Travel Destinations

Monday, May 12, 2014

10 Top Copenhagen Experiences

Nyhaven Canal Copenhagen Denmark
Copenhagen's colorful Nyhavn.
Copenhagen is Denmark’s capital city, the residence of the Danish royal family, and Denmark’s most popular travel destination.  There is a long list of things to do in Copenhagen, which is why we devoted four full days to the city.  Copenhagen has palaces, churches, and museums galore.  With so many attractions that will appeal to a variety of travelers, it’s impossible to list the best.  But here is my attempt to list 10 top Copenhagen experiences that will introduce a traveler to the uniqueness Copenhagen has to offer.

Related: Copenhagen's Churches: Ships, Swans, Staircases, and Statues

1. Floating Along Copenhagen’s Canals by Boat

A great way to get your bearings and learn about Copenhagen is to take a canal boat tour.  There are two companies, Netto-Badene and DFDS Canal Tours, which offer similar tours.  DFDS Canal Tours are five times the cost of Netto-Badene tours, though both are free with the Copenhagen Card.  We chose Netto-Badene because they have a stop on Nyhavn Canal. 

Netto-Badene’s boats have plexiglass covers to keep passengers warm.  Passengers who want to take photos can sit in the front or back outside the plexiglass area, or they can sit under the plexiglass and open the window but still stay relatively protected from the elements. During a Copenhagen canal boat tour you will pass Copenhagen’s most famous landmark, the Little Mermaid, float through the canals of the upscale neighborhood of Christianshavn, and witness the sparkling reflection of the canal’s waters in the dark windows of the Black Diamond, a modern waterfront extension of the Royal Danish Library.

Canal boat tours last an hour and depart regularly, usually every half-hour.  Check the Netto-Badene website or DFDS Canal Tours website for current prices and schedules.

2. Photographing The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid Copenhagen Denmark
The Little Mermaid waiting patiently for her prince.
Hans Christian Andersen is Denmark’s most famous celebrity, and The Little Mermaid is Copenhagen’s most popular resident.  Commissioned by the Danish brewer Carl Jacobsen and erected in 1913, The Little Mermaid sculpted by Edvard Eriksen has sat on a rock waiting to catch a glimpse of her prince for over 100 years.  This tiny lady made of bronze and granite has lost her head and limbs a number of times.

Gefion Fountain Copenhagen Denmark
Gefion Fountain.
It is best to visit The Little Mermaid late in the day when there are fewer crowds.  Combine your visit to The Little Mermaid with a stroll along the water plus a walk through Kastellet, a well-preserved star-shaped fortress built in the 17th century, and a viewing of the Gefion Fountain, which illustrates the goddess Gefion carving Denmark’s island Sjælland (or Zealand) out of Sweden by turning her four sons into oxen to tear the land away.

3. Riding Tivoli’s Roller Coasters

Tivole Ferris Wheel Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli amusement park rides.
Even if you don’t usually visit theme parks while on vacation, no visit to Copenhagen would be complete without visiting the second oldest amusement park in the world.  Tivoli Gardens, located in the center of Copenhagen, opened in 1843.  Tivoli’s Rutschebanen is one of the oldest running wooden roller coasters in the world and is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2014.  To celebrate, the ride’s original vision has been recreated with two mountain peaks, an artificial waterfall, and a magical mountain landscape that thrill-seekers whiz through.

Tivoli At Night Copenhagen Denmark
Tivoli lit up at night.
Tivoli has 26 rides for all ages, over 50 dining options, and entertainment facilities.  After riding the rides visitors can rest at one of the outdoor tables with a cup of hot chocolate and a view of the flowers and water features or enjoy a Danish beer in the biergarten.  At night Tivoli becomes magical when the rides and buildings illuminate with myriads of multi-colored twinkling lights.

Tivoli opens mid-April through late September and some holidays.  Entrance is included with a Copenhagen Card, but ride tickets are extra.  An arm band that allows unlimited entrance to rides can be purchased at the gate.  Visit Tivoli’s website for more information.

4. Channeling Your Inner Hippie in Christiania

Christiania Mural Copenhagen Denmark
One of Christiania's brightly colored murals.
Even if you’re not a fan of psychedelic colors and the smell of some sort of green herb in a controlled burn, you can’t ignore the fact that Christiania is one of Copenhagen’s most popular tourist sites.  Originally a military camp, Christiania was taken over by squatters in 1971 and declared a free state.  Christiania is still self-governing with approximately 1,000 residents of all ages.  It will be interesting to see what the passage of time brings to Christiania, as residents have until 2018 to buy the land from the government for 76 million kroner. 

Christiania Building Copenhagen Denmark
Christiania building with metal artwork.
Christiania is an eclectic hodgepodge of buildings and residences, some colorful, some covered in graffiti and street art.  The main street is Pusher Street where soft drugs are still sold, usually behind curtains.  Pusher Street is a no photography zone, and there are signs aplenty to remind visitors of this fact.  Get outside of Pusher Street and you can walk along the dirt streets where the locals live, view some fantastic outdoor art, and witness an alternative way of life.

5. Touring the Carlsberg Brewery

Carlsberg Brewery Elephant Gate Copenhagen Denmark
Carl Jacobsen's motto on Carlsberg Brewery's Elephant Gate: Let us work for our country.
The Carlsberg Brewery may be the best big brewery tour I have ever taken.  The visitors center adjacent to the brewery has some fascinating exhibits which explain the history of Danish beer and the history of the Jacobsen’s family brewery.  Carlsberg beer is served in every single restaurant and bar in Denmark.  But the Carlsberg influence is even more pervasive than its domination of the country's taps.  Carl Jacobsen built an art gallery for Copenhagen and paid for the restoration of churches, palaces, and other buildings.  So not only is a brewery tour a history lesson about an incredibly successful brewery, it is also a view into a company that enabled its owner to do so much for his country.  

