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Western Wonders: Discovering Lesser-Known West Denmark

From architectural “wows” and natural highs to ancient ruins and modern culinary marvels, this part of the land of the Danes is full of delights and surprises.

Western Wonders: Discovering Lesser-Known West Denmark

Mountain biking in the pristine forests of West Denmark

Magnus Torfoss

They don’t call it one of the world’s happiest countries for nothing. Largely undiscovered by most U.S. travelers, West Denmark offers world-class dining, food foraging tours, oyster safaris, legendary Danish design, Viking history, and so much more—all with a sense of play and creativity that comes naturally to the Danes. No matter what one’s passions are, there’s an option here to delight the senses. There’s the home town of LEGO®—complete with a house designed to look like it is made out of giant LEGO bricks!—that will charm the whole family; the oldest town in all of Scandinavia, Ribe, and the childhood home of legendary author Hans Christian Andersen in Odense, crowned with a brand-new museum. For nature lovers, you’re never more than 32 miles from the ocean. There are countless beaches and islands, wild coastlines, and fabulous fjords to explore, and all manner of outdoor, open-air activities.

West Denmark is more accessible than you might think too. It’s an easy add-on to any trip to Amsterdam with quick, direct flights via KLM, an opportunity to get out into the expanse of stunning natural environments and visit Viking towns and explore new museums, enjoying the thrill of discovery all along the way. Starting off in either Aalborg or Billund, visitors can rent a car and easily travel all over West Denmark, marveling at all it has to offer. Here are some highlights not to miss.

Aalborg: Discover great design, street art, and dining

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The Utzon Centre

Fly direct from Amsterdam into Aalborg, dubbed “The Paris of Denmark” for its cultural and culinary gems. Here, you’ll find the hometown of architect Jørn Utzon, the man behind the Sydney Opera House. Visit The Utzon Centre to learn all about his legacy, and continue on to the city’s other incredible museums, The House of Music and Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, taking time for a walk around the cobblestone streets to enjoy the fresh air and sites along the street-art route. Pop into any number of cozy cafes or try the Lighthouse Aalborg Streetfood market. In the evening, you’ll have no shortage of options at some of North Jutland’s best restaurants, like the exceptional Restaurant Fusion, located right by the water, Restaurant Tabu, Textur, and Mortens Kro.

Billund: Block party in the land that LEGO built

An alternative entry point to West Denmark is the town that’s the birthplace of LEGO, Billund. Head to the original LEGOLAND® amusement park, which has been entertaining children and adults alike ever since it opened in the 1960s right next to the original factory. For more serious fun, check out LEGO House, a colorful complex of interactive exhibitions, building zones and LEGO models built with more than 25 million LEGO bricks. Designed by acclaimed Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, LEGO House is where creativity meets design—it’s the ultimate playdate for all ages, where everyone will enjoy letting their imagination run wild. The area is especially well-suited for families, with LEGOLAND Billund Resort also offering a water park and safari park, and plenty of beaches to frolic on nearby.

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LEGO House

Skagen: Ancient treasures and a vibrant arts colony

In the far north of Denmark, Skagen is dotted with postcard-pretty yellow houses and has been home to an artist colony that has shaped the city. There’s no shortage of cultural institutions to visit, including the Skagen Museum, Anchers House, and Drachmanns House. And the forces of nature are also powerfully on display in and around Skagen: Nearby you can discover Råbjerg Mile Migrating Sand Dune, Grenen—where two seas collide—and the Sandburied Church, a structure from the 14th century that has been almost swallowed up by sand. Known for its amazing light, unique nature, and white-sand beaches, in addition to its arts scene, the northernmost town in Denmark is a world away from what you might expect and makes a highly rewarding visit.

Thy: Outdoor adventures on land and sea

Foodies will have a truly novel experience at Thy National Park with a culinary expedition they won’t soon forget. Here, they can follow in the footsteps of noma chef René Redzepi, who blazed the trail for the sustainable and foraged food movement years ago at his three-star Michelin eatery in Copenhagen, and get an authentic taste of Thy, by hunting their own mushrooms, herbs, and berries on a foraging tour. Denmark’s oldest national park also offers outdoor sporting activities such as horseback riding, hiking, bicycling, and mountain biking. Meanwhile, water lovers will find aquatic thrills at Cold Hawaii, including wave, wind or kite surfing; and everyone can enjoy traversing the long stretches of beaches and watching the wild waves.

Aarhus: Rainbow panoramas and Michelin-rated meals

Denmark’s second largest city, known as the city of smiles, has cobbled streets and a modern, architect-designed harbor. A surefire way to put a smile across any face is a trip to the ARoS Art Museum to see its showstopping rainbow by Olafur Eliasson. Walk through the full color spectrum at Your Rainbow Panorama and enjoy a 360-degree view of Aarhus. Be sure to work up an appetite here, as there are four Michelin-starred restaurants to enjoy. At Frederikshøj, Gastromé, domestic, and SUBSTANS, diners will be wowed by the new Nordic and French cuisine on offer, all presented in refined menus that manage a mix of classic, modern, and experimental all at the same time. The gastronomic capital of Jutland, Aarhus also boasts several restaurants recognized by Michelin for offering excellent moderately priced meals (the Bib Gourmand award).

Odense: Fairytales and castles

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Odense

Fall into a fairytale in Odense, the hometown of Hans Christian Andersen, who bestowed the world with such timeless classics as The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, and Thumbelina. Learn more about his fascinating life by visiting his birthplace; in addition to mementos, furniture, and letters from throughout the beloved author’s colorful life, there are samples of his work as a collage artist and some of the charming paper silhouettes he cut to illustrate his stories. Then check out the new museum, H. C. Andersen’s House, which just opened this year. It’s not just kids’ stuff. Adults will appreciate the cutting-edge design and immersive experience of this spectacular museum, designed by noted Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

Just outside of town, tour the beautiful, 466-year-old Egeskov Castle. Enjoy its award-winning historic gardens, and during the holidays, get into the spirit at the Egeskov Christmas Market, with more than 100 market stalls to browse and bring home unexpected Danish treasures, from ornaments to elves.

Ribe and The Wadden Sea: Viking lore and oyster safaris

Scandinavia’s oldest town, dating back to the 1300s, Ribe has a strong Viking pedigree. Travel back in time at the Ribe VikingeCenter, a heritage center with authentic reconstructions from the years 710-980 AD—there you’ll meet the craftspeople, merchants, and farmers in traditional garb. Kids will thrill to join the Viking army for a day and try their hand at archery. You’ll also have the opportunity to learn about the residents of another time and era: Ribe is the hometown of Jacob Riis, author of the book How the Other Half Lives, documenting the poor in New York City in the late 1800’s. At the Jacob A. Riis Museum, follow the life of Riis from Denmark to New York and learn how he brought to life the tragic details of the New York slums, earning him respect from President Roosevelt. Before you leave, step into the Ribe Cathedral and climb up the 248 stairs to the top for a wonderful view of the city.

Nature lovers, head to the nearby Wadden Sea National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where from The Wadden Sea Center, you can partake in a trip for the memory books: an Oyster Safari. Don a pair of waders and prepare to hike across mudflats to the muscle reefs where you’ll hand-pick oysters to taste on the spot and take back home. If you visit during the fall or spring, you’ll also be able to catch the incredible sight of the Black Sun, when thousands of starlings fly and circle synchronized, turning the sky black.

Also nearby, buried in the dunes, check out the the Tirpitz Bunker Museum which focuses on the Second World War and promises “tales of wrecked ships, dangerous smugglers, and forbidden love.”

>>Next: Discover the Foodie Wonders of West Denmark

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