Kings, Culture and Cycle Chic: Reasons to Visit Copenhagen

Tourism in Denmark with CPH guides and city maps

My next travel destination is known for being effortlessly cool: Copenhagen has two famous Michelin -starred restaurants, internationally known fashion designers like Baum und Pferdgarten, and a hippy-founded ‘freetown’ called Christiania… but I’ve been tempted for other reasons. If you need convincing as to why Copenhagen should figure in your holiday plans, look no further.

Statue showing knight and dragon in Middle Ages and Renaissance area of National Musuem in Copenhagen
A sculpture of St. George and the Dragon, on display at the National Museum of Denmark. Credit: Nationamuseet.

History on Every Corner

You can’t ignore centuries of heritage: Denmark has been ruled from Slotsholmen, a small island, since 1167. Today it’s home to Parliament and the Supreme Court, and the Royal Family can be found in the nearby Amalienborg Palace. Christiansborg Slot, the castle, has been through more reinventions than Madonna, thanks to fires, renovations and an entire demolition. Underneath today’s structure are the ruined foundations of the original castle.

The National Museum of Denmark, or Nationalmuseet, inside the Prince’s Palace, is a good starting point for wannabe historians and it’s easy to factor in if you’re short on time – the city tourist board says self-guided tours should take about an hour. You’ll cover Stone Age to modern artefacts, and entry is free, with free Wi-Fi coverage to encourage social sharing.

The classic CPH view for tourists is Nyhavn, a cobbled street full of colourful bars and cafes, overlooking boats in the canal and leading towards Kongens Nytorv (King’s New Square). Hans Christian Andersen lived in several different houses on the street during his lifetime. Other iconic views include the panorama from the top of the Rundetaarn (Round Tower), an observatory which dates back to 1642 during the reign of King Christian IV. There’s also the Tivoli Gardens, a vast amusement park loved by Walt Disney, built in 1843 with permission from King Christian VIII. Tivoli’s founder told the king that “when the people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics”.

More recent history is hidden in plain sight. Ryvangen Memorial Park, in the exclusive Hellerup district, was taken over by the Nazis during their WWII invasion and became a place for Resistance members and freedom fighters to be executed. Unlike the other parks in the area, this is a national memorial and isn’t somewhere for a casual picnic or a dog walk, so it’s important to be respectful.

Inner city Copenhagen including Radhus and Holmens Canal
Christiansborg stands out in this Slotsholmen panorama. Credit: Mik Hartwell (flickr.com/photos/mikhartwell).

An Eclectic Mix of Museums and Galleries

There are two major museum areas, the Slotsholmen and the Parkmuseerne, where you can easily visit some of the most popular sights in a day, and you’ll find others within walking or cycling distance. Many of the buildings in Slotsholmen offer free entry with the Copenhagen Card.

Alternatively, save money with a ticket for 195DKK that covers entry to all six Parkmuseerne attractions, including Rosenborg Slot and SMK – the National Gallery of Denmark – whilst getting to explore the parkland and cafes dotted in between.

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek isn’t a museum of beer (for that you need the Visit Carlsberg experience in Valby) but a famous art gallery founded by brewer Carl Jacobsen, displaying Danish and international artworks. Other arty attractions include the private collections open to the public at Thorvald’s Museum, the Hirschsprung Collection, and the David Collection – the last two are part of the Parkmuseerne.

Smaller and more obscure attractions are also on offer without taking a big detour from the beaten path. The Medical Museion and the Danish Police Museum are the two I’ve got my eye on, though you may prefer to visit the Post and Tele Museum, which covers the history of communication over the last 400 years, or the appointment-only Copenhagen Prison Museum, run by former staff of Vestre Prison.

Forbrydelsen locations Copenhagen City Hall
The City Hall (Rådhuset) is where the municipal council meets in Season 1 of The Killing. Credit: Marcin Wojcik (flickr.com/photos/efeb).

Scandi TV Locations

Embarrassingly I’ve only just finished Season 1 of The Killing (or Forbrydelsen, as it’s referred to here), and I’m hoping to start Season 1 of Borgen once I’ve finished the current Danish export, historical drama 1864.

