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In August this year, I had a work conference to attend in Amsterdam. After poring over the map, several guidebooks and numerous web articles, I decided to spend the two weeks prior to the conference in Denmark. Quite a few people seemed surprised that I would spend my entire two weeks in the one country. But really, this is the kind of travel I enjoy most – spending more time getting to know one place really well, rather than rushing through several countries.
And boy, am I glad I decided to venture beyond Copenhagen, which is about all that most tourists to Denmark will ever see. Such a shame, because beautiful as it is, Copenhagen is really only the tip of the iceberg. My favourite places were far beyond the beaten path. Here are some of the things I loved most about Denmark.
1. The fairy tale castles
It’s no secret I love a good castle. The dreamier the better. And there are certainly no shortage of castles to visit, both within Copenhagen or just a short distance away.
–Kronborg Slot in Helsingor; adults DKK90 Nov-May or DKK140 June-Aug/children under 18 free/free with Copenhagen Card; open daily from 10am-5.30pm June-Sept, 11am-4pm May-June and Oct, and Tuesday-Sunday 11am-4pm. Situated on the far northeastern tip of the island of Zealand, this castle situated on a roughly diamond shaped moat surrounded on three sides by the Baltic Sea is imposing in both appearance and location. Add to that the fact that Kronborg is otherwise known as Hamlet’s castle, said to be the very place in which Shakespeare set his famous play. In fact, if you visit during the summer, you will be treated at no extra cost to an ongoing re-enactment of various scenes from the play at different locations throughout the castle and castle grounds. It’s a ton of fun!
–Frederiksborg Slot in Hillerod; adults DKK75/children 6-15 years DKK20/free with Copenhagen Card; open daily 10am-5pm April-Oct and 11am-3pm Nov-March. It is possible to visit both Kronborg and Frederiksborg in one day by public transport from Copenhagen, and in fact we quite enjoyed contrasting the imposing fortress that is Kronborg Castle with the latter, which has more of a stately palatial feel. Situated on a lake and surrounded by manicured gardens, Frederiksborg Castle will take your breath away at every turn. Give yourself time to enjoy different views of the castle from the relaxing and picturesque ferry ride around the lake, said to be “Denmark’s most beautiful nautical mile”, and also free with the Copenhagen Card.
2. The fairy tale towns
I guess it should come as no surprise that where there are fairy tale castles, there must be fairy tale towns. If you enjoy taking a step back through time as you wander cobblestone streets lined by crooked houses with colourful doors and windows, then this is definitely the place for you.
–Aeroskobing on the island of Aero. This was without a doubt a trip highlight for me. It’s slightly off the beaten path, but then, these tend to be my favourite destinations. You can either take a ferry from Faaborg to Soby on the western end of the island, or from Svendborg straight to Aeroskobing towards the east. Once there, there’s a free bus that runs the entire length of the island, but it’s probably easier if you have your own set of wheels. Check ferry schedules and make your bookings here.
–Ribe. If you’re short of time, you’ll find it easier and no less satisfying to visit this town towards the southwest of Jutland and just a short drive from the main attraction in this region, Legoland. Even if you’re here mainly for the little bricks, do set aside some time to stroll around this pretty little town encircled by canals. The views from Riberhus Castle ruins are amazing, and every night from May to October, the Night Watchman will bring history alive for you on his 45 minute free tour.
3. The fairy tale author himself (are you seeing a bit of a pattern here?)
Hans Christian Andersen, famous for penning such childhood favourites as “The Ugly Duckling”, “Thumbelina”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, and of course, “The Little Mermaid” was a Danish author, so it should come as no surprise that you will come across statues and various tourist attractions paying homage to him and his fairy tales all throughout Denmark. If you’re anything like me, taking the trip down memory lane into your childhood years of reading these classics and then comparing them to their Disney remakes will surely place cheerful tunes into your head, a big smile on your face and a spring in your step.
-The town of Odense, where you can visit Hans Christian Andersen’s birthplace at Bangs Boder 29; adults DKK95/children under 18 free/free with Odense City Pass; open daily from 10am-5pm in summer and Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-4pm the rest of the year. Allow yourself ample time to wander this pretty little cobblestone street.
