Denmark Beyond Copenhagen
Using Copenhagen as a springboard, we'll visit the very best of Denmark. Aarhus welcomes us with its ruddy affluence, charming open-air museum, and eerily well-preserved ancient bog man. Roskilde impresses visitors with its royal burial church and the best Viking-ship museum anywhere. And the delightfully quaint isle of Ærø comes with half-timbered cottages, ships in bottles, and cobbled alleyways that remind us of the world of Hans Christian Andersen.
Visitors to the castle can enjoy some of the magnificent spaces of its heyday: the breathtaking grounds and courtyards, the sumptuous chapel, and the regalia-laden Great Hall. But most of the place was turned into a fine museum in 1878. Its countless musty paintings are a fascinating scrapbook of Danish history. The castle's included one-hour audio tour is excellent.
Roskilde's twin-spired cathedral houses the tombs of nearly all of the Danish kings and queens. If you're a fan of Danish royalty or of evolving architectural styles, it's thrilling; even if you're neither, "Denmark's Westminster Abbey" is still interesting. A big museum and welcome center are currently in the works.
Centuries before Europe's Age of Exploration, Viking sailors navigated their sleek, sturdy ships as far away as the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Americas. The ships on display in the main building aren't as intact or as evocative as those in Oslo, but this museum does a better job of explaining shipbuilding. The outdoor area continues the experience, with a chance to see modern-day Vikings creating replica ships, chat with an old-time rope maker, and learn more about the excavation. For an extra fee, you can go for a fun hour-long sail around Roskilde's fjord in one of their replica vessels.
As a new Hans Christian Andersen Museum is under construction into 2020, the museum has moved some of its exhibits to a temporary venue. But the home where Andersen was born, a part of the original museum, remains open to visitors. And another H. C. house, the writer's childhood home (with a small exhibit of its own), is a few blocks away.
This huge park, in the town of Billund, is a happy combination of rides, restaurants, trees, smiles, and millions of creatively arranged Lego bricks. A highlight for young and old alike is Miniland, where landscaped gardens are filled with carefully constructed Lego landscapes and cityscapes. Expect crowds between early July and mid-August, and consider buying your ticket online to avoid the entry line.
Aarhus' art museum is a must-see sight, both for the building's architecture and for its knack for making cutting-edge art accessible and fun. In addition to its top-notch permanent collections, the museum displays an impressive range of temporary exhibits — be sure to find out what's on during your visit.
Unlike other Scandinavian open-air museums that focus on rural folk life, Den Gamle By ("The Old Town") is designed to give you the best possible look at traditional Danish urban life. The grounds are designed to be explored, so don't be too shy to open doors of the half-timbered houses and craft shops, or poke into seemingly abandoned courtyards — you may find a chatty docent inside, telling their story, answering questions, or demonstrating an old-timey handicraft.
This museum, dedicated to prehistory and ethnography, is housed in a state-of-the art venue south of Aarhus. Its prehistory section features lots of real artifacts (primitive tools and pottery, plenty of spearheads and arrowheads), all well-described in English, along with an impressive collection of rune stones.
Owner Susanna, who's fun to talk with and is always ready with a cup of tea, has a wealth of knowledge about the town's history, and takes good care of her guests. Reserve well in advance.
The town's smokehouse ser wonderful smoked-fish meals on paper plates. Eat at its tables facing harbor, or find a picnic site at the beach or at the park behind the fish house. A smoked-fish dinner with potato salad, bread, and a couple of cold Carlsbergs or Ærø brews are a well-earned reward after a long bike ride.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
(Does Jackson like shrimp? He does. Whoa!) Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're down on the beach, got a good cold beer, and the shrimp's on the barbie. It must be…the best of Denmark. Thanks for joining us. (He likes that!)
Denmark is small, flat, and really well organized. While the capital city, Copenhagen, is a thriving metropolis, and the country does has a vigorous economy, get out into the countryside, and what the traveler finds is closer to cute.
