A guide to Bornholm Island: Denmark’s favourite holiday getaway
Visiting Denmark’s ‘Sunshine Island’ Bornholm.
Denmark is known for a lot of things. But let’s face it: sunshine ain’t one of them.
Sure, most people know that when visiting the smallest of the trio of Scandinavian countries you’ll get to see firsthand a nation that prides itself on social consciousness, green and ecologically-oriented cities, and a massive bicycle culture plying the bridges and skirting the canals.
Denmark is also well known as home to quaint towns and villages that hearken back centuries and fairly ooze with cozy hygge culture, in addition to its world-class cosmopolitan cities, a stunningly gorgeous coastline and pristine wilderness areas.
But if there’s one thing most people don’t think about when it comes to this country, it would be an abundance of sunshine. Denmark is, after all, home to Hamlet’s gloomy Elsinore Castle, not to mention the fact that it juts into the North Sea, which isn’t exactly a welcoming name if you’re thinking of margaritas and suntanning. Denmark is even close enough to the Arctic Circle that it’s sometimes possible to see the northern lights, if the conditions are just right. But if you haven’t heard about Denmark’s sunny Bornholm Island, a favourite holiday getaway destination for generations of Danes, it’s high time you did.
Bornholm Island: A very Danish vacation spot, but with sunshine
The sunshine factor all by itself goes a long way toward explaining why Bornholm Island is such a popular holiday destination for Danish folks. In the summer months you can expect average high temperatures ranging from 64º to near 70º F (17.9º – 20.5º C), and average monthly hours of sunshine in the 250 – 300 range. And since it’s just a short ferry ride or plane trip away, Bornholm Island is an ideal nearby vacation spot for Copenhagen residents as well as visitors.
But what’s really great about Bornholm is not only the sunshine, but the way Danish culture is written into the very rocks of the island, right down to the way the Danish people respect the land. Not only does Bornholm Island have tremendous opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities in pristine wilderness areas, there are also great old castles and churches on the itinerary as well, in addition to a highly developed craft and artisan culture, especially when it comes to glassware, and even a Michelin-starred restaurant.
But unlike most wildly popular tourist destinations around the world, on Bornholm you’ll find very little in the way of monstrous hotels surrounded by acres upon acres of paved-over parking lots designed to help maximise profits — ironically at the expense of the very nature people flock there to enjoy. Development on the island is more in keeping with the Danish spirit of “less is more,” and most visitors seem to respect that.
So while Bornholm may be popular as a tourist destination, the overall spirit of the place fits in with the Danish ethos of respecting the natural world and keeping human impact at a minimum. Visitors enjoy a variety of tremendous wilderness areas, pristine beaches, and incredible mountain vistas respectfully, with very little of the tourist trap-style ugliness that beach and sunshine-heavy destinations often get, making it a great destination for the visitor to Denmark eager to learn everything about their host country. Here’s an overview of what makes Bornholm Island such a great place to visit.
First of all, where is Bornholm located?
Bornholm is located some distance from the central part of Denmark to the east in the Baltic Sea, just around the southern tip of Sweden, northeast of Germany. The island is actually so far to the east that it sits just to the north of the very furthest western bit of Poland.
Bornholm Island is a part of the larger Kingdom of Denmark, but is close enough to home to be considered part of the Capital Region of Denmark. Contrary to the initial impression many people get when they look at Denmark on a map, this nation as a whole is actually the largest of the three Scandinavian countries, but only if you count its extraterritorial holdings.
That is to say, the area of land and the set of over 400 islands we usually think of as the totality of Denmark—the bit you see jutting north of Germany and nearly touching Sweden across the Øresund strait on the edge of the Baltic Sea—that may be the heart of Denmark, true enough. But you can’t forget that massive Greenland is also nominally part of the country, as are the Faroe Islands, the results of Danish military adventures and governmental negotiations over the centuries, and must-see destinations in their own right.
Add Bornholm Island to that list of must-see places, especially if you’re planning to visit Denmark in summertime. But whereas the Faroe Islands are gaining popularity with the kind of traveler who seeks to capture the raw, wild spirit of those long-ago Vikings and fisher-folk who plied the grim waters of the far north, Bornholm offers an unexpected sunny respite from what is viewed as typical Scandinavian weather.
How many people live on Bornholm?
With just 39,632 or so permanent residents in a space of some 227 square miles (588 square km) Bornholm Island is a quiet spot boasting some of the the most mountainous areas in Denmark. You can find amazing craggy peaks as well as hidden white-sand beaches tucked away here and there, some of which even the locals don’t know about. What’s amazing is that this peace, beauty and serenity is still possible here even with some 600,000 annual visitors!
The history of Bornholm
But the island hasn’t always been thought of as a delightful getaway destination — for nearly 1,000 years Bornholm Island was a highly sought-after piece of real estate and it has proven to be the key to holding power in the region numerous times over the years. As with most places in Europe and Scandinavia, the history of Bornholm Island is one that’s fraught with war, political manoeuvring, external conflict and internal turmoil.
Given the strategic location of Bornholm, the powers-that-be understandably fought for control over the island for centuries, and possession of Bornholm changed hands frequently over the years. The continuing existence of the impressive Hammershus, an early 13th-century medieval fortress and the largest one in northern Europe from that period demonstrates the strategic importance of the island going back nearly 1,000 years.
Known in Old Norse as “Borgundarholm,” the island is thought to have been named for the words for “height” and “rock,” what with it being a rocky island that rose high up from the sea. (You gotta hand it to the ancients for their creativity when it came to naming places…)
Over the years it has also been called “Burgendaland,” and some scholars posit that the Burgundian people, a Germanic tribe that moved west following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and later settled in the Burgundy region of France, named the island because they spent some time there before moving on to what is France today.
Regardless of who named it and how it came to be called Bornholm Island, there is no doubt that possession of it has long been in dispute, almost since the birth of Denmark as a nation. Not long after the squabbling clans of the area finally put aside their differences and consolidated into the unified kingdom of Denmark in the 10th century, the crown faced an unlikely foe for control of Bornholm Island in the 12th and 13th centuries, battling against the powerful Holy See of Lund for possession.
By the mid-1100s, the kingdom of Denmark and the See of Lund had agreed to split possession of Bornholm Island, with the Archbishop of Lund taking control of three of the island’s four districts. But by 1250, the archbishop went so far as to build his own fortress there, and less than a decade later began a campaign to chase out the crown’s forces from the one remaining district he didn’t control. For the next 200 years, the church and Denmark battled for control of Bornholm.
By the 1600s, Denmark’s main opponent for control of the island had become the Kingdom of Sweden. In 1645 control of Bornholm was seized by Sweden, then ceded back to Denmark, then ceded back again to Sweden. All of this back and forth manoeuvring eventually resulted in a revolt by the islanders and the shooting of a Swedish commander, and the islanders themselves took control of Bornholm.
Finally, tired of all this seizing and ceding, a delegation of islanders went to Denmark’s King Frederick III and presented Bornholm Island as a gift to the Kingdom of Denmark, provided it never be given away again. Following the ratification of the Treaty of Copenhagen in 1660, that held true for nearly 300 years.
However, with the outbreak of World War II, Bornholm’s strategic location came into play once again. After Germany took control of Denmark, they posted a listening station on Bornholm and constructed a number of coastal fortifications meant to keep Swedish and Allied ships and subs out of German waters. By May, 1945 as defeat appeared imminent for the Nazis, the Soviet air command heavily bombarded Bornholm as the German garrison commander there refused to surrender to the Soviets, instead asking to surrender to the Americans. Over 800 civilian houses were destroyed, and over 3,000 homes were severely damaged.
By May 9, the Soviets had landed troops on Bornholm and defeated the remaining 12,000 German troops garrisoned there. Although the Soviets left Bornholm less than a year later in April of 1946, the subject of Bornholm Island nonetheless came up during the Cold War, as the Soviets stated unequivocally that any stationing of NATO troops on Bornholm—which was, after all, on the doorstep of then-Soviet controlled Poland—would be taken as an act of military aggression. Eventually an agreement was hammered out allowing Danish troops to be stationed there, but forbidding U.S. and other NATO forces to be stationed on Bornholm.
