When William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, and described Elsinore Castle, it was Kronborg Castle at Helsingor in Denmark he was really talking about. The Castle and its star defenses are now a UNESCO World Heritage site and are well worth a visit, whether your interest is in English literature, Nordic history, military strategy, medieval architecture, or just great Scandinavian stories.
The castle itself provides a good half day of interest, and the surrounding historic town can fill the rest of your day. You can even take a quick ferry trip over to the Swedish city of Helsingborg across the sound to see the fortress tower of Karnan. It’s just 20 minutes each way. Do promise not to invade, the two communities are close friends now after a long and murderous history.
Elsinore is just a short distance from Copenhagen, and from Malmo , and makes a perfect day trip.
Getting To Elsinore
Elsinore is at Helsingor, just up the coast from the Danish capital Copenhagen. It’s about a 45 minute drive, longer in the rush hour, but the train is both quicker and easier.
If you’re flying in to CPH airport, then you can take the train direct from the airport itself. If you’re staying in Copenhagen or Malmo then it’s the same Ãresund bridge train line. The trains run every 15 minutes or so and take about 45 minutes from central Copenhagen. Ticketing can be confusing as there are deals for family groups so do go to the ticket office and explain your travel plans to get the best price rather than relying on the convenience of the ticket machines.
The train station itself is quite a thing to behold so don’t rush out, take a few minutes to enjoy its grandeur. The same goes for the town. The tolls from the castle made this an unbelievably wealthy place in its day, and some clues to that wealth remain.
Kronborg was a fortress, perfectly positioned to control shipping through Ãresund Sound between Denmark and Sweden. To get to the Atlantic from Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, you need to got through this narrow straight. It’s also the most practical route to the Atlantic from Russia, most of Sweden and eastern Germany. Controlling the sound meant taking tolls from shipping, and this made Denmark very rich indeed.
Those pesky Danes charged ships a toll based on the value of their cargo, and retained the right to buy the cargo for the value stated by the captain, so any captains trying to hoodwink the tax collectors ran the risk of having to sell their cargo cheaply.
This toll raising scheme was understandably attractive to the Swedes so wars were fought and raids took lace. In one particularly cold winter, an army simply marched across the sound, which had frozen solid.
Kronborg has been a museum for almost a century now, and the curation is excellent, the history is well told in an engaging way, and there’s activities for children, but you are free to explore and have fun alone.
Hamlet’s Elsinore On Film – Shakespeare’s Elsinore
Elsinore is best enjoyed with Hamlet in mind. I’m a big fan of reading the book before watching the film, but plays are meant to be seen rather than read, and as the ultimate inNordic Noir , Hamlet has had its fair share of adaptations, from the classic Sir Lawrence Olivier version, through the flashy Mel Gibson flick, and the canonical Kenneth Branaugh movie to the bang up to the minute filmed RSC play with David Tennant. Watch it at least once, or watch them all and pick a favorite.
This film version of Hamlet was actually filmed at Elsinore, so you can use it as prep for your visit, or enjoy spotting memories on your return.
This is the modern benchmark for Hamlet productions. Directed by Kenneth Branagh , the cast list reads like a Who’s Who of great British stage actors, inluding Derek Jacobi,
John Gielgud, Judi Dench and Julie Christie. There’s Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams too. The film lasts four hours, but t’s worth it.
Like almost everyone else who tried, I failed to get tickets to see David Tennant (Dr Who, Broadchurch) in Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford Upon Avon in England, the demand throughout the run was such that they went ahead and performed a version specifically to be filmed by the BBC. This is a modern, up to date Hamlet, re-imagined for modern times, with Hamlet an overindulged young man, comfortable with technology, talking to his security cameras, and filming what’s going on around him. Joined by Patrick Stewart (Star Trek), a veteran RSC stage actor, this is a crackerjack performance of the play.
This 1948 film version was directed by and starred Sir Lawrence Olivier. It is ‘only’ two hours long, cutting quite a bit from the play, but it is the standard to which people playing Hamlet hold themselves. Four Oscars (including best film and actor), two BAFTAs and two Golden Globes call this film version unmissable.
Hamlet isn’t Elsinore’s only famous resident. Holger The Dane lives there to this day. Holger is a mythical Danish king, part based in historical fact lost over time, much like King Arthur in England or good King Wenceslas in the Czech Republic.
The story tells us that he sleeps quietly in the crypt at Kronborg, and he’s been there so long that his beard has grown all the way to the floor. You can go and see him, it is dark and a little spooky down there. He’ll carry on sleeping until Denmark is threatened, and then he will wake to defend his kingdom.
During the Second World War the Danes didn’t wait, their resistance movement was called Holger Dansk. Fortunately, things never got so bad that he did have to wake and take control.