Related: A Tour of Carlsberg's Brewery and History

6. Eating Smørrebrød and Drinking Snaps

Told & Snaps Smørrebrød and Snaps Copenhagen Denmark
Smørrebrød, snaps, and beer 
at Told & Snaps.
One of the most uniquely Danish food experiences is a lunch of smørrebrød and snaps.  Smørrebrød is an open sandwich with bread, usually rye, buttered, and then topped with any number of toppings including pickled herring, shrimp, meat, eggs, or cheese.  Smørrebrød can be enjoyed practically anywhere, but the best place to experience Danish smørrebrød is Told & Snaps.  

Told & Snaps is located in a little basement just off of Nyhavn.  The food is made from scratch, and they also make their own beer and snaps.  Snaps is a strong flavored spirit always enjoyed with a meal, usually with strongly flavored dishes.

Told & Snaps is very popular and therefore always crowded.  Either make a reservation or show up as soon as the restaurant opens at 11:30 a.m.  Visit Told & Snaps’ website for opening days and hours.

7. Dining at a Michelin-Starred Restaurant

noma Copenhagen Denmark
Dining at noma, the world's best restaurant.
Copenhagen is one of the most Michelin-starred cities in the world and the most Michelin-starred city in Scandinavia.  15 of Copenhagen’s restaurants have been awarded a total of 17 Michelin stars.  With so many Michelin-starred restaurants in such a small area, many of which are within walking distance, a visit to Copenhagen is the perfect time to indulge in a world-class dining experience.

When choosing one of Copenhagen’s Michelin-starred restaurants, your first choice will probably be noma, the world’s best restaurant.  However, if you can’t get into noma, there are 14 other restaurants to choose from, many of which serve Nordic cuisine, but some that feature Thai or Italian cuisine instead.  

Related: 96 Hours of Michelin in Copenhagen and Noma, the World's Best Restaurant

8. Sleeping on Nyhavn Canal

Copenhagen is a beautiful city, but without a doubt the prettiest part of all of Copenhagen is Nyhavn.  Nyhavn is popular because of its canal filled with sailboats, the colorful buildings lining the canal, and the dozens of outdoor cafés along the sidewalk.  There may be nothing better than waking up in the morning, looking out your hotel window, and being greeted by this kaleidoscope of colors. 

Hotel Bethel Sømandshjem Copenhagen Denmark
Hotel Bethel Sømandshjem on Nyhavn.
Our hotel of choice was Hotel Bethel Sømandshjem.  Sømandshjem means seaman’s home.  Hotel Bethel was a sailors’ hostel starting in 1906.  It was run under the rules of the Sailors’ Mission, established at the end of the 19th century, enabling sailors to live cheaply away from port temptations.  The hotel still has a chapel which also serves as the breakfast room.  Dishes from when Hotel Bethel was a sailors’ hostel can be seen today at the Maritime Museum of Denmark in Helsingør.

Today Hotel Bethel is a relatively inexpensive hotel (by Denmark standards).  Rooms are simple and comfortable.  It is well worth paying a little extra per night to have a canal-view room.  While Hotel Bethel is not a luxury hotel, in my opinion it is in the best location and has the best view.  Plus you’ll be next door to one of Hans Christian Andersen’s former residences.

9. Drinking Along Nyhavn Canal

With two of my top 10 things to do in Copenhagen occurring on Nyhavn, you might be wondering if I ever left this tiny area the length of two city blocks.  Copenhagen is a large and beautiful city with far more to it than the colorful canal of Nyhavn.  But for a traveler who will not be seeing this view once it’s time to go home, you kind of want to soak it in as much as possible.

Drinking on Nyhavn Canal Copenhagen Denmark
There may be nothing better than soaking in the sun and drinking a Carlsberg surrounded by the colors of Nyhavn.
There are so many cafés along the canal where one can sit and have a drink or a bite to eat.  But the best way to experience drinking along Nyhavn is to do as the locals do and BYOB.  As soon as there is even a hint of sun, the Danes flock to the outdoors to soak up some vitamin D.  Along Nyhavn, the locals sit along the edge of the canal, feet dangling off the side over the water, drinking wine or beer which they’ve brought from home or purchased at a nearby kiosk.  Just off Nyhavn and around the corner from Hotel Bethel on Holbergsgade is Nyhavns Vin & Tobak Kiosk where you can purchase single cans of beer to enjoy along the canal with the locals for half the price of a smaller beer at the cafés.

10. Touristing with a Copenhagen Card

Copenhagen Metro Denmark
Riding the Copenhagen metro.
I’m kind of cheating here because a Copenhagen Card isn’t an experience in itself.  But it is your ticket to a multitude of things to do in Copenhagen, and will also save you money.  If you plan on visiting many of Copenhagen’s popular tourist attractions, a Copenhagen Card is a must.  Not only does it get you into these attractions at no additional cost, the Copenhagen Card also allows you to use the city’s public transportation, including the metro and the bus.  We used the metro to get from the airport to our hotel and rode the bus almost every day multiple times a day.  Copenhagen Cards can be purchased ahead of time and picked up at the airport after clearing customs.  Copenhagen Cards come in varying durations, covering 24, 48, 72 or 120 hours.  The clock starts running the first time you use the card.  Having a Copenhagen Card will get you into not only three of the above experiences; it will allow you to fill however much additional time you have in Copenhagen to discover your own top experiences.

Related: Meandering Through Copenhagen's Museums and Leave a Slot in Your Schedule for Copenhagen Palaces and Castles

Travel the World: 10 things to do in Copenhagen Denmark

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.