Surrounded by some of the loveliest countryside Denmark has to offer, relaxed Billund enjoys a truly enviable setting. On its doorstep sit world-famous Legoland, UNESCO-listed Royal Jelling and a bevy of quaint towns, while the centre features a modernist church and attractive parkland as well as a clutch of museums and shops, discovers Ruth Styles.
Take an early morning stroll around the Skulpturpark Billund, a pretty 1.3-kilometre stretch of green parkland that sits between the cafés of the central boulevards and the cluster of hotels around Legoland. Renovated in 2011, the park has 17 permanent sculptures including Jens Galschiøt's elegant Little Prince and Harvey Martin’s The Star Animal. Take in the view next to Jeppe Hein's 3-Dimensional Circle, which sits beside the Billund stream and reflects the ripples of light flickering off the water.
Billund Kirke (Hans Jensensvej 4, 7676 7601) is the city's distinctive hunk of a church that was erected in 1973. Aptly perhaps for a town so closely associated with Lego, its church resembles a gigantic brick, dominated by straight lines and Le Corbusier-style modernist architecture. The structure may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is also part of cultural hub the Billund Centre, which includes a library and a concert hall, offers information on local history and has a café that serves a decent brew and slice of cake. The Billund Centre is open from 8am-10pm daily.
Hire a car and drive 30 minutes to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Royal Jelling (Gormsgade 23, 4120 6331). Jelling offers an insight into Denmark's Viking past with its runic standing stones and burial mounds. Raised by the Viking king Gorm and his son Harald Bluetooth, the stones celebrate the latter's conquest of Norway and Denmark, as well as his conversion of the two to Christianity. A later medieval church stands close by, and there’s a huge museum and visitor centre to fill in any gaps in your knowledge. If you feel up to travelling further afield, it's a 45-kilometre drive from Billund to the picturesque town of Kolding. Here you will find a compact city centre enlivened with rows of brightly coloured houses painted in chic cream or buttercup yellow as well as a fine moated castle, the Koldinghus (Markdanersgade 11, 7633 8100). Slick Danish design and creativity is championed at Trapholt (Æblehaven 23, 7630 0530). Its café does the best brunch in South Jutland, from fluffy American pancakes to sesame-baked salmon, and has spectacular views over Kolding Fjord.
Legoland (Nordmarksvej 9, 7533 1333) is quite literally what made Billund. While no longer exclusive to Denmark (there are outposts in London and Manchester), the popular attraction is the reason why the city is the top spot for tourists outside of the capital. A whopping 65 million colourful tiny Lego bricks were used to create this miniature world where visitors can see major global landmarks as well as classic Copenhagen scenes – there’s a particularly impressive intricate reconstruction of colourful Nyhavn Harbour. This year, 2015, sees the arrival of the biggest Lego model in the world: a 20-tonne model of Luke Skywalker’s X-wing Starfighter that stands three metres tall. There is also a rainbow selection of Lego rides to keep all ages entertained for hours.
If you've had your fill of exuberant rides and tiny coloured bricks, change the vibe somewhat with an excursion to the historical town of Ribe. The journey takes just under an hour, but Denmark's oldest town is worth the jaunt with its cobbled lanes, Viking history, attractive architecture and laid-back vibe. The town is also situated in easy reach of Wadden Sea National Park's sprawling scenic tidal flat filled with birdlife and soul-soothing coastal views – an ideal spot for an early evening picnic in the sun.
Behind pretty Ribe's quaint crooked buildings lies a definite mischievous streak, and, as a result, a pint (or cocktail) or two with the locals is a treat not to be missed. Tuck into some of the local Ribe Beer at Café Strygejernet (Dagmarsgade 1, 7541 1351), a cosy little watering hole with outdoor seating and prices that (by Danish standards) won’t break the bank.
Before you succumb fully to the evenings revels though, look out for the Ribe Night Watchman who from 1 May until 15 September sings his way through the city streets each evening, passing on local lore as he goes. He makes his way through town at 8pm; between 1 June and 31 August he can be seen at both 8pm and 10pm. When hunger strikes, get a taste of Ribe’s Viking past at Vægterkælderen (Torvet 1, 7542 0033) where you'll find convivial company and a smorgasbord of traditional dishes served up mezze style. Just as lovely is Sælhunden (Skibbroen 13, 7542 0946), which boasts a riverfront setting next to the Johanne Dan boat and specialises in fish served in a medley of Danish guises. For a more upmarket experience, try Kolvig (Mellemdammen 13, 7541 0488), a chic dining spot located in what was once a chicory merchant’s house and where you’ll find local produce whipped into good enough shape to please even the fussiest of eaters.
If the drive back to Billund feels a bit too much – or you've indulged in a few Ribe beers – spend a cosy night in Den Gamle Arrest (Torvet 11, 7542 3700), which, despite the name and its past as a prison, houses 11 cosy bedrooms, nearly all of which have views of the cathedral, and one stylish boutique. If you do return to Billund, take a detour to the Hotel Svanen (Nordmarksvej 8, 7533 2833) for a nightcap. Conveniently located in the city centre, Svanen’s restaurant, No.8, offers a chic setting for a drink as well as a terrace, while the lobby bar is a cosy, comfortable alternative.