Copenhagen is Europe’s fairy tale city, with the Little Mermaid watching over its harbour and the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen peeking from every streetcorner. But no fairy tale is complete without a castle, and the castles of Copenhagen are the perfect setting for ancient myths — and even a Shakespeare play.
To a European, seeing castles isn’t that much of a thrill. But in Canada, where I live, they’re thin on the ground. Sure, Toronto has its own castle (you may have seen it in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), but it’s hardly the real thing. So to visit a city where there are castles and palaces on all sides is a revelation, as I found out during my trip to Copenhagen a few years ago.
It’s no problem viewing several of Copenhagen’s castles (or slots, as they’re called in Danish) in even a short visit. In fact, there are special castle tours that take in some of the most impressive examples, both in the city and in the surrounding countryside. But you don’t have to leave the city to see some of Denmark’s fairy tale castles, and some of its greatest treasures.
Just a 10-minute walk from the city centre sits Rosenborg Castle, a fairy-tale castle if there ever was one. Its broad lawns and imposing turrets make you feel as if you’re stepped into a Disney movie.
Built in the early 17th century by King Christian IV, Rosenborg is open to the public. And it’s well worth paying the 90 kroner (about $13 US) to explore its rooms filled with paintings, fine furniture and objets d’art.
On the top floor you can see the vast throne room with its white and gold coronation throne, guarded by three life-sized silver lions. But the real treasures of Rosenborg lie in the basement, where Denmark’s crown jewels are laid out for public viewing: gilded swords, chalices, sceptres, extravagant jewelry, and the royal crowns, resplendent in gold and studded with jewels.
If you visit Rosenborg around noon, you can follow the palace guard as it marches over to the another downtown showpiece, Amalienborg Palace. And once you get there, you can watch the daily changing of the guard.
Amalienborg, a complex of four grand buildings surrounding a large square, was built in 1750 and later became the residence of the royal family, which still lives there. A number of rooms are maintained as they were during the reign of different Danish kings, and are open to the public (90 kroner).
Christiansborg Palace and Absalon’s Castle
A 10-minute down the waterfront sits another royal palace, Christiansborg, where the country’s Parliament and Supreme Court sit. You can tour the royal reception rooms, the stables, and Parliament (120 kroner for a full pass).
But here too, the best attraction is underground: the ruins of the 13th-century castle built by Bishop Absalon, founder of the city, as well as the later Copenhagen Castle, are buried under its foundations. It’s an eerie sight, but fascinating.
There’s one more “castle” in Copenhagen: Kastelets, located on the waterfront near the Little Mermaid statue. It’s a fortification rather than a real castle, with only a range of military buildings to see. But if you’re visiting the mermaid, you may as well take a look.
There are plenty more castles if you head out of town, though, and the easiest way to see them is to take a castle tour. I chose the Hamlet Castles Tour, which departed near the tourist centre across the street from Tivoli Gardens amusement park. After wending our way out of the city, a short drive through the pleasant Danish countryside took us to Frederiksborg Castle (seen at top).
Built by King Christian IV in 1600 on three islands in a pretty lake, Frederiksborg Castle was the summer residence of Danish royalty for many years. And while it’s even grander than Rosenborg Castle, it’s not all original. Partially destroyed by a major fire in 1859, it was later rebuilt with the aid of Carl Jacobsen, founder of the Carlsberg brewery (and Copenhagen’s unofficial patron saint, thanks to his many public donations).
The castle gives an impressive look at Denmark’s history, from the knights’ hall, adorned with medieval weapons and sculptures of stags, to the ornate Chapel of Orders, one of the surviving parts of the original castle. It’s hung with hundreds of coats of arms representing Danish nobility and notables from around the world, including people like Winston Churchill.
We also got a look at some of the places where the royals used to live, including their bedrooms. I can never get over how small the beds were: was everyone five foot three back then?
The castle also houses the Museum of National History, and I enjoyed wandering through the Italian-inspired Baroque gardens, extensive lawns and woodlands, all fed by bubbling streams and fountains. (I even managed some good bird photos on the grounds.)
Next stop was Fredensborg, the royal family’s country getaway. The palace itself, a wide, stately building flanked with gardens and outbuildings, looked sleepy on a summer afternoon.
Fredensborg is the summer home of Crown Prince Frederik and his Australian wife, Crown Princess Mary, whose marriage initially raised some eyebrows since she was a commoner. However, according to our guide, the public has warmed to the princess; in fact, the locals greet her with a parade of torches when she arrives each summer. (In some cases, apparently, townsfolk with torches is a good thing.)
Then, a ride along the Danish Riviera to Helsingor, a quaint town that’s home to one of Denmark’s most famous landmarks — Kronborg Castle, the home of Hamlet. It was in this hulking, slightly ominous outpost that Shakespeare chose to set his famous tragedy, changing the name of the city to Elsinore and the hero from “Amleth” to “Hamlet”.
Kronborg is a UNESCO World Heritage site, chosen as a prime example of a Renaissance castle. And it’s an imposing sight, standing on a promontory commanding the four-kilometre Oresund Strait that separates Denmark from Sweden.
Built in 1574, it was both a palace and a fort. Historic displays explain that Kronborg served as a maritime toll booth, extracting duties from all the ships passing into the Baltic Sea through the strait — which looks narrow enough to throw a stone across. At one time those duties accounted for a quarter of Denmark’s revenues.
And while Rosenborg and Frederiksborg were lavish and luxurious, Kronborg had a spare, utilitarian look — a fitting home for Shakespeare’s brooding king. Bare wooden floors and plain white walls set off the ornate furniture, and its chandeliers were brass instead of crystal. (In fact, most of the castle’s original treasures were lost in a 1629 fire, with only the fine, ornate chapel left intact.)
To set off the whole experience, we descended into the castle’s dungeon, where booty collected from passing ships was kept — as well as those who refused to pay, according to legend. After a few minutes stumbling through these pitch-dark passageways, you felt truly sorry for them.
The castle is open daily. And as I wrote here, August brings a special experience, as Kronborg stages its annual Shakespeare festival — a chance to see Hamlet performed in the actual spot where it was set. (The festival takes place Aug. 1-9 in 2015.)
All these castles lie within 50 kilometres of Copenhagen on the island of Zealand. But if you’re ambitious, there are others well worth the trip, including Egeskov Castle, a classic-looking fairy tale castle on the island of Odense, about two hours from Copenhagen by train. It has extensive collections of cars, other vehicles and doll houses, plus entertainment in the evenings. (Admission is 180 kroner, about $27 U.S.)
The only downside to viewing the castles of Copenhagen is that when you return home, your own digs tend to look a little .. plain. But resist the urge to start digging a moat and adding a couple of turrets: after all, the chances of an attack by the Visigoths are a lot lower these days. And just think of the upkeep …