I’ve traveled through a lot of Europe’s most popular cities, but I haven’t made it to nearly as many of them as I’d like. Now, I’d like to explore a few of my future wish list itineraries to some of the continent’s (ever so slightly) less popular destinations and the many reasons I feel them calling my name.
Itinerary #1 - Northern Europe:
Copenhagen, Denmark (3-4 days); Stockholm, Sweden (2 days); Helsinki, Finland (2 days); Tallinn, Estonia (2 days); Saint Petersburg, Russia (3 days—4 with a paid visa); Travel Day (1)
The Why: Europe’s northernmost countries don’t always get as much attention as their neighbors to the south, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have plenty to offer. Both Copenhagen and Saint Petersburg are week-long destinations in themselves–especially with all of the day-trip possibilities, but with 3-4 days in each, you can hope to cover some of their biggest highlights. That being said, all five of these destinations deserve more time than I’ve given them! With all of the challenges associated with visiting Russia (complicated visas and costs, language and cultural barriers, etc.) you could easily remove Saint Petersburg from this itinerary and still fill up 2 full weeks by adding a well-deserved day to each of the other destinations.
Copenhagen: This waterfront city is often overlooked in favor of its neighbors to the south (Germany) and west (the United Kingdom), but it has a plethora of amazing sites to offer. In the historic center, you have the colorful waterfront to stroll, several good museums, Tivoli Gardens (the 2nd oldest amusement park in the world), Rosenborg Castle (a historic renaissance castle), and Christiansborg Palace (home of the current government) just to name a few. 30-60 minutes outside of the city, you’ll find sites like the beautiful Frederiksborg Castle, the Royal Cathedral at Roskilde, and Kronborg Castle. And if you’re traveling with children, there’s also the ever-popular Legoland less than 3 hours away. Like I said, you could easily make this alone a week-long adventure!
Stockholm: This historic city is built across several islands connected by bridges. The mix of old and new in the city center provides plenty of places to see and things to do, including: Gamla Stan, one of the best preserved medieval city centers in Europe; the Vasa Museum, a maritime museum that displays an almost fully intact, salvaged 17th century ship; Skansen, an unrivaled open-air folk museum on Djurgarden island (also worth exploring); and the Stockholm Palace and City Hall–just to name a few! Also, only 25 minutes outside of the city is the Drottningholm Palace and Gardens which are most definitely worthy of a day trip.
Helsinki: What Helsinki lacks in terms of a historic city center, it makes up for in colorful street life and stunning architecture. There is plenty to see and do, but you won’t exhaust yourself running from site to site, either. Watching the world go by—whether it be street performers or simple window shopping and people-watching with a cup of coffee—is a major draw in itself. For the site seers, there is the Rock Church (Temppeliaukio), dug directly out of the city’s bedrock and topped with a copper dome; the Uspenski Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in western Europe; the Suomenlinna Fortress, built on 6 islands in the city’s harbor (easily reachable by ferry); and Seurasaari Island and Open-Air Museum if you have interest in seeing historic buildings from around Finland. Plus, historic Tallinn is less than a 2 hour ferry ride away!
Tallinn: While Helsinki doesn’t have a historic ‘old town’ to explore, Tallinn most definitely does. Its well-preserved, compact medieval old town almost takes on a Disney-esque feel. There is plenty to explore along the cobbled lanes from vibrant squares to historic churches (including the beautiful Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral) to informative museums. Additionally, outside of the city, you can visit the baroque Kadriorg Palace built for Catherine I by Peter the Great and another Open Air Museum, this time a reconstruction of an 18th century Estonian fishing village.
Saint Petersburg: By far the most challenging destination of this itinerary, Saint Petersburg may be the most rewarding, as well. You will find that while Saint Petersburg may be the most western-feeling city in Russia, there is still a distinctive language and cultural barrier that you won’t find elsewhere in Europe. There is also the issue of a visa requirement which you can resolve a few different ways (see note below). With all of that being said, there is more to see and do in Saint Petersburg than any of the previous destinations I’ve mentioned. The heart of Saint Petersburg is Nevsky Prospekt; many of the city’s best sites line this 2 mile long street, including the Hermitage. The Hermitage is both a palace (Winter Palace) and a world-renowned art museum. Along this stretch—or not too far off of it, there is also the Summer Palace Gardens and their impressive fountains, the Church on Spilled Blood, the Peter and Paul Fortress which houses the Romanovs’ tombs, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. A 30-40 minute ferry ride outside of the city is Peterhof—the Versailles of Russia, and the town of Pushkin with an impressive grouping of Romanov palaces (Tsarskoye Selo) featuring Catherine’s Palace and Gardens. I could go on and on about all of the things to see and do around the city—Russian Ballet, Opera, Concerts, the Circus—the possibilities are endless.
City Connections: Connecting all of these locations is relatively easy and can be done in many different ways. Europe has several discount airlines that fly to and from most of these destinations. Additionally, most of the Northern European capitals are connected by ferry routes (including overnights—doubling as your hotels and transportation for the night). Finally, if you want to avoid the planning altogether, there are several cruise lines that connect these destinations into one itinerary during the summer. The only negative is the amount of time you get to spend in each destination when on a cruise ship. You are typically only in port for a few hours and even some of that time is eaten up disembarking and getting into the city centers; and most of the lines have several days at sea (days of your vacation not being spent visiting all of these amazing cities). Having done some research on the subject, I found Royal Caribbean to offer one of the most extended itineraries (overnights, longer docking times than many of its competitors, minimal days at sea, etc). While I have never sailed with them before (so I can’t speak to their cruise line in general), if I was going to splurge on a cruise for this itinerary, it would probably be with them to get the most out of each city.
With all of the options available, it’s a wonder that more Americans don’t take advantage of the opportunity to visit these impressive Northern European cities. If you try a variation of this itinerary, please update me on how it goes!
A Note on Russian Visas: There are several different ways to go about dealing with the requirements for a Russian visa (note, these change all the time, so double check all of the requirements before planning your trip). You can pay a service to take care of it for you (you fill out the forms, follow their instructions, and send your passport away with the visa and service fee and they take care of the rest with the Embassy—I did this with my China visa and it was much less stressful than dealing with it entirely on my own). You can take a cruise—you do not need a visa if you take the tours provided by your cruise line; you just can’t go off on your own obviously. Or you can take the overnight ferry to/from Tallinn, Helsinki, or Stockholm. You are allowed 72 hours in Saint Petersburg without a visa requirement if you are a passenger on the overnight ferry and have a return ticket–please review all of the details and requirements before planning this, there is plenty of fine print involved with this loophole. I found this to be a helpful resource: http://www.st-petersburg-essentialguide.com/ferry-to-st-petersburg.html If you do pay a service and go through all of the trouble and expense of getting a Ruissian visa, you may want to look into extending your visit to seeing Moscow, as well (you can take the train or fly between the two cities).