Capital of one of the happiest countries in the world, Scandinavia’s most relaxed capital city, gastronomy capital of the North, the first bike city in the world, home to the first and second oldest amusement parks in the world, having the world’s oldest and longest shopping pedestrian street, Copenhagen fairly deserves to also be included in the top ranked destinations … in the world of course.
But apart from those distinctions, Copenhagen is a beautiful, colorful and enchanting city offering a wide range of attractions and activities ready to fulfil the highest expectations of any traveler. Romantic canals, a beautiful and colorful harbor, fairytale castles, buildings with interesting architecture of medieval, rococo and modern styles and world-class design, historical landmarks, interesting museums, excellent restaurants but also amazing street food, great shopping venues, jazz bars and much more synthesize Copenhagen’s sight map and experience. And all these within a relatively small area, that is safe and easy to navigate.
I visited Copenhagen with my friend Eleni for a weekend break in October 2018, but I would love going back for a longer lasting visit to fully explore it and discover all of its treasures and hidden gems.
Regions of Copenhagen
Indre By means “Inner City” and this is the city centre and Copenhagen’s oldest neighborhood (it began to develop around 1167) where most of the touristic and historical landmarks, shopping streets, restaurants, cafes, hotels are found. It is also knows as the Medieval or Old City.
The famous and photogenic Nyhvan harbour is maybe the most prominent attraction. The main streets are Strøget and Købmagergade both of which are pedestrianised and inundated with name brand stores. The surrounding streets are also very nice, colorful and interesting to explore and find the local atmosphere.
Slotsholmen is an islet in the heart of Copenhagen connected to Indre by a number of bridges. Being home of the Christiansborg Palace, Denmark’s government building, it is also known as “Island of Power“.
Christianshavn means “Christian’s Harbour”. Situated east to Indre by, Christianshavn is an artificial island that was created from swampy land by King Christian 1V in the early 17th century as part of the southern fortification of the city and it was designed along the lines of Amsterdam.
Copenhagen’s main waterway, Inderhavnen, separates it from the rest of the city. It used to be a working class area but today it is a trendy region and a desirable place to live full of canals, cafes, bars, restaurants, modern buildings, lovely canal side houses and boats along the waterfront.
The Freetown of Christiania, the Church of our Saviour and Noma, the tree times voted Best Restaurant in the World, are found here.
Vesterbø means “Western Bridge“. Once famous for its Red Light Distict, and even though there are still seedy areas today Vesterbø has enormously evolved and features a range of trendy fashion designer shops and boutiques, cozy cafes and nice restauants. The historic and world famous Tivoli amusement park is located here.
Nørrebro means “Northern Bridge“. It is a vibrant and mutlicultural area of Copenhagen with most of the residents being immigrants from Middle East.
- Frederiksberg: even though it is next to Copenhagen’s city centre, it is an indepedent municipality. Frederiksberg is a fashionable part of Copenhagen with excellent shopping opportunities and green spaces.
- Østerbro (“Eastern Bridge“): located at north of the centre, Østerbro is considered an upper class area with expensive houses, wide roads, and a lot of green areas.
- Amager: located southwest of the city centre, Amager is where the Copenhagen Airport is located.
- Northern suburbs: this region is where the wealthier population of Copenhagen lives. It features many parks, lakes and forests.
- Vestegnen: not so touristic area apart from an art museum.
Top Things to See and Do
Visiting Copenhagen will amaze you with how many and diverse top-class and unique attractions can fit in such a relatively small city. This feature makes it an ideal destination for either a weekend break that is enough for seeing most of its major sights or a longer trip that will give you the chance to fully experience what the city generously offers.
As for the best way to move and explore the city is by bike, given that Copenhagen is a flat city with an impressive dedicated network of biking lanes. It is not a coincidence that here bikes are more than cars and most of the locals use them everyday. If you rather prefer walking though, be aware of the bikes !
Nyhavn: the picturesque and colorful harbor
Almost every postcard of Copenhagen illustrrates Nyhavn (New Harbor), the picturesque harbor surrounded by colorful townhouses and tall historical sailboats docked along the quays, both reflecting on the stunning waterways, with beautiful bridges filled with key lockers, many restaurants and cafes and of course a lot of people strolling around and enjoying the beauty and vibe of the place.
