I first heard about the town of Tisvildeleje from a Danish friend who has an eye for design and light. A photographer, the friend raved about the endless beaches of North Sealand; the salty-sweet, charcoal-hued, licorice ice cream; the offbeat flea markets studded with Danish antique treasures; and a certain pop-up restaurant from the chefs behind the Michelin-starred Kadeau, in Copenhagen.
“Tisvildeleje is the Hamptons of Denmark,” she told me. So the next time I was in Copenhagen, I took my family on a detour to Tisvildeleje. An easy 45-minute drive through the outskirts of the city and miles of beautiful farmland brought us to a town at the end of the road.
We had rented an Airbnb— a guesthouse cottage just off the main street—and immediately went to pick up supplies at the market across the way. As a lifelong New Englander, I was already feeling an affinity with what seemed like a historic Vermont village on the sea.
The family-owned store was filled with practical, quirky items, from potted plants and local artisanal spirits to chocolate-covered licorice and organic beef tenderloin. After dropping off our groceries, we wandered down the main street.
Lined with intimate restaurants, a bakery, and tiny boutiques, like Rastablanche, which sells bohemian caftans, and No17 Limited, a Nordic design shop, the street ends about a half mile down a hill at the beach. Small lanes, some of them of packed earth and not wider than a walking path, branch off from the main road and are dotted with discreet thatched-roof cottages half obscured by wild rose bushes and blossoming fruit trees.
On that first walk through town, most of the people we passed seemed to be Danish, making Tisvildeleje feel like an insider secret. This impression was confirmed by Alexander Kølpin, a former principal dancer for the Royal Danish Ballet and the owner of the town’s two most stylish (and only) hotels: the Tisvildeleje Strandhotel (rooms from $120) and the Helenekilde Badehotel (rooms from $215). (He is also behind Copenhagen’s Hotel Sanders.)
The former, perched by the main street, feels like a rambling beach house, its rooms decorated in vintage whitewashed furniture; the latter, like a grand, 19th-century Nantucket vacation home, has a formal lawn and garden overlooking the sea and cozy, light-filled reading nooks.
“For years Tisvildeleje was a place where generations of old Danish families had their summerhouses,” said Kølpin. “You only come here if you know about it, because you can’t just pass through. There’s no harbor or dock, so boats can’t anchor. There are just fishing boats drawn up on the sand.”
Despite efforts to keep it secret, Tisvildeleje has recently been discovered by the next generation of in-the-know Danes. Everyone credits Musik i Lejet, a three-day festival that takes place every July. When it started in 2008 the festival hosted a few hundred guests; it now attracts tens of thousands.
“There’s a laid-back, hippie vibe,” said Thorvald Stigsen, owner of the newly opened Tisvilde Kro, a restaurant serving dishes like duck with beets or quail egg topped with caviar on fermented cucumber. Stigsen has lived in Tisvildeleje on and off for more than two decades.
A few years ago he sold a travel-related start-up to Kayak.com and invested the profits in buying buildings, including an iconic villa that now houses his excellent seasonal restaurant with a big, welcoming terrace. From Tisvildeleje one is ideally situated to explore the rest of the northern coastline, often described as the Danish Riviera.
Everyone shared a tip with us. My friend the photographer suggested we have lunch at Gilleleje Havn and check out the kid’s clothing shop My & Nohr in the little harbor town of Gilleleje. Kølpin insisted we ride bikes along the beach into the Tisvilde Hegn forest, but it rained on the day we had planned to go.
Instead, we took the train to the next village and walked a quarter-mile to the Rabarbergaarden, an organic farm with a restaurant. Sitting at a table in the sun, looking out over vegetable gardens and fields, I remembered what Stigsen had said to me when he described Tisvildeleje: “It’s cool to ride your grandma’s bike around here, but it’s lame to drive a flashy car. That’s what I love about it.”