Denmark: Quest for Hyggelig in the Fairytale Kingdom

This article is both a recount of my trip to Denmark, as well as a brief travel guide to the places I visited. I managed to see a lot in my 6 days there, so I have packed lots of info onto this page, which is divided into 2 sections.

Feel free to just read the first part, which includes a concise summary of the trip and my overall impression of Denmark.

The Travel Guide section is most useful if you actually plan on visiting any of these places, but if you at least skim over it, there may be parts you find interesting.

 

Denmark: Quest for Hyggelig in the Fairytale KingdomDenmark

Copenhagen is the premier destination in Denmark, offering all the thrills and vices of a booming international city. The capital is a Mecca for museums, gourmet food, shopping, and nightlife, but if you never escape the tourist traps and hipster haunts of the big city, you will miss out on the more traditional scenery and culture of the “real” Denmark.

It is not Copenhagen, but the remainder of the country that earned this small Scandinavian kingdom the nickname “Fairytale Country” of Europe. Just a train ride away from the capital, across the channel, lays a patchwork of greens dotted with farmhouses and windmills. Castles and cathedrals from ages past solemnly stand watch over quaint and quiet towns, seemingly lost in time.

The Danish word “hyggelig” (pronounced: hoogli) most nearly translates to ‘cozy.’ The true meaning of this word, however, must really be felt rather than told. It is the warmth of the morning sun as it kisses the leaves of an orchid in the front window. It is crooked cobbled streets squeezing their way between sleepy houses and quiet cafes. It is the flicker of a centerpiece candle illuminating the faces of old friends. Hyggelig is a feeling—an atmosphere—a way of life, which comes from comfort and good company in traditional Danish culture.

After touring Europe for nearly a month, but spending most of my time caught up in metropolitan madness, I was ready to relax and get myself some hyggelig. I found it, of course, in the peaceful Danish countryside. I had the privilege of staying with a friendly Danish family in their home, where my friend Sarah works as an au pair. Like old-fashioned Southern hospitality, except transposed to Northern Europe, they gave me a bed and fed me for 6 days. Sarah and I also had access to the car on nights and for one full day, so we were free to explore the surrounding towns when she didn’t have to be tending the kids.

Danish Farmhouse outside Vejen

Sarah lives in mainland Denmark, the peninsula known as Jutland that juts out from Northwestern Europe into the North Sea, entering the realm of Scandinavia. It is this part of the country that offers the most natural beauty, deepest history, and richest Viking heritage.

We were able to tour the Jutland towns of Vejen, Kolding, Ribe, Esbjerg, Jelling, and Aarhus, as well as spend a weekend in Copenhagen. Copenhagen is obviously a must-see while in Denmark, but I was grateful for my days in the Danish countryside, simply soaking in the hyggelig.

Right now is early spring in Denmark. The flowers are blooming, the trees are budding, but the weather is still cloudy, chilly, and windy. However, the beauty of yellow buttercups in a field of soft green, soothing aromas from a cup of hot tea, and friendly conversation in a candlelit tavern, all collude in opposition to the caustic cold, and are made even sweeter by the weather’s bitterness.

What achieved hyggelig for me was simply wandering around the towns of Jutland, looking for nothing in particular, but finding everything I could hope for.

There is incredible history here—echoes of a time so far in antiquity that I would imagine it to be mythological, if not for the relics that still bear testimony to their bygone era. Castles and cathedrals from the Renaissance and earlier, churches and carved stones from the Age of Vikings, and monuments to kings and queens of old—all commonplace in the Danish towns. Some people even live in houses that have stood for longer than the United States has existed. The gravity of so many years can be overwhelming, but at the same time, there is somehow peace in realizing that I have secured my tiny role in this vast chronicle, as a mere witness to the wisdom of ages here in the Fairytale Kingdom.

There is always comfort in food, and the Danes know this as well as anyone. Sarah and I sampled pastries and coffee in nearly every town we visited. I discovered why the term ‘Danish’ has become an international identifier for certain sweet treats (although the reason is not what you may expect). I found no better way to kill time and escape the cold than to sit inside a café with coffee and cake. Whatever weight I gained or cholesterol I accumulated in Denmark was completely worth it for the pleasure of satisfying my sweet tooth and warming my bones.

But what is the best part of Denmark? I think it is the Danes themselves. The Danish have been called ‘the happiest people in the world’ (by whatever objectively scientific process determines that). I cannot vicariously determine their personal happiness, but I can say from experience that they certainly are friendly.

My Danish is nonexistent, but luckily the Danes learn English in school and speak it perfectly well. Nearly anyone is willing to strike up a conversation, and I found them to be extremely open-minded and inclined to discuss anything you could ask about. The good company component of my hyggelig came not only from reuniting with Sarah, but also from the new friends I met while traveling with her.

