Essential Copenhagen

Fairy-tales and high towers

While I’ve been to Copenhagen a few times in my teens (back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth) I didn’t remember much about it, owing to my choice of not-so-healthy recreational activities. What I did remember was, that I liked it very much, liked the Danes as well for their laid-back attitude to a lot of things and that there was a lot of sky with a lot of clean air in it. So, watching the Danish-Swedish TV-Series “Bron” (“The Bridge” – watch it, it’s brilliant) with my girl friend the idea grew to update my picture of the Danish capital – and ride the bridge ourselves. One thing everyone agreed about when I told them about our plan was that Copenhagen is really expensive, and that is true, especially if you live in Berlin, that is still a very affordable city. But, there are a couple of things you can do to soften the blow to your bank account. Another universally accepted fact was, that Copenhagen is a cyclist’s paradise (more on that later) and since I work for a company that organizes bike tours in Berlin, that was another believable pretext valid motivation to book a flight.

"Barrack" in the fortress of Copenhagen, built under Christian IV (C4) in the 1600s.

“Barrack” in the fortress of Copenhagen, built under Christian IV (C4) in the 1600s.

Life like a local – rent a flat

Normally I get something like an allergic reaction to this expression, because it’s utter bullshit and blogs, turism boards and the like create a mirror-version of their cities and hope no one notices. The original vision of platforms like airbnb, that normal people rent out their condos parttime when they’re on holiday or short on cash is long deflated, and most places offered are part of a more or less professional enterprise and the appartments free of anything you could interpret as personal touch. Not so in Copenhagen; many of the places within our price-range of <75€/night (which is the bottom of the spectrum) looked exactly like that, books, musical instruments, clothes and kitchens that have more stuff than the bare necessities. Of course that involves a higher than usual risk of unpleasant details, but for us staying like that played a majour role in keeping this trip affordable, because we prepared our own food as often as possible. Eating out in Copenhagen really depletes your funds lightning fast if you don’t just stick to the famous hot dogs and even these will set you back between 4 and 6 €. If you do eat out, you don’t necessarily need to tip, in Denmark (all of Scandinavia) everybody who has a job gets a decent wage and tips really are a sign of exceptionally good service, which doesn’t mean your average waiter/waitress won’t appreciate the extra income. In many countries “base personell” like cleaners, waiters, garbage men and the like are looked down upon, not so in Scandinavia, generally you get the feeling that people don’t judge so much by how you earn your livelyhood but by how you behave. And this is something they really do judge, social control is very important. On a number of occasions, total strangers pointed out, what in their opinion was unacceptable wrongdoings on our part, like not vacating a space on a bus for a pram …. after we already talked to the pram-pusher.

Houses orignally built for the workers in the Carlsberg brewery.

Houses orignally built for the workers in the Carlsberg brewery.

Get a bike!

Copenhagenize” is a well-known label in the cycling community under which cities are being tutored how to raise the traffic.share of bikes and become more like Copenhagen. All majour roads have cycle paths wide enough to overtake, curbs are flattened on corners, there are footrests at traffic-lights and litter-bins angled in such a way you can dunk stuff in them without slowing down. Plus; the city has just the right size to reach more or less any point in the city in 20 minutes from the centre without breaking a sweat.

There are a number of app-based bike-share programs (Bycyklen, donkey republic), but we opted to rent a bike for the whole time and just keep them to make sure we always have one. We opted for Copenhagen Bicycles in Nyhavn who offer guided bike tours everyday at 11 am, a good way to start exploring. Their stuff is super-friendly and the bikes are Ok. And while you’re there you can satisfy your own inner checkbox tourist, because Nyhavn is the quintessential postcard Copenhagen everyone imagines. Canals, old boats, cute and colourfull painted houses and souvenir shops.

Nyhaven is definetly the place where Copenhagen matches its Clichés most closely - didn't really spend much time there.

Nyhaven is definetly the place where Copenhagen matches its Clichés most closely.


Nørrebro and Vesterbro

These are two neighbourhoods which have become hugely popular in the last years but still retain some measure of alternative feeling, old appartment buildings, many small shops and cafés, good places to get lost a little. Just lock your bike somewhere and stroll around a while.

