Constance M, A Well-Read Wanderer
How to Visit Hamlet's Castle in Denmark
Did you know that Hamlet's Castle is an actual place you can visit in Denmark? Kronborg Castle is less than an hour's drive from Copenhagen, making it an easy day trip from Copenhagen and a must visit for anyone interested in literary travel.
Shakespeare fans, there are many pilgrimages for you to take on your Shakespeare Travel Bucket List (including some Shakespeare sites in the US!) but today I'm here to add one more.
Denmark's Kronborg Castle in Helsingor is the real life Hamlet castle and one location not to miss for its literary and historical significance. So much so that Kronborg is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Although in Shakespeare's play Hamlet's castle is called Elsinore, Kronborg is the name of the real Hamlet Castle, which you can tour in an easy day trip from Copenhagen.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
Marcellus, in Hamlet, Act I Scene IV
As a side note, I'd call it a pretty ballsy move on Shakespeare's part to set his play at Kronborg Castle, considering historians can find no evidence that Shakespeare ever actually visited the castle. It's akin to Emily Dickinson writing poems about the ocean when she really never left her apartment. So much for "write what you know!" Ah, well, it seems to have worked out for both of them. Let's continue.
As you'll come to find out later in this post, Kronborg Castle is a literary travel destination not only because of Hamlet; it has another literary connection as well!
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What is Hamlet About?
If you've never managed to read or watch a production of Hamlet (it is, after all, Shakespeare's longest work), here are the basics: Hamlet's father, the King of Denmark, has been killed. After getting tipped off by his dead father's ghost, Hamlet comes to suspect his Uncle Claudius, of being responsible for his death. Claudius doesn't exactly exude innocence, having taken on his brother's throne and his wife, Gertrude, along with it.
In many ways, it's a classic tale of revenge, and yet Hamlet spends the vast majority of the play wondering if his uncle is really guilty, trying unsuccessfully to trick him into confessing, and musing on the meaning of life and the nature of madness.
Apart from Hamlet's numerous soliloquies, the secondary characters and their plot lines are quite rich. Let's take Ophelia, for example. The tragic Ophelia loves Hamlet but, suffering at the hands of Hamlet's likely feigned madness, descends into a genuine madness herself, pushed over the edge by Hamlet's famous explosion at her, "Get thee to a nunnery!" (and maybe his accidental murdering of her father contributed as well). This father is quite the character, too: Polonius is the character who speaks many of the famous adages even non-Shakespeare readers will recognize, such as "To thine own self be true," and "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."
Ghosts, murder, unrequited love, revenge, madness. It might be 4+ hours long, but this play is famous for good reason!
Hamlet is based on a Norse legend, though the exact source is still debated. Shakespeare's theatrical rendition of the legend gained popularity immediately after he first wrote it for his acting troupe, the Chamberlain's Men, in 1600 or 1601. Its popularity has hardly flagged since. Famous actors and actresses have vied for roles in the play since Shakespeare's own time,
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Related: Did you know the only fullscale replica of Shakespeare's first theatre, the Blackfriar's Theatre, is in the US?
Visiting Kronborg Castle
After visiting the opulent nearby Fredericksborg Castle, the best word I could use to describe Kronborg by comparison is, "understated." This is not a castle with artwork and adornments covering every square inch of wall or ceiling, like many other royal palaces. By comparison, it's rather modest. In fact, as the convenient placards explain in both English and Danish, the royal families who spent time in this castle would economize by carrying their dishes and silverware from one castle to the next. Practically impoverished, right?
Denmark's Kronborg Castle is a military fortress turned into a palace. Having visited quite a few castles in my time, I'd say something that makes this castle stand out from among others is how well it informs tourists of the day-to-day life of the royals who lived there. Placards throughout the castle highlight how they lived in and used each room, and give specific information about the royal family's history.
All in all, Hamlet's castle absolutely gets my personal recommendation. Go on and roam the halls wondering if you should be or not be (maybe skip musing whether or not to kill your uncle, though. Odds are, he's probably nice).
Here are some highlights from my favorite rooms and areas of Kronborg castle that you won't want to miss on your visit:
The King's Chamber
Decorated relatively simply with painted ceilings, this room was one of the most important in the castle. It's where the king would hold important meetings about the future of Denmark with his trusted advisors as well as the occasional party with his buddies.
