As a little girl, my favorite fairytale was “The Princess and the Pea.” So when I found myself with a long layover and one day in Copenhagen, I could not resist the opportunity to venture out to Nyhavn, the place where Hans Christian Anderson lived when he wrote my favorite story and many others.
Postcard-perfect with brightly-colored townhouses lining an idyllic canal, Copenhagen is one of the most beautiful maritime cities in Europe, and quickly became my favorite Scandanavian city.
- Brief History
- How to Get Around
- One Day in Copenhagen
- Weekend in Copenhagen
- About the Author
Copenhagen was originally established in the 10th-century as a Viking fishing village. In the 15th-century it became the capital of Denmark, and in the 17th-century became a military presence.
Plagues and disasters in the 18th and 19th-centuries took their toll, but since the turn of the 21st-century, Copenhagen has rebounded, becoming the financial, technical, cultural, and governmental center of Denmark. Greenspaces, parks, lakes, and treasured landmarks have been carefully preserved and turned into widely-visited tourist attractions.
How to Get Around
While it’s not a huge city, there are a lot of things to do in Copenhagen. Many amusements are within walking distance from each other, especially in the inner city, so you could take a taxi and stay in that area. Another option is to buy a 24-hour public transit pass valid for use on buses, the metro system, and trains. If you plan to see a lot of attractions, you can also purchase the Copenhagen City Pass that will give you entrance to multiple sites including transportation. For less time, here’s a 2.5 hour walking tour of must-see sites.
One Day in Copenhagen
1. Nyhavn Canal Tours Copenhagen
Nyhavn (“new harbor” in English) is so splendid and iconic that if you have time to visit just one place, this would be it. It’s hard to miss the huge Memorial Anchor by the pier (commemorating fallen soldiers from World War II) where the canal tours leave.
Both sides of the canal are lined with old wooden ships, and shops and eateries housed in townhouses with vividly-painted facades dating back to the 1600s. Be forewarned,…this is an expensive area. Still, it’s the most Instagrammable spot in Copenhagen and it’s a must to spend some time here. Look for house numbers 18, 20 and 67 which are said to have been residences of author Hans Christian Andersen at various times of his life.
Nyhavn pier is also where you’ll want to book your Copenhagen boat tour. You’ll see lines of boats waiting for passengers, but you’ll also see a long line of passengers waiting to get on the boats. Another way is to book a 1-hour Get Your Guide Copenhagen cruise ahead of time. There’s even a “skip the line” option.
Below are some of the sites you’ll see on a Copenhagen cruise of the canals. It’s a great jumping-off point (not literally!) in that you can go back to any of the sites that look interesting for a more in-depth exploration.
2. Little Mermaid
Perhaps Copenhagen’s most famous monument is the Little Mermaid. Sitting on a rock near the Langelinie promenade, the area is so bursting with tourists, that I was satisfied just to catch a view of it from our boat, rather than be jostled about trying to get a photo from shore.
The rather small bronze statue, commissioned by industrialist Carl Jabobsen and sculpted by Edvard Eriksen in 1913, depicts the namesake from Andersen’s (the pride of Denmark) story, “The Little Mermaid,” about a young mermaid who fell in love with a young prince on land. She would sit on the rocks in the hopes of catching a glimpse of him. Think Disney but with a tragic ending.
3. Christianborg Palace
Set on the Islet of Slotsholmen, Christiansborg, was once the royal residence of the Danish monarchs, until a great fire in 1794. It now contains the Prime Minister’s office, the Danish Parliament, and Denmark’s Supreme Court, The palace has myriad of reception rooms, including the Great Hall which holds 400 guests.
4. Amalienborg Palace
The current home of the Danish royal family, Amalienborg Palace actually consists of four separate-but-identical palaces, two of which are open to the public – Levetzau Palance which houses a museum, and Moltke Palace which conducts tours when Margrethe II – the current Queen of Denmark who ascended the throne in 1972 – and the royal family are not in residence. The highlight of a visit to the Danish Rococco-style Palace is the changing of the guard which takes place at 12-noon each day.
5. Copenhagen Opera House
Designed by Danish architect Henning Larsen with construction costs of over USD$500 million, the Copenhagen Opera House is among the most modern and expensive opera houses in the world. Five of the fourteen stories are subterranean, and it seats an audience of 1,400.
Note: I went to Copenhagen in summer and the weather was gorgeous, but Copenhagen is wonderful any time of year. Here are some things to do in Copenhagen in winter.
PapirØen is Copenhagen’s street food market, with food stalls vending food from all over the world. You’ll have a hard time choosing what to eat, but once you do, head outside for the spectacular views of the waterfront and heart of old Copenhagen.
