The Complete Guide To: The best of Denmark

The Little Mermaid may be its best-known icon, but there's much more to this Scandinavian gem. Roger Norum investigates the museums, the beaches, the longboats and the lager

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The Independent Travel

Why Denmark, why now?

The "world's happiest country" (according to at least one survey) is also one of Europe's most alluring summer hideaways. The Jutland peninsula, sprouting up from Germany, is complemented by an archipelago of pretty islands linked by road, rail or ferry – with the human-scale capital, Copenhagen, on the island of Zealand facing across to Sweden.

You can find Blue Flag beaches, Michelin-starred bistros and scores of sunny spots to snuggle up for a few days with Mother Nature. Denmark consistently punches above its weight for everything from design to dining and culture to cycling. And the country's 7,300km of white, sandy coastline offers some of the most unexpectedly wonderful places to kick off your flip-flops and while away an afternoon.

Expensive, though?

Scandinavia has a reputation for high prices, but in July and August there are free outdoor films screened in a number of Danish cities, and many art galleries are free to visit on certain days – typically Wednesdays.

Plenty of museums have no entry fees. In Copenhagen, these include The National Museum (00 45 33 13 44 11; natmus.dk ), The National Gallery (00 45 33 74 84 94; smk.dk ) and the just-renovated David Collection (00 45 33 73 49 49; davidmus.dk ), which has an excellent collection of early modern Danish paintings.

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (00 45 33 41 81 41; glyptoteket.dk ), Denmark's finest art gallery, with Picassos and Rodins, has free admission on Sundays. And Copenhagen's hippie enclave, Christiania, with its lovely DIY homes, murals and summer concerts, is free in every way.

You can even find a beach in the capital without the expense of leaving town. The Copencabana is an artificial beach in the city harbour with two outdoor pools, diving boards and volleyball courts; Halvandet (00 45 70 27 02 96; halvandet.dk ) is a hugely popular beach bar with large day beds, opposite the harbour from the iconic Little Mermaid.

The very best beaches?

North of Copenhagen, the sandy swathes of Tisvildeleje offer an upmarket feel, with ample facilities, family-friendly sandbars and shallows plus great restaurants and cafés. North-west Zealand is also home to Gudmindrup Lyng Strand, arguably the best beach in the country; ideal for an afternoon swim followed by a spot of sunset-watching.

Jutland maintains the biggest and best concentration of beaches, many flanked by campsites, summer cottages and holiday centres. For centuries, the coast off Skagen at the far north of Denmark has drawn painters (as well as migratory sea birds on their way to the Baltic) to its lengthy stretches of sand that front the bright blue waters of the Kattegat. Jutland's west coast is the place for watersports, especially on the windswept beaches of Klitmøller. This strip is celebrated for windsurfing, kitesurfing and just plain surfing – it's known affectionately in surf circles as "Cold Hawaii".

Some history?

By the time the Viking raids finally ceased around the end of the 11th century, they had left traces of their active cultural, economic and religious heyday all over Denmark, with many artifacts gleaned from the raids still intact.

The best Danish Viking sites include the Ladbyskibet near the Funen coast (00 45 65 32 16 67; kertemindemuseer.dk ; daily 10am-5pm; 45kr/£5), the 10th-century underground tomb of an important Viking chieftain.

The corpse itself is suspiciously missing, but the bones of his dogs and horses and assorted Viking accoutrements are preserved inside his longboat.

The well-preserved Trelleborg ring fortress, smack in the middle of Zealand, dates from 980 AD, during the reign of Harald Bluetooth. It is noted for the mathematical precision of its construction. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Friday; 50kr (£6).

In Jelling's church in Jutland you can visit the Jelling stones, titantic-sized runic stones erected more than 1,000 years ago by King Gorm the Old; one displays the first written mention of the nation called "Danmark".

The most evocative of Viking finds, however, are the restorations of five massive longboats dating from 1025 to 1336, on view at Roskilde's Viking Ship Museum (00 45 46 30 02 00; vikingeskibsmuseet.dk ; daily 10am-5pm; 95kr/£11). The boats lay at the bottom of the Roskilde Fjord for centuries, and during the museum's construction, building crews happened upon the intact remains of another nine Viking ships.

More recently?

Denmark also holds one of the world's most impressive collections of princely Renaissance castles (slotte). First and foremost is Helsingør's Kronborg Slot (00 45 49 21 30 78; kronborgcastle.com ; daily 10.30am-5pm; 90kr/£10), a pearl of a sandstone Gothic fortress perched on a grassy promontory overlooking the Baltic that was inspiration for Hamlet's Elsinore castle. West of here at Lake Esrum is Fredensborg (00 45 33 92 63 00; ses.dk), an 18th-century palace still used by the royal family for official gatherings. The palace gardens are always open, and guided tours of the interiors are offered throughout July (daily 1-4:30pm; 50kr/£6).

South-west on Funen is the fairy-tale Egeskov Slot (00 45 62 27 10 16; egeskov.dk ; 10am-7pm), a 15th-century castle built on a bed of thousands of oak timbers and surrounded by a moat and dazzling English gardens. The Ahlefeldt-Laurvig-Bille aristocrats still reside here but they open their doors in summer for the princely sum of 185kr (£21). V

What will I eat – and drink?

