Fairytale castles topped our list of must-see places in Europe in winter. We imagined snow-topped spires and icy moats sparkling with Christmas lights. And any other year, we probably would’ve gotten our wish – it just so happened that this year, it was far too warm for snow. No matter! A fairytale castle is beautiful whether or not it’s dusted with snow. Our first winter destination in Europe was Copenhagen, Denmark. Denmark was once a thriving monarchy with loads of enormous castles, one of which was immortalized in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (is there a word for Shakespearian castles?). Searching for Copenhagen castles, we found many Copenhagen castle tours that would take us to Frederiksborg and Kronberg (of Hamlet fame) in a group tour. But at $100 each, they were out of our price range. Luckily, where there is an expensive group tour, there is usually a cheaper, self-guided DIY way! And so rather than pay for a Copenhagen castle tour, we opted to take the train to see the Copenhagen castles all on our own. It was budget-friendly and a fantastic way to spend a winter day! We think that visiting the Copenhagen castles is one of the best day trips from Copenhagen. Here is our guide to seeing both of the Copenhagen castles by train.
Getting to Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerød
Our adventure started in the Copenhagen Train Station. The main station is just across from Tivoli Gardens in the center of the city. We didn’t want a re-loadable train card as we weren’t planning any other day trips from Copenhagen, so instead we looked for the bright red billeter machines to purchase individual tickets. That sounds a lot easier than it actually was, because at the time we didn’t know we wanted the bright red billeter machines. There are lots of machines in the train station, and they all say things like “billeter” on them. But after consulting with a friendly employee, we purchased a Tourist Ticket to All Zones. It would cover us anywhere that we wanted to go for 24 hours at a price of 130 DKK/$19. Ever the penny pincher,
we I planned to get our money’s worth.
Our first Copenhagen castle stop was Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerød. We took the comfortable train from Copenhagen (as an American, I can’t even tell you how jealous I am of places with actual public transportation options) and disembarked after about 45 minutes in the lovely little Danish town of Hillerød.
The first thing that greeted us was a 7-11, which is only remarkable because it was the most bomb 7-11 I have ever been to. They had like 18 different kinds of fresh juice and prepared paleo meals. Mind you, we haven’t been on the paleo diet since we started travelling, but if I’d known 7-11 would be hooking it up, maybe things would be different. We’d already packed a lunch (with loads of bread and cheese, because once you fall off the wagon, you might as well embrace it) but if we hadn’t, 7-11 would be the best budget-friendly place to pick up a healthy meal. 7-11 is rad, who knew? (Answer: Beyonce, of course.)
Anyway, after spending a while walking through 7-11 poking at brightly covered packages and loudly exclaiming in joy (much to the embarrassment of the perfectly normal Danish patrons, who probably already knew how awesome 7-11 was) we got back on track to finding Frederiksborg Castle. According to the great wisdom of Google Maps, it was about a 15 minute walk through little Hillerød. We headed down the helpfully named Frederiksborg Street until we came to an adorable little square, complete with an adorable little windmill and an adorable little street lined with shops. To maximize adorableness, there was also a little booth run by two cheerful, red-cheeked Danish youth offering Hot Chocolate … for free! Ever the skeptical Americans, we asked why. “Just to promote the Christmas Spirit,” they chirped happily.
I can see why the concept of “hygge” was invented here. It is literally impossible not to feel warm and fuzzy when given free Hot Chocolate and Christmas cheer by two cherub-esque blond Danes in front of a tiny windmill.
Mug of free Hot Chocolate in hand and brimming with hygge, we happily strolled towards the square to catch our first views of the epic Frederiksborg Castle across the lake.
About Frederiksborg Castle
Frederiksborg Castle dates from the 13th century, but its first incarnation was unacceptably plain and functional – not really a castle at all, in fact, but a lowly manor (how un-posh). The much more stylish and showy King Christian IV, rejecting the offensive monstrosity in which he was born, tore it down in the 16th century and replaced it with something much more fabulous, complete with unnecessary walls, overly decorative fountains, and lots of statues. The glittering new castle lasted for a few hundred years and then promptly burnt itself down in the 19th century.
Today’s castle is restored to all of its former glory (thanks to the venerable Carlsberg Breweries – beer and charity, a match made in heaven) and is quite a sight to behold. As we walked around the lake towards it, every new glimpse elicited fresh ooh’s and ahh’s from us (and repeated “take another picture”s from me and “they’re all going to look the exact same”s from Jeremy. Annoyingly, he was right, as usual: they did all end up looking pretty much the exact same).
Fredriksborg Castle today houses the The Museum of National History, which costs 75 DKK/$10.50 and is probably really wonderful, but we skipped it. We’re cheap, plus we had woken up late (of course) and didn’t have enough time (story of our lives). Honestly, we regret skipping it and recommend that you don’t. If you want to spend a few hours exploring the museum, don’t do what we did and catch a train around lunchtime. Wake up early (like a normal, functioning adult whose body doesn’t refuse to awaken until they’ve gotten 10+ hours of sleep) and catch a train before 9am, and you’ll have plenty of time!
Instead of visiting the museum, we explored the stunning castle grounds and caught a free 3D video showing us the varying stages of construction of Frederiksborg Castle (so that we, too, could appreciate how hideously un-showy and lacking in flair its first iterations were). We walked back to town by way of the gardens, which were disappointingly dead because it was December. Still, we got a 360-view of the castle, which – as it turns out – looks amazing from all sides. (Note: when the lake is frozen over, it’s so stunning you don’t even mind that the gardens are all dead . Check out this wintry pic from the Frederiksborg Instagram!)