–H. C. Andersen Fairy Tale House at Radhuspladsen 57, Copenhagen; adults DKK54/children DKK36/free with Copenhagen Card; open daily from 10am but closing times vary by day and time of year. This little museum tells you a little bit about the author’s life, but it is the exhibitions complete with light and sound effects that will capture your imagination. It’s meant to be geared towards kids, but I personally adored the fun dioramas bringing his most famous fairy tales to life.
4. The colourful Lego houses
The classic Lego houses of my childhood were bright yellow with red roofs, and it’s not hard to see why once you start exploring the Danish countryside. Cuteness overload!
–Soro. It won’t take long to visit this small town roughly towards the centre of Zealand, but it’s definitely a worthwhile detour to see the rows of sunshine yellow houses as you make your way towards the island of Fyn.
–Ebeltoft. Another worthwhile stop, especially if, like us, you’ve driven clockwise from Zealand to Fyn then Jutland, and prefer to get back to Copenhagen without backtracking.
Who hasn’t played with and loved these little bricks at some point in their lives, and wished they had the creativity and patience to assemble the works of art you will find in every corner of this theme park? Plan on spending an entire day here!
–Ice Pilots School if you’re after a thrill ride. Tucked in a corner at the very back of the park, we stumbled upon this ride quite by chance. You get to choose your thrill level, and without giving anything away, let’s just say our choice of mid-level thrills was more than enough for me!
–Lego safari. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you can sit in a slow moving jeep belting out African tunes as you hunt for Lego wildlife. Sure, this may be cheesy as heck, but sitting here recounting my experience, I can still hear the Lego safari music. If that doesn’t say memorable, then I don’t know what does!
-Of course you don’t really need to be told this, but be sure you leave plenty of time to travel around the world in 1 day!
6. The amusement parks
I thought Tivoli Garden in Copenhagen, famous for having inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland, was one of a kind. As it turns out, the word “tivoli” may refer to a garden, park or other entertainment venue. The Danes must be kids at heart because you’ll find all manner of amusement parks dotted throughout the country.
–Tivoli Garden at Vesterbrogade 3, Copenhagen; adults DKK110/children 3-7 years DKK50/free with Copenhagen Card; open daily generally from 11am-11pm (hours vary). Go in the morning for photos, and return in the evening for the atmosphere and fun.
–Bon Bon Land at Gartnervej 2, Holmegaard. We didn’t get a chance to visit this whacky amusement park complete with rides like “Dog Fart Switchback” and cartoon characters that love exposing themselves, but I’m hoping you’ll go and tell me all about it!
7. The shiny happy people
No, not me. The Danes, of course. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere else in the world where the people are as collectively warm, friendly, helpful and jovial. In Denmark, I stayed in my favourite bed and breakfast as well as my favourite airbnb homestay of all time, both of which were made extra special by the warmth of the hosts and their genuine interest in me. I included the photo above to remind me of that time when L set up his tripod smack bang in the middle of a T junction, getting ready to hop onto the rock next to me. Several cars drove by during this time. Did they glare, beep or swear at us for obstructing their path? Absolutely not! Each and every single driver stuck their head out the window to say hello and waved cheerfully at us as they took great pains to maneuver around the obstruction.
8. The country cottages you can make yourself at home in
Speaking of my favourite bed and breakfast and airbnb homestay, one of the reasons I fell so in love with these lodgings is that they are both styled with that typically Danish aesthetic of white timber with clean lines and complementary soothing colours to give you that cozy country feel. It’s like walking into an Ikea catalogue – in fact, I recognised quite a few of the items in the homestay!
-This pretty little farmstay in Holmegaard is situated towards the southern end of Zealand, making it the perfect base from which to explore the beautiful southeastern coastline of the island as well as the neighbouring Falster. Helle and her husband keep the place immaculately clean and well stocked with everything you’ll need for a peaceful and restful stay in the countryside, including delicious fresh fruits straight off the tree. We didn’t want to leave!
–Pa Torvet, situated smack bang on the main square of Aeroskobing in the tiny little island of Aero, is not only picture perfect, but will also delight you with that friendly and thoughtful Danish hospitality, where you’re greeted by first name at check in. The included breakfast is a platter loaded to the brim with the fresh and delicious produce that we had by then come to expect. Eat strategically and leave the items that transport well for lunch, because they’ll supply you with a picnic box in which to pack your leftovers.
