Exploring the Baltic, Part 4: Helsinki to St. Petersburg by Sea
By Monique Burns
Exploring the Baltic led me first to Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city, the world’s second-largest port and one of the planet’s liveliest cultural centers. Then it was on to the Polish capital of Warsaw, once devastated by World War II and the Holocaust, now one of Europe’s greenest cities and fastest-growing economies. Next, I headed to Riga, the charmed capital of Latvia, which recently reemerged from its own Nazi and Communist nightmare to be hailed as a 2014 European Capital of Culture.
Nearing the end of my 11-day odyssey, I made the short hour-and-45-minute flight aboard Air Baltic from Riga to the Finnish capital of Helsinki. There, the mighty Gulf of Finland—easternmost arm of the Baltic—is crisscrossed by shipping lanes, as well as ferry routes to Stockholm, the Swedish capital, Tallinn, the Estonian capital, and St. Petersburg, Russia’s cultural capital and the last stop on my Baltic exploration.
Though strategically important, Helsinki never suffered the harsh fate of its neighbors. The crafty Finns devised all kinds of tricks to confuse Nazi bombers, including setting bonfires on some of the 300 islands in their offshore archipelago. Later, the Finns somehow managed to sidestep Soviet encroachment in the Baltic and maintain their independence.
Creative, as well as crafty, Helsinki, the 2012 World Design Capital, is known for early 20th-century Art Nouveau buildings and 1950s Functionalist architecture. Helsinki’s Art Nouveau, the somber yet beautiful Jugendstil, is exemplified by the Central Railway Station, built by architect Eliel Saarinen, whose son, Eero, designed JFK Airport’s futuristic TWA Flight Center. In dark-pink granite, with a copper-clad clocktower, Helsinki’s station features a heavy arched entry flanked by granite gods. Fans of Functionalism can visit Alvar Aalto’s glass-fronted Finlandia Hall, and the remarkable underground Temppeliaukio Church.
Helsinki’s Design District is steps from the harbor. Along Pohjoisesplanadi, shop Marimekko’s bold textiles at no. 33, and, at no. 25, Iittala’s art glass, including Alvar Aalto’s iconic 1936 wavy vase. Walk a few blocks to the Design Forum to browse one-of-a-kind clothing, shoes, household goods, stationery and knickknacks. Have coffee or tea, then prowl nearby fashion boutiques, jewelry shops, and interior-design stores like Artek, which Alvar Aalto established in 1935.
Also in the Design District, Juuri serves up New Nordic Cuisine—like trout sausage with horseradish, and organic beef with dill and beetroot—on small plates known as sapas, or shared tapas. At nearby Spis, a hip 18-seat eatery, long and short tasting menus feature a succession of exquisite small dishes paired with imported wines or Nordic beers.
On warm days, long, leafy Esplanadi Park, extending several blocks along Pohjoisesplanadi, draws legions of sun-loving Finns. Overlooking the action, Strindberg, a cozy-chic second-floor restaurant, serves everything from classic Scandinavian comfort food like meatballs in brown sauce with “grandma’s cucumbers” to New Nordic specialties like roasted Arctic char with beetroot risotto.
You also might chance upon one of the park’s international food festivals when Helsinki’s multicultural residents set up stalls hawking everything from Hungarian goulash and Japanese sushi to Swedish meatballs and Filipino barbecued beef. Munch and mingle, then stroll a few blocks to the harbor. In Market Square, graced with the fountain of Havis Amanda, Helsinki’s sensuous mermaid, browse through 19th-century Market Hall for reindeer pâté, cloudberry jam, dense rye loafs and crunchy Finnish crispbread called näkkileipä.
Then hop an HSL ferry or JT-Line waterbus for the 15-minute cruise to 18th-century Suomenlinna Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built on several offshore islands. Explore the star-shaped fortress and surrounding buildings, then sample hearty Finnish New Nordic Cuisine—spicy bear sausage, reindeer pâté, roast pork and grilled salmon—at Panimo brewery restaurant.
