The Best Things to Do in Copenhagen

Visit the city of Hans Christin Andersen’s Little Mermaid, where the historic and cutting edge live fabulously together. Tour an old castle or new museum celebrating contemporaty design, explore Tivoli (the world’s second-oldest amusement park), and – if you’re looking for something a little edgier – wander through a nearly-autonomous, half-century-old hippie commune.

Gl. Hovedvagt, Kastellet 1, 2100 København, Denmark
While the little mermaid is good for what she is, just about everyone who sees her finds her...well...small. It shouldn’t be a surprise for something that is quite literally called the LITTLE mermaid, but somehow she often still disappoints. What makes the trip out to see her well worthwhile, however, is Kastellet, which is located immediately behind her. This star fortress dates back to the 1600s, still serves as an active military complex, and is one of the best preserved star fortresses left in Europe. No matter what time of year it is, a walk along the fortress’s ramparts is well worth it. The views over the canals are gorgeous, and there are a number of old canons left lying about for photos. You’ll also find one of Copenhagen‘s only remaining windmills. Don’t just explore the ramparts, also head down and look at the historic buildings that fill the interior of the fortress. With their brightly colored paint, tiny windows, and age-weary walls, they’re perfect for a photo.
Amalienborg Slotsplads
When you think of a royal palace, you usually think of one set building. In Copenhagen‘s case there are actually four distinct buildings which surround a large central square. Why four? Apparently, because it was originally inhabited by four noble families. Only, when Christiansborg Palace burnt down in 1794 the royal family needed a new place to live. For the king and queen, it wouldn’t do to live in the same palace lesser nobility had previous inhabited. The solution? Acquire all four noble houses and turn them into a super-palace. While the Queen still uses some of the buildings as her winter residence, others are open to the public or converted into a museum. This is also a fantastic spot to see the changing of the guard, and for a slice of history head to the corner facing the fountain (and opera house). Looking back into the square, you’ll see a small patch of damaged stucco. That patch is an un-repaired piece of the palace that illustrates blast damage from WWII.
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.
Frederiksgade 4, 1265 København, Denmark
Situated in a position that allows Amalienborg to beautifully frame it, Frederiks Kirke, more commonly referenced as the Marble Church, adds to the beauty of the palatial complex. Started in 1749, the church wasn’t completed until 1894 and sports the largest dome in Scandinavia and one of the largest domes in Europe. While simple, it is well worth a visit and has a beautiful interior with a wonderful dome. While the cathedral itself is interesting, the best part of the church is actually the hardest to get to. Available twice a day, a guide offers trips up to the overlook above the dome. This is worth it for two reasons. First, the view out over Amalienborg Palace and the harbor towards the Opera house is fantastic and not something you’ll see many photos of. Second, the path to the overlook actually takes you inside and above the dome. So, you’ll get to see the void between the interior of the inner dome, and the exterior dome. Even more, you’ll climb stairs that wrap over it—a fun thought when you consider what’s just a few feet below you!
Vandkunsten 5, 1467 København, Denmark
This tiny street is one of the oldest in Copenhagen and is, in my opinion, also the city’s most charmingly beautiful little lane. Lined by historic houses painted in distinctly Scandinavian hues, Magaestrade is charming no matter what time of year it is or what the weather is like.
Bådsmandsstræde 43, 1407 København K, Denmark
In 1971, squatters moved into the barracks on an abandoned military base and established Freetown Christiania, an autonomous district in the middle of the city. Later, many dwellers built their own homes on the 86-acre property. Although the Danish Supreme Court ruled this year that the state owns the land, the area’s nearly 1,000 residents have yet to be evicted. Today, visitors can bike along tree-lined paths and check out the handmade structures before they disappear. This appeared in the July/August 2011 issue.
Last week we spent 5 days in Copenhagen, Denmark. October is, for me, the best time to visit. It’s colder and there are more chances for rain but the number of tourists is drastically lower. I did not feel suffocated by them at all. Nyhavn harbor was almost empty every day. I love traveling in the shoulder season.
Beyond being Denmark’s most famous beer, Carlsberg has played a central role in shaping the look, feel, and prosperity of Copenhagen over the years. If you’re a beer lover and interested in a fun experience, consider setting aside time to do a brewery tour.
4 Forbindelsesvej
Located in Copenhagen, where Hans Christian Andersen called home for many years, sits a tribute to one of his greatest literary works: The Little Mermaid. Commissioned in 1909, the Little Mermaid resides as a solitary figure on a single rock in Langelinie, a solemn bronze soul, sulking by the waters edge. I love this statue because it captures the true essence of the original story. Most people are familiar with the ‘amended’ version of the tale, or the Disney movie of the same name that had everyone walking out of the theater with a smile on their face. But the original story written by Andersen did not have a happy ending at all. In fact, our heroin simply dissolved into the sea, never to be seen again. Not exactly the uplifting children’s tale we all know and love now. So venture out to Langelinie via car or boat and pay a visit to our mermaid friend, I’m sure she’d appreciate it.
