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Trip Report Scandinavia & other Baltics: a whole new world

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Background

My husband Val and I are devout European travelers but we’d never been to Scandinavia and the Baltics though it had been on our “must do” list for quite a while. We finally succumbed to a flyer for a cruise that would permit us to cover much of what we hoped to see in the area and included two days in St. Petersburg (though not Riga, Latvia, my husband’s birthplace which remains on our must do list, now accompanied by a list of Scandinavian/Baltic areas to which we want to return.)

Because I really dislike the whole cruise mentality of “stand in line to jump off the ship, run around to see everything in too little time, and then worry about getting back to the ship in time to sail,” I agreed to the cruise idea with the proviso that we tack several days in one place onto both the beginning and the end of the cruise, permitting us to spend a decent amount of time in at least two of our desired destinations.

Since the cruise originated and ended in Copenhagen, we decided to spend additional time—3 days—there. The cruise itself included one day in Stockholm but we added another 3 days there, taking a reasonably priced SAS flight from Copenhagen at the conclusion of the cruise and flying home from Stockholm.

The plan worked beautifully. It provided us the somewhat in depth look at a couple of prime destinations I wanted to see while permitting us a taste of several others and husband Val got to satisfy his cruise craving and his love of traveling without much packing and unpacking and no driving. Unfortunately it also complicated our choices of travel going forward since it added about 5 or 6 places to our list of destinations to which we really want to return—now competing with such standbys as Paris, Barcelona, Tuscany, Positano, South of France, etc, etc, etc. Sigh.

Overview

We really enjoyed all the destinations on this trip—Copenhagen, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Oslo, Tallinn, Gdansk, and Helsinki—all of which were completely new to us. The first three were the largest with the most to see and were, as expected, spectacular. But the others, though smaller and with fewer specific attractions, were also wonderful and afforded some great sights and “being” opportunities. We’d return to them all—and certainly hope to.

I got lots of help with the cruise aspects of this trip from the Cruise Forum on this site. Someone there named Percy provided a detailed report about how to maximize time in each port. His tips were invaluable and I will report back on that forum. But since my concentration is on the sights and food in the cities, I thought that the report actually makes more sense to post on this forum. I hope some of the information I share will also help build the library of info on these destinations which is certainly less filled than those for Paris, London, Tuscany, etc.

I’ll not provide a day by day account of everything we did or saw, but rather hit some of the highlights of each place with more personal impressions than listings of everything covered. As usual, I’ll also provide a rundown of our dining experiences.

We were blessed with very good weather on this trip—something that always adds to the enjoyment and the good impressions of places. We left on August 20 and returned on September 6. We had rain only on a couple of days and never for an entire day. Several times we had extremely threatening sky conditions but no rain ever materialized—a photographer’s dream. Temperatures hovered in the 60s and low 70s, perfect for walking around.

So, enough preliminaries. On to Copenhagen.

Copenhagen

The town in our prior experience to which we most likened Copenhagen is Amsterdam. The northern European architecture seemed similar, the many canals are similar—though Copenhagen’s are generally wider than Amsterdam’s, the sort of drink a lot, smoke a lot, leave everyone alone if they’re not bothering you vibe also seemed similar, and most of all the number of bicycles seemed similar. In fact, if anything I’d guess that Copenhagen has more bicycles than Amsterdam. Our Rick Steves guide said that the Danish tax on cars is 180% of cost which accounts for the number of bikes. It also means that they use bikes not just for personal transport but for family transport. Many bikes are equipped with a box-like contraption on the front into which two or more children of some size (or groceries or drunken friends) may be placed for a ride.

This heavy dependence on bikes, cuts down enormously on car traffic. We were able to look out our hotel window several times and see one of the busiest streets of the city downtown area, totally devoid of traffic. Amazing. Shows what prohibitive taxing can accomplish. Don’t know how it works for long distances in the countryside or during the winter, though.

Square Hotel—Our selection of this hotel, enhanced our experience in Copenhagen. It put us pretty much in the center of everything and made planning our days much easier. It’s across the street from the City Hall and from Tivoli gardens. Can’t get much more central than that. We also liked the hotel itself and I’d recommend it highly. It’s pretty much a modern business hotel. Though Trip Advisor reviews complain of small rooms, we didn’t find our standard room unbearably small and it was well laid out with a bed, loveseat and desk. The bathroom was nicely appointed in that modern sort of way so many hotels use. Depending upon how you book, you may or may not have breakfast included with your room. As with everything in the Scandinavian countries it’s pricey but it’s a really good, plentiful buffet in a beautiful, open, airy top floor room with great views over the city which makes for a great start to the day.

Sights

Copenhagen does both old and new very well, the latter especially well IMO. The Radhuspladsen (square in front of the city hall) was a good place to start to see the old with a major square surrounded by an old brick city hall with towers, fanciful dragon statuary, internal Moorish arches, and a complimenting old brick Palace hotel, also with towers facing it. The square gets lots of use by pedestrians and folks stopping for coffee or polser—the hot dogs sold in stands apparently staffed by former homeless folks. It also anchors one end of the famous Stroget shopping street which features 7Elevens (big presence in Scandinavia for some odd reason) and Burger Kings as well as the more upscale Royal Copenhagen china shop and Georg Jensen silversmiths and even some covered passages like those I so love in Paris.

Besides the city hall and the Palace hotel, the square is surrounded by brick buildings fronted with lots of modern neon signs all lit up at night, adding the touch of “new” that balances the old. A statue of beloved native son Hans Christian Anderson is just to the right of the city hall building and across from the entrance to Tivoli Gardens—and much better than the tiny Little Mermaid statue on the banks of the harbor that gets all the play and pictures for Copenhagen in tourist books..

Other great old places that we enjoyed visiting in Copenhagen were the Amelienborg Palace (really pretty both exterior and in with a lovely park and gardens nearby), Sankt Peders Church, Church of Our Lady, Marble—Frederick’s—Church with its beautiful dome which is one of the largest in Europe, Christianshaven canal area with its Church of Our Savior featuring an exterior ramp up its steeple.

We loved the old stock exchange with its steeple featuring 3 intertwined dragons but were not so impressed with the Christiansborg Palace which is where the Parliament meets and the Prime Minister offices and where we had a rather humorous experience. We entered the main square of the palace just as a group of the Queen’s guards in blue uniforms and bearskin hats were assembling. They had a drummer and fife player and we and several other tourists began to assemble assuming we’d be seeing a changing of the guard or similar ceremony. We waited, and waited, and waited and watched the leader of the group consult his watch several times. I finally walked over to another group of gawkers who were talking with a less ceremonial looking security guard/local policeman in Danish. When they finished, I asked if he spoke English and asked what was going on. Without skipping a beat he told me that they were awaiting the arrival of the Crown Prince whereupon they would be bringing out a prison to be executed. After my initial shock, I realized that my leg was being pulled for the amusement of the locals. They loved it and so did I. But it certainly speaks to the Danes and their monarchy. What a wonderful, laid back institution that a guard in the Palace compound can feel perfectly free to concoct such a joke and not worry that anyone will be offended at the lack of ceremony, proper respect, etc, etc.

Turns out the Prince was expected for some kind of ribbon pinning ceremony inside the Palace. As his car arrived at the gate, the guards snapped to attention, saluted and began to play their fife and drum stuff. They played until exactly the point that the car disappeared behind the gigantic gates to the interior of the palace and stopped in mid toot. It was the first of two highly disappointing “guard changing experiences” I was to have on this trip, salvaged only by my great amusement at the security guard’s joke on me.

Another old place that we found wonderful in Copenhagen is Nyhaven. It’s the area on one of the canals which is connected to what was once a primary harbor and it’s lined with lots of old merchant houses and plenty of old, tall masted sailing ships. So it’s ready made to be the new “happening” place with lots of bars, cafes and restaurants. We were there on a warm, sunny Saturday and it was packed with folks enjoying the area. It helped, too, that we had one of the best meals of the trip there—an all herring lunch. More on that as I get into food.

But if Copenhagen does old really well, I think they do new even better. From Nyhaven we took a canal cruise that took us past several fairly newly constructed buildings including the Opera House with its large, cantilevered plane of a roof, and the Royal Library, which is incredibly beautiful reflected in and getting reflections from the water. We also walked by a series of modern office buildings on the shore across from the library which were amazing in their angles and reflections and terraced waterfalls alongside. The area is somewhat reminiscent of the new area springing up across the Simone de Beauvoir bridge from the Bercy area, by the Mitterand library in Paris.

Tivoli—is probably the most famous place in Copenhagen and with reason. It’s charming, utterly charming. I was expecting an old-fashioned version of the Disney Magic Kingdom. It’s more like Epcot but with even better, more gracious, less cutesy grounds and gardens. We went about 5 p.m. or so on a very pleasant, sunny day and stayed until about 10 or so, having dinner there.

The park is right in the center of the city. Pictures I took of places in the park displayed turrets from the city hall and the Palace Hotel across the street behind the scenery from the park itself. It all fits. There are many dining venues (possibly as many as 50 per one guide, but that seems an overstatement to me), some the most highly regarded of all those in Copenhagen, including the Paul with its Michelin star—unfortunately not open on the Sunday we were there. The lights are lovely and line many of the buildings including the fanciful Tivoli palace which houses Nimb restaurant which was open and where we did eat. There is lots of water and incredible plantings with beautiful flowers. Even the rides are cleverly disguised to fit into the overall gracious beauty vibe, e.g. the giant roller coaster is interspersed with gigantic red Japanese lanterns. The bandstand featured one of the best live big bands I’ve heard in a long time. It was a swell time.

