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.

Travel Details

Frederiksborg Castle

Frederiksborg Castle is located in the cute town of Hillerød. Built from 1602 to 1620, Frederiksborg is the castle of Denmark's King Christian IV. Much of it was reconstructed after an 1859 fire, with the normal Victorian over-the-top flair, by the brewer J. C. Jacobsen and his Carlsberg Foundation. A museum since 1878, today's castle takes you on a chronological walk through the story of Denmark from 1500 until today (the third floor covers modern times). Many rooms have a handy English-language information sheet. The countless musty paintings are a fascinating scrapbook of Danish history.

Viking Ship Museum

The collection displays five different Viking ships. One boat is like the one Leif Eriksson took to America 1,000 years ago. Another is like those depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy, France. The ships aren't as intact or as ornate as those in Oslo, but this museum does a better job of explaining shipbuilding. The English descriptions are excellent — it's the kind of museum where you want to read everything. For a fee, you can go for an hour-long sail around Roskilde harbor in a replica Viking ship.

Hans Christian Andersen House

To celebrate Hans Christian Andersen's 100th birthday in 1904, the city of Odense founded this museum in the house where he was born. Today the humble (and rebuilt) house is the corner of an expansive, high-tech museum packed with mementos from the writer's life and hordes of children and tourists. You could spend several delightful hours here getting into his life story and work. Exhibits include a display on the era in which Andersen lived (1805–1875), a 13-minute introductory film about his life (plays every 15 minutes, alternates between Danish and English), a library of Andersen's books from around the world (his tales were translated into nearly 150 languages), and headsets and benches throughout for you to listen to a selection of fairy tales.


Legoland is divided into eight different "worlds" with fun themes such as Adventure Land, Pirate Land, and Knight's Kingdom. Pick up a brochure at the entrance and make a plan using the colorful 3-D map. You can see it all in a day, but you'll be exhausted. The Legoredo section (filled with Wild West clichés Europeans will enjoy more than Americans) merits just a quick look, though your five-year-old might enjoy roasting a biscuit-on-a-stick around the fire with a tall, blond park employee wearing a Native American headdress. A highlight is Mini Land, where landscaped gardens are filled with carefully constructed Lego landscapes and cityscapes. Alongside representations of famous world sights, you'll see Danish monuments, Dutch windmills, and an amazing representation of the Norwegian harbor of Bergen. Children joyfully watch as Lego boats ply the waters and Lego trains chug merrily along the tracks.

Pension Vestergade

Pension Vestergade is your best home away from home in Ærøskøbing. It’s lovingly run by Susanna Greve and her daughters, Henrietta and Celia. 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. Built in 1784 for a sea captain’s daughter, this creaky, sagging, and venerable eight-room place — with each room named for its particular color scheme — is on the main street in the town center. Picnic in the back garden and get to know Tillie, the live-in dog. Reserve well in advance 


See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're on the beach, enjoying a good cold beer, and the shrimp's on the Barbie. It must be...the best of Denmark. Thanks for joining us.

Denmark is small, flat and really well-organized. While its capital city Copenhagen is a thriving metropolis and the country 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, Aarhusn and the Isle of Ærø.

While a small country today of just roughly 5 million, in the 16th century, the Danish empire included all of Scandinavia and 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 Sweden line the wall...reminding visiting VIPs of Denmark's power.

And the Great Hall, known as the Dancing Hall in Christian the Fourth's day — with the orchestra playing from their perch above, 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 king. The symbolism preaches its own theology: God blessed the Danes with a great king who 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 is evolving into a single free trade zone with over 400 million people. And, like the USA built the interstate highway system to grease commerce, Europe is investing in huge bridges and tunnels so its cars, trucks, and bullet trains don't need to load onto 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 Malmo 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 made a u-turn 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 survives 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 Marguerita the First. 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 Vik 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 these 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 entrance to the strategic and rich city of Roskilde. In 1962 they were brought up 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 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 non-descript, the reason tourists stop in is to visit the home of its famous son, Hans Christian Andersen.

Today his humble birth house 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 era in which Andersen lived — 1805 to 1875 — and letters from his life and times. A library shows Andersen's books from 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. He'd often fashion a paper cutout as he told a story, revealing his creation with the finale of his tale.

Children gather daily through the summer in the museum garden's fairy-tale theater. Wide eyed and enthralled, they're entertained by old HC himself and a cast of characters right out of his favorite fairy tales. It all culminates, hopefully, in a happy ending.

Jutland, the part of Denmark that juts up from Germany, is a gentle land of rolling hills, thatched towns, 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 to Italy. In the dynamic Mini-World  children get their first grand tour — checking out famous Scandinavian city-scapes 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 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, Århus bustles with a lively port, an important university, a busy pedestrian boulevard, and an old quarter filled with people living well.

Aarhus recently 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 is lined with trendy eateries and a hit with locals and visitors, 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 Viet Nam?" And you'll meet one very big boy. Australian artist Ron Mueck created this towering, super realistic, figure entitled simply "Boy."

For something more traditional, we're visiting the city's Old Town open-air folk museum. 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 the eggs in America are way too big. You can appease your sweet tooth in an old fashioned way. And here in the bakery you'll see good Danish treats are nothing new.

A city bus runs through a forest to the town's prehistory museum. The museum has three sectors: Stone Age, Iron Age and the Viking Age.

The Iron Age ranged from 500 B.C. to 800 A.D. This collection features a trove of iron weapons and jewelry from around 200 A.D. 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 2300-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 welcoming visitors old and young to marvel at his skin, nails, hair, and even the slit in his throat he was given back in 300 BC at his sacrificial banquet.

From Aarhus, a 3-hour train ride through the pastoral countryside dead ends in Svendborg where the ferry awaits, ready to sail to the island of Ærø. The ferry loads and departs like clockwork — typical of Danish efficiency. The boat cruises through some delightful island scenery.

As we approach the isle of Ærø the charming town of Ærøskøbing comes into view. This is the best-preserved 18th century town in Denmark. The government, recognizing its value, prohibits any modern building here. Those who visit find themselves dropping 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 it the fairy-tale town.

Characteristic houses lean on each other like drunk, sleeping sailors. Appreciate the finely carved old doors. You won't find 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 room. Bedrooms come with slanted floors and fine views.

Ærøskøbing is simply a pleasant place to wander — and Susanna's joining me.

I love this walk. It reminds me how our town has changed. These buildings were originally built by humble fishermen. They'd pull their boats right up to the home. Now, of course, they are quite expensive and the gardens are lovingly kept.

Right on the harborfront, Ærøskøbing Røgeri smokes its own fish. 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 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 wheat and dairy. 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.

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 white-washed exterior dates from the 12th century. Its long nave leads to the altar. Gold leaf on carved oak, it's from 1528, just before the Reformation came to Denmark.

In the back of the nave a list of pastors goes back to 1505 — all theologically related to Martin Luther 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 pre-historic sight. 6,000-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.

Just a short stroll from Ærøskøbing, a narrow spit is lined by 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 major 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 enjoyed our look at the best of Denmark. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.