Copenhagen’s Top Sights and Shops

The Danish capital is a city of fairy-tale castles, a world-famous amusement park, and contemporary art and design. The many different sides of Danish culture exist side by side happily. In fact, happily is a good word to describe how most things go in Copenhagen, which manages to be both cozy and cosmopolitan in its singularly stylish way.

Islands Brygge 14, 2300 København S, Denmark
As has happened with so many cities where once-bustling waterfronts have seen their fishing business decline over the decades, Copenhagen’s harbor has been transformed. A place where fishermen used to come to work, it’s now an area where locals come for leisure. The water is clean enough for swimming, and all summer thousands of people visit the Islands Brygge area to take a dip or a dive in the harbor baths designed by star architect Bjarke Ingels. Another highlight is the Circle Bridge (Cirkelbroen), designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. Linking all the waterside attractions is the Harbor Circle, an eight-mile cycling/running/walking route.
68 Bredgade
Design is one of Denmark’s great success stories. Given this close association with the country, it’s particularly fitting that Designmuseum Danmark is just around the corner from the Queen’s Palace. You’ll find scores of iconic Danish designs here—everything from Arne Jacobsen’s Egg and Swan chairs to Paul Henningsen’s Artichoke lamps—as well as stunning collections of fabric and porcelain, all housed in a historic former hospital. The exhibitions are excellent, and the gift shop is just as good as you would expect.
Roskildevej 32, 2000 Frederiksberg, Denmark
In a design-obsessed city, it’s only right that the animals in Copenhagen Zoo (Denmark’s fourth most popular attraction) should live in style. The Elephant House was designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, while the Tasmanian kangaroos have a home designed by one of Sweden’s top agencies, White Arkitektur. The Panda House, opening in 2018, is by the hottest Danish architect of the moment, Bjarke Ingels. The enclosure is inspired by the Chinese yin-and-yang symbol, which should make it a happy home for the male and female panda that will be coming over from China to live here.
Gl. Hovedvagt, Kastellet 1, 2100 København, Denmark
Her silhouette is used as a symbol for the city, and she is one of its most popular attractions, but there’s no avoiding the fact that the Little Mermaid is—as her name suggests—a very modest young lady. Many visitors are surprised by just how meek she seems, sitting on her rock in the harbor. To make the visit worthwhile, once you’ve seen her you should explore Kastellet (the Citadel). This well-preserved star-shaped fortress dates back to the 17th century and was once part of a ring of defenses that encircled the city. Troops still occupy Kastellet, raising and lowering the flag each day.
Vesterbrogade 3, 1630 København V, Denmark
A fairy-tale town deserves a magical funfair. Tivoli Gardens is one of the country’s most popular attractions, drawing more than four million visitors a year (in a country with a population of around 5.5 million). Youngsters will enjoy the rides, while their parents will appreciate the nostalgic charm and the wide range of dining options, from hot dogs and churros to “New Nordic” gastronomy.
Gl Strandvej 13, 3050 Humlebæk, Denmark
There’s a simple explanation why this art gallery has such an unusual, and un-Danish, name: It was once the private home of Alexander Brun, who had three wives over the course of his life, each of whom was named Louise. Even if the current exhibition isn’t to your taste, the museum is not to be missed. The building, which sits on a promontory overlooking the sea, is one of the world’s most charming galleries and an artwork in itself. It’s outside the city limits but is easily reached by a short train ride and a stroll through one of Copenhagen’s most affluent suburbs.
Købmagergade 52A, 1150 København, Denmark
Walking along the winding streets of central Copenhagen, you will invariable chance upon the 17th-century Round Tower, with an observation deck that affords great views over the city and to Sweden in the distance. To reach the top, you walk up an interior spiral ramp with no stairs, designed to allow horses and carts in earlier times to ascend to the library and observatory, and today kids have great fun racing up and down the cobbles. The tower is also the site of an annual unicycle race. The record round-trip time so far: just under one minute 50 seconds.
Prins Jørgens Gård 1, 1218 København, Denmark
The success of the TV drama Borgen has piqued international interest in the building that houses the Danish government. Christiansborg Palace (from which Borgen takes its name) is also the tallest tower in the city center, and it’s free to visit though you will have to go through airport-style security to get in. There’s a viewing platform or, better yet, go to the casual restaurant in the tower. One of the most unusual and memorable places to dine in Copenhagen, the belfry-like eatery has a Harry Potter–like charm, with casts of sculptures left over from the time the space was used as a storage room.
Kratvænget 15, 2920 Charlottenlund, Denmark
Finn Juhl was one of the greats of 20th-century Danish design, and today his furnishings—and his chairs in particular—fetch extraordinary prices at auction. Juhl’s home, a small white house in Charlottenlund, just north of Copenhagen, is quite modest from the outside, but once you step inside you’ll want to toss out all your furniture and replace it with vintage Danish design. At the same location is also Ordrupgaard, an art gallery filled with French impressionist and Danish works, housed in a beautiful old building with a modern extension by Zaha Hadid.
