So many shops, so little time…. That was my lament on a recent cruise of the Baltic Sea. Some women buy shoes, but it’s pretty, exotic trinkets from foreign places that catch my eye. A cruise of the Baltic Sea promised to introduce me to a whole new group of souvenirs.
Of course, I was there for more than shopping. After the fall of Soviet communism, St. Petersburg, Russia opened to cruise ships and quickly became one of the hottest destinations for summer cruises. It’s a convenient, if not indepth, way to get an introduction to this city, which for so long was shrouded in the mystery of inaccessibility.
In Your Bucket Because..
- Medieval Baltic royalty had a taste for amber, and so do you.
- It’s a great place to mix history with your shopping.
- Good for cruise lovers and shoppers looking for sophisticated design.
I signed on for an 11-day cruise on Holland America’s Eurodam, a 2000-passenger cruise ship that spends much of its summer in the Baltic. Starting in Dover, England, the ship called at Kiel, Germany; Tallinn, Estonia; St, Petersburg, Russia; Helsinki, Finland; Stockholm, Sweden: and Copenhagen, Denmark. And – after the palaces, the waterway tours, the churches, the old towns, the art museums (including the incomparable Hermitage) — I went shopping.
Souvenir Shopping in Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn’s Old Town gets the gold star for walking tour shoppability. It’s a quick hop from the port, and within the walls of the old Hanseatic city, everything is walking distance from everything else. The old town is a UNESCO site, and during cruise season it’s given over to tourists, with open-air cafes and restaurants spilling into the main square (Try Old Hansa for lunch; it serves only food that would have been available in Tallinn in medieval times.)
Tallinn also has the best souvenir shopping of all the ports: Lots of variety, lots of shops, and relatively low prices compared with the rest of the Baltic. I bought my personal favorite souvenir, perhaps of all time, here: a cast-iron door knocker that fits perfectly on the door of my house, which happens to be in the design of a Scandinavian chalet. But for more typical souvenirs, look for:
- Amber. Amber is everywhere, in colors from green to claret. As you’ll see throughout the Baltic and Scandinavia, amber is one of the most popular souvenirs. Made from fossilized tree resin, Baltic amber can contain interesting occlusions, even million-year old insects (think Jurassic Park). It comes in colors ranging from green to claret, with the most common an autumnal orange.
- Woolen clothing. There’s plenty of offer for adults, but there’s an especially wide selection of children’s hats, gloves, and sweaters
- Russian Souvenirs. Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union during the Communist era, and some evidence lingers on, including the antique icons, nesting dolls, and lacquer boxes available in Tallinn shops.
- Handmade glass decorative items. There are a number of craft shops in the Old Town where you can watch artisans at work.
Souvenirs in St. Petersburg, Russia
Most visitors to St. Petersburg see the city on guided tours, racing through St. Petersburg’s major palaces and churches. But you’ll have plenty of time to buy traditional Russian souvenirs in museum stores, at souvenir shops, on the street, or even on your cruise chip.
The most common souvenirs are nesting dolls, religious icons, lacquer boxes, reproduction Faberge eggs, and amber jewelry.
Markets in Helsinki, Finland
The heart of the shopping area in Helsinki is at the main outdoor market by the harbor. Streets running from the town center, near the Stockmann’s Department Store (Helsinki’s version of Macy’s, located right across from the main bus station) down to Market Square on the harbor, are filled with shops featuring handmade glass and Scandinavian designs and crafts, as well as clothing.
Cruise lines run buses from designated pick-up spots in the downtown area back to the port. Probably the best purchases to be made here aren’t ones you can take home: The fresh strawberries in the open-air market, and the licorice and pine tar (yes, pine tar) flavored ice cream at the ice cream stands. But for gifts to take home, look for:
- Handmade crafts. Inexpensive (and expensive) handmade arts and crafts are all over the outdoor market down by the harbor, ranging from wooden crafts (including cooking utensils) to ceramics to jewelry to clothing.
- Christmas decorations, found in a variety of materials, sizes, and price ranges.
Souvenir Shopping in Stockholm, Sweden
Most visitors head for Stockholm’s Old Town. As with other Baltic ports, amber and warm but fashionable clothing are widely available in Stockholm, and carved wooden Christmas decorations are popular gifts. A unique Swedish gift is a Dala horse, which is traditionally a small wooden horse, carved to fill time during the long winters. Prices start at a few dollars for a small horse the size of a Christmas ornament, and, of course, go up. Sets are also available.
Danish Design in Copenhagen, Denmark
The longest pedestrian shopping street in the world (although its name changes several times en route) is Copenhagen’s Stroget, which has a variety of fashionable clothing shops, department stores, and tourist-oriented shops with amber and glassworks. The world-renowned Georg Jensen silversmith is also on the Stroget.
Danish design is internationally known for simple but elegant lines, particularly in wooden crafts, glass, and ceramics. On a larger scale, Danish designers are renowned for furniture, but don’t expect bargains (and you’ll need to factor in shipping, too). Window shopping, of course, is always fun and free; you might find yourself in the market for some accessories to take home, not to mention some new ideas.
Scandinavia and the Baltic have always been expensive destinations for Americans, at least in recent history, and the current exchange rate keeps prices high. Note that Russia uses rubles, Sweden uses crowns, and Finland and Estonia use Euros. If you’re on a cruise, you can change on the boat, but you’ll get a slightly better rate at ATMs or currency exchanges in town.
Copyright 2012, Karen Berger. All rights reserved.