Upon leaving the station of Helsingør we can already make out a massive, square fortress in the grey sky, looming above the Oresund sound: Kronborg Castle, home of Hamlet! Shakespeare made the splendid castle of "Elsinor" the home of his fictional Danish prince, thus ensuring its worldwide fame.
There used to be a castle on the cliffs as early as the mid 15th century. But it was the Danish king Frederick II who fortified the walls, added bastions for the cannons and built a modern three-storied castle at the end of the 16th century. It turned out to be a worthwhile investment: Every time a ship passed through the narrow sound below the castle – in those times the other shore also belonged to Denmark – they had to pay a heavy toll, and moreover the king also had the preemptive right on the cargo – if a trader undervalued his goods in order to reduce the tax, the king would snap them up at a bargain price! This system made the Danish kings quite rich and so Helsingør Castle came to be one of the biggest and finest Renaissance Castles in Europe.
We make our way along the shoreline towards the walls and spires of the mighty fortification (together with several busloads of chattering Chinese tourists). To get into the castle walls themselves you have to cross a system of several ditches and ramparts, because after a siege from the shore side in the 17th century, the Danish king Christian V (all Danish kings are either named Christian or Frederick) added a system of vaguely crown-shaped fortifications.
The king's and queen's living quarters right above the entrance are beautifully restored; although it is only partially done with original furniture, the rooms nevertheless give a fantastic impression of royal life back then. We liked the pin-board above the king's writing desk.
Crossing the chancellery, the king's and queen's rooms and several galleries, we reach the impressive ballroom: At 62 m in length, the ballroom of Helsingør Castle was once the largest in Northern Europe. Guests at the frequent banquets had to eat a minimum of 24 dishes and after the sumptuous meals dancing was expected. Indeed, when we enter the large hall there's a middle-aged tourist couple trying out some dance steps.
A highlight at least for tapestry lovers are the King's tapestries. When his archrival, the Swedish king Eric, commissioned a series of valuable tapestries, King Frederick II felt the need to counter him by ordering 43 tapestries showing 101 Danish kings and their stories. The king exerted a lot of pressure on the craftsmen, and the tapestries were completed in just four years. To protect the old textiles, the light is dimmed in this part of the castle, lessening the appeal of the tapestries somewhat as they appear a little murky.
Under the castle there exists a network of tunnels and rooms, the casemates. In later years Kronborg Castle was mainly used by the military, and the casemates were bunkers in case of an attack. Today they are poorly lit and empty, without any information boards – but kids seem to have fun in the damp, dark tunnels. There is a statue of Holger Danske, a Danish legendary character who lent his name to a resistance group during the German occupation during WWII.
The castle with its fortifications became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000 because it is an outstanding example of Renaissance castles, and one which played a highly significant role in the history of this region of northern Europe.
Is Kronborg Castle worth a visit?
Kronborg Castle is a mighty Renaissance castle and you can spend several hours exploring it. We had bought a small booklet with interesting snippets about the life of the kings that helped us to immerse ourselves into the times when Christians and Fredericks ruled Denmark from here. The castle is impressive for its sheer size, but to really appreciate the tapestries and the rooms it helps to have some background knowledge. Have you been to Kronborg Castle? We are curious about your impression.
How to get there by public transport
Helsingør and Kronborg castle make a nice day trip from Copenhagen. You can get there by train in one hour.