Dining in Copenhagen
Overall, our food experiences in Copenhagen were positive. The lone non-descript meal was tapas across the street from our hotel on our first very tired night, but that night we selected for location not culinary acclaim. Here’s where and what we ate—other than the ill-fated tapas.

Europa—a popular café with outdoor seating on the Stroget across from the Royal Copenhagen and Georg Jensen stores. Three of us (we traveled with our most frequent traveling companions—Jan and Kevin) had the fish plate sampler. It was a great introduction to typical Scandinavian cuisine—one kind of fish covered with a lemon-based cream sauce and black and red roe, a tuna mousse, lox with asparagus spears and tiny shrimps with peapods and edamame. Pretty and great tasting, also at least nominally less caloric than some of our usual choices and apparently somewhat healthy. Kevin, the lone hold out had a sandwich of beef slices with melted cheese and veggies. We were all immediately happy.

Nyhaven Faegekro, outside café in Nyhaven along the canal—a perfect place for a perfect day and a great lunch. Again three of us opted for the same choice—the herring buffet. This is what the place is famous for and it didn’t disappoint us. All in all there were 11 different kinds of herring, among them—in cream, in mustard, in tomato, in something else red but not tomato and not beet, as rollmops in butter cream, smoked and fried and just with red onions. We were in herring heaven. Kevin—odd man out again—opted for the Nyhaven plate of shrimp, salmon, lox, chicken salad and beef slices with dill pickles. Again we felt pretty righteous for our selections since they seemed pretty healthy, but best of all they tasted great. Price for this wonderful treat was about $40 per person including beer or wine—very reasonable for these countries.

If Faegekro was reasonable, Formel B broke the bank. This was pretty much our big splurge for the trip. Kevin and I are the big time foodies in the group and we’d been eyeing Noma (newly awarded its 2nd Michelin star and voted third best restaurant in the world by some group) but when we went on the internet and read their tasting menu which included birch tree juice and a jaw-dropping price, Jan and Val nixed that idea completely.
Kevin and I countered with Formel B which turned out to be an inspired choice. It provided us a good look at cutting edge Scandinavian cuisine in a lovely setting and offered a tasting menu with 7 or 8 courses that pleased all four of us—and didn’t push our envelopes beyond the breaking point—to mix a metaphor.

There was a minimum of the silly theatrics that accompany tasting menus in restaurants chasing additional stars. But it was dear. Between the menu and the accompanying wine pairings it came to over $800 for the four of us. We’ve paid more for dinners, but we’re tiring of doing so and reweighing our priorities so these kinds of splurges are more carefully considered than they once were.

We started with an amuse of horseradish sorbet, carrot, raw baby shrimp and salty nuts. The breads were exceptional (the best was a wheat and other grain muffin-like roll with a caramelized butter top—yum) and served with a choice of basil or thyme and parsley butter. Next was the most theatrical presentation of the meal—salted Danish salmon with crushed potatoes and cooked oysters served in smoke captured in a glass bell cover. A lot of falderol but it tasted good.

Next came a gazpacho with Danish lobster, celery, pickled cucumber, poached quail egg and basil—the best dish IMO, then turbot with baby corn, popcorn, black currants, truffle and chanterelles, the least exciting course IMO. This was followed by quail breast and leg confit, garlic flan, ramsons and parsley sauce. You see a lot of ramsons listed on Scandinavian menus. It’s a form of garlic that is very popular there. The final meat course was rack of lamb with braised neck and sausages, new cabbage, broad beans and browned butter—my favorite meat/fish course but then I’m big on lamb.

I have to admit that by the time we got to dessert I was pretty well-sated and don’t actually recall the Spanish chervil sorbet that the menu lists, but I do recall that the white chocolate mousse with raspberries was not only pretty but tasty. I also recall that the wine pairings worked very well and introduced us to some wines that we would not have selected on our own.

The restaurant is stripped down, modern and at varying levels. We were seated in the lowest level near the glassed in kitchen but unfortunately our table was not near enough to watch all the action. The service was pleasant and knowledgable as you would expect from a place of this caliber. All in all, it was a lovely meal but we have come increasingly to wonder whether such extravaganzas are “worth it” especially in comparison to the many wonderful meals one can have at far lower price points. Perhaps I’m going over to the dark side—or the smart side, depending upon your viewpoint. At any rate, if you’re foodie inclined, Formel B is a worthy destination. It’s in town but a short cab ride from the center.

Lunch in Christianshaven on canal by bridge on a moored boat—very pleasant sort of bohemian place with large bar area and sandwich menu. Val’s financial records call the place Badudle but that sounds strange. It’s all I have for a name, however. We took a bus back from Dragor fishing village (a pleasant enough trip out of the city for a glimpse of the surrounding countryside) on a Sunday, stopped in Christianshaven area to see the Church of Our Savior and just soak up the vibe there. This place wasn’t in any of my guides but the food looked good and the setting couldn’t have been more perfect to just kick back and enjoy the people and the outdoor ambiance. Danes excel at open-faced sandwiches and we opted for a pile of small shrimp with tomatoes and mayo on top of black seeded bread with, of course, a glass of the ubiquitous Carlsberg beer. Quintessential Danish smorrebrod.

Nimb—in Tivoli in the Tivoli Palace. This was the most appealing restaurant among those in Tivoli open on Sunday evening which worked out to be the best time we could schedule our visit to Tivoli even though it didn’t provide the best food options. Unfortunately The Paul and Herman (both more highly rated than Nimb by foodies) are closed on Sunday evening.

The setting is quite interesting—the entire restaurant is open and there are two or three kitchen/food prep areas set among the dining tables. We, for instance, were directly next to the kitchen that was preparing our food. And everything is in the open—not behind glass. I think it must make things very hard for the chefs. Everything can be watched. They must constantly clean up so that things look neat. It’s a clever concept but in our experience it didn’t work out so well in execution. Everything was very slow. We watched the table next to us be served incorrect entrees. We had to tell our wandering server that the plates he was carrying were for us, etc. The food was ok but not spectacular—scallop and lobster terrine, mushroom soup, witch fish with tarragon and mayo, prime rib, tenderloin, wilted spinach.

Cruise dining

The following day we were on board our cruise ship for our meals. It was a Princess Cruise and the food was very good, usually quite traditional, but nicely prepared and presented, if nothing cutting edge. We opted for the Chef’s Table one night. For $75 a person we were included in a group of 10 or 12 who were escorted by the chef, his first assistant and the maitre d’ on a tour of the kitchens with an explanation of how they cook for 3000+ passengers and about 1200+ crew daily in about 15-20 different venues (almost everything except produce is frozen), and a selection of nicely prepared appetizers including crab cocktails, etc. We were then escorted to a special table in the dining room and served the remainder of a very sumptuous meal with multiple main courses which they called “double impact surf and turf”-- lobster, scallops, prime rib, lamb chops and multiple accompaniments. It was all way too much, but it was undeniably good and certainly had impact. They then prepared cheese and desserts and presented each couple with a lovely coffee table book featuring the cooking of Princess Cruises. It was memorable and indeed “worth it” for the extra cost. It was one of the highlights of the cruise part of our trip IMO.

More to follow as time permits re: our other venues, their sights and food highlights.

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    Thanks. I'm glad to have some readership.

    Dayenu, I highly recommend the approach of combining a cruise of this area with some time--preferrably at both ends if you can swing it timewise--spent in one or two of the cities giving you a chance to enjoy them in greater depth. When you get to deciding which cruise line to go with, check out the cruise forum here and also take a look at the more specialized site cruisecritic.com I found lots of useful information in both places.

    So, on with my reporting.

    Stockholm was our first cruise destination after a day at sea upon leaving Copenhagen. I’ll wait to report on it until the end of this report since we spent 3 more days there at the conclusion of the cruise. Let me just say that it was a bit difficult to figure out what to do in Stockholm on our cruise day there.

    Most of the other cruisers were only spending that day there, so they were off to blitz the city, concentrating on the scenic old town area of Gamla Stan. I’d planned a very intricate route around Sodermalm area near where the ship was scheduled to dock—seemed like the best use of the scarce time the cruise day afforded. Then we made a lunch reservation in another area at the Grand Hotel because that was the last available time for us to do their famous Smorgaasbord at lunch (we’d be returning in September when they return to scheduling the Smorgaasbord only for dinner) and to top things off, it rained the day we were there on the cruise, so I threw the plan out the window and we sort of focused on things around the Grand Hotel which would be doable on a rainy day.

    It hurts to throw out a carefully developed plan that you’ve spent hours working on down to individual routes. But when you leave a cruise ship in the rain, it is nice to know that if the rain spoils your plan for the day, you’ll still have the opportunity to see the places you’ve missed when you return for your longer visit at the conclusion of the cruise. Ah, the luxury of time. It’s a scarce commodity on land in cruise touring—even as the time on ship affords a great deal of relaxation time.

    Helsinki

    The following day, we docked in Helsinki. We still had rain on and off there, so we didn’t get the full impact of the beauty of the place, but even the rain didn’t spoil things and the temperature around 68 degrees was very pleasant. Helsinki is a lovely venue, quite manageable for a day on a cruise. We docked at 10 and the ship sailed again at 6, giving us a good 6+ hours in the city accounting for time to get from the ship to the city and return by the 5:30 all aboard call (ticks me off that cruises advertise the time in a city to include the full amount of time the SHIP will be there but that YOU don’t actually get that amount of time in port since they require you to be back before the advertised time.)

    Helsinki sights--We arrived by taxi in the market square, perfect by my standards as markets are my favorite thing anywhere. The market hall itself was nowhere near the equal of the wonderful one we’d seen in Stockholm the previous day, but the actual food displays individually seemed better than those in Stockholm. One place featured smoked and cured salmon and had probably 15 different varieties or more. There were similar displays of multiple varieties and colors of caviar and I even spotted beautiful reindeer pelts. Outside the hall, an open air market featured vegetables, toys, all sorts of items, and food for consumption, including the omnipresent herring. I bought two handmade sundresses in Marrimeko type prints for our twin granddaughters.