We'll imagine sailing with the Vikings, marvel at the ultimate Lego creations, visit with one really old bog man and then one really big boy, drop in on a royal palace, picnic on a Danish beach, and explore a remote island by bike. And it's all linked by an awe-inspiring network roads and bridges.
In the north of Europe, Denmark anchors Scandinavia to the Continent; it's made mostly of Jutland which juts up from Germany, and two major islands. Just outside of Copenhagen we'll tour Fredericksborg Castle, then we'll visit Roskilde, Odense, Aarhus, and the isle of Ærø.
While just a small country today of roughly 5 million people, in the 16th century, the Danish empire included all of Scandinavia, and even stretched even into Germany. It had a fearsome military, and demanded respect from its neighbors.
And, in a small town north of Copenhagen, as if floating on a lake, is a reminder of all that power: the stunning Frederiksborg Castle. Many consider this the grandest castle in Scandinavia…the "Danish Versailles." Built in the early 1600s, Frederiksborg is the castle of Denmark's greatest king, Christian IV.
This was one of the king's favorite residences — with a suitably regal entry ringed by a moat designed more for swans than defense.
The king imported Dutch Renaissance architects to create his own "Christian IV" style, which, by the way, you see in fancy buildings all over Copenhagen.
The royal apartments exude royal opulence. For over a century the palace has been a museum, offering a stroll through the story of Denmark from 1500 until today. It serves as Denmark's national portrait gallery.
In the audience room the king would receive important visitors. Paintings of Denmark's military victories over neighboring Sweden line the walls…reminding visiting VIPs of Denmark's power.
And the Great Hall was known as the "Dancing Hall" in Christian IV's day — with the orchestra playing from their perch above, this is where he'd throw his lavish parties.
Gazing out the windows, guests would marvel at the king's Baroque garden. Sculpted royal gardens, like the palaces, were used as propaganda: The king rules everything in his realm — even nature.
Christian IV wanted the grandest royal chapel in Europe. While it's always been a Lutheran church, here the uncharacteristically ornate decor celebrates the power of the earthly king. The symbolism preaches a royal theology: God blessed the Danes with a great king whom they should obey.
This fine inlaid woodwork dates from 1620. Two centuries of Danish royalty were crowned in this church. Emblems celebrate subjugated realms of the Danish king. This one represents Norway — which was long a part of the Danish empire.
In King Christian's day, Europe was extremely fragmented. Today, Europe's evolving into a single free-trade zone of over 400 million people. And, like the United States invested in its interstate highway system to grease commerce, Europe's investing in huge bridges and tunnels — so its cars, trucks, and bullet trains no longer need to load onto ferries, as was the time-consuming norm until just recently.
The Øresund Bridge connects Denmark and Sweden. This 10-mile-long link serves both trains and cars. It consists of a tunnel beneath the sea, an artificial island, and a five-mile-long bridge. A high-tech control room oversees the flow of traffic across a border travelers hardly notice. By making the Swedish city of Malmö just a quick commute from Copenhagen, this bridge created Europe's most dynamic new metropolitan area — the largest in all of Scandinavia.
While the bridge leads to Sweden, we've pulled a U-ey and are heading west to Roskilde, Denmark's historic capital.
Denmark's roots, both Viking and royal, are on display in Roskilde. Eight hundred years ago, this was the seat of Denmark's royalty — its center of power. Today, after fires and recent development, the town is mostly modern. The place that introduced Christianity to Denmark back in 980 is most famous today for hosting northern Europe's biggest rock festival each July.
Roskilde's centerpiece is its imposing 12th-century cathedral. It's a stately old church with fine wood carvings and a great 16th-century organ. Some painting survive from before the Reformation.
The cathedral is the resting place of 39 Danish kings and queens. Side chapels are filled with ornate royal tombs. After the Reformation gutted the church of its saints and Marys, more space around the high altar was freed up for more royal tombs — these date from the 16th century. The oldest tomb, from 1397, is Queen Margrethe I. Through strong leadership and clever negotiating, she united the three Nordic kingdoms.
For 500 years St. George has marked the hour by killing the dragon — reminding the people how the Church is their bastion against the evil of the world.
