Looking to travel somewhere bursting with awesome art? My advice is you can’t go wrong with a holiday or short break in Denmark.
Not only is Denmark just a short hop from the UK, it’s an art lover’s paradise with a ‘gluttony’ of galleries, museums and attractions.
Copenhagen isn’t the only cultural hot spot in this cool Scandinavian country. Venture further afield and you’ll discover a whole raft of brilliant cultural haunts from Aarhus in the north to Roskilde in the south.
The Giants of Esbjerg
What better place to begin your journey than Esbjerg if you’re arriving by ferry from the UK or embarking on a road trip.
You can’t miss Esbjerg’s statues which overlook Saedding Beach where you can get up close to these giants. These 30 feet figures glow in the sunshine, their striking white alabaster figures reflecting the light.
Danish artist Sven Wiig Hansen is the artist behind these colossal figures which look like a modern version of one of the Seven Wonders of the World. They were designed to look like an ancient monument. My partner in crime, Tony, thought they were plain weird and looked Stalinist!
Esbjerg Art Museum is worth a detour if you’re in town. It houses a renowned collection of modern art with changing contemporary art exhibitions.
Fans of large art installations are in for a treat. Drive into Esbjerg from the motorway and you’ll see Eva Koch and Steen Høyer’s Light Mound
Light Mound is one of Denmark’s largest outdoor art works, 180 metres in diameter, with a huge adjacent earthwork, intersected by a road.
This colossal mound of earth has tiny cupolas of light which are spread over its surface. It has a mesmeric quality and feels quite spiritual with echoes of ancient burial sites.
It’s best seen at night when it pulsates with light. The light’s intensity and rhythm are determined by the flow of traffic on the adjoining road. A cool idea.
Aarhus – Capital of Cool
Aarhus on Denmark’s east coast is fast becoming a super cool city, beloved of hipsters, culture vultures and those seeking a weekend break.
It’s set to become the latest Scandinavian capital of cool, helped by news that British Airways is starting direct flights from London.
Another great reason to visit is that Aarhus in northern Denmark is European City of Culture in 2017. Look out for dozens of cultural events throughout the year.
The star in Aarhus’ cultural crown is the ARoS Kunstmuseum, a stunning contemporary art gallery which is equal to anything you’ll find in London, Paris or Rome.
There is something for everyone with well-curated displays in spacious galleries housed inside the striking cube-shaped building.
Once inside, you’re greeted by a giant-sized boy, a super realistic sculpture five metres high by Australian artist Ron Mueck. It provides a taste of the gallery’s big ambitions.
Contemporary art and video lovers are in for a treat with changing exhibitions and international works from the gallery’s permanent collection.
Don’t miss a trip to the gallery roof which is covered by the spectacular ‘Your Rainbow Panorama’ by Danish-Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson.
I love Eliasson’s art. His rainbow does not disappoint with its circular gallery and walkway made from glass featuring every colour of the spectrum
This 360-degree rooftop walkway enables visitors to walk through the rainbow coloured corridor and glimpse tinted views of the city. This aerial kaleidoscope is truly stunning.
Herning – Heart of Art
Who would have thought that a small town like Herning in the dead heart of Jutland would be alive with world-class art?
I stumbled on Herning by complete accident after spotting an article in an obscure travel magazine. It was a wet, miserable day so the promise of a warm gallery and cafe was too much to resist… so we diverted into the town on our journey south.
HEART is Herning Museum of Contemporary Art – and it’s a revelation. Its modern architecture is worth a trip in its own right. Once inside, the contemporary art shows, which feature international artists, are extremely impressive.
I love HEART. It has a great ambience and it’s a winner for anyone with a passion for paintings.
Designed by the architect Steven Holl, its folded concrete walls and sleeve-like roof are supposed to resemble a shirt, in honour of the gallery’s founder, Danish shirt manufacturer Aage Damgaard. This uber cool building is a fitting tribute to the art collector.
Over the road, there’s the Carl-Henning Pedersen and Else Alfelt Museum with colourful COBRA paintings and ceramics from two of Denmark’s world-famous abstract painters. Pedersen was known as the “Scandinavian Chagall” and you won’t be disappointed. The geometric gallery building is a riot of colour.
Architecture fans will be intrigued by the nearby Prototype House, designed by architect Jorn Utzon, best known for the Sydney Opera House. This experimental building can only be seen from the outside. It’s a shame the inside is closed to the public.
Herning is also carving itself a reputation as a centre for land art and it’s worth taking a detour to see what all the fuss is about.
