When it comes to island getaways, Europe has something for everyone. There are the ancient ruins and secluded coves of Capri, Mykonos’s multitude of beaches, Ibiza’s party scene and Malta’s cultural riches. But up north, Denmark is home to some of Europe’s most underrated and most beautiful islands.
The crisp waters of the Baltic and North Seas lap at their windswept beaches and carve natural swimming holes from their rugged coasts. Colorful villages with even more colorful pasts are now home to artisans who carry on traditional crafts and cooking, creating some of the country’s most sought-after art and food. Best of all, most are within a short flight or train ride of Copenhagen.
Here are four Danish islands that should be on the itinerary for your next visit to Europe.
Bornholm: Denmark’s Sunshine Island
Fun fact: Bornholm is actually closer to Sweden and Poland than the Danish mainland. However, this 227-square-mile island retains a distinctly Danish character thanks to the picture-perfect villages and unique circular churches that dot its shores and pastoral interior.
The island’s southern coast is lined with fine white-sand beaches including Dueodde, where the gentle surf is the perfect place to pass a long summer’s day. In stark contrast, the rugged northern coast has some of Denmark’s only cliffs. You can rock climb at Vang, or hike along the bluffs before or after a visit to the ruins of Hammershus Castle, the largest medieval fortress in Northern Europe.
The west-coast town of Hasle has one of Bornholm’s only remaining working smokehouses, Hasle Røgeri. There, you can try alder-smoked herring and the island’s signature delicacy, Sol Over Gudhjem, which is a hearty combination of smoked herring, chives and raw egg yolk over dense rye bread. Nearby, Grønbechs Gård is a contemporary cultural center that showcases the works of local artists, many of whom trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ program for glass and ceramic arts on the island.
Thanks to its fine sand, the island has long been renowned for the high quality of glass produced at workshops like Baltic Sea Glass. Bornholm is also held in high regard for its unique ceramics. If you’re lucky, you might be in the village of Svaneke on the one day a month Lov i Listed is open. This tiny husband-wife studio produces the tableware for some of Denmark’s best-known restaurants and often sells out of its current collection within minutes of opening its doors.
Speaking of restaurants, no visit to Bornholm would be complete without a meal at Kadeau. The Michelin-starred eatery, which is only open from May-September, was launched in 2007 by two childhood friends from Bornholm in an old beach shack. It has since become one of Denmark’s most celebrated restaurants thanks to chef Nicolai Nørregaard’s wildly creative new Nordic menus, even spawning a Michelin two-starred sister restaurant in Copenhagen.
Getting There: Bornholm is just a 30-minute flight from Copenhagen on Danish Air Transport (DAT). Round-trip airfare starts at 832 DKK ($128). Once there, you’ll need to rent a car to get around the island.
Where to Stay: Not too far from Kadeau on the southern coast, Hotel Fredensborg is a classic bathing hotel that’s been given a contemporary makeover. Up north, the team behind Kadeau has opened Nordlandet, a small inn with a swanky mid-century vibe, an upscale restaurant, a cozy candlelit bar and a bracing “swimming pool” created from the natural rock formations along the shore.
Christansø and Frederiksø: The Prison Islands
For a former penal colony, the tiny islands of Christiansø and Frederiksø are surprisingly inviting. The Danes arrived here, to what is now Denmark’s easternmost point, in 1684 to create a naval base and fortress that would help control the surrounding sea lanes. Today, visitors come to be regaled with tales of the islands’ gruesome past — think mining explosions, grizzly executions and the general ordeals of living on a remote rock in the Baltic Sea — as you wander along historical fortifications and past the tidy gardens kept by the islands’ 90 or so permanent residents.
Among the points of interest is the round, squat Lille Tårn tower on Frederiksø that houses displays from the island’s naval past. Across a small footbridge that spans the tiny natural harbor (you might see local children swimming or learning to sail), the larger Store Tårn tower surrounds the island’s lighthouse, one of Denmark’s oldest. The complex now houses a cultural museum with displays about the island’s ecology and history as well as special exhibitions by local artists.
Getting There: The ferry ride from Gudhjem on Bornholm’s east coast takes an hour and costs 200 DKK ($34) round-trip.
Where to Stay: Though most folks just make a day trip out of it, if you want to spend the night, there is a hotel. The six-room Christiansø Gaestgiveri has been a pub for over 100 years. Skip the indoor dining room in favor of the sunny outdoor terrace. It’s the perfect place to sip on a local beer or shot of homemade blackthorn aquavit after a lunch of open-faced smørrebrød topped with surprisingly mild salted herring, watercress, potatoes and foraged herbs.
Funen: Denmark’s Garden Island
Also spelled Fyn and pronounced fuhn, the country’s third-largest island is known as Denmark’s garden or orchard. Its fertile fields and farms are the source for much of the mouthwatering produce driving the new Nordic cuisine movement.
But Funen is also home to Renaissance castles, lavish palaces, charming villages and gorgeous seascapes. The main town of Odense was the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, making it a literal storybook village. A museum devoted to his life and work is a great place to take children and you can also visit his childhood home and the house where he was born.