All roads lead to Rønne
These days, the kinds of forces you’ll see most likely see deployed to Bornholm Island are Danish holidaymakers and their families. And if you join them, you’re likely to first set foot on the island in the harbour of the city of Rønne. That’s where most ferries arrive and is home to a nearby airport, and visiting the town is a lovely way to get acquainted with Bornholm Island as a whole and the very Danish vibe here.
Rønne is Bornholm Island’s largest town, home to some 13,780 people, and often called a “garden town” as most of the city’s half-timbered houses hide sumptuous gardens full of lilacs, trees and birds behind their high walls. You can’t see much from the street but if you book a homestay or an Airbnb here, you’re likely to have a chance to enjoy a peaceful bit of country life right in the town.
The town is also home to St. Nicolas’ Church, the site of a much earlier church called Canute’s Church that dates back to around 1275, and the foundations of which are still visible at one corner of the modern structure.
The round churches of Bornholm
St. Nicolas’ Church is a good introduction to the churches of Bornholm, one of the attractions that the island is known for. Even though it isn’t one of the famous round churches or rundekirke that attracts many of the island’s visitors, it is of that era and impressive in its own right as an example of a medieval house of worship.
The round churches on the other hand served a dual purpose: their unique layout housed a chapel on the ground floor, while the round upper floor was designed as a sniper’s nest where defenders could pick off invading armies safe behind the walls, shooting through narrow apertures that made it difficult for attackers to successfully fire back.
The biggest and most famous of the rundekirke is the Østerlars Kirke dating back to at least 1150, and located about 20 minutes outside Rønne. It attracts some 120,000 visitors annually. But keep in mind that it’s only one of four round churches on Bornholm, and they’re all worth a visit.
And don’t forget to carve out at least half a day to spend visiting Hammershus, the impressive ruin of an 13th century fortress located 243 feet above the sea on the northern tip of Bornholm. This magnificent example of a medieval fortification—the largest one in Scandinavia in fact—is believed to have been built as a castle and royal residence for Denmark’s King Valdemar II, and to serve as a base of operations and staging area for the Danish Crusades. The wall stretches nearly half a mile around the castle grounds, and there is plenty to explore within and around the remaining structures.
The natural wonders of Bornholm Island
Visitors coming to Bornholm Island these days are sure to notice right away the reason why the “Sunshine Island”—aka solskinsøen in Danish —has another nickname: Klippeøen or “Rock Island.” The geology of the island is such that it has some of the most dramatic coasts in the entire country, with sharp rocky outcrops dropping off to stunning cliffs into the sea in the north. The landscape then rolls downhill to the south, dropping off to gorgeous pine forests and farmland in the island’s centre, and finally giving way to sandy beaches on Bornholm’s southern coast.
On the northernmost part of Bornholm Island you’ll find the Hammeren protected area, a dazzling promontory that extends into the Baltic with a 276-foot hill offering tremendous views and also home to the island’s biggest lake, a glacial lake or tarn called Hammersø.
Another natural wonder is the Jons Kapelcliffs, located on the western side of the island, a 135-foot bluff named after a hermit who lived there, and also the location of a beach from which you can see the caves where Kapel supposedly lived.
Another favourite rocky scenic overlook is called Helligdomsklipperne, or Sanctuary Rocks, a 75-foot high group of granite rocks looming over the sea on the northeast side of the island. If your fancy is rock climbing, there are also a couple of disused rock quarries that local rock climbers use regularly and which can be reached via tour companies who will also provide rental equipment as needed.
Granite quarries and… Bornholm diamonds?
But the granite core of Bornholm is not just about the cliffs in the north and the old quarries. The fact that Bornholm’s heart is largely made up of granite means that the island retains the heat of summer much longer than would otherwise be possible, with the stone core still giving off summer’s accumulated heat well into October. One result is a fascinating botanical phenomenon that is unique to the island, called the Bornholm Diamond.
Now, before you show up on Bornholm with a pickaxe and a dream of making millions, it’s not what you think. The Bornholm Diamond is a variety of common fig that is unique to this Baltic island’s particular geography and weather, and prized for its sweetness by early island settlers — especially considering that wild figs are normally only found in the Middle East and Western Asia.
