You’re probably familiar with the French Riviera, the Italian Riviera, and the Mexican Riviera — all beautiful beach resort areas where vacationers go to relax. But did you know that northern Europe has a lesser-known but equally compelling beach resort area? Known as the “Mediterranean of the North” or the “German Riviera,” the Baltic Sea offers similar (albeit chillier) experiences as its southern counterparts. Here’s what to know about the Baltic Sea and the beautiful cities along its coast.
Where Is It?
The Baltic Sea is a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by roughly 5,000 miles of convoluted coastline across Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Sweden, and Russia. It measures approximately 990 miles long and averages about 120 miles wide and connects to the Atlantic Ocean via the North Sea, which makes it an inland sea instead of an enormous lake. A couple of narrow straits through Denmark connect the Baltic Sea to the North Sea. At about 149,000 square miles in size, the Baltic competes with the Black Sea as the world’s largest inland sea of brackish water.
With a nickname like “Mediterranean of the North,” images of gorgeous beaches and seaside resorts come to mind. You will find both here, but the vacation season in the Baltic is shorter, with cooler temperatures than in southern Europe. Summer high temperatures near the coast average between 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, with the warmest temperatures along the coasts of Poland and Germany. People swim during July and August when water temperatures reach about 68 degrees. Northern beaches along the Baltic even receive 18 hours or more of daylight in the summer.
Winters tend to be long, dark, and cold near the Baltic. Several gulfs, bays, and lagoons freeze over in winter, rendering northern ports unusable at times, including St. Petersburg and Helsinki. Icebreaker ships operate all winter long to keep essential ship channels open. The entire sea completely freezes over occasionally, with the most recent freeze in 1987, but some southern regions receive mild winters with temperatures only dipping into the upper 30s and low 40s.
Major Cities Along the Baltic Sea
Many nations encompassing the Baltic Sea saw a wealthy economy throughout the Middle Ages until the 19th and 20th-century wars. Medieval trade guilds established trade routes along the sea, including the powerful Hanseatic League. Many cities located along the coast of Baltic have well-preserved medieval districts and structures.
Denmark’s bike-friendly capital of Copenhagen is located on Zealand, the nation’s largest island. Most visitors make a stop at Tivoli Gardens, a historic amusement park that began operation in 1843. If you’ve seen photos of tall, colorful houses along a canal, it’s likely a shot of the historic Nyhavn waterfront district. It’s the perfect place to linger over a coffee or beer on a sunny afternoon. Copenhagen also boasts a national museum called the Nationalmuseet and the massive Christiansborg Palace, which is used today by the Danish parliament, prime minister, and supreme court.
The city of Stockholm consists of 14 major islands in addition to thousands of smaller islands, so be prepared to spend a lot of time on bridges and ferries! This capital city houses many excellent museums, including the Vasa Museum (a 17th-century warship), the ABBA Museum (yes, the pop band ABBA), the open-air Skansen, the Nobel Prize Museum, and the Fotografiska Stockholm (photography museum). It’s also well worth the time to explore Gamla Stan (Old Town), one of Europe’s largest and best-preserved medieval city centers. Make time to visit the magnificent Royal Palace — its 600-plus rooms make it one of Europe’s largest palaces.
Roughly 120 miles west of the Russian border, Finland’s capital of Helsinki is home to elaborate Russian architectural feats such as the Uspenski Cathedral and the Helsinki Cathedral. However, Helsinki has a modern, art nouveau, and utilitarian style of its own. One look at the Kamppi Chapel or the city’s Design District will confirm the city’s role as an international design trendsetter. Stop by the many galleries, restaurants, museums, and showrooms before heading to one of the city’s many public saunas. Saunas are a big deal in Finland (even the word sauna is Finnish) — this country of only 5.5 million people contains about 3.3 million saunas!
St. Petersburg, Russia
St. Petersburg is no longer Russia’s capital, but it’s often referred to as the world’s cultural capital. Construction began in 1703 under Tsar Peter the Great because he wanted a European-style gateway to the Baltic Sea. This magnificent city’s entire historic center is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list for being one of the “greatest urban creations of the 18th century.” Filled with ornate palaces, churches, and museums, you could spend days here and not see everything.
The top attractions include the Hermitage Museum, which comprises seven impressive structures, and the Baroque-style Catherine Palace. Peter the Great commissioned the palace for his wife Catherine, and its vibrant, blue-and-gold painted, ornate exterior only rivals the spectacular interior and surrounding 1,400-acre park. Art enthusiasts will want to explore the world’s most extensive collection of Russian art in the Russian Museum inside the neoclassical Mikhailovsky Palace. Overlooking the same garden is the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, which wows visitors with its stunning mosaics and ornate, onion-shaped domes.
Situated just 40 miles across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki isEstonia’s capital of Tallinn. UNESCO added Tallinn’s Historic Centre (Old Town) to its list of World Heritage Sites, calling it an “exceptionally complete and well-preserved medieval northern European trading city.” Tallinn played a significant role during the Hanseatic League’s dominance during the 13th through the 16th centuries. Medieval history buffs will find numerous fascinating cobblestone streets, buildings, and museums such as the Tallinn City Museum, a complex of buildings that showcase the city’s glory days as a maritime stronghold and includes four medieval defense towers and underground tunnels.
Latvia’s capital of Riga is another port city along the Baltic with extensive medieval history. Riga’s Historic Centre landed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list for boasting “finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe.” Once the city outgrew its medieval walls during the start of the 20th century, architects got a little more creative. The city built hundreds of art nouveau buildings with dramatic windows and doorways, gargoyles, floral reliefs, and sculptures. You can’t miss the impressive, 13th-century Town Hall Square, which was recently restored to its former grandeur after being destroyed in World War II.
Nestled between Latvia and the Russian exclave Kaliningrad sits Klaipėda, Lithuania’s only major port city on the Baltic Sea. However, the city’s real claim to fame is that it serves as a gateway to the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Curonian Spit. Shifting sand dunes cover this narrow peninsula and once threatened to bury its historic fishing communities during the 18th century. To prevent erosion caused by over-logging, residents launched a massive dune stabilization project, including planting trees and hedges. Today, the remote, windswept dunes are a birdwatcher and photographer’s mecca.
Gdańsk, along with nearby cities Gdynia and Sopot, forms a tri-city area renowned for its easily accessible, golden sandy beaches. Far less expensive than Mediterranean resort towns but still offering equally impressive beaches, Sopot is home to multiple trendy bars, restaurants, and upscale hotels. For kitesurfing, sailing, and biking, head to Jurata on the thin Hel Peninsula.
Rügen, Usedom, and Sylt, Germany
Heading to the beach might be the last thing you think of when visiting Germany, but there’s a reason the Baltic is also called the German Riviera. Just off the coast, Rügen is Germany’s largest island and home to some of its most beautiful beaches. The 38-mile coastline upscale seaside resort towns such as Sellin and Binz, in addition to sandy beaches. Another spectacular destination nicknamed “Sonneninsel” (Sunny Island), Usedom attracts beachgoers all summer and is shared with Poland. Sylt, which is also known as the “Queen of the North Sea,” offers almost 25 miles of stunning beaches and is located on the Wadden Sea (shared with Denmark).