Copenhagen—København in Danish—has no glittering skylines and hardly any of the high-stress bustle common to most capitals. Throngs of bicycles glide along in ample bike lanes. The early-morning air in the pedestrian streets of the city's core is redolent of freshly baked bread and soap-scrubbed storefronts. If there's such a thing as a cozy city, this is it. The town was a fishing colony until 1157, when Valdemar the Great gave it to Bishop Absalon, who built a castle on what is now the parliament, Christiansborg.
It grew as a center on the Baltic trade route and became known as købmændenes havn (merchants' harbor) and eventually København. In the 15th century it became the royal residence and the capital of Norway and Sweden. From 1596 to 1648, Christian IV, a Renaissance king obsessed with fine architecture, began a building boom that crowned the city with towers and castles, many of which still stand. They're almost all that remain of the city's 800-year history; much of Copenhagen was destroyed by two major fires in the 18th century and by British bombing during the Napoleonic Wars.
Despite a tumultuous history, Copenhagen survives as the liveliest Scandinavian capital. With its backdrop of copper towers and crooked rooftops, the venerable city is soothed by one of the highest standards of living in the world and spangled by the lights and gardens of Tivoli. Be it sea or canal, water surrounds Copenhagen. A network of bridges and drawbridges connects the two main islands—Zealand and Amager—on which Copenhagen is built. The seafaring atmosphere is indelible, especially around the districts of Nyhavn and Christianshavn. Copenhagen is small, with most sights within 2½ square km (1 square mile) of its center. Sightseeing, especially downtown, is best done on foot at an unhurried pace. Or follow the example of the Danes and rent a bike. That said, excellent bus and train systems can come to the rescue of weary legs.
With just one day in Copenhagen, start at Kongens Nytorv and Nyhavn and head up the pedestrian street of Strøget in the direction of Rådhuspladsen. You can detour to see the exteriors of Christiansborg, Børsen, Rundetårn, and Rosenborg Slot along the way. If you're not up for a walk, one of the guided canal tours will give you a good sense of the city. In summer or around Christmas time, round off your day with a relaxed stroll and nightcap in Tivoli. With additional days in Copenhagen, plan to spend time inside one or more of the following: Rosenborg Slot, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Nationalmuseet, Statens Museum for Kunst, and Kastellet. Alternatively, make your way toward one of the surrounding neighborhoods: Christianshavn for small café-lined canals; Christiania for hippie and alternative culture past and present; or Nørrebro and Vesterbro for a mixture of ethnic shops and trendy youth culture. Noteworthy side trips for longer stays include the expansive park of Dyrehaven in Charlottenlund, the Lilliputian village of Dragør, the historic castle in Hillerød, the modern art museum Louisiana in Humlebæk, Hamlet's castle in Helsingør, and the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. Some Copenhagen sights, especially churches, keep short hours, particularly in fall and winter. It's a good idea to call ahead or check with the tourist offices to confirm opening times.
Copenhagen, considered Scandinavia's culinary capital, has experienced a gastronomical revolution over the past decade. A rising interest in new Nordic cooking has put an emphasis on the use of locally sourced raw materials and high-quality seasonal ingredients. Wild game, cured or smoked fish and meats, and specialties like Limfjord oysters, Læsø langoustine, as well as eel and plaice all show up on many plates here.
There's also been a revival of traditional Danish fare and keeping age-old traditions alive. Don't miss the chance to try pickled or smoked herring, smørrebrød (open-face sandwiches), a street-side pølser (sausage), and the famous Danish pastries.
There are plenty of bistros serving moderately priced meals, and if you're looking for even more affordable fare, try one of the city's ethnic restaurants, which are concentrated in Vesterbro, Nørrebro, and the side streets off Strøget. For inexpensive savory noshes in stylish surroundings, consider lingering in a café.
A good number of restaurants offer fixed-price menus with wine-pairing menus, and most restaurants require reservations. Many restaurants tack a surcharge of between 3.75% and 5.75% to the bill for the use of foreign credit cards, so you can save good money by paying cash.
In Copenhagen hotels, rates are on the high end of the scale and rooms are on the small side. The city has, in recent years, increased its capacity with new design hotels, a luxury all-suite hotel in Tivoli gardens, and a youth hostel in the city center. Many existing properties have undergone renovation and expansion and often publicize eco-friendly, sustainable business practices.
Copenhagen is a compact, eminently walkable and bikable city, and most of the hotels are in or near Centrum, usually within walking distance of the major sights and thoroughfares.
