Helsingør: Shakespeare and the Sea

IN THE AFTERNOON I VENTURE FURTHER NORTH to the costal city of Helsingør, where I meet with Yanyan. Helsingør is a ferry port with regular connections to Helsingborg in Sweden just 5 kilometers across the Øresund.

Helsingør’s strategic location helped turn it into one of Denmark’s most important cities in the Middle Ages. In the 15th century, when Denmark had control of southern Sweden, King Eric of Pomarania ordered the construction of two fortifications – Krogen in Helsingør and Kärnan across the strait in Helsingborg – that would enforce his demand to collect tolls for all ships passing through the strait.

Starting in 1574, Frederick II turned the Krogen fortress into a castle as part of efforts to modernize the tower’s fortifications following a war between Sweden and the Norway-Denmark coalition. The castle would become known as Kronborg and turn into one of Northern Europe’s most important Renaissance castles.

For most visitors, Helsingør is all about the Kronborg Castle, which gained prominence after serving as the setting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Having served its purpose as an impenetrable fortress during the war with the Swedes, the Kronborg was then used as a prison and later as barracks for the army until the 1920s. It was then renovated and opened to the public in 1935. Inside the castle premises, visitors can enter the royal chambers, the casemates with the statue of Ogier the Dane, the chapel, and an exhibition about Shakespeare’s famous play and its reenactments in the castle. Entry to the castle is free with the Copenhagen Card.

The UNESCO-listed Kronborg Castle served as the setting for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
A statue of Ogier the Dane sits in the castle’s casemates. According to legend, Ogier helped Charlemagne secure his victory against the Arabs.
The castle tower provides a panoramic view of Helsingør’s historic center.
The Danish Maritime Museum has exhibits on the country’s maritime history.
The Shipyard Museum in the old shipyard administration building has a small collection on the city’s shipbuilding industry.
A fish statue made of recycled objects illustrates Helsingør’s affinity with the sea.

Just outside the castle gates is the wonderfully designed Danish Maritime Museum in what used to be a dry dock. The museum has photographs, videos, and other objects that show everything you might want to know about the Danes’ love affair with the sea from the Renaissance period to the present. Entry here is also free with the Copenhagen Card.

Helsingør’s prominence has faded over the centuries, but visitors can still experience a bit of its medieval prestige in the city center, which is filled with history and character. The Saint Olai Church is one of the highlights, with its red brick facade towering over the traditional houses that line narrow cobblestone paths.

3 thoughts on “Helsingør: Shakespeare and the Sea

  1. Ah yes, Holger the Dane. When I was just a kid, I read that Holger the Dane lies asleep below Kronborg Castle – waking up the moment the Danish nation is in peril to save his beloved land.

    Looking at it now, I can’t help but compare it to our local Bernardo Carpio. The moment the eponymous giant frees himself from the rocks of Montalban, he will come to the aid of the people and his imperiled country.

    (I know that the prerequisite between the two folk heroes is different – one slumbering, another struggling – but there is the theme of a supernatural savior coming to aid the people.)

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