The famous Danish fairytale writer, Hans Christian Andersen, had lived in the house numbers 19, 20 and 67 and wrote his famous fairy tales. Undoubtedly, the beauty of the place must have contributed in his inspirations.
No matter how many times we passed from here, we were always tempted to take more and more photos for grasping part of the beautiful scenery.
Nyhvan is also one of the departure points for the canal tours.
Little Mermaid: taken out from a fairytale
It is really amazing how such a small “thing” has become the most visited attraction in Copenhagen and probably its symbol, even though it is a city that is full of historical, cultural, and entertainment attractions. Maybe it is because of the legend, according to which here was the home of all mermaids, or the tragic story of the fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” written by Hans Christian Andersen that inspired the construction of the sculpture in 1913.
Whatever the reason is, by no means could we miss seeing it and taking photos of her and with her. Many people get disappointed when they realize how small the sculpture actually is. Personally, I liked it a lot. After all, the size is not the only metric of significance. Provoking emotions and feelings is the main challenge of any artwork and the little mermaid does this with success.
Still not convinced? Well, the route towards the statue along the seafront is also very interesting and beautiful, giving you an extra reason to reach this little but famous creature. Just a short walk from the Little Mermaid, there is a beautiful church, called St. Alban’s Anglican church, and an incredible fountain, the Gefion fountain.
And you never know, you might also see a wedding taking place 🙂
Castles and Palaces
Being one of the oldest monarchies in Europe, Denmark is full of beautiful castles and palaces, many of which are situated in Copenhagen, which in combination with the Little Mermaid, fairly nomitate it as a fairytale city. Depending on the length of your trip, visiting all of them and their interior is absolutely worthy.
1. Amalienborg Palace
Amalienborg Palace, situated between the city and the harbour, is actually the winter residence of the Danish royal family that moved here in 1974 when the Christiansborg was burned down. It is a complex of four externally identical palaces sorrounding the octagonal Amalienborg Palace Square with a equestrian statue of its founder, King Frederick V, standing in the middle. The four palaces were built as residence for the four noble families that lived here and two of them are open to the public.
The palace is a major work of Danish arhcitecture with rococo style interiors with a number of rooms preserving their original design, giving you the chance to taste part of the royal family’s everyday life.
A major attraction is also the changing of the guards which happens daily at noon.
2. Rosenborg Castle and the King's Garden
Rosenborg Castle, located 10 minutes walk from the city centre, is a Renaissance style castle 400 yearls old built by Christian IV, one of the most famous Scandinavian kings, as a Royal Hermitage. It is a beautiful building sorrounded by the King’s Garden, the oldest royal garden which was built before the castle and it is very popular among locals for hanging out and relaxing.
Its interiors are well preserved giving you the chance to travel back in time and sense the royal life. The main attractions are the Crown Jewels, the Danish Royal Regalia, the King’s bathroom, the Long Hall with the coronation throne and silver guard lions, and a chamber with a collection of Venetian glass.
3. Christiansborg Palace
Christiansborg Palace is located at the heart of the city in Slotsholmen, a castle islet as its name reveals that is sorrounded by water canals. The history of the palace is more than 800 years and actually it is the most recent of five successive palaces that were demolished due to wars, modernizations and fires.
What makes it very unique is that unlike any other building in the world, Christiansborg Palace houses all three supreme powers: the Parliament, the Ministry of State and Supreme Court, while the Royal Reception Rooms are also located here.
There are many things to visit in the palace. The Great Hall is magnificent decorated with colourful tapestries, depicting the Danish history of from the period of Vikings until the present. It is used by the Royal family to carry out their duties, arranging Gala dinners and other kinds of events. The Royal Kitchen is also very interesting, where you will admire tones of copper kitchenware. Underground, you can explore the Ruins of all previous palaces and castles.
And of course don’t miss going up to the Christiansborg Tower, the highest in Copenhagen, to enjoy a panoramic view of the city. The access is free and there is elevator … and queuing of course.