9. The ultra trendy minimalist aesthetic
Not only do the Danes do rustic homeliness well, they are also masters of sophisticated modern design and architecture. Just think of the Sydney Opera House, which was designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon; and form meets function homewares brands like Georg Jensen and Bodum.
-The Rainbow Panorama at ARoS Aarhus Art Museum, Aros Alle 2, Aarhus; adults DKK130/under 28 years and students DKK100/children under 18 free/free with Aarhus Card; open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-5pm, to 10pm Wednesdays. Nowhere else have I seen the old so perfectly juxtaposed with the new as when I walked the full revolution of the Rainbow Panorama more than once, peering out at the mostly older buildings of the cityscape through rainbow hued floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The design concept of ARoS is actually rather simple – basically a box topped with a coloured ring. Despite its simplicity, it is a sight and experience you won’t soon forget. So delightful that I have to share another picture to remind you to step outside for a different view of the circular viewing platform with the other tourists inside looking somewhat like ants making their way round and round a multicoloured tube.
–Shopping! The Scandinavians seem to have this knack for making simple clean lines and quirky prints look cutting edge. Goods are not exactly cheap in Denmark, but they’re sure to be unique. Pick up a homewares or fashion item as a souvenir of your trip – you won’t regret it!
10. The art scene
Once you’re done seeing Aarhus through rainbow coloured glass, be sure to wander through the exhibits of ARoS, which boasts one of the most eclectic and thought-provoking collection of artworks I have ever experienced. I love pieces that transcend the two dimensional by incorporating light, sound and even touch to transport you to a different time and place of ethereal beauty and raw emotion. In ARoS, you will find many such works, like the video installation above where images of post-nuclear Chernobyl are projected onto four blank walls with the sound and lighting set up in such a way that you’re simultaneously a spectator yet also feel as though you’re right there.
As you wander elsewhere throughout Denmark, do keep your eyes pealed for interesting street art, and if you stumble across a local art gallery, walk in – they’re usually free and well worth your time.
–Boy by Australian artist Ron Mueck at ARos Aarhus Art Museum. This fibreglass sculpture is so realistic you almost feel as though there really is blood pumping through those veins!
-The psychedelic Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen. Just remember to put your cameras away when you get to Pusher Street. How do you know you’re on Pusher Street? You’ll smell it…
11. The insanely high tech museums
The Danes really are masters not just at engaging all the senses, but also making learning fun. Forget stuffy exhibits and boring information panels. Not only will you find mummified bog people and Viking history recounted in all its gory detail, there are also plenty of buttons to push and numerous other highly inventive and enjoyable interactive displays.
–Moesgaard Museum at Moesgaard Alle 15, Aarhus; adults DKK120-140 depending on season/children under 18 free/free with Aarhus Card; open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm, to 9pm Wednesdays. We came here just to see Grauballe Man, one of the best preserved bog bodies in the world, but had such a great time we ended up spending the better part of the day there. There are plenty of fun activities making full use of modern audiovisual technology to immerse you in history itself. One minute you’re sitting around a campfire in a cave; the next you’re under the stars. Now you’re firing a crossbow to catch your next meal; later, sail your Viking ship across the seas. No word of a lie, this is officially the most amazing natural history museum I’ve ever visited.
–Den Gamle By, otherwise known as The Old Town at Viborgvej 2, Aarhus; adults DKK110-135 depending on season/children under 18 free/free with Aarhus Card; open daily from 10am but closing times vary by time of year. This open air museum consists of homes relocated from all over Denmark and clustered according to time period so that you can literally step back through time. The costumed employees complete the picture. Your ticket also gets you into The Aarhus Story, another highly interactive exhibit about the history of Aarhus, and probably my favourite part of the museum. Without giving too much away, you start by stepping into a lift that’s like the Tardis, and all of a sudden you’re in the Viking age!
12. The Viking history
Speaking of Vikings, you won’t have far to go before you come across some aspect of Viking history in Denmark. It’s essentially part of their identity.
