Is this Danish city the fairy-tale capital of the world?

Hans Christian Andersen’s home city of Odense is creating a tribute to history and imagination.

A mural of writer Hans Christian Andersen, by artist Don John, decorates a house on Bangs Boder Street in Odense, Denmark.
Photograph by Juliette Robert, HAYTHAM-REA/Redux

Once upon a time, Hans Christian Andersen penned stories to set children dreaming.

His most famous tales—“The Little Mermaid,” “Thumbelina,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and “The Ugly Duckling”—continue to cast a spell on stage and screen, long after they were written in the 19th century. In Frozen, the film adaptation of Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” it’s hardly a coincidence that the main characters—Hans, Kristoff, Anna, Sven—echo his name.

Now there’s a new way to appreciate his genre-defining stories. Following years of ambitious development, a $64 million museum is opening in Andersen’s home city of Odense, Denmark. The attraction, as the museum’s creative director Henrik Lübker puts it, is not an epitaph for Andersen’s bygone era, but “an homage to the ever relevant and contemporary world of the fairy tale.”

Opening June 30, H.C. Andersen’s Hus, designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, stages the author’s fairy tales through a Willy Wonka-like series of complex architectural, sound, and light installations both inside and out. “The fairy-tale world isn’t linear, it’s a curve,” says Lübker. “It’s about hiding things from you, and that’s how the museum is presented, through secret spaces and curves to keep you guessing."

In one installation that recalls the Little Mermaid’s yearning to be part of the world above, visitors look up through a transparent water basin to view the sky. On the museum’s uppermost floor, families can create magic potions, perform puppet theater, build a swan nest, or get a wig fitted by an in-character barber.

But in many ways, what is on display is irrelevant because the museum’s true ambition is to instill belief in the power of imagination. “Fairy tales open up the possibility of transformation in the real world of the reader,” says Dame Marina Warner, a novelist, mythographer, and current president of the Royal Society of Literature. “Bad things happen, naturally, but this is always overcome. There’s a constellation of encouragement in the very fiber of the fairy tale.”

(Fairy tales are much older than you think.)

A city of legend

Born in 1805, Andersen grew up in Odense, two hours west of Copenhagen, and its streets inspired his greatest works. It’s hard to cross a square or attend a festival in Denmark's third largest city without having your imagination piqued. It is the perfect expression of a make-believe city, with witch’s-hat steeples, crooked streets, pastel-colored townhouses, royal gardens, and a snow-white palace.

The story of Odense, located on Fyn Island, reads like a twisted Nordic fairy tale. According to legend, the Viking-era city was home to Odin, the mythological god of wisdom, war, poetry, and magic; its ramparts lined riverbanks to defend the city against coastal invaders. The bones of these forts lie buried beneath the city, as do the remains of Denmark’s last Viking king, Canute IV, who was murdered in the city’s St. Alban’s Church in the 11th century. The allure here is scattered Viking remnants and storybook heritage, not cutting-edge Danish design or New Nordic cuisine.

(Ancient DNA reveals the true genetic diversity of Vikings.)

Follow the cobbled streets of Andersen’s upbringing, from his dandelion-yellow childhood home on Munkemøllestræde to the riverbank, and you’ll discover Eventyrhaven (literally, the Fairytale Garden), with trimmed hedgerows, pergolas, and bridges. Nearby, a fairy-tale sculpture trail inspired by Andersen starts with a bronze of the writer by the Odense River, before winding past sculptures of a paper boat, rainbow-colored butterflies, wild swans, a sea horse, shepherdess, chimney sweep, and darning needle to a petite mermaid. In one sense, the city acts as an atlas of Andersen’s imaginary characters. 

For visitors, H.C. Andersen’s Hus serves as a capstone to this literary map, a project launched when the Odense city council decided to adopt a far-reaching plan to redevelop the city center. What they wanted was an opportunity not only to rethink the area surrounding Andersen’s birthplace, but also to posit the city as a world fairy-tale capital.

How does Odense and a tiny kingdom like Denmark make such a case? The answer lies in its citizens’ storytelling tradition and obsession with hygge.

(The Norwegian concept of ‘friluftsliv’ is all about getting outdoors.)

Enduring influence

The Danish cultural concept of hygge has long been intrinsic to the nation’s psyche. But it’s caught on as a lifestyle trend and become a peculiar marriage of cultural tropes to promote coziness and mindfulness—lighting candles, cuddling up with a cup of cocoa, or curling up by the fireside with a book. According to Professor Lasse Horne Kjældgaard, the head of the Hans Christian Andersen Centre in Odense, Andersen is more responsible for the idea of hygge than even many Danes realize.

“Fairy tales are designed to be read aloud by the fire in a family setting, and the tradition took off in Denmark in the 1830s,” says Kjældgaard. “Those were dire years in our history as we were on the wrong side of the Napoleonic Wars, so afterwards there was a tendency to look inward and focus on family life, rather than outwards to the rest of the world.”

As Kjældgaard puts it, Andersen wrote many of his most-read fairy tales during this time, subconsciously becoming a driving force in forging hygge’s origins. “The irony, of course,” Kjældgaard says, “is his text is often scary and full of ‘un-hygge’!”

(Brothers Grimm fairy tales were never meant for children.)

Kjældgaard, who researches Andersen’s influence around the world, says the writer is also a surprising cultural touchstone in China. “He was one of Mao Zedong’s favorite authors and remains a staple of the Chinese syllabus,” he says.

One academic theory claims that tales such as “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “The Little Match Girl” were embraced by the ruling Communist Party of China as an indictment of capitalist society. “In some way, that helps explain why Odense sees an influx of fairy tale-hunting Chinese visitors every year,” says Kjældgaard.

Not every country is blessed with a landscape suitable for populating with fairy-tale characters, but Denmark is one such place. Travelers can encounter the many seams of Andersen’s tall tales, from the heather-clad dunes of Skagen to the deer-filled oak woods of Jægersborg Dyrehave. In the countryside you can find Gisselfeld Kloster, the royal estate that galvanized the idea for “The Ugly Duckling,” and the fossil-rich cliffs of Stevns Klint, where Andersen wrote “The Elf Mound.”

Look for Andersen, too, when visiting Copenhagen’s Nyhavn Canal (where the writer once lived), Tivoli Gardens (the inspiration for “The Nightingale”), and the rock-perched figurine of the Little Mermaid on Langelinie promenade.

Back on the writer’s home turf, Fyn is home to some 123 castles and manors, including 450-year-old Egeskov Castle, an Andersen favorite because of its geometric hedge mazes.

(This country has the most castles in Europe.)

“If you were making a map of the world, not with political borders or geographic boundaries, but to represent fairy-tale tradition, there would be a huge contour around Scandinavia with Odense at the center,” says Warner.

Andersen’s fairy tales may be more important than ever. “Children have so many issues to deal with—from political oppression to climate change to domestic violence—and fairy tales help them hold out hope,” Warner says. “That’s the pillar of the fairy-tale spirit and why they, and Hans Christian Andersen, will continue to endure.”

Mike MacEacheran is a travel writer based in Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

The Disney film Frozen was adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen.” The Walt Disney Company is the majority owner of National Geographic Partners.

Read This Next

Planet circling a burned-out star offers a glimpse at the solar system's fate
This 50-year project is tracking the Cascades' melting glaciers
The Peruvian Amazon's largest wildlife market is back in business

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet