Regularly featuring at the top of such lists as happiest city in the world, Denmark’s capital with its 1000 years of royal history is a labyrinth of picturesque canals and islands dotted about with palaces, elaborate churches and stunningly beautiful buildings whose stories first began centuries ago. The whole is liberally sprinkled with the decidedly unexpected such as the 17th century tower which Emperor Peter the Great ascended on horseback, a sunken sculpture of a mourning merman and his sons and a nostalgic pleasure park so enchanting Michael Jackson tried to buy it. Added into the mix are more museums and galleries than you could visit in a year, a thriving fashion and design industry and a food scene considered world-class by many culinary leading lights.
Although seeing all of Copenhagen’s delights is not possible in just one day its center, packed with tourist highlights,is relatively compact and flat which means taking it all in on foot or by bike is easy. To maximize your time in this wonderful city here are a few suggestions for where to eat and drink and otherwise plan your day to include as many of the top sights as possible.
A Morning in Copenhagen
Almost everything which ranks of popular interest to visitors can be found within a relatively small radius of Copenhagen’s center. This means if you want to explore on foot it is easily achievable. However, there is another way of doing things here which means you can fit heaps more in and go about town like a local –hire a bicycle.Copenhagen is both flat and has more than 400 km of dedicated cycle lanes to keep cyclists safe; two elements which regularly ensure its number one spot as the most bike-friendly city anywhere in the world. Quite simply there is no faster or more efficient way of getting around the sights.
Just to make such a possibility simpler still, Copenhagen operates ‘City Bike‘ (Bycykler Københavnin Danish). This bike rental/bike sharing system means you can pick up a very low cost bike from any number of Copenhagen dedicated docking stands with just a swipe of your credit card, paid by the hour. You don’t even need any energy reserves because these bikes come with an electric motor as well as GPS capabilities. Cheaper still is the option of private hire from an exceptionally large number of hirers.
The Little Mermaid
What better way to start your Copenhagen day than with a visit to the Little Mermaid (Den Lille Havfrue) –possibly Copenhagen’s most well-known landmark. If you get here earlier in the day you will be able to avoid the tourist crowds which gather here as the day progresses. This small bronze statue, inspired by the fairy tale of Hans Christian Anderson, has sat perched on water-surrounded rocks on the Langelinie Promenade for more than 100 years…..or at least most of her has. Over the years this small figure has been the target of vandalism and political protests which have seen her head removed three times (the first in the 1960s), the removal of an arm and even an explosion which blasted her from her rocky seat
A Lesser Known Little Mermaid
While the Little Mermaid is on the itinerary of just about every Copenhagen visitor there is a second little mermaid which few are aware of. Located a little further north from her famous cousin, this second 2006 created little mermaid, also bronze, sits in a similar pose on sea-surrounded rocks but this ‘genetically modified’ version has a very different head, body and limbs. She forms part of a sculpture group –’The Genetically Modified Paradise’ -created by Bjørn Nørgaard which include a nine meter Madonna, Adam, Eve, Christ, Maria Magdalena, the Tripartite Capital and the Pregnant Man.
A straight walk or pedal 200 meters up the Amaliegade from the Little Mermaid will bring you to Amalienborg Palace (Amalienborg Slot) –one of the residences of the Danish royal family. The different flags flying from the roof are indications of which royals are currently in residence; the swallowtail flag means all of the royals are elsewhere. The castle complex is made up of four separate palaces -which are mirror images of each other -set around a vast octagonal courtyard with a 18th century statue of King Frederik V in their center.
If you’d like a peek into royal life Christian VIII Palace is home to the Amalienborg Museum which is basically a set of royal apartments complete with original furnishings while Christian VII Palace is also occasionally open to the public.
The changing of the guard –a popular spectacle for tourists –takes place at noon so if you want to watch this you will have to time your visit for later in the morning.
