You know you’re on to a good thing when you arrive at the ‘world’s happiest nation’, even more so, the capital city. A country with a rich history, incredible architecture and delicious cuisine, the Danish have been officially crowned ‘the happiest people in the world’ so we were really excited to spend a couple of days in Copenhagen.
Copenhagen has a multitude of districts developed in different periods, resulting in a diverse range of character throughout the city. Denmark’s capital is one of the fastest growing metropolitan destinations in Europe. It has recently experienced a 42% growth in tourism and the city serves as the cultural hub of Denmark and wider Scandinavia.
Since the late 1990s, Copenhagen has undergone complete transformation from a modest Scandinavian capital to a metropolitan city attracting international attention. The city has seen a surge of investments in infrastructure as well as a production of new architectural designers and globally established chefs.
Home of Carlsberg, Hans Christian Andersen and Lego, we knew we were in for a wide range of activities.
Though the city has developed into a bustling urban paradise, it is sizable enough to explore in a matter of days. This makes Copenhagen a perfect stopover destination.
Here’s how we spent our two days in the city:
The best way to see any city in all of its glory is to join a free walking tour. The tours are ideal if you are short on time or want to get your bearings in a city as soon as you arrive. We toured with Copenhagen Free Walking Tours on their Grand Tour of Copenhagen that departs from the City Hall at 10am, 11am and 3pm*. It turned out to be one of the best things to do in Copenhagen and is listed in the top spot of Copenhagen tours. Here are some of the highlights:
*check website for details
King Christian V lay out King’s New Square back in 1670 with the intention of increasing Denmark’s military advantage. The King noted the strategic location of the square and it’s access points to all parts of the city making it well suited as a central alarm square. He aimed to sell off the surrounding land to wealthy citizens and set strict rules on the building structures that were to be erected there, such as enforcing a ‘two-story minimum’. 28 years after the Square was completed, in 1688, a French sculpture handed over a wonderful equestrian statue to honor the King which still stands in the square today.
One of the most interesting features of the Square is the Old Kiosk and telephone from 1913. This is now a small coffee shop offering customers comfortable outdoor seating in the center of the square.
The square still has cobbles in place giving it a traditional European feel. It is a great central point of the city to sit and enjoy the wonderful surrounding architecture with a delicious snack from one of the nearby eateries. Being the happiest nation, officials of Copenhagen erected a ‘Happy Wall’ to cover up construction of the city’s metro system allowing passers-by to flip tiles and leave their own decoration.
High Bridge Square takes its name from the Højbro (High) Bridge which connects the Slotsholmen island to the Gammel Strand on either side of the canal. The square is actually a rectangle and it’s most notable feature is the Statue of Absalon, who is said to be the founder of Copenhagen.
Kunsthallen Nikolaj (the former Church of St. Nicholas) which is now the Nikolaj Contemporary Art Center is one of the city’s distinctive landmarks in the square. The church was built-in the 13th century making it one of Copenhagen’s longest standing. It has served as a naval museum, a library and was subject of Hans Christian Andersen’s theater drama Love of Nicolai Tower, performed in 1829.
Also known as ‘The Marble Church’ due to is rococo architecture, Frederik’s Church has been standing fully completed since 1894. Initial groundbreaking started in 1749 and the building stood as a ruin for many years until financial difficulties and the death of the designer were eventually dealt with.
The church sits right at the heart of the Frederiksstaden district of Copenhagen and there are many surrounding statues. Some depict a number of well-known figures from the Danish church such as Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and author. The statues on the roof terrace include MosesMartin Luther, and other important figures of the church.
Frederik’s Church is free to enter and the vast size of the dome is breath-taking. The decoration on the inside is exquisite, paved with gold and deep royal colours.
The dome rests on 12 columns and spans an enormous 31 meters. The cupola splits into 12 parts, all decorated with angels and the 12 apostles. The altar is made with solid pine and is purposely shaped like a triumphal arch in Roman-Baroque style around the main Cross.
Agnete and the Merman (Agnete og Havmanden) is a group of bronze sculptures located underwater in the Slotsholm Canal next to the Højbro Bridge. The statues are barely noticeable in the day time and are lit up and more visible at night. The statues portray a folklore fantasy from a Danish fairy tale about a merman (a male mermaid) and his love, Agnete. The merman and his seven sons all lie on the bed of the canal begging Agnete to return home.
