Copenhagen is the Danish capital is a bridge between Scandinavia and the rest of Europe with the best elements of each culture. The Øresund Bridge has helped turn this metaphor into reality and Copenhagen's style radiates throughout the Baltic region, sharing design, fashion and art along with a strong sense of its rich and royal past. Whether you are looking for a cozy apartment in a historic neighborhood or a chic flat with artistic design, Copenhagen can certainly satisfy. At any point during your visit to this city, you will feel like you are at the epicenter of Northern Europe's culture and history.
Copenhagen's strategic location between the Baltic Sea and the European mainland took awhile to be fully exploited, but throughout history it has played an increasingly important role as a port city. It was nothing more than a fishing village until the 12th century when Bishop Absalon took control of the city and the fishing operation was increased in scale to become the provider of most of the Catholic world's Lenten herring. The Church's control of the city also meant the construction of abbeys and churches throughout the region and the population grew immensely during the century.
The 14th and 15th century saw much fighting over Copenhagen between the Hanseatic League members and between the Church and the Crown, but somehow in the midst of the fighting, trading flourished and Copenhagen became a rich city. Foreign merchants flooded the city and the establishment of craft guilds eventually led to the founding of the University of Copenhagen in 1479.
The 17th century and the reign of Christian IV saw Copenhagen rise in importance throughout Northern Europe as a center for trade and political power. The king commissioned Dutch and German architects to construct the city center, resulting in the look of the city today as a typical European capital. The next century brought the disease, war and fires that plagued much of Northern Europe during the time, but the city was largely rethought and rebuilt toward the end of the 18th century and Copenhagen was the richest it had ever been.
Instability reigned in the first half of the 19th century, including a brutal attack by the British. The Danes realized that the city ramparts that had surrounded Copenhagen for hundreds of years were not only not protecting the city from attack but also inhibiting the city from physically growing. The breeching of these ramparts later in the century resulted in a more open city plan which was more sanitary and could support a larger population.
The modern history of Copenhagen is largely one of progress and success, however during World War II the Germans occupied the city for the duration of the war. After the war, the city flourished unimpeded and today Copenhagen enjoys a reputation as a center for design and innovation and an example of an internationally cooperative city with successful corporations and some of the statistically happiest people in the world.
Copenhagen is located on the eastern coast of the island of Zealand (also spelled Sealand and Sjælland) and is separated from Sweden by a narrow strait but connected to it by the Øresund Bridge. The strait connects the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, placing Copenhagen in an important nautical location.
Copenhagen has 1.2 million inhabitants, making it the largest city in Scandinavia.
Copenhagen is the center for modern Danish (Dansk), though the language is spoken throughout Denmark without much dialectical difference. Danish is related to both Swedish and Norwegian and all three are somewhat mutually intelligible. The alphabet is the same as Norwegian and differs in only a few vowels from Swedish. English is widely spoken throughout the country and especially in the capital, which is considered a major player in international business.
Statistically speaking the Danes are the happiest people in the world. In global and European studies, the Danish people frequently rank the highest in things like satisfaction, outlook on life, happiness and contentment. But tourists in Copenhagen might not see this exuberance on first glance. Instead the people tend to come across as "cold" or "smug," adjectives not used exclusively on the Danes but on Scandinavians in general. But once the ice is broken, you will find the people in Copenhagen quite kind, helpful, and yes, happy. The weather in Copenhagen might not seem like the kind of weather that fills people with revelry, but if you think of happiness as contentment, the Danes know how to be content. They are into creating a warm and cozy atmosphere in the cold dark winter months, and the city is characterized most of the year by blazing fires, soft blankets, candlelit living rooms, warm home-cooked meals, bottles of red wine and friendly conversation. But as soon as spring comes, the Danes will emerge from their snuggly dens and spring back into action at the nearest park.
The city is compact and for the most part walkable, but a city bus tour is always a great way to get oriented before taking to the cobblestones. In the summer months, a boat tour is a must, not only for an overview of the city but for great views and as an authentic way to explore this delightfully watery city. Bicycle tours are also very popular. Bicycles are easy to rent and many companies offer either guided tours or maps of the city for self-guided tours by bike through the city.
National Museum: The National Museum in Copenhagen is the museum for everything Danish, covering the country's cultural history from prehistory through modern times. It's housed in a former palace and features many fine artifacts. There are guided tours in English on select days during the summer months. Ny Vestergade 10. +45 33 13 44 11.
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art: Located a half an hour or so up the coast and easily accessible by train, the Louisiana is a unique and compelling modern art museum. The collection is extensive, the setting stunning and the whole experience quite surreal as you move between glass hallways, historic villas and outdoor sculpture gardens. It's worth at least half a day. Gl. Strandvej 13, 3050 Humlebæk. +45 4919 0719.
