Personalized Travel Books for Baltic Sea, Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Africa, South Pacific, Caribbean, and more! by Doctor Lewis Deitch, The Traveling Professor.

Helsinki, capital and largest city of Finland, is one of the least appreciated ports of call on a Baltic Sea cruise itinerary. It lacks a specific old town, such as seen in Tallinn, Estonia or Riga, Latvia. And it does not offer a royal palace with a changing of the guard as seen in Stockholm or Copenhagen. Yet this city with 1.4 million residents offers many hidden gems with regard to its early history along with being a dynamic modern urban center that is at the vanguard of 21st century design.

In 2012, Helsinki was named as the “Design Capital of the World,” and many visitors come to tour its numerous studios that feature varied household products and furniture, the most famous being Marimekko.

Helsinki occupies a central peninsula with large island studded bays on either side, and its major anchorages are quite calm and protected. The countryside was heavily glaciated, and there are large outcrops of ancient granite rock seen throughout the city, especially in its numerous parklands. And the landscape is dotted with numerous lakes and ponds as a result of glacial scour during the last major advance of the continental ice sheet.

Located on the north shore of the Gulf of Finland directly opposite Tallinn, Estonia and situated on the last leg of the voyage to Saint Petersburg, Russia, Helsinki is a city whose history and architecture have been influenced by both Swedish and Russian occupation, the latter as late as 1917. The Swedish Empire established Helsinki (Helsingfors) as a trade competitor to Tallinn, which was a Hanseatic League city across the Gulf of Finland. But it never amounted to much with regard to trade, and then in 1710, it was devastated by plague.

Starting in 1748, the Swedish crown began construction of the island fortress of Sveaborg, better known today by its Finnish name of Suomenlinna as a bulwark against the Russian fortress of Kronstadt. But in 1809, the Russians invaded and captured Finland, incorporating into their empire until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 when Finland declared its independence.

The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was eager to take back Finland, but surprisingly in the first attempt just prior to World War II, the Red Army was beaten back by the tenacious Finns. But they were well aware that Stalin would try again. In stepped Nazi Germany and offered help, which the Finns reluctantly accepted. This resulted in keeping the Soviet Union at bay, but costing Finland war reparations at the end of World War II.

Helsinki was, however, awarded the 1952 summer Olympic Games, which helped focus positive attention on the city. And in the years since, Helsinki has become home to many high tech industries, a center for product design and an important stop on the Baltic Sea cruise itinerary. It is a delightfully clean and progressive city where English is a strong second language and visitors are made to feel very welcome.

Recently UNESCO noted that overall Finland has the strongest secondary education system in the world, and it was also considered to be one of the highest in science and mathematics. Helsinki University is considered one of the three finest institutions of higher learning in the Baltic Sea region.

When you cruise to Helsinki, your docking location will be dependent upon the cruise line and size of the ship. Large cruise ships dock in the commercial harbor west of the city center and guests must use a shuttle bus to reach the city center. The smaller upmarket cruise ships of such lines as Regent, Seabourn and Silversea are able to dock in a small cove generally used by ferry boats, which is at the southern end of the Esplanadi, the main street of the city center. Passengers can disembark, walk through the open air market and then immediately begin to explore many of the important landmarks on their own unless they have chosen to participate in a group coach tour.

The major highlights of the city are for the most part within or adjacent to the city center. The sights not to be missed are:

  • Suomennlina Fortress – The Swedish built fortress on an island offshore of the open air market at the foot of the Esplanadi is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ferries run every few minutes and you can spend an hour or more on the island enjoying this massive fortress complex.
  • Market Hall and Public Market – At the foot of the Esplanadi is the open air market selling fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and craft items. To the west is a red and yellow brick building that is the Market Hall where a great variety of prepared foods and baked goods can be purchased or eaten on site, as a great way to understand Finnish cuisine.
  • The Esplanadi – This beautiful park that is frequented by locals all day is right in the heart of the city. It has sculptures, fountains and two excellent tea rooms, an oasis of calm in the middle of the city.
  • Senate Square and the Lutheran Cathedral – Sitting atop a hill in the city center, the massive, white Romanesque Lutheran Cathedral is the most dominant building in the city center.


  • Uspenski Cathedral – The red brick Russian Orthodox Cathedral is located on a hill overlooking the market square at the foot of the Esplanadi.
  • Stockmann Department Store – The largest and most complete department store in the Baltic Sea region, Stockmann is not only a great place for Scandinavian clothing and design, but it has a food hall in the lower basement that can easily rival that of Harrod’s of London.
  • Temppeliauko Kirkko – The rock church built inside one of the massive granite outcrops is a popular site because of the uniqueness of its construction. It is included in most tours and if you are on your own, it can be reached from the Esplanadi Park on the number two tram.
  • Sibelius Park and Monument – Located along the waterfront just northwest of the city center is the ultra modern monument to Finland’s greatest classical composer.
    Olympic Stadium – Just north of the city center is the site of the 1952 summer Olympic Games, a major stadium still in use to the present.
  • The Helsinki Railway Station – In the center of town is this classic example of Art Deco design from the 1930’s. It is a busy station with trains arriving and departing under a massive glass canopy.
  • Botanical Gardens of Helsinki – Immediately to the east of the railway station is a quite oasis of the plants, trees and flowers that typify the countryside of Finland.
  • Seurasaari Island Open Air Museum – Located a few miles northwest of the city center, easily reached by bus or taxi, this island park is a recreation of life in rural Finland over the past centuries. It is essentially a living museum and personnel dressed in traditional costumes demonstrate many of the lifestyle techniques from the past.
  • National Museum of Finland – Located within walking distance of the Esplanadi, this beautiful museum, looking more like a cathedral from the outside, explores the physical, historic and cultural environments of Finland.

While out exploring Helsinki, be sure and stop for lunch. The quality and freshness of Finnish cuisine is sure to please even the most discriminating palate. Seafood, cheeses, a variety of breads and scrumptious desserts characterize the Finnish menu. My favorite spots for lunch are:

  • Stockmann Department Store – The three main restaurants on the top floor of Stockmann Department Store are all run by the famous Karl Fazer Cafe, which will also be noted in a separate listing. But for a quick meal in surroundings that are not overly crowded either before or after the regular lunch hour, I highly recommend this as your lunch stop. There is a main restaurant with menu service, and it features the national soup – a creamy salmon and potato soup. There is a cafeteria serving a variety of hot entrees and the servers will explain the daily choices. The third option is an open face sandwich and dessert cafe. This self service section offers a variety of cold, open face sandwiches featuring beef, salmon and shrimp that are each a work of art. There are also slices of hot quiche. And the highlight is the cake and pastry section offering exquisite flavors.
  • Karl Fazer Cafe – A venerable cafe located on Kluuvikatu between the Esplanadi Park and Aleksanterinkatu. Open seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Karl Fazer Cafe is famous for its delectable open face sandwiches and rich delicious pastries. This is a self-service restaurant where you select the items you wish to eat from servers behind the line. Then you must find a table, which during much of the day can be daunting, but people are often willing to share if they are sitting alone and have empty chairs. But the quality of the sandwiches and desserts make it all worthwhile. In addition to light meal service, the cafe has a bakery and candy shop worthy of note.
    Restaurant Savotta – Located at Aleksanterinkatu number 22, opposite Senate Square, this small indoor-outdoor restaurant features traditional Finnish cuisine served in a friendly and casual atmosphere. Their menu includes traditional milk and salmon soup, fresh fish, wild game and tempting fruit desserts, all prepared in the manner of a traditional farm, using fresh ingredients. I have eaten at Savotta at least once every summer during visits to Helsinki and I have never had anything less than a superb meal. Savotta is open from noon to 11 p.m. Reservations are advised.
  • Restaurant Savu – Located on a tiny island, but connected by a road and foot causeway, this country style restaurant is a true delight. It is a bit difficult to reach by public transport, but the closest would be the number seven tram from Aleksanderinkatu to Liisankatu and then walking east about one mile. Otherwise it is best to take a taxi from any of the city center venues such as Senate Square or Stockmann Department Store. Owned by the same people who operate Savotta, this restaurant features a smaller menu, but one devoted to traditional Finnish soups, seafood and game with a more limited, but excellent dessert. I highly recommend it as a place where you will rarely find tourists since its following is local. Savu is open for lunch at noon and remains open until 11 p.m. Reservations are advised.
    Ravintola Kappeli – This traditional orangerie is located at the bottom end of the Esplanadi and has both a quick cafe and a sit down restaurant. This is a great place for lunch or dinner and features a great variety of Finnish delicacies. At lunch hour it can get rather crowded, so go at off hours. This is a true Helsinki institution. Open from 10 a.m. to midnight.

I have been to Helsinki nearly 40 times over the past ten years. I enjoy each visit and always find something new to see. For a first time visitor, the list of sights presented in this article will keep you occupied for the entire day. And please do not forget to sample some great Finnish cuisine.

Personalized Travel Books for Baltic Sea, Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Africa, South Pacific, Caribbean, and more! by Doctor Lewis Deitch, The Traveling Professor.

Saint Petersburg is one of the most popular destinations in Europe, but unlike the majority of European cities, it is not as easy to simply decide to visit, buy an airline or rail ticket and take off with passport in hand.

Since the fall of the former Soviet Union, it has become easier to travel to Russia, but there are still many formalities involved. A large number of people visit Saint Petersburg as part of a Baltic Sea cruise, spending anywhere from two to three days docked in the city.

Of course there is so much to see and do that two to three days is extremely limited and the majority of guests are quite disheartened to leave, knowing how much they left unseen. But the great advantage of such a visit is ability to have guided tours provided by the cruise line or personally arranged through any number of travel providers that are sanctioned by the Russian government, escorting your every move through the city. And so long as you are content with only leaving the ship for escorted tours, there is no need for a visa. The cruise line or private company through which you arrange tours has the necessary paperwork in hand so that all you need is a voucher for the tour and your passport.

The drawback to this arrangement is that you may not leave the ship on your own. You cannot take a walk in the evening; you cannot go shopping or out for a meal on your own. You can only leave in the company of a guide. If you arrange for private tours, you may have total freedom to dine or shop or walk so long as you are accompanied, and so long as it is within the timeframe of your tour arrangement. Many people find themselves frustrated in that they feel like prisoners on board the ship during the hours of the day or evening when they are not on tour. Yet many others are content with this arrangement

Tourist Visas To Saint Petersburg

If you are coming to Saint Petersburg by ship and know that you will not be content being escorted on group or private tours, then you need to arrange for a visa in advance of your departure unless you hold a passport from the following countries: Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Fiji, Guyana, Hong Kong, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nauru, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Serbia, Seychelles, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Venezuela. All other passport holders must have a visa if they wish to do any independent travel.