This means I’m not quite ready for the full Scandi Noir walking tour, which covers locations from all series of The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge, in case I pick up any plot spoilers by accident. Seriously, don’t tell me anything.

If you’re a bit behind like me, you can just tick off some recognisable spots from Season 1, like City Hall (stomping ground of Troels Hartmann, and right in the prime area for shopping), Store Koningsgade (home to the scandal-filled Liberal Party flat) and Østerbro (where Sarah Lund lives, and a trendy place to buy antiques or vintage clothing).

To get a flavour of Borgen, head to the Danish parliament building – the Folketing – which offers a free 45 minute English tour on Sundays in May and June. I’m looking forward to testing this out. If you visit at another time when parliament is sitting, you can watch from the public gallery.

Danish health food in a city soup cafe
Copenhagen’s organic and eco-friendly enthusiasm is growing. Credit: The Hamster Factor (flickr.com/photos/disaster_area).

Eco-Friendly Lifestyle

The first Bike City in the world has also been voted the most liveable. Many locals shun public transport in favour of the bike lanes because it’s quicker and easier to cycle, thanks to a growing network of cycle lanes and super highways designed to keep them safe. The environmental impact isn’t a deciding factor, but it’s a natural consequence: obviously cycling commuters don’t come with the same side-effects that car drivers or bus and metro passengers do.

Deliberate eco initiatives include developing city beaches and pools, urban gardening and farming, green hairdressing salons and health shops, and a plan to become the first CO2 neutral city by 2025 (which I’m sure they’ll do!).

Even my hotel has eco credentials. Wake Up Copenhagen has two branches in the city centre, and I’ll be staying in the Borgergade hotel, designed by architect Kim Utzon. It’s part of the Arp Hansen Hotel Group, which has Green Key certification – this means they aim to reduce waste and they choose products with the lowest environmental impact possible. Customers are encouraged to get involved in healthy and green activities, and suppliers have to adhere to Green Key policies.

You’ll typically find more organic food and eco-labelled cleaning products in a Green Key property, as well as good insulation, energy saving devices and water conserving technology.

Danish chairs and wood cutting as promotional poster
Ib Antoni’s interpretation of classic Danish wooden furniture, in poster form. Original image credit: Artposters.

Cutting-Edge Design

Kim Utzon, who I’ve previously mentioned, designed plenty of buildings here, including the Tivoli Congress Centre, Harbour House I and II, and the Paustian House. The latter was a collaboration with his father, acclaimed architect Jørn Utzon, best known for creating the Sydney Opera House (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Influential industrial designer Jacob Jensen, who unfortunately died this month, is remembered for his work with Bang & Olufsen and the Sigvard Bernadotte and Acton Bjørn studio. During his career he made everything from mixing bowls and Lego toys to headphones and the Beogram 4000 record player, later displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Visit the Bahne department store, in Fisketorvet Shopping Centre, to buy pieces by Jensen’s company.

The Swan, the Egg, the Ant and the 7 are all classic chairs by Arne Jacobsen, an architect who worked on major building projects and helped form the Danish Modern school. As Patrick Kingsley puts it in his brilliant book, How to be Danish, Jacobsen is ‘a semi-deity’ here, dreaming up minimalist furniture that local manufacturers Fritz Hansen have been making (to very high demand) for decades. Visit Illums Bolighus to window shop or splash out.

Kingsley points out that Danish Modern began as a ‘progressive design culture’ with affordable prices, in line with the folk schools and co-ops in the country, but today it’s much more expensive to buy into. If you can afford it, shop at Klassisk (recommended by Condé Nast Traveller) and Normann Copenhagen, but otherwise you can pay tribute by buying a classic Ib Antoni poster celebrating Danish furniture. Antoni’s posters are sold at the Visitor Centre in Vesterbrogade and at Artposters in Gothersgade.

As you can tell, I can’t wait to visit Copenhagen, and I have a feeling I’m not the only one who’s fallen under its spell.

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