Another day, take the two-hour Canal Cruise through the gulf and Degerö Canal, passing shorelines with colorful clapboard cottages, villas with yachts moored at their docks, and simple wooden cabins where Finns indulge their steamy passion for sauna.
Come evening, board IHA-Lines’ flagship M/S Doris for a three-hour dinner cruise. In the dining saloon, relax at tables covered with crisp cloths, and enjoy creamy chanterelle or salmon soup, reindeer fillet or fried trout, and beer, wine, cider, or gin and cranberry “long drinks.” Then drink in the gulf-borne breezes from the top deck while bidding farewell to Helsinki.
All Baltic cities are watery worlds, their rivers and canals flowing to a great sea. But St. Petersburg, Russia’s showplace and the Baltic’s easternmost city, is truly the “Venice of the North,” afloat on 42 islands, separated by five rivers and countless canals, and joined by nearly 350 bridges. In 2010, the sleek Allegro high-speed train debuted, cutting travel time between Helsinki and St. Petersburg to just 3 ½ hours. But the classic way to approach St. Petersburg is by water, on an overnight Baltic cruise from Helsinki aboard the St. Peter Line’s Princess Maria. Arrive by ferry, and you’ll also enjoy a visa-free stay of 72 hours.
Ferries of the St. Peter Line—which also operates a four-night “Pearls of the Baltic” cruise between St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm and Tallinn—are modern first-class ships with well-appointed cabins for 2,000 passengers on nine decks, including a car deck. For dining, try the Seven Seas international buffet, Explorers for seafood, Napoli Mia for Italian food and Kampai for Japanese specialties. There are three bars, a casino, a cinema and a well-stocked duty-free shop. For work, you’ll find an internet café and conference rooms. For workouts, there’s a gym, swimming pool and sauna.
St. Petersburg dazzled me. Flowing for more than 17 miles through the city, the River Neva and its tributaries, along with manmade canals, are crossed by hundreds of bridges with ornate wrought-iron railings, vintage lanterns, and statues of griffons, sphinxes and other fanciful creatures, many covered in gold. On the Left Bank rise the gold spires of Peter the Great’s 18th-century Peter and Paul Fortress. Opulent neoclassical palaces line the Right Bank. Though tempted to take a river cruise, with only a day to see the city, I instead hopped a red double-decker hop-on, hop-off City Tour bus, making 16 stops.
Many landmarks are along Nevsky Prospekt, the grand boulevard stretching nearly three miles from the Neva River east to the Moskova Train Station. The State Hermitage Museum houses three million masterpieces in the ornate turquoise-and white Winter Palace and four other buildings. Gilded and colorfully enameled onion domes grace the phantasmagorical Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Swathed in more than 880 tons of gold, St. Isaac’s Cathedral is a treasure trove of stained glass, icons, ceiling paintings, and columns of blue lapis lazuli, red porphyry, and green malachite from the Urals, the world’s most prized.
At the Russian Vodka Room No. 1, I feasted on dozens of appetizers—like Baltic salmon, sausages, smoked whitefish and beetroot salad—as well as pork dumplings, cabbage soup and, finally, stewed veal cheeks, one of a long list of entrées including chicken Kiev with lingonberry sauce and beef Stroganoff. Along with wine, waiters poured shots of vodka, Russia’s national drink, celebrated in the restaurant’s memorabilia-filled Vodka Museum.
By late afternoon, I was thoroughly relaxed and ready for the voyage back to Helsinki. After an on-board dinner, a little entertainment and some sleep, I’d be back in the Finnish capital for a day of sightseeing and an overnight at the historic Hotel Seurahuone. Then I’d board my Air Berlin flight to New York. Bidding the Baltic farewell, I knew, just like those early Hanseatic traders before me, that I’d return again and again.