On the edge of town, you can’t miss the giant sculpture called ELIA, a huge ebony black hemisphere which spans 60 metres with strange vertical ‘chimneys’ topped with red lights. It dominates the landscape. The whole thing looks like something from a sci-fi movie set.
Take one of the four flights of stairs to the top to reach one of the viewing platforms which provides a striking panorama across the surrounding landscape.
A gas-torch in one of the columns randomly sends a column of fire surging into the air. It’s a strangely industrial looking monument which is even more intriguing at night when light and flame glimmer from its towers.
Sadly I missed the full range of outdoor art sites as we hadn’t realised there was so much to do in Herning and ran out of time. Perhaps next time…
Trapholt – Design for living
The Danes love a good chair. In fact, they’ve designed some of the very best chairs in the world over the last 100 years.
I shouldn’t have been surprised then to discover then that Tropholt is home to one of the world’s best design museums. But Trapholt doesn’t just focus on
Danish furniture design – there’s a sculpture park, exhibitions of visual art, and collections of ceramics, textiles and product designs.
This might sound a bit specialist, but Trapholt has pulled a very clever trick in presenting everything so beautifully that it’s hard not to fall in love with the gallery.
With its cool, white contemporary architecture, Trapholt is a stylish museum set in a beautiful sculpture park overlooking Kolding Fjord in southern Jutland.
If there was a World Cup for design, Denmark would be one of the top three countries… and Trapholt would be one of its star players.
Trapholt has the largest chair collection in Denmark with more than 500 designs. It’s a bit like a trip to a high-class version of Ikea, but with wonderful furniture designed for architect houses of the type seen in interior design magazines.
‘King of chairs’ is Arne Jacobsen, an avant-garde Danish design genius. You’ll recognise his work immediately because his styles are iconic.
In the 1950s he created the famous Ant chair, followed by the Egg, the Wasp and Swan. All of them are gorgeous, and characterised by their sensuous shapes. Surprisingly, they’re extremely comfortable to sit in… and I want one!
The star exhibit at Trapholt is a full-sized summerhouse called Kubeflex – designed by Arne Jacobsen where you can see his designs in a living room, together with his interior furnishings.
Kubeflex was an experiment in affordable housing, something that we could learn from in today’s housing crisis. It was developed by Jacobsen in cooperation with Høm Typehuse for the Archibo House Fair in 1970’s. Today it looks like a stylish starter home.
It’s built from cubic modules of 12 square meters, an extremely cool idea. A bit like a modern prefab. The flexible design system meant that units could be combined and more added, if needed.
The only problem was that it was way ahead of its time. The house was seen as too revolutionary and radical. Today it looks like a great solution to providing low-cost starter homes.
Trapholt is a real find… and also boasts fascinating art exhibitions, a glorious shop and stunning cafe which make it a ‘must see’ attraction, even if you’re not entirely mad about chairs!
Roskilde – Heritage and Contemporary Art
Roskilde is a stunning city with a historic centre which is worth a trip in its own right. Whilst my partner Tony was busy rowing a replica Viking long boat at Roskilde Museum, I set off to discover the city’s art attractions.
First stop on my town tour was Roskilde’s impressive twin-towered brick cathedral which dates from the 1170s. Its style lies somewhere between Romanesque and Gothic, whilst its interior is stacked with superb statues, decoration and craft work.
To do justice to its wealth of artistic treasures, you need to spend a long time here. I found myself racing around because I’d underestimated how much there was to see.
Don’t miss the royal burial-place with its ornate, decorated tombs bearing Latin inscriptions and elaborate reliefs. The Baroque interior is something to behold, even though it’s not my favourite style of architecture.
The Chapel of the Magi is another stunner. It is decorated with fabulous frescoes and Romanesque friezes and there are magnificent sepulchres to Kings Christian III and Frederick II who reigned in the 16th Century.
The riches keep on coming and many more can be found in the Cathedral Museum which has a fine collection of costumes and historic royal gowns.
By way of contrast, I left the cathedral precinct and found myself outside the Contemporary Art Museum, a small but interesting contemporary space with works by current artists.
It’s in sharp contrast to the historic nature of most of Roskilde but it’s worth popping in if you’re in the vicinity. Again, I raced around because I was running out of time and had promised to meet Tony back at the Viking Museum.
When I found him, he was standing by a rotisserie deer which was cooking on a traditional spit by costumed Vikings. He couldn’t stop talking about the thrill of going out on a replica Viking boat. It’s something that he’d strongly recommend to budding sailors.
Silkeborg – Bog Men and Abstract Art
Silkeborg is world-famous for being the place where the Tollund Bog man was found. Today his amazing well-preserved body can be seen in the small Silkeborg Museum.