4. Frederiksborg Castle
Frederiksborg Castle is not located in Copenhagen and therefore you need to plan a day trip in order to visit it. It is an impressive Renaissance Castle, the largest in Scandinavia, that was built in the first decade of the 17th century by the Danish King Christian IV, as a royal residence in Hillerød, a castle lake north of Copenhagen.
We didn’t have time to visit it. Hopefully, next time !
Børsen (The Stock Exchange)
Next to the Christiansborg Palace, one of the oldest historic buildings of Copenhagen is situated. It is called Børsen which means Stock Exchange which is what it used to function for until 1974. It is considered one of the finest examples of Dutch Renaissance architecture in Denmark, but what makes it more distinctive is the dragontailed spire on its roof, reachng a height of 56 metres and topped by three crowns, symbolizing the Scandinavian empire (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). According to legend, the dragontailed spire guards the building against enemy attacks and fires.
Today, the building is not open to the public but only used for special events.
The Round Tower (Rundetaarn)
What is very interesting and unusual is its interior structure since there are no stairs to climb on the top of the tower but instead a smooth slanted spiral walkway ramp of 269 meters length. This architectural design was not for style but its intention was to facilitate the transfer of the heavy and fragile astronomical equipment.
Having a height of 35 meters, it offers some of the finest panoramic views over the city, the harbor and the sorrounding seas.
Strøget: for shopping and not only
However, Strøget is not just for shopping. Encompassing a larger area of smaller streets and many historic town squares, its a popular destination for several attractions, activities, entetainement and dining. The main attractions you can find here are the St. Peter’s Church, Church of our Lady, City Hall Square, the Royal Danish Theatre, and several museums ans art galleries. A variety of great restaurants, cafes, bakeries, street food stands can be found here increasing its popularity.
Freetown Christiania: the alternative part of the city
Along with the Nyhvan harbor and the Little Mermaid, Chrisitania is also one of the most famous sights of Copenhagen. Controversial, colorful, vibrant, representing an alternative way of life is indeed a unique place to visit.
Christiania is an autonomous anarchist district that was first founded in 1971 as a social expirement by idealists aiming for an alternative way of life and has remained until today with around 1000 residents. It is mostly known for the open canabis trade which is tolerated by the Danish government, and it takes place in the famous “Green Light District“.
During our visit in Christiania, we were totally amazed with the scenery. It is a society within a society, totally independent and in complete contradiction with the rest of the city. It features homemade houses, workshops, music venues, eateries, cafes, galleries and all these surrounded by a beautiful natural envioronment. Photos were not allowed in most parts especially where the cannabis trade was taking place, so I can’t share with you what we have seen. You have to go yourself !
Church of Our Saviour: for the best view of the city
Regardless religion, history or culture, churches are usually the most common attraction in a place. Most probably this is because of their outstanding structure and size. The Church of our Saviour, located in the heart of Copenhagen’s oldest district, Christianshavn, just a few meters away from Christiania, goes beyond this general rule. It is a baroque style church with a layout of a Greek cross, boasting the largest carillon in Northen Europe, but it is its tower that it is mostly famous for. It is a helix spire with external winding staircase that you can climb to the top, 90 meters above street level.
What is also very interesting is that the staircase winds in an anticlockwise direction, which was very uncommon in Renaissance times. There is an urban legend that when the architect of the tower, Lauritz de Thurah, realized this mistake he killed himself by jumbing from the top of the tower.
Each year more than 60.000 people climb to the top. The main challenge is to first climb the 400 steep steps inside the church and then if you are brave enough the last 150 steps of the outside spire, which can even be shaking if it is windy. The reward to this achievement will be a stunning view of the city, which in 2017 was voted by the locals as the best one. I managed the 400 steps but when I started climbing on the spiral I felt dizzy !
The Royal Danish Opera House: architectural perfection
The Copenhagen Opera House is one of the most outstanding buildings in Copenhagen and it is considered one of the most modern, expensive and best equipped opera houses in the world. Its consruction costed more than $500 million and it was a donation from the A.P. Møller and Chastine McKinney Møller Foundation to the Danish people. The building was designed by architect Henning Larsen and it is said that there was a conflict with Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller regarding its design and features.