IF YOU GO
Air Baltic has frequent flights between Riga, Latvia, and Helsinki, Finland, as well as flights throughout Europe. www.airbaltic.com.
St. Peter Line, Länsiterminaali, Tyynenmerenkatu 8, (358) 9-6187-2000, 00220 Helsinki, Finland. The ultimate overnight voyage between Helsinki and St. Petersburg, plus journeys to other Baltic ports. www.stpeterline.com
Air Berlin, Germany’s second-largest airline, has frequent flights between major European cities and the U.S. www.airberlin.com
City Tour Bus, Pirogovskaya Embankment 7, (7) 812-718-47-69, 194044 St. Petersburg, Russia. See the city’s top sights aboard this red double-decker bus. www.redbuses.com/hop-on-hop-off-stpetersburg
Helsinki Card. Free public transportation, museum entry and sightseeing. www.helsinkicard.com
Petersburg Card. Free and discounted museum admission, city tours and transportation. www.petersburgcard.com
In Helsinki, try these fine hotels:
GLO Hotel Kluuvi, Kluuvikatu 4, (358) 103-444-400, 00100 Helsinki, Finland. Steps from Esplanadi Park, find 184 design rooms, a spa, restaurant and bar. www.glohotels.fi/en
Hotel Seurahuone, Kaivokatu 12, (358) 9-69-141, 00100 Helsinki, Finland. Across from the Central Railway Station, this recently renovated hotel has 118 elegant rooms and the French-style Brasserie Le Havre. www.hotelliseurahuone.fi
Feast on Helsinki’s New Nordic Cuisine and St. Petersburg’s Russian specialties:
Strindberg, Pohjoisesplanadi 33, (358) 9- 6128-6900, 00100 Helsinki, Finland. Overlooking Esplanadi Park, enjoy classic and New Nordic dishes in a cozy-chic setting. www.strindberg.fi/en
Suomenlinnan Panimo, Suomenlinna C1, (358) 9-228-5030, 00190 Helsinki, Finland. At Suomenlinna Fortress, try bear sausage and reindeer steak, with craft beers or wine, inside or on the terrace. www.panimoravintola.fi/en
Juuri, Korkeavuorenkatu 27, (358) 9-635-732, 00130 Helsinki, Finland. Sample tapas-like New Nordic dishes and heartier entrees. www.juuri.fi/en
Spis, Kasarmikatu 26, (358) 45-305-1211, 00130 Helsinki, Finland. Savor New Nordic Cuisine, using the finest local ingredients, on innovative long and short menus. www.spis.fi
Russian Vodka Room No. 1, 4 Konnogvardeyiski Blvd., (7) 812-570-64-20, 196128 St. Petersburg, Russia. Enjoy traditional specialties, then explore the Vodka Museum. www.vodkaroom.ru
Cruise Helsinki and St. Petersburg:
IHA-Lines, Meritullintori 6, (358) 9-6874-5050, 00170 Helsinki, Finland. Helsinki’s finest sightseeing, lunch and dinner cruises. www.ihalines.fi/english
Strömma, Pohjoinen, Makasiinikatu 4, (358) 9-2288-1222, 00130 Helsinki, Finland. Take the Canal Cruise through Helsinki’s harbor and Degerö Canal. www.stromma.fi
HSL Ferry, (358) 9- 4766-4444, P.O. Box 100, 00077 Helsinki, Finland. Regular 15-minute ferry departures to Suomenlinna Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. www.hsl.fi/en/tickets-and-fares/suomenlinna-ticket
JT-Line, Kanneltie 4, (358) 9-534-806, 00420 Helsinki, Finland. Waterbus to Suomenlinna Fortress and other locales. www.jt-line.fi/eng
St. Petersburg Canal and River Cruises. Various companies offer river and canal cruises. www.saint-petersburg.com/river-trips
For more information on the Baltic Sea Region, visit http://onebsr.eu/tourists/one-bsr-destination-guide.