Historic highlights of the Baltics
Tips and Guides, Baltics,
Even though it is one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations, the so-called ‘Baltic region’ is not, in fact, officially a place at all, with definitions for what exactly constitutes ‘the Baltics’ varying from person to person and depending on the context in which the area is being discussed.
Rundale Palace, Latvia
Something that everyone who has visited this charming corner of Northern Europe can agree on, however, is that the region (which, for our purposes, is made up of the countries that have shorelines along the Baltic Sea) is truly rich in historic architecture and cultural heritage, and is very much underrated in this regard.
Below, you will find some recommendations as to which ancient castles, palaces and landmarks – along with a number of other fascinating attractions – you should be sure to visit when you next take a trip here on a Baltic cruise.
Drottningholm Palace (Image Credit: Gomer Swahn / )
Not strictly a ‘Baltic state’ going by some definitions, Sweden is nevertheless a hugely rewarding place to visit, characterised by its heavily forested countryside, cutting-edge design (even the metro stations are stunning!) and friendly locals. The nation is also arguably filled with more historically significant buildings, landmarks and educational centres than any other in the region; here are some of our favourites:
Easily found right in the centre of Sweden’s capital city, Stockholm, the wonderful is housed within a beautiful late 19th-century building which was formerly the home of the Count and Countess von Hallwyl. A representative from the museum was able to tell us more about the house’s history and what can be seen there on a visit today:
The Hallwyl House
“Enter the home of Count and Countess Walther and Wilhelmina von Hallwyl, one of Stockholm's most eccentric and engaging museums. This palatial residence was built as a winter home for the immensely rich couple and completed in 1898.
“Wilhelmina always planned for the house to become a museum, and in 1920 Walther and Wilhelmina von Hallwyl donated their Stockholm mansion together with its contents to the Swedish state. The terms of the bequest stipulate that the house must remain essentially unchanged.
“Wilhelmina’s vision became a reality in 1938 when the Hallwyl Museum was first opened to the public, eight years after her death. The house has been preserved exactly as it was left, and situated among the objets d'art are personal peculiarities including a chunk of the Count's beard and a slice of their wedding cake.
“Behind the facade of No. 4 Hamngatan the wondrously preserved series of rooms, as originally furnished by Wilhelmina von Hallwyl, stands as a unique testimonial to the lifestyle and décor of the late Victorian period in Sweden.
“ of the museum take place daily. Discover the elegant and fascinating home of collector Wilhelmina von Hallwyl.
“The Hallwyl Museum is located at No. 4 Hamngatan, in the heart of central Stockholm, off the square of Norrmalmstorg. The nearest subway station is Östermalmstorg (Stureplan exit).”
“The museum shop has an exciting range of products which reflect the fascinating world of the Hallwyl house. These include household items such as baking tins, towels, ostrich feather dusters and hand-blown glasses. You will also find jewellery, craft items, gifts and toys, all with a link to the museum's themes and activities. There is something for all ages in every price range.”
“In the courtyard of the Hallwyl Museum, you will find a calm oasis, where you can have a moment's rest from the bustling streets of central Stockholm, open only during the summer season. The restaurant offers beverages as well as an assortment of small dishes and salads.”
Current exhibition: ‘For all future’ (May 17 - September 9, 2018)
“In conjunction with the 80th anniversary of The Hallwyl Museum, we present an exhibition focusing on the cultural patronage of Wilhelmina, and on how the private home came to be a museum. The Hallwyl Museum, the life´s work of Wilhelmina, offers an insight into the lives of a wealthy family and their servants around the turn of the last century. Wilhelmina´s ambition was to collect and preserve her own era as well as the material culture of earlier periods, and to document everything thoroughly. The exhibition contains several costumes and objects that are normally not shown to visitors.”
