Welcome to Helsinki, Finland. If in the city early, maybe check out the magnificent Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, Senate Square or catch a performance at the National Theatre. You may want to consider purchasing the Helsinki Card – an economical way to travel on Helsinki City Transport (HKL) services, as well as free admission to the main Helsinki sights and nearly 50 museums.
Leave Helsinki after breakfast and catch a ferry across the Gulf of Finland to the Estonian capital of Tallinn (approximately 3 hours). Arrive mid-afternoon, check into your hotel and start your time here with a short orientation walk through the city. The rest of your day is then free to enjoy this exceptionally preserved medieval city and all it has to offer. Perhaps head out and enjoy some of the region's culinary specialties, or stop for a drink on the main square for a spot of people watching. With its steep red roofs, spires, pastel-coloured buildings and new restaurants and bars, Estonia's capital is a real treat to explore. Seeing the vibrant streets of Tallinn now, it's difficult to fathom that Soviet occupation only ended in 1991.
Today is free to do as you wish and an exploration of the Old Town is a must. You'll see the last remaining gothic town hall in northern Europe, Old Thomas; the Raapteek, which has housed a pharmacy since the 15th century; and St Olaf Church, a major landmark of Tallinn. You can head towards Upper Tallinn, home to the noble families, to see amazing views of Lower Tallinn and the medieval spires of the town walls. The 13th-century Toompea Castle, where the Estonian Parliament sits, and the 19th-century orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral are some of the main attractions of Upper Tallinn. Alternatively, you could head to Pirita to chill out at Tallinn's most popular beach or visit Kadriorg Palace, a palace built by czar Peter the Great for his second wife Catherine I. Make sure you spend some time in the beautiful gardens surrounding the palace.
Cross the border by local bus into Latvia today and travel to Riga (approximately 4 hours). On arrival, go on an orientation tour around Riga, renowned for its welcoming locals and a fascinating art nouveau heritage. Some of the sights we see include the Doma Cathedral, St Peter's Basilica, House of Blackheads, the Swedish Gate, Mentzendorff's House, Riga Castle, The Great Guild & Small Guild and the Cat House.
Today is a free day in Riga. Perhaps pay a visit to The Museum of Occupation of Latvia. This offers a fascinating insight into the hardships suffered by Latvians during its occupation by, first, the Germans and, later, the Soviets. The Central Market Halls are a must-see and a great place to haggle for supplies for a picnic lunch if it takes your fancy. It is housed in 4 disused German zeppelin hangars and is said to be Europe's largest market after Rungis in Paris, comprising over 3000 trade stalls.
Set off by private bus after breakfast and cross the border into Lithuania. After a stop at the famous Hill of Crosses continue onto the former Prussian city of Klaipeda (approximately 6 hours in total). Klaipeda used to be a member of the Hanseatic League and is the gateway to the Curonian Spit - a long and narrow sand dune peninsula separating the Curonian lagoon from the Baltic Sea. Upon arrival head out to the waterfront with it's old brick buildings, and explore the old town centre. Perhaps head out for dinner with the group in the evening, at one of the many harbour-side cafes.
Today, take an included bike ride to explore the unique World Heritage-listed Curonian Spit National Park - the second oldest national park of the former Soviet Union. This is a spectacular landscape full of beaches, sand dunes and forested areas. The peninsula is only 400 m wide in parts but 98 km long, 52 of which belong to Lithuania, while the rest is part of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. It formed only 5000 years ago by strong winds and currents which constantly change the shape of the landscape to this day. Only recently a whole village was swallowed by the inexorable sand. According to legend, the spit was formed by the girl giant Neringa, who poured sand into the Baltic Sea to protect the bay from storms and create an embankment for fishermen to live. On our day trip you will explore the tiny village of Nida and the surrounding beaches by bike. Look in the distance to see the Russian border. For lunch, perhaps try the smoked pike for which the spit is famous. Return to Klaipeda in the late afternoon.
