I was told that Odense was known for flowers, food and fairy tales. I boarded a train at Copenhagen’s Central Station and headed southwest for 104 miles to Denmark’s third-largest city. And only a few minutes after disembarking, I had my first sighting of the storywriter whose fame brings thousands of people to the city – Hans Christian Andersen.
You’ll see statues featuring characters from his stories all over the city. In a bustling side street tourists stop to snap the ‘Naked Emperor’, staring into the mirror to view his new ‘clothes’. Another artwork represents the famous flying suitcase, the subject of one of his stories. I’m told that it features in many selfies. There’s also museum devoted to his life and work. And it was my first stop in the city.
The Hans Christian Andersen Museum is not an interactive or musical experience. There are some re-creations of his stories including The Princess and the Pea and, again, The Emperor’s New Clothes. In the summer, the author’s tales are performed in the museum’s beautiful gardens.
Don’t expect Disney. The collection is mainly about the man, rather than his manuscripts. You’ll come away with a sense of this rather vain Victorian, you’ll learn about Andersen’s ‘rags to riches’ story and how he viewed the world. The technological innovations of his lifetime clearly inspired the author. The Great Sea Serpentis a tale about how fish reacted to the laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866.
Next door to the museum is an austere and basic cottage, which replicates the interior of the simple house where the young Andersen lived from 2 years of age until his teens.
The cluster of streets around the museum is Odense’s quaint district. Most of the city has been constructed in the time since Andersen. Sadly, remains of Odense’s Viking settlement were removed in the 1930s.
The area has been inhabited for at least 4,000 years and you can meet a former resident in the foyer of the City Museum. The Koelbjerg Man, a skull unearthed from a nearby bog, has recently changed gender after test revealed that the he wasn’t the Koelbjerg Woman.
Odense is known as the city of museums but if you prefer nostalgia rather than more academic history, I’d strongly recommend The Time Collection. This pop culture museum is a long corridor with separate rooms representing different periods of the Twentieth century. Each lounge or bedroom is decorated with the fads and fashions from that decade. The museum includes a huge period prop store, often used by Danish moviemakers.
There’s more living history in the Danish Railway Museum, which offers a glimpse of how travel has changed over time. Inside their vast railway sheds filled with steam and diesel locomotives is an exhibition called ‘The Compartment of Dreams’. It recreates a golden era of railway travel with carriages from two separate trains – one is a sumptuous sleeper service. In contrast there’s the well-worn, more functional inter-rail service carriage. Both of the trains would have taken Danish travellers across Europe and to Britain via the Hook of Holland ferry.
There are two different Royal trains on display too. The most recent model’s stark and plain interior resembled a cheap chain hotel room, rather than the Queen of Denmark’s carriage.
Railways are a recent development and Odense originally grew up around the water. I strolled for a few minutes from the Railway Museum to reach the bars and cafes of the modern harbour that has being reclaimed from industrial use. There’s a large open-air pool lined with buildings that look like beach huts. A concrete tower, which resembles a grain a silo, has been decorated with a giant herring painting.
At the other side of the city centre the Odense River winds through parkland towards the city zoo. I took Morten Skytte’s relaxing, 45-minute boat ride, gliding under weeping willows and past massive waterside homes. On some trips, ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ appears on the riverbank and jumps onboard the boat to share stories.
Odense is on Funen, the island considered Denmark’s finest agricultural land. It’s renowned for its flowers and food. The City Museum marks that with a 10-foot tall sculpture of an island variety of apple.
Tine Gudrun Petersen is the city’s food authority. She blogs and organises some food festivals. If you click on the audio link at the bottom of this page, you’ll hear Tine talk about the city’s coolest restaurants and the annual festival that celebrates Funen’s famous crop, Asparagus. You can follow Tina’ s food events at SpisOdense.dk.
Mads Friis Nielsen is head chef and owner of Mmoks, a spacious, trendy and rather dark restaurant in Odense. He is known for his use of cuts of meat you would not normally find on restaurant menus. Chicken feet and pig ears were specials when I visited.
The city’s biggest event fills Odense with colour and fragrance each August. The city hosts a huge flower festival where entrants follow a theme for their displays and designs. Henrietta Rasmussen arranges the event. You can listen to Henrietta talk about the event if you click on the audio report link at the bottom.
At the end of the 19th century a group of Odense’s most prominent citizens decided that the city needed an impressive venue where people could get together and socialise. The First Hotel Grand was built and was quickly established as the centre of social life. In fact, if you were barred from the premises your life would be ruined. A local who was banned once launched a lawsuit because he felt his reputation had been damaged so much!
The 137-room hotel kindly accommodated me and I was pleased to see that it has retained a sense of style and grandeur. The hot and cold breakfast buffet choices are extensive, so you might have to use their fitness suite!
Or you could pedal off the excess pounds. Odense is flat and visitors are encouraged to rent a bike and access the city’s 540km of cycle paths. When you bike across the bridge that crosses the railway line, a digital display announces how many cyclists have passed that point so far that day. The city takes cycling seriously.
Odense offers a chance to experience the real Denmark and if you visit in Summer, expect to spend much time outdoors. In winter, you can immerse yourself in ‘hygge’, the Danish sense of cosiness, in the city’s beautifully lit and intimate bars and restaurants. There’s stacks of culture in the city’s many museums, too.
To reach Odense I flew to Copenhagen. There are plenty of low cost airlines offering the 2-hour flight from the UK starting from £26 one way. Then you catch the train for the 75-minute ride from the capital to Odense.
Listen to our radio report here: