Sitting on the east coast of Denmark, Copenhagen has been that country’s capital for 600 years and is the largest city in Scandinavia with a population of 1.2 million people. It’s home to the world’s oldest monarchy (King Erik VII set up permanent residence in 1417) and its present queen, Margrethe II, currently lives at Amalienborg Palace.
In a country rich in Viking history, grand castles and lush green countryside, Copenhagen is a charming city of 17th- and 18th-century buildings, beautiful parks and gardens, pretty canal promenades, and ancient winding streets made for walking and biking. During the longer days and warmer weather of summer, outdoor cafe-sitting and outings to the magical Tivoli Gardens are highlights.
At any time, getting your bearings in old Copenhagen is easy; it’s a warren of pedestrian streets, bounded by Norreport Station, Town Hall Square and the Central Train Station. Stroget, which is an amalgamation of five streets — Frederiksberggade, Nygade, Vimmelskaftet, Amagertorv and Ostergade — runs practically smack-dab through the center of the city between Radhuspladsen and Kongens Nytorv. Pistolstraede is chock-a-block with galleries, restaurants and boutiques; Fiolstraede is for antiques galore; and Nyhavn is where some of the most expensive restaurants are located.
It’s an expensive city, and yet a visit here is worth the splurge. One way to save money is to pick up a cOPENhagen CARD, which offers unlimited free access by bus and rail throughout the metropolitan area for one to five days, as well as complimentary admission to 75 sites and museums. Up to two children under the age of 10 are allowed free with each adult card.
The biggest museum in Denmark is the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, where works from the 13th century to the present are exhibited. You’ll see art by Rubens, Rembrandt, Hals and Kobke. French 20th-century art includes 20 works by Matisse. Inside the Royal Print Room, you’ll have an opportunity to look at any one of more than 300,000 drawings, prints and lithographs by the world’s most important artists.
Since opening in 1843, the 20-acre Tivoli Gardens has made visitors grin from ear to ear. You’ll love the more than 400,000 flowers and almost as many sparkling lights that fill Tivoli after dark. There are nearly 47 eateries covering all budgets, more than 100 concerts per year, 25 amusement rides, and colorful just-before-midnight fireworks each Saturday night. Don’t skip the Pantomime Theater’s free magical evening performances of ballet and acrobatics, which have been presented since 1844. Tivoli is closed from mid-September until April, but opens for a few weeks prior to the Christmas holidays with a terrific market and a chance to channel your inner Hans Christian Andersen by ice skating on the lake.
The four 18th-century French-style Rococo mansions that make up Amalienborg Palace have been the homes of the Danish royal family since 1794. You can see the changing of the Royal Danish Guard at noon, only when the royal family is at home (you’ll know they are if the swallowtail flag is flying above). Capped off in black bearskin busbies, the guards begin marching at 11:30 a.m. from the barracks by the Rosenborg Palace along different routes, depending on which royal is in residence. After the change, they return along those same routes back to Rosenborg accompanied by a band. Visitors only have access to Christian VIII’s Palace (Margrethe lives at Christian IX’s).
The coyly reclining Little Mermaid is quintessential Copenhagen, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen and sculpted by Edvard Eriksen in 1913. She’s been decapitated twice — once in 1964 (the head was never recovered) and again in 1998 (this time the head turned up at a TV station, delivered by a masked person). Fortunately, the head was welded back on. Vandals cut off her arm in the early 1900’s — but because the original mold exists, her body parts were replaced.
Home to the Danish Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Royal Reception Rooms, Christiansborg Palace is a must-see. Take any one of the daily guided tours to see the Reception Rooms, Throne Room, Banqueting Hall, the Queen’s Library and Parliament. Make sure you visit the ruins of the 1167 Bishop Absalon castle (he founded Copenhagen) under the palace.
A citadel constructed by King Frederik III in the 1660s and still with some of its original ramparts, Kastellet was the city’s main fortress until the 18th century, when it fell into disuse. During the Nazi occupation, it was the Germans’ headquarters. Though the Danish military occupies its buildings today, visitors can stroll the lovely grounds. Don’t forget to check out the five-point moat.
If you’re up to it, trek up the 400-step spiral steeple of the Baroque Our Savior’s Church for an amazing city view. Urban legend says the architect jumped from the steeple when he realized the winding staircase curved the wrong way. Leave enough time to see the carved organ case.
Jam-packed with anthropological artifacts from the Upper Paleolithic period to the mid-19th century, the National Museum of Denmark houses the largest collection of artifacts in the country. The Viking stones and helmets are amazing, as are the 3,000-year-old lur horn (among the oldest instruments in Europe) and the 3,500-year old Sun Chariot. We recommend seeing the Royal Collection of Coins and Medals, too.
The 17th-century Renaissance-style Rosenborg Castle was built as a summer home by Christian IV. Be sure to check out the ivory coronation chairs and Frederik VII’s baby shoes. Twenty-four chronologically arranged rooms are filled to the brim with royal family artifacts. Head downstairs to the basement to see the crown jewels (including Christian IV’s crown and the jewel-studded sword of Christian III) and Knights’ Hall. By the way, the crown jewels are so protected that even the queen can’t take them with her on visits outside Denmark.
Be sure to see Bertel Thorvaldsen’s statues of Christ and the Twelve Apostles at the neoclassical 11th-century Vor Frue Kirke (Church of Our Lady). Visitors are not permitted to enter during religious services or other events.