As in the rest of Denmark, most rooms only have showers (while others have bathtubs as well), so make sure to state your preference when booking.
Nightspots are concentrated in several areas including in and around Strøget; in Vesterbro, with its main drag on Vesterbrogade just across from Tivioli Gardens; and on Istegade, where you'll find some of the trendier bars and cafés. The area just off Kongens Nytorv on Gothersgade is also a nightlife hub. Nørrebro has lots of student cafés and bars, many around Sankt Hans Torv, and there are some upscale spots in Østerbro.
Copenhagen used to be famous for jazz, but that has changed, with many of the best clubs closing down. However, you can find nightspots catering to almost all musical tastes, from ballroom music to house, rap, and techno. There are also plenty of trendy clubs where DJs provide the sound tracks.
A showcase for world-famous Danish design and craftsmanship, Copenhagen seems to have been set up with shoppers in mind. In fact, its very name (København in Danish), means the "merchant's harbor," because it was once a major center of trade. The spirit of those days remains, with countless specialty shops in almost every corner of the city. The best buys are such luxury items as amber, crystal, porcelain, silver, and furs. Danish clothing design is now coming into fashion and is considered one of the nation's most important exports.
Look for offers and sales (tilbud or udsalg in Danish) and check antiques and secondhand shops for classics at cut-rate prices. Although prices are inflated by a hefty 25% Value-Added Tax (Danes call it moms), non–European Union citizens can receive about an 18% refund if they are willing to do the paperwork.
Part gallery and part department store, Illums Bolighus will surround you with cutting-edge Danish and international design—art glass, porcelain, silverware, carpets, and loads of grown-up toys. Staff will help you file your value-added tax refund on site – don't forget to get some documents stamped at customs upon leaving Denmark and mail them back.
This elegant, austere shop is aglitter with sterling, which is what you'd expect from one of the most recognized names in international silver. Jensen has its own museum next door.
Royal Copenhagen Factory Outlet
The Royal Copenhagen Factory Outlet has a good deal of stock, often at reduced prices. You can also buy Holmegaard Glass at the Royal Copenhagen store in Centrum and this factory outlet.
Information Center for Danish Crafts and Design
The Information Center for Danish Crafts and Design provides helpful information on galleries, shops, and workshops specializing in Danish crafts and design, including jewelry, ceramics, wooden toys, and furniture. Its Web site has listings and reviews of the city's best crafts shops.
This five-generations-old, world-renowned lunch spot is synonymous with smørrebrød, the Danish open-face sandwich. The often-packed dining area is dimly lighted, with worn wooden tables and news clippings of famous visitors on the walls. Creative sandwiches include the H. C. Andersen, with liver pâté, bacon, and tomatoes. The terrific duck is smoked by Ida's husband, Adam, and served alongside a horseradish-spiked cabbage salad.
Occupying a bright corner of the Royal Library's modern Black Diamond extension, this cool-toned restaurant, with clean lines, blond-wood furnishings, and recessed lighting, serves French-Scandinavian concoctions. For waterfront views, choose a table inside up against the glass walls or outside. Signature dishes include dried Danish ham with thyme and beurre noir or scallops, corn puree, and watercress. The menu always has vegetarian dishes and a fish of the day. It's the perfect lunchtime spot.
The four identical rococo buildings occupying this square have housed royals since 1784. It's still the queen's winter residence. The Christian VIII palace across from the royal's wing houses the Amalienborg Museum, which displays the second part of the Royal Collection (the first is at Rosenborg Slot) and chronicles royal lifestyles between 1863 and 1947. Here you can view the study of King Christian IX (1818–1906) and the drawing room of his wife, Queen Louise. Rooms are packed with royal heirlooms and treasures.In the square's center is a magnificent equestrian statue of King Frederik V by the French sculptor Jacques François Joseph Saly. It reputedly cost as much as all the buildings combined. Every day at noon, the Royal Guard and band march from Rosenborg Slot through the city for the changing of the guard. At noon on Queen Margrethe's birthday, April 16, crowds of Danes gather to cheer their monarch, who stands and waves from her balcony. On Amalienborg's harbor side is the garden of Amaliehaven, at the foot of which the queen's ship often docks.
Surrounded by canals on three sides, the massive granite Christiansborg Castle is where the queen officially receives guests. From 1441 until the fire of 1795, it was used as the royal residence. Even though the first two castles on the site were burned, Christiansborg remains an impressive neobaroque and neoclassical compound. It now houses parliament and the prime minister's office.
