Our Denmark Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Denmark or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
The smallest country in Scandinavia, Denmark is spread across hundreds of islands wedged between northern Germany and the Scandinavian Peninsula. It's an easy country to explore by road or rail, and aside from some vibrant and easily walkable cities, it offers a varied landscape of pristine beaches, stunning cliffs and fjords, thick forests, rolling meadows and historic villages and towns.
Cosmopolitan Copenhagen is the most popular destination, followed by family-friendly Legoland in Billund, central Jutland. There are charming cobblestoned streets in Denmark's oldest town of Ribe, great beaches and bike riding on the Danish Riviera north of Copenhagen and on the island of Bornholm adrift in the Baltic, or you can chose between the varying pleasures of the Viking Ship Museum or northern Europe's biggest rock festival at Roskilde.
The Danish autonomous territories of Greenland, geographically part of the North American continent, and the Faroe Islands, almost equidistant from Norway, Scotland and Iceland in the North Sea, are not considered in this dossier.
Culture & etiquette
"Denmark is like a secret little place with its own special language."
Denmark is an egalitarian society and this is reflected in the language, which is gender-neutral. Danes are generally modest about their own accomplishments and more concerned about group than individual needs. Danes believe there is a proper way to act in any given circumstance and they expect courteous behaviour. If someone is not following the rules, they will generally speak up.
Throughout Scandinavia, it is helpful to be versed in the principles of the Law of Jante, as set out by Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, in which he extols the values of the working class in the fictional town of Jante. The ten rules state:
Don't think you are anything special.
Don't think you are as good as us.
Don't think you are smarter than us.
Don't convince yourself that you are better than us.
Don't think you know more than us.
Don't think you are more important than us.
Don't think you are good at anything.
Don't laugh at us.
Don't think anyone cares about you.
Don't think you can teach us anything.
An eleventh rule recognised in the novel that is pertinent to visitors states:
Don't think there aren't a few things we know about you.
Particular to Denmark is the concept of 'hygge'. Literally translated as 'cosiness', hygge is all about relaxing among friends or loved ones with good food and drink.
Maternity and paternity leave are particularly generous in Denmark, and men are more actively involved in child-rearing than in many countries. Working mothers can easily arrange the flexible hours they need to maintain both a career and a family. Marriage is not a prerequisite to starting a family, and many couples live together without legalising the arrangement by marriage.
Whilst Denmark has become increasingly multiethnic in recent years, there is a groundswell of resistance to multiculturalism, and political views on integration tend to stress assimilation to Denmark's cultural and historical identity. The fragility and dangers inherent in this mindset were apparent in the infamous cartoon case of 2005 in which the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten commissioned a dozen drawings of Mohammed in an attempt to integrate Muslims into the Danish tradition of satire. The unforeseen outcome was a series of increasingly violent international protests and attacks on Danish and other European embassies, churches and Christians, resulting in over 200 reported deaths.
In Denmark, it's all about coffee, and beer. Danes are pretty passionate about both, and almost as fond of akvavit, or liquers. Every café serves decent coffee, with roasted beans freshly ground on the premises. Italian espressos, cappuccinos and now lattes are readily available too. Tea comes a poor second. When not drinking coffee, the Danes drink beer - it's consumed throughout the day, with lager ahead of brown ale in popularity, though several varieties of both are available. Carlsberg dominates, but other brands are available and worth sampling, particularly Faxe and Star. Wine is generally imported, though attempts have been made to introduce vines to the southern region. Special feasts are often served with shots of akvavit, the schnapps-like drink which comes in a variety of herbal flavours. Of these, a variation known as Gammel Dansk is so highly regarded as a healthy cure-all option that it's often drunk first thing in the morning. Tap water is, as you'd expect, completely safe.
January/February - Winter Jazz Festival. An ever-expanding nationwide festival kick-starting the jazz year, featuring some 300 concerts at 60 venues in 2013.
March - Aalborg Opera Festival. Two weeks of performances in concerts halls, churches and cafes.
April - CPH PIX, Copenhagen. City-wide two-week festival of Danish and international (chiefly European) film.
May - Aarlborg Carnival. The largest carnival in Scandinavia; a week of themed parades, music and dressing up.
May - Copenhagen Carnival. Shades of Rio as samba, salsa and world music beats fill Fælledparken and the city streets.
June - SPOT Festival, Århus. Two days of emerging Danish and Scandinavian music acts.
June - Riverboat Jazz Festival, Silkeborg. Five days of traditional jazz at three large marquees and onboard a steamboat on the Gudenå River.
June/July - Roskilde Festival. One of the biggest events on the European music calendar, drawing a wide array of international bands and visitors.
July - Skagen Festival. Four days of international folk music from Celtic to bluegrass and Scandinavian fiddling.
July - Copenhagen Jazz Festival. One of the largest music events in Europe, with more than 1,000 concerts at 100 venues over ten days, including international stars.
July - Århus International Jazz Festival. A week-long programme of performances at intimate venues including cafes, tents and bars.
July - Langelands Festival. A family-friendly week of mostly Danish rock at Denmark's 'largest garden party'.
August - Copenhagen Fashion Week. City-wide events, talks and fashion displays, accompanied by themed sales in department stores and boutiques.
August - Copenhagen Pride. Five days of gay-themed parties, concerts, films and events, culminating in a vibrant parade through the city.
August - Odense International Film Festival. Denmark's oldest film festival, showcasing international short films.
August - Skanderborg Festival. "Denmark's most beautiful festival" features folk, rock and pop music in a scenic beech forest setting.
August - Tønder Festival. Annual festival of Scottish, Irish, English, North American, Scandinavian and Baltic folk music.
September - CPH ADD (Copenhagen Architecture and Design Days). Guided tours and events celebrating the city's iconic buildings and design.
September - Århus Festival. Ten days of dance, theatre, opera and art.
September - Golden Days Festival, Copenhagen. Annual history festival focusing on a different period in the city's history each year, featuring all the city's major cultural institutions.
October - Culture Night, Copenhagen. 500 events in a single evening across the city's museums, libraries, schools, theatres, music venues and churches.
October - MIX Copenhagen. Gay and lesbian film festival featuring around 60 features and as many short films and documentaries, with satellite programmes in Århus, Odense and Aalborg.
November - CPH DOX, Copenhagen. International documentary festival featuring over 200 films each year.
December - Christmas Markets. Fairs, markets and events throughout Denmark. The whole of Copenhagen is decked in Christmas lights and decorations, and the Tivoli Gardens turn into a giant grotto.
Food & drink
It would be worth visiting Denmark for the food alone. In recent years, the country has become something of a culinary destination, with 15 Michelin stars and 14 Bib Gourmands, and the now-famous Noma in Copenhagen regularly topping best restaurant in the world lists. Part of the reason for this is the growing popularity of 'New Nordic Cuisine', a sustainable and delicious way of eating, relying on locally sourced, often foraged produce and a great deal of experimentation as well as traditional techniques. Typical dishes may include Nordic langoustines, wild salmon, seaweed and wild berries. Copenhagen is the hot spot for New Nordic Cuisine, but the trend is spreading around the country.
New wave cuisine aside, Denmark offers plenty of traditional specialities that are quite delicious, based largely on meat and fish. Some can be rather hearty - the staples of Kogt Hamburgerryg (pork loin cooked with thyme and parsley) or Skipperlabsskovs (a beef stew cooked with potatoes, black peppercorns and bay leaves) being classic cases in point. Pickled herring and variations on meatballs are available everywhere, as is a bewildering array of smørrebrød, open rye bread sandwiches topped with imaginative, often mouth-watering combinations of ingredients. Another culinary and cultural institution is the Danish hot dog stand. They're dotted about all over the place, and worth visiting - their hot dogs may not be gourmet, but they are delicious all the same.
Denmark is located southwest of Sweden and due south of Norway and is bordered by the German state (and former Danish possession) Schleswig-Holstein to the south. Bordering the North and Baltic Seas, it has a temperate climate with mild winters and cool summers. The landscape is characterised by flat, arable land and sandy coasts. About 70 of Denmark's 400+ islands are inhabited, and the largest are Zealand, North Jutlandic Island, Funen, Lolland and Bornholm.
The country is flat with little elevation and an average height of 31 metres above sea level. The highest point is Møllehøj in the Ejerbjerge hills in Skanderborg at 171 metres.
Denmark has a comfortable, reliable and inexpensive train service between all the major cities. Domestic flights are also available between Copenhagen and Aalborg, Århus, Karup (Central Jutland), Rønne (Bornholm) and Sønderborg. Long-distance buses are cheaper but far slower.
Cycling is a popular way of getting around the cities, and there are excellent cycling routes throughout the main islands. Car hire is generally more expensive than public transport unless you're in a group, but look out for cut-price deals, especially at weekends. Consider hiring a car in Germany, where it can be much cheaper, and drive across the border.
An extensive network of ferries connects all the Danish islands, from the hi-tech catamaran link between Zealand and Jutland to raft-like foot and car ferries serving isolated settlements.
"It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards."