A short walk takes us to Roskilde's waterfront. The word vík means "shallow inlet," so "Vikings" are the people who lived along those inlets. Roskilde, strategically located along one such inlet, is home to Denmark's Viking Ship Museum.
This museum is a hands-on center for people who want to experience Denmark's seafaring heritage. Traditional boat building techniques are demonstrated. And the museum's archaeological workshop employs the latest technology in conserving and better understanding remnants that survive from those fabled 10th-century masters of the sea.
The main hall displays five different Viking ships. These ships were deliberately sunk a thousand years ago to block the harbor entrance to the strategic and rich city of Roskilde. In 1962 they were raised from their salty grave.
This was a 10th-century ocean-going freighter. A ship like this likely carried Viking emigrants — with their families and the entire farm — to Iceland and later on to the New World. Leif Eriksson made it all the way to America a thousand years ago in a little ship like this.
Warships were skinnier and faster. This one was powered by 26 oarsmen. Fearsome boats like this terrorized much of Europe back when people dreaded those rampaging Norsemen.
And like so many sights in Denmark, there's fun for the kids. This hands-on corner brings out the Viking in young Danes.
Heading further west, we cross another spectacular bridge, benefiting again from Denmark's investment in a series of bridges and highways that laces this nation's islands together. Somehow Denmark, with limited natural resources and a small population base, has arranged its priorities and found the funds to build its impressive infrastructure.
Odense, Denmark's third-largest city, with nearly 200,000 people, is big and industrial. The city, like almost every town in Denmark, has a traffic-free shopping street that gives it a strolling charm. While Odense is relatively nondescript, the reason tourists stop in is to visit the home of its famous son, Hans Christian Andersen.
Today his humble birth house [the Hans Christian Andersen Museum] stands on a cobbled lane. It's literally the corner of a museum packed with mementos from the writer's life. The exhibit entertains and inspires a steady stream of children and tourists.
You'll see a display on the age in which Andersen lived — 1805 to 1875 — and letters from his life and times. A library shows Andersen's books from all around the world. His tales were translated into nearly 150 languages. And headsets play a selection of fairy tales.
Sketches from his extensive travels were souvenirs of experiences and adventures that would eventually help inspire his famous tales. Children loved the way he'd fashion a paper cutout as he told a story, revealing his creation with the finale of his tale.
Young Andersen fans gather daily through the summer in the museum garden's fairy-tale theater. Wide-eyed and enthralled, they're entertained by old H.C. himself, and a cast of characters right out of his favorite fairy tales. It all culminates, hopefully, in a happy ending.
Jutland, that part of Denmark that juts up from Germany, is a gentle land of rolling hills, thatched villages, and bucolic farms.
This is the also the land of Lego. Legoland is Scandinavia's top kids' sight. If you have a child (or still are one at heart), it's a fun stop.
This huge park is a fanciful world created with the help of 58 million Lego bricks. They say if you stretched all these Lego blocks out they'd reach from here all the way to Italy. In the dynamic Miniworld [Miniland], children get their first grand tour — checking out famous Scandinavian cityscapes before traveling further afield — through Europe and on to America.
For me, the highlight is simply to see Danes at play in their reserved yet fun-loving way. Each year Legoland opens up new rides and play zones, and more Danish families make this a fun day out.
Nearby is Aarhus [a.k.a. Århus]. Denmark's second-largest city, with a population of 400,000, is Jutland's capital and cultural hub. Its Viking founders settled here in the late 700s — where the river hits the sea. Today, Aarhus bustles with a lively port, an important university, a busy pedestrian boulevard, and an old quarter filled with people living very well.
Aarhus uncovered its river, which until just a few years ago had been paved over and busy with cars. Today this scene is a classic example of how towns all over Europe are respecting both their heritage and their people's needs. The river's lined with trendy eateries, and it's a hit with locals and visitors, both young and old.
