What to Do: Your First Day in Copenhagen

Stroll through the city’s historic core, hop aboard a canal tour boat, and visit Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

One thing you won’t hear talked about much is that Copenhagen serves as the home of the world’s most accurate mechanical clock. This differs from the world’s most accurate clock overall which is atomic and not based in Denmark. The clock is on display just inside city hall and open to the public. Built by Jens Olsen the clock is re-wound once a week, has the slowest turning gear in the world, and is gilded with four kilos of gold. It was first started in 1955 and also displays the location of the planets as well as the stars above city hall.
Sankt Annæ Pl. 36, 1250 København, Denmark
Copenhagen has a staggering array of museums, concerts halls, and opera houses. The one captured above (while getting rained on during a boat ride in the harbor on our way to see the Little Mermaid statue), is of the Royal Danish Playhouse. Opened in 2008, the playhouse was designed to complement the nearby Copenhagen Opera House, as well as the original 1874 playhouse venue located on Kongens Nytorv. The bluish-green glass-enclosed area affords visitors panoramic views of the harbor, and also has a restaurant and cafe if you want to accompany your view with food or drink. Or considering the weather I was in, it’s a nice pace to simply protect yourself from the elements.
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.
Dantes Plads 7, 1556 København, Denmark
We stood like a pair of Hemingway’s cats in the thin Scandinavian rain to photograph the oxidized lions washed dark at the front of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. A rainy day is always a good day to see a museum and the Carlsberg, the brainchild of the beer scion Carl Jacobsen, is one museum to visit when the weather encourages it. The well-lit solarium of the winter garden speckled with koi ponds, tall palms, and miniaturized sculptures first welcomes you. There a popular cafe serves coffees, beers (from the Carlsberg Brewery naturally), organic lunches, and locally sourced treats. The most popular dining spot, where a reservation is needed, is along the terrace which overlooks the garden. The museum’s two collections are antiquities and French and Danish art from the 19th century. Sculptures are the museum’s métier- they dot even the quiet corners of the museum- from the serious Roman busts to the Danish sculptures which extol physical perfection and line the bright rooms like alabaster runway models. The patterned tiles and marble columns add airs of formality. Then there are the impressionist wings: van Gogh’s Landscape from Saint-Remy; Manet’s the Absinthe Drinker; Gaugin’s Tahitian Woman with Flower; Degas’ The Little-Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer. One appreciates that you can get up close to the works without a rush of onlookers; the museum’s collections are carefully curated, so as to not to overwhelm, and are laid in a manner inviting you to stay for a while.
128 Gothersgade
Though it has somewhat limited hours, the Palm House in the heart of Copenhagen‘s botanical gardens is open year round and a lovely spot to visit. Built in the late 1870s, the structure is everything you would expect from a building dating back to that era including cast-iron spiral stairs, and butterfly room.
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.
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.
In spring and summer months, peaking in July, it is strawberry and cherry season. Street vendors around the city sell both en mass. Raised to Danish agricultural standards, they are incredibly flavorful, healthy, and the perfect budget-friendly snack for exploring the city. One of my favorite places to buy from is a small flower and fruit stand located just south of Norreport in the square called Kultorvet. The booth is impossible to miss, and with the recently installed fountain situated about 10 paces away, you can sit and enjoy them while watching people go about their daily business.
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.
Churchillparken 11, 1263 København K, Denmark
Built in the Gothic Revival style, many locals feel that this is Copenhagen‘s most elegant church. With its multi-hued design, sharp lines, and picturesque location overlooking Kastellet’s moat the “English Church” can be quite enchanting. Situated immediately next to the church is the Gefion fountain which depicts the Gefjun (Norse mythology) riding in a chariot pulled by giant animals. Designed by Anders Bundgaard, the fountain is dramatic and features spraying water which leaves you feeling as though Gefjun is in motion while in the midst of a raging stream.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Pilestræde 67, 1150 København, Denmark
The Trinitatis Church was built in the mid 1600s at the same time as the Round Tower astrological observatory which is attached to it and replaces what would otherwise be its bell tower. Trinitatis Church is part of the Trinitatis complex and was used by the University of Copenhagen for much of it’s history. The church is accessed through doors to the side which is slightly deceptive and causes my visitors to overlook it. The church is representative of the massive building projects that defined Christian IV’s reign.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Food + Drink
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East