This article is part two of the series “A Danish Road Trip”A Danish Road Trip: Part 1 – Introduction and Itinerary A Danish Road Trip: Part 2 – Skagen A Danish Road Trip: Part 3 – Aalborg A Danish Road Trip: Part 4 – Aarhus A Danish Road Trip: Part 5 – Silkeborg
I was a guest of Visit Denmark for this trip but all opinions are my own, as well you know…
The first stop on my road trip around the Jutland peninsula was the most well-known destination on the itinerary, Skagen. Many of my Norwegian friends have visited this idyllic town over the years and it was time I got to see what all the fuss was about.
A favourite stop for both cruise passengers and drivers, tourist brochures promote the main attractions here are as art, nature and atmosphere. That’s an appropriate elevator pitch for Skagen although there’s more to the place than can be summed up in three words.
It’s a small town with only 8,200 permanent residents, yet it receives a staggering 2 million visitors a year, around 75% of whom stay overnight. The majority of tourists come during the summer and if you are thinking of visiting in July you should be prepared to book a long way ahead as there are limited hotel beds available.
Traffic can come to a grinding halt in the narrow streets and I would recommend avoiding the absolute busiest period if you are driving. Indeed the tourist board is pushing Skagen as a year-round destination with growing success and it would certainly be interesting to experience the town in the off-season. Since I had less than 24 hours there my first priority is to stay longer next time, no matter when that may be…
Skagen has one of Denmark’s largest fishing harbours and this is still the most important industry, responsible for some 50% of revenue. Tourism is a good second and the town is building a reputation for both fine dining and wellness breaks. Some of the best-known chefs in the country work here, taking advantage of the abundance of fresh natural ingredients on offer.
Most of the buildings in the old part of the port area are now restaurants and souvenir shops, making this a lovely place for a wander.
In terms of art, Skagen gained fame as an artists colony at the end of the 1870s when a bunch of them moved here. Attracted by the special light conditions, the motifs provided by the day-to-day life of the fishing village and the wild landscapes, the Skagen painters achieved success in their lifetimes, rather than posthumously as is so often the case. The most famous of the artists are Anna and Michael Ancher and P.S. Krøyer.
Skagens Museum has the largest collection of their works of art in the country. The town also plays host to the oldest music festival in Denmark each year.
With a unique location at the top of Denmark where two seas meet (the Kattegat and the North Sea) Skagen. In theory it is possible to stand with a foot in both at Grenen which is a short hike over the dunes on the outskirts of town. If you like your birdwatching, the spring migration is meant to be quite a spectacle here and there are good opportunities to spot a range of birds all year round.
Accommodation – Hotel Skibssmedien, Vestre Strandvej 28, DK-9990 Skagen, Denmark
For my night in town the Visit Denmark office in the UK had booked a room at the Hotel Skibssmedien. Having arrived late in the afternoon at Aalborg airport I didn’t roll up until just after 6 p.m. after picking up my rental car and the 90 minute drive.
The Skibssmedien is ideally located right near the harbour and is easy to find – you don’t need to drive through the centre of town and you can park your car for free in their underground car park. This is a great bonus but be warned that the parking spaces are extremely tight so you need your wits about you (and preferably one of those gadgets in the car that beeps when you are getting close to a wall or other vehicle).
Reception is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. so I just made it in time but a telephone number is provided if there is nobody there on arrival. This being the high season the restaurant was open too and there is a bar area next to reception for a cold beer or a hot coffee.
Here’s a video walkthrough of my room:
As you can see the room was large, modern and nicely furnished with a very comfortable double bed, albeit made up of two single mattresses. I would have preferred one large mattress, but there you go. A flat screen TV hung on the wall, there was a decent sized fridge, desk and a nice sofa too.
WiFi was free, fast and worked perfectly using a code provided at reception. Sliding doors opened on to an outside area providing a nice place to sit in the evening sun. The bathroom was small but well designed with a shower, toilet and washbasin as well as plenty of storage space.