Mermaids and mermans are often featured in traditional Danish lore and this inspired Hans Christian Andersen to write his most well established story, “The Little Mermaid”.
Other wonderful buildings, new and old, line the canal where the open space provides an opportunity for perfect views.
Christiansborg is the old royal palace currently home to the Danish parliament. Originally built between 1907 and 1928, the tower boasts the highest viewpoint of Copenhagen at 106 meters.
Inside the palace tower, which is open to the public, there is a lift and a staircase to a dusty old secret room on the floor above the restaurant. The room holds a collection of plaster sculptures and models. We thought it was a storage point for the city’s unused celebratory decorations or a place where statues come to die, but it turns out to be a ‘Lumber Room’ that was once hidden for 100 years. A celebratory gallery has now been installed for visitors and the models that were created for the exhibition are too big to be removed!
The Taarnet (Tower) offers panoramic views of Copenhagen, and even Sweden on a clear day. Entrance is free to the Taarnet and at 106 metres/327 feet, the tower is a mere 40cm higher than the City Hall. It is open every day except Mondays.
Read more on their official website here.
The centre point of Copenhagen’s hustle and bustle lies here in front of the iconic City Hall. Many of the capital’s public events and demonstrations are held in the City Hall Square and we just so happened to pass through a protest during our stay.
Tivoli Gardens is the world’s second oldest operating amusement park and its central location within City Hall Square has given it well deserved fame and popularity. The park is seasonal and is closed for winter so we didn’t get a chance to experience any of the roller coasters. The entrance and surrounding buildings alone are enough to give you those excitable magical amusement park feelings.
The City Hall itself has the second tallest tower in the city and is home to the municipal council and the lord mayor. The City Hall is also home to the famous Jens Olsen’s World Clock which is an advanced astronomical clock designed by locksmith, Jens Olsen, who later went on to learn the trade of clock making.
The City Hall Square has statues of Han Christian Andersen, the Weather Girl, the Dragon Fountain and the Lur Blowers who can be seen at the top of the City Hall. It is a great place to begin cultural exploration of Copenhagen, day or night. There are many food and drinks stalls in the square making it a great central point to start or finish city wandering.
The Old Town of Copenhagen sits beside Copenhagen University. The Old town is made up of hidden cobbled streets and wonderful historical buildings mixed with modern shops and cafes.
Snarestræde and Magstræde are two of the oldest streets in Copenhagen and both feature their original cobbles dating back to the 1500s. Our tour guide talked us through the story of Magstræde which takes its name from ‘Mag’ – an old word for a lavatory, referring to a public latrine. The street was once a red light district and during the 1800s, authorities became concerned over the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Officials therefore nominated certain streets as ‘brothel streets’ and Magstræde was one of them. At the time, neighbours were not happy and complained about women who would hang out of windows topless calling to passing men, day and night for business. You can still see the old brothels here at number 7,8,16,18,19 and 20.
Læderstræde is another neighboring street in the Old Town that has buildings dating back to the 1600s including an old brewery and a famous carpenter’s house who once worked on the Christiansborg Palace.
Brolæggerstræde translates to ‘Cobble Layer Alley’ and was once home to the first Carlsberg brewery owned by founder J.C. Jacobsen. The building can be seen at number 5 and it is noticeable by the plaque above the gate that commemorates the work of J. C. Jacobsen and his son Carl Jacobsen.
The Old Town of Copenhagen is one of the most visited areas of the city and it is clear to see why with the diverse history of the area and it’s buildings.
Amalienborg Palace is a collection of four identical buildings surrounding an octagon shaped courtyard and it is the home of the Danish Royal Family. The courtyard is open to the public giving visitors a unique opportunity to get up close to royal residences.
Royal guards protect the buildings around the clock in traditional attire sequentially marching across the entrance points.
A statue of Amalienborg’s founder, King Frederick V has stood in the center of the courtyard since 1771, five years after the his death.
On the outskirts of the Palace grounds, our tour guide pointed out a building that was once showered in bullets during World War II. Denmark and it’s buildings fell victim to heavy attacks during the war and the scars on this building were kept as a reminder.