    Above the market area stood the Finnish Orthodox (never knew there was Finnish Orthodox along with Greek and Russian) Upanski Church. It had all the requisite domes and iconography and provided great photo ops. So did the Lutheran Cathedral that you see in all the travel photos of Helsinki. The latter is just hard to get to being up about 50 steps from the surrounding square.

    Helsinki seems to be built around a long parklike area whose surrounding street is called appropriately the Esplanade. It has wonderful shopping, nice cafes, just a pleasant vibe. We seemed to gravitate to it and I’d have been happy to have spent all our time right there—and at the market, of course. But besides that area we also saw their Art Nouveau train station with its “metropolis” like carved figures, their parliament building, national museum and modern convention site called Finlandia hall. It’s all good and there is, of course, more that I’d planned on but that time did not permit us to get to, like the Sibelius monument and the Church in the Rock. Must return.

    Helsinki dining-—Before we booked at Formel B in Copenhagen (which Val now tells me cost us not S800+ for the four of us but rather per couple, so reconsider my remarks above concerning that place. Oof da, seems the only appropriate reaction) Kevin and I hit upon Chez Dominique as an opportunity to indulge our foodie fantasies in Scandinavia in view of Jan and Val nixing Noma (thank goodness they did. If we paid $800 a couple at Formel B, we’d probably have had to declare bankruptcy after dining at Noma)

    To anyone wanting to see what the new Scandinavian food scene is like but not wanting to sell their first-born to do so, I’d highly recommend Chez Dominique. It’s good. It’s beautiful. And best of all, it’s highly affordable—at least at lunch.

    The place is a couple of blocks off the Esplanade in a corner building with a pleasant entrance graced by flowers in large pots and curly willow branches. Inside each of only about 8 or 10 white linen covered round tables sported a squat red or black vase with a single anthirium. There is a modern glassed in open to view wine storage area that you pass enroute to your table. Besides one large floral arrangement, that’s pretty much it for décor (could be how they keep their prices lower than others.)

    Frankly I was attracted to this place because its website promised a luncheon tasting menu for 29 euros. It was no bait and switch. They had such a menu. Kevin and I both had it and it was good, very good. Jan and Val splurged on the alternate menu offered for the day at 65 euros, but even that pales in comparison to the menus at Formel B. At 29 euros, our menu was undoubtedly the best gourmet deal of the trip.

    We started with two amuses—one in a porcelain spoon of mozzarella with tomato and basil juice, the other a brick holding an itty, bitty cone with parmesan cheese sprinkles and a liquefied “arugula salad.” First course was an olive-oil poached piece of cured salmon, meltingly delicious, served over a base of beans with a hint of truffle. Second course was lamb, two small pieces of meat and a third round of composed lamb shank meat with eggplant puree on top served over polenta and a red pepper coulis. Third, dessert, course was a log of blueberry ice cream with meringue and small blobs of green eucalyptus oil, not as good or as interesting as the rest of the meal.

    I didn’t take notes on what Jan and Val had for more than twice the price of our choice, but I do recall it being nothing better or more plentiful than what Kevin and I had, just a different choice. I can only assume that there must have been some difference in the cost of the actual ingredients between the two offerings to account for the price difference, probably some fois gras which both Jan and Val will order every opportunity they get. There was certainly no difference in the diners’ satisfaction. The 29 euro lunch menu is a great deal. I recommend it highly.

    Next St. Petersburg

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    I am enjoying reading your trip report. We've been to several of the places you visited but not Helsinki. Next time we are in Stockholm, we hope to take the overnight ferry there and appreciate your detailed report on that city.
    We might also take the ferry to Tallin.

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    Good point, HappyTrvlr. Ferry service between the Baltic countries is apparently good (Rick Steves provides lots of useful info on the topic) and opens up additional options.


    We enjoyed Tallinn very much as you'll see as I proceed with this report. We'd like to return there as well, probably combining it in some way on a trip that will include Riga.

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    We loved both Oslo, and Stockholm and hope to return again. We had so many wonderful meals by the water, fish of course, in both cities. We had thought Copenhagen would be our favorite, but, for us, it ranked behind the other two cities.

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    Loving your report! We were in Vilnius, Tallinn & Helsinki earlier this year (St Petersburg a few years back) and am considering combining Riga and either Copenhagen or Stockholm next year (already visited Oslo/Bergen). We find that part of the world fascinating. Appreciate the details in your report!

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    Happy to read your report! We are doing the same Princess Cruise next June 21. Will have 2 days pre trip in Copenhagen - then we will dis-embark in Oslo on day 9 - and spend 6 days in Norway. Will have 2 nights Oslo, 2 nights Fiord country , 2 nights Bergen. A pre and post trip is a good way to do a cruise.
    Am listening attentively to your cruise report!

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    Great. Another reader. Your plan sounds very good.

    I'm almost finished with my report. Just a bit of fact checking and the final Stockholm info to write. I've just hit a computer glitch, so hold on. There's more to come. Hope you enjoy the rest of it.

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    St. Petersburg

    Touring--This was the place that we expected to be the highlight of the trip and though everything was wonderful and there are other places I’m more interested in returning to, I guess that from a sightseeing perspective it was exactly that—the highlight. The cruise provided two days in St. Petersburg (there are ships, notably Azimara, which offer 3, so if you are really interested in St. Petersburg you might want to check on them) and after reading Percy’s report in the Fodors Cruise forum I was convinced that we wanted to use a local guide service. I looked at the 3 major companies, Den Rus, Red October and Alla, and chose the latter primarily based upon Percy’s glowing recommendations and his explanation of how he was able to reshape the standard tour offerings to achieve his own interests.

    Like all the other tour companies Alla offers a standard tour for groups of 10 or 12 or so, but we chose to go in our happy little foursome, which drove the costs up significantly—as it should given that we engaged a guide and driver and van for just the four of us for two full days—choosing to start earlier than the normal tour hours and extend the first day from a 6 p.m. or so ending to 9 p.m. in order to permit us to have our dinner in St. Petersburg rather than onboard the ship.

    Our guide Anya, was stellar. As Kevin said, she made the city come alive. She knew everything about everything. She was informative without being pedantic, or worse yet cutesy like so many tour guides who seem to feed on the chuckles they get from their hokey little historical jokes. The driver was a master at maneuvering a very large, yellow van into and out of traffic and parking places that I probably couldn’t have wedged a smarte car into.

    By taking a tour with a registered local company, we also saved the hassle and cost of purchasing a visa for travel within Russia—a bonus that comes only with cruise travel and tour through a registered tour company. This is the first time we’ve ever hired a personal guide. I prefer to research things myself, plot our course, and see things our way being a resolute “independent traveler,” however, given our limited time, desire to see as much as we possibly could, lack of understanding of the local language or even its alphabet and the visa issue, we concluded that the tour company/guide would be worth it.

    Wise decision. We undoubtedly saw more in less time than we ever could have on our own. At one point Anya got us onto a hydrofoil to Peterhof from the Hermitage in less than 5 minutes while others stood in long lines and probably missed the boat—quite literally. She and the driver working with cell phones were able to arrange drop off in one place, walking to another with pick up there and no time lost to doubling back. She was able to take us to the rooms in the Hermitage with the art that most appealed to us, and lead us right to paintings by the artists she thought we’d most like to see. She and the driver made a hastily arranged stop to see a monument that we hadn’t planned to see—and which turned out to be one of my most memorable sights. They also made an unplanned bathroom stop enroute to one of the sights that provided us the opportunity to see a sort of Russian K-Mart.

    The cost of all of this personalized touring plus tips came to $2136 for the 4 of us—a lot but not when considered against the prices the cruise line was charging to see about ½ of what we saw and in groups up to 25 or 30.

    St. Petersburg Sights—So what did we see for roughly $250 per person per day—not such a high cost when you think of it that way. The answer is a lot and all very memorable. We were off the ship and onto our yellow van at 7:30 the first morning. We started with a drive about town in which we did a kind of overview of the city with a couple of picture stops and special emphasis on the Neva river that flows through the city. We saw the Rostral Column, the Peter and Paul Cathedral where the czars are buried, Nevsky Prospeckt, the main shopping street, and the Kazan and St. Isaac's cathedrals.

    The remainder of the morning was devoted to visiting Catherine’s Palace outside of the city in the tsar’s village, named for Pushkin, the Russian poet. At the palace we saw the amber room about which so much has been written but my expectations of it had been built so high that I found it interesting but disappointing in reality.

    Enroute to Catherine’s Palace we made a stop I’d requested at the Chesme church—an incredibly cute pinkish.red and white striped oval with domes atop. I’d seen pictures and it was indeed worth checking out in person, the exterior being much more beautiful than the interior which was nonetheless interesting if a bit claustrophobic, being small and packed with peasants (many wearing babushkas) either worshipping or buying religious paraphernalia.

    We also stopped at a monument to the citizens of Leningrad for their heroism during the Siege of Leningrad in the Second World War. The place was absolutely haunting. The statues are amazing—the central one showing a soldier and two women supporting the weak and dying and two sets of soldiers and peasants at the entrance showing each doing whatever they were called upon to do in that horrible time. With haunting music it was truly one of the most moving monuments I’ve ever experienced.

    We were supposed to tour the grounds of Peterhof in the afternoon but we encountered a major traffic accident and were unable to get through. Our driver got us out of the traffic jam and Anya hastily revamped the tour to have us see the interiors of the Kazan Cathedral, St. Isaac’s and the Church of the Spilled Blood (Church of the Resurrection.)