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: This art museum was founded by Carl Jacobsberg, son of the famous Danish brewer, to house his extensive collection. The collection is divided between classical pieces and 19th- and 20th-century French and Danish sculpture. The ancient collection is the largest in Northern Europe and in the modern collection Rodin and Gaugin are particularly well-represented. The grounds and facilities are a work of art in themselves including the glass-domed café with full-sized palms. Dantes Plads 7. +45 33 41 81 41.
Arken Museum of Modern Art: Located 25 minutes from Copenhagen and easily accessible by train, the Arken Museum of Modern Art is an architectural treat housing some of the most cutting-edge art of the 20th century. "Modern" at this museum means post-war, but many pieces are as recent as the 1990s. Skovvej 100, 2635 Ishøj. +45 43 54 02 22.
Cisternerne Museum of Modern Glass Art: This unique exhibit can be found in the old cisterns under Frederiksberg. The museum is mostly underground and features glass sculptures and stained-glass pieces, making it both an art gallery and historical exhibit on the old water system. Pile Alle 55, 2000 Frederiksberg. +45 33 21 93 10.
Amalienborg Palace: Amalienborg is a collection of four palaces arranged around a central courtyard. It wasn't intended to be the royal palace, but after Christiansborg castle burned down in the late 18th century, the royals moved in to Amalienborg and have resided there ever since. The queen resides here during the winter and the grounds include a museum, a park extending to the harbor, and the royal yacht. Two of the palaces are open to the public. The changing of the guards is a popular tourist attraction.
Christiania: The Freetown of Christiania is a collection of military barracks on a nice stretch of waterfront that has been colonized by a population that can be best characterized as wanting something different. Call them hippies or revolutionaries, but the people of Christiania are living in a different political and social order from the rest of Copenhagen and for tourists a trip to the Freetown can feel like a few hours spent in another country or another world entirely. Go with an open-mind and the self-constructed homes and artist studios as well as the colorful residents themselves will delight rather than offend. A variety of vegan and vegetarian cafes will make sure you don't go hungry during your short stay.
Tivoli: Tivoli is a piece of history. One of the oldest "pleasure gardens" (the old name for what we now call amusement parks) in Europe, Tivoli has been delighting visitors with rides, exhibits, food and greenery since 1843. Whether you seek the thrills of roller coasters or just enjoy listening to others squeal with delight, Tivoli is a lovely place to spend the day. It's particularly popular in the summer months (summer nights include a fireworks display), but Christmas time includes the magic of lights and special markets. Vesterbrogade 3. +45 33 15 10 01.
Nyhavn: Nyhavn translates to "new harbor," but don't be fooled, this waterfront stretch of cafés and cute colorful houses was new in 1671 when commissioned Dutch and German architects came in to create an Amsterdam-like canal area. Nyhavn is very popular in the summer for coffee or beer at the endless stretch of outdoor seating with views of the water.
Rosenborg Castle: Excepting of course the Little Mermaid statue, nothing will make you think of Hans Christian Andersen more than Rosenborg Castle, a lovely 17th-century red-brick palace with spires, a moat and green grounds. The fairy tale castle houses museum exhibits dedicated to royal residents' furniture, art and other possessions and their sometimes odd taste is a pleasant surprise. Oster Voldgade 4A. +45 33 15 32 86.
Little Mermaid: The small stature of this Copenhagen icon surprises some first-time visitors, but the Little Mermaid statue on a rock in the water—somewhere between her two worlds—has been one of the city's most popular attractions since her unveiling in 1913. She has been vandalized many times—decapitated and amputated, and is sometimes used to make silly or important political statements—dressed in a burqua for instance, but her usual costume is of a patina bronze and she is close enough to land to be photographed.
Carlsberg Brewery: Price of admission for the Carlsberg Brewery tour includes two free beers. The new visitor's center features interactive exhibits on the history of Denmark's most famous drinkable product and the brewing process. Gamle Carlsberg Vej 11. +45 33 27 12 82.
Many of the locals rely on bicycles for transportation, so by renting a bike (there are also some for free use) for the day or for your entire stay in Copenhagen you can have an authentic experience while getting some exercise. When the weather is nice, the parks will be full of people lounging in the sun or playing in the grass. A particularly nice place to explore the great outdoors with close proximity to the city is Dyrehaven, the former royal hunting ground, where you can wander through the various forest trails and still come across wild deer. In the winter, ice skating is offered in a few locations, with Tivoli having the most atmospheric rink.
Roskilde: There are frequent trains to the former Danish capital, Roskilde. The ride takes a little more than 30 minutes and you can devote an entire day to two of its top attractions: the Roskilde Cathedral where Danish royalty dating back to the 15th century are buried and the Viking Ship Museum with excellent exhibits on all things Viking.
Malmö: Sweden's third largest city is just across the bridge and the trip across the Øresund Bridge by car or train is a sight in its own right. Malmö offers beautiful architecture and an ancient castle as well as some of the best ethnic food in Scandinavia. The trip takes only a half an hour.