Tourist visas will be issued for a single trip, two visits or for consecutive visits during a three-year period. To obtain a Russian tourist visa, you must apply directly to a Russian Embassy or Consulate or through one of the valid travel document services that for an added fee will guide you through the preparation and then walk your passport and supporting documents through the proper channels to insure the issuance of your visa. Once your visa is placed in the passport, you are ready to travel.

For those who hold a visa and wish to strike out on their own, many questions often arise as to safety issues, how do I get around and can I use credit cards or must I have currency on hand and of course the question regarding food also surfaces. Here are some answers to basic questions for those of you who want to explore independently of ship sponsored tours, either using a car and driver/guide or simply “going native” and mixing in with the general population, as you explore the city.

Crime In Saint Petersburg

In western newspapers and magazines there have been so many stories about criminal activity in Russia, especially the groups known as “Russian Mafia.” Yes it does exist, and there is a fair amount of organized crime and also corruption in business and government. But these doings are not going to impact you as a tourist. Street crime does exist in major cities such as Saint Petersburg in the form of pickpockets and muggers. But if you observe ordinary precautions, as you would in so many cities worldwide you will be fine. Here are the basic tips to be kept in mind:

  • Do not wear expensive jewelry when out in public places.
  • Keep your money and passport in a safe place, preferably in a pouch that you can wear under a shirt or blouse.
  • Do not flash large sums of cash when making a purchase
  • Do not let cameras or personal bags dangle without being secure in your hands, on your shoulder or around your neck.
  • Never leave valuables unattended.

If you are out on your own and you use the city’s efficient and fast Metro, be sure to be alert for groups of young men that look like they are approaching you. There are gangs that will surround an unsuspecting tourist and rob them of their valuables inside Metro stations, especially in the city center region. If you are in a group or traveling with your guide, you will not need to be overly vigilant.

Saint Petersburg Currency & Exchange Rates

Major credit cards are accepted in most hotels, restaurants and major stores throughout Russia. But you do need to have local currency for public transport, many entrance fees, small shops and restaurants or theatre venues. You also need currency for tips and taxi fares, if you should use local taxis (more on this subject later).

The official currency in Russia is the Ruble. Since the collapse of the oil market in 2015, the Ruble has taken a serious set of losses. At the time of this writing in February 2016, US$1 is worth approximately 80 Russian Rubles. Fortunately most restaurants that are not frequented by tourists have not raised prices to compensate. However, major hotel chains have raised rates to compensate for the decline in the value of the Ruble.

Dining Out In Saint Petersburg

For those of you who are traveling by ship, unless you have a visa, the only time you can dine out is if lunch is included in one of the all day tours you have booked either through the cruise line or privately. Or on private tours, you can arrange lunch with the assistance of your guide.

For those of you with a visa, whether traveling by ship or having arrived in Saint Petersburg on your own, there are so many good restaurants from which to choose. In my book, I present my recommendations, as I do have a tourist visa and have been dining out regularly in Saint Petersburg for the past ten years.

Russian cuisine is what I enjoy when visiting the country. I can have pizza, burgers or other ethnic foods anytime I choose at home. So when in Russia, I deliberately want to indulge in the local cuisine, which is varied and so delicious. Here are some of my favorites that I highly recommend:

BREAKFAST: In Russia, breakfast often consists of a hot cereal called “kasha,” made from steamed buckwheat. It is served with sugar and milk or cream. Toasted rolls, cheese and/or smoked meat may follow, and eggs are often served. Tea is the more popular beverage, but many Russians now drink coffee.

LUNCH: For a quick lunch when people are on the go, one of the popular items is a stuffed “blini.” This is a large crepe that is stuffed with minced meat, cheese, potato or kasha. It is folded over and can be topped with sour cream. Small dough pockets stuffed with meat, potatoes or cheese called “piroshki” are also quick and easy to eat. If you go to a restaurant for a sit down full meal, the items will be the same as those served at dinner.

DINNER: Russian dinners are a multi-course meal consisting of an appetizer, soup, main course and dessert. Appetizers can consist of various types of pickled herring, red or black caviar, smoked salmon or various types of vegetable salads. Soup is a major course, and the servings are generally large. Borsch is a soup made with a beetroot stock, served hot or cold and always with sour cream. Ukha is a clear fish soup with pieces of potato, salmon and sturgeon along with fresh parsley. Solyanka is a spicy tomato base soup with meat or fish that is very savory. There are many more to choose from, but one favorite is a bean and barley soup made with meat. For the main course there is so much variety. Among popular favorites that most foreigners know about are Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganoff. My favorite is a cutlet made from ground chicken breaded and fried and served with a mushroom gravy. It is called “Pozharskaya kotleta.” Most main courses are served with creamy mashed potatoes or kasha that has been prepared with browned onion and bacon. And popular vegetables are cabbage or carrots. The most traditional dessert are plain blini served with sour cream and honey. And one of the most popular cakes is “mak,” which is a rich poppy seed torte. Another very traditional dessert is a multi-layered honey cake. And tea is again the drink of choice, served in a fluted glass placed in a metal holder.

SNACKS: Russian chocolates are among the richest you will find in Europe. Russians like dark chocolates, and the darker the better. You can find chocolates with as much cocoa as 80 percent. Marmalades, which are shaped like fruit slices and have the flavors of orange, strawberry, lemon or lime and are coated in granulated sugar are another favorite. And Russians love fruit flavored marzipans and glace fruits. Assorted nuts and seeds or dried fruits are another popular snack.

BEVERAGES: Tea, as noted, is the national hot beverage. Russians also like “kvas,” which is a lightly fermented rye drink slightly carbonated. It is even served to children during summertime. And for the hard alcoholic drink, vodka is king.

Getting Around Saint Petersburg

For those coming by cruise ship without a visa this question is irrelevant. You will be taken on either group or private excursions and will not be in a position to get around on your own. The only exception to the statement above is for those cruise passengers holding a Russian visa and those with passports from the countries named earlier where a visa is not necessary. In those instances what follows will apply to you as well as to non-cruise visitors. For those who are coming by ship and have visas or passports not in need of a visa, there are several options available for independent sightseeing and dining.

Private Car & Driver/Guide In Saint Petersburg

Hiring a private car and driver/guide through either the cruise line, a local tour operator such as Baltic Tours. Although you have freedom to get around on your own, there are many important venues that are not easy to get to using public transport or by walking. And unless you are confident in your Russian language skills, it is still more comfortable to have a guide.

On Foot & Using Local Busses

If you are on a small cruise ship that is docked at either the English Embankment or the Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment, there are many important landmarks and museums within walking distance. For those of you who are allowed to leave the ship on your own, but who are traveling on one of the large cruise ships, you will have a bit of a problem getting around. The large ships dock on the outer edge of Vasilevsky Island in the new and modern cruise terminal called Marine Facade. There is a local bus #162 that will transport you to the Vasileostrovskaya Metro Station. From there all you need to do is take the train inbound to Gostiny Dvor Station. It is the very next stop, but across the Neva River some distance and it is in the heart of the city. Below you will find information on using the Metro, and at the end of the chapter there is a Metro map.

Saint Petersburg Metro

To use public transportation you do need to have Rubles, as there is no foreign exchange or credit card use for public transport. As of this writing, the normal fare for trolley bus rides is 25 Rubles per person. You board the trolley usually from the rear or middle door and find a seat or a place to stand. The conductor, wearing a rather bright vest, will come to you and collect the money. And often she will show you where to sit if you have not found a seat.

The Metro costs 28 Rubles per token, which is called a Zheton, which you buy at the Kassa, or ticket booth. Lines are both color-coded and named M-1 through M-5. And more recently the maps and the station signs are now also written in Roman script, making it so much easier for visitors to read.

The Metro is clean, fast and the stations are quite ornate. In the inner parts of the city where the Metro existed by the 1950’s, the stations each have a theme, one for the author Pushkin, one for Soviet heroes, etc. And you will find statues, paintings, ornate chandeliers and polished marble floors.

The Metro is crowded, but often times younger Russians will give up their seat to any middle age or older visitor who is having trouble standing. The only thing you need to be cautious about is your valuables, especially in the inner city stations where small gangs of thieves look for unsuspecting tourists. But if you keep with the crowd you will not look as conspicuous.

Saint Petersburg By Taxi

Most authoritative sources do not recommend that you use local taxis. There are several reasons, and I do concur. Most taxi services are not regulated. The drivers rarely speak English. And if you are unsure as to the layout of the city, you could be taken “for a ride,” as the expression goes.

If you are one who likes to be out late, as some people do. Please remember that if you should be walking after Midnight, the bridges connecting Vasilevsky and Petrogradsky Islands to the central city are opened at 1 a.m. to allow barge traffic to use the Neva River. The bridges are not lowered again until 6 a.m., so you do not want to be caught across the river at 1 a.m., otherwise you will be sleeping on a park bench. But if you happen to be out after dark, it is a beautiful sight to see all the bridges lit up at night, especially when they are opened.

The Vasilevsky Island main Metro station closest to where major cruise ships dock

Health & Sanitation In Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg is a very clean city. Russian people take great pride in keeping their personal spaces neat and clean. And the city takes equal pride in maintaining its parks and streets. You will find that there is very little litter or graffiti around the city.

Public toilet facilities are not that widespread, but they exist in all major tourist venues, department stores, malls and restaurants. During the busy summer season, there are portable facilities housed in mobile units that are placed around the city as needed. And in the central city there are fixed location public toilet facilities. You pay an entry fee, usually 20 Rubles and then you are assigned a booth. Women attendants keep the facilities amazingly clean.

The city water in Saint Petersburg is purified, however, many of the delivery systems are old and corroded, and thus it is recommended that you do not drink tap water or even use it for brushing your teeth. Many travel sources say it is now perfectly safe to use, but I believe it is better to be safe than sorry. As for eating raw fruits or vegetables in restaurants, you are safe to do so if you go to first class restaurants, as they do use purified water in food preparation. And all major hotels have their own additional filtration systems.

Dairy products are perfectly safe to eat when in Saint Petersburg. Pasteurization is standard practice. You will find that Russian sour cream, milk and ice cream are very rich and delicious, so go ahead and indulge.

Before leaving home, have your doctor issue a prescription for Lomotil and Cipro and have each filled. Lomotil takes care of common diarrhea. Cipro is to be used if you contract any form of amoebic dysentery. You can always ask the ship’s doctor for advice as to which to use. If you are traveling on your own, not by ship, you can simply tell if you have a fever, feel tired and have no appetite in connection with persistent diarrhea, then it is time for Cipro. As your doctor at the time the prescriptions are issued. This is good sound practice for any overseas travel.

The Language Barrier

Russia is a country in which English is only now becoming more widely used within the hospitality industry. All major hotels and restaurants along with large stores do have personnel that can speak English. However, if you wish to venture out on your own, you will find that the Metro personnel, taxi drivers, most police and military officials do not speak English. This also holds true for most clerks in smaller shops or business establishments that do not cater to tourists.

Signs are for the most part written in Cyrillic and not Roman characters. Major brand name stores often do use both forms of writing, so you will see some signage that you will be able to read. This is true in major tourist venues. The Cyrillic Alphabet is patterned after Greek, as it was a Greek missionary named Cyril who brought writing to Russia around the 9th century. What is nice about the Russian alphabet is that it is phonetic. Once you know the sound of the letter, you can say it with ease. Each letter has one sound only. I have taught people how to read Russian words on signs within an hour. This is not to say you will learn the language, but you can recognize many words such as bank, restaurant, telephone or toilet very easily.

Shopping In Saint Petersburg

Most visitors love to shop when in a foreign country. And apart from the usual souvenir T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, calendars, post cards and the other typical tourist kitsch, there are some very serious handcraft items available. If you are willing to spend a bit of money, and with a bit of patience, you can find some real treasures. But for anything that is genuine, you will pay a premium. Here is my list of true Russian craft and a few warnings about imitations:

Matrushka Dolls – These are the beloved nested dolls that fit one inside of the other, from small ones with five or six nested figures to large ones with as many as 20 nested figures. To be traditional, they should feature a young girl with rosy cheeks and wearing a scarf, called a “babushka.” The key to an original one of a kind set is to have the artist’s signature on the bottom of the outside doll. If they are unsigned, they are factory made.

Lacquer Boxes – These beautiful black boxes come in all sizes. Some have landscape or important buildings portrayed on the cover. But a truly traditional box tells a fairytale story or shows a piece of Russian history. Again as with the dolls, they must be signed usually in gold ink at the bottom corner of the picture. They can sell for as low as US$100 for a small one up to as much as US$3,000 for larger ones.

Easter Eggs – A tradition that date back centuries. Most families exchanged carved or painted wood eggs. The Tsar and nobles exchanged jewel-encrusted eggs, the cream of the crop made by Karl Faberge. These eggs today sell for millions if and when they come available. The Faberge studio does produce both semi-precious gemstone and real gemstone eggs, but they are expensive. And there are many copies that are simply made to glitter, but are decorated with glass fake stones.

Amber jewelry – Baltic amber is a beautiful gemstone. But there is so much imitation available that it is hard to know what to buy. You must trust the shop by its looks, the demeanor of the staff and whether they provide any documentation with a purchase.
Fur Hats – You will see street vendors selling fur hats, but buyer beware, as most are made of rabbit or some other cheap pelts. Good Russian fur hats are mink or sable, and they will cost hundreds of dollars. These are purchased in fine clothing shops or department stores.

Embroidery – Traditional Russian cross stitch embroidery, usually in red or black on white linen can still be found in fine shops. Tablecloths, napkins and hand towels are still produced, and these are true treasures.

Oil Paintings – Russian fine arts are highly prized outside of the country. Most paintings are landscapes, although there are also portraits and still life. You will find unknown artists in small shops and galleries whose works sell for a few hundred dollars or less. And there are the top Russian painters whose works sell for thousands. A lot of signed prints of local monuments and churches are sold everywhere as original watercolors. But they are simply unlimited edition prints. Yet they are of good quality and do make nice decorative items and are good to give as gifts.

The interior of the elegant Eleiseevsky Gastronom on Nevsky Prospekt

Weather In Saint Petersburg

Most visitors come to Saint Petersburg during the summer months, as winter in much of Russia is relatively brutal – cold with heavy snowfall. During summer, Saint Petersburg weather is generally quite moderate. Daytime high temperatures hover in the 20’s to low 30’s Celsius, between 68 and the low 80’s Fahrenheit.

On occasion the temperature may climb to upper 30’s Celsius or the low 90’s Fahrenheit, but these spells are normally brief. On most summer evenings, a light jacket or sweater is needed around 7 to 8 p.m. onward.

Humidity is relatively high, averaging in the 70 percent range given the amount of water surrounding the city. Thundershowers can brew up quickly, and often you see them coming. And then there are days that can be quite blustery and rainy, as storm fronts develop. Temperatures can drop into the teens Celsius, below the mid 60’s Fahrenheit, sometimes as low as the 50’s.
What To Pack For Visiting Saint Petersburg

A windbreaker and a couple of sweaters are handy items to pack. And definitely bring an umbrella, preferably one that can collapse down and be carried with ease (your cruise ship may provide umbrellas). Good walking shoes are essential, as the best way to enjoy the city is on foot.

If you plan to attend a ballet, folk dance performance or any theatrical production, smart casual wear is sufficient during summer. A nice dress or pant suit for women and a pair of slacks and sport coat for men will be satisfactory. During winter, people attending the theater do dress with much greater sophistication.

Personalized Travel Books for Baltic Sea, Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Africa, South Pacific, Caribbean, and more! by Doctor Lewis Deitch, The Traveling Professor.

The very name Iceland is so forbidding that many people ask, “Why would I want to visit Iceland?” That is a fair question, so I will attempt to convince those who read this article that Iceland is well worth visiting, and there are a several cruise options that include this mid Atlantic island nation. For starters …

Each year ships are repositioned between Europe and Canada, leaving from a European port in September to arrive in Montréal to begin the fall color cruises, and they generally stop in Reykjavik while en route across the Atlantic.

There are mid summer cruises to Iceland that visit several ports, usually leaving from the United Kingdom, primarily on the smaller five-star ships of such lines as Silversea.

Explorer type cruises are offered by a select number of cruise lines offer in depth viewing of Iceland and often including Greenland.

Typical Icelandic countryside

Iceland is a sizable island nation, approximately the size of Tasmania or the island of Eire (Ireland both Northern and the Republic of). Iceland’s population is around 400,000 with the majority living in the capital city of Reykjavik. Most of the country remains essentially a wild landscape of glacial icecaps, extensive lava fields and active volcanoes, somewhat a hostile landscape, but one of astounding raw beauty.

Looking out over Reykjavik

Iceland is the product of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, a fracture in the earth’s crust where the North American and Eurasian plates are pulling apart. This tearing of the earth’s fragile crust allows magma to boil to the surface, erupting through long fissures and volcanic vents, pouring out many square miles of lava at a time. And on rare occasions, the eruptions can be catastrophic.

Do you remember a few years ago when air travel between North America and Europe was interrupted for days because of volcanic ash from Eyfjallajökull volcano? In the distant past, one eruption sent plumes of poisonous gas over Europe, killing hundreds of thousands. Contrast this to Iceland’s far northern location where glacial ice still covers vast tracts of land, even burying some volcanic cones.

Iceland is unique in that it can have a volcanic eruption under a thick glacier, causing instantaneous melting and flash flooding by a mix of volcanic matter and water in a hot, thick lahar that buries everything in its path. Also add to this the fact that rain and snow melt sink into the porous rock, flashing to steam and shooting back in the form of geysers and hot springs. Iceland generates much of its power from geothermal sources. Reykjavik is heated in winter by volcanic steam piped to every building and home in the city.

A geothermal steam power plant generating electricity for Reykjavik

The great spectacles to see in Iceland are numerous. One of the easiest ways to enjoy the country is to have it included as the main focus of a cruise itinerary, or at the very least by visiting its capital city of Reykjavik as part of a Transatlantic crossing. Here are just a few of the major must see highlights:

  • Golden Circle Route – For those limited to one day, this route out of Reykjavik shows you a variety of volcanic and geothermal features along with Iceland’s greatest waterfall (Gulfoss).
  • Gullfoss – An incredibly large and powerful waterfall of spectacular beauty almost on the scale of Niagara Falls.
  • Godafoss – The second largest waterfall in Iceland is located in the far north of the country, accessible from Akureyri.
  • Jokulsarlon Lagoon – Located on the southeast coast, this massive lagoon is filled with all sizes of icebergs, making it an ethereal spectacle.
    Skogafoss – Along the south coast road, this is Iceland’s second most beautiful waterfall.
  • Thingvellir National Park – A gigantic rift in the earth’s crust along the Mid Atlantic Ridge is both a scenic wonder and an historic site where Iceland’s first Viking parliament met more than 1,000 years ago.
  • Reykjavik – A coach tour of the capital and only major city of Iceland has many monumental sights, including Hallsgrimskirkja (massive cathedral) and the Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall. And just on the edge of the city is the Blue Lagoon, the world’s largest geothermal outdoor baths.
  • Strokkur Geyser – The most active of Iceland’s many geysers, tis one erupts every few minutes with a plume of super heated steam.
  • Hekla Volcano – A bit hard to reach, this is the country’s most notorious volcanoe that is capable of a major eruption with little to no advanced warning.
  • Dyrholaey – This is a massive beach composed of volcanic debris that separates an interior lagoon from the open ocean. Located on the south coast near the village of Vik, it presents an unearthly landscape.

Gullfoss – Iceland’s thundering waterfall

Thingvellir – A great surface rift that is part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge

I could continue listing natural wonders, but I believe I have made my point. Iceland is truly a land of fire and ice, one that is mesmerizing beyond your expectations. This is also a land with an ancient culture. The first Viking settlers arrived in 874, but Celtic monks are believed to have arrived in 770, but were gone before the Vikings came.

As the country evolved, local chieftains began to squabble and this led to civil war. Iceland merged with Norway, and later was drawn into the Kalmar Union with Sweden and Denmark. Ultimately it was left it quasi-independent, but tied to Denmark until 1944. Today it is totally democratic with one of the smallest parliaments in Europe.

The Viking spirit is still evident in the rugged individualism of the Icelandic people. It was from Iceland that the explorer Leif Erickson set out to establish a foothold in Greenland in 986. Here we come up against a period of early global warming. Erickson’s motivation was to look for more arable land, which Greenland did offer at that time, whereas it is too cold today for farming. This shows that periods of warming and cooling have occurred in the distant past, but of course our modern ability to pour greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is exacerbating the problem today.

So why visit Iceland by ship? This is a spectacular land filled with geologic wonders and inhabited by a friendly Scandinavian people who will make you feel welcome. Flying into Iceland, staying in hotels and driving 1,000 miles to circle the island can be exhausting. On a more extensive cruise, you can spend time visiting the major sights out of each port while traversing the distances while you relax on board. It is a no-loose cruise opportunity, and if Greenland is added to the itinerary then so much the better.

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What is a “Leaf Peeper?” That is a term coined in the last few years to refer to those who travel to eastern Canada or New England between late September and the end of October to marvel at the magnificent beauty of the changing autumn colors.

Leaf peeping has become a multi-million dollar travel industry in eastern Canada’s provinces of Ontario, Québec and the Atlantic Provinces. It also applies to the hundreds of thousands of people who tour upper New York State and New England. For the past decades, such tours were normally road trips, people simply motoring along the back roads and byways to view the progression of changing colors, staying at quaint country inns and also enjoying the cultural flavor of these locales. Then the cruise ship industry decided that it could become a part of this seasonal activity by providing excursions between New York or Boston and Montréal, stopping at such ports as Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine; Saint John, New Brunswick; Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia; Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and then visiting Gaspé, Saguenay, Québec City and other smaller ports along the mighty Saint Lawrence River in Québec.

The itineraries caught on, and today people book up to a year in advance to take a 10- to 12-day cruise during this “magical” season. If you have ever wanted to see the splendor of this seasonal spectacle and do it via the ease and luxury of a cruise ship, now is the time to book for 2016.

Quebec City’s old town as autumn colors develop

What is it that makes this part of the world so special with regard to the changing of the colors during the autumn season?

  • The color change is brought about by a combination of factors including the length of the daylight period, the dropping of temperature starting in mid-September and the amount of moisture in the soil.
  • Broadleaf, deciduous trees dominate the region, that term being in reference to trees that shed their leaves at the end of summer to prepare for the chill of winter.
  • Each species of deciduous tree has its own prerequisites for changing color, and the end result is a myriad of shades with sugar maples providing the richest and most pulsating reds.
  • All of the physical preconditions necessary to bring about vibrant colors such as the species of trees, the soil and moisture conditions and the fact that much of the forest cover remains combine to create landscapes that burst forth with reds, oranges, gold and yellow in a profusion of shades.

The full majesty of autumn colors on the Ile d’Orleans north of Quebec City

What is the advantage of cruising along the coast and up the Saint Lawrence River over taking a road trip through the region?

A cruise ship provides the luxury and comfort of a fine hotel and you need to only unpack one time during the trip.
There is far less stress in simply walking off the ship in each port and then going on a tour coach or exploring on your own for a day, then returning to the elegance of the ship.
The cost of a cruise is no greater than that of spending the same number of days traveling up to a thousand miles or more, purchasing fuel, eating all your meals in restaurants never knowing what level of quality will be provided and staying in hotels or inns that are not always as advertised.
You travel close to shore much of the time and can enjoy the landscape without having to watch the road, following map directions and being cramped inside an automobile or crowded onto a bus if you are on a multi-day motor coach tour.

The peak of autumn color along the Saguenay River

The time of year that you choose is critical when it comes to maximizing the color experience. Cruises often begin in mid-September, many of the ships making a Transatlantic crossing, repositioning of the ship from either the Baltic or Mediterranean market ultimately to the Caribbean. Often times on the actual repositioning cruise you have a 50 percent chance of not seeing much, if any, color because it is very difficult to predict the start of the transformation.

If you choose the latter cruises, say starting in mid-October, your chance of experiencing the peak of the color season is better, but those cruises sell out quickly. In 2015, I was on board the Silver Whisper from September 8 to October 26, making the Transatlantic crossing followed by three cruise segments between Montréal and New York City. It was only on the last segment that began October 15 when the colors simply exploded almost overnight. But 2015 was an atypical year. I have also seen the reverse in the past during other uncharacteristic years when the color change occurred in mid September and was over by the end of the month. Thus it is always a gamble as to being there for the peak period of brilliance.

The city of Portland, Maine in full autumn dress

From a cultural perspective, Montréal and Québec City are the two most exotic ports of call for most English-speaking guests. The Québecois lifestyle, architecture and cuisine combine to give these ports a very strong European flavor. Halifax comes as a surprise to many because it has blossomed into a sophisticated and vibrant port city. And then there is Boston with its strong “Yankee” atmosphere steeped in early American history. Smaller ports of call such as Charlottetown or Saguenay offer a chance to experience a Canada that is both charming and serene. And enveloping the entire cruise is the majesty of the brilliant trees that at times appear to “glow” in their autumnal dress if you are fortunate enough to be there at the peak time. The dazzling beauty of a sugar maple at the height of autumn

Now is the time to consider an eastern Canada and New England autumn cruise before the best dates and choicest cabins are gone. It will be a cruise to remember.

Personalized Travel Books for Baltic Sea, Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Africa, South Pacific, Caribbean, and more! by Doctor Lewis Deitch, The Traveling Professor.

The Baltic Sea is the most popular summertime cruise destination in Europe. All the major cruise lines offer varied itineraries that enable guests to explore the shores of this northern sea, with some itineraries starting or ending in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Amsterdam or London. Itineraries can be as short as one week or as long as two weeks depending upon the ports of embarkation and termination.

The Baltic Sea is essentially a sheltered body of water, having only one outlet between Denmark and Sweden – the Øresund. This narrow strait, which has always been of strategic importance, is the sole natural entrance or exit from the Baltic, augmented since the early 20th century by the Kiel Canal through the Schleswig-Holstein region of northern Germany. There are many advantages to cruising the Baltic Sea during the summer months:

  • There will be long days from 18 to 21 hours of light depending upon the month of the tour.
  • The temperatures are generally mild, rarely getting much over 80 degrees Fahrenheit and rainfall is generally minimal.
  • The Baltic Sea is for the most part quite calm during summer, only becoming moderately choppy if a summer squall should develop.

A view to the Grand Hotel in Stockholm from the National Parliament

The major disadvantage is the large crush of summer tourists, but this is also true of most locales in Europe. Major sites in the more popular ports of Saint Petersburg and Tallinn can sometimes have a cheek-by-jowl feeling.

Which cruise line to choose is a question that is difficult for many first time cruisers to answer. Price is a factor for some while others are looking to get the greatest number of ports of call crammed into the itinerary as possible. My recommendations are:

  • Choose the price range that you can comfortably afford, but consider what is included. On the higher end cruise lines such as Silversea and Seabourn, most everything is included with the exception of shore excursions and laundry, while Regent includes tours whether you choose to take them or not.
  • The number of ports should not be as critical as the length of time spent in each port, especially for Saint Petersburg. My advice is to choose cruises that will give you three days in Saint Petersburg, as this is the crown jewel of any Baltic Sea cruise. The more ports crammed into the itinerary, the more exhausting the cruise will be.
  • You should look into docking location, as many of the mega-size ships are required to dock much farther from the city center in the ports of Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Saint Petersburg and Gdansk, creating the need for lengthy bus rides into the major city centers. If your cruise begins or ends in the United Kingdom, only the small, up-market cruise ships can sail under Tower Bridge and dock in the heart of London. The larger ships must use Southampton, Dover or other coastal ports for embarkation or termination of cruises to the Baltic Sea.
  • Ask your prospective cruise seller about shore excursions, in particular if the cruise lines in question fill up their coaches or leave sufficient room so that guests can move about and take photographs from either side. The more up-market cruise lines generally allow only half to two thirds the capacity of the coach, and this does make a difference both in your ability to move about while touring as well as allowing for smaller numbers of people to be following the guide at the major stops.

Looking through the main gate into Old Town Tallinn, Estonia

When in each Baltic port, I recommend the following touring options to maximize your time and give you the best experience possible:

  • If you are not especially adventurous or if this is your first time in the region, the overview tours, which generally are half a day in length, will provide you with an initial view of the port. This leaves you the remainder of the day to then go off on your own and visit those sites that are of specific interest to you. However, in Saint Petersburg a visa is required for any independent touring for guests from most nations.
  • If you do not like being part of a larger group, then ordering a private car and driver/guide will enable you to tailor your own itinerary. But this does require a bit of advanced research as to what sights you might want to see. If four people combine and order a van, the price split four ways can often be slightly less than the coach tours being offered.
  • If you have a bit of independent spirit, you can always use hop on hop of bus service in all of the major ports. Quite often the cruise line will provide a shuttle bus to a central location, which is often where the hop on hop off bus is waiting. Many of these busses have an open upper deck and on sunny days it gives you a more sweeping perspective of the city.
  • With a sense of adventure, you can tour on your own, giving you the total freedom to explore inexpensively on foot, by bicycle or using local trams (streetcars) or Metro. In this way you mingle more with the local people and get some sense of what it would feel like to be living in the port in question.

The iconic Church of Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia

Also take advantage of the time you have ashore to try some local cuisine. In the Baltic Sea region, food freshness and quality standards are high and the manner of cooking is palatable to western tastes. There is a great emphasis upon fish and other seafoods. And desserts are some of the finest you will taste in all of Europe.The fisherman’s harbor in Copenhagen, Denmark

Now is the time to give serious consideration to taking a Baltic Sea cruise during the summer of 2016, as cruise itineraries are published and bookings are in the process of being made. These cruises often sell out during the winter months since this is such a safe and popular part of the world in which to cruise. My final recommendation is simply to prepare now and then enjoy when the time comes.

Personalized Travel Books for Baltic Sea, Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Africa, South Pacific, Caribbean, and more! by Doctor Lewis Deitch, The Traveling Professor.

Now is the time to plan a Norwegian Fjords cruise for 2016, as they do fill up rapidly, this being one of Europe’s most popular cruise destinations. The weather is cool, the scenery fascinating and there is a serenity that makes the Norwegian fjords a true nature lover’s experience.

The mountains west of Tromso are dramatic, especially seen at 11p.m. during the period of the Midnight Sun

Norway is one of the world’s most beautiful countries. Its deeply indented coastline is more than 1,000 miles long. It is framed by a necklace of mountainous offshore islands that were once a part of the mainland. The northern part of the country extends well above the Arctic Circle, and here the verdant forests give way to tundra. This is a land of deep blue waters and snow-covered mountain crags that rise into skies that are often thick with mist.

The key to the beauty of Norway lies in its glacial past. During the Pleistocene, or what most people recognize as the “Ice Age,” massive sheets of ice scoured the land, sculpting the mountain slopes, deeply carving preexisting river valleys and gouging out deep basins. As the last glaciers began their retreat some 10,000 years ago, the earth warmed and sea levels rose. Ocean waters flooded into former river valleys that were deepened and widened by glacial ice, creating deep water channels that the Norwegians call fjords. Large pieces of the continent were separated from the mainland by the rising waters, creating the islands that today protect most of the coastline, creating calm inside passages. It is here and along the margins of the fjords that most Norwegian towns and villages are to be found, sheltered from the storms of the North Atlantic.

The port city of Haugesund, Norway, which is one of the major supply centers for offshore oil drilling.

The most enjoyable way to visit this magnificent landscape is by ship. There are three basic options to travel along this fragmented coast where roads are continually interrupted by fjords that can penetrate as far inland as 75 miles.

  • By road interspersed with local ferries that take cars and passengers across or along the margins of fjords, connecting roads to provide for a continuous travel network.
  • By larger regularly scheduled passenger ships operated by Norway’s famous Hurtigruten line. These small ships offer both hotel accommodation and meals while interconnecting all the major towns along the coast as far north as the Russian border along the Barrents Sea. Service is provided year around, and it can be very exciting during long Arctic nights to see the sky ablaze with the Aurora Borealis.
  • By cruise ships that visit the most scenic fjords and major ports.

There are two types of cruises that operate during the summer months when the days are long and the farther north one travels daylight becomes perpetual in “The Land of the Midnight Sun.”