    All three of these churches were quite amazing. The first is reminiscent of St. Peter’s in Rome with an enormous dome and colonnaded semi-circular wings on each side of the main building. It, like St. Isaac’s was adorned with paintings, stained glass windows, and columns of lapis and malachite inside. Though St. Isaacs is larger, has the third largest dome in the world and doors to rival those of the Duomo in Florence, and is more traditionally endowed with art, stained glass, domes and the standard trappings of cathedrals, it was the Church of the Spilled Blood that I found most unique to St. Petersburg. It had the colorful onion domes like those of St. Basil’s in Moscow but most of all the entire interior was covered in colorful mosaics. It is also smaller than St. Isaac’s and feels somehow more Russian.

    We finished the first day’s touring with a trip to the St. Peter and Paul Fortress where the church which has the tallest steeple in St. Petersburg hosts the remains of the Czars and members of their families. That steeple is covered in gold. In fact, overall throughout our two days in St. Petersburg we probably saw more gold leaf than we’ve seen during the rest of our 60+ years or touring in Europe.

    Catherine’s palace is covered in green and white painted stone and decorated inside and out with gold leaf. As a friend said, while viewing our video of the place—“it’s gaudy.” These places were designed to surpass in grandeur the palaces of the rest of Europe. What they may lack in taste, they make up for in sheer jaw-dropping “pop.” To be sure there is beauty at various places but most of all there is flash and you can’t help but be impressed.

    I could go on, but any reader can do a google search to find pictures of Catherine’s Palace, Peterhof and the Hermitage to see for themselves what I’m talking about. (I may even figure out once and for all how to get my own pictures into a Kodak Gallery and provide a URL so you can see the places as I did, but don’t get your hopes up—I’m still technologically challenged.) At any rate, it’s amazing, to use one more time a term that irks so many but in this case fits so well.

    Our second day in St. Petersburg started late—at 8:30 rather than 7:30 as our first did. Our first order of business was to go to the Kuznechy Market, the central market of the city. This was not part of the standard Alla Tour but I asked for it to be included since markets have always been one of my favorite aspects of European travel. It was not the enormous place I was expecting—smaller, for example than the Boqueria in Barcelona. Several of the stalls were closed (not sure whether they were just generally not in use or if they were just not being used because it was Saturday which might be less busy than week days). Food displays looked very similar from stall to stall.

    We had one interesting experience watching a butcher wield the largest hacking blade I’ve ever seen to chop through the bones of a large slab of beef. On reflection I’m thinking that probably showed a lack of mechanization since the reason I’d never seen such a large blade in any other market was likely because such cutting would be done by electric saw.

    The most interesting and different food display we saw in the market, however, was pickled vegetables. This is something at which the Russians and some of their Baltic neighbors excel. Val remembered his grandmother making such delicacies. Again the displays looked quite similar but the prettiest component IMO was the red beet juice pickled garlic bulbs.

    Following our trip to the market we toured the Winter Palace and the Hermitage with its spectacular art collection. Again, gold leaf is present in abundance and the visual impact of everything is eye-popping. In the Winter Palace there is the addition of beautifully inlaid parquet floors and a mosaic floor or two.

    I was personally most impressed by the Raphael Loggias (couldn’t believe that in spite of the hordes of tourists accompanying me on my visit, I was able to snap a couple of pictures of the loggias without a single person cluttering the view.)

    Though I’m not much of a museum aficionado, I wish we’d have had more time to spend with the impressionists. Anya was immensely helpful in leading us through the collection to the best (or at least the most famous) pieces. Several rooms felt exactly like the Louvre.

    As we exited the Palace, we walked through a lovely courtyard with grass and trees which put the exterior of the building into an almost intimate setting and made it look not gaudy but beautiful.

    The afternoon of our second day included a hydrofoil ride to Peterhof palace outside of the city. There we did not visit the palace itself, but rather concentrated on the grounds with their beautiful fountains. Anya explained that those fountains are all gravity driven and had been designed (if not engineered) by Peter the Great himself. Besides the many beautiful and majestic fountains built for looks, there are also several built for fun—what Anya called “the tricky fountains,” hidden or designed to come on at odd times and odd angles, catch people unaware and soak them. They were amusing but the other “real” fountains were spectacular.

    Besides the grand palace there is an adjacent smaller palace on the banks of the Gulf of Finland called Monplaisir. It was the Czar’s pet project and he used it for small receptions and for his intimate family gatherings. It is completely furnished and seems very home-like and almost Dutch because there is a lot of Delft work on the chimneys and just sitting around. I liked the intimate, homey feeling of the place and its view to the sea. If I had been czarina, I’d have taken up residence there and left the grandeur of the other palaces to the rest of the court.

    As you can see from the above, our tour included all of the major sights of St. Petersburg and when you think that we did all of this in two short days, it’s pretty amazing. It also shows how useful a guide service can be. If you are considering going to St. Petersburg at all, I heartily recommend doing it with a guide. I also heartily recommend Alla Tours. You can find them at alla-tour.com. Do not get it confused with another site which is allatours.com and has nothing to do with the good people who handled our tour.

    St. Petersburg dining—On the first of our two days we had lunch in Pushkin at a place called, I believe, Old Tower, a delightful old dark wooden building reminiscent of the stave churches of Norway with wait staff dressed in modified, updated peasant costumes. I had Russian salad (that mayonnaise heavy egg, chopped potato, carrot and pea thing the French often call Russian egg) and a nice stroganoff. Val had Russian pickled veggies and woods mushrooms—“like Grandma used to pick and make.” Jan, a beet lover, had borscht. Kevin had, among other things, a shot of garlic vodka.

    The evening of the first day, we chose to dine in St. Petersburg rather than return to the ship for dinner. We chose Mechta Mahovets after I read about it in a guidebook. It was advertised as having dishes handed down from housewives and in particular one who gave her name to the place and wrote a cookbook for brides. It was billed as expensive so we were prepared for high prices but we were disappointed to find that it really didn’t have what I would call “grandma food.”

    Val and Kevin both had Kamchatka crab which was great looking on the plate but your basic crab claws, albeit large and all precracked. I got as close as I could to grandma food with an order of tongue in aspic with pickles followed by pelmeni, a typical Russian dish of ravioli type pasta stuffed with meat and served in a beef broth. Competent but nothing super.

    Wine was another story. Prices were super high but we figured we’d bite the bullet and get a bottle of Moet and Chandon (not the most expensive on the menu by a long shot) for what we calculated as $150 US. When we pointed to our choice on the menu, the waiter, who did not understand English, brought out a half bottle and began to work at uncorking it. We hastily told him we’d switch to beer. Apparently wine is heavily taxed in Russia. Lesson learned. Once we switched our drink order, the whole meal became much more reasonable at approximately $420 US for the 4 of us.

    In order to conserve time for sightseeing, lunch on our second day was at a fast food crepe (blini) place that looked very like a McDonalds or Burger King. I had a buckwheat type pancake filled with cheese, meat and parsley. It was quite tasty, but then, so is a Big Mac, especially if you’re hungry from a morning of touring at breakneck speed.

    Coming up with a breeze through the other ports on the cruise and our final time in Stockholm.

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    Looking forward to your Stockholm report JulieV as you are one of my favorite Fodors foodies! I was there for 4 days in August and absolutely loved it. I was staying with a friend who lives there now, so it wasn't a typical trip for me where I do extensive restaurant-related research. (I let her make the dining decisions out of respect to her budget, which is tighter than mine.) I did however have time on my own during the day and had a couple of amazing lunches. Can't wait to hear about your food discoveries!

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    Tallinn, Estonia

    Sightseeing--Port time in Tallinn was very limited, advertised as being from 7 to 1, but, of course, really 7 to 12:30. Consequently we grabbed a taxi at the dock and headed immediately to the top of Toompea Hill (the driver’s idea, not mine, but inspired, as it meant we only had to walk down the hill, not up AND down). There we found ourselves in something almost unheard of—total, tourist free (or indeed human free—except for us, of course) silence. It was wonderful. We explored the small but interesting area bumping into a local every now and again but essentially totally alone. The downside was that nothing was open but we could walk the streets in near solitude and photograph exteriors without having to wait for other tourists to step back from their poses in front of everything, often one at a time.

    Eventually the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (almost every Russian Orthodox church I’ve ever been in outside St. Petersburg has been named for Alexander Nevsky, sort of like how almost every Christian Science Church I’ve ever been in has been named “the First Church of Christ Scientist ”) opened and we went in to see the icons there, but mostly this was a unique opportunity to see a small city at sleep on a Sunday morning. It was a great change of pace.

    We ran out of sights on top of the hill and reluctantly left the quiet for a walk down the steep hill to the main part of town. Tallinn is a lovely old city that’s infinitely explorable even in a short period. And it’s beautiful, both as you see it as a whole from a distance with its many red roofs and church spires, and as you walk within it, taking it in piece by piece.

    The main square reminded me of several we’d seen in the Czech Republic, maybe Tabor or Trebon, but not quite as cute as Cesky Krumlov. Besides the usual shops and restaurants, it includes a nice town hall with a tall tower. Nearby there is a great, ancient old wooden church, Lutheran I think.

    We found the sweater wall recommended by Rick Steves and I bought two darling little sweater and legging outfits for our 1 year old twin granddaughters. They were being sold by grandmotherly types who were obviously knitting, but they were not, of course, actually hand knit. Nonetheless they were cute, reasonably priced and make a great gift from our trip.

    As I look back over what I’ve written, I realize that I haven’t effectively conveyed what a really nice destination Tallinn is. I know there’s more to see than we saw but what we did see was great—a wonderful medieval town/city actually, and in fact a European capitol, with nice buildings, pleasant cafes, and interesting churches. It’s very walkable—distance-wise, though the cobblestones can be a challenge, so no stilettos. I would be happy to return.

    Dining in Tallinn—Believe it or not, with only 5 and ½ hours in Tallinn, and a requirement to be back to the ship by 12:30 p.m. we still managed to consume a meal there. The rest of my party pretty much snacked or ate lightly. Jan even went without eating. Kevin had a bowl of borscht but I had a pig leg atop a veggie and potato base. It was tasty and probably the most inexpensive meal of the trip at 57 euros. We ate it outside at a nice little restaurant on the main square but unfortunately I neglected to keep the name.

    Gdansk, Poland

    Gdansk is a place I’d never have gone to except for the cruise, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out we liked it as well as the other destinations for which we actually decided on a cruise. My only knowledge of Gdansk (Danzig when attached to Germany) came from Val’s recollections of being there as a child escaping from Latvia at the end of the Second World War and watching from a hill above the city as it was bombed and the planes doing the bombing were hit by mortar shells from below and disintegrated in flames. Interesting recollections but nothing to make us want to go to the city as tourists.

    Touring--The ship docked in Gdynia, and required about a half hour to 45 min. bus ride into town. After reading about the terrible traffic jams that can occur in Gdansk, we decided to book the only ships’ tour we signed up for as a kind of insurance policy to assure that we’d not wind up getting left in the city in case there were traffic tie ups and we’d be in a taxi unable to get back to the ship in time to sale. At $39 per person for what amounted to essentially a bus ride in and out of town, you can see why cruisers often forego the cruise tours for less-expensive independent arrangements.

    Taking the cruise tour which they titled “Gdansk on your own” did give us an easy opportunity to at least see a couple of things in drive-by mode that we might have been hard pressed to arrange on our own—notably the Oliwa Cathedral, Lech Walesa’s large gated home, the Solidarity monument, and the longest apartment building in the world—3/4 mile of about 6 floors of concrete that is home to many of those who work in the Gdansk shipyards. Taking this nominal “tour” also cut more time out of the total time available to us, since it left about an hour later than we docked and returned about an hour or hour and a half from our sailing time. There always seem to be trade offs.

    Gdansk sights—If Copenhagen reminded me of Amsterdam and Tallinn of towns in the Czech Republic, Gdansk reminded me of Brussels. We mostly concentrated our time on the main street of the city, entering via the Green Gate. That street is like Brussels’ Grand Place transformed from a square into a long street. It is lined with wonderful gabled buildings trimmed in a variety of styles including hand painted trim. Several buildings have lovely spires and steeples. It’s just a feast for the eyes and a delight to walk by. We also toured St. Mary’s church, the largest brick church in the world, which was holding a concert that day to honor a group of WWII vets all decked out in their ribbons and medals, many sporting beards, goatees, and wearing their old uniforms.

    Gdansk dining—And, of course, we had lunch, in fact one of our better “shore” lunches. We chose Polska, (which is what my notes say, though the bill bears the title “Salonik”—must be under Greek ownership) a cute place with covered outdoor tables (the sun was pretty hot by lunchtime). It proved to be an excellent choice. We started with Chopin vodka, purported by the waiter to be the best in the world. We also had Polish beer—Zweic. Good stuff. I had pelmeni, those ravioli like pierogi pasta pillows with meat filling and then bigos, a Polish meat and mushroom stew with sauerkraut and cabbage and everything but the kitchen sink. I make it at home and try it in restaurants every chance I get—and I’m not even Polish. The Polska version was less soupy than most but very good.

    The restaurant was expecting a visit from Medvedev the following day, so the place was in high gear to get spiffed up, even installing new Austrian puff curtains, but the staff were as attentive as they could possibly be, and, as I say, this was one of our best lunches off the ship. At only 185 US for the 4 of us, it was also one of our most reasonable lunches.

    Shopping--I did a rare bit of shopping in Gdansk, purchasing some amber (more plentiful and less expensive in Poland than other countries bordering the Baltic as I understand it) for my daughter and the twins.

    For us, Gdansk proved to be an unexpected gem.

    Oslo

    Oslo was our last cruise destination. Among the posts I’d read while preparing for this trip, I seemed to get the impression that it is more or less, the poor cousin to Copenhagen and Stockholm so I wasn’t expecting much. We only had from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. (really only 1:30, of course—can you tell that that half hour loss each time from what I consider to be deceptive advertising really sticks in my craw?)—but again, we were able to see quite a bit and I came away happy to have seen the place.

    Oslo sights—Since we arrived early in the morning before most things were open, we went first to Vigeland statue park, a beautiful park with statues of nude humans throughout depicting various ages and stages of life. It’s a beautiful park even without the statues, but they are quite arresting, the iron work on the gates and columns is also attractive and interesting, and the sky conditions were incredible—roiling black clouds interspersed with fluffy white ones as a background to grey, black and white sculptures, with green grass stretching out to the horizon. It was special.

    We also saw the Viking ship museum (for those of you who have seen the Disney World Norway movie, it houses the ship that the little boy looks up at in the start of that movie), the National Theatre, city hall, the parliament building and drove by the king’s palace—and his large farm which is within the limits of the city. The city itself seems infinitely walkable and very pleasant to just “be” in. We liked it.

    Oslo dining—took us to Aker Brygge area, a harborside shopping and dining area that probably appealed to our mall culture souls. I can imagine it on a warm summer evening filled with folks just dining, drinking and enjoying themselves by the water. I’d read reviews of the various restaurants there and was prepared to read menus and pick out the best but it was threatening rain so we ducked into the first available sheltered spot which turned out to be D.S. Louise. For an “any port in a storm” selection, it was swell.

    I had sweet baby shrimps on an open faced sandwich with mayo, gazpacho, and herring with beets, sour cream and red onions—a quintessential Scandinavian lunch by my standards. It was perfect.

    Val and Kevin had “best ever” crab legs which turned out to fulfill a long held wish and confirm a wonderful memory. Northwest Airlines had once had a non-stop flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Oslo when we lived in MSP. We took it and wound up with some waiting time in the Oslo airport. There we had a giant crab claws in chopped ice extravaganza that we’d all remembered longingly for 10 years or more. As we prepared for the trip, we talked frequently about wanting to repeat such a feast. It was especially fitting that we should do so in Oslo rather than any of our other stops and that it should be the last off ship meal of the cruise. We finally got what we’d cruised for.

    But it’s not over yet. When the cruise ended we hopped on an SAS flight from Copenhagen to Stockholm and had several more good Scandinavian meals—and saw more of the wonderful city of Stockholm. More on that asap.

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    Stockholm

    Radisson SAS Strand Hotel—looked from my web research to be in a good central location and, most importantly, on the water. It was all of that. We liked it. We’d book there again. It was close to the Old Town, the New Town—what they call City, and to the museums. It looked out on boats and beautiful old buildings across the harbor. We had a nice room with yellow painted wood furniture and blue furnishings that was appropriately Swedish and “old Scandinavian” but with a nicely appointed modern bathroom.

    The breakfast was ample with lots of variety and in a nicely lit restaurant space (though we never chose to have a meal other than breakfast there.) There was a pleasant, large modern public space between the restaurant and the concierge desk with lots of group seating and a heavy duty cocktail scene from about 5 to 8 or so that was kind of fun to join.

    Prices vary by day with weekends being less expensive, so it is definitely a business hotel. We paid 3595 Swedish Kroner for our one weekday and 2395 for each of our weekend days, evening out to be about $400 per day US. Breakfast was extra and 180 SK per person or $36 US. As mentioned above ad nauseam, Scandinavia is expensive.

    Stockholm sights

    The picture I saw in Stockholm guidebooks that kept grabbing my imagination as I researched for this trip was the interior of the Saluhall in the Ostermalm area of the city. It’s the market hall, of course. We got there twice, once on the cruise day in Stockholm and again on our last day in the city before flying home.

    It’s not the biggest or the grandest market hall I’ve been in, but it’s charming and very beautiful. The red brick building houses stalls in more interesting shapes than in some markets. It’s not just rows and rows of stands. And the colors are delightful—vibrant green dill everywhere, red salmon, pink shrimps, yellow cheeses, black caviar, and here and there some flowers.

    Besides stands of foods to purchase for home consumption there are small restaurants serving prepared meals giving a touch of conviviality to the place. Overhead the yellow and blue flags of Sweden fly at intervals. It’s fun. As Ina Garten would say, “what’s not to like?!”

    Other things we liked in Stockholm (besides the overall feel of the city and its wonderful position on so much water) were:

    Gamla Stan—the old town, just to walk the narrow streets (warning, some are uphill but not terribly so) as well as to take in the various important buildings including Storkyrkan, the Lutheran Cathedral with its beautiful organ and sculpture of St. George and the Dragon (also, in a side chapel the strangest continuously running video of a nude speed skater—puzzling), Stortorget square lined with colorful buildings, and the German Church-- Tyska Kyrkan, with a glass enclosed royal gallery.

    The Royal Palace—Oops, I can’t say I really liked the palace so it isn’t “another thing we liked about Stockholm” but bear with me. We first saw the palace from the water side which gives a very plain view, making it look like a two step giant box but I was able to have a somewhat better angle on it when we approached it from the colonnades that give onto the State Apartments. This, however, was the scene of my second experience with guard changing on this trip—and an ill-fated one it was too.

    Val managed to capture the guard band in all their blue finery with spiked silver pot hats by walking along behind them as they approached the area where the changing of the guards would take place. I, however, staked out a spot in the courtyard near a rope and waited, and waited, and waited for a shot as the crowd shuffled and shoved and the guards marched everywhere but where I could get a shot of them. It took a precious half hour or more out of our sightseeing time and led me to a resolve never again to spend time trying to take in a guard changing ceremony.