Jacob Fortlingsvej 1, 2770 Kastrup, Denmark
Den Blå Planet—the Blue Planet—is one of Europe’s biggest aquariums. It’s organized into three main zones—northern lakes and seas, the oceans, and tropical rivers and lakes—so you can explore typical Scandinavian habitats, or view sea otters, herring, and crayfish, or keep the kids entertained by tracking down more exotic creatures such as piranhas, electric eels, and poison frogs. The Danes take a matter-of-fact approach to their wildlife and often do workshops in which visitors are invited to watch an animal being dissected. Located close to Copenhagen Airport, the aquarium is easily reached by public transportation.
Jægersborggade 9, 2200 København, Denmark
Jægersborggade is an unexpected success story. A few years ago no one would have thought to visit the somewhat scruffy street in Nørrebro, but today it’s spruced up and has become a magnet for people interested in food, art, and design. Order a bowl of porridge at super-fashionable Grød, get a cup of coffee made from the finest Bolivian beans at the Coffee Collective, or perhaps buy one of Inge Vincent’s beautiful white porcelain designs. And don’t miss the organic ice cream at Istid that’s been chilled with liquid nitrogen.
Øster Voldgade 4A, 1350 København, Denmark
Rosenborg Castle is so preposterously pretty it looks like an illustration from a fairy tale by local hero Hans Christian Andersen. Built around 1606, it’s surrounded by a moat and is topped off with verdigris-covered towers and turrets. The beautiful gardens—the oldest royal gardens in Denmark—feature box hedges clipped into star patterns. The only downside is that the castle can often be crowded with visitors who come to see the Danish crown jewels and throne.
Bredgade 3, 1260 København, Denmark
This elegant store close to Kongens Nytorv and the bustling waterside bars of Nyhavn showcases two floors of classic 20th-century Danish design. Even if you’re not shopping for a new Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair or a Hans Wegner Wishbone Chair, it’s worth stopping by just to understand why Danish furniture from the middle of the last century has such a strong hold on design aficionados around the world. The pieces are expertly displayed, so Klassik is almost like a mini-museum—one in which the exhibitions are for sale, usually for a significant sum of money.
Skindergade 7, St, 1159 København, Denmark
There isn’t a shop in town that feels happier than Studio Arhoj. Tucked away in a courtyard in the up-and-coming Islands Brygge area, this workshop and store showcases the distinctive Scandinavia-meets-Japan ceramics of local designer Anders Arhoj. From brightly colored Ghosts (conical creatures with eyes wide open) to Asian-style Yuki vases, as well as art prints, cards, and assorted other items, there’s a nice mix of the cartoonish and the elegant. Plus, you can watch the potters and ceramicists at work as you browse the shelves.
Østergade 61, 2, 1100 København, Denmark
There are two reasons to pop into the two-story showroom Hay House. The first, and most important, is that this is one of the best places to see what’s new and interesting in contemporary Danish design. The store is filled with cool, colorful stuff, so much so that getting out without buying something can be a challenge. The second reason: From the upper floor you can take in a great view of Amagertorv, one of the city’s prettier squares.
11 Kronprinsensgade
Every city needs a stand-out confectionery store, and in Copenhagen that role is filled by Summerbird. Locals love the delicious organic chocolates and candied almonds, and flødeboller—chocolate shells that encase super-soft marshmallow—are the specialty of the house. You can buy individual truffles or get them boxed in beautiful packaging for a perfect small gift to take home or give to a Danish friend who’s invited you over. The fairy-tale-pretty products are available at Summerbird shops and other retail outlets around town.
Amagertorv 6, 1160 København, Denmark
From the formal to the casual, various patterns of the distinctive blue-and-white china that’s a familiar sight in Danish homes are artfully displayed in the three-story flagship store on Amagertorv. Upstairs you’ll find impeccably laid tables showcasing the china at its best, and there are often demonstrations by the painters who hand-decorate each piece. You can also learn more about the ultimate Danish china, Flora Danica, which was originally created in 1790 as a gift for Catherine the Great of Russia. It’s beautiful, historic . . . and shockingly expensive.
1 Ekvipagemestervej
Copenhagen’s Opera House is hard to miss. The immense building measures some 440,000 square feet and presides over the harbor from its position on the island of Holmen, across the water from the palace at Amalienborg. Completed in 2004, it was designed by Danish architect Henning Larsen, and thanks to a generous benefactor, no expense was spared: Jura limestone, Italian marble, even oak from a grove of 19th-century trees are just a few of the materials used, and the walls are lined with works by contemporary Danish artists. (Final construction costs totaled more than $500 million, making it is the most expensive opera house ever built.) Fortunately, tickets to the main stage and the experimental Takkelloftet theatre are not always limited to the very rich. Occasional last-minute bargains are available, especially if you sit in the nosebleed section, and state-of-the-art acoustics ensure that the sound there is every bit as good as it is on the main floor.
På Bjerget 14B, 2400 København, Denmark
To the northwest of central Copenhagen, much-photographed (though less frequently visited) Grundtvigs Kirke is notable as a rare example of a church constructed in the expressionist style. Architect Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint won a design competition for the church commission in 1913, but World War I delayed construction until 1921, and the structure was not completed until 1940. (Jensen-Klint was also responsible for the surrounding residential development.) Grundtvig’s monumental and severe exterior was inspired by traditional Danish churches, while the soaring interior is filled with light that pours through the clear windows on sunny days and illuminates the pale yellow bricks. A bit off the beaten path, the church is about a 20-minute bike ride from the city center. The trip takes longer if you use public transportation, so do as the Danes do and hop on a bike.
More From AFAR