  • Seven to ten days cruises from Copenhagen or Oslo that generally visit Geiranger and Flam – Gudvangen along with a stop in Bergen, Norway’s second city.
  • Extended 14- to-17-day cruises that travel to the top of Europe at North Cape on the Arctic Ocean, and in some itineraries the ships travel into Arctic Russia to visit Murmansk and Archangelsk.

The fishermen’s harbor in Bergen, Norway with its colorful and famous fish market at the top end

The shorter cruises generally appeal those with limited time or budgets. One does get to visit two of the most majestic fjords with many of the large cruise ships offering this itinerary.

The longer cruises are primarily offered by the more luxury oriented smaller ships of such cruise lines as Seabourn or Silversea. These cruises are more expensive, but enable one to experience the lesser visited fjords and ports beyond the Arctic Circle. Here forests have given way to tundra and the summer sun appears to travel in a great circle around the sky, but does not set.

Visiting the fjords of Norway is an adventure sure to please any traveler that appreciates great natural beauty. The temperatures are mild, still chilly in June but warming slowly by August. However, sweaters and jackets are a must because at these high latitudes cold winds can chill the air at a moments notice.

The Sami are the reindeer herders of the far northern portions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia Even if you do not believe in Rudolph, you will be captivated by the number of reindeer you see in Arctic Norway

For further details about travel by ship in coastal Norway, watch for Lew Dietch’s upcoming book, “Cruising Norway,” that will be available on Amazon Kindle in early 2016. Check out his website at

Personalized Travel Books for Baltic Sea, Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Africa, South Pacific, Caribbean, and more! by Doctor Lewis Deitch, The Traveling Professor.

Many Baltic Sea cruises either begin or end in Stockholm. There is an elegance and gracefulness to Stockholm that is often difficult to put into words. You must be there to absorb the aura of this grand Scandinavian city.

If I were younger and planning to move to Europe, Stockholm would be my first choice of cities in which to settle. As a world traveler, I consider that quite a strong statement of support for this far northern city whose cold winter nights often negate its other qualities. Stockholm is the capital city of Sweden and the largest city in Scandinavia. But of course the people of Copenhagen dispute that statistic, claiming that they are larger.

Often called “The Venice of the North” because of its many waterways and islands, Stockholm is one of the world’s most beautiful of cities. Its level of cleanliness, its medieval charming Gamla Stan (Old Town) contrasting with its ultra modern facilities make Stockholm a city that is world class in both amenities and flavor.

Stockholm is not on the Baltic Sea. The city is located 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of the Gulf of Bothnia by way of a series of narrow channels interspersed between hundreds of islands. The passage is known as The Archipelago, and it takes several hours of sailing amid thickly forested islands to either depart the Saltslön, the main harbor area, or to arrive depending upon whether this is your port of embarkation or the end of your Baltic cruise. The many islands of the Archipelago are favored venues for vacation cottages by Stockholm residents, and you will catch glimpses of small villages while sailing through.

A view of the Ostermalm skyline in Stockholm

Sweden is a country that was heavily glaciated during the last ice age. The country is dotted with thousands of lakes, some of them being among the largest lakes in Europe. The coastline is most irregular, containing many deep-water harbors and offshore islands, but given that there are no mountains bordering these beautiful harbors and narrow bays, they are not called fjords.

All of Sweden is thickly forested, its farmland having been carved from the ancient woodlands. Green and blue are the two colors that describe the natural landscape. The forests that begin in Norway and Sweden pick up again in Finland, across the waters of the Gulf of Bothnia, and then extend clear across Russia to the Pacific Ocean, picking up again in Alaska and extending across Canada to the Atlantic Ocean once again. This vast forest of spruce, fir and larch is called the “taiga,” a Russian word for endless forest. The famous Russian author Anton Chekov wrote, “The taiga is so vast that only God and the migrating birds know where it ends.”

The Swedes are descendants of the ancient Vikings, their history rich in tales of warfare and conquest. Vikings are of Germanic origin, and many of the myths and legends that German warriors relate to are actually of Viking derivation. Early Vikings explored deep into what is now Russia. The name Russia is taken from Rurik, an early Viking explorer and colonial leader who settled the Valdai Hills around present-day Moscow. In the local dialect, he was known as Rus, and so came Russia, or in Germanic tongues it is called Rusland.

During the 11th century, two Viking kingdoms, Svealand and Gotland, united to form what is now Sweden. Between 1157 and 1293, the Swedes conquered Finland, but later between 1397 and 1434, Sweden became dominated over by Denmark, gaining its independence in 1435. Later in its history, the Danes once again occupied Sweden between 1517 and 1523. Over the next two centuries, however, Sweden grew in power, eventually occupying parts of what are now northern Germany and the present-day Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. After being defeated in 1718 in the Nordic War, Sweden lost much of its conquered territory, and in 1809 as part of the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden lost Finland to Russia.

In 1810, the Swedish king adopted French Count Bernadotte as his son since he did not have an heir to whom he could pass on his crown. Today’s Swedish Royal House is descended from this French noble. Sweden aided in the defeat of Napoleon, and the Congress of Vienna compensated the country by allowing its crown to merge with that of Norway. Sweden continued to include Norway as part of its territory until 1905.

In 1867, Sweden became a constitutional monarchy and its government has remained so to the present day. King Carl XVI Gustav is the present head of state, but a parliamentary system of government actually rules the nation. Sweden became a member of the European Union in 1995, but the country, like the United Kingdom, refuses to use the Euro, thus the Swedish Kroner is still the national currency.

Since the defeat of Napoleon, Sweden has remained a neutral nation. It was this neutrality that was helpful during World War II. A Swedish diplomat in Budapest was instrumental in saving thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing them Swedish passports. The Swedes also gave refuge to many Norwegian freedom fighters and British aviators during the war, thus helping to ultimately oust the Germans from Norway. Although a neutral nation, the Swedes maintain one of Europe’s best-equipped armies, a small, but well-equipped and trained navy and a formidable air force. Some say that Sweden is among the top ten nations in the world with regard to the potential fighting ability of its air force, the Flygvapnet.

Changing of the guard at the Swedish Royal Palace in historic Gamla Stan, Stockholm

Sweden’s most noted citizen of all time, originally a munitions manufacturer, Alfred Nobel, was instrumental in developing a series of prizes to be awarded for major humanitarian and literary accomplishments. Today, both Sweden and Norway are venues for presenting the Nobel Prizes. Each year both the kings of Sweden and Norway present the various Nobel Prizes in ceremonies held in Stockholm and Oslo.

There have been many other famous Swedes, especially in the film industry, the two best known having been Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, as well as the director Ingmar Bergman (no relation).

The government policy during the last 75 years has been one of combined capitalism and socialism. In Sweden, citizens receive cradle to the grave coverage in health care, education and other social services. The country is always among the top five nations of the world in quality of life when the United Nations publishes its annual report of the world’s best nations in which to live. In 2004, Sweden was number one on the list, while in 2005 it was Norway.

Modern Sweden is about the size of California, and it has a population of around 9 million people. The country shares a mountainous border with Norway to the west, all of its rivers draining to the Gulf of Bothnia, the northern arm of the Baltic Sea.

Southern Sweden contains rich farmland and the country is noted for its fine dairy products. Sweden is also a highly industrialized nation, specializing in high tech products. Its industrial role has diminished somewhat, especially in the manufacturing of fine quality automobiles. Saab, once an automotive producer, today is noted for its jet fighters, and the Gripen is said to be every bit as agile and deadly as the American F-16. It is sold to other nations, but Sweden’s munitions and aircraft are not sold to countries where hostile intent is evident. Sweden is also noted for its quality furniture and glassware.

Most Swedes live in modern, ultra clean cities and towns, primarily in the southern half of the country. The far north is a cold forest and tundra region, inhabited by the Sámi, people we call the Laplanders. They are primarily reindeer herders, but they are at the same time a part of the modern nation in which they live.

Stockholm has a metropolitan population of about 2.1 million people. But few high-rise buildings are seen on the skyline. Rather it is the church spires and old castles and palaces that dominate the city. The Saltslön is the main harbor around which the central city is built, part of Stockholm having been developed on outlying islands, thus giving the city is nickname as the “Venice of the North.”

Most of the central business area consists of buildings from the 17th, 18th and 19thcenturies mingled with more modern structures, but most under ten stories. There are many parks and small squares, and even the major streets are lined with trees. Stockholm is a very green city as well as being so exceptionally clean. Swedes are highly respectful of their public places and litter is something rarely seen.

There are very few residential neighborhoods consisting of single-family houses. Most Stockholm residents live in apartment blocks of various types. In the older part of the city, they crowd together and often front right on the street. In the newer suburbs, the apartment blocks are set into park or garden areas, giving their residents ample room to enjoy the out of doors. Most of the buildings in Stockholm are built either of stone or brick. Many of the older stone buildings are covered in a coating of plaster, which is painted in pastel colors. Given the long cold winters, most buildings have rather steeply pitched roofs covered in slate tiles. Thus this city of the far north, where winter nights are long, is colorful with regard to its architecture.

During the summer the parks are lush with rich green grass and the flowerbeds are bursting forth with a myriad of blooms, adding to the overall color of the city, while the winter landscape can be rather bleak to those who are not fond of snowy vistas.

There is a high degree of patriotic spirit. The Swedish flag, which consists of a royal blue background atop which there is a yellow cross, is flown everywhere. All of the Scandinavian nations are proud of their heritage and proudly show their flags. This is also a deeply religious nation, the dominant faith being that of the Swedish Lutheran Church. Many old church buildings date back centuries, their spires often being the tallest landmarks in each neighborhood. At one time in past centuries, Swedes were fined and severely ostracized if they did not attend Sunday church services. Today religion is separated from state, and such Draconian laws do not exist.

Although the Lutheran faith dominates, there are other religious minorities in the country. Stockholm has a small, but active Jewish community, and recent immigrants from the Middle East have brought Islam to Sweden. Religious minorities have always been accepted since the days of the Protestant Reformation, and persecution has never been a fact of Swedish life.

This country’s neutrality protected all of its citizens from Nazi invasion during World War II, as Hitler firstly saw no strategic reason to violate that neutrality and secondly he wanted to have one friendly power that could validate Nazi treatment of captured nations. The Swedish Red Cross was often invited into concentration camps, shown artificially created settings in which detainees were well treated, this in hopes that the Swedes would spread the word to America that Germany was not abusing Jews and other minorities. At first this ruse had some effect, but the Swedes ultimately saw through Nazi actions.