Frederiksborg Castle: A short train ride northwest of town will bring you to the magnificent 17th-century Frederiksborg Castle situated on an island in a lake. The castle houses the Danish Museum of National History and both the building and the exhibits are well worth the short trip.
Helsingør: A train ride up the coast and a pleasant 10-minute harborside walk will bring you to Kronborg Castle in Helsignør. Immortalized in literature as Elsinore in Shakespeare's Hamlet, the 16th-century fortress is worth a visit for anyone—literature buff or not.
Copenhagen is a great place for families. It is quite safe and besides the obvious kid-friendly attractions like Tivoli, there are dozens of great parks and for every modern art museum there is a more hands-on museum with exhibits geared towards younger visitors. Valbyparken and Faelledparken have whimsical organically designed playgrounds and Valbyparken has a disc golf course as well. The Copenhagen Zoo is one of the oldest in Europe and includes a world-class elephant enclosure, and the Zoological Museum at Copenhagen University has wonderful exhibits on animals for children and adults alike. If your children are tired of looking at castles you can indulge them with a trip to Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum or a laser show or Imax movie at the Tycho Brahe Planetarium.
While Danish food may have the reputation for being rather hearty and well, boring, Copenhagen is a great destination for culinary adventures. Don't be discouraged by the starchy nature of the local cuisine; Danish food is represented around the world by the eponymous "Danish," which is only done right at home in Denmark. A pastry for breakfast with coffee can't be beat and the lunch spread of open-faced sandwiches will satisfy you for most of the day. International food is best represented by upscale Japanese and French restaurants but you're never far from a falafel/kebab stand in Copenhagen for a cheap cultural experience. Keep in mind that brunch is big here, so look out for mid-morning specials and modern twists on traditional Danish brunch buffets.
The Danes are notoriously serious about drinking and Copenhagen is famous for its nightlife. Compared to the other Scandinavian cities, the scene here is very late with bars open until 3:00 and clubs staying open until 5:00. There's live music almost every night of the week with jazz and blues clubs dominating. Gay and straight dancers alike will be sure to find a thriving place to get down any night of the week. For a more quiet drinking experience, beer connoisseurs will be happy to pass up the ubiquitous Carlsberg to sample one of the local handcrafted micro brews that have taken the city by storm. Of course, if Carlsberg is your cup of tea, you'll be in heaven here.
The longest pedestrian street in Europe is Strøget and big department stores as well as designer boutiques are interspersed with restaurants and cafes all along the stretch. For less atmosphere but more variety head out to the new Ørestad region to the Field's Shopping Center, the largest indoor mall in Scandinavia. Stores tend to be open as late as 8:00 p.m. in Copenhagen on the weekdays but most are closed on Sundays. For souvenirs, the collectible Royal Copenhagen porcelain is very popular and hand-made designer jewelry in silver and amber is always special. If it doesn't have to fit in your hand luggage, consider investing in a piece of Danish-designed furniture. For kids, Lego and Duplo originate in Denmark and the original plastic blocks are especially appreciated directly from Denmark.
Copenhagen's international airport is modern and efficient and serves customers flying from all over the world. SAS is the primary carrier. It is very easy and cheap to get to the city center from the airport; the train will have you in town within 10 minutes.
The city center is most easily accessed by foot or bicycle, but if you arrive in Copenhagen by car, remember that your headlights must be on at all times (even during the day) and the driver and front seat passenger must wear seat belts. Driving intoxicated is a serious offense and if you've been anywhere near alcohol, it's best not to get behind the wheel.
Danish State Railways runs trains to all over Denmark as well as places like Oslo, Stockholm and Hamburg all from the Copenhagen Central Station, which serves as a gateway to Scandinavia from the rest of Europe. The Øresundtag runs around the sound on both the Danish and Swedish sides, servicing places like Helsingør and Helsingborg and Malmö in Sweden.
The metro is a fairly new endeavor and is rapidly expanding in Copenhagen. It is especially useful for getting to places like Ørestad and don't be unnerved by the fact that the trains are automatic and therefore don't have a driver. The S-tog is the older urban train system and runs from the city center to the "five fingers" or regions of the greater city area. Both the metro and the S-trains are integrated with the buses into one transportation system and tickets are issued on a zone system allowing you to use any mode of transport to reach your destination on one ticket.
Taxis are easy to find but are quite an expensive alternative to public transportation. They can be hailed from the sidewalk or phoned in advance. Don't try to negotiate the price unless it is for a long-distance special ride.
The weather in Copenhagen is generally mild and temperate with pleasantly warm summers with highs just around 20°C in July and August and winter averages just around freezing. Fall and spring are short but lovely. It can rain any day of the year, but July and August are the wettest months. The reputation for long cold winters is offset by the thought of warm, cozy, candle-lit indoor spaces, which the Danes are unusually good at creating.