Apart from the largest chunk of amber in the world, the small museum at the House of Amber has an excellent collection of other amber with embedded insects, plants and other pre-historic material. Guided tours are available if pre-arranged. There’s a shop downstairs where you can purchase high-quality amber jewelry.
Established in 1882, the Carlsberg Museum is surprisingly wonderful — filled with exhibits about the long history of the Carlsberg family and their famous brewery.
Designed by Daniel Libeskind (he also designed New York City’s under-construction One World Trade Center), the tiny Danish Jewish Museum opened its doors on June 8, 2004. Located in the former Royal Boathouse built by Christian IV in 1598, it is the first museum for any minority in Denmark. Exhibits show Danish-Jewish culture, art and history extending back to the first Jewish immigration 400 years ago.
Some say the greatest castle in the country is Kronborg. The “Elsinore Castle” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it is considered one of the most important Renaissance castles in Northern Europe. Viator offers excursions to get you there.
Head out to Lyngby, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, to see the Open Air Museum, a lovely reconstructed village spread out on nearly 90 acres — consider it good exercise to stroll the two miles around the compound. Don’t-miss exhibits include a half-timbered 18th-century farmstead from one of Denmark’s tiny islands, a primitive longhouse from the Faroe Islands and thatched fishermen’s huts from Jutland.
An excellent exhibit on the period of Nazi occupation can be found at the Museum of Danish Resistance. Old news communications from the underground press and a good deal of artifacts dealing with rescuing Danish Jews, sabotaging the railways and more are all on display. Editor’s Note: The museum remains closed due to a fire in April 2013. The reconstruction of the building and exhibits is expected to take several years.
The Royal Stables are the actual stables of the Royal Family since 1778; you’ll see riders exercising the royal horses. Visit the Harness Room to see old uniforms, an ornate eight-horse harness and the Royal Family’s carriage. Inside the Coach Hall, you can see well-preserved state coaches and carriages.
For late-night dips and sandy sunsets, head about 38 miles out of town to the beaches of North Zealand — such as Gilleleje, Hornbaek, Liseleje and Tisvildeleje. The easiest way to get to the North Zealand beaches is first by train to Helsingor, then by bus. If you’ve got the time, check out any one of the little resort towns along the coast. As a side note, North Zealand has more castles and palaces than any other region in Denmark. We highly recommend checking out at least one. Our favorite is Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod near Lake Slotso. It’s as beautiful inside as it is from the outside; you’ll tour more than 70 rooms filled with magnificent tapestries, paintings and antiques. See Viator for excursions to Frederiksborg Castle.
Denmark’s best fare comes in its open-faced sandwiches, known as smorrebrod, which are typically made of rye bread piled high with a wide variety of toppings (classic options include pickled herring, smoked salmon, cheese, cucumbers and thick sauces). Also legendary are Copenhagen’s hot dogs (seriously); they can be bought from any one of many carts scattered throughout the city. Dining here can be rather expensive, so hang onto your hat when the check comes.
A relative newcomer to Tivoli is Nimb, a beautifully restored historic structure on the grounds that now houses an extremely upmarket boutique hotel, deli, market, restaurant and brasserie. Aim for the latter which, though a bit pricey, offers fantastic views over the grounds (we could watch a pantomime performance while we dined on the terrace); the food is traditional Danish with a contemporary flair.
Of course, Tivoli also offers all manner of casual eateries and even a Hard Rock Cafe.
Rated the best restaurant in the world three times since 2005 by The S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Noma focuses on Nordic cuisine, incorporating ingredients like fresh berries from Greenland, deep-sea crabs from the Faroe Islands and wild salmon from Iceland.
Called the best Italian eatery in Denmark, celeb-haunt Era Ora serves up tasty Italian fusion cuisine. The restaurant is housed in a restored 18th-century building in the Christianshavn area. Reservations are required.
Godt is everyone’s favorite because the market-fresh food is just plain excellent. The dining room seats only 20 people at a time, so reservations are a must!
Kong Hans Kaelder, a Copenhagen institution, is five centuries old — and Hans Christian Andersen once lived upstairs. The menu, which changes regularly, might include such delights as young squab with spring cabbage or black lobster and cabbage assortment. Reservations are highly recommended.
Shopping in Copenhagen
Shopping is serious business in Copenhagen, especially if you’re hunting for antiques, porcelain or design items for your home. Popular buys here include Royal Copenhagen porcelain and Georg Jensen silver. If you’re visiting from outside the European Union, you can get back up to 19 percent of the hefty 25 percent Value Added Tax (VAT) you pay on certain goods. You must spend a minimum amount per store and items purchased must remain sealed and unused while you’re in Denmark. You will need to carry your passport with you and fill in a form at the time of purchase. Present the forms to Customs at the final departure from the European Union, but keep in mind the agents most likely will ask to see the goods.
Ground zero for shopping in Copenhagen is Stroget, Europe’s longest pedestrian shopping area. It runs from City Hall in the west to Kongens Nytorv in the east; in between are major department stores, international brands, souvenir shops and the famous Royal Copenhagen Porcelain (see below). Don’t forget to browse the side streets too.
Shoppers with upscale tastes should head to Bredgade, home to antique stores and the city’s major auction houses. Another good street for antiques is Laederstraede.
Founded in 1775, Royal Copenhagen has been manufacturing Denmark’s finest porcelain for more than two centuries. It’s best known for its classically beautiful Blue Fluted pattern, which has been continuously in production for as long as the company has been in business. You’ll find its flagship store at Amagertorv 6.
–written by Carolyn Spencer Brown