But it’s another famous Dane who I was keen to discover over at the Museum Jorn outside Silkeborg. Asger Jorn was one of Denmark’s best-known international artists who shot to fame with his involvement with the COBRA group of abstract artists.
Fans of Asger Jorn and modern art will love this place. One of the most impressive works in the collection is The Long Journey, a panoramic tapestry of epic sale which packs a powerful punch.
The gallery holds the largest collection of works by Jorn in the world. For those who aren’t a fan of his COBRA style, there are also paintings by 20th Century artistic giants including Picasso, Ferdinand Leger, Max Ernst, and Man Ray.
Copenhagen – Louisiana
Copenhagen is Denmark’s cultural capital and the perfect destination for those who like to spend their holidays tramping around museums and art galleries.
There’s a smorgasbord of cultural attractions to choose from. My favourite gallery is Louisiana with its stunning art collection in Humlebaek, overlooking the coast to the north of the city.
But why is it called Louisiana?
Louisiana sounds more like a 19th Century mansion-house in America’s deep South than a Danish art gallery.
The old Louisiana house was built in 1855 by Alexander Brun who married three women who were all named Louise, hence the name. Strange but true!
Today’s modern galleries are next door to the original house. Louisiana’s modern buildings are really beautiful with a strong Scandinavian feel.
They’re low-rise and built in natural wood and glass – they’re designed to hug and blend in with the surrounding landscape. They look like they’re part of the natural scenery which makes this a relaxing experience. But hold on to your party as it’s easy to get lost in the maze of gallery corridors.
Outside, the sculpture park boasts tremendous works by the likes of Henry Moore and Alexander Calder. And for those of a less arty bent, there are lovely views down to the beach, ideal for a picnic.
The art collection and exhibitions are truly world-class – and there is, literally, something for everyone.
Louisiana is known for its founder Knud W. Jensen’s “sauna principle”. He divided the exhibitions into hot and cold varieties. The hot galleries were filled with artists that visitors already knew – the great modern artists. The cold galleries were spaces with works by lesser known artists, often contemporary artists.
The idea was to combine the two so that the popular exhibitions would attract visitors who would also dip into something new and different.
‘Hot’ stars of Louisiana are Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg, to name a few. Giacometti gets his own gallery. .. so does the great Dane, Asger Jorn.
There’s an embarrassment of artistic riches which left me running around madly before the galleries closed. If you visit one gallery in Denmark, make it this one.
Copenhagen’s Art Attack
Copenhagen has dozens of galleries and museums so it’s good idea to cherry-pick a few rather than trying to cram in everything.
Art lovers will adore the NY Carlsberg Glyptotek Gallery which has a particularly fine collection of French Impressionists including Cezanne, Monet and Renoir.
The gallery also has one of the best single collections of paintings by Gauguin who lived in Copenhagen for a time with his Danish wife.
But pick your day and time because weekends are busy and you’ll find yourself fighting the crowds, especially on free Sundays.
The Glypototek also houses an impressive collection of Etruscan treasures including a winged lion, sarcophagi, pottery and stone statues.
If you’re keen on antiquities , the National Museum is one of the best attractions in Copenhagen, the Danish equivalent of the British Museum.
The museum is huge and you could spend several hours here so I’d recommend the highlights of the collection on the ground floor including the Vikings and the pre-history section.
There are many beautiful pieces on display including this star exhibit, a large silver cauldron from Gundestrup with its superb craftsmanship and illustrations on the inside and outside.
Finally, don’t miss the Statens Museum for Kunst if you’re a big fan of Old Masters like Rubens and Franz Hals. There’s a few decent modernists in the collection too including Munch and Matisse.
Out of town Copenhagen
A trip out-of-town is one of the delights of Copenhagen’s art scene and a small town called Ordrupgaard provides one of the many surprises.
The fist thing you notice about the Ordrupgaard Museum is its striking architecture. Its modern gallery extension is a shimmering glass affair designed by the late, great architect Zaha Hadid.
It has been cast in black lava concrete which means that it changes colour and texture depending on the weather. Sometimes it appears grey and other times it looks like shiny black.
For a small museum, Ordrupgaard has an impressive collection of French Impressionist and Danish art from the Golden Age. I was staggered to discover exquisite masterpieces by Monet, Gauguin and Renoir.
And there’s much more to this eclectic collection than paintings. Remember the Danish obsession with design?
In the grounds of the museum you’ll stumble upon architect Finn Juhl’s house which he built for his family in 1942.
Juhl was part of the “Danish Modern” movement with Arne Jacobsen (remember him? The king of the chairs), Hans Wegner, Mogens Koch and Børge Mogensen.
