Photo Courtesy of Jens Peter Olesen
Famous for their Viking heritage, modern-day Danes have made a new reputation for themselves as some of the happiest and most peaceful people in the world. At the heart of the Danish mentality, Copenhagen – which sits on two islands facing the southern tip of Sweden – is a charming city that perfect…ly balances all of the perks, amenities, and attractions you expect from a national capital while still retaining the cozy, safe, and sociable feel of a small town. With a rich heritage, grand architectural design, world-famous fashion, lively intellectual culture, mouth-watering cuisine, and extensive parks and canals, Copenhagen offers something for travelers of every age and interest.
What to know before you go to Copenhagen
With its nearly endless daylight, summer is the most popular time to visit. The city's myriad parks, canals, and cafés are packed with people, while its beaches offer an ideal place for a relaxing BBQ. But the city has fantastic festivals year-round, a lovely Christmas market tradition, and relatively mild winters. To avoid the clouds and catch the Danes when they're at their most vibrant, consider a visit in late spring as the marguerite daisies begin to bloom and the Danes celebrate the end of the long winter nights.
Copenhagen Airport is a hub for the Nordic countries. The airport is incredibly efficient, easy to navigate, and situated just outside the city. Transport to and from the airport can be done by taxi, but the vast majority of travelers rely on the subway, train, or city buses—which are clean, efficient, and run 24/7. It is also possibly to fly into nearby Malmo, Sweden, roughly 50 minutes by train/bus from Copenhagen. Trains and buses also run from both Sweden and Germany.
In this "City of Bicycles," more than 50 percent of Danes commute daily on two wheels, and it's bikes, not cars or pedestrians, that tend to have the right-of-way. Many hotels offer bikes for loan or rent; alternately you can rent them from local shops. Copenhagen's historic core is very walkable, and a leisurely stroll is a great way to see the city. Interconnected subways, buses, and S-trains use a common fare structure, and the subway is automated and runs regularly through the night. Cabs tend to be pricey. Copenhagen is currently experimenting with a new bike-rental system to replace the discontinued free city bike program.
Visit Vor Frelsers Kirke (Church of Our Savior) on Christianshavn. This gorgeous baroque church dates back to the late 1600s and has a golden corkscrew spire. What really sets it apart, though, is the opportunity to climb up to the top. The spiral is a staircase that starts at a large viewing platform and gradually narrows. Intrepid visitors can scale the 400 steps while taking in an amazing view of the city.
Despite its small size, Copenhagen is packed with food traditions. Home to more than 15 Michelin-starred restaurants, the city's fine-dining and New Nordic culinary options are plentiful. At the other end of the budgetary scale, the go-to fast food for Copenhageners is found at the hybrid kebab/pizza shops or the city's world-famous hot dog stands. For a taste of traditional Danish food, seek out smørrebrød at small corner shops. These open-faced sandwiches are a staple of the Danish diet. Other must-tries include frikadeller (meatballs), flæskesteg (roast pork), and Danish baked goods. Wash it all down with a pint of locally brewed Carlsberg or Tuborg before exploring one of the city's boutique cocktail bars or gritty bodegas.
While the Danes themselves are a fairly homogenous group, their rich history as explorers and empire builders has created a vibrant cultural mosaic that covers the width and breadth of the globe. Each of Copenhagen's neighborhoods has a distinct feel and flavor. In recent years Denmark has welcomed a large number of asylum seekers, many of whom have settled in the Nørrebro neighborhood and brought with them Middle Eastern influences. Copenhagen also serves as a gateway and reflects a blend of traditional Germanic culture and the more relaxed and open Nordic cultures.
Danes take their festivals seriously, and with a multitude of parks and open spaces, the city's design encourages people to mingle. Copenhagen has fantastic summer and winter jazz festivals as well as a citywide opera festival. Other key music events include the iconic Roskilde Festival, the heavy metal festival Copenhell, and Distortion—a sprawling music fest and street party that rotates through several neighborhoods. Non-music options include Copenhagen Cooking, Pride, and numerous film festivals including CPH:DOX and CPH:PIX.
Open to the public, the Black Diamond Library embodies creative Danish design. Take the elevator to the top floor, then master your fear of heights for a quick walk across the sky bridge for a view of the library's interior. Don't miss the quiet garden situated behind the building. While tourist cruises are great, another option is to hop aboard one of the city's water buses. These boats are part of the city's transit system and will take you the length of Copenhagen's harbor, allowing a low-cost view of some of the city's less accessible areas. Danes also enjoy relaxing in their cemeteries. It may sound strange, but definitely set aside time to walk through Assistens Cemetery in summer. When visiting Christiania, don't just stop at Pusher Street and the Green Light District. Continue in to see the real, charming, and organic heart of the free town. Have a question about Copenhagen? Just ask. The Danes may seem stoic, but they're quite friendly, curious, and helpful.
Travelers to Denmark are required to have a passport that is valid at least 6 months past the time of their departure. Electric plugs are types E and K, so travelers from the U.S. and Canada will need an adapter. The current is 230V, so appliances such as hairdryers will require a converter. Denmark's official currency is the krone; even so, the euro is widely accepted, especially in the larger cities (though they aren't required to do so). The official language is Danish, but nearly 90 percent of the population are fluent in English; German is widely spoken, too.
read before you go
more about Copenhagen
Alex Berger is an American freelance travel writer and photographer who currently calls Copenhagen, Denmark home. With a focus on long-form stories and bringing travel to life with vivid photography and videos, Alex explores the world through the lens of a solo-traveler, expat, and budget traveler. Follow his adventures at VirtualWayfarer.com or find him on Instagram @VirtualWayfarer.