For all those who have an interest in royal history and life Copenhagen has another regal option –the Christiansborg Palace on Slotsholmen. Unlike Amalienborg, Christiansborg is not a residential seat but instead a location for ceremonies and receptions hosted by the reigning monarch. The palace’s opulent reception rooms can be visited independently or on a guided tour which also takes in the royal kitchens and throne room. A major highlight of any visit here is the 17 huge and incredibly beautiful tapestries which line every panel of the Great Hall and depict more than 1000 years of Danish history.
While you are in the vicinity of Amalienborg Palace take a wander across the road to the Marble Church (Frederik’s Kirke or Marmokirken). The highly decorative rococo style architecture is worth a look and the church is topped by the largest dome in Scandinavia, which also happens to be an unusual turquoise color. Begun in 1749, the church was not actually finished and opened to the public until 1894 and should you want to get a glimpse of the impressive dome from the inside admission is free.
Morning Coffee Break in Copenhagen
While you are in Copenhagen you will almost certainly be exposed in some way to the Danish concept of ‘hygge’. While the English language has no single equivalent word a phrase such as’enjoying good things with good company in a snug, warm and cozy atmosphere’ might just about cover it.
One of the easiest ways to immerse yourself in this concept is to head to Copenhagen’s cafes, bars and restaurants where hygge is practically a given.
Coffee is serious business for Danes which spells good news for visitors because you don’t have to wander far to find any number of establishments serving exceptional coffee. If you want to do things the local way, pair your coffee with a kanelsnegl –a kind of cinnamon roll.
Kulturtårnet – Among the many rated coffee spots there are some unusual offerings but perhaps none more so than the little-known (even by Danes) Kulturtårnet located on the Knippelsbro bridge. This submarine-like copper tower which dates from the 1930s offers 360º harbor views and outdoor deck seating.
Vesterbro – If you want to earn your coffee take a pedal on your hire-bike to the city’s Meat Packing District or Vesterbro area. Once the red-light zone and a part of town best avoided, today it has evolved into Copenhagen’s most fashionable and hip hot spot full of artists and arty types. Along with vintage shops, organic food outlets and intimate accommodations this area has plenty of great independent cafes, many of them doubling as galleries. Your choices here are endless but some of the best rated are the locals’ favorite Mad and Kaffe and the unassuming Prolog Coffee Bar who roast their own coffee beans and offer some delicious food to pair with your coffee. You can even roast your own marshmallows over a stove here.
Cultural Discovery – Museums, Galleries and a Castle
Once recharged with caffeine or other morning refreshment and having had your cinnamon roll fix you can resume your day’s explorations. There are enough museums and galleries to keep you busy for months so if you have limited time you may want to organize your schedule and itinerary carefully to fit in as much as possible. The following lists two choices of cultural clusters so you can plan accordingly.
The National Gallery, Design museum Danmark, the David Collection, Rosenborg Castle and the Museum of Danish Resistance
Clustered relatively close together in one area can be found the National Gallery(Statens Museum for Kunst –often just shortened to SMK), Design museum Denmark, the David Collection, Rosenburg Castle, and the Museum of Danish Resistance. It is unlikely you will be able to visit them all but as all are in close proximity you may be able to squeeze in at least two or three depending on what appeals most. If art is your thing and you want to dedicate your time to just one cultural attraction, the park-set National Gallery without doubt claims the title of Copenhagen’s best-known gallery and represents the country’s largest art museum.
Its exceptional collection includes Danish and European paintings and sculptures with its oldest works dating from the 1300s. Famous names housed within this Italian Renaissance style building dating from 1896 include such greats as Matisse, Picasso, Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian.
Rather more niche and something of a non-typical art museum offering – especially appealing for anyone interested in design – is the Design museum Denmark. Collected together inside a rococo style building dating from the 1700s can be found decorative art and craft exhibits which relate the story of Denmark’s design history.
Another of Copenhagen’s more off-beat art world offerings can be found with the David Collection –Scandinavia’s largest collection of Islamic and Middle Eastern Art. Described by connoisseurs as ‘dazzling’ the exhibits here include manuscripts, paintings, ceramics and jewelry and there are also some Danish and European art works dating from the 1700s.
