Scandinavia and Russia Cruise – a Port Guide and Tips

30 August 2014

Summer 2014…

We’re just back from a fabulous 14-day cruise around the Baltic on Celebrity Eclipse and for the benefit of future cruise passengers planning their trip, I thought I’d do a quick port guide. Of course, your exact itinerary may vary, but this was ours. Before you go, I’d thoroughly advise doing some reading about the history of northern Europe, in particular the Hanseatic League, which links many of your destinations. I’d also recommend watching Jonathan Meades’ superb two-part BBC documentary Magnetic North, which is on YouTube in a series of ten-minute videos. This wonderful programme talks about the whole area and why it has always been so reluctant to shout about itself, in comparison with the somewhat over-rated southern half of the continent.

bruges

Bruges

Bruges is a charming, if rather touristy city. It’s also not on the coast. Cruise ships dock at Zeebrugge, the port which is half an hour’s drive away. A shuttle bus from the ship takes you to the nearest railway station, Blankenberge, although many of the cruise passengers taking this were under the impression that the bus went all the way to Bruges. The train may not be a good option if your time in port is limited (e.g. a 3pm departure) and especially if you’re there on a Sunday. An organised coach tour is also possibly not the best way to see Bruges, which is a walking city, so the best bet is to book a taxi – get a group of 7 or 8 together in advance and it’ll be maybe only 15 Euros each, with the added benefit of being fairly confident you’ll make it back to the ship on time. In Bruges itself you can just wander around and check out the chocolate shops; you can take a canal tour (just walk up on the day); or we found two two fun museums, Choco-Story and the Frietmuseum – each easy to find, worth up to 60 minutes of your time, and only a few Euros’ entrance fee. Just walk up.

andreas

Warnemünde

The cruise companies want you to take an expensive and long tour to Berlin from here, but spending six hours or more in a coach didn’t sound like much fun to us, so we went local. You can spend the day in the seaside town of Warnemünde itself (the ship docks in the middle of the town), or hop on a train for a 20-minute ride to Rostock, a proper traditional small German city. Trains run every few minutes, and no need to book in advance. However, we wanted to find out more about the former East Germany, so we booked an all-day tour with the local “Friends of Dave” tour company, which we can 100% recommend. Local guide Andreas walked us around Warnemünde, took us to Rostock on the train, and included a fun German lunch in a cellar restaurant there. We got more of a German experience than the Berlin daytrippers, even if we didn’t see the sights of the capital.

abba

Stockholm

The approach to Stockholm, as the ship sails through hundreds of small islands for 2 to 3 hours, is spectacular, so make sure you’re up on the observation deck at least an hour before the ship is due to dock – earlier still if you feel like it (we actually got up at 5am!). The best way to see the city – like most on this cruise – is just to wander around, and the best way around is the hop-on, hop-off boat. You’re assailed with people selling tickets for the various competing services as soon as you get off the ship, so no need to book anything in advance. Just get on the boat and explore! One of the stops takes you directly to the Abba Museum, which can easily take up an hour or two of your time and is genuinely great fun for music lovers of all ages.

skywheel

Helsinki

Our cruise docked in a commercial port area, from which it appeared to be about a 30-40 minute walk to the city centre. However, there were plenty of walk-up-and-pay shuttle buses provided into the heart of the shopping area, which was a decent option. We headed for the Helsinki Finnair Skywheel, a smaller version of the London Eye, for a great “ride” and views over the city. We just wandered around and soaked up the atmosphere.

cathedral

St. Petersburg

People will say that you need every hour of two full days to even begin to do justice to St. Petersburg, and that’s fair comment. However, you can also put together an itinerary taking you to a great museum, a great cathedral and a great palace, as well as touring the city by coach, without it being two exhausting days. We did. Whatever, you will need to book official tours for the most convenient experience, and fellow passengers who went with Alla Tours seemed to have a good time. We just used the ship’s tour service, which (for once) didn’t seem to be that expensive. What we did was to book a half-day tour to the Hermitage Museum, and a full-day tour which took in the Catherine Palace at Pushkin, the St Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral, and a drive-by of other city sights. Compare this option with the full-on, two-day tour and see if you think what we missed would have made the additional early start worthwhile. Whatever you do, the coaches meet you off the ship – there’s a passport control first – so it’s all easy. And don’t be apprehensive about Russia, like some of our fellow passengers seemed to be. When you’re on a tour, it’s no different, or less safe, than anywhere else, and they’re very good at organising groups.

tallinn

Tallinn

This is a charming little city, with cobbled streets and quirky buildings. The ship docks about 20 minutes’ walk from the city centre, a pleasant walk that doesn’t require a shuttle bus or taxi. We thought the extensive array of souvenir stalls lined up at the quayside was, for once, at least as good as anything in the city itself, so if you want a t-shirt or whatever, leave it until your return. To be honest, unmissable as it is, there’s no need to make an early start to get into Tallinn, there aren’t dozens of things to see.

mermaid

Copenhagen

Yet another port where you (usually, I understand) dock just a 20-minute walk from the city centre, and the pleasant walk in also happens to take you past the famous “is that it?” Little Mermaid statue. Like Helsinki and Stockholm, Copenhagen is a nice city in which to just walk around and take in the surroundings. The Tivoli Gardens amusement park is worth a visit.

In summary…

I suspect there may not be as much to organise in advance on a Baltic Cruise as you might imagine. The capitals of Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm are all busy, modern cities which you might want to just walk around without guided tours or even bus transport; the same goes for the more quaint Tallinn. Bruges too is just made for wandering, but I’d recommend pre-booking a taxi to get there. In Germany, if you want to visit Berlin you’ll need to get on a tour, but even if you opt not to venture that far, a local tour is recommended. And in St. Petersburg, a formal tour is almost mandatory. If you’ve been on this cruise and have differing suggestions, please do add them in the comments below for the benefit of future cruise passengers. If you’re planning a cruise, I’d recommend joining the free Cruise Critic community and then joining in the discussion (“roll call”) for your particular cruise. It’s the best place to swap hints and tips, and perhaps to organise joint pre-booked tours with other passengers.


 

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