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3 Can't-Miss Cities Along the Baltic Sea

Well-preserved history combined with a contemporary edge make these cities must-sees.

U.S. News & World Report

3 Can't-Miss Cities Along the Baltic Sea

Oleviste Church in the middle of the photo was once the tallest architecture in the world.

Off-the-beaten-path gems, enchanting streets and well-preserved medieval castles, cathedrals and palaces are just a few reasons to plan a trip to these culture-rich destinations.(Getty Images).

The cities along the Baltic Sea in northern Europe enchant visitors with their beautiful settings and rich backstories. Imagine: Viking ships setting sail for far-off destinations, merchants of the German Hanseatic League gaining wealth and power from significant seaports and trade routes in the region and the rise of legendary kings such as Henry the Lion in Germany and Tsar Peter the Great. This part of Europe is also home to some of the best-preserved medieval towns, impressive baroque, Gothic and Renaissance structures, along with cathedrals, castles and culturally vibrant cities in Europe. With a unique edge and vibe, cities like Gdańsk, Poland, Tallinn, Estonia, and St. Petersburg, Russia, look and feel unlike other cities in Western and Eastern Europe.

The best way to get an overview of this region may be by cruise ship, with many lines offering itineraries that include these cities, as well as popular destinations such as Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm. Regardless of how you choose to arrive, here are some of the not-to-be-missed attractions and things to do in can't-miss Baltic cities.

Gdańsk, Poland

Gdańsk is situated on the southern part of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Gdańsk in northern Poland. Once under Soviet rule and carrying a tumultuous past, including much damage during WWII, today's Gdańsk is bustling with tourists wandering the cobblestone streets of its beautifully restored Old Town. Gdańsk was one of the wealthiest cities in the Baltic during Hanseatic times due to its strategic location, and a highlight is the Old Town's treadmill crane. Originally built in the 14th century, this intriguing structure was human-powered and instrumental in loading and unloading cargo from merchant ships during medieval times.

Stroll the famous Ulica Dluga (Long Lane) with its colorful buildings similar to those in Copenhagen and Dutch-inspired architecture reminiscent of the buildings along the canals in Amsterdam. Begin at the famous Golden Gate, which dates back to the early 1600s, continuing on to Dlugi Targ (Long Market), a wide pedestrian street, ending at Green Gate, a former royal residence. Then, wander along Mariacka Street, which is one of the prettiest areas in the city and attracts many street performers. Its lively scene is also home to restaurants, bars and shops selling the Baltic's highly prized amber. Take notice of the traditional porches and terraces in front of the buildings, and at the far end of the street, the impressive St. Mary's Church, which soars high into the sky. Dating back to the 14th century, St. Mary's Church is one of the largest brick churches in the world.

Tallinn, Estonia

Known as one of the best-preserved medieval town centers in the world, the picturesque winding narrow cobblestone streets of Tallinn are brimming with photo ops at every turn. This capital city, across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, has a thriving modern city center, but a main draw is entering through the stone gates of this fairy tale-like walled city, wandering through the maze of streets and hiking the steps to the fortified upper town, Toompea Hill, for spectacular views of the endless array of red rooftops with sea views in the distance.

Originally called Reval, this city was also an important merchant center and port. Falling under Russian rule several times, Tallinn's architecture exhibits Russian influence, especially the domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Toompea Hill. Built in the early 20th century in the Russian-Revival style and named after a Russian prince, the cathedral is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. Kadriorg Palace, built for Catherine by Peter the Great, is in Petrine Baroque style, and features a swan pond and beautiful Japanese Gardens.

Another highlight is St. Olaf's Church in the lower town, the largest medieval structure in Tallinn. Climb the narrow staircase to the top of the tower for sweeping views of Old Town. The modern Kumu Art Museum, with works by Estonian artists from the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, and the nearby Song Festival Grounds, the home of the Singing Revolution, are also not-to-be missed. It was here in 1988 that Estonia launched a monumental musical demonstration against Soviet rule and set the stage for the country's independence.

And while the hustle of the busy market square may be tempting when it comes to dining, opt for less touristy spots. Find a quiet side street or courtyard café where the prices are lower, the atmosphere is relaxed and the food is inspired.

St. Petersburg, Russia

Founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, and the second largest city in Russia (behind Moscow), St. Petersburg is a world-class destination. Aspects of this city make it one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the grand scale of the opulent palaces and majestic estates built by the Romanovs will take your breath away. And that's just where it begins. Museums, like the Hermitage, are filled with priceless treasures and works of art from around the world, such as Leonardo da Vinci's "Madonna" and "The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Rembrandt. Every cathedral and palace enthralls visitors.

With the magnitude of the city and so much you don't want to miss, especially if time is limited, the best way to visit is with a tour guide. During high season, major attractions are extremely busy with long lines. With a small group tour, guides move to the front of the line and navigate travelers through the immense museums, palaces, and cathedrals while avoiding the crowds. Several larger tour companies, like TJ Travel, offer itineraries highlighting must-see attractions such as Peterhof Palace with its astounding maze of palaces, gardens and fountains, the Church on Spilt Blood, St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, Catherine Palace and St. Issac's Cathedral. Visit St. Isaac's Cathedral in the evening and climb the 300 steps to the top for unforgettable views over St. Petersburg with magnificent domes and spires. These companies also provide visas if you're traveling by cruise ship, so you won't have to obtain a Russian visa. In stark contrast to all the grandeur, explore modern-day St. Petersburg. Visit historic New Holland, a revitalized part of the city with restaurants, a park and garden, art installations and live performances.

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Caucasian couple walking near Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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