From the bay window, the king could look down at the front door of the castle to see who was arriving (like a dignified, pre-technology Ring doorbell, with a much more impressive view).
Shakespeare fans can imagine King Claudius plotting the death of his nephew, Hamlet, with his advisors, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in this room. You can also imagine Polonius's speeches dragging on and on and on during his advisory visits (though "since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief," he would have first assured them).
The Ballroom/Throne Room
Once the largest ballroom in Northern Europe, it's hard to capture the magnitude of this room in picture or words. It's over 200 feet long and 40 feet wide, but suffice it to say, it feels large enough to host a full-scale football match.
When Kronborg castle was occupied by the royal family, this room served as a storage room for fruits and vegetables, dried meat, and even building materials when they weren't actively entertaining. However, on the occasion that a feast or ball would be held, this room would really shine. An enormous table would be placed down the center of the room around which guests were seated for an impressive many-course feast. Center pieces on the table would've been a boar's head or a stuffed peacock or the like. And the party would last for days!
I like to imagine that this might have been the room in which the culminating action occurs in Shakespeare's Hamlet in Act 5 Scene 2, aka the scene in which Hamlet finally does something after all that pondering. When you visit, you can picture the famous ending (spoiler alert), in which Hamlet and Laertes duel before the court, Queen Gertrude gets (accidentally) poisoned to death, Hamlet kills his uncle King Claudius as well as Laertes, and then dies as well (tell my story!).
When a fire destroyed much of Kronborg Castle in 1629, the Chapel was one of the only rooms to be spared. The pews, decorative panels, gallery, and altar are all original (though for a while, the furniture was moved out to use this room as a gymnasium while the castle functioned as an army barracks).
When visiting this room of Hamlet's Castle, you can picture Claudius falling to his knees to pray, guilt-ridden at having killed his brother. Imagine Hamlet, hiding behind a pillar. He has come with the intention of avenging his father but decides to wait; if he kills Claudius during his prayer, then Claudius will go to heaven. Hamlet decides to wait to kill him while he's sinning so that Claudius will spend eternity in hell. Logic!
While certainly not the dream destination of a claustrophobic person, the casemates of Kronborg castle are both creepy and interesting to visit. You can walk your way around this maze of gloomy, low-ceilinged passageways where soldiers have hidden for weeks on end while the castle was under siege.
While you're down there, check out another literary landmark: the statue of Holger the Dane, or Holger Danske. Who was Holger the Dane, you ask? Holger (also spelled Ogier) is a figure prominent in Danish mythology. The legendary stories of Holger the Dane have made him a national hero in Denmark. Holger Danske tales date back to the 11th century, and legend has it that he awaits here in the basement of Kronborg Castle and will awaken should the time come that he is needed once again to defend Denmark.
This makes Kronborg a literary travel destination for another reason in addition to Hamlet. Holger not only features in oral myths but Hans Christian Andersen also wrote a fable called Holger Danske:
But the most beautiful sight of all is old Kronborg, and in a deep, dark cellar beneath it, where no one ever goes, sleeps Holger Danske. He is clad in iron and steel and rests his head on his strange arms; his long beard hangs down over the marble table and has grown through it. He sleeps and dreams, and in his dreams he sees all that happens here in Denmark. Every Christmas Eve one of God's angels comes to him and tells him that what he had dreamed is true; he may sleep again, for no real peril threatens Denmark. But should real danger come, old Holger Danske will rise in his fury, and the table itself will burst as he wrenches his beard from it, and the mighty blows he strikes for Denmark will be heard throughout the world.
Hans Christian Andersen
Climbing up the narrow steps to Kronborg Castle's roof rewards you with stunning views. From up here, you can see all the way to Sweden (and understand the strategic advantage of having a stronghold at this particular location). Here, the channel between the two countries is only 4 km (2.5 miles) wide.
Spend some time up here enjoying the breeze, and take heed lest a ghostly visitor should come to you as he did to Hamlet and the castle guards in Act I, asking you to avenge his death. (While it might not have been the roof of Hamlet's castle where that scene takes place, walking around up here it does seem like just the spot where it could happen).