Parks & castles

Copenhagen is a very green city, not least because every castle has a park around it, and if there’s one thing that Copenhagen has more than any other city I’ve seen so far, it’s royal palaces. Denmark is still a constitutional monarchy and the royal familiy is the same it was 500 years ago and it looks like every single one of their kings just had to build his own castle or fortress or tower; Christian IV, who ruled around the time of the 30 years war, was especially industrious. Some of these castles, like Amalienborg can be viewd from the inside, which we failed to do, because of our sub-standard time management. But even seen from the outside the sites are formidable and awe-inspiring. A very peculiar tradition takes place every day at 11:30 at the castle Rosenborg. Depending on what members of the royal family are present in Amalienborg a rather large force of royal guards leave the local barracks to walk the 2,5 km to Amalienborg. If the king or queen are at home more than a dozen guards accompanied by an officer and a marching band strike out on one of three possible routes. The whole thing is a bit perplexing to someone living in a republic, because overall the Danes are considered very progressive, democratic and open-minded, but when it comes to their royals rationality seems to be suspended. In the end it probably doesn’t even cost them any money because tourists pay heavy entrance fees and buy a lot silly souvenirs – I escaped buying a plastic crown myself just barely.

The royal horses being trained in the back of castle Christiansborg, part musuem, part parliament and still home to the royal family.

The royal horses being trained in the back of castle Christiansborg, part musuem, part parliament and still home to the royal family.


The little mermaid & the fortress

Yeah, I know. But really you have to see it; it’s Denmarks national monument, albeit a very small one and the plastic itself is very powerful. It radiates a profound melancholy that you can’t escape it, especially in the evening sun, with boats and shipyards in the background. It was donated by Carl Jacobson the son of Carlsberg-founder J.C Jacobson, after he saw the play from H.C. Andersen which impressed him very much. In a way it is really sad, a monument to the futility of love – and free choice, especially for women.

Little Mermaid

Little Mermaid

Just behind it is the huge, star-shaped fortress of Copenhagen. A prototypical 17th century fortification, it is easily the loveliest military installation (still active in a way) you can imagine. Water lilies drift lazily in the water, joggers are doing the rounds on the elevated ramparts, a windmill, cobbles polished by centuries of use and tiny, bright-red barracks glow in the evening light. Outside the fortress surrounded by a small park are St. Albans Church a beautiful building built for the growing English community in the late 1800s and the Gefion fountain, depicting how the Norse goddess from the Edda tears apart the land with her four oxen from the mystical Jotunheim, thus creating the island of Seeland.

Giffeon fountain and St. Albans church, built for the growing anglican congregation in the 19th century.

Giffeon fountain and St. Albans church, built for the growing anglican congregation in the 19th century.


Carlsberg and the Glyptothek

Carlsberg and its founder JC Jacobson are still extremely important for Copenhagen. Today the brewery, created in 1847, is one of the largest corporations in Denmark, even though their headquarter is transformed into a new city district after production moved out of the city a couple of years. There is majour construction going on, and parts have already been overturned to other uses, like Academy of Performing Arts. They still keep a small craftbeer operation running and the buildings are all still there and super-impressive. That goes especially for the elephant gate at entrance, and the small lighttower Jacobson had built on the premises. If you are fond of industrial architecture that still strove for aestethic excellence this is an absolute must – and there are guided tours on offer. JC was one of those industrialists with a strong sense of responsibility, so he erected nice little houses for his workers as well, theatres – and transferred the majority of his company to a foundation that to this day controls the company.

One of the purposes of the Carlsberg Foundation is the operation the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, a museum showing and expanding the collection of its namesake. Its collection of French impressionists and post-impressionists is among the best – and largest in the world. There are dozens of Degas’, Monets, Cézannes, van Goghs and Lautrecs, too much really to take in one go. And this is just one part of the museum, completed by a wing of antique sculptures, another with amazing 19th plastics, painters of the Danish “Golden Age” who found entirely new ways to fix the slanting, glowing near-physical light of the north on canvas and rooms for changing, contemporary exhibtions (Man Ray for us). If you’re feeling especially generous on the day of your visit, I suggest a coffee and a slice of cake in the atrium/winter garden.  Like most museums in Copenhagen admission is free on tuesdays, mondays are closed.

Thor riding his swastika-encrusted battle waggon, pulled by mystic rams, while below him mortals writhe in agony - at least that's what I think this is - didn't look it up - sorry.

Thor riding his swastika-encrusted battle waggon, pulled by mystic rams, while below him mortals writhe in agony – at least that’s what I think this is – didn’t look it up – sorry.



