Kronborg Castle in Helsingor, Denmark, was the inspiration for Elsinore Castle, the setting of Shakespearean tragedy “Hamlet.” // © 2015 Ty Stange/Copenhagen Media Center
Feature image (above): Exhibits in the Maritime Museum of Denmark tell stories about the country’s prominent place in maritime history. // © 2015 This Wolzak/Copenhagen Media Center
Shakespeare never set foot there, but that didn’t stop him from making Helsingor — or as it’s more commonly called, Elsinore — the setting for his masterpiece, “Hamlet.” Helsingor, Denmark, is an old market town 28 miles north of Copenhagen on the Oresund (the Sound), which separates Denmark from Sweden.
Helsingor is easy to get to. Trains from Copenhagen run every 20 minutes and take only 45 minutes, making Helsingor a worthy daytrip. Visitors can also drive up the coast if they wish to enjoy some of the scenery and stop off at small villages along the way. Because the distance across the Oresund strait to Sweden is only 2.5 miles, there is frequent ferry service between Helsingor and the same-sounding Swedish city Helsingborg across the water.
Helsingor was once a busy shipbuilding center, and its nautical past is everywhere in evidence. The new Maritime Museum of Denmark, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, is located on an old dry dock and built in the shape of a ship’s hull. To get to the museum, visitors walk down a metal bridge to an entrance below ground level. Then, as they pass through the various exhibits, they go deeper in to the museum — without even noticing it. Exhibits feature state-of-the-art digital displays, ship models and relics from the wooden ship era.
The main attraction in Helsingor these days is Kronborg Castle — one of the finest examples of renaissance castles in Europe. On any given day, actors dressed up in Shakespearean garb talk to small groups of tourists and tell them about which scene in “Hamlet” took place right where they stand. In the summer, international theater groups put on full productions of the play in the castle’s courtyard.
The castle (properly called Kronborg Slot) had a practical use in the old days. Danish kings would sit in the windows and watch as their minions collected taxes from ships passing through the strait. At one point, the money from the “Sound Dues,” as they were called, accounted for two-thirds of Denmark’s entire income. The taxes — which were abolished in 1857 — fattened the king’s coffers and made Helsingor rich and prosperous.
Kronborg Castle was built in the 1500s, and one of its distinctive features is its moat with white swans. Turrets and rows of cannons point out toward the strait — as if waiting for an errant ship to try to make a run for it without paying its taxes. Also of note is the castle’s 203-foot ballroom, reportedly the longest in Europe.
There are other reasons to visit Helsingor. The center of town retains some of its medieval flavor, with narrow cobblestone streets and half-timbered, brick buildings, some of which were built in later years by ship captains. There are markets in the morning on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, all selling flowers, vegetables, cheese, fish and various handicrafts.
Helsingor’s cathedral is Sct. Olai Kirke, a red brick gothic building from the 1500s, best known for its huge altarpiece. The town museum is just a few blocks away and is housed on the site of an old Carmelite monastery. The monastery was once used as a hospital for sailors and is located next door to the 14th-century St. Mary’s Church (Sct. Mariae Kirke).
Families who want to spend time at the beach can enjoy a nearly empty strand that stretches from Kronborg Castle up to the Marienlyst hotel and casino. A nearby salt water aquarium is open year-round.
Helsingor’s latest development is the renovation of the old waterfront area. In addition to Maritime Museum, the city has designated the area as a culture center. There are many shops and restaurants, and the huge plaza hosts concerts year round. Everything is within easy walking distance from the train station.
In a nod to Copenhagen’s “The Little Mermaid” statue, Helsingor has erected a statue of its own along the waterfront. The polished-steel statue is called “Han” (the Danish word for “he”) and was designed by Danish artist duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. The artists are known for their witty, subversive work, and “Han” is no different. Mimicking "The Little Mermaid" statue, a young boy sits alone on a rock, his legs neatly folded to his side. But only the most patient, observant onlookers will spot the twist — once every hour, Han’s eyes blink for a split second as he looks wistfully out to sea.