A place of light and delights welcomes you to summer magic
Skagen is a town made for wandering, by foot or by bike, or a combination of the two. Charming streets wind through the fairytale town lined with cheery butter-colored homes, it abounds in cultural offerings, and its natural beauty is stunning. With white sandy beaches and a brilliantly blue sea, its geography alone makes it a place worth visiting.
The quaint and historic town is situated on the northernmost point of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, which fiercely juts into not one but two seas: the Kattegat, which empties into the Baltic Sea, and the Skagerrak, which empties into the North Sea.
The unique geography of the town has largely determined its history. Skagen has been a fishing village since the Middle Ages, dominated by herring. In 1413, it was designated as a market town by Erik of Pomerania and boasted 2,000 inhabitants.
Another natural element that has determined Skagen’s destiny is more ethereal: its unique light.
Painters began to flock there in the mid-1800s, and an artists’ colony began to emerge. It culminated a few decades later in a movement known in Danish as Skagensmalerne, the Skagen Painters. They created an artistic movement known as Danish Impressionism, aptly named as they followed the French artists in breaking from the academic hierarchy and painting en plein air.
French Impressionism was not, however, their sole influence. The Skagen painters were also inspired by the light of the evening “blue hour,” which made the water and sky seem to optically merge. P.S. Krøyer, a Skagen native, is one of the most famous of these painters.
Once the bohemian crowd took root, it was only a matter of about 20 years before droves of tourists followed. And as often happens when there is an influx of visitors, housing became scarce, and many of the artists were displaced. To this day, Skagen remains a magnet for tourists, coming from inside and outside of Denmark.
Yet Skagen is also a livable working city that has stayed true to its historical roots by maintaining its fishing industry. In fact, it is Denmark’s largest fishing town, and these days is also host to visiting cruise ships.
You can get an overview of Skagen’s flora and fauna and the unique geography of the area at the Skagen Odde Nature Center. The organization describes itself as being “devoted to the effects of sand, water, wind and light.” You can also admire the museum’s design, conceived by world-renowned Danish architect Jørn Utzon in 1989.
But—quite naturally—it’s best to submerge yourself in the real thing, and there are miles of beaches to check out. Explore the Råbjerg Mile, one of Europe’s grandest shifting dunes, soaring more than 130 feet above the sea. Another unique phenomenon to survey is Grenen (The Branch), a spit of land created by the constantly churning competing seas. It has grown to a sandbar about 2.5 miles long and counting. You can even take the adorable, yet practical, Sandormen tractor to get to its point.
As one would expect, the Skagen Museum features the Danish Impressionists. The museum was established in 1908 and fittingly, first located in the dining room of Brøndum’s Hotel, a gathering place for the Skagen Painters.
Today, the museum is housed in three locations, divided between Brøndum’s Hotel and in two historic homes, Drachmanns Hus and Anchers Hus, housing a collection of over 9,000 paintings of the local area. The structures are lovely, and the art is evocative and beautiful.
Another highlight is Skagen’s Sankt Laurentii Kirke. The 14th-century church is also known as Old Skagen Church, the Sand-Covered Church, or the Buried Church, due to the encroachment of the sand. This serves as a chilling reminder that all is temporary and that even this idyllic place has a sinister undercurrent and fleeting stability.
In 1775, the church door had to be dug out so the congregation could attend services. For the next 20 years, the residents of Skagen struggled to keep the church free from sand, never allowing it to close down.
Today, most of the church and the homes that surrounded it lie buried in stillness. The top of the lone church tower remains the only evidence of what once had been.
Festivals and fun
There are two major events in Skagen to put on your travel wish list: the Skagen Festival and St. John’s Eve.
The first, a musical smorgasbord started in 1971, is held at the beginning of July and features blues, folk rock, and jazz performed by European and American musicians. About 650 volunteers assist in its success. It draws visitors from all over Europe and beyond.
St. John’s Eve, or midsummer, is celebrated throughout Scandinavia. Steeped in pagan tradition, bonfires rule. In former times, they were a way to mark the summer solstice and to dispel malicious spirits. Symbolically, a witch made of hay sits atop the burning bonfire. The Christian church leaders later chose to transform the meaning of this pagan holiday and moved it a few days later to June 23, so that it coincided with a saint’s day—much to everyone’s delight today.
Hygge at its best
Then there is the question of where to lay your head when in Skagen. If you wish to be in the company of Danish royalty, the likes of authors such as Karen Blixen and Hans Christian Andersen, as well as the Skagen Painters, why not stay at the historic and stately Brøndum’s Hotel?
But if your budget doesn’t allow for the luxury option, there are other very reasonable alternatives. A plethora of cozy bed and breakfasts that give you an authentic dose of hygge and the opportunity to not only live like a Dane but also engage with some.
I have never had a bad meal in Denmark—quite the contrary—so with all of Skagen’s amazing ingredients at a chef’s fingertips, go ahead and indulge. Of course, seafood is a must. I have fond memories of an amazing medley of fish soup during my stay in Skagen.
What is also fun is dining in the array of appealing historic structures found around town. Be it a simple wood frame cottage along the harbor or a manor house, there are lots of choices.
The population of Skagen swells in the summer and during the music festival, but the town’s laid-back attitude always prevails, with a sophisticated melding of art, cuisine, and nature sure to please.
And there is nothing like wading into Grenen, with a foot in each body of water, while the waves take turns in weaving a frothy braid set upon an endless horizon. You become one with the sea, sand, and sky: pure magic.
This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.