Getting to Kronborg Castle in Helsingør
Our second Copenhagen castle to visit was Kronborg Castle in Helsingør. We headed back to Hillerød station (and through the best ever 7-11 one last time) to catch the 930R train to Helsingør. Except that the 930R train had just left and the next one didn’t come for an hour. Luckily, there was another option: the longer and more scenic L train, leaving in a half hour. As we’d already explored 7-11 to an irrational degree, we decided to take the L instead of waiting around. And it really was scenic: the train took us past dense woods, mirrored lakes, rolling farmland, tiny Danish towns, the sea, and finally, Sweden.
Sweden was our stop, apparently. Helsingør (also called Elsinore, if you’re Shakespeare or just English speaking) is just across the way from Helsingborg, Sweden (my favorite thing about the Scandinavian languages is that they’re nearly all just slight mispronunciations of each other) which is perfectly visible across the water. You can catch a quick ferry to pop over to Sweden and back any time you like. Although it was tempting to say a quick hello to Sweden, daylight was already nearly gone as it was around 3pm, and we knew we needed to hurry if we wanted to see Kronborg Castle.
Kronborg was another 15-20 minute walk from the Helsingør station (it turns out we could have disembarked from station before Helsingør instead for a slightly shorter walk). As we walked, darkness fell quickly, so that by the time we arrived, it was almost pitch black. Nobody has bothered to install electricity in Kronborg Castle, so it is still lit by flaming torches and candles, which is adorable but also makes it difficult to navigate in the dark. (Also adorable/foreboding: the gate to the castle is literally called The Dark Gate.) Luckily, streams of people were leaving, so we just followed them heading the wrong way, like two confused salmon swimming upstream.
To purchase tickets to enter Kronborg Castle, we found out once we arrived at the gate, you actually have to stop at a tiny little cottage somewhere along the path. Probably there is a sign, but as it was 3:30pm and therefore pitch black, and we had neglected to bring our historically appropriate whale blubber lantern, so we’d walked right past it. We had about 30 minutes before the entire castle was closed for the night, but after skipping out on touring Frederiksborg Castle, we were determined to at least see the inside of ONE castle, even if it was dimly lit and possibly haunted by the ghosts of murdered kings. So we raced back to find the tiny cottage, purchased our tickets, and fought our way through the exiting crowds once more back to the entrance.
Kronborg Castle is where Hamlet was set, and had we arrived in August, we could have seen a rendition of Hamlet in its very courtyard. As it was, the castle was instead set up as one large indoor Christmas Market, with about 3 rooms set off to the side with a few old couches and some enormous ancient tapestry. If we’d known in advance that the castle was actually a Christmas Market, I except it would have been delightful, but we had paid entrance to Kronborg Castle expecting to see a castle, and so it was a bit disappointing. We dutifully explored the 3 castle-esque rooms, all dimly lit by a single candle or so placed in a corner. Nobody else seemed interested in seeing dimly lit tapestries, so we were totally alone. It felt not unlike being awake in the middle of the night and searching through a drafty old castle for the ghost of a recently murdered king. We were reminded of seeing Sleep No More in New York, where Macbeth is acted out silently in a dimly lit warehouse on several floors, and you – masked and anonymous – follow the actors around as they race through various creepy well-designed sets having orgies and murdering people and whatnot. Note to Kronborg Castle and Sleep No More: I would pay a huge sum of money to attend a similiar version of Hamlet in the very castle in which it is set. How rad would that be?!
Anyway, aside from our overactive imaginations and a checkered floor that sort of looked like the one out of the Kenneth Branaugh Hamlet movie, the actual castle bits weren’t terribly exciting. Resigned to make the most out of our remaining 15 minutes, we headed for the Christmas Market. And honestly, it was pretty delightful. The goods were more expensive and high-end than what we’d seen in street Christmas Markets, but the food and drink was delightful. We sampled cured meats, cheeses, several kinds of jenever, and plenty of wines. If we had been looking for a Christmas Market, this would have been a unique one. It was a lovely and unexpected surprise.
All in all our day of visiting the fairytale Copenhagen castles was delightful, and we highly recommend it as one of the best day trips from Copenhagen!
Practical Information for Visiting Copenhagen Castles
There are several Copenhagen castle group tours that cost $100 including transportation and a tour of both castles. But it costs only $42 for round-trip train fare AND entry to both castles, so it’s far more budget-friendly to do this day trip from Copenhagen on your own. We saved $116 by visiting both Copenhagen castles without a tour!
Here is the practical and logistic information you need to visit Kronborg and Frederiksborg Castles in Copenhagen.
- Address: Møntportvejen 10 3400 Hillerød
- Admission Fee: 75 DKK/$10.50
- Hours: Monday through Sunday; 11am-3pm in winter; 10am-5pm in summer
- Website: http://www.frederiksborgslot.dk
- Address: Kronborg 2C, 3000 Helsingør
- Admission Fee: 90 DKK/$13
- Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 11:00 – 4:00 PM, closed Mondays; longer hours during certain months (more information)
- Website: http://www.kronborg.dk
- Cost: 130 DKK/$19 for an All Zones 24-hour ticket
- From Copenhagen Central Station, take one of the frequent S trains to Hillerød
- From Hillerød, take the 930R or the L train to Helsingør
- From Helsingør, take an R train back to Copenhagen Central Station (several go directly there)
Have you ever visited the Copenhagen castles? Let us know in the comments!