It is possible you’re not familiar with the name Hans Christian Andersen (H.C. Andersen), but you likely know his work. He was a poet, playwright, novelist and author of many fairy tales such as the Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and The Princess and the Pea. He wrote for adults and children alike, but the childrens’ fairytales are what have become classics. His work has inspired ballets, plays and movies. We all know Disney’s Little Mermaid, don’t we? 

The story of his life plays out like a fairytale itself. In fact, he coined this phrase, which is a peek into his thoughts…

Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale.  
Hans Christian Andersen

It was a bright reflection on life for someone who came from very humble beginnings. 

Born in Odense, Denmark, in 1805, his parents were poor and he didn’t receive much education. However, his father introduced him to literature and theater at a young age which sparked his creativity. He heard tales from the locals, and learned how to tell a story that everyone wanted to listen to. He was very observant, an avid reader, and noted details from his surroundings that would be later woven into his stories. He had a thirst for information that he was able to turn into fantasy for the enjoyment of others. 

At the age of 14, H. C. Andersen left Odense for Copenhagen to try to make it in the Royal Theater, but did not succeed as a performer for lack of skill. He decided to turn to writing, and although his head was swirling with wonderful ideas, several works he submitted to the Theater were rejected due to his poor grammar and writing skills. As good fortune would have it, members of the Theater Board recognized his raw creative talent and recommended that he apply for free education through Denmark’s Royal Foundation. He was accepted, was able to attend school and even received money toward room and board. This was his turning point, and a solid foundation for his future. He gained the skills necessary for success as a writer, and friendships from this period endured. Despite his initial failure at the Royal Theater, he attended performances for the rest of his life. The Danish government declared H. C. Andersen a National Treasure a few years before he died, on August 4, 1875.

His poor lifestyle growing up was an influence and this theme is found throughout his storytelling. Scandinavian, German and Greek stories, stories from his many travels throughout Denmark and Europe, and his life’s events, sparked his imagination. Some of his work even has autobiographical elements, specifically The Ugly Duckling, where both the duckling and H.C. Andersen faced and overcame hardship. Not far from Copenhagen, the historic Gisselfeld Monastery with beautiful grounds of forests, parks, and gardens was his inspiration for the tale’s setting. 

The magical atmosphere of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens amusement park inspired The Nightingale, and Denmark’s castles were catalysts for The Princess and the Pea and The Little Matchgirl

Today when visiting Denmark, it’s easy to explore his fairytale world and follow in his footsteps. 

His birthplace, the city of Odense, is located just 2 hours west of Copenhagen. A visit can be done as a day trip by car or train, or a longer stay. His childhood home, a well-preserved traditional Danish half-timber house, is furnished as it would have been when he lived there over 200 years ago. What was once a sparse courtyard behind the house where he spent countless hours as a young boy, is now a beautiful garden blooming with flowers and plants which he wrote about in his stories.

Nearby, the H. C. Andersen House and Garden takes visitors on an exploration of his works through their senses with art, hands on experiences, music, light, smell, and architecture. It houses a Children’s Cultural Center, a Fairy Tale Land which allows for dress up and prop play, making paper cutouts, drawing and painting. In the garden, winding paths, flowers, hedges, and trees are tranquil surroundings to reflect, imagine, and enjoy just as H.C. Andersen would.

Copenhagen was his home for most of his life, so why not begin with a visit to the Hans Christian Experience? It’s a whimsical journey where his fairytales come to life, with displays dedicated to the author, his life, and his works. Conveniently located on City Hall Square, it isn’t far from Tivoli Gardens. 

The magnificent Royal Danish Theater, where he spent so much time and which had such an impact on his life, stands grandly on Kongen Nytorv square in the center of the city. It’s the oldest theater in Copenhagen, dating to 1748, now home to Royal Danish Ballet. Scheduled tours are available (only in Danish), and the cafe in the beautiful foyer offers light fare you can enjoy while overlooking the square.

Just a stone’s throw from Kongens Nytorv square is the Nyhavn harbor area, the neighborhood in which H.C. Andersen lived. The historic buildings have been preserved, and today it’s a lively area of bars, restaurants, specialty shops, sightseeing and pleasure boats. Stroll the cobblestone streets, explore, and perhaps stop for coffee or a beer (øl). In Nyhavn you literally will be in his footsteps! 

Tributes to H. C. Andersen and his work can be found all over Copenhagen. Perhaps most famous is the statue of the Little Mermaid, sitting on a rock in the harbor. Thousands of visitors stop by each year, and she has become an unofficial symbol of Copenhagen. One of the city’s main roads is named H. C. Andersen Boulevard, which very appropriately runs right next to Tivoli Gardens. 

The city features two statues of him – one is located on the Boulevard, the other in The King’s Garden next to Rosenborg Palace. This is Denmark’s oldest royal garden, dating back to the 1600s, and is still a popular place for locals to enjoy. Definitely take time to tour the palace, and spend some time in the garden.

H.C. Andersen is buried in Assistens Kirkegård cemetery in Copenhagen, not far from the heart of the city. It’s Denmark’s most famous burial ground, and a beautiful and interesting place to visit. Audio guides in English are available with stories which take you through history.

He was passionate about his craft, and his success was a combination of his talent, perseverance, and the support of his friends and acquaintances. Children and adults all over the world are beneficiaries of H. C. Andersen’s legacy, with his tales translated into over 125 languages.

“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.”
– Hans Christian Andersen


Photo Credits (in order of appearance): Odense-Autumn: ©Andreas Bastiansen – Destination Fyn; Odense-Paaskestraede: ©VisitOdense; Odense-HC-Andersen-Statue: ©Kim Wyon; Tivoli Gardens: ©Malin Poppy Darcy Mörner, Tivoli in Winter: ©Kim Wyon, and Copenhagen-tivoli-gardens: ©Malin Poppy Darcy Mörner.


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