The 10 best Baltic ports

TALLINN, ESTONIA

Like many Baltic capitals, Tallinn is a lovely place in which to arrive by sea. The harbour is rimmed with cranes and warehouses, but behind rise the turrets, gables and church spires of its fortified old town, whose architecture jumbles Danish, Swedish, German and Russian influences. The World Heritage ensemble is a short walk from the cruise terminal. In contrast, startling Rothermann Quarter presents contemporary architecture and repurposed factories. See visittallinn.ee

ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA

The Baltic's only city with serious oomph and size usually sees cruise ships stay two or three nights. The main terminal is out of town, but small ships dock on the Neva River in the city. Russia's imperial capital is a whirlwind of opulent baroque palaces, world-class museums, mad cathedrals and vast avenues, many now restored to pre-Revolutionary prettiness. Cram in all the shore excursions you can. See visit-petersburg.ru

VISBY, SWEDEN

Sweden's prettiest town was once a Viking stronghold and medieval trading centre thanks to its location on Gotland Island at the crossroads of Baltic shipping routes. The fine city makes for an agreeable cobblestone stroll past churches, ruins and cottages with rose gardens. Most impressive of all is a tour of its walls, studded with 44 medieval towers and offering delightful views across the countryside and sea. See gotland.com

TURKU, FINLAND

The sail into Turku involves navigating a lovely archipelago of pine-topped islands dotted with cheerfully painted summerhouses and wooden churches. Finland's oldest town and former capital has a great Gothic cathedral, enormous castle and oodles of culture and history, while a large student population, experimental art scene and trendy restaurants provide contemporary buzz. Visit the Forum Marinum for a poke around historic ships and maritime-related exhibits. See visitturku.fi

ROSTOCK, GERMANY

Rostock is one of many former member cities of the Hanseatic League that controlled medieval trade in the Baltic, to which it owes its handsome architecture and maritime atmosphere. Many cruise passengers head off to Berlin, a considerable distance away, but you'll be rewarded with a far more relaxing day here and in jaunty seaside suburb Warnemunde, with its timber houses, fluttering flags, ice-cream stands and beerhalls. See rostock.de

KLAIPEDA, LITHUANIA

Klaipeda (formerly Memel and part of Prussia) was a significant historical trading port and features a cobbled old town of half-timbered warehouses and merchant mansions, plus a Teutonic castle. Its small museums provide a pleasant overview of art, history, maritime trade and the Cold War. The city fronts Curonian Spit National Park; a short ferry ride brings you to stunning sea and lagoon scenery and shivering birch forest. See klaipedainfo.lt

GDANSK, POLAND

The riverside with the characteristic promenade of Gdansk, Poland. satnov16cover
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The riverside of Gdansk, Poland. Photo: iStock

Those who remember the Solidarity movement may expect a grim industrial town, but will find a rather lovely, historical port city of blended Slavic, German and Scandinavian influences, whose waterfront mixes heritage and contemporary architecture. The European Solidarity Centre and Museum of the Second World War provide excellent, unflinching looks at history, but the city's atmosphere is one of optimism, its street alive with café-goers, strollers and buskers. See visitgdansk.com

HELSINKI, FINLAND

Pale blue Nordic skies, shrieking seagulls, the scent of pine trees and modest but striking architecture greet you on arrival in the Finnish capital. Water and greenery are everywhere; as one wit remarked, this isn't so much a city planted with trees as a forest dotted with buildings. There are good museums, but you only have to browse the shops to get a lesson in Finnish design. See myhelsinki.fi

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RIGA, LATVIA

Riga has long been a centre of Baltic power, trade and religion and has flourished once more since its re-emergence from the Soviet Union. It has a lively and experimental restaurant scene, hopping nightlife, fine central market and plenty of culture – theatre, ballet and music thrive. Its spire-punctured old town is complemented by one of Europe's best Art Nouveau districts. Neighbouring Jumala has a glorious beach setting. See latvia.travel

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

Stockholm is surely the quintessential Baltic city: chilly, elegant, wealthy, history-dense, surrounded by waterways and approached through myriad islands. The mostly 16th-century old town is surprisingly jaunty in Mediterranean-style pastel facades, while chic contemporary neighbourhoods such as Södermalm and Östermalm offer Nordic style in fashions, furniture and dining. The whole city is encased in abundant green spaces embedded with various museums, art galleries and other attractions. See visitstockholm.com

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