Copenhagen: What to see in Denmark’s largest city
Danny Kaye got it wrong when he sang, “Wonderful, wonderful Copen-hah-gen.” He’s not alone. But to say it like the Danish do, it’s “Copen-hay-gen.” What he got right was the “wonderful” part. The Danish capital is full of delights.
As is our custom when arriving in a new city, we – my husband Jack, daughter Zoe and I – bought a two-day hop-on-hop-off bus pass. In watery cities like Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen, this pass works on both buses and boats. Our first day is primarily orientation – we see the major sites without stopping. After that, we continue to use the passes to go back to places where we want to spend time. Research in advance helps a lot. We’re very selective about museums and palaces, picking only the ones we all want to see, leaving more time for exploring the streets and indulging in people-watching. As Zoe says, “We’re sightseeing, so let’s see the sights.”
Copenhagen is known as the City of Spires, and there are plenty of them. We quickly picked favorites. The No. 1 pick was the Dragon Spire atop the old Stock Exchange. According to one source the dragons intertwined tails represent the Kalmar Union, an agreement (1397 to 1523) where the independent entities of Denmark, Sweden and Norway were governed by a single monarch. Where this explanation leaves room for questioning is that there are four dragons on the spire.
Our second favorite spire was the tower of 1696 Our Saviour’s Church. This Baroque beauty has a spiral staircase on the outside – 398 steps – for what must be an amazing view of the city. I’ll never know!
Pick No. 3 was the spire on the tower on the Parliament Building – part of the Christiansborg Palace Complex. This is the tallest tower in Copenhagen and is topped with three crowns.
We got great views of all these towers from our canal boat trips. The boats were also a great way to see some of Copenhagen’s most striking contemporary architecture. The Royal Library is referred to as the “Black Diamond.” This shiny, black granite structure is impossible to miss.
Another contemporary treasure is the Royal Danish Opera House. Opened in 2005, this is one of the most expensive opera houses in the world – costing over $500,000,000 to build. The 105,000 sheets of 24 karat gold leaf on the ceiling of the main auditorium is glittering icing on this amazing architectural cake.
One of the most colorful stops on the boat route is Nyhavn (New Harbor), which dates back to the late 1600s. The Danes used all their crayons on these buildings – red, orange, green, yellow, blue, and shades in-between. Hans Christian Andersen once lived in the red building at No. 20.
From Nyhavn, it’s a short boat ride across the harbor to Reffen where we enjoyed a ragtag assemblage of food trucks and shipping containers offering all sorts of foods from many parts of the globe. Vegetarians (like Zoe) and vegans will find lots to like here. The rest of us have unlimited choices.
Don’t expect white linens – tables are catch-as-catch-can outside. A few venues have large beerhall-style areas. This is where Jack and I halved a couple of great hot dogs – the Nordic (beef sausage with apple/nettle, green mayo and mixed cabbage in vinaigrette) and the Danish (pork sausage with apple/beetroot ketchup, seaweed mustard, remoulade, onions, fried onions and pickled cucumber) both on brioche buns. Zoe opted for a monster veggie/fried egg crepe which may have been her Copenhagen favorite. We enjoyed the happy, hippy-dippy vibe so much, we ate here twice.
Also, on the boat route is Copenhagen’s most popular statue, the Little Mermaid. She sits on a rock looking out over the water, lonely, but never alone as she is constantly surrounded by selfie-taking tourists. She eclipses the monument to her creator, Hans Christian Andersen, whose statue stands beside the City Hall.
Practically across the street from the City Hall is another of Copenhagen’s icons – Tivoli Gardens. Europe’s second-oldest amusement park, (the oldest, Bakken, is north of Copenhagen), Tivoli sits in the center of town. Opened in 1843, it featured beautiful gardens, a railway carousel (where visitors rode in little wagons) and even a roller coaster – a 7-second thrill ride.
The 1843 roller coaster was replaced in 1914 with what is now one of the oldest, still in operation, wooden roller coasters in the world. Today’s carousel is a classic, two-story beauty with prancing horses and menagerie animals. Other rides range from the Flying Trunk, a gentle journey through scenes from favorite fairy tales to the Aquila, a dipping, spinning, 4G ride. Don’t eat a hot dog before riding this one!
But Tivoli is so much more than rides. We were there for hours and didn’t ride a single one. The gardens are still stunning. A variety of concerts and music opportunities abound and the historic (1874) Peacock Theatre is the only theater in the world presenting pantomime as an independent art form. There’s even a five-star, boutique hotel, Nimb, in a Moorish-fantasy building.
We had dinner on a pirate boat in the middle of a charming lake; there are also plenty of other options. The Tivoli style influenced Walt Disney in the 1950s when he opened Disneyland.
There are several castles – or palaces – in Copenhagen. Christiansborg Palace is a newbie – a 1928 collection of buildings built on the site of an original, 12th century fortress. The Parliament building, with its crowned spire is one of the buildings. In another building, visitors can see the Royal Reception Rooms including the Throne Room where new monarchs are proclaimed and the areas where important guests are greeted.
Amalienborg is another group of structures including the residence of Queen Margrethe II and her husband, Prince Henrik. While their mansion is private, another gives guests a peek at the lives of four former monarchs.
Rosenborg Castle is the do-not-miss castle in the city. We missed it – more about that later. Built in Dutch Renaissance-style by King Christian IV in the early 1600s, this castle has the most to offer the visitor. Take a guided, or self-guided, tour and prepare to get some exercise – there are three floors and a basement to cover. Expect 500 years of accumulation. Highlights include the Throne Room and the Royal Danish Treasury. The crown jewel of the crown jewels is King Christian IV’s crown. Shakespeare wrote, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” This was probably true of Christian IV – his crown weighed seven pounds.
Because our time was limited – only three days – we took a vote on which castle we’d visit. And the winner was – Kronborg. This involved a 45-minute train ride north to the town of Helsingor. Built in the 1400s as a fortress, in the late 1500s it was turned into an elegant, Renaissance residence by King Frederick II. A 1629 fire destroyed most of the interior; the remains stood, unrestored, for 300 years. It was thoroughly rebuilt and opened to the public in 1938. Though the furnishings are minimal, there are treasures to be seen here. The beautiful chapel was undamaged by the conflagration and priceless tapestries hang in the restored areas. The big attraction for us was its connection to Hamlet, Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane. The castle in the play is named Elsinor. There’s no evidence that Shakespeare ever visited here, but a story persists about players from his company having been here and local legends may have provided inspiration for the plot.
In summer, actors roam the courtyard and corridors, presenting scenes from the play. Turn a corner and you may run into Queen Gertrude and King Claudius consulting with Polonius or walk into a room and watch the jester, Yorrick, amusing Queen Gertrude and Ophelia. Liberties have been taken here and there – but it’s an entertaining, and well-performed, mini-version of the play that had us racing from one part of the castle to another to catch the sequence.
It was worth the trip but took up a day. There’s so much more to see in Copenhagen – and so much more to eat. I recommend multiple, leisurely visits. Hygge, a term being heard more and more in the States, is the Danish way of life – an attitude of contentment and comfort. And where better to embrace it than in wonderful Copenhagen.