7. Den Kongelige Afstøbningssamling
Originally built as a warehouse to store sugar and rum, in 1984 the usage was changed; it’s now used to house a collection of thousands of plaster casts of European classical sculptures, dating from 600 B.C. From the water, you can’t miss the replica of David standing sentry.
8. Circle Bridge
Uniquely and attractively designed by Olafur Eliasson, the Circle Bridge is a pedestrian bridge spanning the southern mouth of Christianshavn Canal connecting Applebys Plads to the south with Christiansbro to the north.
But even more fun, albeit not nearly as beautiful, are the many low bridges that our canal boat had to go under. Some barely cleared our heads; for others, we had to duck to get under!
After departing the Copenhagen canal tour, depending on how much time you have left to spend in the city, either go back to one or more places you just viewed from the boat, or spend some landlubber time in one of these fabulous places below.
9. Tivoli Gardens
If at all possible, try and squeeze in a visit to Tivoli Gardens during the temperate weather months. Established in 1843, it claims to be the second-oldest theme park in the world still in operation and is the most popular attraction in Denmark. Serving over four million visitors every year, the park offers wild adrenaline rides but still maintains an old-world charm and atmospheric restaurants, making it a favorite for all age groups. Get Tivoli Skip the Line Tickets here.
10. Round Tower
Commissioned by King Christian IV, the Round Tower has been home to Europe’s oldest functioning observatory since the 17th-century. The tower is renowned for its wide, spiral ramp in lieu of a staircase, which once accommodated horse-drawn carts hauling books to the library at the top.
The ascent to the top is not difficult, and the birds-eye panorama overlooking Copenhagen’s old town section is spectacular.
Weekend in Copenhagen
Exploring all that Copenhagen has to offer is literally impossible in one day. If you have more than one day in Copenhagen, below are more things you can do, and here are some places to stay in Copenhagen.
11. Rosenborg Castle
Built in the early 1600s by long-reigning, best-known king Christian IV, Renaissance-style Rosenborg might be the prettiest and most lavish of all the castles in Copenhagen. The castle has beautiful gardens and houses a collection of 17th-century Venetian glass and the Danish Crown Jewels that can only be worn by the Queen within the borders of the country.
12. Stroget StreetFor some retail therapy head to Stroget Street. Alleged to be the world’s longest pedestrian shopping street, Stroget Street in the heart of the city is also one of the oldest in Europe.
If shopping for high-end wares is not on your itinerary, try some of the side streets for more budget-friendly options. The area is lovely just to stroll around and window-shop or enjoy watching the street performers and musicians.
You’ll definitely want to try this traditional Danish snack during your stay. Although Smorrebrod actually translates “bread and butter,” it is an open-faced sandwich on thin, coarse rye bread, topped with yummies that run the gamut from smoked salmon, fried fish, pork, beef, egg, cheese, pickles, and other accoutrements.
Particularly for families, or a rainy day, the museum of the land of the Vikings has a lot to offer. The Danish National Museum is full of artifacts from Denmark’s past.
Colorful, controversial, and also known as Freetown Christiania, the area started out as an experimental “hippy” community in 1971 when squatters took over vacant military barracks as a protest to the high cost of housing in the city. The thriving community still exudes a counter-culture vibe and is known for its illegal cannabis sales alongside artist studios and organic food stores.
16. Bakken Amusement Park
Established in 1583, Bakken is the oldest operating amusement park in the world, and one of Denmark’s most popular tourist attractions. The retro-style park is free to enter but you have to buy tickets for each of the 30 rides, including the famous Rutschebanen, a wooden roller coaster operating since 1932.
17. Church of Our Savior
According to locals, the views from the top of the spire of this Baroque church are the best in Copenhagen. Indeed, the spire itself is worthy of exploration. The last 150 of the 400 thigh-burning steps to get to the top wrap around the narrow, vertigo-inducing outside of the spire!
18. Amager BeachAmager Strand Park is an artificial island popular with families seeking summertime fun. One side is shallow while the other offers dunes and sandy beaches. The island has a lagoon, promenade, and a windmill park.
19. Carlsberg Brewery
If you’re a beer-lover, you might consider a visit to the Carlsberg Brewery, founded in 1847 by Jacob Christian Jacobsen. Carlsberg beer was named after the owner’s son Carl. The brewery’s architecture is very unique, and you can see their horse-drawn wagons about town.
20. KastelletKastellet is a relatively unknown gem, with grounds housing a star-shaped fortress, Dutch-style windmill, and active military barracks.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.