    Riddarhuset—is smaller than the palace and more to my liking. It’s a Dutch baroque building originally meant for the nobility to use for their meetings and events. It is surrounded by lovely greenery.

    Parliament, too, is a more interesting building than the palace, IMO. It’s enormous and stands on its own small island. The modern addition has three or four lower stories that appear like the older building to which it is attached but also sports several stories atop that in glass. It’s a wonderful combination of old and new.

    City sights--While we liked old town, we also liked what I thought of as “new town” or City, as the locals call it. Here the sights we most enjoyed were the Kings Garden—which is now a long rectangular pool surrounded by concrete steps surrounded by trees with cafes and a temporary concert stage for a rock band when we passed by. Also in City, Jacobs Kyrka in red and white painted stone behind the more sedate Opera, Hotorget square with its produce market of rows of similar displays anchored on each end by chanterelle mushrooms with berries in between, Konserthuset (where the Nobel prizes are awarded) , and Stureplan another lovely square on one of the city’s nicest shopping streets where several of the buildings reminded me of buildings from Barcelona, most notably Casa Fuster.

    We explored City courtesy of one of the Eyewitness Stockholm guide’s 90 minute walks. We all enjoyed it, including Gustav Vasa Kyrka and the new squat, round towered public library and the lovely sculpture surrounded water park nearby. I recommend the Eyewitness walk.

    Vasa Museum--We're not much for museums (as you can tell from the dearth of information about such places throughout this report) but we did opt to see the Vasa Museum, the incredible place built to house and explain the ship Vasa which sank almost immediately on what was intended to be its maiden voyage—never got out of the harbor but was preserved by the mud in which it rested for 300+ years until the clever Swedes performed an engineering miracle and raised it from its watery purgatory to become the centerpiece of what must be the biggest tourist moneymaker the country has.

    The ship is phenomenal. The museum is even moreso. It’s built around the ship and even has holes in the roof so that the full size of what would have been the main mast can be shown. There are several movies to explain such things as how the ship was raised and a large replica so you can take in all at once what the ship looked like.

    The building is beautifully put together and so large that even though we waited in line for entry with what appeared to be hundreds of busloads of tourists, you don’t feel overwhelmed by others as you walk about to view the interesting main and auxiliary attractions.

    On our way to the Vasa, we walked by and photographed the exterior of the Nordiska Museet but did not go in. My guide says it portrays everyday life in Sweden from the 1500’s to the present. Given the grandeur of the exterior (looks like a castle or major government building with multiple towers and steeples—very pretty) and the pictures in guides, I’d say it is likely worth a visit and plan to go in next time.

    I also plan to see the Sodermalm area which I’d planned to do on our day in Stockholm during the cruise and never got back to when we didn’t do it then based on weather.

    Reflections and comparisons

    As I look back over my guidebook to be sure I’m correctly naming the places I recall by sight but not by name (especially since some have both English and Swedish names—like Parliament which is actually Riksdagshuset), I realize that there is so much more to see in Stockholm. We do intend to return for that reason and because we very much liked what we did see. Interestingly, however, as I’ve reviewed our notes, pictures and videos to prepare this report, I think I’ve gradually changed my initial reactions to the cities we saw.

    I had come back thinking that Stockholm was the most beautiful and interesting and on the whole my “favorite.” But I’m no longer so sure and now think I may award that honor to Copenhagen. I’ve seen the issue debated on threads here periodically and I’m not sure that I can add anything new, but for those who are faced with a choice between the two, here’s one more slant.

    The two cities are apparently of roughly equal size and population though for some reason I would think Stockholm larger by about half again as much as Copenhagen. For sure Stockholm felt more sophisticated; Copenhagen more laid back—maybe it’s the Amsterdam vibe, the bikes and the less congested streets. The buildings in Stockholm are more light colored stone. Those in Copenhagen, more red brick.

    Though both cities have water everywhere, some of the water in Copenhagen is in smaller, narrower canals while that in Stockholm is part of the main body of water that makes the city into islands making the water distances from one body of land to another wider and connections seem more difficult.

    Not sure where I’m going with this, or if it’s even worthwhile, but I did find it interesting that my reactions changed as I wrote this report. I’d be interested to hear from others who have been to both cities to see what they see as the differences that sway them in one direction or the other. Perhaps, like the endless debate over which town to stay in on Lake Como, it doesn’t matter. You can’t miss whichever your choice.

    Ok, only one installment to go. Food in Stockholm.

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    Food in Stockholm

    We ate two meals at the Grand Hotel, Sweden’s only 5 star hotel, and right around the corner from our Radisson Strand. It’s an old dowager of a place but beautifully maintained with a world class bar (where, surprisingly enough we saw a patron completely covered in tattoo).

    Our first meal there was the famous smorgasbord at the Veranda restaurant. True to its name, the Veranda is an entirely glass enclosed porch on the building. The smorgasbord is the quintessential version of that Scandinavian staple. We had it all—multiple types of herring, multiple types of salmon, dill, dill and more dill, meat balls, thinly sliced cucumbers, eggs covered in mayo and shrimp, everything you could possibly imagine.

    The buffet occupies its own separate room with purpose-built counters and wells to hold all the ingredients. At nearly $100 per person, it was the finest (in all senses of that word) and the most expensive buffet I’ve ever eaten but it was a truly proper smorgasbord experience and I recommend it as worthy.

    We also had dinner at the Grand Hotel at the Mathias Dahlgren restaurant which has recently been awarded its second Michelin star. Before booking I’d read lots of reviews on Chowhound and other sites about the place and was looking forward to it with both anticipation and trepidation—the latter because I have of late come increasingly to question the value of super status dining. Though expensive, it was not as expensive as our meal at Formel B in Copenhagen, even though it is more highly acclaimed by food critics.

    The room could not possibly have been more undecorated. Candle light seemed to be the only distraction from the food. We were not permitted to take photographs of the food even without flash. However, we accepted the offer of the waitress to take my camera to the kitchen where the staff would photograph for us so as not to disturb the other guests. Consequently we have some interesting pictures of the dishes we ate there—some dishes individual but others set artistically in groupings of four (all identical, as all at the table had the same thing, I don’t recall whether that was our decision or a requirement of the chef). As I think about it, I guess I agree with their approach to photographing the food in the kitchen and even find that it provided better lit and more interesting shots than I’d have been able to take myself.

    We selected the five course menu “From the Plant World and the Ocean” for 1000 Swedish kroner for the food and 850 for the accompanying beverages, one of which was an ale rather than a wine, i.e.$267 US per person not including tax and tip.

    We got off to a bad start. Either an unlisted amuse or a dish listed simply as “Baked potato” with sour cream, roe, chives and brown butter, came with a lengthy explanation by the waitress about how these things reminded Mathias of his childhood, complete with more biography than I (and certainly Val) care to know about my chef, and appeared on a large plate with little hollowed out areas for the butter accompanied by a tiny piece of wood with an itty bitty piece of bread on top of it, a wooden knife and a tube of something—possibly the potato.

    When I got over the silliness, I have to say that the tastes were fine, but really!! Some of this has just plain gotten out of hand.

    Besides the potato, the menu included langoustine from Bohusian with cauliflower, crown dill and lemon; minced mussel jelly with cucumber, ginger, soy and herbs from the beach; wild cod at 45 degrees centigrade with forest mushroom emulsion, fried tomato and green peas; and yellow peach with yogurt, honey, olive oil and sea salt.

    The pictures look good and the tastes were good, but I think I’m just getting too old to eat this “hard”. By that I mean that this kind of eating takes hard work—you feel somehow that to get the true value for which you’re paying dearly, you really have to work at finding and enjoying every bit of every taste that’s being provided, often in a dish that could be put away by a hungry teenager in a single gulp. With all due apologies to my partner in foodie quests, Kevin, I’m coming increasingly to find that it’s just “not worth it.”

    Which brings me to THE CHINESE LUNCH. As those of you who have followed my other trip reports know, somewhere along the line on most trips Val and I go on, he stages a rebellion and insists on his favorite food—Chinese. Usually he gets pretty lucky and finds something good and not only he, but I and those traveling with us, are grateful for the change of pace. Not so this time.

    We couldn’t seem to find anything but buffets. None of them looked especially good. Our desperation choice was just ok, and all in all, led me to the conclusion that if food at the top end of the foodie chain is getting to be a little overmuch, that at the bottom end isn’t distinguishing itself either. Oh, well. Perhaps in the middle…

    On reflection (or perhaps just to carry the Goldilocks thing to its ultimate conclusion) I guess that is where we found our best food in Stockholm--the middle. We had two outdoor lunches, both in the Old Town area of Gamla Stan, that I would say fall into “the middle.”

    The first was at a place called JT recommended to us by our hotel concierge. It afforded nice versions of all the Scandinavian standards—baby shrimps with mayo on bread, meatballs, salmon with boiled potatoes and dill in cream sauce.

    The second was on Stortorget square at Stortorgskallaren, where I had an appetizer called “Swedish tastes” which included reindeer, char and caviar followed by a fish stew with several varieties of fish and julienned veggies in a saffron broth. At each meal like this at least one or another of us ordered meatballs. At this place it was Jan who did so. Though there were differences among the various approaches to meatballs from place to place, they were invariably good.

    After having sampled the approach to modernized Scandinavian cooking at Mathias Dahlgren, we opted for the traditional approach for another dinner by going to Der Glydene Freden, a very old place dating to 1722 with candle light and wooden everything serving such staples as meatballs (don’t recall who had them there, but someone had to probably me or maybe even several of us) mushroom soup, reindeer sausage with lingonberries (Kevin) and crispy pigs trotters (me, can’t resist anything with pigs feet.)