You'll continue your journey today by bus or train to the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius (approximately 4 hours). Having once been occupied by Sweden, Poland, France and Russia, each occupier has left its mark in some way on this picturesque city. Vilnius offers a different picture of the Baltics than Riga and Tallinn, but it's every bit as interesting. On arrival, take an orientation walk with your leader that covers Cathedral Square and its free standing belfry, the famous chapel of Saint Kazimieras and Gediminas Tower. The 16th century Gate of Dawn houses an icon of the Virgin Mary which is said to have miraculous powers, and thus luckily escaped destruction by the Soviets. For a break from Vilnius' historic monuments, take a walk through some of the charming gardens and parks that are dotted around the city or visit the 'republic' of Uzupis, an inner-city quarter that has declared independence from Lithuania in 1997. The inhabitants have even adopted a tongue-in-cheek constitution, and have erected a statue of Frank Zappa, the only one on the world.
Today is a free day to explore Vilnius. Perhaps take the 40-minute bus trip to Trakai, which is situated on a lake and guarded by an impressive 14th century castle on an island. Rent paddle-boats, swim in the lake, or just wander around the old castle. This is a quaint town that's extremely popular due to its beauty and location. For those who want to uncover the hidden gems of Vilnius, why not go on an Urban Adventure. Explore both the old and new sides of this amazing city, while visiting cafes, bars and attractions that only the locals really know about. One museum that shouldn't be missed is the Museum of Genocide (also known as the KGB Museum). It is located in Vilnius' formed KGB headquarters and is dedicated to the 50-year history of Soviet occupation which has left a visible mark on the city and the country.
After breakfast, travel by local train to the town of Ignalina (approximately 2 hours) and then on to Aukstaitija ('Owk-sty-chee-ah') National Park and the charming village of Ginuciai where our home stay is located. As one of the most delightful national parks in the Baltic states, Aukstaitija has 126 lakes, an abundance of waterways, hills and woods. This afternoon you will take a guided kayak ride through the lakes and rivers, past villages and through forests, to an ancient pagan site on top of a hill with a wishing tree. The top affords great views across the surrounding forests and lakes. Transfer back to your accommodation later in the afternoon and enjoy the hospitality and home-cooking of our hosts for the next two days.
Today is free to visit some of the local attractions, such as the nearby villages that date from the 14th century and consist of traditional wooden houses and farmsteads. The 19th-century Ginuciai Watermill is another point of interest. You can hike to some glorious lookouts, do some fishing, take a swim in the lake or river rapids, or just relax. Perhaps ask our host family to fire up the sauna for the ultimate relaxation and cleansing experience.
Exit Lithuania today and cross the border into Poland, making the epic and long journey to Warsaw. Unfortunately, there's no faster way so get comfortable with a good book and take in the sights en route (make sure to bring snacks for the long journey). Warsaw is Poland's large, bustling capital, with a love of culture and art, as well as entertainment. There are numerous theatrical and musical venues, including the prestigious National Opera, the Chamber Opera and the National Theatre. As you won't have much time to explore when you arrive, perhaps head out for dinner with the group in the evening.
Not long after breakfast today, head out on a short Orientation Walk and an included visit to the evocative Warsaw Uprising Museum. Opened on the 60th anniversary of the Uprising, this museum recounts the events which saw the people of Warsaw fighting against the Nazi occupation. The museum is a moving tribute to those who fought and died for independence. The rest of your day is free to do as you wish. There are plenty of other museums to browse, including the Ethnographic Museum, Marie Curie Museum and Natural History Museum. The Palace of Science and Culture Observation Deck is a great way of seeing the city of Warsaw in all of its glory. Alternatively continue to explore Warsaw's old town, rebuilt true to the original after WWII had left 85% of Warsaw in rubble. The effort was recognized by UNESCO in 1980 when it was added to the world heritage list. Make sure you also head down the Royal Mile past the university, beautiful baroque buildings and the occasional royal park.
Leave Poland behind and cross the border into Germany today, as you head to Berlin by train (approximately 6 hours). On arrival into Berlin there won't be too much daylight left, but the city has a unique nightlife that presents delicious food, bars, pubs and clubs (if that's your thing). The Brandenburg Gate, Germany's symbol which is minted on the Euro coins, is a great place to visit at night, as the whole area is completely lit up. Other areas great for night life are the inner-city neighbourhoods of Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg, perfect for all-nighters. 24-hour public transport makes venturing around the city a breeze.