Another new dimension to the town is its striking modern art gallery — the ARoS Museum. The building itself creates a stimulating environment. Galleries are a well-described delight to explore, and thought provoking. This circa-1970 wall of jars containing a slaughtered horse is called The Sacrifice. When people were appalled at the needless killing, the artist asked, "But what about Vietnam?" And you'll meet one very big boy. The Australian artist Ron Mueck created this towering, super-realistic figure and called it, simply, Boy.
For something more traditional, we're visiting the city's "Old Town" open-air folk museum [Den Gamle By]. With 75 historic buildings carefully moved here from throughout Denmark, it gives a look at Danish urban life in centuries past. On this merchant's mansion, the carved relief dates from 1571.
Costumed actors wander the cobbled lanes as if living in the 19th century. This couple's selling everything for a trip to America — their skillet has to go, as eggs in America are just way too big.
Man: Oh, this is too small.
Woman: We had heard that they have big eggs in America.
You can appease your sweet tooth in an old-fashioned way. And here in the bakery you'll see tasty Danish treats are nothing new.
A city bus runs through a forest out to the town's prehistory museum [the Moesgård Museum]. The museum has three parts: Stone Age, Iron Age, and the Viking Age.
The Iron Age ranged from 500 B.C. to A.D. 800. This collection features a trove of iron weapons and jewelry from around A.D. 200. As people then believed the gods lived in the bogs, that's where their sacrificial offerings were tossed. After defeating your enemy, logically you'd toss their weapons to the bog gods.
The museum's claim to fame is the Grauballe Man — the world's best-preserved "bog-corpse." Like the weapons, he was sacrificed and tossed into the bog. Because of the oxygen-free environment, this 2,300-year-old "bog man" looks like a fellow half his age. Archeologists think he looked like this in happier times.
He sprawls out in his glass tomb as if to welcome visitors old and young to marvel at his skin, nails, hair, and even the slit in his throat he was given back in 300 B.C. at his sacrificial banquet.
From Aarhus, a three-hour train ride through the pastoral countryside dead-ends in the town of Svendborg, where the ferry awaits, ready to sail to the island of Ærø. The ferry loads and departs like clockwork — typical of Danish efficiency. And the boat cruises through some delightful island scenery.
As we approach the island of Ærø, the charming town of Ærøskøbing comes into view. This is the best-preserved 18th-century town anywhere in Denmark. The government, recognizing its value, prohibits any modern building here. Those who visit find themselves dropping right into the 1700s, when Ærøskøbing was the wealthy home port of a hundred windjammers — those mightiest sailing vessels of the pre-industrial age. The many Danes and Germans who come here for the tranquility, call this "the fairy-tale town."
Characteristic houses lean on each other like drunk, sleeping sailors. Appreciate the finely carved old doors. You won't find any two the same. Hyggelig, that quintessential Danish word for "cozy," describes Ærøskøbing well.
The harbor's a hive of relaxation. The surviving windjammers are now chartered by vacationers, and the marina now caters to holiday yachts. A big part of the island's tourism is from boaters.
Pension Vestergade — lovingly run by Susanna Greve — is my home away from home in Ærøskøbing. This salty, sagging, and venerable eight-room place was built in 1748 for a sea captain's daughter. From the elegant sitting room to the creaky attic, the place is filled with character. Susanna's generous breakfast is served in a charming dining room. Bedrooms come with slanted floors and fine views.
Ærøskøbing is simply a pleasant place to wander — and Susanna's joining me.
Rick: This is a delightful walk. If I lived here I think I'd walk here every evening.
Susanna: Yes I do. I do, and love it. And it reminds me how much the island has changed. These houses used to belong to poor fishermen and to poor sailors. And they used to have their boats here that they could drag up to the houses. An now they are very expensive, and rather nice houses.
Rick: They still have the character.
Rick: And I love that.
Susanna: And I love the way the roofs all lean.
Rick: Yeah. And the gardens are just lovingly tended.
Right on the harborfront, the Ærøskøbing fish house [Ærøskøbing Røgeri] smokes its own catch. Racks of smoked mackerel, salmon, and other fish are sold out daily as locals and tourists clamor for a tasty meal. With a view of the harbor, it's just right for a budget seafood lunch.
