Itinerary: Copenhagen – Køge – Stevns Klint – Ribe – Søhøjlandet – Aarhus
Denmark, or Danmark as the Danes themselves say, is the land of Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen, of Lego and Danish Design, of the Borgen series and of course the widely admired ‘hygge’. Hygge can best be described as a warm, friendly, harmonious and comfortable atmosphere. ‘Gezellig’, we would say in the Netherlands. Although the atmosphere is as old as the Danes themselves, the word hygge has only become an international hype in this century.
The Netherlands and Denmark do not differ much in terms of surface area, but with 5.8 million inhabitants, Denmark is much more sparsely populated than the Netherlands (17 million). Despite the long, dark, dreary winters that come with being a Scandinavian country, the Danes are one of the happiest people in the world. The country has been in the top three of the annual World Happiness Index for years.
This is not surprising: Denmark is prosperous and safe, both freedom and equality are of paramount importance, education is free and social cohesion is strong. The country is at the forefront of sustainability policy, the Danes attach great importance to a good work-life balance and are predominantly liberal and tolerant (although immigration from non-Western countries puts pressure on the latter in Denmark as it does in other European countries).
Although the history of northern Europe goes back further (think of the Vikings), one can speak of a Danish state from the mid-twelfth century. Fun fact: The Danish flag also dates back to that time, making it the oldest surviving national flag in the world. And the Danish monarchy dates back to the Vikings and is the oldest monarchy in Europe. In addition to Denmark itself, Greenland and the Faroe Islands also belong to the Kingdom of Denmark, which, although a member of the European Union, does not have the euro as a means of payment; checkout is still in Danish kroner.
It’s just an hour’s flight to Kastrup Airport, south of Copenhagen (København in Danish). After my covid-19 vaccination certificate has given me access to the country, I take the train to the capital and half an hour later I check in at my hotel in the center of the city. Sun and clouds meet, with the sun dominating and with about twenty degrees it is perfect weather to explore the city. This is best done walking, because the center is compact enough to go everywhere on foot. Cycling is also a possibility, because, just like in the Netherlands, cycling is popular in Denmark!
I start my walk this afternoon on Rådhuspladsen, the square in front of the immense town hall, built in 1905. With its more than a hundred meters high tower it’s an unmissable landmark. Located between the town hall and the central station is Tivoli, a fairytale amusement park in the middle of the city. If you like amusement parks, you’ll probably love it. I skip Tivoli en head for the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. This museum has the largest collection of Rodin statues and sculptures outside of France (including two versions of my favorite: ‘Le Penseur’), as well as many Danish statues and Danish and French paintings. In addition to the art, the building itself is also worth your attention. A beautiful late nineteenth century building with a indoor courtyard including palm trees.
The Slotsholmen district is separated from the rest of the center by a canal, Slotholms Kanalen, and therefore an island-in-the-city. This is the oldest part of Copenhagen. In 1167 bishop Absalon founded the town of Kømandshavn here. Later, the town would become known as København. Slotsholmen is dominated by Christiansborg Slot. This is Denmark’s political heart: Christiansborg Slot is home to the Danish Parliament (the Folketinget), the Prime Minister’s Office and the Supreme Court. The imposing, dark gray natural stone building also houses the royal reception rooms and the library of the Danish Queen.
Near Christiansborg Slot is Børsen, the old stock exchange. The building was built in the seventeenth century in the Dutch Renaissance style, as you will find in Amsterdam and Haarlem, among other places. I walk further along Slotsholmgade and then along the water of the Inderhavnen. Overlooking the Inderhavnen is the Royal Library. This library and event venue is located in a brick building from the nineteenth century, which disappears completely behind the striking new part: the ultra-modern Den Sorte Diamant (the black diamond). Whether it is a beautiful building is a matter of taste, but it is definitely striking. Terrace in front of Den Sorte Diamant and the wooden decking on the water next to it are a nice place to relax. Via the old brewery, Christian IV Bryghus, return to the entrance of Christiansborg Slot.
The next morning I walk into the still quiet city, towards the Latin quarter, so called because the university is located here. I pass the picturesque square Gråbrødretov, with colored old facades. A little further is the Rundetårn, a brick observation tower built in 1642. On the north side of the Latin Quarter is Kongens Have (Danish for royal garden). The beautiful park is the oldest in Copenhagen and has ben here since the seventeenth century. On a sunny day it is a lovely place to relax in the grass. On the west side of Kongens Have is the Rosenborg Slot, a royal palace from the first half of the seventeenth century, built in the Dutch Renaissance style at the behest of King Kristian IV. The Danish Crown Jewels are kept in the castle’s cellar.
I leave Kongens Have on the northwest side and immediately run into the Statens Museum for Kunst. This museum consists of a classic main building, with a modern extension at the back. Nicely done and so is the art collection, mainly paintings among which many works by Danish artists. A wonderful museum, well worth a look!
Early afternoon I walk down Gothersgade towards Nyhavn. Before I get there I first arrive at a huge square, Kongens Nytorv, which includes the former Charlottenburg Palace. From Kongens Nytorv to the harbor runs Nyhavn, a straight canal with old buildings with colored facades on both sides and old ships in the water. It is the most photogenic (and probably best known) sight in Copenhagen. It’s also a magnet for tourists and as a result the busiest place in town; the terraces along Nyhavn are full. I spend the rest of the afternoon in Kongens Have. Copenhagen is a super relaxed city, which invites you to take it easy. And luckily the nice weather helps!
On my last day in Copenhagen I walk to Østerport, the neighborhood on the north side of the city center. Here you’ll find the Kastellet, a star-shaped fortress dating back to 1662. You can walk around the fort on the green ramparts. Inside the ramparts are red painted barracks form the eighteenth century, which still function as military shelters. There is also a Dutch-looking windmill on the ramparts. It’s not very spectacular, but it’s a nice walk.
Between the Kastellet and the waters of the harbor you will find Copenhagen’s most famous tourist attraction: the bronze statue of the Little Mermaid. The statue, based on Andersen’s fairy tale and paid for by a beer magnate, has been standing on the harbor shore since 1913. It’s touristy, yes. But just like you cannot go to New York City without visiting the Statue of Liberty, you have to stop by the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen!
On my walk back I pass the Amalienborg Slot. The palace of the current Danish queen actually consists of four identical-looking palaces from the eighteenth century, surrounding a huge square. It looks impressive, but the almost deserted, bare square is not very atmospheric. I walk back down the long shopping street, Strøget, have coffee on a terrace and spend the afternoon and evening with a book and a movie.
Køge and Stevns Klint
It’s Tuesday morning when I pick up my rental car and leave Copenhagen behind me. I drive south to the old town of Køge. Like Copenhagen, Køge is located on the east coast of the island of Sjælland, on a bay. In the small center with cobbled streets you will find many old houses from the late Middle Ages. These are so-called half-timbered houses, the walls of which consist of a wooden frame that is visible from the outside, filled up with bricks (either plastered or not). You will find them in many places in Denmark. The center of the town is the main square, Torvet, from where the picturesque Kirkestræde leads north. The street is ful of half-timbered houses and halfway up the street is a small wooden house, which was built in 1527, making it the oldest surviving wooden house in Denmark.
Half an hour’s drive south of Køge is Stevns Klint. The limestone cliffs here have been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2014. This is due to the fact that the cliffs contain a soft bottom layer from the time of the dinosaurs and a hard top layer from the time thereafter. Between them is a thin layer that contains remains of asteroids that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs more than 60 million years ago.
The weather is changeable, clouds and sun alternate, but it remains dry and with about 20 degrees it is great weather for a walk. I park the car at Stevens Fyr, an 1818 bright white lighthouse. From the lighthouse, a path leads along the top of the cliffs to the village of Højerup. Along the way you pass a lookout point, Bråten, where you have a beautiful view of Stevens Klint.
On top of the edge of Stevns Klint is a small church from the thirteenth century, which, if the limestone cliff erodes a little further, will end up in the sea at the bottom of the cliff. The altar of the church already ended up there in 1928. At Højerup you can go down a steep staircase to get to the bottom of the cliff. It is a photogenic place, well worth a visit!
After walking back, I drive west. The highway winds through the gently rolling landscape (Denmark is not as flat as you might think!). After an hour and a half I drive over the Storebæltsbroen, the slender bridge that connects the islands of Sælland and Fyn since 1998. The bridge is no less than eighteen (!) kilometers long and spans the Storebælt strait, a seriously wide stretch of water.
