Chart-topping contentment and quality of life, blockbuster dining and design, and a cheerful emphasis on hygge – explore (and envy) what makes Denmark tick.
Happiness & Hygge
It’s heart-warming to know there’s still a country where the term ‘fairy tale’ can be used freely – from its most enduring literary legacy to its textbook castles. In a nutshell, Denmark gets it right: old-fashioned charm embraces the most avowedly forward-looking design and social developments. The country wins a regular place on lists of both the most liveable and the happiest nations on earth. You won’t have to search hard to find much-prized hygge, a uniquely Danish trait that has a profound influence on the locals’ inestimable happiness. Hygge is social nirvana in Denmark: a sense of cosiness, camaraderie and contentment.
Quality of Life
While many countries are noticeable for the ever-increasing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, Denmark seems to be populated by the ‘have enoughs’, and the obviously rich and obviously poor are few and far between. This egalitarian spirit allows the best of the arts, architecture, eating and entertainment to be within easy reach of everyone. Indeed, the best catchword for Denmark might be ‘inclusive’ – everyone is welcome and everyone is catered to, be they young, old, gay, straight, and whether they travel with kids, pets or bikes in tow. Cities are compact and user-friendly, infrastructure is modern, and travel is a breeze.
The Danish Aesthetic
It’s true, Denmark doesn’t have the stop-you-in-your-tracks natural grandeur of its neighbours, but its landscapes are understated – pure and simple, often infused with an ethereal Nordic light. Such landscapes are reflected in the Danish design philosophy towards fashion, food, architecture, furniture and art. Simplicity of form and function come first but not at the expense of beauty. And so you’ll find moments of quintessential Danish loveliness on a long sandy beach, beside a lake, admiring a Renaissance castle, on the bike lanes of Bornholm or in a candlelit cafe that has perfected the art of hygge.
History & Impact
The world first took notice of Denmark more than a millennium ago, when Danish Vikings took to the seas and ravaged vast tracts of Europe. How things have changed. These days Denmark captures global imagination as the epitome of a civilised society, and it punches above its weight on many fronts: progressive politics, urban planning, sustainability, work-life balance, design and architecture. Recent global crushes, freshly exported from Copenhagen, include a city cycling culture, the New Nordic culinary movement, and brilliantly addictive TV drama series.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Denmark.
Best known as the Elsinore Castle of Shakespeare's Hamlet, this Unesco World Heritage Site is a vast Renaissance masterpiece topped by baroque green-copper spires. It's ringed by moats, fortifications and powerful Vaubanesque star bastions that you can discover without a ticket. But it's well worth the entry fee to explore the inner palace's rooms, tapestries, ceiling paintings and viewpoints and, best of all, to delve into the spooky maze of casemates – subterranean dungeon passages barely lit by flickering paraffin lamps.
One of Denmark's most impressive buildings, this gigantic, Dutch Renaissance–styled fortress-palace rises proudly out of photogenic moat-lake Slotsø. Access is free to the impressive central courtyards and huge, beautifully tended park with baroque gardens. To visit the interiors (ticket required) you'll need around three hours to do justice to the 80-plus rooms overloaded with beautiful furniture, tapestries, endless portraiture and gilded decor of astonishingly pompous grandiosity. Copious info-cards, along with free audio guides in nine languages, add plentiful context.
Mind-blowing Lego models, fun rides and the happy-family magic associated with great theme parks have transformed Legoland into Denmark’s most visited tourist attraction outside of Copenhagen. It’s a great day outing (you’ll need a day to do it justice) and it sits smack-bang in the middle of Jutland, 1km north of Billund. The heart of Legoland is Miniland – 20 million plastic Lego blocks snapped together to create miniature cities and replicate global icons (and re-create scenes from Star Wars movies).
Dating from 1843, tasteful Tivoli wins fans with its dreamy whirl of amusement rides, twinkling pavilions, carnival games and open-air stage shows. Visitors can ride the renovated, century-old roller coaster, enjoy the famous Saturday evening fireworks display or just soak up the story-book atmosphere. A good tip is to go on Friday during summer when the open-air Plænen stage hosts free rock concerts by Danish bands (and the occasional international superstar) from 10pm – go early if it's a big-name act.
Escape the capitalist crunch and head to Freetown Christiania, a hash-scented commune straddling the eastern side of Christianshavn. Since its establishment by squatters in 1971, the area has drawn nonconformists from across the globe, attracted by the concept of collective business, workshops and communal living. Explore beyond the settlement's infamous 'Pusher St' – lined with shady hash and marijuana dealers who do not appreciate photographs – and you'll stumble upon a semi-bucolic wonderland of whimsical DIY homes, cosy garden plots, eateries, beer gardens and music venues.
A 'once upon a time' combo of turrets, gables and moat, the early-17th-century Rosenborg Slot was built in Dutch Renaissance style between 1606 and 1633 by King Christian IV to serve as his summer home. Today the castle's 24 upper rooms are chronologically arranged, housing the furnishings and portraits of each monarch from Christian IV to Frederik VII. The pièce de résistance is the basement Treasury, home to the dazzling crown jewels, among them Christian IV's glorious crown and Christian III's jewel-studded sword.
Inside the cubist, red-brick walls of Aarhus’ showpiece art museum are nine floors of sweeping curves, soaring spaces and white walls showcasing a wonderful selection of Golden Age works, Danish modernism and an abundance of arresting and vivid contemporary art. The museum's cherry-on-top is the spectacular Your Rainbow Panorama, a 360-degree rooftop walkway offering views of the city through its glass panes in all shades of the rainbow.
Denmark's National Gallery straddles two contrasting, interconnected buildings: a late-19th-century 'palazzo' and a sharply minimalist extension. The museum houses medieval and Renaissance works and impressive collections of Dutch and Flemish artists, including Rubens, Breughel and Rembrandt. It claims the world's finest collection of 19th-century Danish 'Golden Age' artists, among them Eckersberg and Hammershøi, foreign greats like Matisse and Picasso, and modern Danish heavyweights including Per Kirkeby.
There are few nicer places to be on a sunny day than sitting at an outdoor table at a cafe on the quayside of the Nyhavn canal. The canal was built to connect Kongens Nytorv to the harbour and was long a haunt for sailors and writers, including Hans Christian Andersen. He wrote The Tinderbox, Little Claus and Big Claus and The Princess and the Pea while living at No 20, and also spent time living at Nos 18 and 67.