The Danish capital of Copenhagen perfectly combines modern and progressive city planning with historic architecture and charming cobblestoned streets. Not too big, not too small, this right-sized and sustainable Scandinavian city continues to churn out creative designers, architects, artists and cutting-edge chefs. Come for the historic city centre sites, but venture beyond into colourful and charismatic neighbourhoods to find a more authentic side to the city. Here, our Copenhagen insiders guide you to the top activities in Copenhagen.
In a city where roads and bridges are built for and dedicated to bikes alone, Copenhagen is well set-up to support its citizens with green and healthy options for commuting to work and school. Helene Hjortlund is the founder of managing director of Green Bike Tours and Green Learning Programs in Copenhagen and is passionate about showing visitors the benefits of sustainable city planning. She has been living close to Copenhagen most of her life and appreciates how compact and comfortable it feels for a big city.
“[Copenhagen] has a lot to offer when it comes to history, food, architecture, water, hipster areas and of course sustainability,” Hjortlund says. “It has a lot of hidden green places such as Bibliotekshaven, which I find absolutely amazing – a small, very silent, almost private garden in the middle of the city.”
Hjortland recommends that visitors to Copenhagen jump on two wheels and explore outside the old city, suggesting cycling down streets such as Jaegersborggade and Stefansgade in the N?rrebro neighbourhood for local café culture. And to learn more about this clean, green capital, take one of Hjortland’s Green Bike Tours to see the city’s alternative energy solutions, climate-adaptable neighbourhoods and even a waste incinerator plant that is so clean you can ski down the side.
A Copenhagener for the past 10 years and head of communications at the city’s Friendships boat rental, Anita S?rensen tells Culture Trip that with water all around the city, one of the best ways to get know the Danish capital is to see it from a boat. Keeping the canals clean enough to swim in is a priority in the city, and you are welcome to jump in any time of year at one of the many harbour baths along the Copenhagen waterfront.
“I love that we are surrounded by so much water. Water has some sort of calming effect, and people seem to be more relaxed when they are close to it,” S?rensen says. She suggests taking a boat out onto the water yourself to really make the most of the city. “In your own private boat, you get a sense of freedom, as you [get to] decide where to go.”
No bathing suit or swimming costume? No worries: Danish waters are clothing-optional. Or maybe you prefer to just putter through the canals with a picnic in a sustainable electric vessel. With a few instructions and suggested routes, you are free to manoeuvre the clear canals on your own. Rent your own at Friendships or GoBoat, or take a tour with Hey Captain if you’re less confident about your seamanship.
Local artist Tilde Grynnerup says: “I love Copenhagen because it is small and safe, open-minded and clean. It is my childhood streets and the green parks that I love.” And for artists like Grynnerup, creative spaces can be found in many spots all over the city, though she particularly recommends that you head to the west side of town. Once there, don’t miss the Meatpacking district in Vesterbro called K?dbyen. Here, you’ll find a concentrated neighbourhood full of cafés, restaurants, art galleries and nightclubs. There is always something interesting happening over here, from exhibitions to art openings to open-air markets. Check out V1 Gallery or Eighteen for cutting-edge art. And for sustenance in the area, try the fresh, creative seafood served at K?dbyens Fiskebar, dine on dim sum at Magasasa or sample some Italian fare at Tilde’s current favourite Mangia on Bagerstraede, also in Vesterbro. Then, seek out Papa Bird for carefully crafted gin cocktails and craft beer.
While the wind (industry) may have pushed Bo Gustafson to his job at Vestas Wind Systems in Copenhagen, the sustainably oriented city that offers such a creative culinary culture, as well as a thriving craft beer scene, has helped make it easy to stay. Beer giants Carlsberg and Tuborg may have control of many of the taps in town, but for craft beer aficionados, there are plenty of places to find creative suds.
“My favourite beer places have rotating taps, so you’ll never know exactly what you might find, but with so much choice, there is bound to be one you’ll love. Try local beers by brewers Mikkeller, To ?l and Gamma,” Gustafson says.
For the best selection, head to BRUS in N?rrebro, a big modern beer hall with a tasty restaurant attached, or cosy and candle-lit S?ernes Beer Bar located in the ?sterbro neighbourhood, with tables along the Lakes in warmer weather. Looking for a unique takeaway bottle or can? Step downstairs at Kihoskh on S?ndergade near K?dbyen or the Mikkeller & Friends Bottle Shop in the Torvehallerne food market in the middle of town.