Drottningholm Palace (Image Credit: Gomer Swahn / )
As is the case in the UK, the royal family in Sweden are responsible for some of their country’s most impressive architectural achievements. There are a number of incredible palaces and other regal buildings throughout the nation, but none are more striking than the historic , the official residence of the royal family which, happily, can also be explored by the public. Further information on Drottningholm and its many highlights was given to us by a representative of the Swedish Royal Court:
“Drottningholm Palace is on . It is the best-preserved royal palace built in the 17th century in Sweden and at the same time is representative of all European architecture for the period. For more than 400 years Drottningholm Palace and its surroundings have been places for recreation and cultural encounters for royalties and tourists wishing to leave Stockholm for a few hours or more.
Lovisa Ulrika’s library, Drottningholm Palace (Image Credit: Alexis Daflos / )
“Make a day trip to Drottningholm and experience a historic milieu of the highest international standards. The combination of the exotic , the and the magnificent make a visit to Drottningholm a unique experience.
“Influenced by French prototype, the palace was built by architect Nicodemus Tessin the Elder by commission of Queen Hedvig Eleonora. A number of royal personages have since then left their mark on the palace. Queen Lovisa Ulrica, sister to Frederic the Great of Prussia, commissioned the building of the Palace Theatre, still in use, and was given the Chinese Pavilion as a birthday present in 1753. Her son, Gustav III, who often used the theatre for setting up his own plays, was later shot at the opera house in Stockholm.
“The palace is Their Majesties the King and Queen's permanent home residence. The rooms in the southern wing of the palace are reserved for this purpose. The rest of the palace, the theatre, the Chinese Pavilion and gardens are open to the public year-round.”
Another Swedish landmark which has ‘royal’ connections of a very different kind is Gamla Uppsala. A quiet and scenic village on the outskirts of the city of Uppsala, this seemingly tranquil location can, in fact, claim to be among the country’s richest ancient historical sites. The area, and the museum which documents its past, is now managed by the , who were able to tell us a little more about this must-visit spot:
“In Gamla Uppsala, you will find the mighty royal mounds. Each mound was constructed for the burial of a once very powerful person, together with everything that person would need in the afterlife.
“In the , you will find remains from the burials, along with stories of the people who lived here from 600 AD into the Viking age and medieval times. The place is surrounded by myths and stories.”
Gamla Uppsala’s religious, economic and political significance reaches back many, many centuries and taking a trip there is to truly understand the relatively fleeting nature of the civilisations and societies we tend to think of as having existed since time immemorial. One of the most evocative ‘tourist attractions’ you will ever visit, Gamla Uppsala offers an incredible insight into Swedish history.
Rundale Palace, Latvia
From the 1940s until the early 1990s, Latvia was – along with a number of other now-independent countries – part of the Soviet Union, and many people do not often consider the fact that the Baltic state is steeped in its own unique history, and that many aspects of its heritage have been lovingly preserved and continue to be celebrated today. Visiting any of the following locations will allow you to gain your own insight into this extraordinary nation’s past:
is arguably the most impressive architectural feat to have ever been completed in Latvia, and its appeal extends far beyond its striking appearance, with the building’s amazing interiors and expansive gardens attracting many thousands of visitors each year. The team at the palace were on hand to share more details about each of these features and more:
History and interiors
“[Rundale Palace was the] summer residence of the Duke of Courland, Ernst Johann Biron, built according to the architectural design of the architect Francesco Rastrelli from 1736 to 1740, and from 1764 to 1768.
“In 1972, the Rundale Palace Museum was established and the restoration of the architectural ensemble of the palace was commenced.
“Most of the interiors were produced between 1765 and 1768, when sculptor Johann Michael Graff and painters Francesco Martini and Carlo Zucchi were working at the palace. Unique examples of the early style of Francesco Rastrelli – state staircases and the Small Gallery – have survived. The artistic restoration of interiors was performed between 1972 and 2014; the premises have been fitted out with art and household articles characteristic of the era of the Dukes.”