–Trelleborg Fortress at Trelleborg Alle 4, Slagelse; FREE! Yes, really! Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-4 or 5pm depending on season. We couldn’t believe it when we got there and found out there was no admission cost to wander the grounds of this ring fortress. Although only the foundation stones remain, it’s still well worth a visit for the reconstructed longhouse, the museum, the views, and the small open air museum where you can try your hand at various activities like archery or cooking over a campfire.
-The Jelling Monuments at Thyrasvej 1, Jelling; FREE! Isn’t Denmark wonderful? Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to get to Jelling as we spent far more time in Legoland than anticipated, but there’s just some sort of mysterious appeal to me about a bunch of large stones with runic messages chiselled into them. If you get the chance, please do check it out and let me know if they’re everything I thought they would be.
13. The oodles of coastline
Given that Denmark is made up of over 1000 islands, it should come as no surprise that you’re never too far from beautiful sea views.
–Stevns Klint. This roughly 40m high white chalk cliff is situated just over an hour south by car from Copenhagen. The closest town is Store Heddinge. What makes the place so intriguing is the old and partially collapsed Hojerup Church situated right on the edge of the cliff. Walk into the church and gaze down at the crashing waves below (at least that’s what they were doing when we were there), then head down the stairs to the beach for a view back towards the church. It’s like something out of Game of Thrones!
–Dragor, a pretty little town just 12km east of Copenhagen. If you don’t have time for a road trip, this is your own stop shop to get your fill of cobblestone streets, bright yellow houses with red roofs, and a pretty harbour and coastline. Climb to the top of Dragor Fort for fantastic views back towards town, the Middelgrunden wind farm, and the roughly 12km Oresund Bridge connecting Denmark to Malmo in Sweden.
14. The cutest beach houses you’ll ever see
Who doesn’t love rows of cute brightly coloured huts by the seaside? You’ll find these cheery cabins at two locations close to Aeroskobing town centre.
–Erikshale in Marstal requires a bit more effort and probably your own set of wheels to get to, but it’s definitely worth making the effort as the beach houses there are in better condition and are more unique with a greater variety of colours.
–Vesterstrand in Aeroskobing, on the other hand, is walking distance from the town centre, making it a lovely destination for a pre-breakfast walk. Don’t forget to look back towards town for a great view of all the Vesterstrand beach houses in a row as your ferry leaves Aeroskobing for Svendborg.
15. The coffee culture
The Danes seem to take their coffee seriously, and certainly the cups I consumed there were to my taste – strong without being bitter or acidic.
–The Coffee Collective in the Torvehallerne food market, Vendersgade 6D, Copenhagen; open weekdays 7am-8pm, Saturday 8am-7pm, Sunday 8am-6pm. There seemed to be a constant queue when we were there, but don’t let that put you off as it moves quickly and the brew is well worth the wait. Pick up a bag or two to take home with you – you won’t regret it!
–Forloren Espresso at. Store Kongensgade 32, Copenhagen; open weekdays 8am-5pm, Saturday 9am-5pm, Sunday 10.30am-5pm. This place made it into my wish list based on the simple but chic decor centred around white tiles, black furnishings and timber. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to make it to this little coffee shop, but perhaps you can go and let me know if it lives up to the many great reviews it has received.
16. Food, glorious food
The Danish approach to food is subtly complex. Flavour combinations are fairly simple so as to showcase the freshness of produce, but the cuisine is brought to another level by innovative techniques, and that eye for detail shines in their plating. Oh, and happy cows. I think that must surely be one of the secrets of delicious Danish food. Put your calorie tracker away when you’re in Denmark and indulge in anything dairy, especially if butter is involved.
–Lagkagehuset is a Danish pastry chain established in 2009 by bakers Ole Kristoffersen and Steen Skallebaek. The brand name translates to “Layer Cake House”, referring not so much to the sweet treats on offer, but rather to the building in which Kristoffersen’s first bakery was situated, which looked like a layer cake. I enjoyed every roll, bun and tart I sampled, all of which were delicious in their butteriness, flakiness, airiness and generous fillings.
