Mighty Copenhagen dominates tourism in Denmark, but lovely Roskilde awaits nearby.
Admiration for all things Scandinavia is nothing new. But for many who haven’t visited Norway, Sweden or Denmark, a lot of people are like Jon Snow: We know nothing.
Or almost nothing.
Little would-be Princess Elsas around the globe and their parents, for example, probably think of Norway strictly in terms of the Disney hit film “Frozen.” Sweden is known for IKEA of course, and lately a world-wide love of all things Viking-related has been greatly boosted by the History Channel’s hit show about the lives and loves of the blond-haired, blue-eyed brutes who rampaged across Scandinavia and Europe 1,000 years ago.
But when it comes to tourism in Denmark, one place always seems to dominate the conversation even among those more familiar with Scandinavia: Copenhagen. You could imagine the rest of Denmark feeling like a neglected stepchild when it comes to the adoration that is piled on Copenhagen. And indeed, nothing against the Danish capital — it is a world-class city that is deserving of every bit of attention it gets.
But if you truly want to experience Denmark in all its glory, you should make sure to allot yourself sufficient time to get outside the capital and visit some of the smaller towns that are a bit off the beaten track. A great place to start on this adventure is in Roskilde.
Where is Roskilde?
Roskilde, Denmark is a town of about 50,000 people located just 30 minutes outside of Copenhagen, and is known for some famous Danish residents, both alive and dead. The Roskilde Cathedral is the final resting place of at least 38 former rulers of Denmark, and the town is well-known among both Danes and international fans of Formula 1 racing as the home to legendary drivers Kevin Magnussen and his father Jan Magnussen.
But it’s not just kings and race car drivers that make Roskilde such an appealing place to visit. The city is host to a stunning Viking Ship Museum, featuring the recovered remains of five Viking ships that were raised from the Roskilde fjord. Roskilde is also home to one of Scandinavia’s and even one of Europe’s most beloved music festivals, the appropriately-named Roskilde Festival. Each year over 100,000 people descend on this city to celebrate a variety of musical styles and a legendary festival atmosphere that celebrates not only music, but also “activism, arts, camps and freedom” in the words of the festival organizers.
What’s more, the city’s connection with its roots from both the Viking era as well as the Middle Ages means that there are plenty of wonderful historical sites to visit, drawing savvy tourists from all over the world to this often overlooked gem of a town. This guide will give you everything you need to know about visiting Roskilde, Denmark, including how to get there, things to do in Roskilde when you visit, and some insider tips for dining and other places to go.
From Vikings to Kings: A historical look at Roskilde
Roskilde has been around for over 1,000 years and is one of Denmark’s oldest cities. Indeed, step aside, Copenhagen, because for over 400 years, from the 11th century until 1443, Roskilde was actually the nation’s capital. Legend and historical texts that were written in the early Middle Ages have recorded that King Harald Bluetooth founded Roskilde around 980 A.D., and that he named it after a king of legend who is said to have lived in the area in the 6th century A.D. — Roskilde translates as “Ro’s spring,” and may be named after a legendary Danish monarch called King Roar.
The protected harbor at the foot of the fjord quickly made Roskilde a trading hub dating back to its earliest years as a Viking settlement. Harald Bluetooth is said to have built a wooden church near the natural harbor formed at the end of the Roskilde fjord as well as constructing royal lodgings for himself and his family. While no extant traces of these buildings have yet been discovered, archaeologists have found the remains of Viking ships in the fjord that date to at least 1030 A.D., lending support to that timeline.
Also supporting the belief that Roskilde was established that long ago is an early stone church, St. Jørgensbjerg, which was built in 1080 A.D. It’s a magnificent example of travertine limestone work and is still standing today as Denmark’s oldest preserved stone building. The remains of a wooden church were discovered beneath a later holy site, St. Ib’s Church dating to around 1290 A.D. Harald’s remains are said to have been buried in the wooden church that once stood on the site where the Roskilde Cathedral stands today.
Roskilde Cathedral, built in 1275 A.D., was and remains one of the most important early sites in the history of Roskilde and of Denmark as a whole, and it draws upwards of 125,000 visitors every year.