"New Nordic Cuisine" is at once experimental and back-to-basics, souping up Scandinavian palates with ingredients such as musk ox, wild fowl, local seaweed and Greenland-grown berries and wild flowers. Copenhagen's Noma (00 45 32 96 32 97; noma.dk ) has just been named the third-best restaurant in the world (behind the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, and El Bulli in Spain) by a panel of 800 chefs and critics.

Provocative head chef René Redzepi makes his own salt and serves a beef tartare you're meant to eat with your hands. The capital now boasts a total of 14 Michelin stars – more than anywhere else in Scandinavia – including four new restaurants awarded stars in 2008: Geranium (00 45 33 11 13 04; restaurantgeranium.dk ), Paustian (00 45 39 18 55 01; paustian.dk ), Kiin Kiin (00 45 35 35 75 55; kiin.dk ) and Nimb (00 45 88 70 00 00; nimb.dk ).

For cheaper fare, try Nimb's grill bar for the best hot dog you'll probably ever eat (49kr/£6), and down it with organic chocolate milk (12kr/£1).

KarriereFOOD (00 45 33 21 55 09; karrierebar.com ), situated in the up-and-coming meat-packing district in trendy Vesterbro, may lack Michelin aspirations but serves sustainable food grown by the chefs on a biodynamic farm.

There's plenty of great cuisine in Denmark's rural nooks and crannies, too. On Bornholm, try Le Port (00 45 56 96 92 01; leport.dk ), which offers delicious French dishes such as garlic-fried prawns and crisp Baltic cod with creamy potatoes, mushrooms and bacon, and sunset views from its terrace. In Odense you can dine at Under Lindetræt (00 45 66 12 92 86; underlindetraet.dk ), a picture-perfect restored inn dating back to 1771.

Carlsberg is possibly not the best beer in Denmark as there are some excellent microbrews. Brøckhouse IPA is a strong and hoppy pale ale, Ølfabriken Porterhouse is a traditional stout and Hancock Old Gambrinus Dark is a heavy lager that, despite a strength of 9.5 per cent, doesn't taste nearly that alcoholic.

Two wheels good

Cycling is the best way to explore Denmark, as the numbers testify: for every five Danes there is one car but four bikes. The reasons are easy to see: Denmark is both small (260km from one end to the other) and flat (the highest peak is just 173m).

Cities such as Copenhagen, Århus and Frederikshavn offer free city bikes; you just pay a 20kr (£2) deposit.

In addition, the country maintains 11 long-distance national routes across 10,000km of coastal lanes and forested paths. The 559km North Sea route is the most dramatic – and windiest – running along Jutland's west coast from Skagen all the way down to the German border.

Sea-lovers, meanwhile, go island-hopping off the southern Funen coast, whose sandy shoreline is flanked by an archipelago of nearly a hundred individual islets and skerries. A number of these are accessible via regular ferry and offer plenty of opportunity for remote riding across a variety of terrain. But easily the most popular cycling haven is the island of Bornholm, with its web of well-maintained, secluded cycle routes.

For more information, contact the Danish Cyclists Federation (00 45 33 32 31 21; dcf.dk).

Denmark: travel essentials

Getting there

DFDS (0871 522 9955; dfdsseaways.co.uk ) sails from Harwich to Esbjerg. By air, Copenhagen is served by SAS (0871 521 2772; flysas.com) from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Glasgow, Heathrow and Manchester; on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) from Heathrow; by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com ) from Stansted and Gatwick; by Norwegian (00 47 21 49 00 15; norwegian.com ) from Edinburgh and Gatwick; and by Cimber Air (00 45 70 10 12 18; cimber.com ) from London City.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) is the main airline to other destinations, with flights from Stansted, Birmingham and Edinburgh to Billund in West Jutland and from Stansted to Århus in East Jutland, while Norwegian flies from Gatwick to Aalborg in North Jutland.

Getting around

Danish State Railways (00 45 46 30 80 49; dsb.dk ) is efficient and expensive, though "Orange Ticket" discounts of up to 50 per cent are available on many one-day journeys in July. Children under 12 years old travel free. There are also great bus connections for places where the rails don't reach.

Where to stay

Denmark has a superb collection of 500 official campsites, on which a family of two adults and two children can pay as little as 150kr (£17) per night. Even cheaper are the 750 primitive tent sites (lejrpladser) in the vicinity of farms and forests all over the country ( danishcampsites.dk ). There are excellent youth hostels, such as those at Ribe (00 45 75 42 06 20; danhostel-ribe.dk ) from 160kr (£18.40) and Helsingør (00 45 49 28 49 49; helsingorhostel.dk ) from 175kr (£20), both set right on the shore with smashing views. For more information, contact Danhostel (00 45 33 31 36 12; danhostel.dk ).

Danish castles aren't just for looking at. Nearly half of the country's 50 open fortresses, estates and manor houses offer overnights. One such is Dragsholm Slot (00 45 59 65 33 00; dragsholm-slot.dk ), a 13th-century moated citadel long known as a haunt for many ghosts. The castle has teamed up with Claus Henriksen, former sous-chef at Noma, to offer inspired regional dining, after which you can sleep in any of the three dozen bedrooms (from 1685kr/£195). Visit Danske Slotte og Herregaard (00 45 86 60 38 44; slotte-herregaarde.dk ) for more information.

More information

VisitDenmark.com .

Roger Norum is co-author of 'The Rough Guide to Scandinavia' – an updated edition is published this week – and 'The Rough Guide to Denmark' (roughguides.com).

Click here to view Tours and Holidays in Denmark, with Independent Holidays.

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