Walking with Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen walking-tour guide Richard Karpen, Copenhagen
American Richard Karpen — a Dane at heart — dresses up as Hans Christian Andersen to lead visitors around Copenhagen.
Hans Christian Andersen statue, Odense
A statue of Andersen greets visitors in his hometown of Odense.
By Jennifer Madison Davis

It's summer in Copenhagen, and everyone's outdoors. All along the Strøget pedestrian mall, people turn as a familiar figure cuts a path through the crowds. "Look, it's Hans Christian Andersen," someone says.

In long coat and top hat, followed by a line of tourists like so many ducklings, ex-New Yorker Richard Karpen is performing a kind of magic.

Each summer, this former computer programmer shakes the dust off his costume and brings to life beloved fairy-tale author Hans Christian Andersen. In this guise Karpen leads 90-minute walking tours of the city, giving visitors a glimpse of Danish history and culture through the eyes of the country's most famous writer, who penned The Little Mermaid, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Princess and the Pea, and other familiar tales.

Karpen made a quick visit to Copenhagen several decades ago and ended up falling in love, both with a local woman and with her city. "It's a very human city. It's on a scale that you can deal with," says Karpen.

He enjoys and admires the city's art, architecture, museums, public gardens, and social system. His favorite time of year is summer, when it stays light well into the evening and people gather outside. "Copenhagen is still a bit of a fairy tale world," he says.

For Karpen, getting into character is a simple way to add another dimension to tours of an already colorful place. He explains the costume with a saying he attributes to Hans Christian Andersen: "Humor is the salt in my fairy tales. It gives them the taste."

"Tourists want to get to know at least one Dane — it should be Hans Christian Andersen," said Karpen. "He talks with them about the city he lived in, the famous people of the time, the 19th-century buildings constructed then."

Karpen — who also dresses as a fictional Renaissance nobleman, Sir Richard, to give tours of Copenhagen's 400-year-old Rosenborg Castle — has become something of a tourist attraction himself, drawing honks from tour buses and shy waves from schoolchildren.

"I add a bit to what the Danes call the gadebillede, the streetscape," says Karpen.

Karpen's life has been spent following his passions. The road from Wall Street to the Strøget had plenty of detours: a first trip to Europe in his 20s, a year or two spent in Rome and Greece, and time on a Turkish fishing boat. A chance trip across Asia led to several years in India studying the sitar.

It was during a short visit to Denmark some years later that Karpen met his wife, whose love for classical Indian dance matched his interest in music. During summers in Copenhagen Karpen began leading walking tours of his adopted home, eventually giving up the New York rat race altogether.

"I had a revelation, a realization that my heart wasn't in computer programming. I wanted to put more energy into music and tour guiding," says Karpen, whose side enterprise is publishing 19th-century Danish classical music.

Karpen started his career as a tour guide in shirt and tie out of respect for Danish culture, assuming his roles as Hans Christian Andersen and Sir Richard over time. He has no assistants, preferring to keep his operation small.

"I aim my tour to the more curious traveler — not people who just want to be entertained. When I visit a place, I want to learn about the culture, the economy, and the history," says Karpen, a voracious bibliophile who reads all he can about Copenhagen, past and present. "Anyone who dares to represent a culture other than their own must never stop learning about it."

Karpen says, "I try to cook it down to a sauce that is very highly concentrated — to give the visitor the essence of Copenhagen," while bringing in current events and personalizing the information to the interests of the tour members. "I start each tour with a blank canvas. The challenge is in 90 minutes to sketch everything from the Vikings to Queen Marguerite."

While hoping to impart some insight on Copenhagen to visitors, Karpen says he gets just as much back from the tour members. "It is my own little street theater. It brings out the best in me and for that I say thank you to everyone who takes my tour."

"If it ever gets boring to them or to me, I'll stop. Until then, this 'old poet' will keep meeting Rick Steves' readers every day."

Jennifer Madison Davis is the editorial manager of the Rick Steves guidebook series.