Travel Tip: When I'm visiting anywhere in Europe, Rick Steves is my favorite guidebook to use. You can find one on Copenhagen and the best of Denmark, or this Rick Steves book on Scandinavia that includes Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Estonia. Always make sure to buy the most recent edition of this or any guidebook, because you don't want to plan your trip with out-of-date information, particularly in the post-COVID travel world.
Watch Hamlet at Kronborg Castle
When you've got a Renaissance castle in which the most famous playwright of all time set one of the most famous plays of all time, of course you can expect to find some live theater performances there. Specifically, you can see the story. of Hamlet reenacted in Hamlet's castle!
Every summer from June until August, Kronborg Castle hosts "Hamlet's Wonderful World" daily from 10 am - 5 pm. While I got there in October and missed seeing this, it sounds like a lot of fun. Each famous scene of the play is performed in various locations as the actors move the play around the castle and its grounds. When they are not performing, the characters move about the castle carrying on with their ordinary lives and interacting with visitors. It's less of a chronological retelling than a living reenactment of the story in which visitors take part.
Live productions of Hamlet have been taking place every August here for two hundred years. In fact, it is the oldest continuous Shakespeare performance in the world. In 1937, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh starred as Hamlet and Ophelia and really set a trend for other big-name actors to join in future years.
Additionally, a movie version of the play by the BBC starring Christopher Plummer was shot at Kronborg Castle in 1963.
Travel tip: Before your visit, make sure to check the Kronborg Castle website for the most up-to-date information on seeing Hamlet at Kronborg Castle, as COVID may have changed the normal operations of this annual summer event.
Related: Traveling elsewhere in Europe? Amsterdam is a short flight from Copenhagen. Check out my list of the best Amsterdam bookshops to visit while you're there.
Tips for visiting Kronborg Castle
Tickets for Kronborg Castle
Tickets can be pre-purchased online or bought in person at their box office.
Ticket prices change depending on which season you come and cost more during Hamlet's Wonderful World. Children under 18 are free year-round. There is a discount for students showing an ID.
Feel free to book tickets online in advance to skip the ticket line. Even if you're unsure on your exact dates, tickets are valid for one year from the date of purchase (except June, July, and August due to Hamlet's Wonderful World).
Getting to Kronborg Castle:
By car: Take about a 30 minute drive from Copenhagen on the E47 highway or the longer but more scenic coastline drive.
Travel tip: Kronborg Castle is only about 30 minutes from the famous and beautiful Fredericksborg Castle. If you want a full day, you can visit one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
By train: Take a train from Copenhagen's Central Station to Helsingor (45 min), then take a 15-20 minute walk to the castle.
Or book a tour with a local tour company to see.
Tours at Kronborg Castle
Types of tours available: Self-guided tours using the brochure at the front office or guided tours (included in ticket price) available. Check the website for current guided tour times.
Information for families: Because you can do a self-guided tour and most furniture and valuables are roped off, I'd say this is an okay tour to bring children to.
Languages: Plaques throughout the castle give information in English and Danish. During Hamlet's Wonderful World, the characters speak in English.
Where to Stay Near Kronborg Castle
If your priority is to stay as close to Kronborg castle as possible, you can't get much closer than the Hotel Hamlet, which offers affordable, clean, no-frills rooms and is popular with guests. This hotel is only a 10-minute walk from the beautiful Hamlet Castle.
If you want to stay at a nearby hotel offering more luxury amenities, try the Marienlyst Strandhotel. This beautiful coastal hotel is near Hamlet Castle, just a 14 minute walk, and it features a private beach and spa.
If these properties aren't what you're looking for or don't have availability, there are lots of hotel options near Hamlet Castle you can check out. Definitely book well in advance during peak tourist season (summer), especially with the live Hamlet production drawing more visitors.
Travel tip: I personally make most hotel bookings through Hotels.com, because after every 10 nights you can redeem a free night. This works across hotel chains and even small, locally owned hotels, allowing greater flexibility in your stay options.
Well, that's just about everything you need to know about visiting Hamlet's castle in Denmark, the iconic Kronborg Castle.
What other destinations are on your literary travel bucket list? Drop them in the comments. And don't forget to subscribe to my blog to get notified by email of new blog posts (I'll never spam or sell email addresses!)
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