Split by lakes and surrounded by sea, an energetic and hip waterside vibe permeates COPENHAGEN (København), one of Europe’s most user-friendly (and trendy) capitals. It’s a welcoming, compact city with a centre largely given over to pedestrians (and cyclists). There’s an emphasis on café culture and top-notch museums by day, and a thumping live music, bar and club scene by night. Festivals like Distortion (June) and the Jazz Festival (July) show the city off at its coolest and most inventive.
Until the twelfth century, when Bishop Absalon built a castle on Christiansborg’s present site, there was little more than a tiny fishing settlement to be found here. Trade and prosperity flourished with the introduction of the Sound Toll on vessels in the Øresund, and the city became the Baltic’s principal harbour, earning the name København (“merchants’ harbour”). By 1443, it had become the Danish capital. A century later, Christian IV created Rosenborg Castle, Rundetårn and the districts of Nyboder and Christianshavn, and in 1669 Frederik III graced the city with its first royal palace, Amalienborg. Since then, various kings and merchants have built up the city to be the amalgam of architectural styles and landscapes that you see today.
If you plan on seeing plenty of Copenhagen's star attractions, it's worth purchasing a City Card, which allows free or discounted entrance to more than eighty museums and other places of interest.
1. Visit the Little Mermaid
The symbol of the city is a life-size Little Mermaid perched on a granite rock. She's the sad protagonist from the romantic fairytale by Danish author H.C. Andersen.
2. Marvel at the artefacts in the Nationalmuseet
This museum contains a world-class collection of historical artefacts, from bog people and fifteenth-century BC sculptures to Viking weapons.
3. Take the family to Den Blå Planet
The Blue Planet is a jaw-dropping modern aquarium containing some 20,000 animals across 450 species.
4. Cruise along the canals from Nyhavn
This quaint, much-photographed harbour is located just alongside a strip of popular bars and restaurants. Join a canal cruise here.
5. Meet the animals of Zoologisk Have
Founded in 1859, Copenhagen's zoo is home to 3000 animals from 264 species. The stand-out sight is the Arctic polar bear habitat. Skip the line to maximise your time here.
6. Get an adrenaline spike at Tivoli
At this magical amusement park, the oldest in the world, you'll find hair-raising rides, fairy gardens and unforgettable live shows. A 1-Day Unlimited Rides Ticket is a good option.
7. Buy fresh produce at Torvehallerne
Beer from Mikkeller, Copenhagen's finest chocolate and porridge reimagined as dinner are just some of the edible surprises at Denmark's largest food hall.
8. Enjoy sweeping views from Rundetårn
Instead of stairs, the oldest working observation tower in Europe has a spectacular 209-metre spiral pathway.
9. View excellent art at Statens Museums for Kunst
Denmark's most enormous art museum, with exceptional collections of Danish and international art from the last seven centuries.
10. Soak up the atmosphere at Rådhuspladsen square
Buzzing Rådhuspladsen square is towered over by a grand red-brick city hall, and is the perfect place for a mustard-topped pølse. Take in the square and several other impressive Copenhagen sights on an Old Town Walking Tour.
Top image © PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock
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Copenhagen has a very good selection of hostels, mainly concentrated in the city centre and Nørrebro. Booking ahead is recommended on weekends and during summer months; otherwise turn up as early as possible during the day to ensure a bed. Hotel prices can verge on the astronomical but there are often online deals available and a few cheaper options in the centre. Private rooms (around 400kr) booked through the tourist office are usually an S-train ride away from the centre. Breakfast is not included, unless otherwise stated.