If you get the chance to visit Denmark, do not miss out on the historical sights, the museums, the artwork, the food, etc. But be extra sure to not miss out on meeting some Danes. From the people we met at bars, to the lady selling pastries, to our new buddy Mathias who let us crash for a night in Copenhagen, to people we asked for directions on the street, I was not put off by a single one of them (except for the guy flying a Confederate flag in Christiania, but he doesn’t count). Not to say that I’ve had bad experiences with people thus far in Europe, because almost everyone I’ve met has been terrific. However, the Danish are famous for their cordiality, and now I can see why.

Friendly people, tasty treats, green pastures, small-town charm, and Danish hospitality revealed to me the true meaning of hyggelig. My 6-day respite in Denmark is now over, and in spite of a cold I came down with, the hiatus from big city life has me refreshed and ready to take on the next adventure.

 

My Travel Guide and Stories from Mainland Denmark

Denmark Map

 

 

From here begins my more detailed description of the places I went, along with travel information that will be valuable if you decide to make the trip yourself. If you know anyone going to Denmark, please pass this along to help them out!

 

Ribe – Denmark’s Oldest Town

What better place to begin a tour of Jutland than in the oldest town in Denmark? Ribe is on the West coast, a full 3.5 hour train ride from Copenhagen. It has existed since the early 8th century AD, starting as a modest fishing village but quickly growing to an important trade hub for the kingdom.

Now, only a few years after the town’s 1300th anniversary, Ribe still proudly resounds with echoes of its past. It’s large cathedral, the central feature of the town, is Denmark’s most well-preserved Romanesque building, and parts of the construction are original from the 12th century.

Ribe boasts many other historic buildings as well, with the oldest house in town dating back to 1576. It is still a house to this day—occupied by a doctor who runs his practice from home.

Although Ribe predates the Viking Age, this port city was also crucial to commerce throughout Viking times. Evidence of this is prevalent in the archeological records of the town, and much can be seen on display in the Museum of Ribe’s Vikings, located just across the street from the train station.

Café in Ribe, with towers of the cathedral
Café in Ribe, with towers of the cathedral beyond

 

The Cobbled Streets of Ribe
The Cobbled Streets of Ribe

 

Cobbled Ribe
Crooked buildings still stand in Ribe

 

I thought Ribe was the most picturesque and pleasant town of those I visited. Stone bricks, of age that I can only imagine, form the countless cobbles of Ribe’s meandering streets, running not quite straight between rows of contiguous timber and brick houses. The houses themselves are all a bit crooked, shifted over time by the sandy delta soils beneath. Many buildings still have larger stones propped against the corners, to prevent wagon wheels from grinding against the structure when making a tight turn.

This modest village of only 8,000 people is never crowded, and a walking tour can be completed in less than one afternoon. The history is really all Ribe has to offer. There are, of course, a few cafes, bakeries, and ice cream shops that are just as delicious as any in Denmark, but don’t plan on staying the night here. Instead, use the rest of your day to see some other places of interest in Southwest Jutland.

 

Esbjerg – Denmark’s Youngest Town

Esbjerg
Esbjerg’s central square

Esbjerg was established in 1868 as a port town to replace the formerly important one further south, which succumbed to German control during the wars of that time. Today, it is Denmark’s fifth largest city, so it has a considerable amount of shopping, dining, and drinking that come at prices much more reasonable than those in Copenhagen. Still, don’t expect any high fashion, world-class cuisine, or late-night debauchery in this town of 70,000. You could spend the day here seeing original buildings from the early 20th century, perusing museums, and finding the city’s many scattered sculptures and other artwork, but most of the highlights can easily be seen in a few hours traveling on foot.

One side trip worth taking from Esbjerg is a ferry ride to Wadden Sea National Park. This series of marshy islands comprises Denmark’s largest national park and is among the wildest places left in the country. Hiking trails for bird watching and boat tours for seal spotting are the token activities here. I unfortunately did not get to go, but I wouldn’t mind saving it for a warmer, less windy day than when I was in Esbjerg.

 

Getting Around Denmark

Traveling in Denmark is expensive, and there is no way around that short of couchsurfing and hitchhiking everywhere (I recommend the couchsurfing, but can’t  attest to the hitchhiking). Even a short bus or metro ride in Copenhagen will cost you at least 20kr (~$3.75 USD), and trains between towns are typically 40kr and up.

TrainOne trick, however, is to know that a train ticket, whether above or underground, will get you free bus travel in the same city and on the same day you purchased the ticket. This is especially handy in Copenhagen, where a train to bus connection is often necessary to reach a destination. Getting on a bus usually requires just flashing a paper ticket or the electronic version on your smartphone.