And Bornholm Island isn’t all rocks. The centre of the island is home to Almindingen,Denmark’s third-largest forest covering 3,800 hectares or 9,400 acres of land. The forest, which was once common area for grazing cattle, was fenced in by the island’s forestry director in 1809 with the intent of building up the trees. And he succeeded: within 100 years it had become Denmark’s most forested region.
Almindingen is even home to European bison, seven of which were imported from a Polish forest to a 200-acre paddock, making it the first time in 2,500 years that Europe’s largest land mammal resided on Danish soil. Today this little herd has expanded to 14 members and draws upwards of 100,000 visitors every year.
But on to the beaches of Bornholm
But you came here to hear about beaches, not bison, and Bornholm Island has got them in spades. Starting with the island’s most famous, Dueodde Beach on Bornholm’s southernmost tip is a stunning, picturesque strip of bleach-white fine sand running several kilometres up both sides of the island alongside crystal-blue waters, resulting in a panorama that could compete with any in the Caribbean for beauty.
And sure, there is bound to be somewhat of a temperature differential between Bornholm Island in the Baltic Sea and the Bahamas in the Caribbean. However, Dueodde is nevertheless a favourite spot for Danish vacationers to dip their toes and a whole lot more into that chilly water — if you wind up at the end of the beach the locals call Jomfrugård, just be warned that it’s regarded as a clothing-optional area!
The Dueodde area is also home to Bornholm Island’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Kadeau. For a few weeks out of the year, the staff from the Copenhagen headquarters of the restaurant head to Bornholm and prepare exquisite dishes crafted from ingredients sourced at the restaurant’s own farm on the island. The chef also incorporates foraged ingredients found only on Bornholm, and the unique menu is only further heightened by the restaurant’s pristine white décor and wraparound windows overlooking the sea.
But the avid beachgoer is by no means restricted to just the ultra-popular Dueodde. In fact, for the intrepid traveler, it is said that if you set out south of the town of Hasleon the west coast of Bornholm, you can easily walk along some 30 miles of uninterrupted beachfront. That isn’t the only place where beaches can be found either, as Bornholm is well known for its hidden gems of beaches that are so far off the beaten track even many locals don’t know about them (or maybe they just don’t want to give away their secret faves…)
The arts and artisanal crafts on Bornholm
Another great draw for visitors to Bornholm Island is the exquisite glass work, ceramics, and other crafts the islanders have been known for for centuries. Specialising in a kind of glass work that is largely unique to the island, glassblowers’ workshops and their storefronts attract tons of visitors. Other craftspeople specialise in ceramics, as Bornholm has long been known for a prized type of clay that is used to craft everything from teacups to dolls to jewellery.
Bornholm Island has long been the refuge of artists as well as vacationers, and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts has its glass and ceramics programs located there, as well as a museum dedicated to local artists and artisans.
How to get to Bornholm
A Bornholm ferry launches from multiple cities in the area, but the closest one for reaching Bornholm Island is the ferry from Ystad in the south of Sweden, just an 80-minute ride away. Copenhagen to Bornholm travel by ferry is also quite common, and only takes 3 hours of a relaxing journey that also allows you to catch a unique view of the coastlines of Denmark and Sweden along the way. Bornholm Island also has an airport, and you can get there from Copenhagen or Aalburg in about 40 minutes.
Get yourself to Bornholm!
Bornholm Island is the perfect destination for the traveler who likes to carve his or her own path and who seeks out experiences that you don’t see every day on Instagram or Facebook. With epic outdoor climbing and trekking activities as well as pristine beaches and a gargantuan forest, there is much that Bornholm has to offer before you even start talking about the human history of the island. But once you add in the churches, the castle and other fortresses, the museums and arts, and the quaint, resilient towns, it becomes clear why Bornholm Island is a perennial favourite for Danish vacationers.
Whatever else you see while you’re on your visit to the mainland of Denmark, don’t miss the opportunity to check out nearby Bornholm Island, one of the most unique and historical places in not only Denmark but in Scandinavia and Europe as a whole!
Scandification: Discovering Scandinavia.
Scandification explores and celebrates the magic of Scandinavia. Stay tuned and we’ll bring the essence of Scandinavia to you.