Fran?ois Debains, an urban planner and founder of Urban Explorer CPH, moved to Copenhagen in 2013 from the south of France and loves how Copenhagen strikes the perfect balance between offering big-city opportunities without all the inconveniences of living in a sprawling urban centre.
“I especially [appreciate] the profusion of cultural events and the possibility to reach all of them in 30 minutes maximum by bike,” he says.
Ask Debains what visitors should see when they come to the city, and he will always encourage people to get to know what he calls the “real Copenhagen.” As Debains suggests, move past the iconic sights such as Nyhavn canal, Tivoli and The Little Mermaid and make your way into the neighbourhoods where people live to find the city’s hidden treasures. Debains especially loves the colourful and vibrant N?rrebro area, which is full of cafés, restaurants and some seriously good shawarma shops. Or take one of Urban Explorer’s tours, hosted by Fran?ois himself, to experience an alternative perspective of the Danish capital off the beaten path, from street art to industrial architecture.
Malthe Merrild is the founder of Kulturt?rnet (the Culture Tower) and can often be found alongside his co-founders atop the Culture Tower, a historic signal tower that sits over the Knippels Bridge on the main Copenhagen canal. Head up the tower and enjoy the small intimate setting for coffee or a drink while you take in the latest art exhibition, cultural talk or live music. As Merrild says: “The best thing about Copenhagen is the size – both physically and mentally. It’s so small that you feel like [you have] an idea of what’s going on in every quarter of the city. But Copenhagen is still so big that it holds a lot of small city centres worth visiting… and it is so big that you will always meet new, inspiring, weird and creative people.” No matter what’s happening at the Culture Tower, you’ll always have amazing views over the harbour. A short walk from the bridge, you’ll find Freetown Christiana, a colourful hippy commune that Malthe also recommends a wander through just to experience the creative atmosphere.
Helene Philipsen, a life coach and therapist who has been based in Copenhagen since 1992, loves the lifestyle here. “I love that the city is pretty stress-free, it’s a capital yet a small ‘big’ city in comparison to other capitals. Love that you can walk, bike and public transit everywhere.” Philipsen recommends that you rent a kayak and cruise the clean city canals before pulling in to one of the many floating cafés for lunch or even a sauna break come colder weather. Rentals are available from Kayak Bar, which is right on Holmen’s canal in the centre of town. From here, carefully paddle your way towards the Christianshavn canal or further down the canal to La Banchina. Take your kayak and tie up to the dock to soak up the sun, then head to this cosy café, nestled on the water in a little corner of the Reffen warehouse district, which offers an on-site sauna and serves up seasonal, organic food and natural wines before or after your steam.
As the author of The Copenhagen Companion (2019), Astrid Heise-Fjeldgren offers an alternative approach to seeing this fair city. With maps and suggestions for off-the-tourist-track walks and ways to explore, her guidebook is like a travel journal to inspire and record your time here.
“This book is not going to help you find your way to the Hans Christian Andersen statue, but it is hopefully going to help Copenhagen find a way into your heart,” she says.
Heise-Fjeldgren encourages visitors to see other sides of the city. One unique way to do so is to take in the scene from the top of Amager Bakke, the city’s newly opened ski-hill that sits atop the most modern of incinerators. Part of Copenhagen’s green initiatives, the building offers a waste management system so clean that it can commingle with a recreation spot for its citizens. Come to Amager Bakker’s Copenhill for some skiing in any season or just hike to the top to take in the views for free.
Chock full of culture, there are plenty of options in Copenhagen for visitors seeking tickets to live performances. See a magical Royal Danish ballet in the gorgeous Old Stage (Gamle Scene) theatre on the classic Kongens Nytorv. Or listen to world-class singers with a live symphony in the architecturally striking Opera House right on the canal. Take a guided tour in English most Sundays to go behind the scenes in the building’s stunning interior. Those looking for an intimate theatre experience can find performances in English at the House of International Theater. One actress says, “I love the freedom of being able to cycle everywhere, the proximity to water, the exciting architectural developments, the growing gastronomic scene, the fact that CPH is a city but such a manageable one – easy to get around and with several quite distinct areas.”
This article is an updated version of a story originally created by Jasmina Kanuric.