Just a stroll from the David Collection brings you to the moat-surrounded Rosenborg Castle (Rosenborg Slot). Historically a royal retreat, this 17th century castle has 24 rooms of exhibits with its greatest treasure being the Danish crown jewels. Even if you are not interested in stepping inside the castle a wander around the tranquil King’s Garden –the central city’s oldest park -full of color and sculptures is a lovely way to spend minutes or hours. Be sure to check out the Hans Christian Andersen statue here whose plinth depicts reliefs of some Andersen characters such as the Ugly Duckling.
A lesser known gem of a museum is the Museum of Danish Resistance (also known as the Freedom Museum/Frihedsmuseet) which provides a glimpse into daily life and the activities of the Danish resistance during the German occupation of World War II.
The National Museum of Denmark, Thorvaldsens Museum and Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
For many the National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet) is an un-missable inclusion in any Copenhagen discovery day. Housed inside a former palace dating from the 1700s, the vast collection of the National Museum takes its visitors on a journey through time beginning from prehistoric eras, passing through historical periods such as the age of the Viking, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and moving right through to the Nordic culture of today. Among the global antiquities and treasures found here some true highlights are the Viking weaponry collections, the incredible 2000 year old mummified body of the so named Huldremose Woman discovered interred in a bog in Denmark in 1879 and the 3,500 year old TrundholmSun Chariot which was also recovered from a peat bog.
If you are an art appreciator and prefer your museums more intimately-sized there is possibly no better choice in Copenhagen than the Thorvaldsens Museum. Like so many of the city’s cultural attractions this museum is set in a building beautiful enough to be a reason to visit in itself and features works by the 18th century Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.
For the best of both worlds the excellent Victorian glasshouse of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotekis both museum and art gallery and houses the country’s most expansive collection of French Impressionist paintings. Masterpiece artwork here includes pieces by Gaugin, Monet and Van Gogh with collections of Roman,Greek and Etruscan sculptures along with some priceless Degas bronzes.
An Alternative Morning Outside
You may decide that being inside is not how you would prefer to pass the greater part of your Copenhagen morning, especially if the weather is good. In which case a visit to the completely free to enter Botanical Gardens (Botanisk Have) would make a great alternative. As they are located very close to both Rosenborg Castle and the National Gallery you could even do a bit of indoor and outdoor mixing and matching.
Covering a huge ten hectares and dating in its current location from 1874, the gardens come complete with a tranquil lake, a host of hideaway corners and 13,000 species of plants which are derived from every corner of the planet. There are also an impressive 27 glasshouses dating from the Victorian era full of palms, orchids and giant cacti among other things. The largest of the glasshouses stands 16 meters in height and contains a lovely decorative spiral stairway leading to a viewing walkway at the height of the glasshouse’s roof.
Lunch in Copenhagen
Whether you have opted to roam art galleries, ancient exhibits and royal reception halls or wander through the greenery of the Botanical Gardens there is little doubt the need to refuel is fast approaching. Denmark and particularly its capital has something of a global reputation as a food lover’s destination so you can expect plenty of lunch spots of the exceptional variety.
If you want to lunch like the locals you will need to hunt down the best smørrebrød which is essentially an open sandwich of rye bread topped with all kinds of mouth-watering combinations of fish (fresh and pickled), cold meats, pates, cheeses and vegetables.
For one great choice for sampling fine smørrebrød which also comes with a wonderful helping of cultural immersion head to Torvehallerne Market -a favored lunch hangout for Copenhagen’s food lovers. Crammed with more than 60 stalls and stands selling such things as fine cheeses, artisan chocolates and bread, ethically-sourced quality coffee and more this is also an area of bars and restaurants with plenty of smørrebrød options. Some of these are as much work of art as they are filling lunches. Oozing atmosphere, Torvehallerne is a great venue for anyone who wants to try some of the most Danish of foods with heaps of opportunities for free samples and tasters.