Originally part of a fortress and home to huge artillery barracks the army vacated these 34 ha large compound in the late 60s, having it only guarded by a token force. Then as now affordable housing in Copenhagen is scarce, so soon homeless people started to live in the abandoned buildings and in 1971 cititzens of the surrounding neighbourhoods tore down the fences to let their kids play there. In September of that same year the self-governed freetown of Christiania was “officially”  announced and manifesto published stating that “The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.”  The inhabitants started to renovate some buildings erected new ones and very colourful collection aggregation of people not really well attuned to live in a cut-throat capitalist society congregated promoting their ideas of peace and freedom. Sounds “hippie”? It is, and of course there have been a number of serious conflict with the Danish authorities especially when organised crime like the Hells Angels tried to take over the drug-business. Up until 2005 a number of violent incidents regularly shook Copenhagen to the core. Time and time again politicians tried to evict the inhabitants, forcing them to make compromises. So since the mid-90s Christiania pays taxes and for services like wast-disposal and water. A couple of years ago the city finally agreed to sell the compound. Officially all rules that apply in the rest of Denmark apply in Christiania too, but practically they created an independent jurisdiction and police will almost never go there, for fear of serious trouble up to full-scale uprisings like in 2007.

A chimney in Christiania.

A chimney in Christiania.

Even though freedom is at the center of how Christianites see themselves there are certain rules. You can’t just build what and where you like, or open a business without consulting the whole community first, hard drugs and weapons are forbidden, although “soft” drugs like Marihuana and Hash are sold openly on pusher street. The dealers there erected permanent stalls to ply their trade and judging by the smell and the number of people smoking weed everywhere for most visitors this is the main reason to visit the place. But there is more to it. A huge number of stores,studios and workshops create an impression of a productive society – maybe just a litte more laid back than elsewhere – OK a lot more laid back. The clientele is extremely diverse with an emphasis on young male – which is to expect if there is high-quality weed to be had. Once you leave the busy part close to entrance and start walking around it feels succinctly like an artists village somewhere in the countryside; there are areas set aside exclusively for kids, behind the old ramparts people sit at the old moat and enjoy the last rays of the afternoon sun, or eat a piece of vegan pie, curiously constructed buildings are covered in amazing street art. Overall a pretty cool place if you don’t mind people smoking weed everywhere and the vibe it brings with it. Worth a visit but not really the place of milk and honey as it is sometimes painted.

Panorama as seen from the "round tower" (Rundetårn) with the Øresund-Bridge that connects Copenhagen and Malmö in the background

Panorama as seen from the “round tower” (Rundetårn) with the Øresund-Bridge that connects Copenhagen and Malmö in the background


The Round Tower

As mentioned in a facebook post, Denmark’s rulers were very fond of spires and towers of all kinds; square, pointed, blunt, round, with a crown on top, a cross, dragons tales – whatever, didn’t really matter as long as it was high. Maybe it comes from being king in a country with virtually no mountains. Most natural elevations in Denmark wouldn’t even be considered proper hills in places like Austria or Switzerland. A number of them are open to the public like the Runde Taarn – The Round Tower, part of the Trinitatis complex consisting of church, library and observatory that was built in the mid- 1600s by Christian IV (C4 to his friends). For a reasonable entrance fee you can climb a 200m long winding spiral to the top at roughly 35m. Even though there are probably a lot of higher vantage points I find this one especially pleasing for while you are above most of the regular buildings you are eye to eye with the other towers. The panorama was exquisite with a wonderful over the confusion of roofs in all shapes, heights and colours that make up the top floor of this lovely city that hasn’t seen real war for a couple of 100 years. If the weather is nice you can even see the elegant pylons of the Öresund bridge to the south. About halfway up there is an exhibition space that showed a collection of fantastic (in the original sense of the word) fashion by Danish-Indian design-duo Peachoo+Krejberg. Make sure to pay a visit to the neighbouring church while you’re there, the organ alone is worth it. And if you’re into shopping; at the foot of tower commences one of Europes biggest shopping districts catering to all wallets and tastes with a huge selection of Danish design and one of the coolest comic shops ever.

Part of an exhibtion in the round tower from a Danish fashion designer

Part of an exhibtion in the round tower from a Danish fashion designer



The Tivoli Garden is one the rare places that will never loose its charme and appeal, no matter how many people have been there, how expensive it is or how often you have seen the stuff you can see there. Built in 1843 it is the 2nd oldest amusement park in the world – the oldest being just around the corner in Bakken. Of course there are bigger roller coasters and better shows, and yes the miniature Taj Mahal looks like something a crazy drug-lord would put in his oversized backyard, but it’s all done with so much charme and loving detail it feels way less cheap and plasticky than other parks. The million old-school light-bulbs create a beautiful warm atmosphere, there are open-air concerts every summer friday (no extra fee) and because it is located right in the heart of the city you can get a spectacular view of Copenhagen in The Star Flyer, a chain caroussel rising 80m abovve the park. An absolute must.

Chinese theatre in Copenhagen's Tivoli

Chinese theatre in Copenhagen’s Tivoli


Of  course there it tons more stuff to see and do in Copenhagen and I hope to expand this list in the future, because I will definetely go back there in the foreseeable future, but with these starting points you should be well prepared for a first stay in this wonderful city.



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