The Beautiful Island of Bornholm In the Off-season

by Sonja Kent

This is a how-to guide for a weekend, off-season trip to the gorgeous, Danish island of Bornholm.  With a population of only 41,303 and an area of 588 square kilometers, the small island is often referred to as the jewel of the Baltic Sea.  Tourism is vital to the local economy, but the official tourist season only begins in May.  With it comes regular bus schedules, longer hours at tourist attractions, and people. But, if the tourist season is not a possibility, Bornholm still has a lot to offer.

Svanemollen Windmill, Svaneke, Bornholm
Svanemollen Windmill, Svaneke, Bornholm. Photo by Sonja Kent

Upon arrival in the port of Rønne, the first recommendation is to find a method of transportation. Given that it is, for example, the month of April, many of the bus routes are only in operation for limited hours during the day or not at all. The weather is reasonable enough that a bicycle is the most reliable mode of transportation as well as the best way to experience the island. Bornholm itself is made for cycling. The island has a network of over 230 kilometers of bicycle tracks with marked routes for all cycling abilities.

At the tourist center by the harbor, the owner of the bike rental store next door may have to be personally called in. Never fear though, residents of the island are very close and there is definitely a community feel. This trust extends to tourists and you may be told to simply grab one of the bikes out front and pay for it later at the conclusion of your stay. It’s an island; you cannot stray too far with your borrowed bicycle.

As recommended by the tourism office, the best itinerary for a complete weekend experience involves a lot of cycling. The bike trails are the most scenic routes, but you may ride on the highways too.  It’s faster and there simply is not enough traffic for this to be a hazard.

Friday: Rønne – Hammerhus – Rønne

The number one site to see on the island is Hammerhus. The 20 kilometer scenic bike path up the coast alternates between pavement and dirt roads and the rolling hills are a bit of a challenge in some places, but the rugged coastal cliffs and quaint waterfront villages are stunning. The scenery ranges from jagged rock fronts to green forests and is a fantastic ride.

As you near Hammerhus, the rocky, hilly terrain seems to envelope the bike path until you emerge in a field and overlooking the ruins of the medieval fortification still powerfully situated on a hill by sea. After two hours of cycling and the fact that it is outside of tourist season, go directly to the visitor center. They close at 3pm and if you did not pack a snack (which is greatly recommended), you can coax the owner into producing one last Frankfurt with the classic spicy, Danish mayonnaise for nourishment. Then, explore the ruins of the ancient castle of Hammerhus. The view from the protective wall surrounding the fortification is stunning. The rocky coastline stretches in both directions with only the echoes of waves crashing into the rocks below.

Both at the fortress and all along the return ride, there are various locations to hike down the steep cliff face to the water which is well worth the trip. Halfway to Rønne, there is the opportunity to pick the highway up for the most direct route back. This is recommended because although the sun sets later than 8pm, unless you are an avid cyclist, your body will be eternally grateful for any reduction in bicycle-seat time. There is still a lot of pedaling to go – take advantage of some easy highway riding.

Saturday: Rønne – Svaneke – Gudjheim – Rønne

As the only full day on the island, Day 2 is a great opportunity to travel to the other side. The first destination is the town of Svaneke. The 35 kilometer ride consists of rolling hills alternating between farmland and wooded forests. At this time of year, the island is deserted. Car traffic is certainly not a concern, but a flat tire on the empty roads is a thought better left ignored. The best piece of advice for this long trek is pack a snack and take breaks. One such break should definitely include the ruins of Lilleborg. Located in central Bornholm, the remains from the 12th century still stake its claim on a small hill with a peaceful path encircling it.

After over 2 hours of riding, you will arrive in the charming town of Svaneke.  With its narrow, winding streets and red-roofed, half-timbered houses, it is a quaint, traditional Bornholm town.  At this point though, you are probably focused on food and food alone.  Well known for crafts, there are a variety of pottery, glass, and art studios, but Svaneke is also renowned for its handmade ice cream and candy.  With most cafes only opening at 11am for brunch, the waitresses can be persuaded to serve ice cream for breakfast at the desperate pleas of a tourist.  This will greatly improve any tired cyclist’s mood.  Wandering around the downtown is the best way to stumble across the variety of artisan shops sprinkled throughout the streets.

The next stop is a short 15 kilometer ride from Svaneke to Gudhjem.  A great piece of advice is to park your bike at the top of the hill and walk down through town.  Located on the northern coast of the island, Gudhjem is a picturesque town on an extremely steep hill, but with a great view of the ocean.  At the top of the hill is Denmark’s largest windmill and as you wind down the steep mainstreet, restaurants and art galleries line both sides.  The atmosphere of Gudhjem is relaxed and friendly.  At this point, although not traditionally Danish, a greasy, satisfying meal of fries and bøf (beef… maybe) sandwich is the most recommended meal of choice for cycling sustenance.

The next leg of the journey is the long, 35 kilometer, trek home with a detour through Østerlars to see one of the four, round churches on Bornholm.  The simple, but stunning church depicts a time long past.  Inside, the first floor is furnished, warm, and peaceful.  Then, you can climb the winding staircase that circles the outer wall of the church up to the unfinished attic providing views across the rolling countryside.

Making it back to the capital for dinner leaves time to wander through the port city for food.  A word of warning, a lot of the restaurants close early, so a simple hodge-podge dinner from the local supermarket might be the best bet.  You can eat on a bench overlooking the harbor as the sun sets for a satisfying end to a long day.

Sunday: Rønne – Nyker – Rønne

The final day before you take the ferry out can include a quick trip to the town of Nyker, much to the complaints of a probably, now aching body. This 13 kilometer trip north is perfect for Sunday morning with the opportunity to see another round church. Although smaller than the church of Østerlars, Nyker’s round church is quaint, compact and still has a reverent beauty to it. The whitewashed walls contrast the bright greenery of the surrounding fields.

To wrap up a tourist weekend outside of tourist season, a stroll through Rønne can complete the experience. Majority of the galleries strewn throughout the streets will be closed, but your wallet will appreciate the window browsing. Being one of the few tourists among the locals, you will definitely feel the comfort and hospitality of the close-knit community of Bornholm and perhaps it will tempt you to return during the peak summer months for a beach experience and maybe the luxury of a bus over a bicycle.