“The Baroque garden of Rundale Palace (10 ha) was created under the leadership of gardeners Christopher and Michael Weyland (1736–1740) and was restored by the museum, preserving the initial layout as it was designed by Rastrelli. Now it displays all the characteristic elements of Baroque gardens – an ornamental parterre, a fountain, the Green Theatre, bosquets, pergolas, pavilions and a labyrinth. It also includes a rose garden (boasting around 2,200 varieties of rose), a collection of decorative trees and shrubs, and plantations of summer flowers and perennial plants characteristic of the 18th century.
“On the south side, the Palace borders a hunting park, whereas the area on the north side is used for economic activities. A hothouse with plants popular during the time of Countess Shuvalova (mid-19th century) has been built beside the old palace inn.
“The area of the architectural ensemble of Rundale Palace covers 85 hectares.”
Permanent exhibition: ‘From the Gothic Style to Art Nouveau’
“The western wing of the Palace houses an exhibition of European and Latvian decorative arts, ‘From the Gothic Style to Art Nouveau’, covering the period between the 15th century and World War I. Examples of the Gothic style, Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, Empire style, Biedermeier, Historicism and Art Nouveau are spread over 15 rooms. The exhibition displays interior groups supplemented with paintings, engravings and household articles, and helps to shape the concept of the main developmental directions and local peculiarities of all the historic styles.”
Of course, Latvia’s significant military past cannot – and should not – be overlooked or written out of the history books, and there are numerous museums and other attractions that delve into the lengthy and complex ways in which this relatively small nation has played a major role in some of Europe’s biggest conflicts.
The most fascinating of these sites is surely in the city of Liepaja. A central feature of the Karosta neighbourhood (a purpose-built area originally constructed as a naval base), the former military jail takes providing an immersive museum experience to a whole new level, as you will see from what a spokesperson told us:
“The building was erected in about 1900 and, until 1997, served as a place where military persons served their terms for breach of discipline. Ever since the first years of its existence, it has been a place to break people’s lives and suppress their free will.
“With powers changing, its prisoners changed as well – among them, there were revolutionaries, seamen and non-commissioned officers of the tsarist army, deserters from the German Wehrmacht, enemies of the people from Stalin’s time, soldiers of both the Soviet army and the Latvian army, and other rebels.
“Today, everyone can visit Karosta Visitors Centre, see Karosta Prison and even stay overnight there.
“The first ‘Behind the Bars’ show occurred on September 27th, 2002, and was arranged by the Lejaskurzemes Tourism Information Office. It was a programme specifically made for staff members of the current Liepaja Tourism Exchange – individuals from the tourism information offices of Liepaja, Riga, and also from foreign countries.
“Since the invited tourism experts acknowledged the show to be unique and interesting, the Lejaskurzemes Tourism Information Office decided to offer the ‘Behind the Bars’ experience to tourists, as well.
“Like many other buildings in the Karosta area, the Karosta jail building was heavily damaged over time by vandals. There was no heating, no water supply, and no electricity. All props for the show had to be delivered by car. During the winter, the weather temperature was sometimes as cold as -15C. However, those who wanted to participate were many.
“The show became very popular very soon. In May of 2003, for example, more than 3,000 students participated.
“In 2002, the Karosta Restoration Association was founded. The Association manages the Karosta Jail building, which is the property of Liepaja City and offers various activities to tourists. All revenues generated from the tourism services are invested back into the renovation of the building.”
The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia
As previously alluded to, Latvia is a fascinating nation that has enjoyed a rich and diverse history. Today, visitors to the country will be pleased to know that they can learn much more about the many facets of its past by spending a day at the wonderful . Dedicated to preserving and showcasing Latvia’s heritage, the attraction is among the finest of its kind in Europe and is well worth exploring. Here’s what the team at the museum had to tell us about its highlights and features:
“The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia was established in 1924 and now exhibits more than 118 historical buildings. On the beautiful shores of Lake Jugla, the museum in its 87-hectare territory shows the life of peasants in the Latvian countryside from the end of the 17th century till the middle of the 20th century.