It is located on the island of Holem just opposite the Amalienborg castle and in alignment with it and the Marble Church. It is a beautiful waterfront setting, best viewed from Larsens Plads, just in front of Amalienborg.
Tivoli Gardens: magic and fairytale
Dated from 1843, Tivoli Gardens or simply Tivoli is the second oldest amusement park in the world and the most visited park in Scandinavia, making it an international attraction and a must when visiting Copenhagen.
Even though we aren’t big fans of amusement parks, we wanted to visit it and experience its magical scenery and fairytale atmosphere. However, Tivoli is a seasonal park and opened only during Summer, Christmas and Halloween and when we went it wasn’t open. Definetely to be checked out when we plan our next visit !
Gastronomy: internationally recognized
With 15 Michelin-starred restaurants, Copenhagen is undoubtedly one of Europe’s top gourmet capitals and home to New Nordic Cuisine, a new food culture developed in 2009-13 with key emphasis on gastronomy, health, and environment, being of high quality and with a focus on using local and seasonal produce . One of the most innovative restaurants in Copenhagen is Noma, which holds two Michelin-stars and has claimed the title of World’s Best Restaurant four times, in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014. Goes without saying you need to make a reservations at least 3 months in advance.
But apart from the gourmet restaurants, Copenhagen’s restaurant scene is for all budgets. Torvehallerne is a famous covered food market with more than 60 stands selling everything from fresh fish and meat to gourmet chocolate and exotic spices. Here you will find the smørrebrød which is an open-faced sandwich with a topping from a wide range of selections.
Other very nice restaurants are the Höst and the Schønnemann, which has maybe the greatest selection of smørrebrød toppings.
What you should be aware of is that for most of the restaurants you need to reserve in advance !
Vesterbrø is a district in Copenhagen, just outside the city center. It used to be the meatpacking district and it was the area of prostitution, hippies, poverty and drug trade … not so appealing. Today, however, it has evolved and its character has completely changed. It features many restuarants, cafes, bars, art galleries, design shops, boutiques most of which are found along the Istedgade street which was previously filled with prostitutes and drug dealers.
Vesterbrø is also very popular for restaurants offering affordable New Nordic cuisine. One of the most famous restaurant is the Kødbyens Fiskebar (which transaltes at Meat Market Fish Bar) which was set up by the former Noma sommelier.
A very nice and totally recommended cafe is the Café Bang & Jensen, at the posh end of Istedgade. Cosy, relaxed with nice decoration and where we had the best smørrebrød !
Apart from shopping and great eateries, here you will also find the spectacular Tivoli Gardens and Carlsberg, the first Carlsberg Brewery that gets you closer to the roots of Carlsberg, the history and the beer.
Most of the city’s attractions are located in the regions Indre by and Christianshavn, so those are the ideal areas to stay if you want to minimize your transportaton time. Copenhagen is an expensive city (perhaps the most expensive in Europe), so prices for hotels and accommodation are analogous. Houses via Airbnb are generally cheaper than hotels. We rented via Airbnb an apartment in Christianshavn, 10 minutes from Nyhvan Harbor, and we were very pleased.
The sure thing is that you will not get hungry in Copenhagen! If you can spend about € 300 per person and book at least 3 months in advance, Noma, one of the best restaurants in the world, is an ideal choice. What you should not miss is the Torvehallerne food market, where you can find a huge selection of local and other cuisines. Of course you have to try smørrebrød with a topping of your choice. Perhaps the best restaurant for smørrebrød is Schønnemann. A very nice gourmet restaurant we set apart distinguished is the Höst. In the Vesterbrø area, the most famous and perhaps also a special restaurant is the Kødbyens Fiskebar. We enjoyed our brunch at Café Bang & Jensen. What you need to know is that for most you need to make a reservation, especially on weekends.
Of course by bike! However, walking is also vey easy and convenient. We took the metro (which is fully automatic) only to and from the airport.
The local currency is the Danish Crown, but all transactions can be done using a credit / debit card, but also in euros.