Gorgeous white-sand beaches with shallow water and gentle waves line the northern Kattegat coast. Although the scattered small towns and villages only have a few thousand residents in winter, in summer the holiday homes fill and throngs of beach goers, creating a salubrious sunshine-and-ice-cream atmosphere.
This area is sometimes grandly referred to as the Danish Riviera, thanks to its expensive seaside mansions. It’s a slightly misleading name, however – if you’re dreaming of golden beaches, head for the north coast. The main attractions on north Zealand’s eastern shore are a handful of excellent museums and Helsingør's beast of a castle, Kronborg Slot.
The main sight at the busy port town of Helsingør (Elsinore) is imposing Kronborg Slot, a brute of a castle that dominates the narrowest point of the Øresund. It was made famous as Elsinore Castle in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, although the intimate psychological nature of the play is a far cry from the military colossus squatting on the shore.
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.
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.
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 centre retains a photogenic core of cobbled streets flanked by Denmark's best-preserved 17th- and 18th-century buildings.
‘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.
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.
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.
Christian IV sure knew how to build a castle. Hillerød, 30km 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.
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.