Note: This is the sixth in a series of Baby Boomer Travel Guides and the fourth in the series focusing on transportation options around the world. Please go here, here, and here for the previous posts.
Scandinavia and the Baltic States compose far Northern Europe (we’ll cover Germany, The Netherlands, and some other northern European countries in a subsequent post), and feature some of the best scenery, most sparsely populated spaces, and lively yet historic cities in Europe.
Ships and trains offer the most convenient and comprehensive forms of transportation here, but driving among some of the countries is certainly doable.
And Denmark, especially, is well-suited to biking, with plenty of bike paths and flat terrain.
Getting Around The Baltics
The Baltic region is excellent for cruising because the main ports — Oslo, Norway; Copenhagen, Denmark; Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; Tallinn, Estonia; and St. Petersburg, Russia — are all top-flight destinations, with memorable approaches via cobalt blue waters.
(Oslo — though technically not on the Baltic Sea — is often included in Baltic cruises; see more on Norway below.)
The views coming into Stockholm alone — through an archipelago studded with small islands — are worth the trip.
A huge bonus is that you can visit St. Petersburg without a Russian visa if you adhere to certain restrictions.
If you are traveling to St. Petersburg for up to 72 hours on a cruise ship — provided that you’re sleeping on the ship and are accompanied by an authorized tour guide when on land — you don’t need a visa. The same is true if you’re taking a ferry from Helsinki and Tallinn with the St. Peter Line.
Anyone who’s gone through the hassle of getting a Russian visa knows how convenient it is to avoid that ordeal.
Cruises Are City-Oriented
Cruises are best if you’re mainly interested in seeing the cities — and there’s plenty to see and do in Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn, and St. Petersburg.
If you aren’t familiar with Tallinn, Estonia, it has a beautifully preserved Medieval old town that ranks among the finest in Europe.
Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki all combine super-modern amenities with top attractions like Oslo’s Munch Museum, Copenhagen’s classic Tivoli Gardens amusement park, Stockholm’s waterfront and old town, and Helsinki’s colorful markets and offshore islands.
Alternatives to Traditional Cruises
Ferries are an excellent alternative to cruise ships if you want to set your own schedule.
You can take ferries from Denmark to Sweden, Helsinki to Tallinn, Helsinki to St. Petersburg, and along other popular routes. Some have sleeping accommodations and many carry cars.
Norway’s Hurtigruten offers a kind of hybrid — and unforgettable — maritime experience.. One of the world’s most scenic voyages, the Hurtigruten features a number of half-cargo, half-cruise ships that make a week-long journey up the Norwegian coast from Bergen to the top of Europe, almost to the Russian border at Kirkenes.
You cross the Arctic Circle on the way and stop at continental Europe’s northernmost town, along with tiny fishing villages in the Lofoten islands, cities such as Tromso and Trondheim, and even cruise a fjord or two.
The ships, which serve as supply vessels for cities and villages all along the coast, travel year-round — so in summer you have almost 24-hour sun and in winter almost all darkness.You can also travel down the coast from Kikrkenes to Bergen, or do a two-week round-trip.
Riding Trains through Norway
Taking trains through the Baltic region is a relaxing way to see the inland areas of the countries beyond the port cities (with the exception of Russia).
The trains are modern, prompt. and comfortable.
Keep in mind that distances are vast when riding to the northerly reaches of Sweden, Finland, and Norway — at least by European standards — and much of the views will be of evergreen forests.
Norwegian trains offer especially exceptional scenery. One, which travels between Oslo and Bergen, is a seven-hour panorama of mountains, glaciers, meadows, forests, and villages.
Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, is situated on the North Sea and is an historic seafaring center. It’s also the gateway to Norway’s most spectacular fjords.
You can take a boat tour through the 126-mile-long Songefjord to the little village of Flam, where, in turn, you can board the world’s steepest standard-gauge railway up a waterfall-laced valley to the mountain town of Myrdal.