Denmark’s largest island offers much more than the dazzle of Copenhagen. North of the city lies some of the country’s finest beaches, quaintest fishing villages, and vainest castles. Here you’ll find Helsingør’s hulking Kronborg Slot and the striking new Maritime Museum of Denmark, not to mention Hillerød’s sublimely romantic Frederiksborg Slot. West of Copenhagen awaits history-steeped Roskilde, home to a World Heritage-listed cathedral, Scandinavia’s top rock music festival, and the superb Viking Ship Museum. History also comes to life at nearby Sagnlandet Lejre, an engrossing, hands-on archaeology site. Further west stands the millennia-old Trelleborg ring fortress, while Zealand’s southern assets include medieval Køge, the World Heritage-listed coastline of Stevns Klint, and Vordingborg’s cutting-edge museum, Danmarks Borgcenter. Much of Zealand is easy to get around, and (bonus!) the Copenhagen Card allows free public transport and admission to many attractions.
POINTS OF INTEREST
If you’re a fan of the fantastical, erotic, mordant writings of Karen Blixen (1885–1962), the coastal town of Rungsted holds a treat. Here you can visit Rungstedlund, Blixen’s Danish estate, now a museum dedicated to her life and work.
Helsingør, or Elsinore, lies at the narrowest point of the Øresund, the waterway dividing Denmark and Sweden. Its attractive medieval quarter has many well-preserved merchants’ and ferrymen’s houses. On the waterfront stands the Maritime Museum of Denmark. The town is dominated by Kronborg Slot (Kronborg Castle), which stands on a spit of land overlooking the sea. Famous as the setting of Hamlet, the fortress actually dates from the 1500s, much later than Shakespeare’s character would have lived. Highlights include the 210 ft banqueting hall. A statue of the Viking chief Holger Danske slumbers in the castle cellars – according to legend he will awaken to defend Denmark if needed.
Christian IV sure knew how to build a castle. Hillerød, 18.5 miles north of Copenhagen, is a pleasant modern market town, whose glorious palace elevates it to ‘must visit’ status. Frederiksborg Slot, sitting on a nest of islands in the middle of an attractive lake, is a vision of copper turrets and baroque gardens, and one of the most impressive attractions in the region. Hillerød is also a transport hub for north Zealand, with train connections for the beaches on the north coast. The train station is about 0.3 miles from the town center.
Small, quiet Fredensborg is its royal palace, plus the fairytale palace gardens that stretch alongside Denmark’s second-largest lake, Esrum Sø. The palace is only open to the public in July, but it’s worth a day out here anyway for peaceful greenery, swimming, boating, and fishing opportunities. The royal family’s summer residence, Fredensborg Slot was built in 1720 by Frederik IV. The main Italian baroque mansion, with its marble floors and a large central cupola, can only be visited in July when the royal family holidays elsewhere.
One of Scandinavia’s most magnificent royal castles, the Frederiksborg Slot is built across three small islands surrounded by an artificial lake. Created as a residence for Frederik II (1559– 88), the castle was rebuilt in the Dutch Renaissance style by his son, Christian IV (1588–1648). The vaulted black marble chapel, where monarchs were once crowned, sits directly below the Great Hall, with its fine tapestries, paintings, and reliefs. The castle also houses the National History Museum.
‘Denmark’s St Tropez!’, shout the tourist brochures. There are two similarities: Hornbæk’s Blue-Flag Beach, a vast expanse of soft white sand, is just as beautiful as any you’ll find in southern France, and the patch certainly attracts more than its fair share of foxy young socialites. Danish artists first discovered the attractions of this little-known fishing village in the 19th century, with early tourists following hot on their heels. Thanks to some geographical peculiarities, Hornbæk enjoys more sunshine than anywhere in Denmark.
A fishing village since the 14th century, Zealand’s northernmost town retains a certain timeless character. During WWII, Gilleleje’s fishing boats were used to smuggle thousands of Jews to neutral Sweden, but don’t expect any such excitement today. Low-key charms include a string of beaches, an early morning harbourside auction, bustling fish restaurants, and a coastal walk to a small monument dedicated to Kierkegaard. Between Hornbæk and Gilleleje is Tegners Museum and Statuepark, devoted to one of Denmark’s leading sculptors.