Traffic in Stockholm is not excessive and the major streets are wide even though this city predates the automobile. This is a city that entices visitors to linger because of its many historic sites and its grand architecture, showing that Stockholm has been the capital of a nation whose roots go back to days when the Swedes were a mighty power. The important sites in Stockholm worthy of note include:

  • Gamla Stan – This small island is home to the oldest buildings in Stockholm as well as Kungliga Slottet, Sweden’s Royal Palace, one of the largest in all of Europe. The king does not live in this massive building, but rather occupies a smaller palace in the suburb of Drottningholm. Kungliga Slottet is used for state occasions. Like at Buckingham Palace in London, there is a ceremonial changing of the guard every day, but the Swedish palace guards wear uniforms more tailored and 21st century looking. Pomp and ceremony is not as much a part of Royal life, as it is in Britain.
  • Stadtshuset – This is the Swedish National Parliament, located right on the water, a beautiful building of 19th century architecture. Sweden’s parliament carries on lively debates, as this nation truly understands the concept of democracy, and the Swedish people take a great deal of interest in the running of their nation.
  • Nordiska Muset – The museum devoted to Nordic culture will give visitors a quick glimpse into the life of the ancient Scandinavian people.
  • Lill-Jans Skogen – A massive garden and sports complex that includes academic, sports and recreational facilities.
  • Drottningholm – One of the city’s most beautiful islands, which also contains Drottningholm Palace, home to the Swedish Royal Family.
  • Södermalm – a hilly island that contains some of the oldest residential neighborhoods in Stockholm. It is located south of the island of Gamla Stan, connected by a major road and railway bridge.
  • Kungstradgården and Humlegården – Two of the inner city’s major garden parks.
  • Djurgården – A large wooded peninsula of land right in the heart of the city and home to many museums and recreational venues. From here one will find the best views of the downtown skyline and Gamla Stan.

The skyline of Gamla Stan – historic Old Stockholm

By in large Sweden is a very upper middle-income nation, and one will not find any neighborhoods in Stockholm that could be classed as a “slum.” Sweden and the rest of its Scandinavian neighbors provide a national safety net that is sometimes called cradle to grave coverage. There is essentially little to no poverty, but likewise only a handful are exceptionally wealthy, as the country has a graduated income tax that puts the greater burden on the very rich. For this reason, there is a far smaller range of inequality between those at the top and bottom of the social scale.

Sweden also has one of the best educational and health care systems in all of Europe. Swedes are very well educated with a high percentage being university graduates. The national health care program provides for research, and Sweden ranks among the top ten nations of the world in the field of medical breakthroughs.

Sweden is essentially an idyllic country. Its people know that their lifestyle is considered as being among the five best in the world by the United Nations. However, there is one less settling factor worthy of note. Sweden has allowed a small number of immigrants to come from less developed countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. These people unfortunately are for the most part filling more menial jobs, and their presence has been less than welcome by some segments of the population. So far there have been no open expression of discontent, but look what happened in France when Middle Eastern immigrants have rampaged through several Parisian neighborhoods protesting inequalities. That is not to say this could happen in Sweden, as conditions are far better than in France for immigrants. It is more social than economic here, as Sweden is a somewhat closed society with long standing traditions and cultural values. The only other negative factor has been a minor problem with drug use among many teens, but this seems to be a worldwide universal in the developed nations. Essentially Sweden is about as idyllic a nation as one could find, save for Norway.

Spring flowers in the King’s Gardens, a popular Stockholm venue

Traditional Swedish smörgåsbord is the buffet type lunch that is unlike what the rest of us call a buffet. There is a great variety of both hot and cold dishes, many centering on the sea, as fish of all types are popular in this part of the world. Various types of smoked fish, pickled herring and salmon will be served along with boiled potatoes as the first course. Then one chooses from a variety of meats, including reindeer and a great variety of cheeses and crisp flatbreads. As for desserts, it is hard to beat the Swedish bakers. They produce variety of elegant fruit dishes, all types of crisp and buttery cookies and delectable pastries. Restaurants abound in central Stockholm, and Swedes pack into them for both lunch and dinner since this is an affluent country and dining out is almost a national pastime.

Sweden is a country with both a wide variety of manufacturing industries and traditional crafts. IKEA is a name well known in the United States, and its flagship store is located in Stockholm. Swedish home furnishings and glassware are famous throughout the world, as this is country where impeccable taste is a part of the basic culture.

Residential Stockholm is divided into numerous districts separated from one another by waterways and parklands. Thus the city lacks the contiguous feeling of a large metropolis and gives each part of the city a feeling of being a town in its own right.

The entire city is linked by an extensive Metro system, which is clean and efficient. As noted previously, most Swedish cities are heavily dominated by apartment and condominium developments with single -family homes found in the outermost suburban areas.

The people of Sweden consider themselves fortunate to live in a country where life is essentially without want. The country’s overall standard of living places it among the ten highest in the world, and the quality of life is, along with Norway, considered to be one of the best in the world. And Stockholm truly represents all that is good about the Swedish way of life. It is a city of elegance, sophistication, and historic charm and above all it is a city of graceful living.

Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch

Personalized Travel Books for Baltic Sea, Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Africa, South Pacific, Caribbean, and more! by Doctor Lewis Deitch, The Traveling Professor.

The late Victor Borge often sang a song whose lyrics began “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, Salty Old Queen of the Sea …” This was a popular seaman’s ode to Denmark’s great capital, a city whose fortunes have been tied to the sea. The majority of Baltic Sea cruises either begin or end in Copenhagen. This gives travelers opportunities to linger and enjoy this grand city either before or after their cruises around the Baltic.

Copenhagen is the capital and largest city of Denmark, which happens to be the smallest of the Scandinavian countries. Denmark is made up of the Jutland Peninsula, extending north from Germany, separating the Baltic Sea on the east from the North Sea on the west. In addition to Jutland, the remainder of the country is comprised of numerous islands, many interconnected by road and rail bridges. At its narrow point, the Øresund is a slender strait separating Denmark from Sweden and it is the main transport route into the Baltic Sea.

Nyhaven Harbor in Copenhagen

Denmark covers a land area 16,562 square miles about the ¾ the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined. Its population is just over 5,600,000 people. Denmark is considered to be the gateway to the Baltic Sea. Geographically it is classed as a fragmented country because its lands are not contiguous. At the Øresund where Denmark and Sweden almost meet all of the international shipping in and out of the Baltic Sea could be blocked in time of war, giving both countries a strategic advantage in controlling this major inland sea. Beyond the Øresund lies the Skagerrak Strait, an often stormy body of water that separates Jutland from Norway.

Almost all of Denmark is low-lying and somewhat rocky as the result of having been created by glacial debris at the end of the last ice age. There are many fertile areas, and the country is known for its fine dairy herds, sugar beets, barley and wheat crops. Much of the land is still covered in a mix of broadleaf and needle leaf woodlands, presenting a rather idyllic landscape, especially with its neat and tidy villages, each dominated over by a church steeple. There is an almost fairy tale quality to the Danish countryside.

Fishing is also an important part of the Danish economy, as the Danes have always looked to sea for its bounty. The country is highly industrialized, producing fine quality manufactured goods, especially furniture, but having to import most of its raw material needs.

Although a tiny country, the history of Denmark is intimately bound up with the history of much of Europe. The Danish Royal House married its children into more royal families across Europe than any other. It is often said that no European royal is without Danish blood, thus it makes looking at this miniscule nation’s history a must to appreciate its importance.

The Danish tribes are of Viking origin just as are the Norwegian and Swedish. There is evidence of their presence in Denmark as far back as 500 BC. From Denmark the Vikings raided and established colonies as far away as England and the Normandy Coast of France. By 950 AD, there was a Viking kingdom in Denmark, and its rule extended into what is now southern Sweden.

The Danish Vikings set out across the Atlantic, settling Iceland in the 10th century, and from there the illustrious Leif Erickson continued west to colonize Greenland, and for a brief time the northern coast of Newfoundland, long before Columbus was even born. At one time Iceland and Greenland were united under the Danish Crown. But Iceland gained its full independence in 1944. Although it has home rule, Greenland is still Danish territory, making it the largest colonial territory remaining in the world relative to its physical size. And it is about 45 times the size of its parent country.

During the early 11th century the famous King Canute actually united Denmark and England for a period of nearly 30 years. In 1397, the Kalmar Union united Denmark and Sweden and Norway until 1523. In 1814, after the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark was forced to cede Norway to Sweden, which it held until 1905. This was the result of the Congress of Vienna punishing the Danes for having supported Napoleon during his attempt to conquer Europe. But the Danish crown maintained control over Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, the last two still being Danish today.

For the next hundred years, not much is heard from Denmark, as the nation keeps essentially to itself. However in 1849, the country followed the British example and became a constitutional monarchy. During the Victorian Era in England, King Christian IX of Denmark married most of his children into the royal houses of Europe, making him the ‘father-in-law of European royalty. The two best-known examples are his two daughters, one of whom married the future Tsar of Russia, Alexander III and the other the future King of the United Kingdom, Edward VII. And the King Christian’s younger son became the King of Norway when that country had no heir to its throne and another son became the king of Greece when that country declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire. The list of descendants of King Christian IX is long and extends into almost every major royal house on the continent.

The Rosenborg Palace in Copenhagen is home to the Danish crown jewels.

During World War II, Nazi Germany invaded Denmark, using it as a stepping-stone into Norway and also to have better control over the Baltic Sea for their navy. There is a story that has circulated saying that when the Nazi captors ordered all Danish Jews to wear yellow armbands, that many Danish citizens including the King also did the same. There is a statue of the Danish king wearing an armband with the Star of David located in the Copenhagen suburb of Fredericksborg.

British forces liberated the country in 1945, and Denmark became one of the original signatory members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Denmark has a parliamentary government, similar in nature to that of Norway and Sweden. The monarchy, one Europe’s most prestigious, still exists, but in constitutional form with Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II having only limited powers. Unlike the United Kingdom, the Queen and her family are often seen in public without the benefit of pomp and ceremony, making Her Majesty more accessible to ordinary people, again similar to what is seen in Norway and Sweden.

Metropolitan Copenhagen has a population of just over 1,975,000 people, making it the second largest city in Scandinavia, yet many tourist brochures claim that it is the largest Scandinavian city. It is claimed to be one of the most beautiful of European cities, blending land and water in a similar manner as seen in Stockholm. Denmark in general is a rural nation, but one that does not possess any high mountains. This rich agricultural nation is lush and green, dotted with small lakes and woodlands that extend right into Copenhagen. And even the city of Copenhagen does not offer the feeling of being in a large metropolis. Its lifestyle is somewhat unhurried, characteristic of the mild mannered Danish population.

The bicycle parking lot at the Copenhagen central railway station is a testament to its importance.

Throughout historic times, Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia were separated by a narrow waterway, necessitating a ferryboat crossing to Sweden. Since the summer of 2000, Copenhagen and Malmö, Sweden have been linked by a combined bridge and tunnel that allows for both rail and road crossing. It now takes only minutes to cross the Øresund. This has given Copenhagen a greater hinterland for the purposes of trade, making it truly an international city, including the city of Malmö.

