Europe - Northern Europe Cruise Guide

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view of stockholm sweden
Stockholm, Sweden - by Thinkstock

Why go?

After the snow melts, northern Europe blossoms. When the sun doesn’t set in the high north, the glittering cities of the Baltic show off their hidden jewels, and tall Nordic citizens come out to play.

This is a lovely place to cruise: Baltic sailings connect port cities in Scandinavia, Russia, the Baltic states, and Germany, which all seem to pop from the pages of Grimms’ fairy tales. There are red-roofed castles, metal-spired churches, and mazes of alleyways leading to open squares ringed with cafes and serenaded by street performers. Your cruise offers an introductory narrative to a region where thousand-year-old fishing villages were gutted by war, then rebuilt and polished to a high sheen, to eventually become elegant modern capitals.

The urban landscapes are wonders: Czarist wedding cake palaces sit side by side with Soviet architecture along the winding waterways of St. Petersburg. Where a colossal wall once stood in Berlin, a young city of artists now thrives. Bicyclists of Copenhagen are considered the happiest people on earth. The ornate port cities bordering the Baltic are the birthplace of modern architecture, as well as much of our global pop culture, including Ikea and the Beatles.

While the cities are easy and clean, your Baltic cruise might also glide by some of the most astounding scenery in Europe, accessible only by ship. The rough beauty of the Norwegian fjords is a raw summer paradise that’s home to more reindeer than residents. Your ship’s approach to Stockholm reveals enchanting antique seascapes with remote gingerbread cottages.

Ports in the Baltic combine all the best of European itineraries — food, art, museums, music, nightlife, and history — without the crowds of popular southern routes. For those who want to walk in the footsteps of Vikings or follow the revolutions of the proletariat and the fall of communism, or eat a fresh-foraged meal by a world-changing chef, a Baltic cruise will not fail to amaze. 

When to go

The northern Europe cruise season runs from May to September, when the Baltic Sea is placid and the days are nearly endless, with at least 19 hours of sunlight near the summer solstice. Temperatures can range from mild a 55 degrees F to the mid-80s. And while the Arctic Circle might be home to the northern lights, even Santa Claus must use a sled in winter when cruise ships can’t ply the icy waters of the north.

The summers are extremely short, so the best time to visit this region is in the late spring through high summer. July and early August are peak season, and by the end of August, the weather turns autumnal, shrouding many of the medieval walking towns in mist and rain.  

That said, there are deals to be had in the shoulder seasons: In May and September, you might miss the statuesque, bikini-clad blondes diving into the canals, but you’ll see a substantial savings when the days are shorter and the risk of variable weather is high. During that time, some of the sportier shore excursions — kayak tours and balloon rides — run the risk of cancellation when the conditions are wet and chilly. 


There are two main routes in this region.

Baltic Sea
The Baltic Sea is gentle in summer, so itineraries can include a different port every night, combining rich cultural capitals such as Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Hamburg.

Good For: St. Petersburg is a highlight, so ships typically overnight there for passengers to enjoy two — and sometimes three — days of exploring the city’s wonders, including the State Hermitage Museum, canal tours past rococo palaces and onion-domed orthodox cathedrals, as well as ballets and concerts.

Downside: Intrepid cruisers who might want to enjoy St. Petersburg on their own without an official shore excursion will have to apply for an independent visa for Russia ahead of the trip — and the cruise lines don’t always make it easy to do so.

North Sea/Norwegian Fjords

Some of the longer Baltic cruises will push past Oslo into the North Sea to include the imposing fjords of Norway.

Good For: Narrow inlets flanked by glacial mountains teem with rare Arctic wildlife, sea eagles and reindeer, not to mention spectacular scenery. Many of the fjords can only be seen from a ship’s deck as the vessel noses into the steep and secluded coves.

Downside: As itineraries head northward into the Arctic Circle, the Norwegian port towns get smaller and sleepier. 

Cruise Lines That Sail Europe - Northern Europe

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