Kongelige Repræsantationslokaler. At the Kongelige Repræsentationslokaler, you're asked to don slippers to protect the floors in this impossibly grand space.
Ruins of Bishop Absalon's castle. While Christiansborg was being rebuilt around 1900, the national museum excavated the ruins of Bishop Absalon's castle beneath it. The resulting dark, subterranean maze contains fascinating models and architectural relics.
One of the best museums of its kind in Europe, the Nationalmuseet is inside a 18th-century royal residence that's peaked by massive overhead windows. Extensive permanent exhibits chronicle Danish cultural history from prehistoric to modern times. The museum has one of the largest collections of Stone Age tools in the world, as well as Egyptian, Greek, and Roman antiquities. The exhibit on Danish prehistory features a great section on Viking times. The children's museum, with replicas of period clothing and a scalable copy of a real Viking ship, makes history fun for those under 12. Displays have English labels, and the do-it-yourself walking tour "History of Denmark in 60 Minutes" offers a good introduction to Denmark; the guide is free at the information desk.
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
The exquisite antiquities and a world-class collection of impressionist masterpieces make this one of Copenhagen's most important museums. The neoclassical building was donated in 1888 by Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of the Carlsberg Brewery. Surrounding its lush indoor garden, a series of rooms house works by Pissarro, Degas, Monet, Sisley, Rodin, and Gauguin. The museum is also renowned for its extensive assemblage of Egyptian and Greek pieces, not to mention Europe's finest collection of Roman portraits and the best collection of Etruscan art outside Italy. A modern wing, designed by the acclaimed Danish architect Henning Larsen, provides a luminous entry to the French painting section. From June to September, guided English-language tours start at 2. The café overlooking the winter garden is well-known among Copenhageners for its Sunday brunch.
Copenhagen's best-known attraction, conveniently next to its main train station, attracts an astounding 4 million people from mid-April to mid-September. Tivoli is more than just an amusement park: among its attractions are a pantomime theater, an open-air stage, 38 restaurants (some of them very elegant), and frequent concerts, which cover the spectrum from classical to rock to jazz. Fantastic flower exhibits color the lush gardens and float on the swan-filled ponds.The park was established in the 1840s, when Danish architect George Carstensen persuaded a worried King Christian VIII to let him build an amusement park on the edge of the city's fortifications, rationalizing that "when people amuse themselves, they forget politics." The Tivoli Guard, a youth version of the Queen's Royal Guard, performs every day. Try to see Tivoli at least once by night, when 100,000 colored lanterns illuminate the Chinese pagoda and the main fountain. Some evenings there are also fireworks displays.
Statens Museum for Kunst
Old-master paintings—including works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, El Greco, and Fragonard—as well as a comprehensive array of antique and 20th-century Danish art make up the National Art Gallery collection. Also notable is the modern art, which includes pieces by Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Henri Laurens, Emil Nolde, and Georges Braque. The space also contains a children's museum, which puts on shows for different age groups at kids' eye-level. Wall texts are in English. The bookstore and café are also worth a visit.
Den Lille Havfrue
Somewhat overhyped, this 1913 statue commemorates Hans Christian Andersen's lovelorn Little Mermaid. (You may want to read the original Hans Christian Andersen tale in advance; it's a heart-wrenching story that's a far cry from the Disney animated movie.) Donated to the city by Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of Carlsberg Breweries, the innocent waif has also been the subject of some cruel practical jokes, including decapitation and the loss of an arm, but she's currently in one piece. The Langelinie promenade is thronged with Danes and visitors making their pilgrimage to the statue, especially on sunny Sundays. Although the statue itself is modest, the views of the surrounding harbor are not.
A large, ornate chimney makes this mid-19th-century brewery visible from a distance. J. C. Jacobson, one of Denmark's most important historical figures, named the brewery after his son Carl; "Berg," or mountain, signifies the brewery's location on Valby Hill. The four giant granite elephants that guard the main entrance illustrate that Jacobsen was a well-traveled man who adored art. The elephants are in fact inspired by Bernini's famous obelisk in Rome. In the visitor center, new interactive displays, also in English, take you step by step through the brewing process. At the end of your visit, you're rewarded with a complimentary beer sampling. The Carlsberg Museum, also on the grounds, tells the story of the Jacobsen family, their beer empire, and Carlsberg's extensive philanthropy, which still greatly benefits Danish culture. Large-scale beer production has now moved outside of the city and the old brewery complex is being transformed into a combined neighborhood for arts, culture, and living.