Historic, youthful, raucous and refined, Copenhagen can mean many things to many people. If you’re young then it’s a literal playground, with the world’s oldest amusement parks and some of the trendiest shopping and nightspots anywhere. For culture there are historic palaces and museums in which Viking and Bronze Age treasures are on display.
Copenhagen’s food-scene is making international waves, as the profusion of Michelin-starred restaurants will tell you, and the city has been one of Europe’s design capitals for decades now (Foodie? Check out the this Copenhagen’s Culinary Experience Tour). It all adds up to a dynamic, progressive and fun destination in Denmark.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Copenhagen:
1. Tivoli Gardens
Such is this theme park’s fame that some people come to Copenhagen just t visit Tivoli Gardens.
And even if you’re not in the mood to get on a rollercoaster or carousel it’s an unforgettable place for an amble thanks to its romantic 19th-century representations of the Orient.
After Bakken, also in Copenhagen, Tivoli Gardens is the world’s oldest theme park, and if you do have kids with you they will have the time of their lives on some of these rides.
Worth special mention is the Star Flyer, a carousel that hikes riders up 80 metres above the ground.
2. Little mermaid statue
This instantly recognisable statue sitting on a rock next to the Langelinie promenade is surely the most famous landmark in the city.
The sculptor Edvard Eriksen created the mermaid in 1913 as a tribute to the author Hans Christian Andersen, and it’s inspired by Andersen’s eponymous fairytale.
When you get up close to the statue what will surprise you is how small it actually is, but you’ll have to take a photo because it’s simply one of those international identifiers.
This pedestrian street runs on and on, and whether you’re up for high-street or high-end shopping the chances are you’ll find what you’re looking for here.
It’s among the largest pedestrian malls in the world and even if the prices aren’t for the faint-hearted.
If you want to find some independent shops then follow Strøget into the Old City and then try one of the narrow side streets.
There’s a wonderful mix of old specialty businesses that go back generations and hip boutiques for young fashionistas.
New Harbour in English, this historic waterfront area is next to a 17th-century canal where old wooden ships are still moored.
On both sides of the canal are tall painted houses dating to the 1600s and 1700s, the ground floors of which house bars, restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating.
It’s hard to believe it now, but for most of its existence this was a seedy part of town.
Now it’s one of the best places to linger of a coffee or beer in summer.
And it’s a big literary landmark too: The house numbers 18, 20 and 67 (marked with a plaque) were home to the author Hans Christian Andersen at different times.
Copenhagen’s National Museum is the sort of attraction in which you could lose hours without realising.
There’s a remarkable wealth of artefacts here, from all eras of Denmark’s past.
If you see nothing else take a look at the Trundholm Sun Chariot. It’s a Bronze Age item, dating to 1400BC, with a bronze statue of a horse pulling a gold disc representing the sun.
According to Norse mythology the sun made its way across the firmament like this, towed by a divine horse.
The Vikings are also well-covered by this museum, and many artefacts from this collection were sent on a tour of the worldin 2014.
6. Christiansborg Palace
Set on the Islet of Slotsholmen, Christiansborg contains Denmark’s Supreme Court, the Prime Minister’s office and the Danish Parliament.
The Danish royal family and prime minster also make use of the palace’s ornate reception rooms for formal events and to receive other heads of state.
The highlight of these reception rooms is the Great Hall, 40 metres long and able to seat 400 guests.
On a tour you’ll also get to see the Riding School, which is overlooked by a gallery, and the little court theatre which was built in 1767 and updated in 1842.
7. Rent a bicycle
Copenhagen has to be one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world.
Almost everyone who lives here rides regularly, and it’s so safe that you’ll see many people on bikes without helmets.
The city is flat of course, which helps, but the cycle lanes are very broad and since it helps keep pollution down, people are encouraged to cycle whenever they have to make a trip.
There are countless companies offering rentals in Copenhagen, but you might want to try the hi-tech City Bike scheme, which has been running since 1995.
The latest ones even have a touch-screen tablet with built-in GPS!
8. Botanical Garden
Occupying 10 hectares right in the middle of Copenhagen, these gardens are valued as much for their botanical wealth as the majestic iron and glass structures that house them.
The glasshouses date from the 1870s, and the most impressive of these is the conservatory complex built in 1874.