Another way to save money is by purchasing a discount card from Denmark’s major rail company, DSB. The card costs a minimum of 100kr (~$18.50 USD), but this will pay for itself after just one roundtrip ticket to the mainland from Copenhagen, because the card gets you half price on most intercity train tickets. You can order an actual card, which takes a week or two to come in the mail even to a Denmark address, or buy it via the DSB Wildcard smartphone app (which I recommend). This will allow you to purchase electronic tickets using a credit card.

One final trick to know: Train tickets are flexible. They are specific to route but not to any particular time. Therefore, if you buy a ticket from Copenhagen all the way to Ribe, for example, you are free to hop off the train at any station along the way and explore, then return to the train and continue on your way within the same day. Tickets are not sold for roundtrips, however, so you must have two tickets for a full journey.

Trains, buses, and walking are the best ways to travel Denmark. Cars are not recommended, unless you have access to a free one like Sarah and I. Renting a car is expensive in the first place, and gas prices will make you want to vomit.

The contrast of new and old at one of Denmark's rural rail stations
The contrast of new and old at one of Denmark’s rural rail stations

 

Jelling

This sleepy village of less than 4,000 people holds profound historical significance for Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia. It is home to a church and two megalithic runestones that commemorate the introduction of Christianity to the medieval Kingdom of Denmark and Norway.

Harald Bluetooth's Runestone for his father
Harald Bluetooth’s Runestone for his father
The church and runestones at Jelling
The church and runestones at Jelling

King Harald Bluetooth, who ruled from near modern Jelling, was supposedly converted to Christianity by German missionaries. He constructed a church at Jelling in the 10th century AD, and this site has been a church ever since. Also placed here is the original runestone that Harald’s father, King Gorm the Old, had raised for his wife after her death. The larger stone was commissioned by King Harald after Gorm died, and displays the oldest known depiction of Christ from Scandinavia.

Jelling is a must-see for the history buff, but other than the church, the monuments, and the scenic grounds that surround them, there is not much to do here. Jelling is best experienced as a brief stop en route to Aarhus or elsewhere in Northern Jutland.

 

Aarhus

The second largest city in Denmark, Aarhus could be described as Copenhagen’s little sister. Offering all the amenities and activities of a big city, but with much less craziness, Aarhus is ideal for spending an afternoon or an entire week. Like the other towns of Jutland, Aarhus is very old, but has followed the pace of modernization more enthusiastically than most.

Notable sights include: Aarhus Cathedral—one of the largest in Northern Europe; ARoS—famous modern art museum; Riis Skov—a forest park bordering the beach that has been conserved since 1395; Viking Museum—a free museum detailing the excavation of a Viking village beneath the present-day city center; Aarhus University—prestigious school with a large student population and vibrant international scene.

Highlights of my half day in Aarhus were: the one day of pleasant weather during my stay in Denmark, the Viking Museum, and pastries so irresistible that Sarah and I both made ourselves sick from gorging on them.

Spring arrives at Aarhus University
Spring arrives at Aarhus University campus

Danish Pastries

My world came crashing down when I found out that the classic “Danish” actually originated in Austria, not Denmark (thanks Wikipedia for altering my reality yet again). It was Denmark, however, that made the modern version of the pastry famous, after immigrant bakers from Austria popularized their recipe in the late 1800s.

Regardless of the Danish’s ancestry, pastries from Denmark set worldwide trends for good reason—they are delicious. While the Danish bakery may not boast as many flavor varieties as those in France, the Danes are experts at what they bake. Dark chocolate, marzipan, and licorice are trademark ingredients found in many Danish recipes. Meringue, crème, cinnamon, and coconut are also popular.

Licorice Flødeboller
Licorice Flødeboller

The Danes have somewhat of a licorice obsession, and are proud of it. Many of them seem to have the impression that no one outside of Scandinavia can stomach the herbaceous sweetener, and were surprised to learn of my affinity for it. When I ordered a licorice flødeboller in Aarhus, the shopkeeper earnestly asked if I had tried it before, and if I was sure I would like it or not.

The flødeboller, a chocolate-covered whipped meringue that comes in a variety of flavors to die for, is only one Danish specialty I sampled during my trip. Træstammer, meaning ‘tree trunk,’ was one of my favorites. This is a thick layer of marzipan rolled around a rich, chocolate truffle-like center. After just one of these you might want to see a cardiologist. Danish bakeries are also famous for breads, cookies, muffins, cheesecakes, and a variety of other heart-stopping creations.

Bakeries in Denmark are not hard to find. Even the smallest town should have at least one shop displaying the morning’s fresh selection in the front window. Finding a reasonably priced bakery, however, may take some work in Copenhagen. In any other city in Denmark, expect prices to be pretty similar on all but the most touristy of streets. 30-40kr (~$5.50-7.50 USD) for one large pastry is pretty standard, but keep an eye out for special sales.