Spend an afternoon strolling through the town’s Technicolor-bright streets of half-timbered houses, or take a leisurely boat ride along the tree-lined Odense River. Odense is chock-full of medieval sights like the 800-year-old Dalum Church, and St. Canute’s Cathedral, where the remains of King Canute IV, who was murdered nearby in 1086, are interred.
Odense is also home to one of Denmark’s most important contemporary arts centers, the Brandts Museum, which always has an interesting rotation of special exhibitions on display. Nearby, Tidens Samling, or Time Collection, is a fascinating little museum with life-size recreations of family rooms from Danish homes representing each decade of the 20th century.
About 40 minutes by car or public transportation from Odense is one of Denmark’s most impressive Renaissance landmarks, Egeskov Castle, which dates to 1554. The parklands, including a huge maze and manicured rose gardens, merit an excursion on their own. But you can also visit a vintage car and motorcycle museum, historically reconstructed shops and an eye-catching collection of 19th-century women’s fashions.
Getting There: Trains from Copenhagen to Odense leave two or three times per hour and take around 90 minutes. Tickets cost 185 DKK ($28.50). If you plan to stick to Odense, you won’t need a car. If you want to venture farther afield, though, you might be better off renting a car there, or even driving from Copenhagen, which takes about two hours and crosses the awe-inspiring Great Belt Bridge with a toll of 125 DKK ($19) each way.
Where to Stay: Though you can find a number of nice hotel options in Odense, foodies should consider a night at Falsled Krø instead. The thatch-roofed Relais & Chateaux property began life as a 16th-century smugglers’ den. Today, it is a gorgeous 19-room boutique hotel whose restaurant is one of Denmark’s most beloved culinary institutions. The multi-course dinners last hours on end and are an edible tour through Funen’s gourmet riches.
Ærø: The Wedding Island
The little island of Ærø has quietly become Europe’s wedding capital thanks not only to its breathtaking beauty, but also because of how easy and streamlined the marriage process is here, including for same-sex couples and foreigners.
Whether you plan to get hitched here or not, it’s well worth a visit. The main town of Ærøskøbing is Denmark’s best-preserved village from the Middle Ages. It looks like it was purpose-built for Instagram thanks to its vibrant, flower-covered houses, cobblestone streets and sea vistas. If the weather’s nice, you might consider renting one of the hodgepodge beach huts at Marstal and Vester Strand beaches, go out fishing or kayaking on the water, or bike around the island’s hilly interior.
After you work up an appetite, you can nibble on local delicacies at Den Gamle Købmandsgård, a restaurant, café and shop peddling Ærø crafts and foodstuffs like organic cold cuts from nearby farms, handmade chocolates, seasonal honey, artisanal soaps and even local Ærø Whisky. You can also bike to Rise Brewery, which first started making beer back in 1926, for a sampling of their ales.
Getting There: Ferries sail here several times a day from both Fåborg and Svendborg on the island of Funen. The round-trip fare is 82 DKK ($13). Once on Ærø, you can rent a bike or take advantage of the free bus system.
Where to Stay: You can make the most of a daytrip out to Ærø, but if you want to spend a few nights out here, the island is brimming with B&Bs as well as (slightly) larger hotels like the Ærø Hotel in the fishing village of Marstal and the Arnfeldt Hotel & Restaurant in Ærøskøbing.
Fanø: The Amber Island
Never heard of Fanø? You’ve just hit upon what makes this infinitesimal isle so magical. Just ten miles long and three miles wide, this spectacular speck of land is located in the middle of the Wadden Sea National Park, which is a UNESCO Nature World Heritage-listed area.
Its broad, sandy beaches are some of Denmark’s best. At least, the gray and spotted seals and colonies of migratory birds who summer here seem to think so, as do the wind- and kite-surfers who flock to the island. Beachcombers can find raw amber washed up on the shore after storms and take guided walks to forage for oysters.
In addition to the raucous wildlife and easy bicycle circuits that tourists can enjoy, Fanø is also home to two quaint towns: Nordby and Sønderho, the latter of which is widely considered to be the most beautiful village in Denmark. There, you can visit the Fanø Art Musuem, its old mill, the Sønderho Church, whose votive ships are a nod to the islanders’ seafaring heritage, and a collection of colorful houses and other buildings from Fanø’s 18th- and 19th-century heydays.
Getting There: To get to Fanø, you’ll need to take a train to Esbjerg and then the FanøFærgen ferry service from there. The ferry ride takes about 12 minutes in each direction. Tickets are 35-45 DKK ($5.50-$7) per person round-trip.
Where to Stay: There are over 3,000 summer cottages to rent on Fanø, but if you’re just planning a short stay, you might be better off booking one of the island’s inviting inns. Sønderho Kro is one of Denmark’s oldest lodgings. It was originally founded in 1722 and has 13 unique rooms and a gourmet restaurant that serves multi-course tasting menus featuring local produce and seafood.