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The museum looks and feels like a rambing palace because it has royal origins; it began as Frederik II's "Royal chamber of Curiosities" in 1650. That grew until it became Denmark's top repository of artifacts. Wander a while—and you will wander, because the layout, like a multi-level figure eight, can be confusing—and you'll find a few palatical rooms and a lot more random booty that's immensely fascinating. One case contains a tangle of lur horns, twisty-necked Bronze Age instruments that can still make music despite the fact they're now 2,500 years old (no, you may not try). Another contains the world-famous Sun Chariot, a gorgeous Bronze Age piece that was probably made around 1,200 B.C. and it was rediscovered by a Zealand farmer as he plowed in 1902.

The museum is subdivided into five areas, beginning with the Prehistoric Wing on street level. In the Runic Stone Hall, don't miss the Hjortespring Boat, a plank-built vessel made around 300 B.C. and the unearthed not too long ago in a stunning discovery. The Stone Age gallery shouldn't be missed for its spectacular collection of oak coffins which were generally preserved in bogs; the bones found within some of them, plus the clothes and hair of the people they belonged to, are still lying in state for you to behold.

The second floor is the place to be if your goal is to learn about Danish life. Displays take you back in time (things get more interesting the further back you go) and you learn about how Denmark's social support system was created, its reform movements, and the country's shift from an absolute monarchy to a democracy—and why it all happened. Not all of the artifacts are very special, but you will see some presreved period rooms and the head of the axe that probably lopped off the head of reformist Johann Friederich Struensee in 1772; he was executed for being too liberal. How times have changed in Denmark. In the same area, you can find a terrific collection of Doll's Houses, displayed in a dark room with areas that allow you to peer inside from several angles. And if you're searching for that prototypically Viking sight of an animal horn turned into a drinking vessel, you won't come away disappointed. There's a bunch.

The Peoples of the World ethnographical collection, upstairs and to the left from the main entrance, is one of the oldest in the world, with artifacts ranging from Papua New Guinea to Central America. Despite its pedigree and breadth (skin books from Greenland, Japanese handicrafts, African ornaments), it's mostly empty of visitors. The Childrensmuseum, on the ground floor to the left, contains such novel hands-on features as a walk-though area depicting life in Pakistan (including shops, plates, toys), a faering boat with a sail kids can sit in, Viking costumes, and a dummy Middle Age kitchen in which children can pretend to cook a Middle Age meal. And the shop, in the atrium, is a good source for Danish-themed gift items.

Tours in English are conducted June–September on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 11am.

—Jason Cochran