After King Canute made Roskilde a bishopric, influential Danish bishop Absalon ordered the construction of many other churches in the area and Roskilde quickly became the most important town in Denmark and was named the capital. By the mid-1500s, there were 12 churches and five separate monasteries in Roskilde alone. Coins were minted there between the 11th and 14th centuries, and a moat was constructed around the city to protect it from invaders. Indeed, the influence of the bishops who administered the Roskilde bishopric was so extensive that they owned vast swathes of land across Denmark, extending as far as the Øresund, where Copenhagen stands today.
The decline and rebirth of Roskilde
Roskilde flourished throughout the early part of the Middle Ages. However, with the advent of the Danish Reformation, the influence of the bishopric of Roskilde declined rapidly. Although monarchs continued to be buried at the Roskilde Cathedral, the power of almost all other religious institutions there all but disappeared.
The Dano-Swedish War decimated Denmark as a whole and culminated in the Treaty of Roskilde in 1658, compelling Denmark to surrender a third of its territory in order to achieve peace and hold onto the remainder of its land. Add to that a series of plagues striking Roskilde in 1710 and 1711, followed by a number of devastating fires and by the time the 19th century rolled around, Roskilde was but a shadow of its former powerful self.
The advent of the railroad connecting Roskilde to now-ascendant Copenhagen greatly buoyed the city’s fortunes, however, and a commercial and trade rebirth was soon in the works as a result. The harbor was extended in the 1870s drawing a number of industries to the area, including iron foundries, tobacco processing plants, and machine shops. While the larger and larger ships of the later era proved to be too big to use the Roskilde Harbor, industries like a liquor factory and slaughterhouse continued to thrive.
These days Roskilde has largely made the transition to a service-oriented economy, cashing in on the tourist trade and employing around 65 percent of the population. Roskilde University was established in 1972, and the city is home to a number of IT firms as well as a world-class sustainable energy and clean technology research facility.
Where in Denmark is Roskilde?
If you look at a map of Denmark, you’ll see Roskilde almost directly west of Copenhagen situated at the furthest southern end of the Roskilde fjord. This fjord is actually part of the Islefjord, so named because it cuts deeply into the Danish island of Zealand and separates parts of the land into several peninsulas.
Copenhagen to Roskilde from the city center of Copenhagen is just 22 miles or 35 km by car, and makes for a lovely day trip to take in the surrounding countryside. Alternatively, and even faster is to take advantage of the legendary Danish public transportation system. The train from Copenhagen Central train station is a mere 30 minute shot across to Roskilde Station, whereas the drive averages around 40 minutes or so depending on traffic.
Things to do in Roskilde
Roskilde brings in some US$200 million every year from tourism, so feeding, entertaining, housing and selling things to tourists is the lifeblood of the community. The highlights for most visitors looking to check out this historic town—apart from the Roskilde Festival—are the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum and the Roskilde Cathedral. These two sites alone bring in over 100,000 visitors each year, and are well worth the trip on their own.
But that’s not all Roskilde has to offer. Fans of shopping flock to Roskilde as well, and the town won Denmark’s award for Best Shopping City in 2012, quite a high achievement when you consider that Roskilde is a city of just 50,000 and is only Denmark’s 10th-largest city. Shoppers love Roskilde’s two main pedestrian streets, Algade and Skomagergade, which are packed with people year-round flocking to its cafes, restaurants and of course, shops.
The Roskilde Cathedral is undoubtedly the most important historic site in the city of Roskilde, and some consider it the most historically significant and important church in all of Denmark. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, deserving of that status largely due to the variety of building styles that can be seen in its construction as well as the sheer age of the building.
The cathedral is a marvel of architectural styles, incorporating both Romanesque and Gothic styles. At over 800 years old, the Roskilde Cathedral represents one of the oldest examples of a Gothic cathedral in Scandinavia to be constructed using brick. It set the example for other brick Gothic cathedrals, and copycats sprung up all over northern Europe following its construction during the 12th and 13th centuries.
As mentioned before, the Roskilde Cathedral is the final resting place for dozens of Danish monarchs, and since the 15th century it has been the main location for burial for royals in the country. Although the Roskilde Cathedral has had extensive additions and upgrades over the centuries, it nonetheless retains the ancient brickwork and other construction styles added over the centuries. The Roskilde Cathedral also continues to this day as a working church, and hosts a variety of concerts and performances over the course of the year.