Step inside Finn Juhl’s perfect white house to see what all the fuss is about. There’s a large living room and a small study, with a second block housing the kitchen, dining room, bedrooms and bathroom. Many of the furnishings were designed by the great man himself.
This was a very early example of an open-plan house. Best of all, every room has a view of the garden and the setting feels really relaxing.
I felt at home in Mr Juhl’s and would be very happy living here if I was Danish.
ARKEN Museum – Contemporary Art
Looking for a cool, contemporary galley in Copenhagen?
Why not head out to the Arken Museum of Modern Art which is one of the very best. It’s slightly tricky to get to, but it’s not far out-of-town. It’s OK if you have a car or, alternatively, try leaping on the S-train and local bus.
ARKEN’s architecture was inspired by its maritime setting. It was designed to blend in with the local coastal and sand dune landscape. It looks like a stranded ship.
ARKEN is one of the best examples in Denmark of ‘deconstructive architecture’ which means that it breaks away from usual shapes to make way for slanting angles and optical illusions.
This theme continues inside the gallery which is all slanting corridors, sharp angles, and curious shapes. The gallery is as much a work of art as the art works inside it.
I was more than impressed by the art collection which includes well-known works by artists from post-1945 including Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Olafur Eliasson and Damien Hirst.
Exploring the building is fun and it’s worth taking a good look at the outside and making a trip to the cafe to see all the unusual architectural details. ARKEN cafe is designed to look like a ship’s deck, which hangs onto the side of the museum. There are also great views over Køge Bay.
During my visit to ARKEN, there was an excellent Ai Weiwei show, but future events looked promising. I’ll be back again to check them out.
It’s worth a return trip, not just to see the changing exhibitions but to visit the sculpture park which will be taking shape in the near future.
Walk on the wild side – Christiania
Fans of street art and alternative culture should take a detour to Christiania, Copenhagen’s bohemian community or ‘hippy heaven’ where anything goes.
This abandoned military base on the edge of the city centre was taken over by squatters in 1971 declaring it a ‘free state’, subject to its own laws.
There’s ‘no photography inside’ once you leave the entrance which has a huge and colourful mural of a dragon and fairy princess.
Once in the thick of this fantastical community, there’s a liberal attitude towards most everything. There are self-build houses, craft workshops and alternative living. It’s a truly unique experience. I can’t think of anywhere like this in the world.
Amager Ark – Copenhagen’s Viking ship
Another oddity in Copenhagen… a ‘Viking’ ship which looks like it’s been stranded miles from sea on the edge of a Danish housing estate.
Welcome to the Amager Ark – a modern-day Viking long boat which is the creation of Italian environmental artist Alfio Bonanno.
Rising up from a nature park next to blocks of futuristic flats and a large shopping centre, the ark is an incongruous sight.
But there’s something fascinating about this 55-metre-long wooden ‘ship’ which sits astride a strip of urban fringe close to marshland and forest.
Amager Ark forms part of Himmelhoj, a series of art installations on a flat, marshy area a few miles south of Copenhagen city centre.
Take a trail through the Vest Amager Nature Park and you’ll happen upon this oddity, surrounded by modern housing developments with the Avenedo energy plant in the distance.
Himmelhoj is located in southern Copenhagen in the Orestad region – it’s a 15 minute drive from the city. The site is slightly tricky to find because it’s not well sign-posted, but the nearest landmark is the Vest Amager Nature Centre on the island of Amager.
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Art Road Trip – Denmark
Getting to Denmark is relatively easy from most countries with flights to Copenhagen and ferries to its key ports.
Copenhagen is a good place to start your road trip if you’re flying but it isn’t that central although drive times between cities are comparatively short. Other good places to base yourself are Roskilde and Odense or Aarhus if you’re heading to Jutland.
Herning is well worth a visit, but isn’t really geared up as tourist destination so it’s better to stay in nearby Silkeborg.
If you’re travelling by camper van or motorhome, there are plenty of sites across Denmark. Top tip – look out for picturesque overnight sites at marinas along the coast. They’re relatively cheap and have good facilities for laundry, showers and WCs.
Food in Denmark isn’t cheap and it’s easier to keep costs down if you’re self-catering or in a motor home. Local supermarkets are reasonably priced but alcohol is expensive.
If you’re staying in Copenhagen, I’d recommend hiring a bike to get around the city as it’s incredibly cycle friendly. Read my travel blog on Copenhagen in a weekend by bike.
Despite my best efforts to be a completist, I still couldn’t find time for Copenhagen’s highly recommended Copenhagen Contemporary (art warehouse), the Design Museum or the Ny Carlsberg art precinct. Why not add them to your list – they all get good word of mouth.