of the essence in each port, we plotted and planned our itineraries for each city in advance, giving precedence to cultural, historical, and architectural sites. It was hard to narrow down a single recommendation per city, but here are our favorites:
Skansen is an open-air theme park located on the island Djurgården in Stockholm, Sweden, populated with historic recreations of local architecture, farm animals, and museum displays. This dry description does little to communicate the immense amount of fun to be discovered within this theme park. Expect to feed some goats, climb some hills, enjoy some snacks, and watch costumed actors show what it was like to live in Sweden a few lifetimes ago.
Designed by architects Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola, and Mikko Summanen of K2S Architects Ltd., the Kamppi Chapel welcomes everyone irrespective of religion, philosophy of life, or background to shush for a moment and enjoy the silence.
In Saint Petersburg:
While touring Soviet-era Brutalist architecture, enjoying old USSR arcade games, and spending an evening mesmerized by the spectacle of the Russian ballet are all highly recommended activities while in the Russian port city on the Baltic Sea, a visit to The Hermitage is a requirement.
Expect to find huge crowds of tourists descending upon the museum immediately upon opening, warranting the investment of paying a little extra for The Hermitage Behind Closed Doors tour offered by Viking Cruises. Not only does this permit entry an hour before official opening, offering a surprising amount of solitude with the art and maintaining a buffer of a few rooms ahead of the crowds, but also includes a supplementary tour of the Staraya Derevnya Restoration and Storage Centre, where some of the most stunning religious icons, historic royal costumes, palace furnishings, and carriages are stored from public view (sadly, no photos permitted.)
The cobblestone streets of old town Tallinn lead visitors back into a recreation of walled medieval Estonian life with postcard perfect detail, inviting easy wandering without the concern about getting lost. But just outside old town’s walls one can find Balti Jaam Market. It’s a one stop tourist shopper’s delight, with an inspiring farmer’s market, numerous food stalls, and vintage clothing and furniture vendors galore. The Soviet-era tchotchkes and vintage goods alone make a visit to Balti Jaam worth a visit.
Arrive early enough in the morning and the reconstructed historic core of this Polish port town can be practically your own to explore. A favorite pastime discovered while in Gdańsk: photographing the wide assortment of ornate doors and entryways fronting the city’s merchant class architecture.
The German capital would be our final destination and where we’d spend our last evening before we’d fly back to Los Angeles. With only a single day in town, we’d make our way to the hipster borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg to enjoy the local color on full display, peruse some shops, and finish the evening with dinner at a 90s themed Vietnamese vegan restaurant – a welcome gustatory relief after the previous days of heavy European dining.
It is no exaggeration to say we found ourselves amongst the youngest passengers by several decades aboard the Viking Jupiter. Cruises are extremely popular amongst the senior and retired set, with Viking admittedly catering to an older and discerning passenger; young children aren’t even permitted onboard. So if you’re looking to travel with young kids or hope to party wildly on the high seas, you’re better served by other cruise lines. We personally found the older demographic aboard delightfully committed to this form of travel, enthusiastic to offer newbies plenty of advice – solicited and unsolicited. Still, it was easy enough to be left alone most of the time, with a sufficient sense of privacy aboard the ship, and the option to explore ports of call on your own adds another dimension to traveling by ocean faring ships (we recommend reserving tours included in tour packages, but also looking into booking your own private tour guides catering to specific interests like architecture, food, and history).
If you identify as an “old soul” like we do, a cruise can be a fulfilling medium in which to efficiently experience several cities in one fell swoop of a vacation. Think of traveling by cruise ship as the tasting menu of travel, allowing just enough time to experience the flavor of a city, but never having to chew more than you’d want to swallow.
If you’ve traveled by cruise ship and have any additional favorite ships, ports destinations, or recommendations for first time passengers, let us know below so we can share.