Next to the Roskilde Cathedral you’ll find the impressive Roskilde Palace, a representation of Baroque style featuring yellow brick work and red tile roofing. The palace was built between 1733 and 1736, and was once home to a succession of Bishops of Roskilde.
When the English besieged Copenhagen in 1807, General Wellesley, who would later become the Duke of Wellington, made his headquarters there. Today the gorgeous building is home to the Museum of Contemporary Art, another must-see destination while visiting Roskilde.
The Roskilde Viking Ship Museum
Nearly as popular as the Roskilde Cathedral is for tourists interested in the history of Roskilde as well as that of Denmark, and even Scandinavia as a whole is the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum. The museum houses the timber remains of five Viking ships dating back to the 11th century, recovered from the fjord and lovingly pieced together on skeletons of steel to display the shape and scope of the ships as they existed during their useful lifetimes.
These ships are thought to have been part of a blockade that was deployed about 20 km north of Roskilde to fend off foreign attacks around the time that Roskilde was the capital of Denmark.
The ship display alone is well worth the price of admission, but there is so much more to do at the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum than simply looking at ships. The museum includes a working boatyard where boat builders specializing in crafting historically accurate, full-scale reconstructions of vessels of the Viking era are at work. These uniquely qualified guides are happy to explain the details of their work and explain just how amazing the accomplishments of the Vikings really were, given the limited technology to which they had access 1,000 years ago.
The Roskilde Viking Ship Museum also offers fun, hands-on activities for kids of all ages, such as boarding a recreation of a Viking ship that has been all decked out for battle. You can dress up like a Viking yourself, complete with wooden sword and shield, and actor/experts in Viking garb will teach you how to wield your mighty weapon just like Harald Bluetooth and his warriors did back in the day.
For those interested in slightly less violent Viking pastimes, there are also handicraft exhibitions like rope-making, metalwork and wood carving, and during the high season in summer, visitors can try their hand at minting coins in the style of the Vikings.
Other Roskilde museums of note
The Roskilde Convent was built on the site of former 13th-century priory built by Dominican friars, which later became a private residence known as Blackfriar’s Manor before being converted to a convent in 1699. It now houses 150 or so 16th to 18th-century paintings and period furniture.
Roskilde Museum is a local history museum housed in a former sugar refinery and a merchant’s residence dating to 1804. It features items from prehistory through the Viking era and Middle Ages right up to the modern day.
And now for something completely different: The Ragnarock Museum is an eclectic museum created by a pair of architecture firms, one Dutch and one Danish, to celebrate rock music and youth culture from the 1950s to the present day. The museum is designed not to be just a place to passively take in displays but also to augment communication between people of various backgrounds and cultures through the medium of music.
Restaurants in Roskilde
The area surrounding the Roskilde Cathedral in the city center is teeming with dining choices, as are the pedestrian shopping walkways of Algade and Skomagergade.
But of special interest especially to lovers of all things historic is Raadhuskælderen, a local favorite that is housed in a building that was built around 1430. The restaurant is located just 50 meters from the cathedral, and has outside seating in nice weather as well as a cozy atmosphere inside.
Another Roskilde restaurant offering a different vibe is Restaurant Snekken. It’s just a short distance from the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum, and features outdoor dining right at harbor side, offering simple cafe food during the day and more elaborate trattoria style meals for dinner.
Finally, for a truly unique dining experience while visiting Roskilde, consider checking out the M/S Sagafjord. This operational ferry dating from the 1950s sets out from the Roskilde Harbor for a dinner cruise up the Roskilde fjord, with dinner service presented in big pots and pans, designed to be shared with the entire table while taking in the amazing views of the fjord.
The Roskilde Festival
The Roskilde Festival is of course the biggest focus of music fans interested in visiting Roskilde, and with good reason. The festival enjoys a tremendous reputation and regularly books the biggest acts in the world, regularly competing with the legendary Glastonbury Festival for the title of the biggest music festival in the world.
But that wasn’t always the case!