    Contrary to what someone else recently posted about this place, we found it competent if not inspired and enjoyed the meal. Food was reasonably expensive but not in the Formel B or Dahlgren range (but then neither were the aspirations of the chef or management) but we drove up the cost of the meal with a celebratory magnum of champagne.

    Our final meal in Stockholm and of this trip in total was at Wedholms Fisk, an upscale fish and seafood restaurant about a block away from our hotel. It’s a highly respected, serious fish restaurant where once again we were called upon to pay serious attention to our food. Having gotten reservations for rather late in the evening and having spent a goodly share of the earlier part of the night in the convivial reception area of our hotel with a happy cocktail crowd, we really weren’t up to the task.

    My turbot with cream sauce was luxurious but Jan’s shrimp was overcooked and cooler than it should have been. Val ordered smartest with two appetizers (one of caviar) rather than a full meal so late in the evening. I could tell that the place probably deserves its good reputation but we were not up to our task for the evening.

    Reflections on Scandinavian food in general

    Perhaps because we don’t get it often here or perhaps because as a person of Swedish heritage I was more or less brought up on it, I found the traditional Scandinavian food a treat and preferred it to the cutting edge options that some of the young chefs of the area are taking it to. I was very happy with the smorgasbords, the smorrebrod sandwiches, the meatballs and the cream sauces and dill, and even the plain boiled potatoes, and the herring—don’t get me started.

    I returned to FL and prepared a meal of meatballs, herring, thin-sliced cucumbers in dill and Janssens’ Temptation (julienned potatoes in thickened cream with anchovies and bread crumbs) to serve to our guests who kindly agreed to watch Val’s videos of the trip. It was a hit and I’ll probably repeat it with some frequency.

    So that’s it—as usual a very long-winded report. But I can’t say enough about the whole new world of Scandinavia and the Baltics that this cruise-based trip opened up to us. I don’t know why it took us so long to do this part of the world, but now that we have a taste of it, we’ll surely be returning.

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    o.k. I visited both cities and Stockholm gets my vote.
    The reason might be that I was in Copenhagen a short time ( Friday to Monday), it was a summer weekend and the city was jammed with tourists. There were many back packers , drunks, and ,what seemed like street people, right near Tivoli.
    Stockholm ( five days) seemed so beautiful in July : blue water and boats everywhere, lovely views from bridges or different parts of the city to the other shore.
    I took a boat ride to the " summer Palace" ( where the Royal Family resides) - it was great day outing.
    The summer sunsets painted the old buildings of Gamla Stan golden - beautiful.
    p.s.
    I find the architecture ( and canals)in Amsterdam rather different than in Copenhagen.

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    Wow. danon, nice to have had you with me all this time. And thanks for responding on the CPH/Stockholm issue (one thing I don't like about Stockholm is that it's airport abbreviation ARN is unrecognizable) I quite agree on the difference in cleanliness and the apparent attraction CPH seems to have for the hard drinking. Hope that's not what draws me to it.

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    We preferred Stockholm to Copenhagen. It might have been different if we had visited Copenhagen first. After two weeks in Norway and Sweden, Copenhagen was a bit of a jolt. We had become used to the efficiency and incredibly clean cities in Norway and Sweden. However, now that I am looking at my photos, Copenhagen looks much better to me! We did not like the area where we stayed, near Tivoli and the Town Hall , crowded and filled with fast food places. If we had stayed nearer to Nyhaven we might have had a different impression. There were similarities to Amsterdam but I still prefer Amsterdam.
    We look forward to returning to Stockholm. It was so beautiful and easy to get around with our transit cards on ferries, buses , and subways. Two of our favorite excursions were to Drottingholm Palace and Millesgarden. The Arlanda Express train from the airport was a great experience.
    We also liked Oslo a lot; great airport train there too.
    Thanks so much for your report. It is so well written and informative.

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    Happy Trvlr, Thanks also for hanging in here for this marathon. We didn't go to Drottingholm and look forward to doing that--and a whole lot more--on our next trip to Sweden.

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    It was so beautiful and easy to get around with our transit cards on ferries, buses , and subways. Two of our favorite excursions were to Drottingholm Palace and Millesgarden. The Arlanda Express train from the airport was a great experience.' "
    Ditto!

    "If we had stayed nearer to Nyhaven we might have had a different impression. '

    I did stay in Nyhaven - it was packed on a July weekend but I was happy with the location.
    BTW , a great report ( as always) Julie. I enjoy your description of meals - sort of eating vicariously !

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    A wonderful report that reminded me of past trips...one in '83 (!!) and one in '01.
    Our first trip was to Leningrad.. our 2nd to St. Petersburg. What a difference!
    From our 2nd trip I have a lovely piece of amber from Gdansk that reminds me of that lovely city. As far as Copenhagen vs. Stockholm: as someone once said.. Denmark is the Riviera of Scandinavia -:) .Swedes are a little more uptight...but, in spite of my addiction to Danish open face sandwiches.. I'd probably vote for Stockholm. A little bit more sophisticated.. and , physically, I think more beautiful. But then...I'm a Svenska flicka. (A few generations removed.)
    Second..Drottingholm, Millesgarden. Then there is Gripsholm and the Operakalleren (Sp?) restaurant in Stockholm. Also, cruising thru the archipeligo is unforgettable. Then... the Silja line from Stockholm to Helsinki is a fun party..... guess I better stop -:)

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    Oh, no. Please continue. I can be swayed back.

    I'd love to hear about your trip to Leningrad in '83.

    From my own conjured up concepts of entering a real "Russian" city, I was expecting at least a bad look or two from some Soviet hold overs. Perhaps I wasn't looking carefully enough. I never seemed to get one. It was interesting,however, to have our driver point out his "pioneer" pin stuck in the ceiling of the van sort of like we '60s folks hung dice around the rearview mirrors and for Anya our guide to explain that she'd entered the pioneers and was prepared to advance, just as it became unnecessary/impossible to do so.

    St. Petersburg seemed to me in every way a very up to date city but somehow I don't have the same desire to return as I do with Stockholm or Copenhagen. Sure it would be interesting to see even more of the grandeur of the past, but I didn't seem to get any good vibes about the present. I never saw anything going up or just being there that seemed to draw me to return to stay for a while. That could be a function of the tour process. Because Val would like to see more of the place, I'd certainly welcome contrary impressions.

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    Hi JulieVikmanis

    Sorry I am just getting to your report now but I just returned (last week) from 3 1/2 weeks on an African Safari.
    including a side trip to the Spice Islands of Zanzibar!

    It has taken me a week to get over the jetlag and a month if mail !!!

    Read your great report with intense interest.

    I have to admit you made me hungry several times during my reading, as I pictured you eating all that great food :)

    I am glad you were able to see so much in all the port you visits.

    I ws able to follow your adventures from place to place ( except for the dinning in all those places.)

    Welcome Back and Thank you for a Great Report

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    Julie,
    We are taking a Princess Baltic Cruise next June 21. I think it is the same itinerary are yours EXCEPT ... We will be on the STAR Princess. Was your ship the STAR? I am hoping that if the STAR is smaller than the ship you were on, that perhaps in Gdansk we can dock closer - rather than in Gdynia.
    Is that hoping for too much?? A 30 - 45 minute ride to town stinks!
    Your report is AMAZING! Thanks for all your hard work .. much is useful to me in planning for next year! I am more excited than ever now!
    Mary Ann

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    nannybray

    I think you are hoping for too much !!! :)

    The cruise ship docks in Gdynia,but it is not that bad, because you hire a taxi at the dock and then, the first place you go to is the Oliwa Church to listen for about 15 minutes to that 7876 Pipe Organ!!

    It is a nice drive to Gdansk , because from Gdynia you next go through Sopot ,which is the where the wealthy live and this is also the beach resort place.( The Summer Capital of Poland).

    On the map these these places are referred to as "Tricity" ( Gdynia,Sopot and Gdansk)

    It is not a country drive, you are always in the "city" so to speak and you do not know where Gdynia ends and Sopot begins or where Sopot ends and Gdansk begins.!!

    Julie can tell you more

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    nannibray, Percy offers excellent advice. For info on the cruise aspects of your trip--and for very specific info on how to maximize your time in ports, my report pales in comparison to Percy's. Check it out by toggling to the cruise forum and do a search on Percy or Baltics and you should be able to find his report easily.

    Though I followed much of Percy's very specific advice about entering ports, etc. I wasn't always able to because I was with a group of 4, all of whom had ideas about what we should see and how fast we should go and where we should stop, etc. On the whole we're also a bit more "stop and soak it up" than Percy appears to be from the amount of ground he covered at the various stops. And specifically in Gdansk, I opted for the ship's nominal "tour" to get us in and out of town from the harbor rather than the completely independent taxi approach Percy took because I'd read about the traffic problems Gdansk can experience making taxi return potential risky--while the ship would never leave without a busload of its passengers stuck in traffic in its own chartered bus.

    We would have preferred the taxi approach for sure. As our bus whizzed by the Oliwa church I felt especially bad, knowing from Percy's report about the grand organ inside, but travel is, of necessity, a series of trade offs, and I'd opted for security on that particular aspect of the trip.

    I urge you to go to the cruise forum and find Percy's trip report. It's called Baltic Cruise Trip Report, Hi Jacketwatch. If you check out that forum you'll see that Percy is an incredibly well-traveled cruiser who is very generous with his information, advice and recommendations. You'll see a couple of posts there that I wrote to him asking advice before our cruise. Percy's a gem. You'll find him immensely helpful.