The name Copenhagen means merchant’s harbor, reflecting the fact that this has always been a city devoted to trade. However, since neither Denmark nor Sweden use the Euro, two currencies are still necessary when people interact across this border. Today it is possible to travel from London via the Chunnel to mainland Europe, and then one can continue on through Copenhagen directly into Scandinavia. These two links have given a greater sense of unity to the nations of Europe.

If anyone wonders why the posting has not mentioned King Hamlet during the discussion of Danish history, it is because he never existed. Although William Shakespeare used Kronborg Castle north of Copenhagen as the setting, the character is purely fictitious.

One Dane who was quite real, however, was Hans Christian Anderson. His great stories are exemplary of Danish life, the most famous being The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Little Mermaid. Anderson is considered as a national treasure of Denmark.

Copenhagen is a city of the sea and of course by the sea. There are also canals that tie the various dock and wharf facilities together to create a massive harbor devoted to major shipping, fishing and pleasure craft. And the harbor of Copenhagen is exceptionally clean. The focal hub of the city is the Radhus, or City Hall. Located on the most prominent square, it is the very center of the city’s downtown area, which like in most European cities, is a mix of residential and commercial buildings essentially cheek by jowl with one another. The Radhus is a massive brick building with a large clock tower, but in Copenhagen towers are quite common. There are few high-rise in the city, most being located in suburban areas and serving as apartments or condominiums. The inner city is devoted primarily to buildings that date back to the grand days of the 16th through 19thcenturies when the city served as a major European port.

Beyond the central city, the remainder of Copenhagen spreads out into the Danish countryside, essentially forming a crescent around the old city. Shaded streets are home to rows of neat little houses, interspersed with beautiful parks and public gardens. The most famous of all parks is Tivoli Gardens, a 19th century park that combines the beauty of neatly landscaped grounds with amusement rides, restaurants and outdoor entertainment, especially on long summer nights. Tivoli Gardens became one of Europe’s premier attractions long before the age of Euro Disney. Even in today’s modern computer age, the old fashioned rides of Tivoli delight visitors, taking them back to a grand era.

An idyllic scene of swans swimming in Copenhagen’s Ostre Anlaeg Park

There are manufacturing districts dotted about the city, but essentially Copenhagen is not a primary industrial center. The city does, however, possess extensive dock facilities, which cruise passengers notice when entering the harbor. Copenhagen is a major seaport because of its strategic location at the head of the Baltic Sea.

Getting around Copenhagen is rather easy, as the city maintains an extensive network of commuter rail services. There is also a Metro, but its two lines do not serve all the major tourist venues and therefore it is not as useful. Copenhagen is a city of bicycles, as most Danes learn to ride as young children and continue into old age. There are special bicycle lanes on all major streets. And there are parking lots designed just for bicycles. At the Central Railway Station there are as many as 10,000 bicycles parked at any given time.

The major highlights not to be missed by visitors include:

  • Amalienborg Palace – Home to the Royal Family where a changing of the guard is performed daily before noon.
  • Rosenborg Palace – Home to the Danish crown jewels, it is surrounded by a beautiful public garden.
  • Christianborg Palace complex – The seat of the Danish Parliament this complex of buildings occupies what is now an island because it is encircled by a small canal.
  • Fredericksborg Palace and Park – Used today by the Danish Navy, the grounds are quite magnificent and merge into a large public park

Fredericksberg Gardens in Copenhagen

  • Tivoli Gardens – The 19th Century amusement park in the heart of the city just opposite the grand and beautiful railway station.
  • The Little Mermaid – The signature statue defines the essence of Copenhagen. It honors the story of the same name by Denmark’s beloved author Hans Christian Andersen, and it is located close to where cruise ships dock.

Copenhagen’s beloved Little Mermaid – Symbol of the City

  • Kastelette – The great fortress that once protected Copenhagen and now serves as military headquarters. It is still surrounded by a moat, but also by a beautiful park.
  • Øresund Bridge and Tunnel connecting Denmark and Sweden, easily visited by means of the high-speed Øresundtåg train between the two countries.
  • Carlsbad Brewery Museum – The famous Danish brewery is now a museum and gift shop.
  • Strøget – The main pedestrian street of Copenhagen, home to Illum and Magasin du Nord, the two major department stores.
  • Radhus – The old and beautiful City Hall and square at the western end of the Strøget.
  • Nyhaven – The fishermen’s harbor located south of the Amalienborg Palace is a major venue for its colorful buildings and seafood restaurants.

Copenhagen was founded about 1,000 years ago by Viking warriors Sweyn I Forkbeard and his son Canute the Great. But it remained simply a small fishing village until it was fortified in the year 1167 because of its excellent harbor. It immediately became a trade center, initially attacked by the Hanseatic League, but it never fell into League domination.

It was during the period of the early 1400’s that the city became the royal and military capital of the nation, initially existing as a walled city. Some of the old ramparts can still be seen in modern Copenhagen.

What gave the city and Denmark added prosperity was the navy’s ability to collect tolls from shipping passing through the Øresund, and it is this prosperity that brought about much of the magnificent architecture that graces the city today.

Sweden and Denmark have not always been such close friends and allies. During the years from 1658 to 1660, Sweden laid siege to Copenhagen, but ultimately the Danes prevailed.

The city lost about one third of its residents during the Black Plague, suffered a major fire in 1728 and again in 1795, but each event only strengthened the resolve of its people to make their city even greater.

Much of Copenhagen’s classical architecture owes its existence to this time period. Apart from the palaces, monuments and elegant old buildings in the city center,

Copenhagen is about people. The Danes are very warm and friendly, and most speak some English. And then there is the food. Danish food is heavily oriented toward the sea. It is a seafood lover’s paradise. The Danes claim to have invented the open-face sandwich. Whether this is true or not, they are absolute artists with the preparation of these delightful morsels. Meats, cheeses, seafood and eggs are the main ingredients of the Danish open face sandwich. To have an open face sandwich followed by a flaky Danish pastry is a memorable luncheon experience.

The Danes are incredible bakers. In America the term Danish when referring to baked goods is used to describe rather heavy yeast dough coffee cakes. But in Denmark the breakfast pastries are light and tender, with butter used rather than oil, as is typical in American Danish. It is a shame that the term Danish is even used and in a way it is an insult to fine Danish baking.

Today Copenhagen has no fears of invasion, but simply enjoys its importance as the old grand city of Scandinavia. And Denmark prides itself as being the gateway to Scandinavia, especially now with its road and rail bridge connection to Sweden. And it surprisingly is also the aviation gateway to all of Scandinavia. There are a few direct flights from North America to Stockholm and fewer to Oslo. Likewise Stockholm receives some flights from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But the majority of overseas traffic is directed to Copenhagen. Scandinavian Airways System, which is jointly operated by Denmark, Norway and Sweden, is headquartered in Copenhagen

Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch

Personalized Travel Books for Baltic Sea, Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Africa, South Pacific, Caribbean, and more! by Doctor Lewis Deitch, The Traveling Professor.

A cruise to Istanbul is for many travelers their first introduction to a part of the Islamic world. Turkey is officially a secular republic that is closely tied culturally and politically to Europe. This is a country where facets of European and Islamic culture blend together, especially in Istanbul. The city serves as a bridge between the European and Middle Eastern cultural realms. Turkey is a country with a very long and rich history that extends back thousands of years. The Anatolian Plateau in the heart of the country is one of the birthplaces of agricultural society. Much of coastal Turkey was occupied by the ancient Greeks and later by the Romans. When the split in the Roman Empire occurred, the eastern part of the empire ultimately became known as Byzantium with Constantinople becoming the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Ultimately the Ottoman Turks invaded and made the city the capital of their empire that began in 1299 and lasted until 1921 when the modern Turkish Republic was created. A visit to Istanbul presents you with multiple layers of history, many great archaeological sites and a richness in history and cultural treasures.

The Golden Horn of Istanbul as seen from the Galeta Tower

All major cruise lines offer itineraries that include multiple ports along the Aegean and/or Mediterranean coastline of Turkey, often combined with ports in Greece, especially the Greek Islands of the Aegean Sea. Quite often cruises will embark and/or terminate in either Athens or Istanbul. Most cruises visiting Turkey operate during the warm summer months, but some cruise lines continue operating well into the autumn.

Istanbul is all about historic architecture, dramatic scenery, fantastic bazaars and outstanding food. What more could any visitor ask for? If you are starting or ending your cruise in Istanbul, you MUST stay a few days. To simply fly in and board your ship or disembark and go right to the airport as many often do, you will have cheated yourself of a cultural experience unlike any other. Istanbul is not a city to be ignored. In this case, how long to stay is a question you must be thinking about. My recommendation would be at least a week, but I know that is not practical for most cruisers. So my fair and honest answer would be no less than three full days if you possibly can spare it.

Skyline view of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

The Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul, Turkey

I have listed what I consider the major highlights of a visit to Istanbul in order of their importance:

