For many, a European cruise evokes images of Greco-Roman ruins and sun-soaked rivieras. Yet more adventurous travelers are now turning to the Baltic region, and for good reason. Few destinations boast such a concentration of history, heritage, cultures, and natural phenomena, as evidenced by its vast number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Indeed, among the nine countries that border the Baltic Sea—Germany, Denmark, Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, and Finland—more than 30 attractions have been granted UNESCO status.
Our upcoming Best of the Baltic expedition visits a number of these sites while calling on all nine Baltic countries. In fact, three of them comprise the entire historic centers of former Hanseatic League cities (see Old World Order: The Hanseatic League). Visby, built upon a former Viking site on the Swedish island of Gotland, was the League’s Baltic hub between the 12th and 14th centuries. Beyond its well-preserved ramparts and defensive towers lie some 200 warehouses and merchant homes from the period, along with the ruins of 12 ancient churches.
Another major Hanseatic trading post, and Estonia’s principal seaport, Tallinn stands as the quintessential medieval walking city. Its main square is ringed by the beautiful Town Hall and apothecary shop, dating from 1422 (which still operates a pharmacy). Other musts: Toompea Castle, which houses the Estonian Parliament; and gothic St. Olav’s, once the tallest building in the world. Latvia’s capital, Riga, is one of the Baltic States’ best-kept secrets, with the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in all of Europe. The best view over its spired Old Town is from atop the 235-foot-high tower of St. Peter’s Church. And there’s cobblestoned Rozena Street which is so narrow, you can touch both opposing walls at once!
Built upon some 100 islands connected by canals and more than 340 bridges, St. Petersburg is another Baltic city whose historic center has received UNESCO designation. A number of its structures have been recognized in their own right, including the Winter Palace, former residence of the Russian tsars; the Admiralty, headquarters for the country’s navy; and the massive Hermitage museum complex, which houses more than a million works of art in six buildings (including the Winter Palace) covering some 57 acres.
Finally, the 18th-century Suomenlinna Fortress, which guards the entrance to Helsinki’s harbor, was granted World Heritage status as “an especially interesting example of European military architecture of the time.” The fortress comprises 200 buildings and nearly four miles of defensive walls spanning six separate islands.