A heart-warming winter in Denmark
Written by Bjorn Thonnias
If you’re looking for cheer during dark December days, then Denmark provides plenty of hygge. Writer and frequent visitor Bjorn Thonnias takes us through the pleasures of Danish cosiness.
Though difficult to define and even more difficult to pronounce, the concept of hygge pervades Danish culture and is nowhere more to the fore than during winter, when it makes the perfect antidote to the dark and cold.
Even when the winter winds are blowing in from the North Sea, there’s a lot to like about Denmark, a country that provides the world with cheerful things such as Lego, Bang & Olufsen stereos, New Nordic cuisine, and mermaid stories. You can feel safe after dark, pedal through its cities by bicycle, and explore gingerbread old towns and eye-popping examples of modern architecture alike. The countryside has a snow-encrusted beauty, and towns are aglitter with festive lights. Most of all, the whole country is on a hygge high.
Hygge(pronounced something like ‘hooga’, and derived from a Norwegian word for ‘wellbeing’) is often translated as ‘cosiness’. Certainly, it’s about creating a warm atmosphere and is often associated with candlelight and flickering fires. But hygge is much more than this: it’s almost a philosophy of life. Hygge is all about an appreciation of family and friends, of rustic simplicity, the natural over the artificial, and of tradition. Hygge is about knowing what to avoid, too: no checking of work emails at the weekend, no brooding alone in front of the TV. Perhaps hygge is the greatest contributor to making Denmark the happiest country in the world, according to surveys such as the United Nations’ World Happiness Report.
The question is, can the mere visitor tap into the hygge and happiness that the Danes enjoy? Surely yes, and no time more so than in December, when hygge ramps up to fever pitch over the festive season in response to the increasingly short, chilly days and unpredictable weather. Certainly, you’ll sacrifice sunshine and swimming if you visit Denmark in December, and some of its big-name attractions are closed, most notably the original Legoland, but you’ll be amply compensated by a sense of cosiness that just wouldn’t be the same without the darkness, frost, and holiday atmosphere.
Walk the streets of Copenhagen all aglitter with fairy lights, and that’s hygge. Tuck into roast duck in a cellar restaurant in Odense as candles flicker on table tops, and that’s hygge too. Check into a country hotel, snuggle into your old sweater by the fire, and have afternoon tea with gingerbread, and your hygge will hit a happy high.
You could make a heart-warming start in your search for cosiness by heading west from Copenhagen across a long bridge and into a region of rich farming land, snowy at this time of year, whose thatched villages seem to have slipped through a crack in time. You’ll soon reach the city of Odense, best known as the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, though in fact the children’s author had an unhappy childhood here and fled to Copenhagen as soon as he was old enough. Never mind: hotels and cakes are named after him, and even the pedestrian lights have a silhouette of the writer in green inviting you to cross the street.
Odense is one of Denmark’s oldest cities and has a fine pastel-coloured old town crammed with cafés, restaurants, and interesting designer shops. (Surely one of the things that keeps Danes so happy is that they live surrounded by gorgeous, minimalist kitchenware and furniture.) There are some good museums too; in December, the Danish Railway Museum is especially fun for families when it breaks out its railway tracks, building blocks, and paints, and allows children to be engine drivers or to make wooden trains.
The highlight of the region, however, is surely Egeskov Castle, a moated Renaissance pile 30km to the south that could have come straight from the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen tale. Its splendid gardens are a little bare in winter, but light up on December 9 in a display that brings hygge to the hedges and a sound-and-light show to the castle walls.
Venture north to Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, and you’ll find more good, warmly heated museums, several restaurants recently awarded Michelin stars, and – thanks to a large student population – a lively nightlife to keep the cold at bay. The city is adept at combining old with new. It showcases Viking history in a striking modernist building at the Moesgaard Museum, and its ARoS art gallery is topped by a coloured glass ring that gives you 360° rainbow views over the city. In 2017, Aarhus becomes a European Capital of Culture, in preparation for which it has spectacularly redeveloped its Aarhus East harbour area.
Typically, though, that Danish cosiness is never abandoned. One of the city’s highlights remains Den Gamle By, an open-air museum that brings together some 75 historical buildings from across Denmark in meticulously restored examples of all that the Danes love about rustic simplicity. In December, there’s a particularly hyggeligt atmosphere, with festival decorations from various periods in history and carriage rides to jingle your bells. Visit the crafts market for seasonal treats such as gingerbread hearts, marzipan, and vanilla biscuits.