  • Hagia Sophia Mosque – Now a museum, this one time Byzantine cathedral was turned into a mosque to please the conquering sultan. It’s an architectural marvel considering its antiquity and is an absolute must
  • Blue Mosque – across a broad expanse of park filled with sparkling fountains and pools stands the equally massive Blue Mosque. This is an active mosque, but visitors are taken on guided tours. Combining a visit with the Hagia Sophia is the absolute must do activity in Istanbul
  • Suleymaniye Mosque – This is another great mosque in the typical Ottoman style. It is very grand and a tribute to the architectural prowess of the builders of the time
  • Mihrimah Sultan Mosque – Built in the mid 16th century, this mosque has a very open and airy feel, partly the result of its very high central dome. Its construction is much different than the older more heavily built mosques
  • Topkapi Palace – Facing out to the Bosphorus Straits and Sea of Marmara, this was once home to the Ottoman sultans. It is more of a compound of many buildings than a single palace. Both the buildings and the grounds give you a firm understanding of the power of the former Ottoman sultans
  • Dolmabahce Palace – Built in the mid 19th century as a summer residence along the Bosphorus, this elegant and heavily decorated palace copies the styles of Europe. It reflects an attempt by the sultans to emulate the opulence of European monarchs rather than the traditionalism of the Topkapi Palace
  • The Grand Bazaar – This is one of the largest covered bazaars found in the Middle East. Here you will find many hundreds of merchants selling everything from clothing to household items along with spices, candies, brassware and Turkish carpets. Remember that intense bargaining is the rule. Also it is best to have a guide or at least a good sense of direction, as it is very easy to get lost inside this tightly packed emporium
  • The Spice Bazaar – This bazaar located along the Golden Horn in the Old City is devoted to spices. Simply breathing in the multiplicity of aromas and seeing the colors of the exotic and known spices is an experience in itself. You can also buy small amounts of spice that will be placed in plastic bags that you easily pack to take home
  • Galata Tower – This ancient tower built in 500 AD is set north of the Golden Horn, the ancient waterway separating the Old City of Constantinople from the newer post 15th century city. A small elevator takes you up to the round observation platform where you get fantastic views of the Golden Horn and the skyline of minarets of the Old City and across the Bosphorus Straits to Üsküdar in Asia
  • Galata Bridge – Crossing the Golden Horn, this is the most famous old bridge in the city. It is enjoyable to stroll across the bridge one way; watch the heavy ferryboat and local watercraft coming and going and men fishing. After walking one way, you can take the modern tram back either to the new city area of Beyoglu or to the center of the Old City
  • Istiklal Cadessi – This pedestrian street begins at the Galata Tower and runs for over a mile north to Taksim Square. Only a narrow gauge tram is allowed to clang up and down the street, otherwise it is for walking. Here you will find a great variety of shops, dozens of bakeries and candy shops along with many restaurants. It is one of the walking highlights of a visit to Istanbul
  • Taksim Square – This is considered the nerve center of modern central Istanbul. And it is here that demonstrations are often organized to protest various government actions. It is enjoyable to just sit and watch the local people go by
  • Turkish Military Museum – This museum allows you to see the importance of military history in the evolution of Turkey. At one time the Ottoman Empire was a great military power, but it ended up in the disaster of World War I. The modern Turkish military is one of the largest and most powerful in the Middle East today, and is proud to represent itself as an imposing force for NATO in this far eastern region of influence
  • Real Monastery – On Monday and Thursday nights you visit this monastery and witness a ceremonial prayer dance by the Whirling Dervishes. These mystics of the Sufi sect of Islam believe their whirling dance brings them closer to Allah and it is their form of prayer. I consider it a must see event
  • The Walls of Constantinople – It is worth hiring a car and driver or a taxi to drive you all around the great outer walls of the Old City. With a car and driver, you can stop and explore not only the walls, but the various neighborhoods on either side of the wall
  • Balat – A very old neighborhood in the Old City that was once the Jewish quarter. Today it is starting to develop as a trendy residential district, but it is not touristy. You will see many centuries of architecture and be able to appreciate the history of the Old City with a different perspective than seeing the mosques or Topkapi Palace
  • Üsküdar – You can visit this very ancient Asian suburb by taking a ferryboat from the Golden Horn, one of the express busses that will cross the Bosphorus Bridge or the new trans straits Metro line. Only the ferryboat will bring you right into the heart of old Üsküdar. But with a car and driver you can experience the Bosphorus Bridge in a more comfortable manner and then be shown around Üsküdar and many of the other Asian suburbs
  • Istanbul Sapphire – This modern high-rise building set on a low hill in the northern suburb of Besiktas has an observation deck on the 54th floor that gives you dramatic views of the city. You can get there by Metro from Taksim Square to the station at Levent, which is about two blocks from the building. If you do not want to risk venturing out on public transport, you can go by taxi, but it is quite a distance from the inner city
  • Çamlica Hill – This is one of the highest hills on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. You will either need to book a tour, have a car and driver or arrange for a taxi to take you and wait. The park atop this hill is patronized by locals and by many visiting families from other Islamic countries. Plan on having a coffee or snack in the old teahouse where you will truly have a Turkish experience, as few Western tourists venture to visit. But it is the views of the city that make this visit worthwhile
  • Driving along the Bosphorus Straits – You would need to hire a car and driver or taxi to drive you all the way along the Bosphorus Straits, past beautiful suburbs, each with its specific flavor. And if you drive all the way north, you can then view the Black Sea and have lunch in one of the small cafes overlooking the sea. And you will not be mingling with tourists. This will be a Turkish experience.

Istaklal Cadessi (Independence Street) in the heart of Istanbul, Turkey

There are dozens more sights to see in Istanbul. There are many more grand mosques, several Christian churches dating back centuries, the old Jewish synagogue, modern shopping malls and museums, but even if you stay three days, as I recommended, what I have listed here will more than keep you busy. That is why I said the ideal time would be a week for visiting Istanbul. For shopping, which I know is important to many people, I recommend:

  • The Grand Bazaar – But this can be a tiring experience. I really recommend it more for sightseeing than shopping unless you have plenty of time and patience to bargain
  • Istinye Park Mall – One of the largest, most modern and upscale malls in the city with well-known brand name stores. There are also fine restaurants and cafes in the mall. You will need to take a taxi or have a car and driver because this is a suburban mall
  • Akasya Aclbadem – Located on the Asian side in the outer suburbs of Üsküdar. Many locals view this as not only the best and most upscale mall on the Asian side, but in all of Istanbul. It also has many fine restaurants. Although you can reach it by Metro and local bus, it is far easier to take a taxi or have your own car and driver
  • Marmara Forum Alisveris Merkezi – Another grand mall with hundreds of modern shops, but on the European side in the suburb of Bakirkoy. But it is difficult to get here using public transport, so you must be able to have your own private transport or taxi

Looking out over the modern side of Istanbul from the Sapphire Tower

Remember that Istanbul is a friendly city. It has very few neighborhoods that would not be safe for visitors, but these are not areas you would have any reason to visit. Public transport is good, clean and safe. And people are always willing to help even when they do not speak English or other languages from the West. So venture out and enjoy this incredible city, one of the world’s great destinations.

Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch

Personalized Travel Books for Baltic Sea, Europe, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Africa, South Pacific, Caribbean, and more! by Doctor Lewis Deitch, The Traveling Professor.

Skagway is a very small town, located at the upper end of Alaska’s Inside Passage. It has less than 1,000 full-time residents, yet it plays host to thousands of cruise passengers all through the summer season. For this reason, its population more than doubles during summer, as many young university students come for work and also a bit of wilderness adventure.

When your ship docks at the edge of the Main Street, you will be charmed by the late 19th century Victorian architecture. There are dozens of buildings that are now part of the National Registry of Historic Places. Skagway promotes the aura of its gold rush era heritage when it was the starting point for the arduous journey over the White Pass to the gold fields of the Klondike. But despite feeling enticed to linger, the real treasure of your visit is the narrow gauge White Pass and Yukon Railroad journey that awaits at the station. The White Pass and Yukon Railroad is the cornerstone of Skagway’s tourism, and with nearly a million summer visitors, the train ride is greatly anticipated. But a bit of historic background makes the journey so much more meaningful:

Following the Skagway River up to the Canadian Border

  • What brought settlers was the discovery of White Pass, the only significant route of access through the rugged, steep and glacier filled Coast Mountains.
  • William Moore, who helped survey the boundary with Canada in 1887, believed that these mountains and the lands beyond contained gold bearing strata. He staked a claim and built a cabin so he and his son could prospect the surrounding region.
  • Up until the survey of 1887, the border between the two countries was ill defined because the earlier Russian and British governments had never agreed upon a demarcation of their respective territory.
  • Although Moore did not find gold in the immediate area, it was discovered in large quantity in the Klondike along the Yukon River to the north, and Skagway would become the port of embarkation for the perilous land journey through the mountains to the goldfields.
  • Eager prospectors arrived in great numbers, ultimate swelling Skagway into a major town of tens of thousands. Those not prepared for the arduous journey into the Yukon found that there was money to be made in opening shops to supply the would be prospectors with needed supplies.
  • The Canadian authorities set up strict rules as to the amount and type of supplies people had to carry over the pass to be allowed to cross the border. And Skagway merchants became prosperous.
  • By 1900, Skagway was a boom town, but one with a wild and unsavory flavor. For the first few years of its existence it was rife with thieves, card sharks, gunslingers and unscrupulous businessmen that preyed upon would be miners and town folk alike.
  • From over the border it was then possible to travel by barge or small boat down the Yukon River to Dawson City, which became the hub of the goldfield region known as the Klondike.
  • During winter the snow made travel exceptionally difficult, but then during summer the soggy ground and mosquitos made the journey equally as uncomfortable.
  • With the strict Canadian rule requiring prospectors to carry heavy loads of supplies, there was need for a railroad, and construction began in 1898, utilizing narrow gauge tracks for steep mountain terrain.
  • Unfortunately the gold fever of the Klondike began to wane at the time the railroad was completed in 1900. But the commercial mining of copper, lead-zinc and silver along with routine passenger traffic kept the railroad in business.
  • The World War II construction of the Alcan Highway saved the railroad from collapse. It was the U. S. Army that actually ran the railroad so as to maximize its use for wartime purposes. This required the Canadian Parliament to authorize a foreign military unit to operate within its territory.
  • After World War II, the railroad continued operation, switching over to diesel locomotives in the late 1950’s, and hauling specialized smaller size containers for freight at the same time. The White Pass and Yukon ultimately became the continent’s only narrow gauge line to continue operating as a working railroad when others either were abandoned or became tourist oriented.
  • Being heavily dependent upon hauling ore as its major cargo left the railroad vulnerable and in 1982, a severe drop in lead-zinc prices spelled disaster. The mine shut down and the bulk of the rail traffic ceased. Much of the rolling stock and many of the diesel locomotives were sold and the line ceased to operate.
  • What is ironic is that this happened just when cruise passenger traffic on the Inside Passage was starting to develop into a major potential. Like the Durango Silverton Railroad in Colorado, the White Pass and Yukon also became tourist oriented.
  • The cruise lines pressured for the creation of a scenic and historic service, guaranteeing great numbers of passengers given the love people have for unique railway journeys that can be made in a few hours. It did not take long to have the line up and running in 1988 and today it is the life-blood of Skagway

White Pass and Yukon Railroad locomotive pulling up the long grade to the summit

Most passengers ride the train across the Canadian border to Fraiser or Bennett. In 2006, the line was certified to Carcross on the banks of the Yukon River and there are excursions with one way by motor coach now offered through some cruise lines. There are various options depending upon what your cruise lines schedules. Some journeys include one way by motor coach, which affords an opportunity to see the railway line from the highway and to watch the train on its route. There are various local excursions on the Canadian side of the border such as visiting a dog sled facility that can also be incorporated into the train trip. And some cruise lines offer a round trip that just reaches the summit at the Canadian border and then returns. For some charter services the railroad does use a steam locomotive during the summer months, but diesel locomotives are used on most trains.

The border between Alaska and British Columbia

For those who spend the day in Skagway and those taking the shorter rail journey, there is plenty of time to walk around the town and enjoy the 100 old Victorian buildings that date back to the days of the Klondike Gold Rush. And Skagway residents have provided a variety of entertainments in the local pubs and restaurants as well as the shops with many dressed in traditional 19th century garb. Here are a few of the venues in and around Skagway that can help keep you busy and entertained:

  • Red Onion Saloon Brothel Museum – A colorful part of Skagway kept alive, but only in spirit, as there is no working brothel
  • Skagway Museum – A small venue that has many of the artifacts of the past to help bring the gold rush days to life
  • State Street and Broadway – Walk the few blocks of the historic district and simply soak in the architectural flavor of old Skagway
  • Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park – Operated by the National Park Service there are hikes, float tours and an excellent visitors center that provides the history of Skagway and the gold rush era

I personally recommend the rail journey because the scenery is spectacular and the train has a very nostalgic flavor.

Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch