Helsingør’s prosperity lies in its location: it is situated on the northeastern tip of the island of Zealand, at the narrowest point of the Øresund (4 km), a strait which forms the Danish-Swedish border and connects the Baltic Sea with the North Sea. The town was a center of international shipping in the 1400s, when the Polish king Erik of Pomerania (1381 or 1382 – 1459) imposed a transit fee on every ship wishing to enter or leave the Baltic Sea. This meant significant tax revenues for the town.
Erik of Pomerania was the ruler of the Kalmar Union from 1397 until 1439. The Kalmar Union was an alliance of Denmark, Norway and Sweden between 1397 and 1523, uniting them under a common monarch while retaining their boundaries and following their own laws and policies. The main goal of the union was to counterbalance the dominance of the Hanseatic League, an influential medieval trade and defence association of merchant guilds and market towns in northern Europe. After his dethronement in 1439, Erik of Pomerania moved to the Swedish island of Gotland. Here, he became a pirate and is referred to as “the last Baltic Viking”.
In 1875, the taxation of ships was abolished, causing a temporary economic decline in the town’s prosperity.
Today, most people visit Helsingør to see Kronborg Slot [Kronborg Castle]. It was originally built by Erik of Pomerania in 1420. He built a strong fortress controlling the Øresund to help enforce his taxation demands. The castle got its current name in 1585, when it was converted into a magnificent Renaissance castle by King Frederick II (reign: 1559-1588). In 1629, due to the momentary carelessness of two workers, much of the castle went up in flames. King Christian IV (reign: 1588-1648) made great efforts to restore the castle, and by 1639 its exterior was magnificent again, but the interior had never fully regained its former glory.
Among the castle’s many features are the Great Hall, which was once the longest hall in Northern Europe, the ‘Lille Sal’ [Small Room] with seven tapestries depicting various Danish kings and their achievements, and the Chapel. The castle’s dungeon guards the dream of the sleeping statue of a Viking chieftain, Holger Danske. According to legend, he will wake up if Denmark finds itself in peril.
The castle was used by William Shakespeare as the setting for one of his best-known plays, ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ (1601), although he probably never visited it. The play depicts Prince Hamlet and his revenge against his uncle, who killed his father to seize his throne and marry his mother. Shakespeare’s inspiration for the story of the fictional Danish prince may have been the legend of Amleth, a Viking king whose story was recounted in the Gesta Danorum [Danish History] by the 13th-century Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus. Hamlet and other works by Shakespeare are performed at the Shakespeare Festival, which is held in the castle every summer.
Located in a dry dock next to the castle, the M/S Museet for Søfart [Maritime Museum] has exhibits relating to the Danish maritime history and overseas trade. A bit further from the castle, Marienlyst Slot [Marienlyst Castle] is the first palace built in the town (1587) and was used by Frederik II. The current Neo-Classical manor house is the result of extensive remodeling work carried out in the 18th century. The building currently houses a hotel and a museum with collections including paintings and silverware. In the garden there is a mound known as ‘Hamlet’s Tomb’ which offers great views of the Øresund.
The Helsingør Bymuseum [Town Museum] is housed in a former sailors’ hospital, built in 1516 by the monks of the neighboring monastery. Some of the instruments the monks once used for brain surgery in the hospital are on display along with other exhibits relating to the town’s past, including a detailed model of 19th-century Helsingør. The Øresundakvariet [Øresund Aquarium] contains many species taken from the waters of the strait as well as a collection of tropical fish from around the world.
The finest religious buildings in the town include the Sankt Olai Kirke [St Olaf’s Church] and the Karmeliterklost eret Sankt Mariæ Kirke [Carmelite Monastery and St. Mary’s Church]. The red-brick Sankt Olai Kirke is a Gothic cathedral built in 1559 on the site of a 13th-century church. Its most precious possessions include a Gothic crucifix, a Renaissance pulpit and a carved wooden altar. The church also has a number of elaborate tombstones commemorating the wealthy merchants and distinguished citizens of the town. In a ceiling vault, above a small organ, hangs a cannonball fired by the British fleet on Helsingør, three days before the Battle of København (1801). The Gothic building of the Karmeliterklost eret Sankt Mariæ Kirke is one of the best-preserved medieval monasteries in Scandinavia. Among its many features are the chapterhouse with its barrel vault and the ‘Bird Room’ decorated with ornithological frescoes. The church is decorated with rather eclectic 15th-century frescoes. Christian II’s mistress, Dyveke, who died in 1517, is believed to be buried in the grounds.