If you are inclined to something rather more formal for a lunch location one great choice is Aamanns 1921 on Niels Hemmingsens Gade in the heart of the tourist center. This light-filled, high ceilinged modern-style restaurant hung with huge brass chandeliers may cater to a more refined diner but it still offers choices for smørrebrød. In fact, this highly rated venue is run by a recognized’king of smørrebrød’ so expect something exceptional and which adds plenty of unique and modern twists to the traditional rye bread favorite. Smørrebrød aside the restaurant is known for producing incredible flavor combinations with its other gourmet menu choices.
An Afternoon in Copenhagen
With lunch finished you can start looking forward to an afternoon of further discovery on Copenhagen’s historical streets. One wonderful way to kick-off the afternoon is to head to Nyhavn which, as soon as you catch sight of the wooden boats bobbing on the water and the 17th and 18th century buildings in all shades of vibrant colors, may feel somehow familiar. This is because canal-side Nyhavn –being exceptionally picturesque –is featured on thousands of postcards, paintings and souvenirs and features time and again in most tourist literature.
Now widely recognized as Copenhagen’s most photogenic spot and tourist center, Nyhavn wasn’t always such a salubrious destination; in days gone by this was a bustling working port habituated by sailors arriving from far and wide and looking for some buyable female companionship. It was also where Hans Christian Andersen lived for many years and from where many of his much-loved fairy tales were given life. These days lovely Nyhavn is no less populated but today the visitors fill waterside tables to eat and drink at any number of cafes, bars and restaurants or simply wander the pretty color-splashed harbor to revel in the sights and soak up the charms.
If you feel a call to get out on the water you can take an inexpensive 1 hour canal cruise from here which will take you on a quick tour of Copenhagen’s waterside highlights.
Once you have taken your fill of Nyhavn’s delights it is a simple walk across the Inderhavnsbroen pedestrian bridge –known to locals as the kissing bridge -to the island of Christianshavn. Dreamed up by the 17th century ruling monarch of the time, Christian IV, Christianshavn is a man-made island set upon many thousands of wooden piles which took five years to build and was completed in 1722. Today it is a fashionable and peaceful part of the city complete with private residences, shops, cafes, restaurants, churches and the highly unusual autonomous free state of Christiana. Sometimes referred to as Freetown Christiana, this 850 to 1000-strong commune of free thinkers grew from a handful of 1970s squatters into the thriving community it is today. With its own currency, flag and laws, car-free Christiana is today a collection of home-built waterside residences (often quirky and multi-colored), micro-businesses, art galleries and organic health-food eateries with ‘eco’ figuring as a watchword throughout. Not surprisingly the unusual nature of this autonomous city within a city has made it something of a tourist hot spot and it regularly features on city tours.
Beside Christiana, the other main draw of Christianshavn is the Dutch baroque-styled Church of Our Savior (Vor Frelsers Kirk). The beautiful and decidedly exotic looking black and gold spire of this 18th century church is certainly worth checking out. However, there is another special feature here which ensures the church features on the must-do attractions list of so many Copenhagen visitors. By taking 400 steps –the last 150 of them spiraling around the actual exterior of the spire –this tower can be climbed. If you have the nerve for this climb your reward at the top is a breathtaking 360° view of Copenhagen.
Another notable feature of the Church of Our Savior is its carillon which plays on the hour. (In case you are wondering, a carillon is a belfry-contained instrument which is made up of bronze bells.)
Once you have recovered your breath from the spire climb you can leave Christianshavn, by a different bridge this time –the Knippelsbro bridge –to arrive in Slotsholmen. Surrounded on all sides by canals, this part of the inner city was the seed from which all of Denmark’s capital grew and for such a small area –less than 500 meters across at its widest point –it has a lot to see. The first building you will arrive at is the imposing Dutch renaissance-styled stock exchange(Børsen) dating from the 1600s with its soaring spire of four separate but intertwined dragon tails.
Christiansborg Palace/Castle (Christiansborg Slot) complex which is today home to the Danish Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister’s office. Although the palace is not used as a residence by the current king or queen it does function as a royal ceremony or reception venue. If the royal family is not present you can visit some of the palace’s reception rooms and royal stables while tours of parliament are also possible if there are no sessions.