Some of the species in here are 200 years-old.
In all there are more than 13,000 plant species on display at the gardens.
See if you can find the Arctic house, in which hi-tech air-conditioning recreates a polar environment for the gardens’ Arctic species.
They do things differently in Christiania, on the site of old military land in Christianshavn.
It’s a commune that was established back in 1971 on the back of the counter culture movement.
Nearly half a century later it continues to thrive, although things have been bumpy along the way as the people who live and work here wrangle with the Danish government for more autonomy.
The best way to describe it is as a peaceful park, with historic army warehouses and barracks taken over by artists’ studios, organic shops, restaurants and music venues.
Because of the drug activity here it’s a good idea to be aware of the various “do’s and don’ts” before entering.
10. Rosenborg Castle
This palace was built by Christian IV at the start of the 1600s.
His long reign and engagement in the Thirty Years’ War that swept across mainland Europe made him one of the best-known Scandinavian Kings.
The interiors of this lavish palace have hardly changed in centuries, and feature historic tapestries charting the conflicts between Denmark and Sweden.
You can also see the king’s chambers, take a look at his bathroom and see where he wrote his correspondence.
Do be sure to browse the collections of 17th-century Venetian glass and Flora Danica dinnerware in the tower chambers: They’re among the best in the world.
11. The David Collection
Here you can check out the personal art collection of the Danish businessman C.L. David, who donated both the building, his former home, and these art pieces, which include the largest ensemble of Islamic art in Scandinavia.
There are also exhibits of Danish modern art, paintings from the 19th-century Danish Golden Age and European art in the 18th-century.
The marquee attraction is the Islamic section, with exquisite pieces gathered from Spain to India and spanning the 800s to the 1800s.
Calligraphy is prominent, but there are also beautiful glass and ceramic items here. Entrance to the attraction is free.
12. Bakken Amusement Park
An earthy alternative to Tivoli Gardens, Bakken is an amusement park that has been located right here since 1583.
As you might guess, this makes it the oldest operating amusement park in the world.
Bakken sits hidden in beech woodland a few kilometres up from Copenhagen and after Tivoli Gardens it’s the most popular tourist attraction in Denmark.
Bakken’s attractions have a nostalgic, old-time quality: Take Rutschebanen, with its rickety wooden scaffold, dating back to 1932, or the Hvile music hall, which hosts cabarets.
Entry to the park is free and you buy tickets to each ride.
13. Church of our Saviour
It’s official, this church has the best view in Copenhagen, as voted by Copenhageners.
It’s a baroque building from the mid-1700s and you’ll notice the unusual spire from a distance.
There’s a dark tower wrapped by a ribbon of gold that spirals its way to the top.
This is the handrail for the stairway, and the climb to the viewing platform, via 400 steps, is definitely not for the vertigo sufferers!
Yep, those last 150 steps are outside the building, but if you keep it together you’ll have glorious vistas of Copenhagen as your reward.
You can even see the ships entering the harbour from here.
14. Going out
A fine starting point for a night out in Copenhagen is on one of the many side streets that branch off Strøget. Here you can drink with locals and prices are a little lower than the picturesque but touristy Nyhavn.
On weekends this can be your launch pad for a fun night out in a city where clubs are cool and unpretentious, and live music is a way of life. Younger visitors can party all night at clubs in Nørrebro that stay open ’til five in the morning and represent all sorts of scenes. Older visitors can head for traditional beer houses (Bodegas) or jazz clubs, or get some high culture at the Royal Danish Theater. There’s also a guided tour to enjoy the nightlife: Copenhagen Pub Crawl (Carlsberg, Pubs, Nightclubs, & More).
15. Danish cuisine
When most people picture Danish cuisine they think of Smørrebrød, which actually means “butter and bread”.
The reality is a lot more exciting and entails anything from cheese, cold-cuts, egg, fish and seafood, topped off with seasoning and garnishes.
For the uninitiated the experience is akin to Spanish pinchos.
Copenhagen is also ground zero for the new Nordic cuisine, where geniuses work wonders with molecular processes and emphasise the quality of regional ingredients.
Noma on Strandgade is of course at the forefront, with two Michelin stars and rapturous international acclaim for more than a decade.