Charming centuries-old homes in alternating colors flank the uneven cobbled streets of Ærøskøbing, the picture-perfect capital of the Danish island of Ærø. Wandering through the town's narrow alleys, a fresh breeze rolls in from the Baltic Sea and joins the distant sound of waves crashing against rocks, creating a gentle and fitting natural soundtrack to a sleepy medieval town.
Looking outwards towards the ever constant Baltic, and inwards towards what could be taken from the pages of a textbook on the 16th century, Ærøskøbing is in many ways the embodiment of the Instagrammable.
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Yet meander your way from Ærøskøbing’s harbor towards the quaint town square, and it doesn’t take long to notice something unusual about this little Danish paradise — the presence of newlyweds, and lots of them.
Ærø has quietly become one of Europe’s — if not the world’s – marriage hotspots, attracting thousands of couples from around the globe to land on the island’s shores to start a new chapter in their lives. Every day of the year, blushing brides and grooms of all nationalities can be seen walking the green grass outside Ærøskøbing’s 18th-century red-roofed church, or taking a walk along Ærø’s shell-strewn beaches.
But they’re not just attracted here because the charming island makes the perfect backdrop for those all-important once-in-a-lifetime wedding photos. It’s also down to Danish bureaucracy – or lack of it – and the country’s open and tolerant nature to same-sex weddings.
“Denmark is likely to remain the simplest place to get married in Europe, if not the world,” John Moloney of Danish Island Weddings, a wedding agency based in Ærøskøbing, said from the company’s beautiful period building in the town’s main square.
“Generally our couples are two different nationalities living in a third country,” Moloney said. “We get maybe 20% of weddings that are same-sex, and some of them have had a horrible time, especially if they’re in a country which is bigoted – often they’ve thought they could never get married.”
Walking around the building, Moloney proudly points to a map of the world adorning the office wall which shows the nationalities Danish Island Weddings have married. Nearly every recognized country on Earth is represented.
Most recently same-sex Kazakhstani couples have been flocking to Ærø to get married, Moloney explained, along with the usual suspects – couples from around the world looking to elope and avoid a dreaded big-family wedding.
“We also get some very moving ceremonies with couples that have had disgraceful problems in other countries, even within Europe,” he added. “They are simply outwitted by bureaucracy.”
It’s not just companies like Danish Island Weddings that have got in on the Ærø wedding business though. A broad spectrum of locals has got involved, transforming the island into the classy place for a quick and easy marriage. Think Las Vegas, but without potentially embarrassing photos, or friends and family questioning the authenticity of the wedding – and all set in a preserved medieval town of just 1,000.
“Everyone’s involved in the weddings here,” a scruffy local farmer said cheerily in one of the town’s small cozy cafes. “I even drive some of the couples in my old Mercedes.”
For American Vincienzo Cabrera and his German husband Nils, it was the straightforward ability to get married in Denmark – compared to the U.S. or Germany – coupled with the fairytale setting of Ærø, that convinced them to be wedded on the island earlier this year.
“I only had 90 days to stay in the Schengen Area without needing a visa, so we didn’t really have time to wait,” Cabrera told Travel + Leisure. “There was also the issue that Germany did not have full marriage equality [for same-sex couples] yet.”
Cabrera and his husband hired Danish Island Weddings to do the job, and even live-streamed their wedding on Facebook for family and friends back home.
“The whole island is beautiful,” Cabrera added.
In fact there are more newlyweds eloping to Ærø a year – there have been 4,000 weddings in 2017 alone – than there are locals living on the island. One shop close to the harbor even sells dozens of cheap weddings rings catering for couples who have simply jumped on the island ferry with little more than the clothes on their back and a fervor to be together.
“Even in Denmark, Ærø was a well-kept secret that is now being discovered,” Moloney said when asked about the island’s newfound popularity.
“They call Ærøskøbing the fairy tale town.”