Agnete and the Merman
While many destinations talk of hidden gems for the visitor there are not many which can lay claim to having submerged ones. However, if you exit Slotsholmen via the Højbro bridge you can gaze upon a bronze sculpture series sitting just beneath the water’s surface which depicts a merman and his seven sons. Inspiration for the sculpture by Suste Bonnén is taken from the traditional Danish legend of Agnete og Havmanden which tells the story of a young woman tempted to marry a merman but who later abandons both him and her children to return to life on dry land. The subtle sculpture –which many pass daily without even realizing it is there –is both emotionally stirring and haunting.
The Round Tower (Rundetårn)
Originally built as an observatory in 1642 by royal decree when Denmark was a leading light for astronomical achievements, the Round Tower is yet one more Copenhagen landmark which can be climbed. However, if the thought of taking on just one more step leaves you cold you might like to learn that the ascent here is a little different. Designed to enable fragile astronomical equipment to be moved from ground level upwards, the tower is entirely step-free; instead it incorporates a spiraling 209 meter ramp.
Such a feature has led to a strange history. The spiraling ramp has seen ascents by Russian Emperor Peter the Great in 1726 by horseback, a series of bicycle races which began in 1888 and by a Beaufort car in 1902.
The Round Tower ceased functioning as an observatory in 1861 when problems from both light pollution and vibrations created by surrounding street traffic made accurate observations unachievable.
Jens Olsen’s World Clock
A few minutes’walk from the Round Tower will bring you to the Town Hall Square (Rådhuspladsen) and the Copenhagen City Hall (Kobenhavns Raadhus). If you want to take in a bit of shopping on the way go via Stroget which is the city’s principal shopping street, running for 1 km beginning to end. Strolling the Stroget is a Danish pastime so you will likely encounter plenty of people but no traffic as this artery is one of the city’s pedestrian zones. Strøgetis lined with large retailers and department stores but if you want something less mainstream head down one of the side-streets to get to places such as Studiestræde and Strædet which have plenty of smaller boutiques and independent options.
While the late 19th century city hall itself might interest some visitors the main draw by quite a long way is the incredible Jens Olsen World Clock on display here. Comprised of more than 15,000 working parts, gilded with four kilos of gold and with many of its brass elements sourced from Danish household cooking utensils the word ‘clock’ doesn’t begin to describe a tiny portion of what this masterpiece is capable of. First set in motion in 1955 by King Frederik IX and a grandchild of the designer Olsen (who died before the clock was completed), this marvelous clock calculates all kinds of events. These include global times, solar hours and eclipses, planetary and other astronomical movements and positions, the Gregorian calendar, sunrises everywhere on Earth and holiday dates. The clock is among the most accurate timekeepers to be found anywhere on the planet and as long as it is wound once a week will continue to provide all of its staggering outpourings of information for the next 2,500 years.
Once you exit the City Hall be sure to check out the statue of Hans Christian Andersen before getting ready to decide your dinner or pre-dinner drinks venue.
Seeing the Sights without the Planning
If you like the idea of taking in many of the sights mentioned here but really don’t want the hassle of navigating your own way or want more insight into the things you are seeing you could consider joining up for a walking tour. Along with just about every other city in the world these days there are plenty of options for free walking tours where you typically pay a tip at the end based on what you feel the experience was worth.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Copenhagen
If you’re not quite ready to head straight to your evening restaurant of choice or simply want to enjoy some relaxed pre-dinner drink time Copenhagen has an exciting range of options. For those whose idea of perfect sundown drinks includes a waterside setting one great choice is Toldboden which is located almost within sight of the Little Mermaid and is a favored cocktail and aperitif spot.
