Long, leisurely strolls along empty beaches. Majestic palaces of old, lined with priceless works of art. Decadent indulgences for the palate as well as saunas to rival a Roman Emperor’s bathhouse. It isn’t a fairytale, and it isn’t a fantasyland: it’s a day in the life along the Baltic Sea.
While all European cities provide charm and culture, the port cities lining the Baltic shores offer their own unique take. Whether it’s the eternal opulence of Peter the Great’s grand city, the near-perfect preservation of Tallinn’s enchanting medieval Old Town or the beating heart of Finland’s lustrous design-centric culture, each different flavor of Baltic living provides an existence centered in exquisiteness. If you had but one day to enjoy each, here are some highlights well worth your consideration.
The crowning jewel of any multi-stop trip around the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg has been a mecca of refined culture since Peter the Great established the city centuries ago. Designed to mimic European counterparts, countless canals thread through the streets, instilling any stroll with an air of whimsical romanticism akin to Venice or Amsterdam. Of course, the many palaces and cathedrals certainly contribute to the atmosphere. For experiencing Russia’s cultural capital like a tsar, there are a few absolutes.
You absolutely have to visit the State Hermitage Museum. As the second-largest art museum in the world (topped only by the Louvre in Paris), it’s easy to get lost in the priceless works of art—if you spent one minute on each piece, it would take you 11 years to view everything the museum houses. For that reason, divide and conquer. Decide ahead of time what interests you most and head straight to it.
Afterward, a nice follow-up is the State Russian Museum. As the world’s largest depository for Russian art, nothing encapsulates the spirit of St. Petersburg quite like it. But, if the Hermitage was more than enough art for one day, then there’s plenty of other ways to spend your time. St. Petersburg also holds a treasure-trove of luxury retailers, allowing for hours of window shopping—and maybe even a fine souvenir. Or, if you need to relax after all the adventure (and walking), head to one of the renowned Russian bathhouses. Yamskie Bani is a particularly historic option, as it was a favorite of Vladimir Lenin.
Finally, you absolutely have to finish the day with a show at the Mariinsky Theatre. The historic home of Russian ballet and opera, the spectacles housed within are acclaimed worldwide and provide a grand finale to a day fit for a tsar.
The capital of Estonia is rich with experiences: lining the shore are beautiful beaches perfect for lounging in the summer, while further inland lies a city with all the trappings of a modern metropolis. Nestled within that same metropolis— a medieval Old Town rife with enchantment. For this reason, there are variations to a perfectly luxurious day in Tallinn. One excellent start to your day can be found at Pirita Beach. Located in a suburb just outside Tallinn, a sunny stroll along the quiet shore awakens the mind and body.
Or, you could start with a savory latte in any of Old Town’s cozy cafés—which is also a great starting point for exploring Old Town. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tallinn’s Old Town is the nucleus of the best-preserved medieval city in Northern Europe. The ancient cobblestone streets host a litany of castles, churches, cathedrals and town squares worth discovering. Amongst them, St. Nicholas’ Church makes for a spiritual excursion: the 13th-century church is today home to the Niguliste Museum, which showcases ecclesiastical art through the ages as well as the occasional church organ concert.
After seeing the many ancient sights of Old Town, a stroll through Kadriorg Park is a change of scenery and proves endlessly rewarding. Created in the 18th century, the park today is an oasis of lush greenery within the city that harbors countless gardens, monuments and museums. A favorite of the museums worth discovering is Kumu—the country’s largest repository of Estonian Art.
When it comes time for dinner, there is no wrong choice of where to eat: Tallinn’s food scene is thriving with the incredible mixture of ‘new Nordic’ style cooking and unique local ingredients. With that being said, some of the best fine dining options reside within the Old Town. Venues like Cru, Ribe and Rataskaevu 16 all treat your taste buds to a timeless experience.
Right across the water from Tallinn lies the southern capital of Finland, Helsinki. Having earned “City of Design” status from UNESCO, it’s a bastion of sleek and stylish: everything from the Art Noveau architecture to the abundance of museums and art galleries adds up to be the manifestation of tasteful refinement. While any slice of the city might feel like a masterpiece, there are a few can’t-miss sites of a truly authentic Helsinki experience.
The obvious starting point for this rich culture of design would be the Design Museum. Located in the heart of the Helsinki Design District, it permanently houses a massive showcase of 145 years’ worth of revolutionary fashion, industrial and graphic design. After this expansive introduction to Finnish design, you’re ready to explore the surrounding Design District. A patchwork of 25 streets threaded together to showcase over 200 designers, the Design District is the beating heart of this enchanting metropolis. Whether you’re strolling or shopping, you’re likely to leave charmed.
If being immersed in such style wears you down, there is a quintessential Finnish way to relax and unwind: saunas. Boasting more than three million saunas for a national population of roughly five million, it is truly hard to miss a sauna while in Finland. While any of these saunas can provide steamy solace, Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall is a local favorite. Finland’s oldest swimming pool, it sports multiple saunas in addition to the 25-meter pool known for invigorating swimming sans clothing. Whichever way you decide to unwind, the immediate surroundings are likely to continue the overarching theme of the city: sleek, thoughtful design paired with quiet grandeur.
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