    Also go on Cruisecritic.com if you want info on your ship or general aspects of cruising. You'll even find a "roll call" there where you will be able to meet others taking your exact same cruise. Enjoy it.

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    JulieVikmanis

    You are too kind about my Trip Report.!!!

    Thank You very much.

    I certainly enjoyed reading about your adventures.

    Julie we had a group of four also ,but everyone relied totally on me and whatever I said or did was fine with them !!!........... so I did not have anyone diverting my plans :)

    nannibray:

    If you cannot find my Trip Report ,I can post the website for you.

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    Great trip report - I also did a Baltic cruise this past July on Celebrity and reading your report was like reliving it for a short time.

    We also took Percy's advice and toured with Alla while in St. Petersburg - there were only 4 of us too and we had an excellent time.

    Prior to this cruise I had never given much thought to any of the places we visited on the cruise (which is why we decided to do the cruise vs. a land vacation to these areas) - and I surely would like to visit Stockholm, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg again.

    As far as Stockholm vs. Copenhagen, I'm swaying a bit more towards Copenhagen, but admittedly with an unfair bias - my cousin and her family live in there, so they spent the entire two days with us while we were in port. Drove us all over the place, visited their home and essentially made me want to move permanently into their guest bedroom.

    I thought Copenhagen really had a great laid back sort of vibe - and I'm sure the weather helped - it was gorgeous the entire time and it seemed like everyone was out taking advantage of the weather at the beaches and parks.

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    we experienced that same kind of weather while in Copenhagen and it was wonderful. It seemed like none of the locals could have been at home. All were out taking advantage of their wonderful parks and waterways. It may well have contributed to my fond recollections of CPH as possibly superior even to the wonderful place that Stockholm is.

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    we experienced that same kind of weather while in Copenhagen and it was wonderful. It seemed like none of the locals could have been at home. All were out taking advantage of their wonderful parks and waterways.

    You both got lucky. The reason everyone is out is because Copenhagen is cloudy for about 11 months out of the year. Lots to love about Copenhagen, but the weather is more than a bit gray. Doesn't get overly hot or cold, though.

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    >You both got lucky. The reason everyone is out is because Copenhagen is cloudy for about 11 months out of the year. Lots to love about Copenhagen, but the weather is more than a bit gray.<

    This is exactly what my cousin told me. She thought it was funny that I had been hoping for cooler weather (we live in Hawaii so I look forward to cooler temperatures when we travel) - when we were there both days it was between 76-78 degrees with clear blue skies and everyone was reveling in the sunshine/warmth.

    There were so many people out, I recall wondering if people had taken the day off of work (it was midweek) just to enjoy the sunshine - the beaches and parks were that crowded.

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    I was in Copenhagen and Stockholm right after Christmas, about four years ago. My neice was going to school and living in Copenhagen. She went to Stockholm with us and had raved about the Grand Hotel "borgesmord", she had visited Stockholm a couple of years before when she lived in London.

    As luck would have it, they don't serve it in the dead of winter. I knew I was disappointed, but after reading your description of the food, I'm about to cry!!!!! :(( :))

    We stayed right in Gamla Stan, just around the corner from the Stockholm Cathedral and the palace. The Nobel museum is right in that area also and is worth a visit. He was an amazing man.

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    Now to the Practical:
    Quick Question to prepare for our cruise next summer.
    For the taxis and shore excursion expenses in each city, what form of currency did you use?
    I don't believe any of them are on the Euro - except perhaps Tallin.
    Did you need to use the ATM in each location, or USA dollars or Euros? What did you do with the "left over" currency in each country? What about taxi fares?
    Were credit cards more useful?/
    Thanks for the heaps of info!!
    You guys will put Rick Steves out of business!!
    Mary Ann

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    Julie and Percy:
    Another question for the experts:
    Read a post..." in Stockholm be sure to be on deck when you sail through the
    Archipelago."
    OKAY, I check out the Archipelago a little but don't quite know enough except that they are a large cluster of islands..
    1)Does the ship sail thru the Arch.. directly on departing Stockholm enroute to Helsinki? or on the approach?
    2) If it sails thru when leaving Stockholm, will early seating at dinner (6:00) prevent seeing the islands? Should we skip dinner seating and just do the buffet in order to weee the archipelago?
    Julie:
    How was the entertainment on the Princess line?

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    fantastic report...boy do i feel lucky when i read your prices for st pete and tallinn and even helsinki...

    we had a fabulous driver for 3 days for about $500....new car and good service...perfect english....i thought our meals were expensive but nothing like yours....so i consider myself lucky...

    we were touring on our own, not by boat and stayed in lux hotels for the most part...

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    Hi nannibray

    As I mentioned in my Trip Report ,I never converted to any of the local currency, I got by ALL the way with US$ and a Visa Card.

    I remember clearly the night before we docked in Oslo, our cruise director gave a a lecture about Oslo.

    He said , "You WILL need local currency and few places will take US$ or Euros. Also there will be no taxi available when you disemabrk."

    Don't believe this.
    Yes there may be no taxi BUT this is because downtown Oslo is only about 5 blocks away when you disembark.

    Therefore bring your Visa and US$ ( or euros if you are from a euro country).

    <<What did you do with the left over currency.>>

    I had none ,but if you wind up with some ,give it away as a tip to your cabin boy on the cruise ship , or locally as a tip to a taxi driver.

    About the Archipelago, we were battling headwinds when I arrived into Stockholm...and we docked further away from the usual Pier.

    The place that I liked best when we sailed out of port was Oslo... very nice scenery on both sides.

    On the Star Princess ,you will have a choice of two different cruises....actually the only different is that one goes to Oslo and the other to a port in Germany.

    Take my advice and choose the one that has Oslo as one of its ports!:

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    Did you need to use the ATM in each location, or USA dollars or Euros? What did you do with the "left over" currency in each country? What about taxi fares?

    You can probably get by with USD at some tourist shops and museums, but they are not especially widely accepted in Scandinavia. Credit cards, however, are. Most (all??) taxis in Copenhagen accept credit cards. Ditto for Norway and Sweden, IIRC. Virtually all stores and most restaurants also take credit cards. Note that you may have to pay the credit card processing fee in restaurants - this is the case in Denmark, but I can't recall about Norway and Sweden. Any of the major credit cards (MC, Visa, Amex) will do, but you might want to leave the Diners Club card at home.

    I would get some small amount of foreign currency and exchange any leftover bills at the airport upon departure.

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    nannibray, We did as travelgourmet advises--get a bit of local cash from the ATMs--and converted our currency at the end of the trip at the airport or somesuch. But I'm also sure you can do as Percy advises and simply use credit cards. We just liked the ease of having a bit of local currency for small things.

    We found the entertainment on the Golden Princess superior to that one the Emerald. Cruisecritic.com will have reviews of recent cruises on the Star Princess. We did one show, one movie under the stars (pretty cold even with the blankets they furnished), one comedian, and the pianist in the Adagio bar a couple of nights--latter wonderful, rest pretty good to just ok.

    We found the archipeligo and much of the terrain surrounding the ports in the area to be a lot like scenery on Lake of the Woods in Northern Minnesota and Canada. It's beautiful but stark. I wouldn't skip dinner to see it. You might even have a seat by a window. But there will be some time to see the scenery before and after dinner. As you can tell from my report, my motto is something like "never miss a meal."

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    Thanks everyone.
    JULIE
    - We chose the Star Princess cruise for the Baltic SpecificalLY because it begins and ends in Copenhagen. Also because it is in OSLO on day 9.
    At that point, we will disembarkin Oslo and spend the next 6 days in Norway, flying home from Bergen.
    2 nights in Oslo, 2 nights on the Fjord, and 2 nights in Bergen.

    I have always wanted to go to NORWAY. This way, with Princess I get all the great ports plus Norway and just 1 airfare. Your report has helped a lot!
    Nannibray

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    "What did you do with the left over currency" - if you have Bank of America account, you can deposit the foreign paper bills at that day's conversion rate, I've done that.

    Did out of curiosity! I had a paper bill forgotten in my wallet, and took it to the bank. Don't even remember which country, but got back $8 US :)

    Do not recommend it though, as you pay first to convert US to foreign before the trip or while there, then pay again to convert back.

    Do not bring coins back to the US, they will be just your souvenirs. Use them for anything, or give away. Coins are not exchanged back to US currency.

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    Thank you very much for taking the time to share your trip, it's been very useful for planning our trip to the Baltic countries, we plan on doing it in July 2010 by land plane and train, we are not very fond of ships.
    We will be doing the Norway on a Nutshell train, boat trip. I hope I can make a report to share our experiences.
    Thanks again

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    We just got back Thursday from a week in Stockholm. We stayed at the Clarion in Sodermalm (one of the conference hotels that my husband was attending). The weather was dicey. We had only two good days which we used to do boat tour trips around the city.

    The Wasa museum was my favorite destination, a well-done exhibit. We also took a Viking tour of Gamla Stan (complete with Viking horned helmets).

    I took a trip to the Hallwylska Museet in Ostermalm one day while MP was conferencing, but it reminded me of an Ibsen play, dark and grim.

    The conference hosted a dinner at the City Hall -- a lovely building with wonderful mosaics in the Gold Room, the Blue Hall the location of the Nobel Awards dinner.

    Our favorite restaurant (we went there twice) was Pelikan in Sodermalm, a pub that features food that would be eaten in a typical Swedish home - we had three kinds of pickled herring, lots of boiled potatoes, dark bread, and fried bacon in cream sauce with onions for our main course. Sounds weird, but was very tasty. There seems not to be much in the way of vegetable material in the Swedish diet -- no fragrant olive oils in this environment -- but lots of salt!

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