Explore the Baltic region’s coolest cities
The cities that fringe the Baltic Sea are northern Europe’s coolest, says travel writer Tom Masters. Here, he picks his favourite four, all of which ooze substance and style
'The Baltic region, made up of some nine compulsively individual nations, has always impressed me with its strong sense of self, its pride in orderly but dazzling cityscapes and its openness to the outside world.'
The region’s four largest cities (Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and St Petersburg) are some of Europe’s hippest, combining astonishing summer light, colourful historic architecture and sophisticated design sensibilities – all of which can easily be enjoyed on foot during a relaxed day ashore. This they share, yet all four cities remain true individuals and make for a fascinating introduction to four different corners of northern Europe.
Cool Copenhagen, Denmark
I’m always struck by how Copenhagen can be whatever you want it to be, depending on your mood. If it’s the city’s long history and fairytale atmosphere I’m in the mood for, I’ll head for a stroll around Nyhavn to the Danish capital’s harbour, taking in the pastel-painted gabled town houses and the cobblestone streets packed with charming cafés and independent boutiques. For a taste of something more contemporary, the Dansk Design Centre beckons, and for a splash of alternative lifestyles and a wander around some of the city’s loveliest canals, I’ll cross the bridge to Christiania, Denmark’s hippiest and most counter-cultural area. Getting around the city couldn’t be easier, with the compact centre easy to cover on foot or by the city’s famous bike-sharing scheme, the world’s first. Whatever my wanderings take me, there’s always time for coffee and a slice of Danish apple cake, watching the world go by in this most laid-back and welcoming Nordic city.
Stylish Stockholm, Sweden
There are cities built on water and then there is the stately Swedish capital, where water is simply an ever-present part of its narrative. Built over 14 islands, the city is a breathtaking symphony of bridges, colourful waterfronts, soaring church spires and a never-ending parade of watercraft lining its picturesque embankments. The enchanting Gamla Stan, the island on which Stockholm’s 13th-century old town is built, never fails to amaze me with its tightly packed historic houses, fairytale squares and quaint cobbled side streets. The 608-room royal palace, which dominates the island, gives the city a suitably grand and regal focus, but wander onto any of the nearby islands and a far more contemporary Stockholm reveals itself in all its multicultural, environmentally conscious and design-savvy glory. Eating here is also one of my favourite activities, whether it’s at one of the ubiquitous traditional bakeries or at one of scores of superb culinary experiences offering up the latest in new Nordic cuisine.
Hip Helsinki, Finland
Perhaps the Baltic’s best-kept secret, Helsinki’s lowkey charm has kept me coming back for years. In fact, the Finnish capital seems to specialise in surprising visitors with its spectacular setting, architectural variety and superb shopping opportunities. Set on a rocky peninsula that boasts islands, bays and inlets to spare, Helsinki is both a watery city and one made to be seen during the white nights of high summer. I love to stroll through central Helsinki’s elegant streets admiring the surprising wealth of Art Nouveau buildings and the riotous murals, frescoes and sculpture that adorn them. Another highlight is checking out the latest Finnish offerings in design and homewares in the sleek and minimalist boutiques of Punavuori, and to explore one of Helsinki’s many museums. The most striking is Kiasma, a curvy, metallic and light-bathed contemporary art showcase. It’s also remarkably easy to get into nature from central Helsinki with four forest-lined beaches nearby – all of them great for swimming during the summer months.
Stunning St Petersburg, Russia
On the delta of the massive River Neva, Russia’s former imperial capital sparkles and astonishes with its sheer size and majesty. It’s hard to believe that this was just a wilderness of marshy land inhabited mainly by wolves until Peter the Great decided to build a brand-new city here in the early 18th century. In the fabulously ornate and colourful city centre, history greets you at every turn, from the dazzling blue, green and golden rococo façade of the Winter Palace to the exuberant needle-spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral and the vast golden dome of St Isaac’s. In between you’ll find ridiculously picturesque canals, elaborately designed bridges, refined parks filled with sculptures and fountains and, of course, the Hermitage, one of the world’s great art collections. Wandering the embankments of the city on the warm summer nights when the sun barely sets is one of life’s unique experiences. Join the locals and head to Dumskaya and Lomonosovskaya streets for a wide choice of busy bars where people spill out into the streets until dawn.