Træstammer and a marzipan cookie
Træstammer and a marzipan cookie

In the small town of Bramming, we found cappuccino and a pastry for 30kr. If you get really lucky, you can find overstocked items on super-sale for just a few kroner a piece. Even near the center of Copenhagen, I scored a cup of exquisite chocolate mousse with whipped crème and strawberry chili topping for only 10kr. It tasted like something straight off of food network, but from a hole-in-the-wall café a few turns beyond Copenhagen’s main thoroughfare. By comparison, you can pay 120kr (~$22.00 USD) for one slice of cake and one small cup of coffee if you blindly follow the hoards into the nearest Copenhagen cakery.

A typical "Danish" pastry
A typical “Danish” pastry

From what I can tell, Danish bakers are Danish bakers, and they are good at what they do. Unless you are seeking the most gourmet of desserts, you won’t necessarily get better quality from a more expensive place. Location is what more often dictates price among the authentic Danish pastries.

Diligence (and stamina) pays off when sampling sweets in Denmark. Try not to overpay and try not to overeat. But trust me, you are bound to fall victim to both. I did, so no shame in that at all.

 

Kolding

This charming town is an oasis of activity along the otherwise sparsely populated route between the Eastern islands and Denmark’s West coast. Kolding is the perfect balance between urbanized Denmark and the quintessential hyggelig of the countryside.

High-end and specialty shops, interspersed with local cafes and family-owned restaurants, line the town’s relaxed pedestrian streets. Hotels and hostels are easy to find, but reasonably priced. The 600-year-old Kolding Castle overlooks quiet neighborhoods and the small lake near the center of town. A stroll on the “Lover’s Walk” around the perimeter of the lake is perfect for morning exercise or evening romance. Inside the castle is a museum of Danish art and history that frequently hosts special events.

Kolding is home to a design school and two universities, which attract a surprisingly large number of international students. Owing to the relatively large student population, Kolding has no shortage of bars and even a few nightclubs. Each university has its own student bar where the partiers go for cheap drinks and rowdy fun on Friday nights.

Although Kolding is less exciting than the bigger cities of Denmark, I recommend spending a weekend here if you get the chance. Embrace the small-town feel of this gateway to the Danish countryside, enjoy a break from Copenhagen costs and crowds, and meet some of the friendliest people in the world.

 

When to Visit Denmark

Copenhagen Flowers

I traveled Denmark in early spring. With new leaves budding on the trees, spring flowers blossoming in every garden, and the first hints of warmth in the air, the countryside is gorgeous. Even in early April, after months of short, cloudy days and long, frigid nights, the soft grasses of Jutland are more vividly verdant than any fields I have seen in my life.

However, had I been there a month later in the season, the greenery would have been overwhelming. Instead of some plots lying bare while they are tilled and slurried, every field would be sprouting to life with fresh crops by the end of May. The cattle would be back out to pasture, the sunshine would be a more frequent visitor, and trees would be adorned in full leafy attire.

A joke in Denmark is to answer the question, “Is it ever summer here?” with, “Of course! We had a nice summer last year. It was on a Monday.”

This field is being tilled and seeded in early spring
This field is being tilled and seeded in early spring

Summers may be relatively short and mild, but are still pleasant, and temperatures frequently warm enough for a comfortable day at the beach. This is fortunate because Denmark has some beautiful beaches on both coasts that are popular with Scandinavian and German tourists. Just be warned of the chilly water.

I recommend visiting Denmark in late spring or during the summer, but if your only chance to visit is during the colder months, don’t shy away. Because of its proximity to Western Europe and the warm waters of the Atlantic, winter temperatures in Denmark tend to hover just around freezing or warmer. Although the wind can still be quite formidable, and the sun stays up for only 7.5 hours in midwinter, it is far from the frozen wasteland you might expect.

 

The Quest Complete

DSC_0436My quest for hyggelig took me on a magical journey through the Fairytale Kingdom (and no, that doesn’t have to do with anything I found in Christiania). Over the channel from Copenhagen, across the green fields of Jutland, and down the quiet cobbled streets, I found my Hyggelig. You can find yours too; waiting for you at a café table, a beachside lounge chair, a flowery garden bench, or somewhere else. where, how, or who is entirely up to you.

In conclusion: Go to Denmark! The Fairytale Kingdom holds far more enchanting destinations than I can possibly describe in this article. I mean come on, I haven’t even mentioned Legoland!

A variety of excellent travel guides and online resources are available to aid your Denmark trip planning. Also, I would be happy to answer any questions, or at least recommend a source if I don’t know the answer myself. Just post in the comments.

 

Thanks for reading, and safe travels!

 

Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen
Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen

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