The Roskilde Festival began in 1971, originally called the Sound Festival, created in response to and inspired by the success of the recent spate of youth and culture-shifting music festivals like Woodstock, the Newport Festival and the Isle of Wight Festival. Reports about that first outing for the Roskilde Festival crew, just a two-day affair that was plagued by difficulties, have said that the first festival was “characterized mainly by poor management but great enthusiasm.”
Fast-forward 50 years and the poor management part at the Roskilde Festival has largely been eradicated. In 2019, 180 acts played at the festival, including an eclectic list of performers ranging from Bob Dylan to Cardi B to The Cure to Robyn. Featuring six stages and three smaller venues, as well as an infamous “Naked Run” on the Saturday of the festival in which one woman and one man win a prize for being the first to run naked in a complete circuit around the campsite, the enthusiasm Roskilde Festival attendees bring seems undimmed even half a century later.
But Roskilde Festival organizers take great pride in making the festival about much more than simply dancing to great musical acts and partying. Every year the Roskilde Festival is given a theme relevant to the current state of the world and young people’s part in it. 2020’s theme of “Solidarity” in response to the various youth-led movements around the world on topics as diverse as combating gun violence and climate change is particularly inspiring:
“We have the largest ever generation of young people in the world, and they are set to inherit a world of division and climate catastrophes. We cannot let them fall back into hopelessness and despair. It’s our responsibility and ambition to support those who dare to act and to have the courage to make a change. Time is ripe to shine a light on community and the importance of solidarity — for the sake of our future.”
In addition to partnering with NGOs, educators, organizers and artists of all stripes, the Roskilde Festival also offers people an opportunity to attend an “activism school” so they can learn how to effect change in their own communities. The festival will also host workshops, debates, and art installations during the entirety of the festival, truly making it about so much more than just music.
If you go to the Roskilde Festival
Keep in mind that the population of the town of Roskilde effectively triples during the festival’s run, as over 100,000 people descend on the area, so making your arrangements, getting your tickets, and getting there early is key. The festival has some 80 hectares of campground available, but encroaching gravel pits nearby have reduced the availability of prime spots. While the campground opens on the Sunday before the festival begins, in recent years enthusiastic attendees have begun lining up to get a spot days before that.
One great way to attend the festival and be more than simply an audience member is to volunteer. The Roskilde Festival organization is a non-profit, and each year some 30,000 volunteers help build stages, provide security support, staff the festival’s stalls and events and much more. Learn more about volunteering at the festival, and everything else you need to know about the Roskilde Festival here.
Another claim to fame for Roskilde is Formula 1 race car driver Kevin Magnussen. He was born in Roskilde in 1992 and currently races for the Haas F1 team. He got his start in karting, a kind of racing that involves open wheeled go-kart or “shifter kart” vehicles, a common starting point for drivers interested in Formula 1 racing. Soon enough he moved up to Formula Ford cars, the next level of racing vehicle on the Formula 1 learning curve before landing on the McLaren team for the 2014 season. Magnussen then managed to become only the second Danish driver to take a points-scoring finish, and the first driver since 2007 to finish in the top three in his F1 debut.
But it’s little wonder that Kevin Magnussen has had such a spectacular career; his father, Jan Magnussen is also a professional driver, having competed in NASCAR, CART, the FIA Formula One World Championship, and 24 Hours of Le Mans. These days Kevin Magnussen makes his home in Dubai, but he and his father—whom Kevin has called his “first hero”—are still much beloved in Roskilde.
How do you get to Roskilde?
As mentioned previously, Roskilde is just 34 km (22 miles) from Copenhagen, easily accessible by car or public transport in about 30 minutes. Arriving at Roskilde Station by the RE train from the Norreport or Copenhagen Central train station puts you right in the heart of Roskilde city center, just an easy 11-minute walk from the Roskilde Cathedral along the pedestrian shopping area along Algade St. If you drive to Roskilde from Copenhagen, your most direct route from the city center is to take O2 to Route 21. Keep in mind that depending on traffic and the time of day it could take significantly longer than the average 30 minute train ride.
Visit Roskilde today
With so much to offer, it’s no wonder that early Danish rulers made Roskilde the capital of their fledgling nation. And while Roskilde these days can’t compete with the size of Copenhagen, at the very least it is well worth spending a day exploring this nearby gem of a city while you’re visiting Denmark!
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