On an 11-day visit, fly Air Berlin, Germany’s premier low-cost carrier, from New York to Hamburg, the world’s fastest-growing port and site of the new harborside neighborhood, HafenCity. Then take a 1 ½-hour flight on LOT Polish Airlines to Warsaw where high-tech museums recall the city’s World War II struggles. Hop an Air Baltic flight 2 ½ hours north to Riga, Latvia’s jewel-box capital and a 2014 European Capital of Culture. Less than two hours away on Air Baltic is the stylish Finnish capital of Helsinki, the 2012 World Design Capital. An overnight St. Peter Line ferry cruise finally brings you to St. Petersburg for a day in Russia’s glittering cultural capital.
The Natural Splendor of Sea and Stream
With countless bays, gulfs and inlets, and broad rivers and canals, the Baltic Sea region has a watery beauty, and its lush, park-filled cities are among the world’s greenest.
Streaming through Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city and the world’s second-largest port, the River Elbe stretches east to the Baltic and west to the North Sea. See the parade of tall ships and liners at the port anniversary each May. Come in late summer or early fall for Hamburg Cruise Days, the world’s largest cruise festival, with three days of food, music and entertainment. Or hop a ferry and cruise the lively harbor any time.
In Warsaw, the Polish capital, the Vistula River meanders peacefully en route to the Baltic. Take a two-hour cruise (www. discoverwisłariver.pl) aboard a long wooden craft with a big white sail, a replica of a centuries-old fishing boat. In nearby Łazienki Krolewskie Park, lakes and ponds mirror ornate palaces and statues.
On a Riga canal cruise, board a long, sleek Art Nouveau-style canal boat, with velvet cushions and burnished-wood trim, and meander through leafy Kronvalda Park to the Daugava River, its banks lined with venerable churches and modern-day landmarks like the “Castle of Light,” Latvia’s new glass-fronted National Library.
In Helsinki harbor, take an HSL (www.hsl.fi/en) ferry or a JT-Line (www.jt-line.fi/eng) waterbus to 18th-century Suomenlinna Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built on several islands. Another day, board a Strömma (www.stromma.fi) vessel for the Canal Cruise through scenic Degerö Canal. IHA-Lines (www.ihalines.fi/english) offers a harbor cruise, a lunch cruise, and a three-hour dinner cruise featuring Scandinavian specialties like reindeer fillet and fried trout, with wine, beer or cranberry “long drinks.”
From Helsinki, the St. Peter Line’s Princess Maria ferry, with several restaurants and bars, a casino and other first-class amenities, makes the overnight voyage across the Gulf of Finland, easternmost arm of the Baltic, to St. Petersburg, Russia’s cultural capital, built on 42 islands linked by a network of rivers and man-made canals.
Man-made Glories of Architecture, Music and Design
In Hamburg’s harborside HafenCity, see the restored 19th-century brick buildings and iron bridges of the Warehouse District, the world’s largest, then pore over exhibits in the new International Maritime Museum. West, in the hip St. Pauli neighborhood, site of Hamburg’s notorious Red Light District, take Hempel’s Beatles-Tour (www.hempels-musictour.com/en) to see clubs where the Beatles once headlined and hear Stefanie Hempel play “Fab Four” hits on her little black ukulele.
Warsaw, where Jewish citizens bravely rebelled against Nazis during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, reclaims its history in the striking new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, steps from the 1948 Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. The Warsaw Rising Museum celebrates the Polish Resistance’s 1944 uprising with imaginative multimedia exhibits. Gaze at medieval and Renaissance-style buildings, including the 15th-century Royal Palace, in the Old Town, Stare Miasto, completely reconstructed after Nazi bombings.
Riga, a 2014 European Capital of Culture, is renowned for its Art Nouveau district, Europe’s largest. Covering more than 40 percent of the center city, it features over 800 stunning pastel-colored buildings trimmed in white and adorned with mythological figures or animal, bird and flower motifs. Don’t miss the howling medusas on the cream-colored façade of 4 Alberta iela or the elongated heads gracing the baby-blue façade of 106 Elizabetes iela.
Helsinki is known for both early 20th-century Art Nouveau, typified by Eliel Saarinen’s Central Railway Station, its entrance flanked by two oversized granite gods, and 1950s Functionalism, exemplified by Alvar Aalto’s glass-fronted Finlandia Hall. Visitors also flock to the Design District, steps from the harbor. On Pohjoisesplanadi, browse colorful textiles at Marimekko (no. 33) and art glass at Iittala (no. 25), including Alvar Aalto’s famous 1936 wavy vase. Pore over one-of-a-kind creations at the Design Forum (www.designforum.fi), surrounded by fashion boutiques, jewelry shops and interior-design stores.
In St. Petersburg, ornate 18th-century neoclassical palaces and gold-encrusted statues line rivers and canals, crisscrossed by 350 bridges. See the sights on a canal cruise or a red double-decker hop-on, hop-off City Tour Bus. Many landmarks are along three-mile Nevsky Prospekt, including the State Hermitage Museum (housing three million masterpieces), the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (sporting gilded and colorfully enameled onion domes) and St. Isaac’s Cathedral (adorned with icons, ceiling paintings, stained glass and more than 880 tons of gold).
Innovative Cuisine and Top-Notch Hospitality
The lush, fertile Baltic Sea region is known for fine cuisine. In fact, Europe’s largest food market, selling fish, meat and produce, along with handicrafts and Baltic amber, is found here. A popular tourist attraction, Riga’s Central Market extends over five enormous zeppelin hangars.
For creative cuisine in Hamburg, try chic, bi-level Nil (www.restaurant-nil.de). Sample delights like cherry soup with nasturtium capers in Warsaw’s contemporary-style Concept 13 (www.likushoteleirestauracje.pl/eng/Concept_13_Restaurant). In Riga’s Old Town, savor slow-braised pork ribs in garlic, balsamic and cranberry sauce at Melnie Muki (www.melniemuki.lv), or rabbit with quinces and cauliflower at Valtera (www.valterarestorans.lv/en). Head to Helsinki’s Design District for innovative New Nordic Cuisine at Juuri (www.juuri.fi/en) or Spis (www.spis.fi). At Suomenlinna Fortress, lunch on reindeer pâté, bear sausage and hand-crafted beers at the Panimo brewery-restaurant (www.panimoravintola.fi/en).
For traditional fare, try Hamburg’s Krameramtsstuben (www.krameramtsstuben.de) in a 17th-century courtyard north of the harbor, one of the few neighborhoods to escape World War II Allied bombing raids. In Warsaw, lunch on pierogies, dumplings stuffed with meat, cheese, cabbage and other fillings, on the Market Square terrace of Bazyliszek (www.bazyliszek.waw.pl). Sample Polish kosher cuisine at Magat (www.restauracjamagat.pl), or a cup of dense hot chocolate and a chocolate-covered waffle at E. Wedel Chocolate Shop (www.wedelpijalnie.pl/en). Then dine on pork, salmon and other dishes at Stary Dom (www.restauracjastarydom.pl), with country-chic dining rooms featuring oak paneling and wooden beams. In Riga, try Melna Kaka Majas in a landmark topped with statues of two black cats. In Helsinki, sample classic Scandinavian comfort food, like meatballs in brown sauce with “grandma’s cucumbers,” as well as New Nordic dishes, at Strindberg (www.strindberg.fi/en), overlooking long, leafy Esplanadi Park. At St. Petersburg’s Russian Vodka Room No. 1 (www.vodkaroom.ru), with its quirky but fascinating Vodka Museum, feast on Baltic salmon, smoked whitefish, pork dumplings and cabbage soup, and traditional entrees like chicken Kiev with lingonberries and beef Stroganoff.
Baltic hospitality extends from fine dining to equally fine hotels. Known for opulent palaces like the Fairmont Hotel Vierjahreszeiten and the Kempinski Hotel Atlantic, Hamburg also has stylish boutique hotels like the 25hours Hotel HafenCity (www.25hours.hotels.com/en), with 170 cabin-like rooms in “maritime-modern” style. In Warsaw, one excellent choice is Hotel H15 (www.h15boutiqueapartments.com) with luxurious contemporary apartment-suites in an ornate former Soviet embassy building. Across from Kronvalda Park, Riga’s Opera Hotel & Spa (www.operahotel.lv) has 112 rooms and a terrace restaurant, Boulevard 33, in a stylish 1886 Art Nouveau building. In Helsinki, book the elegant, recently restored Hotel Seurahuone (www.hotelliseurahuone.fi), across from the Central Railway Station, or the contemporary GLO Hotel Kluuvi (www.glohotels.fi.en), steps from Esplanadi Park.
For More Information
For information on Air Berlin flights from the U.S. to Hamburg, log on to www.airberlin.com For information on LOT Polish Airlines and Air Baltic regional flights, visit www.lot.com and www.airbaltic.com For information on the St. Peter Line ferry, go to www.stpeterline.com
For information on the Baltic Sea Region, visit http://onebsr.eu/tourists/one-bsr-destination-guide