The Botanisk Have (Botanical Garden; May–Sept daily 8.30am–6pm, Oct–April Tues–Sun 8.30am–4pm; free), on the west side of Kongens Have, is dotted with greenhouses and rare plants. The neighbouring Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery; Tues–Sun 10am–5pm, Wed till 8pm; free, entry fee for some special exhibitions) has bright and spacious galleries holding a vast collection of art, from minor Picassos to major works by Matisse and Titian. Across the park on Stockholmsgade, Den Hirschsprungske Samling (The Hirschsprung Collection; Tues–Sun 11am–4pm; 75kr, free on Wed) holds a collection of twentieth-century Danish art, including work by the Skagen artists, renowned for their use of light.
“Probably the best beer in the world” claims the advert. Well, you can decide for yourself at the Carslberg Visitors Centre (Tues–Sun 10am–8pm; 95kr) along Gamle Carlsberg Vej (buses #18 and #26). As well as learning how to create the perfect pint at the Jacobsen Brewhouse, you also get to sample two beers from a choice of Carlsberg, Tuborg and Jacobsen brews.
Christiania is a former barracks area colonized by hippies after declaring itself a “free city” in 1971. It has evolved into a self-governing entity based on collective ownership, with quirky buildings housing alternative small businesses such as a bicycle workshop and women’s smithy, as well as art galleries, cafés, restaurants, Copenhagen’s best falafel stand, music venues and Pusherstreet, once an open hash market. There are guided tours of the area (late June to Aug daily 3pm; rest of the year Sat & Sun only; 40kr), starting at the main gate by Prinsessegade, but it’s just as fun to wander around on your own. No photos are allowed, unless by special permission. The neighbourhood has been racked by controversy since the off, sitting as it does on prime real estate while its population remain exempt from the taxes most Danes pay. Although the area’s future is threatened by moves from the Danish conservative government, as its residents may tell you, the places earns its keep: it’s one of Copenhagen’s most visited attractions, and justifiably so.
From Christiansborg, a bridge crosses to Christianshavn, built by Christian IV in the early sixteenth century and nicknamed “Little Amsterdam” thanks to its small canals, cute bridges and Dutch-style houses. Reaching skywards on the far side of Torvegade is one of the city’s most recognizable features, the copper and golden spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke (daily 11am–3.30pm; tower May–Sept Mon–Sat 9.30am–7pm, Sun 10.30am–7pm; free, tower 35kr). Also worth a look is the canalside Dansk Arkitektur Center (daily 10am–5pm, Wed till 9pm; 40kr, students 25kr or free for architecture students), at Strandgade 27B, with regular exhibitions on design and architecture plus an excellent café and bookshop.
Europe‘s fifth most expensive city, Copenhagen can be a tricky place to get by on a budget, but with a bit of planning you can make the most of your wallet. Museums with free admission include the Nationalmuseet (National Museum) and the Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery), see below, while many others offer free entry one day per week. Another great free activity in summer is swimming in Copenhagen harbour’s outdoor pool on Islands Brygge, southwest across the canal from Indre By. You should also consider buying a CPHCARD. As for getting around, you can walk to most places, use the free city bikes or take the harbour bus-boats. The city has plenty of free music on offer, including concerts at Tivoli almost weekly during summer. As for accommodation, having your own bed linen and HI card can save you upwards of 100kr nightly.
When the weather’s good, it’s well worth forking out on a city tour to familiarize yourself with Copenhagen. There are hop-on/hop-off open-top bus tours around the key city sights (195kr; stromma.dk) and also Netto Boats
(daily late March–Oct 9.40am–8pm; 40kr; havnerundfart.dk) operating hour-long canal and harbour boat tours past the old stock exchange (not open to the public), the island of Holmen and the Little Mermaid, leaving regularly from Nyhavn.
For bike enthusiasts, the best option is Bike Mike (daily 10.30am, plus April–Oct Wed & Sat 2.30pm; 299kr for 3hr including bike rental; T26 39 56 88), with themed cycle tours departing from Sankt Peders Stræde 47 in the Latin Quarter.