Tisvildeleje is essentially a glorious sweep of golden-sand beach with a small seaside village attached. The beach is backed by hills and forests, threaded through with nature trails. You could easily spend several relaxing days here, sunbathing, swimming, strolling through the woods, poking around the town’s boutiques, and generally taking things very, very easy.
In July fans pour into town for the four-day Roskilde Festival, which vies with Glastonbury for the title of Europe’s biggest rock festival. Anyone who’s anyone on the international scene has played here – past crowds have grunged out to Nirvana, head-banged before Metallica, and busted some moves to the Arctic Monkeys. If you’re not a festival fan, pity the poor fools for their warm beer and toilet queues, and relish the town instead. Roskilde is justly famous for its superb Viking Ship Museum and iconic cathedral, the burial site of Danish royalty. The town itself came to prominence in the Viking Age, when it was the capital of Denmark. Harald Bluetooth built Zealand’s first wooden-stave Christian church here in AD 980. It was replaced by a stone building in 1026 on the instructions of a woman named Estrid, whose husband was assassinated in the stave church after a heated chess match (only in Scandinavia!). The foundations of the 11th-century stone church are beneath the floor of the present-day cathedral. Medieval Roskilde was a thriving trade center and the powerhouse of Danish Catholicism, big enough to support the country’s grandest cathedral. The town began its decline when the capital moved to Copenhagen in the early 15th century, and its population shrank radically after the Reformation in 1536. These days, Roskilde is a popular day trip from Copenhagen, less than 19 miles away.
The superb experimental archaeology center outside Lejre (a tiny village about 5 miles southwest of Roskilde) is like nothing we’ve ever seen.
Køge is a pretty town that, if not worth a special visit, offers a pleasant diversion if you’re passing through on your way to Bornholm (by ferry), Stevns Klint, or the south islands. The one-time medieval trading center retains a photogenic core of cobbled streets flanked by Denmark’s best-preserved 17th-and 18th-century buildings. At its heart is Torvet, the nation’s largest square. You’ll find narrow beaches along the bay to the north and south of town, although you’ll need to ignore the somewhat industrial backdrop of the modern commercial harbor. In 1677 a vital naval engagement was fought in the waters off Køge. Known as the Battle of Køge Bay, it made a legend of Danish admiral Niels Juel, who resoundingly defeated the attacking Swedish navy.
Tiny Vallø is a deeply romantic hamlet with cobblestone streets, a dozen storybook houses, and an attractive moat-encircled Renaissance castle, Vallø Slot. Situated in the countryside about 4 miles south of Køge, Vallø makes a wonderful little excursion for those looking to get off the beaten track.
Thick with old timber-framed houses and framed by peaceful lakes and woodlands, Sorø is a soulful, off-the-radar spot. It owes its existence to Sorø Akademi, an elite school for noblemen’s sons established by Christian IV. The academy remains a prestigious school to this day; its grounds and lakeside park are open to the public and make for an idyllic late-afternoon stroll. During Denmark’s ‘Golden Age’ (1800–50) of national romanticism, Sorø became a haunt for some of the country’s most prominent cultural figures, including Bertel Thorvaldsen, NFS Grundtvig, and Adam Oehlenschlåger.
The best preserved of the four Viking ring fortresses in Denmark, Trelleborg is 4 miles west of Slagelse and 14 miles west of Sorø. Admittedly, Slagelse is rather uninspiring, so consider making Sorø your base if staying overnight.
Vordingborg’s modern-day quaintness is deceptive. Now best known as Zealand’s gateway to the south islands, the town played a starring role in early Danish history. It was the royal residence and Baltic power base of Valdemar I (Valdemar the Great), famed for reuniting the Danish kingdom in 1157 after a period of civil war. And it was here that Valdemar II (Valdemar the Victorious) signed the Law of Jutland in 1241, a civil code that declared that legitimate laws must be based on objective and sovereign justice. The code would become the forerunner to Danish national law. This history is vividly documented at Vordingborg’s brand new multimedia museum, Danmarks Borgcenter, located at the very site of Vordingborg’s famous medieval fortress. It’s here that you’ll also find the town’s iconic medieval Goose Tower, now part of the museum. A short drive from town is the Knudshoved Odde peninsula with its grassy lawns and narrow rocky beaches; ideal for a dip if the temperature’s right.