Otherwise, head to lovely waterside Gammel Strand which sits across the canal from the Christiansborg Palace on Slotsholmen and take your pick. This strip of up-market bars is where plenty of the locals head in the evening to enjoy the beautiful surroundings and the buzzing atmosphere from tables spilling out onto the street. Two popular choices here for cocktails are FUGU Cocktail bar (an acronym for Freddy’s Unique Garden Union) which has a lemon tree and lavender-surrounded patio and cozy rooftop and the glamorous cocktail bar known as Ruby’s. This latter consistently receives rave reviews from the cocktail cognoscenti the world over and is set in a building so beautiful it is worth visiting for this alone. Once you are ready for something more solid than liquid refreshment you are also going to be spoiled for choice in a city which many consider to be a food paradise. Nowhere else in Europe offers as many Michelin starred choices although if you are hoping to experience one of these you will have to make a reservation well in advance.
If you are already enjoying cocktails in Gammel Strand and don’t want to make too much effort you are in luck because this is where the wonderfully elegant Krogs Fish Restaurant (Krogs Fiskerestaurant) is located. Widely accepted as being one of the city’s most beautiful restaurants, Krogs offers its discerning diners an 18th century building setting in which to feast on the very best of fresh fish, seafood and Scandinavian dishes. For Hans Christian Andersen fans looking for refined dining options Restaurant Els on Strandstraede ticks both boxes. This lovely building complete with frescoes from the 1800s has been home to a restaurant for more than a century. Before that however it was a coffee house with Copenhagen’s favorite son one of its regulars.
For a further plethora of up-market evening meal choices head to the famed Tivoli Gardens where you will find, among many others, Divan II/Nimb Terasse–the most respected of the gardens’ dining venues –which offers a beautiful garden setting for its French and Danish cuisine.
An Evening in Copenhagen
If you have chosen to satisfyyour evening appetite at one of the Tivoli Garden restaurants you will not have to move far to find the rest of your evening entertainment. Established in 1843, Tivoli Gardens claims the title of second oldest amusement park on the planet. For some, this ‘amusement park’ element –unless you are a fan of such things -can actually be a reason to avoid it but Tivoli Gardens is no ordinary amusement park. Visitors here, no matter what their age, regularly describe this Danish treasure as magical; something most evident at night when the whole is transformed into an atmospheric wonderland by thousands of miniature lights.
Walt Disney, on visiting the park, is reputedly said to have remarked to his wife that Tivoli is ‘what an amusement place should be’ and although it is said he derived inspiration from here it couldn’t be more polar opposite to Disneyland. There are indeed a few ride options for adrenalin thrills but the vibrant greenery of the flower garden park is also home to old world carousels, historic buildings, a lake, fountains, all kinds of hideaway corners with benches, a Chinese harlequin theater and a resident symphony orchestra.
Tranquility and an ever-present air of romanticism reigns supreme here -Tivoli is infused with the genteel and offers great helpings of bygone carnival charm.
While the delights of Tivoli Gardens can be enjoyed year round the period from November to January is especially magical. During these months a Christmas market is held here and the whole snow-covered scene becomes a forest of twinkling decorative lights.
The gardens have also had many memorable moments in their history; in 1944 the Nazis tried to destroy it with fire, in 1964 the Beatles performed here, Michael Jackson tried to buy the whole thing and Hans Christian Andersen was frequently found here. Aside from simply strolling and soaking up the atmosphere of this enchanting place quite what other entertainment you might find here will depend on the time of year you visit. Possibilities include music events, folk dancing and firework displays.
Other Options for Evening Entertainment
While the majority of Copenhagen visitors choose to spend their evenings experiencing the concept of hugge in some cozy bar or sitting waterside somewhere with a cold beer or glass of wine in hand and simply watching the night unfold around them there are other options too.
Ballet, opera and dramatic performance fans can head to the Copenhagen Opera House located on the waterside opposite Amalienborg Palace. This futuristic building, which happens to be one of the world’s most expensive opera house projects ever, is Denmark’s national opera house with a royal box located to the left of the main stage. The program of events features performers of world renown as well as some more experimental offerings. The jazz passionate can make their way to the centrally-located Jazzhaus Montmarte, a venue so iconic it is widely regarded by those who know about such things to be one of the world’s hot spots for live jazz. Dating from the 1950s, this legendary institution regularly hosts some of the planet’s biggest names as well as providing a performance platform for potential future stars.