If you're a bit daunted by the size of the city, an ideal way to find your feet are buses 100 and 200 as they are perfect to reach many of the main tourist sites for just the regular bus fare. There are many unique memorials and sites holding significance in Berlin's more recent history, which are all designed to provoke thought as well as commemorate. These include the Jewish Memorial, the empty book shelves of Bebelplatz and the confronting Topography of Terror. The 19th century Reichstag, whose cupola was designed by British architect Norman Foster, holds a special and symbolic meaning outside of its role as the home of parliament. The great glass dome that crowns the building also offers sweeping views over Berlin. Make sure you book your visit early in the morning, as queues can snake around the building for hours on end.
After a morning on an orientation walk of the city, enjoy a free afternoon to explore the cafes, bars and galleries of bohemian Berlin, and discover the perfect combination of grunge and class in Berlin. Perhaps try and find the crumbling remnants of the Berlin Wall that are scattered all over the city. Checkpoint Charlie is also a significant site in German history, as its museum overlooks the former border checkpoint dividing East and West.
Travel by train to Hamburg (about 2 hours), leaving in the morning in order to maximise time spent in the port city. Upon arrival enjoy an introductory walk of the city with your leader which will set you up for your own explorations. Make sure you spend time in the historic Speicherstadt (‘Warehouse City’) and check out parts of the harbour for a closer look at the the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, a brand new glass and steel structure set atop an old brick warehouse from around 1900. Perhaps climb the tower of St Michaelis Church (nick-named "The Michel") for great views over the city. Alternatively mingle with the locals at a cafe on the Binnenalster lake, or at Reeperbahn with its multitude of bars and clubs.
Early this morning travel by train and ferry via the southern Danish archipelago to Copenhagen (approx 5 hours). Enjoy a free evening to visit the pastel-coloured waterfront houses in the Nyhavn area. Drop in at an industrial-chic bar for a drink or stroll around the famous Tivoli Gardens which has the world's oldest rollercoaster. You may also decide to venture into the Freetown of Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood south-east of the city centre. It is regulated by a special law, the Christiania Law of 1989, and has been a source of controversy since 1971 when squatters took over a former military area. Another area worth checking out is Norrebro, a residential area known for its wide range of restaurants.
When in Copenhagen, do as the locals do and explore the city by bike, undoubtedly the best way to explore the city's many hidden corners. The bike-friendly streets mean cycling to the city's major sites are a breeze. The afternoon is free for you to further explore this Scandinavian city. Stroll along the harbour or head out to the classicist palaces of 18th century Amalienborg, to this day the main residence of the Danish Royal family. Perhaps pay a visit to Frederik's Church, also known as Marble Church, the Court House on Nytorv Square or check out the facade of the red brick town hall. Alternatively the National Museum is not to be missed, as is the Christiansborg Palace in the very centre of Copenhagen.
Another morning train ride will get us to Gothenburg in Sweden (approx 4 hours) via the famous Øresund Bridge that spans the strait separating Denmark and the Scandinavian peninsula. After a first orientation walk, embark on a cruise through Gothenburg's many waterways, passing the opera house, the famous fish market Feskekörka, and the old docks. Afterwards enjoy a free afternoon. Perhaps visit the Göteborg City Museum, housed in the former East India Company House, built during the time when Gothenburg's role was that of a major maritime trading centre. Take in the architectural ensemble on Gustav Adolfs Torg, go shopping along the main boulevard Avenyn, check out the iconic Skansen Kronan, stroll along bohemian Långgatan street or sip a coffee in the charming Haga quarter, known for its picturesque wooden houses, 19th century atmosphere and the so-called hagabulle, a cinnamon pastry similar to kanelbulle.
After a free morning in Gothenburg catch an afternoon bus across the border to Norway's capital Oslo (approx 4 hours). Time permitting your leader will take you on an initial orientation walk so you get a first taste of this quirky, colourful city. In the evening say 'skal' ('cheers') to the group at your last dinner together. Why not seek out some traditional Norwegian fare based around cod and mackerel dishes.
Your trip ends today after breakfast and you can depart your accommodation at any time. If you would like to extend your stay in Oslo please speak to your travel agent at the time of booking as we will be happy to book additional accommodation for you (subject to availability).