For me, the best way to explore Ærø is on two wheels. I'm meeting friend and local guide Jan Petersen for an island bike ride. Bike rental is easy:.no deposits, no locks...this is Ærø. I've recommended this leisurely ride for years in my guidebook to show off the best of this island's charms.
The island is 22 miles long, has 7,000 residents, seven pastors, no crosswalks, and three policemen. Historically, Ærø has depended on shipping and farming — mostly dairy and wheat. U-shaped farms are typical throughout Denmark. The three sides block the wind while storing cows, hay, and people. It's the kind of place where local produce — whatever's in season — sits on the roadside, for sale on the honor system.
Jan: We're now riding below sea level. The sea is about this high, and just behind this dike that was built around 150 years ago to keep the sea out to claim this wasteland…
Rick: So, all this was reclaimed, then.
Jan: Yes it is, and today used for grazing for cows.
Most of Ærø's villages are further inland, not visible from the sea. Church spires were stunted…designed not to be viewable from marauding pirate ships.
This church, with a whitewashed exterior, dates from the 12th century. Its long nave leads to the altar. With gold leaf on carved oak, it's from 1528, just before the Reformation came to Denmark.
Rick: It's a remarkable church.
Jan: Yes. The special thing was these reversible pews. You have the service up here, but when the sermon was on, you had to flip over.
Rick: OK, so we watch the service, and then when it's time for the sermon, look at the pulpit.
Jan: Yes, pay attention to the pulpit that is in the middle of the church.
In the back of the nave a list of pastors goes back to 1505 — all theologically related to Martin Luther. He's painted with his hand on the Bible as if on a theological rudder — and steering the church on a true course. The current pastor, Janet, is the first woman on the list in over 500 years.
Ærø, like Denmark in general, is embracing clean energy. Home to communally owned, state-subsidized windmills and one of the world's largest solar power plants, it's well on its way to its goal of energy self-sufficiency. This field of solar panels saves 1,500 homes a third on their heating costs.
A short walk from the road takes us to a fascinating prehistoric sight. Six thousand years ago this was an early Neolithic burial place. Though Ærø once had more than 200 of these prehistoric tombs, only 13 survive. And Vikings also appreciated the holiness of this sight.
Rick: This is such an evocative spot.
Jan: Yeah, imagine a thousand years ago the Viking chief would gather the community here to bury a person here. They built a ship and burned it. They have found pieces of burned wood in the underground here.
Rick: So this is actually the shape of a Viking ship.
Jan: This is the shape of a Viking ship.
Rick: A big Viking ship.
Jan: You have the stern up there, and even longer ago they came here to use this as a holy spot.
Rick: And this stone burial chamber, is actually much older?
Jan: Five thousand, six thousand years old.
Rick: As old as the pharaohs.
Jan: Yes. The Vikings recognize this as a holy ground. And later on put their holy spot here.
Rick: So got a little hill here.
Jan: A little hill. We're going to the highest point of the island, called "Synneshøj."
Rick: What does that mean?
Jan: "Seems high."
Rick: How high is it?
Jan: 6,750 centimeters.
Rick: 6,700 centimeters. That's about 2,700 inches.
Jan: Yeah, something like that.
Rick: Jan, we've summited Ærø. Seems high.
Jan: Yeah, but worth the view.
Rick: It sure is.
Just a short stroll from Ærøskøbing, a narrow spit is lined with cozy beach huts and families savoring a balmy July evening. Denmark embraces the notion that small is beautiful, and here, the concept of sustainability is nothing new.
These tiny beach escapes are privately owned on land rented from the town. Each is different, but all are weathered by merry memories of locals enjoying themselves Danish-style.
To cap our visit, tonight we're joined by the mayor and his friends for a picnic dinner on the beach. A former music teacher, he's leading us in an appropriate song for Ærø — the ship went down but the sailors survived, making it back to their beloved homes and families.
Thanks for joining us. With each visit I'm impressed with the many charms of this low-key yet self-assured land. I hope you've enjoyed our look at the best of Denmark. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.