“In the museum’s natural and authentic environment visitors can get acquainted with the cultural heritage of Latvians and other nations historically living in the territory of Latvia and visit all the cultural and historical areas of Latvia — Kurzeme, Zemgale, Vidzeme and Latgale — in one place, thus enjoying a rural environment without leaving the city.
“The museum is an opportunity to spend quality time with children, relatives and friends; try out old crafts and skills; enjoy traditional cuisine; participate in celebrations of traditional festivities; visit crafts fairs; or just relax and be at one with nature.”
Walls of Tallinn, Estonia (Image Credit: / )
Consistently seen as one of the most popular Baltic countries in terms of the number of annual visitors it welcomes, Estonia is a true jewel in the crown of Northern Europe. Whilst the capital city of Tallinn is perhaps the best-known location within the country, anyone who has spent more than a few days there will know that amazing historic architecture and attractions can be found throughout Estonia. Here are just a couple of the many great examples:
Tartu Town Hall Square
Tartu Town Hall Square (Image Credit: Kalle Paalits)
Estonia’s ‘second city’ is , widely regarded as the country’s cultural, intellectual and artistic hub. Like many ancient European cities, many of Tartu’s most important buildings, landmarks and activities are centred round its main ‘square’.
Tartu’s is a particularly attractive example of the kind of typical municipal centre that graces Estonia and other Baltic countries, and a representative was able to tell us more about the area’s history, and the many different highlights that modern-day visitors can look forward to experiencing:
“Since ancient times, the Town Hall Square has been the centre of Tartu. It was the main trading area of the settlement between the castle on the Toome Hill and the riverside port on the Emajõgi. This tradition was upheld for centuries. In the Middle Ages, the seat of municipal power – The Town Hall – was erected.
“The present building is already the third one on the same site. In comparison with the long history of Tartu its buildings are relatively new: very seldom can you see buildings that date back to earlier than the last quarter of the 18th century, which is the result of numerous devastating wars and fires. The Great Fire of 1775 ravaged almost the whole central part of Tartu. After the fire, Tartu began to obtain its present configuration and the Town Hall was also built. The original Town Hall of Tartu was designed by the master-builder of the town, Johann Heinrich Bartholomäus Walter (1734-1802) from Rostock. The cornerstone was laid in 1782. Although the Town Hall was festively opened in 1786, the finishing touches were not made until 1789.
‘The Kissing Students’, Tartu Town Hall Square (Image Credit – Helen Kalberg)
“'The Kissing Students' sculpture and fountain in front of the Town Hall is one of the most recognised symbols of Tartu. A fountain has stood in the same place since 1948, when newlyweds and their guests would visit it for luck, and people would also take a dip in it. The sculpture was created by Mati Karmin and completed in 1998. Since 2006, the fountain has been surrounded by tiles bearing the names of Tartu's twin towns: Bærum, Ferrara, Fredriksberg, Hafnarfjörður, Hämeenlinna, Kaunas, Lüneburg, Pihkva, Riia, Salisbury, Tampere, Turu, Uppsala, Veszprem, Zutphen and Deventer. They are situated in the direction that the cities lie from Tartu, marking the distances.
University of Tartu main building (Image Credit – Andres Tennus)
“The Old Town of Tartu is under National Heritage protection because of its historical and cultural significance. The most prominent features of the old town are the Town Hall and the Town Hall Square. A yellow National Geographic window and the , which people call the Pisa Tower of Tartu, are also important sights at the square. The main building of the , situated close to the Town Hall Square, is one of the most outstanding examples of classicistic architecture in Estonia.”
One of the most enjoyable parts of travelling to a new country - enjoying its traditional food and drink - should not be ignored, and there is an attraction in Estonia that allows guests to combine this with discovering a building of great historical significance.
Saaremaa is the largest island that can be visited off the coast of Estonia, and is a particularly tranquil and beautiful setting to discover. After a long day exploring the area’s cliffs and beaches, there is no better place to quench your appetite than at the (or ‘Saaremaa Veski’ in Estonian) – a building in the city of Kuressaare with a long and interesting history, and which also happens to be home to one of the island’s very best restaurants. Here’s some more information about the windmill’s history, as well as the various dishes that can be enjoyed at its restaurant, from the team who are based there today:
“The windmill was built in 1899. Before that on this spot was the first Eastern Orthodox Church in Kuressaare that burned down at the beginning of the 1780s during the fire in the city.
“The windmill was in working order until 1941. When the war began, the sails were sawn off in order to prevent the enemies using them for signalling. It is known from the history that during World War I the French, using the sails, gave signals about movement directions and even about the number of enemies to their own troops. After the war, the windmill was used as a store, and the miller’s living area – in the left protrusion from the front view – as an apartment.
“In order to improve the catering conditions in Kuressaare to benefit the increased number of tourists seen from the end of the 1960s, the restoration of the windmill with the aim of using it as a café started in autumn 1972, led by architect Fredy Tomps. The interior design was made by architect Aet Maasik. During the restoration, care was given to preserving the original Dutch stone windmill structure.
“On 4 January 1974, Café Veski opened to visitors. Immediately after the opening, the café became one of the most popular places in Kuressaare city, and at the moment we are the oldest operating catering establishment in Kuressaare. ‘Veski’ is an architectural monument of national importance.
“Saaremaa Veski is the ‘Restaurant of Local Tastes’! Saaremaa Veski offers its guests a local experience – simple, fresh and enjoyable, following the seasons and serving the gifts of nature. We recommend tasting the locally smoked baby trout and sturgeon steaks, the Saaremaa’s wild boar fillet, our legendary cheese balls, house-made apple wine and definitely the house schnapps. And we have the best variety of local beers available. Bon appetite, dear guest!”
Rundetaarn, Denmark (Image Credit: Ron Graybill)
Often topping lists of the ‘world’s happiest countries’, it is no surprise that Denmark is also a popular place to pay a visit to on holiday. As with all the countries on our list, this nation is spoilt with a rich variety of beautiful historic attractions and landmarks, and a couple of our favourites are described in more detail below:
As you will no doubt have already gathered, the Baltic region is not exactly lacking when it comes to architecturally stunning and opulent royal palaces and castles. Among the most popular and charming such examples in Denmark is . As you will see from the below – which was shared with us by a representative of the castle – there is also much more to it than just an impressive exterior:
“A royal hermitage set in the beautiful King’s garden in the heart of Copenhagen, Rosenborg Castle features 400 years of splendour, royal art treasures and the nation’s well-guarded Crown Jewels and Royal Regalia.
“Rosenborg Castle was built by one of the most famous Scandinavian kings, Christian IV, in the early 17th century. Christian IV fathered more than 20 children, was a patron of the arts and built some of the most significant buildings in Copenhagen. Among his many castles, Rosenborg became his favourite (and in 1648, at the age of 70, his dying wish was to be taken by sleigh in the dark of winter from Frederiksborg Castle to Rosenborg Castle, which had provided the setting for so many years of his life).
“Today, the pomp and circumstance of the past can be experienced through the numerous impressive belongings of Christian IV and his descendants. Among the main attractions is the Knights’ Hall, with the coronation thrones and three life-size silver lions standing guard. The king’s coronation throne is made of narwhale tusks with gilt figures and the queen’s is carried out in silver. On the walls tapestries commemorate battles between Denmark and Sweden.
“The interiors are well-preserved and invite the visitor to take a journey in time. The visitor can experience the king’s private writing cabinet, his bathroom and see wax figures of former royal inhabitants. Rosenborg also houses an exquisite collection of Flora Danica and one of the world’s finest Venetian glass collections, both set in tower chambers.
