A city guide to Copenhagen
The Constant Traveller: Copenhagen
Words— JP Karwacki
It’s been oft-cited that Denmark is the happiest country in the world, a statistic that’s hard to immediately identify from your first steps off the plane. Copenhagen is no exception: The border guard may smile as they stamp your passport but is as categorically reserved as the average Dane. Even the weather, with the city’s proximity of the North and Baltic seas, make the skies unstable with sharp vacillations from drizzling rain and grey overcasts to impermanent bouts of sun on any given day.
And yet, time spent on side streets or thoroughfares alike in this storied wonderland of a capital will show that happiness isn’t some grand gesture of daily fanfares on constantly sunny days, but a feeling of consistent contentment. It’s so pervasive that the Danish have a word for it: Hygge. Often translated as ‘cozy’, it’s a feeling of comfort and ease, of intimacy with yourself and your surroundings, and it pervades throughout this Nordic cityscape.
Want to get a sense of what time well-spent looks, sounds, tastes, and feels like in Copenhagen? Make yourself cozy, even hygge—light some candles, bundle up, pour yourself a choice poison or pleasure—and lazily make your way through these specially selected entertainments.
A couple of quick notes before continuing: Denmark is like the other Scandinavian countries of Norway and Sweden in that its entertainments are notoriously expensive (but no tipping is expected!), so budget wisely; the Danes are a somewhat emotionally guarded people, so don’t be offended if you can’t strike up a full-bodied conversation on your first try; and finally, this country values personal freedom, so don’t be too shocked to see its healthy populace combining jogging and cycling everywhere with smoking indoors and drinking their faces off.
Where to eat
Since the early 2000s, Nordic countries and Scandinavia have stolen the spotlight when it comes to culinary achievement. Seasonal ingredients fed by the elements of these northern climes inspired the New Nordic Cuisine philosophy founded by food activist Claus Meyer to produce fresh, simple, and pure meals that have since been enacted upon by the chef René Redzepi and his famous restaurant Noma. New Nordic Cuisine has continued to break ground since it began, influencing a new generation of cooks, and has made Denmark the capital of coveted gatherings like the MAD Symposium and the Copenhagen Cooking & Food Festival.
All told, you probably won’t be eating at Noma; reservations are regularly booked up six months in advance, and unless you’re willing to nag the institution by phone every day of your visit for dropped bookings (which you can, if you’re into that sort of thing), you’ll likely miss out on a place that’s unfortunately blockaded by its own popularity. Don’t fret and don’t forget: You’re in the birthplace of New Nordic Cuisine! There’s lots to try from Noma alumni, in addition to other local pleasures.
Opened by Claus Meyer with a kitchen helmed by former Noma sous-chef Jesper Kirketerp, Radio serves a superb five-course meal that moves with the seasons for $75. This is a choice location to (relatively) inexpensively enjoy a prime example of New Nordic Cuisine in action, with each dish of freshly sourced ingredients seamlessly leading into one another as movements would in a small by rousing symphony of flavour. Bonus: It’s easier to nab a reservation here.
A part of the far-reaching Cofoco restaurant group which oversees many-a good restaurants, Høst is particular in its achievements of both delicious meals with awards for being the world’s Best Designed Restaurant and Most Beautiful Restaurant: With a name that translates to ‘harvest’, the interior is reminiscent of the countryside with ruralist panache.
Travellers often opine that eating as a local in one the ways to get closer to an essential and ‘authentic’ experience. If you’re part of that pack, then you need to eat smørrebrød, a open-faced sandwich consisting of open-faced thick rye bread topped with anything from meat to cheese to fish. While it’s a working man’s dish, Kronborg is commonly looked to as the best in the city for its plainspoken but succulent toppings of marinated herring and fresh herbs.
Less a specific spot than a category, Copenhagen is filled with hot dog stands, with one in just about every corner of the city centre. The Danish hot dog is mostly eaten by tourists and out-of-town Danes, but they’re incomparably good. Ordering one with everyone gets you a long, bright red sausage covered in remoulade, fried onions, fresh onions, and pickles. The stands themselves may look alike, but no vendor is exactly like the next. Really, just eat as many as you can.
Where to Drink
No visit to Copenhagen is complete without getting sloshed with a shaky bike ride home. One can never go wrong in any of its establishments, whether it’s an upper-crust cocktail bar or dingily lit watering hole. The only faux-pas for foreigners is getting too rowdy, so be sure to keep yourself in check (see: hot dogs). Here are some classic standbys.
The Piss Trench (Pisserenden)
A charmingly nicknamed area located at the tail end of the city’s pedestrian-only Strøget, it was once known for an excess of brothels, crime, and an awful permeating smell from stumbling passersby. That was before it became it current and cleaner incarnation of a long line of bars with deals on drinks. A great place to grab a beer and break the ice with either locals or the cornucopia of international visitors coming from every which way of Europe. In the worst case scenario, either bar-hop around or kick back at a spot like Musen & Elefanten for a cigar and a few drams.
It’s a very literally named spot insofar as it makes a point of giving a good, relaxing experience. Furthermore, it can be hard to decide on a cocktail bar that won’t annihilate one’s bank balance, and this one affords unique concoctions at reasonable prices. No single drink can be recommended, as it’s better to ask the bartenders to whip up whatever they feel like. Contrary to how many bartenders hate being asked this, they’re more than happy to oblige at No Stress.
If you’re looking for the most plain-spoken pubs in the city, look to this breed of tiny bars where the beer is cheapest and locals are chatting, playing 1980s-era slot machines, slapping buttons on a jukebox, or playing games of dice. In Copenhagen, there’s a grandfather clause that if a bar, café, or club is smaller than 40 square meters in size, you can smoke; all bodegas fall into this category, so non-smokers should avoid it. The best bodegas are the pint-pulling Borgerkroen, the classy Bo-Bi Bar established in 1917, the oldest Hviids Vinstue (2023 marks its 300th anniversary), and the spacious Glentekroen of Nørrebro for its prices and selection of entertainments.
Galleries and museums
Copenhagen has no shortage of internationally-acclaimed art museums and galleries. What’s listed below are some of the most frequently sought-out institutions for viewing artistic media; those looking for anything less than commonplace should take note that there is a wealth of contemporary galleries and local artists’ vernissages to accompany them.
One of the visited art museums in the world, the LMMA is a perfect example of modernist Danish architecture nestled in the seaside municipality of Humlebæk, a mere 30 minutes away by bus. Featuring a collection which historically spans from World War II to the present day that includes names such as Warhol, Picasso, Rauschenberg, and Liechtenstein, it additionally features a sculpture garden with an international array of works from the likes of Joan Miró, Max Ernst, and George Trakas (to name a few). Be sure to check their concert hall’s schedule for the chance to see events such as lectures and musical performances.
For a more historical collection, the more centrally-located Glyptotek houses works both antique and ancient that stem from the personal collection of Carl Jacobsen, the son of Carlsberg Breweries founder J. C. Jacobsen. Highlights here include its sizeable collection of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures, as well as a fantastic collection of French impressionist and post-impressionist painters like Monet, Degas, and Cézanne. An amazing institution in its own right, some days it’s best to stroll through its wings casually, with bouts of meditation in its central Winter Garden replete with tall palm trees, a fountain, a skylight dome of copper and iron.
For a truly Danish collection of art, the homegrown work at the NGD numbers in at thousands upon thousands of pieces to view, in addition to a wide array of works by other Europeans. With works that reach back as far as the 14th century and as far forward as 20th, the amount of art to view can be so staggering that even a prolonged visit to Copenhagen could be framed by visits solely to this address.
One of the youngest of the large museums in Copenhagen and one of the city’s more notable pieces of architecture, it opened in 1996 to a crowd of hundreds of thousands. Since then, its current collection hosts hundreds of works by artists of Danish, Nordic, and international communities at large. It’s one of the finest to see for thought-provoking and controversial works by contemporaries, some of which include Jeppe Hein, Ai Weiwei and Tal R.
The last century has yielded a lot of bold constructions on the Copenhagen skyline that stems from a steady influx of world-class architects. Just as New Nordic Cuisine was shaped by the guiding principles of freshness, pureness, and simplicity, so too is the architecture of Denmark’s capital shaped by the elements. Being a maritime city, there are enormous structures that work within ideals of sustainability and use water, light, and space as inspirations.
Any walk in Copenhagen’s downtown core will reveal these buildings to you, either in the distance or a reasonable bike ride away, as well as a rich historical mix of medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo styles that blend into one another through the cityscape.
A state of the art waste-to-power plant opened in 2017, it’s both claimed to be the cleanest incineration plant in the world and—as of my writing this—an urban mountain open for hiking by summer and skiing in the winter. While industry normally is a card played close to the chest of any municipality, the Copenhill is instead opened to the public for recreational enjoyment and sightseeing, with promises of events and concerts. All that, and it bears a beautiful mountainous design.
The Danish centre for the dramatic arts, the current appearance of this Henning Larsen-designed building might betray its 250-year history for any outsider having a first glance. Located across the harbour from the equally stunning Royal Opera House, the Playhouse is a long and slim structure made sleek with glass and brick. Good to a casual visit without a show, as its foyer which affords panoramic views of the harbour with a daily cocktail bar to boot.
The Harbour Baths
If you find yourself in the summer months of June or July during a visit to Copenhagen, bring a swimsuit and jump in the harbour from any one of this collection of facilities. Be it Islands Brygge, Copencabana, Svanemølle Beach, or Sluseholmen, the diving boards and beaches are minimalistically modern spots to sightsee and enjoy. Some might get squeamish at the sound of swimming in the immediate vicinity of a city’s harbour, but the water here is constantly checked for quality.
Towering walls of polish black granite-coated walls at irregular angles make up the modern appearance of this national library, built onto the old Holm Building in the back. The stark appearance of this new building grows out of that old one in way that’s emblematic of Copenhagen’s recent history of new modern architecture along the central waterway. Inside, high-reaching windows and smooth edges reach everywhere. It’s also the site of a 600-seat auditorium called the Queen's Hall, used for concerts, literary events, and as a theatre.
Things to do
Sure, famous cuisines and head-turning architecture are cool, but when are you going to have some real fun? Copenhagen is a site of a lot of easy-going first world pleasures, but there’s also a lot of novelties to enjoy too that aren’t going to be found elsewhere. The following are the top spots which maintain the city’s dreamy, almost storybook quality.
Smack dab in the downtown core of Copenhagen are the Tivoli Gardens, an inner city amusement park that began in the mid-1800s. No single photo can capture exactly how much of an architectural melting pot this place is, mixing different era and cultures together in a seamless way, all connected by verdurous spaces like koi ponds and trees. The food is great, the games are fun, the rides are better, and it’s an honest place; Tivoli doesn’t shove corporate vibes down your throat with a cartoon mascot or serves cheap wares at a bumped price – it’s just fun. You come here to have fun, to be dazzled, and feel like a kid. Eat your heart out, Disney.
In the 17th century, King Frederick III of Denmark decided to have a swathe of forest to the north of Copenhagen be cordoned off and filled with wild red and fallow deer that could be used for hunting. These days, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is now open for the public to explore and watch silently as herds of deer run free. Nothing could make for a more magical afternoon than bike riding with a picnic in this place—that is, unless you pay a visit to Bakken, the world’s oldest amusement park. Grab some churros with soft serve ice cream, ride the world’s third oldest roller coaster, and laugh your head off at the amazing quality of it all.
An anarchist’s paradise, Freetown proper is an international community and commune that is the source of tension between the Danish government and its own, as Freetown flies its own flag and touts its anthem “You cannot kill us.” With a strict public statement that bans thieves, thugs, and fascists from its precarious borders, Freetown is known for housing a small street of cannabis vendors (no cameras allowed) while banning the sale of all Class A drugs like cocaine, heroin, MDMA, and LSD. Politics and ideals aside, Freetown is home to a beautiful array of free-spirited people running independent businesses like Nemoland and idiosyncratic homes built by its residents among its wild forested surroundings. It’s a society within a society, all built from scratch.
Where to shop
If shopping is on your to-do list while travelling, Copenhagen has plenty to provide. In addition to the following suggestions, it’s recommended that you walk away from the city with souvenirs like a horizontal skyline poster by the all-the-rage illustrator Martin Schwartz or a Freetown flag.
One of the longest pedestrian shopping streets in the whole of Europe, the Strøget runs through the city’s center and is a main vein which acts as a gateway to many of the aforementioned attractions. There’s simply too much here to bother listing specifics, but special shout-outs go to the fruit hawkers who park by the Stork Fountain, the variety store Flying Tiger for its weird and wacky cornucopia of cheap fun, and Danish fashion shops.
As Denmark is one of the most costly countries in the world, many look to enjoying what’s cheapest to have a good time. This equally applies to shopping, but in Copenhagen, these unisex second-hand shops rival retail in quality on any given day.
There’s the city’s chapter of Episode, which has its employees hunt down clothes in the sorting companies for charitable organizations. That amounts to a huge collection of clothing that goes back decades for both men and women and an operation that steadily spreading throughout Europe.
København K carries a staggeringly huge amount of clothing to pick from, and that extends to shoes, bathing suits, accessories, and knick-knacks. It’s a ton of vintage stuff that, after one shopping session, will have you looking like a local in no time.
For a more curated vintage experience, Prag would be a good bet. Styling itself after the vintage shops found in cities like Berlin or New York, this shop prides itself on choosing what it sells in each of its three locations across Copenhagen. That means a healthy, robust mix of anything from casual to formal. Effortless elegance is the name of the game here.