Once the thoroughfare of the legendary Vikings, the Baltic Sea stretches northward from Denmark to the Arctic Circle. Encompassing Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Russia, and the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the Baltic region offers a multitude of sights and activities. On a recent 15-day cruise on Viking Ocean Cruises’ latest cruise ship, Viking Jupiter, I retraced the steps and voyages of these fearless sailors, visiting the Scandinavian and Eastern European urban centers that dot the Baltic coast. I explored cobblestoned historic city centers, medieval castles, grand ornate cathedrals, and gilded palaces. An overnight stay in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, was the biggest draw. I knew going on a cruise was the easiest way to see this former imperial capital without a visa (avoiding its complex and expensive application process).
Viking Jupiter, launched in February 2019, is Viking Ocean Cruises’ latest ocean-going vessel. Since beginning sea-faring cruises a few years ago, the cruise line has expanded its destination-centric itineraries. Its most popular itinerary, “Viking Homelands” (15 days starting at $5,799), is the ideal journey for a ship that features a Nordic spa, a planetarium, luxurious staterooms, and a mesmerizing Aquavit Terrace heated infinity pool at the stern of the ship to take in the scenic views. You can expect included shore excursions, knowledgeable guides, enriching lectures, locally inspired cuisine, and cultural entertainment aboard. And the best part? You’re sharing the experience with no more than 929 other guests on this mid-sized ship, instead of thousands.
Here are 10 reasons to cruise the Baltic Sea region on Viking Jupiter:
1. Scandinavian-inspired ship design
Viking Jupiter is unlike any cruise ship I’d been on before, in all good ways. With light-colored wood furnishings, clean lines, Bayeux Tapestry-draped stairway walls, cozy couches wrapped by reindeer fur and Viking-era artifacts, the ship’s Living Room and spacious atrium offer the ambience and feel of a boutique Nordic hotel. All of Viking’s river and sea vessels feature these richly appointed design elements, curated specifically to make guests accustomed to river cruising feel at home on sea voyages.
One of my favorite spaces was the Wintergarden, located on Deck 7 near the pool. This spacious lounge area showered in natural light features columns reaching a Scandinavian trellised wood canopy representing Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, an ash tree used by the gods for their daily courts. The soothing sounds of a string duo sets the tone for the daily afternoon teas held in this serene setting. Subtle nuances, such as the pair of metal ravens perched near the branches and gazing towards the horizon, are taken straight from Norse mythology, representing world exploration.
The Explorers Lounge, located at the bow of the ship, affords sweeping views from floor-to-ceiling windows. This two-story lounge sports cozy couches and a faux fireplace, where you can enjoy drinks, read a book, or just take in the captain’s perspective as you set sail. Its full-service bar and soundtrack of live acoustic soft rock offer a wonderful backdrop for unwinding after an adventurous day ashore.
2. Visits to Viking homelands in eight countries
Though often depicted as invaders and raiders, the Vikings were skilled craftsmen, tradesmen and farmers who generally left their homelands in Denmark, Norway and Sweden in search of better lives. They migrated to Western European countries, including England, Scotland, Ireland, and Iceland, as well as to the Eastern European lands of Poland and Russia.
Today, the legacy of the Vikings remains an integral part of Scandinavian culture. On the “Viking Homelands” cruise, visitors to these Nordic nations can marvel at their lush landscapes and fjords, including in Stavanger, Eidfjord and Bergen, Norway, and learn about their maritime histories and medieval trading ports. In Sweden, cruisers get an overnight stay in Stockholm to enjoy one of Europe’s most well-preserved Old Towns, Gamla Stan, to visit the interactive ABBA The Museum, and to learn about Vikings at Vikingaliv (English: “The Viking Museum”) on the urban island of Djurgården. In subsequent ports, they can walk the charming cobblestone streets of Tallinn, Estonia, and the amber capital of Gdańsk, Poland. Later stops introduce the microbreweries of Copenhagen, Denmark, and the historic capital cities of Helsinki, Finland, and Berlin, Germany. And then there’s Russia…
3. Two memorable days in St. Petersburg, Russia
At first glance, St. Petersburg seems cold and dreary. The border patrol officers at the cruise terminal allowing you passage into the Russian Federation never crack a smile, but don’t let that initial impression fool you. This vibrant cultural capital was Russia’s imperial core, and boasts some of the most impressive old-world architecture anywhere, from the Winter Palace to Peterhof.
Visitors can experience St. Petersburg on an unforgettable, deluxe two-day excursion that involves a whirlwind tour of landmark sites and exciting activities. Highlights include visits to the second-largest art museum in the world, the Hermitage Museum (housed in the opulent Winter Palace), as well as Catherine Palace and Peterhof Palace, which was formerly Peter the Great’s extravagant residence. The overnight stay ends with an evening at the city’s world-famous ballet.
And in St. Petersburg, don’t miss the opportunity to take a leisurely cruise along the Neva River and canals for scenic views of the city, followed by visits to the beautifully restored, onion-domed Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Other stimulating excursions include trips to the spotless metro stations (and riding the train), and to check out the world’s second-largest collection of the Fabergé eggs at the newly opened Fabergé Museum located at the palace of Count Shuvalov.
Tip: The currency in St. Petersburg is the ruble (currently trading at 64 rubles to $1 USD), but you may use euros, pounds or dollars at the gift stores at the Russian Expo, available in the terminal and adjacent to the ship prior to boarding.
4. Included shore excursions
Aboard the Viking Jupiter, you’ll find one or two included tours to choose from at every port. Whether it’s exploring Copenhagen on foot or taking a panoramic tour of Stavanger, you can visit landmark sites on a bus tour. Alternatively, you can plan your outing with help from free Viking shuttles. These rides are provided on the half-hour from the ship to the city center. The only exception is Russia, where you’re required to go with a cruise excursion unless you’ve acquired your own visa prior to boarding.
Tip: The new central library in Helsinki, Oodi, is not included in any of the excursions, so be sure to take advantage of the shuttle service to visit it on your own. The three-story wood-steel-and-glass building resembles a ship and has 3-D printers, recording studios, gaming rooms, and even power tools.
5. Comfortable staterooms and amenities
On Viking Jupiter, even the standard rooms, known as Deluxe Veranda staterooms, come with balconies, king-sized beds, 42-inch flat-screen LCD TVs, and spacious bathrooms. The bathroom features a large glass-enclosed shower, heated floors, a double-sink vanity, and an anti-fog mirror. The mini-bar is stocked with complimentary candy and soda, and housekeeping is provided twice daily. If you’re seeking more space, the ship has Penthouse Junior Suites, Penthouse Veranda, Veranda and Explorer Suites (compare them here). Each of the Explorer Suites include two rooms, a spacious bathroom and a wraparound veranda. The largest suite, the Owner’s Suite, has 1,448 square feet of space that includes a separate dining area, a library and an ocean-view dry sauna. All staterooms come with both European and U.S. electrical outlets and USB socket to charge cell phones and tablets.
For longer voyages such as “Viking Homelands,” laundry facilities available on each stateroom deck make it easy to pack light. And while you wait for your laundry to finish, you can grab a book from the library’s book exchange and find yourself a reading nook, or browse the internet using the free Wi-Fi (which was surprisingly fast throughout the entire journey). You may not be able to stream video (you can get on-demand content on the TV), but you can look up information about your next port of call, catch up on the news, and keep in touch with family. On my journey, the staff onboard couldn’t have been more helpful. They were always cheerful and remembered my name and favorite drinks.
6. The LivNordic Spa
Located on Deck 2 mid-ship, the ship’s LivNordic Spa is an oasis of pure bliss and access is complimentary. You’ll barely feel the motion as you sink into the heated salt water pool (that doubles as a hot tub with whirlpools) or the hot tub. You can relax by the loungers nearby or on the heated ceramic beds overlooking the illusion of fire created by water vapors in the fireplace.
The nature-inspired spa allows guests to experience a centuries-old Nordic relaxation ritual, in which you sweat in the sauna and cool off in the Snow Grotto (a blue-lit, glass-enclosed ice room with real snow), repeating the cycle a few times. The alternating heat and cold is meant to rid the body of toxins, relax muscles and boost blood circulation. A few nights a week, the spa offers a Bathing Ritual for a limited number of people for a small fee in which a spa therapist walks you through the hot and cold treatments. It ends with a Finnish ritual: having the person next to you gently striking your back with a wet birch tree branch to stimulate the skin and blood.
The spa has a variety of Scandinavian-inspired treatments, including “Northern Stillness,” Nordic hair rituals and facials promoting mindfulness and rest. It also offers manicures, pedicures and salon services. I found it refreshing that there were never any sales pitches pushing me to purchase additional products; the staff allowed guests to simply enjoy their vacation.
Tip: During longer port days, the spa has discounted rates for massage and facial treatments. Check the Viking Daily newspaper the night before.
7. Regional culinary delights
Viking prides itself on its culinary offerings. On this cruise of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, as one one would expect, there was plenty of fresh seafood and destination-inspired cuisine like pierogies (prepared with fresh in the open kitchen in the World Cafe). Viking Jupiter has six eateries onboard: the World Cafe buffet with eclectic global cuisine, the Restaurant dining room with a daily changing menu of American classics and regional delicacies, the Pool Bar & Grill for afternoon snacks, the specialty Chef’s Table and its rotating multi-course menus with wine pairings, and the elegant Manfredi’s Italian restaurant. Mamsen’s, located in the Explorers Lounge on the top deck, is a good spot for delicious Scandinavian waffles, desserts, and open-faced sandwiches with cheese and locally sourced charcuterie. Room service is available around the clock.
During the days of overnight stays, the chefs aboard my sailing ventured to local markets and cooked guests delightful regional meals, which were served buffet-style on the pool deck (with a retractable roof). A particular favorite among the passengers was the evening seafood buffet teeming with fresh fish, crab legs, caviar, and decadent desserts served under the stars.
Guests looking for a more immersive market-to-table experience can book an excursion with the Kitchen Table onboard dining school. You can visit a local market with a chef to shop for meats, cheeses, seafood, and produce of your liking. You’ll then learn from the expert culinary staff how to prepare a meal with your goods. Later, you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor at a five-course dinner with wine pairings by a sommelier.
Beer and wine are included with lunch and dinner (including at the buffet). Spirits packages can be added for an additional $20 a day (though cocktails are reasonably priced, starting at $7.50).
8. The Northern Lights
On a clear night on the Baltic Sea, when looking out from your balcony, you might just catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis (aka the Northern Lights), especially during the fall and winter. If you miss them, don’t worry. Viking Jupiter‘s onboard planetarium, the second of its kind on a Viking ship, located in the upstairs section of the Explorers Lounge, delivers the Northern Lights and much more. The 26-seat theater puts on space shows that are so riveting, with names like “Hidden Universe,” “Explore” and “Experience the Aurora” (the first two are in 3-D) that you’re not going to want to miss them. A resident astronomer sailing with you supplements the stories you’ll see on the domed screen.
9. Locally inspired entertainment
Learning about the destinations you’re visiting doesn’t stop once you’re back onboard, as Viking strives to bring you the cultural aspects of the port you’ve just witnessed. On your sailing, you might have the chance to attend a tribute to ABBA by the Viking Vocalists or a cultural performance by the singers of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet in the Star Theater. And if you miss a special performance, it will be available for viewing on your TV the next day.
Live music permeated the public spaces aboard my sailing. The Viking Classical Duo filled the atrium with traditional Norwegian music as landscapes by Edvard Munch splashed across the giant video wall above the stairs. Guitarist Matthew serenaded with his soothing voice, belting out classic rock and country tunes at the Explorers Lounge. Patricia, Ar Ar and the Viking Band got people on the dance floor at the jazzy Torshavn, with energetic renditions of 70s and 80s hits. Guests with a love of historical movies, meanwhile, could head to the pool deck for evening showings of destination-relevant movies, including Doctor Zhivago and The Aftermath.
10. Enriching lectures
Viking makes learning about upcoming ports a lot easier with informational videos (available on your stateroom TV), guest speakers, TED talks, “Port Talks,” and destination-based lectures from resident historians. On “Viking Homelands,” these lectures delve into the history of Russia’s art or cosmic mysteries and are accompanied by interesting slides. Each lasts 45 minutes. If that’s not enough, there’s also a wealth of knowledge available in the library, where you can get lost in a book while listening to resident pianist Olga.
For more on Viking Jupiter and upcoming sailings, visit the ship’s homepage here.