“The crowns of the Danish kings and queens are kept in special vaults with access from the Rosenborg basement. The crowns are embellished with table-cut stones, enamel and gold ornamentation. They were last used for coronations in 1840, as absolutism was soon after dissolved in Denmark.”
Rundetaarn interior (Image Credit – Peter Hartley). The spiral ramp twists 7½ times around the tower’s hollow core and is the only way to the top. It is inspired by both German Renaissance castles and ancient structures and is unique in a Danish context.
Arguably even more fascinating – and also to be found in the Danish capital of Copenhagen – is (which translates to the ‘Round Tower’ in English). Although very much different in appearance, this particular building does have something in common with Rosenborg Castle, in that both landmarks only exist because of the far-reaching ambition and vision of former monarch Christian IV. The team at Rundetaarn explained more about its history:
“Discoveries have been made in the Round Tower. Institutions have started here. Important historical figures have come here. And people from all walks of life have passed each other in search of Copenhagen’s most charming view 34.8 metres above the street. The whole world passes through the Round Tower and has done so since 1642, when it was finished - a historical place that also houses exhibitions, concerts and activities for young and old.
“With its distinctive spiral ramp, the Round Tower is one of Denmark’s best-known and most visited structures. It was built as a platform for the university observatory and for centuries it was the centre of Danish astronomy. The foundation stone was laid on 7/7 1637 and five years later the Round Tower was finished as the first part of the Trinity Complex, which was designed to accommodate three things: the observatory at the top of the tower, the university library above the Trinity Church and the church itself below.
“The Round Tower is built by King Christian IV, who constructed its round walls in the royal colours of yellow and red. The King himself also sketched the famous golden rebus on the front of the tower: ‘Lead, God, the right teachings and justice into the heart of King Christian IV’.
“Halfway up the tower you will find the Library Hall, which has been a venue for exhibitions, concerts and cultural events since its reopening in 1987. The tower platform on top has a great 360-degree city view centred by the observatory, which is still used in the winter months and is thus the oldest functioning observatory in Europe.
“The Round Tower has a varied programme of cultural events for all ages. Tower talks, concerts and children’s activities like theatre and workshops often take place – see the calendar at for more information. Welcome inside!”
Fiskars Village, Finland
Finally, we head to Finland – a nation which, like the others we have discussed – excels in terms of both the natural and manmade highlights it boasts. Whilst we have mainly discussed the latter in this article so far, we have chosen to end by highlighting a Finnish destination that offers the best in terms of both fascinating heritage and stunning countryside.
is a truly unique location that visitors of all ages and cultural tastes can enjoy. As well as being a real, local community, the village is simultaneously a vibrant hub of industry, tourism and the arts. Here’s what a member of the Fiskars team had to tell us about the many reasons to spend time at this unusual yet enchanting place:
“Fiskars Village, founded in 1649, was one of the first Finnish ironworks and forerunners of industry. The village was known for producing not only iron, but later on also quality cutlery, knives and, of course, orange-handled scissors. Today the village is a unique and versatile destination where design, art and handicraft meet nature, history and architecture. Here, at the birth site of the , you can enjoy several days filled with experiences for all your senses.
“The region has attracted craftspeople and artistic-minded individuals for centuries, and Fiskars is today well known as a centre of Finnish art and design. The Onoma cooperative was established in Fiskars in 1996 and its 113 members all live or work in the area. There are over 30 boutiques and workshops where one can find local craft products and unique design items. At the local distillery’s tap room, you can taste beers, ciders and spirits made from natural ingredients and seasoned with local herbs and berries. The restaurants and food events serve seasonal food made out of local ingredients.
“Fiskars Village is located in a beautiful river valley, surrounded by lakes, forests and cultural landscapes. Nature trails can be enjoyed by walking or on a mountain bike that can be rented from the . Mountain bike trails cover almost 70 kilometres and some interesting walks include the tree spotting path, introducing 23 different species found in the area.
“Fiskars Village is situated 90 km west of Helsinki and can be reached by car or public transportation and taxi.”
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