When the weather’s good, you can top up your tan at the Amager Strandpark beach, just 5km from the centre (bus #12 or take the metro to Øresund, Amager Strand or Femøren then a 5min walk). If Tivoli hasn’t exhausted your appetite, then make for the world’s oldest amusement park at Bakken (mid-March till Sept daily noon/2pm–10pm/11pm/midnight; April, rides closed some weekdays; multi-ride ticket 219kr/249kr), close to the
Klampenborg stop at the end of lines C and F+ on the S-train about 10km north of downtown. Besides slightly sinister clowns and vintage roller coasters it offers pleasant woods and nearby beaches to wander around.
There are two more excellent attractions on Zealand’s northeastern coast. In the affluent town of HILLERØD at the end of S-train line C is the spectacular multi-turreted Frederiksborg Slot (daily April–Oct 10am–5pm; Nov–March 11am–4pm; 75kr), a seventeenth-century castle built by Christian IV, surrounded by an ornamental lake and housing Denmark’s national portrait gallery. Further north in HUMLEBÆK, and a short walk from its train station, is Louisiana, an outstanding modern art gallery, at Gammel Strandvej 13 (Tues–Fri 11am–10pm, Sat & Sun 11am–6pm; 115kr). The gallery’s setting is worth the journey alone – a harmonious blend of art, architecture and the natural landscape.
Nørrebro vies for the place to be with hip Kødbyen, the city’s still-functioning meatpacking district just southeast of Tivoli, where arty bars and clubs have taken over old warehouses. Bars across the city are generally open until midnight or 1am Mon–Wed & Sun, and until at least 2am Thurs–Sat.
Mixing Michelin stars with budget bars, Copenhagen delights with its tremendously varied eating scene – which has helped to plant it on the map as Scandinavia’s most sophisticated city. Head out of the centre as locals do towards Nørrebro and Vesterbro for the best deals. For self-caterers, bakeries are a good option, while for takeaway smørrebrød try the outlets at Centrum Smørrebrød, Vesterbrogade 6C; or Klemmen at Central Station. There are Netto supermarkets at Nørre Voldgade 94, Nørrebrogade 43 and Landemærket 11. If you fancy really getting to know the locals while filling up on home-made Danish food, you could always book a Dine With the Danes evening, a long-running initiative which gets travellers into contact with locals who cook, serve and share a meal with you (from 480kr).
The Danish capital has a small but lively gay scene and hosts regular festivals and events including an annual Gay Pride march and one of the world‘s oldest LGBTQ+ film festivals, MIX, held each October. There are several gay clubs and numerous bars across the city; the big sauna is Amigo Sauna (Studiestrade 21a). Check out visitcopenhagen.com/gay and rainbowbusinessdenmark.dk for more information.
West of Kongens Nytorv, the city’s largest square and home to some of the best hotdog stalls in town, pedestrianized Strøget leads into the heart of Indre By. This is Denmark’s premier shopping area. The quirky 35m-high Rundetaarn (Round Tower; mid-March to mid-May daily 10am–6pm; mid-May to mid-Sept daily 10am–8pm; mid-Sept to mid-Oct daily 10am–6pm; mid-Oct to mid-March Thurs–Mon 10am–6pm, Tues & Wed 10am–9pm; 25kr) dominates the skyline north of Strøget. Built as an observatory and finished in 1642, the main attraction is the view from the top, reached via a spiral walkway. A glass floor 25m up allows you to look down into the core of the tower. It’s a still-functioning observatory, and you can view the night sky through its astronomical telescope (May–Sept 10am–8pm; Sept–May 10am–6pm).
West of Frederikskirken, Kongens Have is the city’s oldest public park and a popular spot for picnics. Within the park is the fairytale Rosenborg Slot (daily: Jan–April & Nov to mid-Dec 10am–2pm; May, Sept & Oct 10am–4pm; June–Aug 9am–5pm; 80kr), the castle that served as the principal residence of Christian IV. The highlight is the downstairs treasury, where a gilded throne and the crown jewels and rich accessories worn by Christian IV are on display.
Just north of the Kastellet, a star-shaped fortress with five bastions on a corner overlooking the harbour, sits the diminutive (and, in all honesty, anticlimactic) Little Mermaid, a magnet for tourists since her unveiling in 1913. A bronze statue of the Hans Christian Andersen character, it was sculpted by Edvard Eriksen and paid for by the founder of the Carlsberg brewery. Over the years she’s been the victim of several attacks, having her head and arms chopped off and even being blown up by a bomb in 2003 – and also spent much of 2010 at Shanghai’s Expo – but she remains the most enduring symbol of the city.
Nørrebro, an edgy area northwest across the canal from Indre By (accessible from the centre via buses #3A, #4A or #5A or a 25min walk), is crammed with some of Copenhagen’s best cafés, bars and clubs, centred on Sankt Hans Torv. Caution is advised, particularly at night: but it’s home to most of Denmark’s most happening hangouts and the resplendent Assistens Kirkegård, a tranquil cemetery which locals use as a park in summer, and that has Hans Christian Andersen among its permanent residents.
Founded by Carlsberg tycoon Carl Jacobsen, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (Tues–Wed & Fri–Sun 11am–6pm, Thurs 11am–10pm; 95kr, Tues free) is Copenhagen’s finest classical and modern art gallery. There’s a knockout selection of Greek and Roman sculpture on the first floor as well as some excellent examples of modern European art, including Degas casts, Monet’s The Lemon Grove and works by Gauguin, Van Gogh and Danish Golden Age artists like Eckersberg, upstairs. Conclude your visit with a slice of delicious cake in the café beside the delightfully domed winter garden.
Running east from Kongens Nytorv, a slender canal divides the two sides of Nyhavn (“new harbour”), picturesquely lined with colourful eighteenth-century houses – now bars and cafés – and thronged with tourists year-round. Just north of Nyhavn, the royal district of Frederiksstaden centres on cobbled Amalienborg Slotsplads, home to the four Amalienborg royal palaces. Two remain as royal residences, and there’s a changing of the guard at noon if the monarch is home. In the opposite direction is the great marble dome of Frederikskirken, also known as Marmorkirken or marble church (Mon–Thurs 10am–5pm, Fri–Sun noon–5pm; admission to dome Sat & Sun 1pm & 3pm, plus Mon–Fri June–Aug; free), modelled on St Peter’s in Rome.
On the north side of Slotsholmen, the Thorvaldsens Museum (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; 50kr, Wed free) is home to an enormous collection of work of Denmark’s most famous sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen. A short walk away over the Slotsholmen Kanal is the Nationalmuseet (National Museum; same hours, with guided tours Sun at 2pm; free), which has excellent displays on Denmark’s history from the Ice Age to the present day. The prehistory section in particular is fascinating, and includes amber animals, gold Viking horns, numerous corpses preserved in bogs and Denmark’s oldest coin, struck around 995 AD.
Just off hectic Vesterbrogade outside the station is Copenhagen’s most famous attraction, Tivoli (mid-April to mid-Sept Mon–Thurs & Sun 11am–10/11pm, Fri 11am–12.30am, Sat 11am–midnight; mid-Nov to end Dec closes one hour earlier; Mon–Thurs 100kr, Fri–Sun 110kr); an entertaining mixture of landscaped gardens, outdoor concerts (every Fri) and fairground rides. You’ll probably hear it before you see it, thanks to its high perimeter walls and the constant screams from the roller coasters (multi-ride tickets 220kr). On a summer evening when the park is illuminated by thousands of lights and lamps reflected in the lake, it’s one of Scandinavia’s most magical experiences.
Directly behind the train station begins Vesterbro, home to Copenhagen’s red-light district and one of the most cosmopolitan areas in the city. It has a great selection of shops, bars and restaurants. While the area is perfectly safe to walk around, male travellers may want to give Istedgade (one of the main thoroughfares) a wide berth at night to avoid being propositioned.