The Palace is in close proximity to the mighty Frederik’s Church.
Probably the most famous image of Copenhagen, Nyhavn is a vibrant and colourful water front dating back to the 17th Century. This city centre harbour boasts an array of cafes, bars and restaurants alongside docked wooden ships and street entertainment.
King Christian V constructed Nyhavn to allow fishing trade to come in from the sea. The area was once notorious for beer, sailors and prostitution. It now stands as a trendy gastro hub and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. Hans Christian Andersen lived within Nyhavn for 18 years in one of the colourful residences that were shown on our walking tour.
As with most major cities above bodies of water, Nyhavn is the home of one of Copenhagen’s ‘love lock bridges’ where many people have left their mark above the canal.
Mindeankeret (The Great Memorial Anchor) was fixed into the harbour in 1951 to commemorate the 1,700 Danish officers and sailors in service for the Navy, merchant fleet or Allied Forces that sacrificed their lives during World War II.
It was here where our walking tour ended and we later came back to Nyhavn for further exploration of the more inaccessible parts of the city, by means of a boat tour.
We hopped on the Stromma Greyline boat from Nyhavn on their ‘Grand Tour of Copenhagen’ after a recommendation from our walking tour guide. We wanted to see the hidden parts of the city and this was the most comfortable and quickest way to do so. Check the website here for timetable and prices, we paid approximately €12 per person.
If you are short on time, a boat tour offers a great way of exploring Nyhavn further, the colorful buildings seem to go on for miles and we enjoyed some of the best views from the comfort of our outdoor seat.
The boat tour is a perfect way to explore the hidden parts of the city and its rich history with naval forces. Many navy ships and sailor residences sit by the banks of the canal for easy access to the water.
Uniquely designed apartments with ‘boat parking spaces’ can also be seen while exiting Nyhavn, it’s always fun to see how the other half live!
In contrast to the extravagant new builds, older rickety boat sheds line the harbour and offer a reminder of how Copenhagen has a strong blend of new and old architecture.
Beautiful traditional wooden ships are scattered around the waters of Copenhagen alongside kayakers who capitalize on the vast amount of channels throughout the city.
The best part about being on a guided boat trip is the view, far away enough to see the main sights of the city without any obstruction.
Other sights along the way include the Black Diamond, the Old Stock Exchange, the Royal Danish Playhouse and the Saviour’s Church. We were particularly drawn to the modern sculptures that lie by the water.
Reminding us of how Copenhagen stands as a city blended with new and old.
One landmark we didn’t want to miss was the Little Mermaid. A statue erected to commemorate Hans Christian Andersen and his most famous story. The boat takes you right by the statue which is quite a walk out of the city and we were so surprised at how small it was.
For more information on the Boat Tour, check The website here
The best way to explore a city is to delve into its history and there aren’t many cities that have a history as rich as Copenhagen. The National Museum of Denmark is located in the center of town and entrance is completely free.
As well as displaying artifacts from the history of Denmark, they have alternating exhibitions that include relics from other countries and eras.
We were blown away by the religious exhibition and the golden artifacts on display, walking around the solid oak foundation of a beautiful old building.The attention to detail on many sculptured pieces caught our interest throughout the museum, forcing us to spend the last couple of hours of our final day here.
We learned so much from our day at the museum and will always remember everything we learned about Copenhagen, in particular the damage to the city and the recovery from World War II.
There are many bakeries offering traditional Danish pastries.
Copenhagen has one of the highest number of restaurants and bars per capita in the world. The streets and hidden alleyways are lined with culinary offerings from all over the globe.
We found a quirky restaurant which was once a BOSCH warehouse and has now been converted into an eatery, keeping its original external features.
We also discovered a delicious Turkish restaurant offering backpacker-ideal lunch buffets for pennies, perfect if you are on a tight budget:
A lot of nightclubs and bars in the city stay open until 5 or 6 in the morning, although binge drinking is generally frowned upon in Danish culture. We experienced a calm and sociable atmosphere as we headed out to the bars. Alcohol was very cheap in the Netto supermarket, which is a budget German chain across Europe. It is a great place to stock up on cheap food and drink.Of course, Denmark is home to Carslberg and Tuborg if the less familiar beers don’t take your fancy.
For more reading, Round The World Magazine recommend the following literature:
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