The hotel offers a range of rooms and complete apartments and prices are very reasonable – it is easy to see why it is a popular choice for visitors; especially families. I have read good reviews of the restaurant but did not have the chance to try it myself – the breakfast was superb though, which leads me to believe the reviews are right. With a wide variety of locally-sourced, organic delicacies such as cold meats, cheeses, jams, fruit drinks, cereals and eggs this was a wonderful start to the day.
I will definitely return to Hotel Skibssmedien next time I am in Skagen with my family (on my own dime) and have no hesitation in recommending it as a base for your visit.
Dinner – Pakhuset, Rødspættevej 6, 9990 Skagen, Denmark
Just round the corner from the Skibssmedien, Pakhuset is a very popular restaurant with an enviable dockside location and a unique interior. The phrase “maritime atmosphere” is often bandied about when describing eateries near the water; here it is definitely justified. If you look up as you enter the building you’ll notice a sizeable figurehead looming over the front door and this theme continues inside.
Rather than being mere decoration there is quite a backstory here – the 42 figureheads on display at Pakhuset are carved from solid mahogany and are faithful reproductions of those which originally decorated the dining room of the long-gone Skagens Hotel. The hotel’s owner Ludvig Emil Andersen had collected the figureheads over many years from auctions selling items recovered from shipwrecks.
Many years later when his daughter was in charge she was made an offer she could not refuse (almost 4 million Danish Kroner in today’s money) by a Swedish shipping magnate. And she didn’t – to the dismay of the locals the collection was taken to Sweden. The originals are now on display in Gothenburg, but here at Pakhuset you can dine among these striking replicas thanks to its owner Hans Sund.
As well as the beautiful interior and fine views over the harbour area, Pakhuset is justifiably renowned for its food.
On the ground floor there’s a cafe with outdoor seating for lunch, drinks or a light meal. On the second floor is the main restaurant which naturally enough specialises in seafood but does have meat on the menu too. I wasn’t going there though – ‘when in Skagen’ and all that. The fish soup was a delicious starter and the plaice was huge, fresh and perfectly cooked. Served with an imaginative variety of vegetables and a crisp white wine, you’re a better man than me if you have room for dessert afterwards.
Okay, I had to forego the wine too as I was driving afterwards but anyway, you’ll love this restaurant. What a great start to my culinary exploration of Denmark too…
Sunset at Old Skagen
After collecting my car from the hotel I drove the ten minutes or so to reach Old Skagen, a residential area on the western side of the town. Despite only having about 30 permanent residents I was lucky to find a parking space – almost all the houses are used as holiday homes and appeared to be occupied and half of Skagen descends upon the beachfront here to watch the sun set over the water every night.
Those canny Danes haven’t let this opportunity pass and the ‘Sunset Kiosk’ does a roaring trade in ice creams. In my experience, Scandinavians will eat ice cream all year round and whatever the weather, but of course summer is still the high season.
Given that the sun doesn’t set until around 9.30 p.m. at this time of year I had time for a stroll on the beach and to take some photographs before the main event.
I also shot a little video, so check this clip out if you have the chance:
If you can’t watch the film right now I should point out that the beauty of these scenes is a tiny bit deceptive as the wind is ridiculously strong out here; those flagpoles are not bent, they’re swaying.
Still, it is beautiful and all very romantic for couples. Not quite so romantic when you’re on your own, cold and windswept but scenic nonetheless…
As the sun disappears the crowd applauds, stands up and leaves as one. Darkness falls rapidly as I return to the car and join the throng of vehicles heading back to the centre of town, ready for that comfy bed at my hotel.
After breakfast I met Maria, the press officer from the local tourist board and Kathleen, a tour guide, at the harbour for a walk around town. Starting by the statue of the ‘Danish fisherman and rescuer’ across from the tourist information office, Kathleen explained how the police had to provide security when the monument was being erected when the locals found out that a fisherman from another town had been used as the model. Attitudes changed over the years and the people of Skagen have become very attached to the guy, so he’s staying.
I learned of the huge expansion to the industrial harbour that is underway and will include a pier for all those cruise ships – currently passengers have to come ashore on tender vessels from the docks. We left the waterfront and made our way into the older part of the town with its cheery yellow houses shining in the early morning sun.