4 Dessaus Boulevard
Before Carlsberg bought out Tuborg, the beer was bottled and brewed in Hellerup. The location has now been converted into a mixed-use space including high-end housing, a charming little harbor, and state-of-the-art business buildings. What remains is one of Copenhagen‘s lesser known and quirkier attractions. Originally created in 1885 to appear in Tivoli Gardens for the World’s Fair, this bottle has stood vigil over the old Tuborg grounds for the last several decades. While you can no longer go into the bottle to make the trip to the viewing windows at the top, it is still worth a quick peek.
Bredgade 68, 1260 København, Denmark
Great design is everywhere you look in Denmark—in shops, in homes, in public spaces—and the creativity of its people has long been a source of national pride. This museum, located just around the corner from Amalienborg, was founded in 1890, many decades before midcentury modern became an international sensation. It looks at the history of Danish design over the centuries, taking in everything from furniture to fashion to textiles.
100 Kongevejen
Situated just outside of Copenhagen, the Danish Open Air Museum is a fantastic place that allows you to see and experience Danish history. The museum features historic buildings, traditional breeds of Danish livestock, and stunning gardens. Buildings within the museum cover the time period 1650-1940 with a mixture of farm houses, mills, and common buildings available for you to visit.
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.
Julius Thomsens Pl. 1, 1925 Frederiksberg, Denmark
Bike culture is a core part of the Copenhagen lifestyle. One way to experience this is to take advantage of Copenhagen’s relatively new tourist bikes. These are the white bikes located throughout the city (check the website for pickup points). You can pick up the bike, and rent it on the spot. The bikes have LCD screens with directions and electric engines to supplement your peddle power. When you’re done, you just return the bike to the nearest empty station and you’re all set!
2B Øster Farimagsgade
The Botanical Garden was established in 1600, but moved a few times before settling on its current central site in 1870. The beautiful grounds are particularly noteworthy for the extensive complex of historical glasshouses. There are 27 in total, ranging from the grand Palm House that dates from 1874 to a specially cooled greenhouse used for growing arctic plants. It’s very much a working garden, used for scientific research, but for visitors it’s a beautiful—and free—spot to spend an afternoon.
Nørre Voldgade 1, 1358 København, Denmark
Situated just next to the hustle and bustle of Norreport Station, Ørstedsparken has a small lake, gorgeous bridge, and series of flowerbeds and tree-lined walkways that make it easy to forget you’re in a major city. The park is stunning year-round but at its most beautiful in late spring and early fall. Join locals in the park for BBQing, sunbathing, and relaxing while snacking on lunch or downing Carlsberg or Tuborg purchased at a nearby 7/11, Netto or Fakta.
I’d like to believe that had my public library been as stunning as the Black Diamond in Copenhagen, I would have spent more time studying at the library and less time doing whatever one does when one is supposed to be doing their reading. But the reality is that I probably would have spent most of the time staring out at the water and at the handsome people who wander through its naturally lit halls. The Black Diamond is the newer annex to The Danish Royal Library. It gets its name from the black granite, tinted windows and trapezoidal design (isosceles I think; perhaps I would be more sure had I worked harder on that geometry homework). When you turn the corner, it peers out like a large warship: dark, massive, and slightly foreboding. But the people and bicycles scattered about near the library’s entrance bely the need for concern. At the library’s entrance there is a cafe perfect for you to steady yourself with coffee, pastries, and more people watching. The library holds an art exhibit, concerts, The National Museum of Photography, The Museum of Danish Cartoon Art, as well as its own collection. But the pièce de résistance is the atrium that overlooks the harbor. Take the escalator up a few floors and turn and seize the view. But don’t gasp too loudly: there are people probably trying to do their geometry homework.
12 Frederiksholms Kanal
Frederiksholms Canal is a small canal that is connected to Copenhagen Harbor and which surrounds and creates the small island of Slotsholmen. Slotsholmen is significant because it serves as home to Christiansborg Palace, the seat of the Danish Parliament, as well as museums, and the Royal Danish Library. More than just a glorified moat, the canal has a number of historical boats moored along its banks and serves as a lovely spot to enjoy the Danish weather. For a quirky surprise look into the canal’s depths just off of Højbro bridge for an other-worldly piece of submerged art.
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.
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.
Strøget, København, Denmark
Copenhagen’s pedestrian-only shopping street, Strøget, stretches from the city square (Radhusplasn) to Nyhavn (Kongens Nytorv) and is lined by shops, cafes, department stores and restaurants. Walking the street from end to end is an absolute must as part of any visit to Copenhagen. Set aside some extra time to enjoy the street performers and skilled buskers that line the street year-round.
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