I admit to having been fairly ignorant about the Nordic countries. Copenhagen to me was all about fairytale castles and romantic waterways, Carlsberg beer and of course, the little Mermaid statue. Denmark’s capital city has come a long way from its origins as a Viking fishing village in the 10th century! It is vibrant and trendy but also historic and picturesque.
Perhaps it’s because I come from Johannesburg, the world’s largest city not founded on a shoreline, river, or inland lake, that makes me simply love a city that is built and thrives around water. Copenhagen is large enough to be an impressive cosmopolitan city but small enough to explore the highlights in a few days. The best way to make sure you really max it, is to get a Copenhagen Card (DKK689 for 72 hours) Not cheap, but certainly worthwhile because it includes all the main attractions and transport on buses, metros and ferries.
Comprehensive maps of the city are freely available and show all the key attractions.
We visited in June and were surprised by the temperatures reaching up to 28 degrees (low of 15). We’d expected it to be far cooler. The warm weather brought everyone outdoors and it created an instant holiday feeling. There was a fresh breeze that made it easier for sightseeing and when you were on a ferry, you definitely needed a light jacket.
We stayed at Wake up Copenhagen (3800 dkk for 3 nights excl. breakfast) which was modern, super-compact and spotless and within walking distance of key ferries and buses.
By the time we had checked in, it was late morning so although we hadn’t had much sleep on the flight over, we decided to keep going and took a ferry from Bryggebroen to Refshaleøen island. The ferry takes you along the canal passing incredible buildings such as The Black Diamond (their library!), the opera house and a brief look at the Little Mermaid statue. Refshaleøen used to be an old industrial shipyard and is now home to Reffen Food market which houses around 50 innovative and tasty food stalls from all over the world. We had a ‘Miss Piggy’ pulled pork roll for DKK120 and a delicious Pad Thai dish for DKK85.
One of the brilliant things about Copenhagen and indeed the rest of Scandinavia is the access to fresh drinking water. It’s such a pleasure to not have to buy bottled water all the time and given that alcohol was so pricey and that it was so hot, we drank a LOT of water.
Church of our Saviour
After lunch we took the ferry back towards the artificially created island of Christianshavn. Christianshavn is a trendy part of the city with cool cafes, fancy restaurants and charming 19-century buildings along pretty tree-lined canals. We headed off to the baroque Church of our Saviour (1696) with its external spiral staircase that immediately conjures up images of princesses in turrets. I was told it’s 400 steps to the top and the last 150 are external, so not for those scared of heights! The climb was worthwhile. The tower is so narrow and you have concentrate on people coming down as there is barely room for someone to pass, so before you know it, you are up top and experiencing outstanding 360 degree views.
After that it was a short stroll to Freetown Christiania. Christiania is a self-governing commune that seems locked in the 70’s with the overwhelming smell of weed being smoked and the psychedelic graffiti walls. It is quite a controversial settlement and soft drugs are freely available with dagga or cannabis being displayed on tables in full view like a flea-market. No hard drugs are allowed, nor are cars and photography! As we were leaving we bumped into a police raid swarming into the settlement.
We were pretty exhausted by 5h30 pm so we took the ferry back to our hotel and allowed ourselves a sleep until 8pm. Of course it was still broad daylight at that time. We decided to head to the famous district of Nyhavn with its iconic colourful buildings that flank the canal. We marvelled at the sights and the fact that for a photographer in Scandinavia, the golden hour is something of a misnomer. You have 3-4 hours of beautiful golden light, because the sun hardly sets! We decided on a Thai curry takeaway so that we could sit on the canal edge and watch the people going by.
We took a bus home again amazed that we had walked around 16km and feeling it in every joint!
Of course when in Denmark, one must breakfast on Danish pastry. Geoff researched some of the best local Bageris and what to order and selected Lagkagehuset in Grønningen. Sticky, raisiny, cinnamon buns served warm and flaky with outstanding coffee and a seat in the morning sun, made us very happy bunnies, consciously hygge-ing.
After that we were up for a stroll through Kastellet, a beautifully preserved pentagram fortress (1662) with dreamy moats and gardens. Locals use the area for jogging and cycling and its located very close to the statue of the Little Mermaid which was our main port of call for the morning. I’d been warned that she’d be far smaller than you expect, but what struck me most was her vulnerability. Tour bus after tour bus disgorged their human loads and they descended on the small statue. Not content with looking and taking pictures, they took turns clambering awkwardly over rocks and slipping on pebbles so that they could be photographed together with the mermaid. It was tragically funny as each tourist tried to outdo the next by either clawing their way up onto her rock (seriously?!) or reaching up to touch her. I’m not sure why I found this so invasive.