The first evidence of human settlement in present-day Denmark dates back to the end of the last Ice Age in around 12500 BC. Organised farming did not appear until 3900 BC, and the first villages sprang up in the centuries before Christ's birth. Towns such as Ribe, Denmark's oldest still standing, began to appear during the Iron Age between 400 and 750 AD.
Unification of the country under a central power began in 700 AD and was completed under Harold I Bluetooth in the late 10th century, as confirmed by the inscription on his runic stone at Jelling, where the word 'Denmark' is written for the first time.
During the Viking Age (800 to 1100), royal power was buttressed by large, strategically placed circular fortresses. The period was characterised by frequent Viking expeditions that led to the brief conquest of England and took the Vikings into Ireland, northern France and Russia. Their long boats brought many riches into the country, but the Danish Viking kings were unable to turn their conquests into a lasting empire.
In about 965, Harold I Bluetooth was baptised and a clergy was established to disseminate the Catholic faith. Churches were built, and a 700,000-strong farming community organised itself according to Christian social standards. A secular nobility of landowners formed the heart of the country's elite, an urban middle class increased as towns grew, and a large peasantry worked the fields. The first Danish coins were minted at Lund in 995. As well as a means of payment, the coins were a form of mass communication by which successive kings could assert their sovereignty.
In around 1350 the Black Death wiped out a third of the Danish population. City dwellers were often harder hit than farmers, and many towns were abandoned altogether. King Valdemar IV took advantage of the deaths of many of his enemies to add to his growing lands and properties, and he kept taxes high although far fewer peasants now farmed less land. Uprisings flared in subsequent years, but the main political event of the period was the establishment of the Kalmar Union in 1397, combining Denmark, Norway and Sweden under the Danish Queen Margrete I.
The union lasted until Sweden, led by Gustav I Vasa, broke away in 1523. Denmark and Norway would remain united until 1814, when Norway's former North Atlantic possessions Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands became part of the Danish kingdom.
A break with the Catholic Church in 1536 after three years of civil war turned the Danish Church Lutheran, and Denmark fought for the Protestant cause in the lengthy religious wars that ravaged Europe until 1648. Internally, the new state church became a tool for ideological and moral indoctrination and a greatly strengthened central power. The period 1560-1720 was dominated by an intensified rivalry with neighbouring Sweden for the position as the leading Baltic power, triggering six wars between the two nations. After Denmark was weakened by Christian IV's unsuccessful intervention in the Thirty Years' War between 1625 and 1629, the conflict developed into a struggle for survival on Denmark's part. With Denmark on the verge of becoming part of a Swedish Baltic empire in 1658, the Netherlands and England intervened, negotiating the ceding of all Scanian provinces east of the Oresund to Sweden. The area of the Danish kingdom was reduced by almost a third, and the population dropped from 800,000 to 600,000.
The ensuing political crisis in 1660-61 brought about a new form of government as the old elective monarchy dominated by the aristocracy was replaced by a new hereditary king, Frederik III, who gained absolute power. The king's unrestricted authority remained in force until the abolition of absolutism in 1848 and the adoption of a democratic constitution the following year.
Denmark refused to take sides in the Napoleonic Wars, which led to English naval attacks on Copenhagen in 1801 and 1807 and seizure of the Danish fleet. The loss of Norway in 1814 meant that the former dual monarchy, which had stretched from the North Cape to the Elbe, was reduced to include only Denmark and the German duchies.
The main achievement of absolutism had been the extensive agricultural reforms of the late 18th century, which created an entirely new class of independent farmers, who in the following century became the driving force behind the adoption of universal education and the co-operative movement.
As national movements developed, the duchies' position within the monarchy became a key issue. Almost a third of the nation's population was German. Holstein and Lauenburg belonged to the German Confederation, while Schleswig was nationally divided. The crucial question of Schleswig's affiliation became acute in 1848 when the pro-German Schleswig-Holsteiners demanded a liberal constitution and the incorporation of Schleswig into the German Confederation. Conversely, liberal circles in Copenhagen demanded a democratic constitution for the monarchy and the inclusion of Schleswig within it, which conflicted with a long-standing promise that the duchies would never be separated. This triggered a revolt in the duchies, and in Copenhagen led to Frederik VII declaring himself constitutional king, thereby paving the way for a democratic constitution which was codified in The Constitution of the Kingdom of Denmark of 05 June 1849.
The Three Years' War of 1848-51 ended in a Danish victory insofar as the duchies remained part of the united monarchy. But a satisfactory solution had not been achieved, and the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck declared war on Denmark on behalf of the German Confederation. The outcome was a humiliating Danish defeat in 1864 and the loss of all three duchies. Once again, the nation had lost almost a third of its land and population.
