As home to Copenhagen, Zealand is Denmark’s most visited region, and, with a swift metropolitan transport network covering almost half of the island, you can always make it back to the capital in time for an evening drink. North of Copenhagen, Helsingør (Elsinore) is the departure point for ferries to Sweden and the site of legendary Kronborg Castle.
To the west, and on the main train route to Funen, is Roskilde, with an extravagant cathedral that served as the resting place for Danish monarchs, and a superb location on the Roskilde fjord, from where five Viking boats were salvaged and are now displayed in a spectacular, specially built museum. The northern coast of Zealand is scattered with quaint little fishing villages: consider a trip to Gilleleje, where you can buy fresh fish directly from the fishermen (connected by train to Helsingør).
Top image: Kronborg castle, Helsingor © trimages/Shutterstock
Despite its status as a busy ferry port, HELSINGØR is a likeable town with some major historical attractions.
Its position on the narrow strip of water linking the North Sea and the Baltic brought the town prosperity when, in 1429, the Sound Toll was imposed on passing vessels. Today it remains an important waterway, with ferries to and from Helsingborg in Sweden accounting for most of Helsingør’s through-traffic and innumerable cheap booze shops.
The main ferry operator between Helsingør and Helsingborg in Sweden is Scandlines, making the twenty-minute crossing every fifteen to thirty minutes (78–108kr). All services leave from the main terminal by the train station. Eurail is valid on Scandlines, while InterRail and the Copenhagen Card give a 25 percent discount.
The town’s single great tourist draw is Kronborg Castle (daily: June–Aug 10am–5.30pm; Sept–May 11am–4pm; Nov–March closed Mon; 90kr winter, 140kr summer), principally because of its literary associations as Elsinore Castle, the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There’s no evidence Shakespeare ever visited Helsingør, and the tenth-century character Amleth on whom his hero was based long predates the castle. Nevertheless, the cottage industry of Hamlet souvenirs thrives here. The present castle dates from the sixteenth century when it jutted into the sound as a formidable warning to passing ships not to consider dodging the toll, and it remains a grand affair, enhanced immeasurably by its setting; the interior, particularly the royal chapel, is memorably ornate. Beneath the castle are the casemates, gloomy cavernous rooms that served as soldiers’ quarters during times of war.
The big attraction just south of the castle is the revamped former shipyard area where the Maritime Museum of Denmark (Ny Kronborgvej 1; July & Aug daily 10am–5pm; Sept–June daily 11am–4pm; 110kr) is one of the country’s premiere places to learn about Denmark’s seafaring past and present.
Set under-ground in the old dry docks next to the Castle, the building comprises a continuous ramp that loops around the dock walls, allowing for unobstructed views from the Castle. Inside, the technologically advanced, well-curated collections span Viking, medieval and modern seafaring, exploration and merchant shipping. There are other unique finds, including a colossal Maersk freight container, relics from Denmark’s conquests in Greenland, India, the West Indies and West Africa and – yes, really – the world’s oldest surviving ship’s biscuit (1852). The area is also the site of the Culture Yard (Mon–Fri 10am–9pm, Sat & Sun 10am–4pm; free), a theatre, concert venue, library and café-restaurant housed in an innovatively designed glass-steel structure created from old wharf buildings.
Helsingør’s well-preserved medieval quarter is dominated by Stengade, the main shopping street, which is linked by a number of narrow alleyways to Axeltorv, the town’s small market square and– a nice place to enjoy a beer. Near the corner of Stengade and Skt. Annagade is Helsingør’s cathedral, Skt. Olai Kirke (Mon–Sat: May–Aug 10am–4pm; Sept–April 10am–2pm; free), while beyond is Skt. Mariæ Kirke (mid-May to mid-Sept Tues–Sun 10am–3pm, mid-Sept to mid-May Tues–Sun 10am–2pm, free; guided tours at 2pm Mon–Fri; 20kr), whose Karmeliterklostret, built circa 1400, is now the best-preserved medieval monastery in Scandinavia (guided tours only; arrange via the church office). Its former hospital now contains the Town Museum (Tues–Sun noon–4pm, Sat till 2pm; 20kr), which displays an unnerving selection of surgical tools used in early brain operations.
Once the capital of Denmark, Roskilde is worth a visit even if you can’t make it to its famous rock festival. Its Viking Ship Museum is a world-class attraction while the cathedral and old centre are lovely to wander around.
The fabulous Roskilde Domkirke (April–Sept Mon–Sat 10am–6pm, Sun 1–6pm; Oct–March Mon–Sat 10am–4pm, Sun 1–4pm; 60kr) was founded by Bishop Absalon in 1170 and largely completed by the fourteenth century. It’s stuffed full of dead Danish monarchs, including twenty kings and seventeen queens. The most impressive chapel is that of Christian IV, full of bronze statues, frescoes and vast paintings of scenes from his reign. The current queen, the charismatic Margrethe II, has also expressed a desire to be buried here. Next door is Roskilde Palace, housing the diverting Museum of Contemporary Art (Tues, Thurs & Fri noon–5pm, Wed noon–8pm, Sat & Sun 11am–4pm; 50kr, Wed free).
Fifteen minutes’ walk north of the centre on the banks of the fjord is the modern Viking Ship Museum (late June to Aug daily 10am–5pm; Sept to mid-June daily 10am–4pm; 115kr May–Sept, otherwise 80kr). Inside, five superb specimens of Viking shipbuilding are displayed: a deep-sea trader, a merchant ship, a warship, a fishing vessel and a longship preserved incredibly from 1042, each retrieved from the fjord where they were sunk to block invading forces. You can board two life-size models of ships next door, and try on traditional Viking clothes. Outside, boat-building and sail-making demonstrations use only tools and materials available during the Viking era; when the weather allows, you can also experience a replica ship’s seaworthiness on the fjord – you’ll be handed an oar when you board and be expected to pull your weight as a crew member (50min; 80kr on top of the museum ticket; minimum twelve people). It’s a humbling experience when you consider that similar ships made it all the way to Greenland.
Book well in advance if you wish to stay during the Roskilde Festival, one of the largest open-air music festivals in Europe, attracting almost 100,000 people annually. Tickets go on sale in December and tend to sell out quickly. The festival usually takes place in early July and there’s a special free campsite beside the festival site, to which shuttle buses run from the train station every few minutes.