One upside of so many wealthy outsiders buying up homes to use for a few weeks in the summer is that they invest in their restoration – which is extremely expensive as all buildings are protected and the smallest changes have to be authorised. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Skagen was one of the most expensive places to buy property in Denmark, but the town had vey humble beginnings as an isolated fishing village.
We passed the legendary Brøndums Hotel, which the Skagen artists used as their base back in the day and is still going strong today. Most of the rooms have basic facilities but the atmosphere and history is what ensures its popularity.
The final stop on our tour was one of the town’s beaches, Sønderstrand, to view the old lighthouse known as Vippefyret. Originally constructed in 1627, this was the first of its kind in Denmark and is basically a basket on a huge lever that is filled with combsutible material and lit. The basket is rasied and the light is visible from a huge distance.
Not far from the Vippefyret is its replacement, the Hvide Fyr.
This took over duties in 1747 but in 1858 Det Grå Fyr was built as a more modern – and taller – lighthouse. These days lighthouses are largely redundant but the two towers are open to the public in the summer and best of all, Vippefyret is lit each Midsummer’s Eve where it is the centre of a huge celebration on the beach.
The tour finished at Skagens Musuem where I bid farewell to my walking companions after being introduced to the media liaison officer. I learned that Skagens Museum is the fifth most visited art museum in the whole of Denmark – which given its location in such a small town is rather impressive.
It’s not hard to see why, however – the main collection showcases the talents of the Skagen painters in depicting life in the town at the end of the 19th century. I could have easily spent another hour or two but time was against me – I will return to do the main collection justice at a later date.
At the time of my visit the temporary exhibition was dedicated to one of the lesser-known Skagen artists, Laurits Tuxen. The main reason he seems to have slipped under the radar somewhat is that most of his works are in private hands – including royal ones. As court painter to the kings and queens of Europe his portraits often ended up in their collections and far from the public eye. The museum managed to convince the current owners to lend their treasures to the exhibition and it was very interesting to see the many different styles with which he experimented.
Skagens Museum started life at Brøndums Hotel in 1908 and had its own building from 1928. Extensions were added in 1982 and 1989 and in October this year the museum will close for thorough renovation and a major expansion. The new wing will add 2000 m2 and enable the museum to be able to exhibit more than the 10% of its collection that is possible in the current building. Skagens Museum should be open again in May 2015 and I look forward to seeing the new premises next year.
I had a wander through the town centre before finding my way to Nordisk Folkekøkken for lunch. With a focus on quality ingredients, gourmet dining and low prices it’s easy to see why NFK gets such great reviews.
A fairly new branch of a successful restaurant in Aarhus, NFK is slowly helping to convince tourists to think quality and not just quantity – and to realise there is more to holiday eating than pizzas and burgers.
I got to sample Danish caviar from the only producer in the country making it the same way as its more famous Russian competitors. Beautifully served with oysters on a bed of salt, this starter was nothing short of sensational.
I was enjoying myself so much that I singularly failed to leave plenty of space for the main course, which was a selection of crostini with various toppings including an exquisite foie gras and ham from Skagen’s legendary butcher, Munch.
In the interests of research, I managed to finish them anyway.
Make sure you stop by Nordisk Folkekøkken when you’re in Skagen (or Aarhus, for that matter) – it’s not often you can eat so well in Denmark for such a good price.
Den Tilsandede Kirke
With that, my time in Skagen had come to a premature end. On the way out of town I did take in another of the famous sights though – the sand-buried church.
Thought to have been built in the late 14th century, Saint Laurence’s church began to have a problem with sand migration a couple of hundred years later. Blowing sand reached the church at the end of the 18th century and the congregation had to dig their way in to attend services.
They finally had to give up in 1795 when the church was closed and today only the tower remains visible. It’s quite an eerie sight and well worth a look – you’ll need a car or preferably a bicycle to get here.
I really enjoyed my all-too-brief stay in Skagen and am really looking forward to returning with my family. It delivers on its promise of “art, nature and atmosphere” and adds fine dining, great hospitality and no less than four beaches to make the perfect destination for a short break. Put it on your list, Grown-up Travellers! Have you visited Skagen? Let us know what you thought in the comments below 🙂