Denmark had become smaller than ever, and national regeneration work was undertaken with the aim that "outward losses must be compensated by inward gains". The reclamation of moorland gathered speed, and a large-scale shift took place from crop cultivation to livestock farming.
Industrialisation also accelerated, creating a strong working class in the towns. In 1884, the first Social Democrats were elected to the Danish Folketing. In 1905, the Social Liberal Party broke away from the Liberal Party in an appeal to urban intellectuals and smallholders. Through much of the 20th century, Danish politics was characterised by a chronic inability for any party to muster a majority on its own, and compromise and consensus became the norm in Danish political culture.
Denmark remained neutral during World War I, and Danish trade and industry generally profited from the wartime conditions. The same line was taken after Hitler seized power in Germany in 1933 but this time, on 09 April 1940, German troops occupied Denmark. The Social Democrat/Social Liberal government led by Thorvald Stauning saw no option but to collaborate with the occupying power, but gradually British-backed popular resistance increased to such a level that the policy of collaboration collapsed in August 1943. The government resigned and the fiction of a 'peaceful occupation' burst. The last 18 months of the war were dominated by growing armed resistance to the Germans, met by increasingly brutal reprisals. By the end of the war, the resistance movement numbered around 50,000 members, and Denmark had achieved de facto recognition as an allied power. The country became a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 and along with Norway joined NATO in 1949, thus definitively abandoning the policy of neutrality which had lasted since 1864. Marshall Plan assistance initiated the modernisation of Danish farming, and from the mid-1950s industrialisation took off. At the same time a comprehensive welfare system was introduced, based on the principle of the right of all citizens to receive social benefits. This created the Danish welfare model by which a highly developed social safety net is underpinned by a heavy burden of taxation.
The traditional party structure collapsed as a result of the Europe-wide youth revolution of 1968 and growing resistance to high taxes. At the 1973 election, electoral support for the four traditional parties dropped from around 84% to just 58%, and new protest parties the Progress Party, the Centre Party and the Christian People's Party entered parliament.
Three decades later, the general election of November 2001 resulted in further fundamental shifts in the parliamentary picture. For the first time since 1920, the Liberal Party won more votes than the Social Democrats. At the same time the Danish People's Party, which has a hardline immigrant policy as its main issue, registered a gain, while the Progress Party and the Centre Party dropped out of the Folketing altogether.
Denmark's post-war economy has become increasingly internationalised. Since joining the EEC in 1973 (along with Great Britain), the relationship with Europe has divided the population into two camps of almost equal weight.
Until recently, the Danes were an exceptionally homogenous people, which can be attributed in part to the gradual loss of marginal territories over time. The traditionally high degree of homogeneity and consensus in Danish society is also closely connected with the doctrinal influence of the Lutheran Church, the uniformity of the broad population brought about by absolutism, the late industrialisation that only created a large urban lower class in the 20th century, and the inability of political parties to muster an absolute majority, which has made compromise a cornerstone of both political life and social conditioning.
Denmark has a rich design history, led by legendary names such as Arne Jacobsen and Hans J. Wegner. From homeware to fashion, Denmark is a great place to pick up unique, cutting-edge products or gifts. Fashion labels to hunt down include Munthe plus Simonsen, Day Birger et Mikkelsen, Mads Nørgaard, Baum und Pferdgarten, Ivan Grundahl, Rützou, Bruuns Bazaar and By Malene Birger, while up-and-coming names crowd the boutiques of Copenhagen, Aarlborg, Århus and Odense.
Copenhagen's main shopping areas are in the beautiful old town centre and the buzzing districts of Vesterbro, Østerbro, Nørrebro and Frederiksberg. Close to Nørreport Station is the indoor food market Torvehallerne. Opened in September 2011, its two glass buildings are a lively place to shop for tapas, smørrebrød, delicatessen foods and fresh fish, meat, fruit and vegetables.
Silverware, hand-blown glass, china and designer furniture are all popular purchases. Amber, which washes up on the shores of Denmark's west coast, is used to make fine jewellery.
A service charge is included in most Danish hotel and restaurant bills. Tipping for special services is acceptable but not expected. A small gratuity is expected for evening meals.
Taxi drivers should be given a few extra kroner, porters and cloakroom attendants usually charge fixed fees, and doormen are tipped modestly.
Where to eat
From fine-dining restaurants to small village inns that often provide accommodation as well as meals, Denmark offers numerous options for eating out. The more sophisticated city restaurants serve a fusion of Danish and French cuisine, and increasingly, innovative New Nordic Cuisine, and generally require reservations in advance. Café culture thrives in Denmark, often providing main meals as well as pastries and coffee. For a speedier experience, there are numerous street stalls selling hot dogs to take away, with all the accompaniments you could hope for.