The statue known as Den lille Havfrue is by Danish sculptor Edvard Eriksen as a tribute to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen and a gift to the city.
We then wandered off and came across St. Alban’s Church, also known as the English Church as it is the only Anglican Church in Denmark. The beautiful gothic-styled church is flanked by the Gefion springvandet, a fountain from 1908 with powerful bronze statues of a Norse goddess driving huge beasts.
From there we meandered along towards Amalienborg palace (1760), the impressive home of the Danish Royal family guarded by the Royal Life Guards. After that it was a short walk to the evangelical Lutheran Marble church (1894) with its rococo architecture and green copper dome.
The Danish Museum of Design was next on our schedule for the day. This offered great insight into many aspects of design, for example the common chair, as well as the Japanese influence on Scandinavian design. There was also a lovely café and a beautiful garden bursting with roses.
Exhausted from all the walking but aware that the Guiness Book of Records Museum was not too far away, we decided to squeeze in a quick visit and enjoyed it thoroughly.
This shot shows Geoff posing with the world’s tallest man, Robert Wadlow (2.72m) as well as the world’s smallest woman – Jyoti Amge (63cm)!
Well overdue for a good lunch we headed for the famous Torvenhallerne, which is a vibey food market selling gourmet snacks and meals. The displays of tasty Smørrebrød were a photographic dream! The choice was overwhelming and we selected one piled with chicken and bacon that cost DKK62.
Our next activity was the Round Tower or Rundtaarn, a 17th century building used for astronomical purposes and the oldest functioning observatory in Europe. I loved this building and its wide sweeping spiral walk and the beautiful spaces that also housed cultural exhibitions.
We should have hired bicycles!
Although we were completely walked out at this stage, never let it be said that I am ever too tired to shop. So we attempted a stroll down one of Europe’s longest shopping streets – Strørget, housing everything from Prada and Hérmes to H&M and Zara. It turned out that we were in fact too tired to shop and instead sat enjoying the light spray of the fountain watching the buskers perform and people going past.
Too tired to take another step, we dragged ourselves onto a Canal boat cruise, something that we would normally avoid as “too touristy”, and another example of how the Copenhagen Pass pays for itself and gets you to do things you may not have considered. What a relief to put our feet up and sail up and down all the canals with the guide pointing out some of the main attractions. Actually worth doing as it gives you a different perspective.
Glyptoteket was the last museum for the day and we limped onto the bus in two minds about squeezing it in given that we were so exhausted. What a good decision it was to visit this incredible place! The museum houses the collection of Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of Carlsberg Breweries.
It was not only the impressive ancient and modern artwork, sculptures and other treasures that were worth seeing, but also the beautiful architectural design of the surroundings.
We literally crawled onto a bus that took us to our hotel for a much needed feet up and catch up on social media as well as plan where to go for supper.
Geoff found a wonderful area full of restaurants a short walk from our hotel in Inner Vesterbrø. This is the old meat-packing district and at 9pm it was still rocking with people eating outside and partying on the pavements. We chose a busy Chinese place where we had delicious dim sum and the best aubergine dish ever.
You must be sick of hearing me say we were dying from all the walking around and were grateful to reach our hotel and rest up after clocking another 17km.
After examining my blisters, binding my poor baby toes and committing to each other that walking would be kept to an absolute minimum on our last day, we set off (by bus) for breakfast at Fars Dreng, a trendy brasserie that served excellent coffee and croissant breakfasts. After breakfast we took the bus to Assistens Cemetery. The attraction, apart from my fascination with graveyards, is that this cemetery is one of the most beautiful in Europe and a deliberate green space for both the living and the dead. Such a clever concept given that graveyards are usually lonely places that are avoided by all but the bereaved. We strolled about enjoying the flowers and the trees and tranquillity so close to the busy city. This is also where HC Andersen’s grave can be found.
Another supposedly low key activity for us was to visit Tivoli Gardens amusement park, which is the second oldest operating amusement park in the world, the oldest also being in Denmark. We popped into the Tivoli foodhall for a tasty lunch and then entered the beautiful designed amusement park. Despite our weariness we were completely energised by the buzz and the activity everywhere. We had so much fun taking photographs and testing our camera skills, freezing or blurring the action.
It was well after 4pm by the time we got back to the hotel for an afternoon rest, while watching a World Cup Football game.
That evening we headed out to the Vesterbrø area again and got a table at vibey Mother’s where they serve outstanding sourdough and saltwater pizzas. They run a queue for hours but it was so worth the wait!
A mere 13km of walking was noted on the FitBit as we ended our last day in Copenhagen. What an amazing and exciting introduction to Scandinavia.