Ribe and Søhøjlandet
For me, the island of Fyn is just a stopover. I spend the night in a hotel near Odense and the next morning I drive on to the town of Ribe. Ribe is on Jylland, the only part of Denmark that is attached to continental Europe. At the time of the Vikings, Ribe was an important trading town and it’s the oldest town in Denmark. The old cobbled streets date back to the ninth century and the Old Town Hall, built in 1496, is the oldest town hall in the country. It’s like you step back in history.
The heart of the old town is Torvet, the main square, with a cathedral from the twelfth century. Around Torvet you will find many photogenic streets, such as Fiskergade and Sønderportsgade, with beautiful old half-timbered houses, painted in different colors. Many of them date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and are well preserved. In addition, there are many small workers’ houses and homes for the poor, the smallest of which has a surface area of only 26 square meters. The age-old architecture of the beautiful half-timbered houses makes Ribe well worth a visit!
After admiring Ribe I get some groceries and go to Storkesøen, on the south side of Ribe, where I spend the night in cottage and relax with a book in the sun for the rest of the day.
The next day I drive to the central part of Jylland, around Silkeborg. This is Søhøjlandet, literally translated ‘lake highland’, a hilly area with lakes and forests. I first make a stop at Himmelbjerget, which name means ‘heavenly mountain’, but actually it’s a mere hill. At 147 meters Himmerbjerget was consiodered to be the highest point in Denmark for a long time, until they found out that the 171 meter high Møllehøj is actually the highest point. Nevertheless, from the Himmelbjerget you have a beautiful view of the Julsø located in the valley (sø means lake in Danish).
Apparently the Himmerbjerget is a popular stop for tourists. Fortunately, it is a lot quieter at Slåensø a little further away. The lake is located in the Sønderskov forest, where you can walk several hiking trails, with beautiful vistas of the lake. In the afternoon I go for another walk at the Almind Sø, along the shore of the lake and back through the forest. In the course of the afternoon I report to the bed and breakfast where I will spend the night before I go to Aarhus tomorrow, Friday. Time to relax again.
After the al fresco breakfast at the very quiet bed and breakfast I drive to Aarhus, where I return the rental car. The university city of Aarhus is the second largest city in Denmark and has about twice as many inhabitants as my hometown, also a university city, Leiden. It is a city on the rise. There are some picturesque places, such as the old street Møllestien, but you have to look for them a bit. Because between the beautiful old buildings, mostly from the nineteenth century, a lot of ugly new buildings were built in the twentieth century. This makes the center a bit like a mishmash of styles. At the same time, you can see that a lot has been refurbished in recent years and the contrast between old and new does have its appeal.
In the afternoon I visit the ARoS Art Museum. In the modern square building you can see both historical and modern art. Most striking, however, is Your Rainbow Panorama, a circular walkway on the roof of the museum. The glass of the walkway has the colors of the rainbow, which makes for a fantastic photo op. Plus from here you have beautiful views over Aarhus. Don’t miss it!
In the old town, the Latin quarter, you will find the unmissable cathedral and the adjacent theater. They are surrounded by shopping streets and an entertainment area with bars and restaurants. Early twentieth century, the Aarhus Å, the river that runs right through the city, was filled up and transformed into a busy thoroughfare. Fortunately, in the 1990s, the city council decided to re-open the Aarhus Å, so that the river once again runs like a vein through the center, resulting in more greenery and terraces on the water.
The urban renewal is most visible along the harbour. New modern appartment and office buildings are being built here on a large scale. On the south side is the striking Dokk1, with the old harbor office close by, creating a striking contrast between old and new. A short walk to the north brings you to Aarhus Ø, an old harbor area where lovers of modern architecture can indulge themselves. There is still a lot of construction going on, so in a few years it will all look very different again. The modern apartment complexes are photogenic, plus you get to enjoy a breath of fresh air and panoramic views along the shore of Aarhus Bay.
On my last day in Denmark it is time for the return journey. With the comfortable intercity train I travel from Aarhus back to the airport near Copenhagen. The comfortable journey takes 3.5 hours. It’s the end of my (short) trip to Denmark. I think it’s been very nice. Denmark is not spectacular, but it is a relaxed little country, atmospheric and with friendly people. Hyggelig, as the Danes would say!