If you really want to get away from it all, beyond Denmark’s cities, you could head to Bornholm, an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea that’s actually closer to the Swedish coast. It has been both an important trading and naval outpost since the Middle Ages – though it has rock carvings dating all the way back to the Bronze Age – and relies mostly on agriculture, ceramics manufacturing, and summertime tourists. It has a wild landscape of moors and forests and is dotted with huge glacial boulders. Tidy old fishing villages such as picturesque Gudhjem or arty Svaneke hunker under the chimneys of herring smokehouses. Go for a wild, windswept walk along deserted beaches before retiring to a warm inn for a meal of fried herring and beetroot on rye bread with mustard, and the hygge that keeps Danes so happy is yours.
Frederiksborg Castle, Hillerød
Twice-daily weekend tours at this fabulous castle north of Copenhagen are aimed squarely at families, with costumed guides providing an entertaining romp through history. Frederiksborg also houses the Museum of National History, whose dedicated children’s department – though not open in winter – is great at other times of year for its activities such as drawing and dressing up and its focus on the childhood of illustrious Danish King Christian IV.
Steno Museum, Aarhus
Technologically minded children will be fascinated in this museum, which showcases significant developments in medicine and science, such as the discovery of penicillin and radio waves and the invention of Morse code and telegraphy. Exhibitions also take a look at possible future technology and computers, with a Gamer Zone dedicated to the technologies of computer games. A planetarium delves into the solar system and the mysteries of black holes.
Hans Christian Andersen Museum, Odense
Odense’s most famous son is commemorated in this museum dedicated to his
life and work. Adults will be provided with an insight into Andersen’s influences and writing career, while the kids will enjoy drawings and paper-cuts showing scenes from his fairy tales such as ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Ugly Duckling’, which they can also hear at various listening posts. You can also visit Andersen’s Odense childhood home.
If you’re looking for a hotel that encapsulates the concept of hygge, then you’re spoiled for choice at these cosy winter retreats in rural and urban Denmark.
Luxury: Kokkedal Castle
This compact, Dutch Renaissance-style castle (more manor house) on the coast 30km north of Copenhagen houses a boutique hotel and wellness centre that provides a cosy weekend retreat to keep you warm and pampered as you gaze over the often snow-covered golf course beyond the windows. Expect gilded mirrors, glittering chandeliers, rich fabrics, and subtle colours inspired by nature. Bag a room with a claw-foot bathtub for winter wallowing, and indulge in a weekend of Danish high teas. Kokkedal Alle 6, Hoersholm, +45 4422 8000, kokkedalslotcopenhagen.dk
Classic: Falsled Kro
This is a classic country hotel: a whitewashed, 16th-century cottage with thatched roof, crackling fires, and soft lighting near the village of Millinge, some 50km south of Odense. Stylish guestrooms and suites – some of which have private courtyards or conservatories, and overlook the bay – have beamed ceilings and exposed brick walls. As you’d expect of a Relais & Chateaux property, the restaurant features upmarket fare, including salmon smoked on site, duck with gooseberries, and truffled veal. Assensvej 513, Millenge, +45 6268 1111, falsledkro.dk
Timeless boutique: Hotel D’Angleterre
There are few better locations than Kongens Nytorv square in the heart of Copenhagen’s historic shopping district, where this elegant luxury hotel and city landmark delivers considerable 1870s neoclassical and 1920s art nouveau style, though happily a 2013 overhaul saw it abandon stuffiness and embrace the latest technologies. If Jack Frost has nibbled at your toes, head to the fabulous spa and its heated marble swimming pool. Restaurant Marchal has a Michelin star for its refined Nordic cuisine. Kongens Nytorv 34, Copenhagen, +45 3312 0095, dangleterre.com
Head to this Odense store for a great selection of Danish handicrafts and designer wares that make for great souvenirs. You’ll find established names such as Stelton for chic coffeepots and cutlery, Royal Copenhagen for porcelain, and silverware by Georg Jensen, and also interesting goods from up-and-coming young Danish designers. The store also provides gift-wrapping, with designer wrapping paper and ribbons that change with the seasons. Vestergade 82, Odense, +45 6612 9693, inspiration.dk
If you want the inside scoop on Copenhagen – or destinations beyond – then this Jutland-born guide and owner of a tour-guide business is your man. Kristian moves beyond the dull patter of the ordinary guide to provide anecdotes, insights, and personal opinion, and is always willing to acknowledge the many sides to history’s story. Tours can be tailored to interests such as walking, biking, golf, or food. Stengade 56, Copenhagen, +45 3032 2879, toursincopenhagen.com
Restaurant Kong Hans Kælder
Housed in the 700-year-old gothic cellar of Copenhagen’s oldest building, and candlelit to provide the perfect hygge atmosphere, this upmarket but unpretentious restaurant features classic French cuisine with distinctively pared-down Nordic influences, featuring local ingredients. Try the likes of salted cod with smoked cream or rabbit tortellini with truffle; in December you can also indulge in festive fixed menus. Vingårdstræde 6, Copenhagen, +45 3311 6868, konghans.dk
Distance: 4,748 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 45 minutes