-Speaking of generous fillings, don’t forget to check out the Danish open top sandwiches known as smorrebrod at Hallernes Smorrebrod in the Torvehallerne food market, Vendersgade 6D, Copenhagen; open Monday-Thursday 10am-7pm, Friday 10am-8pm, Saturday 10am-6pm, Sunday 11am-5pm. I suggest you go with one or more friends because you’ll find it hard to resist all those exciting flavour combinations on offer, yet the mountain of toppings means that you’ll probably struggle to eat more than one or two of these hearty sandwiches.
17. The peaceful idyllic countryside
If possible, I highly recommend renting a car and driving around the Danish countryside. There was so much beauty everywhere that we went. If you have more time on your hands and greater skills with two wheels than I have, we also encountered quite a few cyclists with packs on their bags. Certainly based on what we saw of the roads and cycle paths, it seems possible to cycle around most if not all of Denmark.
-The island of Fyn (or Funen) is Denmark’s third largest. Getting there from Zealand is somewhat exciting as you get to drive across the Great Belt Bridge, which is actually two bridges each just under 7km long with another small island between the two. Once you get there, it’s easy to see why they call Fyn “Denmark’s garden island“. With rolling hills, beautiful thatched roof cottages and brilliant flowers at every turn, Fyn is sure to steal your heart even if it wasn’t home to the star attraction, the town of Odense. My only regret is not stopping at one of the many orchards with a “self pluk blomst kvist” sign. Now I don’t speak a word of Danish, but I’m guessing these signs are an invitation to pick some flowers, probably for a small fee that you can deposit into a box. Perhaps you can find out and let me know how this self-pluck flower business works.
-The southern islands of Mons, Lolland and Falster. We took our time, stopping frequently to enjoy the countryside as well as the rugged coastal views, so only made it from the cliffs of Mons Klint on the eastern edge of Mons, to pretty little Nykobing-Falster on the western edge of Falster, stopping just short of venturing towards Lolland. If you manage to cover more ground than us, Maribo looks like a nice town to stop at in Lolland.
18. The efficient and easy to navigate transport system
The roads are well maintained and every upcoming turn is signposted well in advance, usually several times, making Denmark an easy country for a self-driving holiday. Ferry schedules are deadly easy to check and book online. If you prefer not to drive, the public transport system is also very easy to navigate, runs to schedule, and the coverage is quite extensive even to the more remote areas that we travelled to. For those who prefer to rely on pedal power, there are bicycle paths criss-crossing the entire country.
19. All those kid-friendly activities
If you haven’t worked out by now what a great place Denmark is for a family holiday, let me spell it all out for you – castles, fairy tales, Lego, amusement parks, fun interactive museums, Vikings, beaches, delicious pastries and ice-cream, easy road tripping, and a friendly, helpful, efficient society will all make for a memorable and fairly fuss-free trip with the kids.
20. The overwhelming sense of hygge
Hygge is a Danish word (pronounced “hooga”) that translates roughly to “coziness”, referring to that sense of warmth when enjoying the good things, big or small, with the important people in one’s life. It is the fundamental Danish way of life, which perhaps explains why shops in Denmark generally only open after 10am, and why many of the top restaurants are closed on Sundays, Mondays and some even on Tuesdays. To the Danes, there is clearly more to life than money.
–Al fresco dining right by the canal at Restaurant Saelhunden, Skibbroen 13, Ribe. The service was fantastic despite being seated outside. Sharing a wooden plank laden with various meats, seafood, cheeses, vegetables and even a piece of cake with my buddy while we watched the sun setting was definitely a cozy moment and actually the most memorable meal for me on this trip.
-Perhaps it was because the crowds around the Little Mermaid were a tad overwhelming to me. Or simply that it was a nice way to wrap up a long and eventful day of sightseeing all over Copenhagen. Whatever it was, the roundabout way in which we walked around and through the Kastellet in order to get from the Little Mermaid back to the closest metro station was thoroughly enjoyable in its tranquility and in that satisfying way that detaching yourself from the usual tourist hordes makes you almost feel like a local. In Denmark, this translates to hygge. Most people head straight to the iconic statue and back, but I urge you to take the time to stroll through and enjoy the views around this star shaped fortress.
Have you been on a Denmark road trip? What stood out most to you? What other places should I add to my list for my next visit?
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