Forget Hamlet’s quote that something is “rotten in the State of Denmark”, Copenhagen is just a short hop from Sweden and a breath of fresh air, even if sometimes a windy one.
For every person who loves Copenhagen, there’s probably another who finds it too rough around the edges. But, without a doubt, variety is the spice of life in Copenhagen if you are venturing from Sweden where everything is standard, civilized and well, kind of normal. Most people will agree that Copenhagen is simply buzzing with energy, individualism, cosy restaurants and bars, exhibitions, museums and cultural events.
If you’ve been to Amsterdam, you might see many similarities with Copenhagen. For a start, it seems like 80 percent of the locals are on a bicycle; secondly, there are waterways everywhere to confuse tourists who use them to navigate their way around the city; the language sounds quite guttural like Dutch; and finally, the landscape is pretty flat. However, it’s much less crowded than Amsterdam and the locals are a little bit more polite (when off their bikes).
By far one of the best ways to see Copenhagen is by bike as this is one of the best cities in Europe for cycling. And not just because there are few hills above 30 metres to make you pant and gasp. But also because every inch of Copenhagen is streamlined with well-maintained cycle paths making cycling (weather permitting) one of the most pleasant and quickest ways to get from A to B. If you haven’t been on a bike for a few years, it could be worthwhile to refresh your skills before you hit the cycle paths because the Danes simply don’t tolerate “dangerous” or “stupid” cyclists.
Once you’ve rented your wheels for 24 hours, start off at the hippie paradise and free-spirited self-governing area of Christiania whose residents are exempt from paying steep Danish taxes and smoke pot freely. When you enter or leave Christiania, you will be amused by the wooden sign hanging overhead which proclaims that you are now entering or leaving the EU. Even though Christiania is only a few blocks away from the downtown area, they are worlds apart.
Next stop is Nyhavn, the original fishing harbour, lined with old wooden sailing vessels. It’s a touristic haunt, but it’s also a nice place to stop off for a Carlsberg beer and a shrimp smørrebrød, to sit in the sunshine and do a spot of people watching.
Afterwards, follow the water past the royal family’s winter residence at Amalienborg, the original fortress walls at Kastellet and up to the Little Mermaid (Den Lille Havfrue), the symbol of Copenhagen. But don’t expect a massive monument; the mermaid is actually a very modest piece of sculpture. She’s been through some rough times lately having being sprayed with graffiti and paint and covered with a turban.
Along the other side of the waterfront you will also catch a glimpse of the achingly cool and modern Opera House. Wind your way back through the Kongens Nytorv and up Strøget, the pedestrianized shopping street, before ending up at Tivoli, the landmark amusement park loved by locals and tourists alike for the past 165 years and considered one of the oldest, and nicest, amusement parks in Europe. Even if you’re not into fast hair-raising rides, it’s worth a stroll around with all its cafes, restaurants and gardens. The last time I visited Tivoli, I spotted Denmark’s Princess Alexandra with her new husband and two kids, waiting in line for the roller coaster just like everyone else!
If cycling’s not your cup of tea, hop on and off the water bus at Nyhavn and it will take you down the water as far as the Royal Library (the Black Diamond) and back up past the Little Mermaid and Opera House.
If you like museums and culture, you’re in the right place. Copenhagen is busting at the seams with everything from modern art museums to the Carlsberg Museum and the Danish Design Center . Then there’s the Opera House and the Royal Theater with regular opera, ballet and theatrical performances. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of the Queen and her husband, opera and theatre lovers, in the Royal Box at either venue.
Copenhagen is full of cosy, low-key restaurants which are pretty busy most evenings. Danes don’t eat out much for lunch preferring to go out to dinner with friends or family in the evening. Every time you venture down a new sidestreet, you are sure to find another hidden gem of a restaurant, café or bar. But two of my personal favourites are Le Le, a Vietnamese joint on Vesterbrogade 53 and Café Quote on the Kongens Nytorv. Quote is a little more pricey but both offer great food, relatively good service (by local standards) and are usually lively.
Looking at the landscape, the area around Copenhagen more or less resembles that of the other side of the bridge – i.e. super-flat with panoramic sea views, cold water and a lot of wind and rain (as there are few forests and hills to break the winds). But, even if you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is, there’s just something very different in the air when you’re on the Danish side of the bridge.
Even, if the bridge is no longer a novelty for those Swedes crossing it every day for work, it’s one of those architectural masterpieces which you cannot help but marvel at each time. No trip to Copenhagen is complete without seeing the bridge once, either through the window of the plane or crossing it by car or train from Sweden.
The Danes can proudly boast having the biggest, and best, airport in Scandinavia. Kastrup is a showcase of Danish architecture and a shopping haven, full of design stores, and marketing local brands like Pilgrim jewellery, Royal Copenhagen porcelain and SAND clothes. With its wooden floors, long glass windows and international connections, it’s big enough to feel like a bustling international hub but still retaining a trendy charm. The best thing is that you can fly direct from Kastrup to exotic far flung places without having to connect via Oslo or Stockholm.
In Copenhagen, try and avoid taking a taxi if possible. They are horribly expensive and frequently involve long detours. One time I remember taking a taxi from the airport to a suburban company for an interview only to find that after driving around the island of Zealand for over an hour that my taxi bill for what should have been a 25-minute ride was almost three times the price of my plane ticket.
If you venture out of town, one idea is to visit Hamlet’s castle in the seaside village of Helsingør, one hour north of Copenhagen. From there it is also possible to take the 20-minute ferry ride back to Helsingborg in Sweden. The coastline north of Copenhagen right up to Gilleleje is scattered with badehoteller (bathing hotels) and sandy beaches with grass-lined cliffs. Don’t expect the French Riviera or to find trendy cafes and five-star spa resorts. The idea behind this stretch of coastline is to take it easy and enjoy the peace and quiet, taking long walks along the coast or indulging in some water-sports like fishing or sailing.
Whatever your interests, whether the sun shines or it buckets rain, you can be guaranteed that you will never get bored in Copenhagen!
Top 10 things to do in Copenhagen
1. Rent a bike for the day and cycle around the inner city.
2. Take a peek at the bridge or travel across it by car/train.
3. Enjoy a beer and smørrebrød at Nyhavn.
4. Take the water boat from Nyhavn to view the city from the water.
5. Take a jog along the three lakes.
6. Wander around Illums Bolighus and try not to blow your credit card!
7. Have some smushi (a combination of sushi and Smorgas) at the Royal Copenhagen Café on Strøget.
8. Try the old wooden roller coaster at Tivoli.
9. Take a cortado coffee at Café Europa on Amagertorv.
10. Take a stroll through Christiania.