A friend of a friend told me last January that Copenhagen was doable in a weekend. I had written Copenhagen down as a potential city to visit by then, but still had many months before I had to book the holiday, and this had disheartened me. Nevertheless, the price of flights at the time that I wanted to travel was right, so I did go in the end, with my Mum. We visited over Halloween, flying there on one day, spending four full days in the city without venturing beyond it, and flying back on the 6th day. In my experience, I would say that the opening statement is true if you want to tick off all the things that Copenhagen is famous for, since the Denmark is similar to England in terms of weather and food (mostly gloomy and plain). However, you need more time to see the things that I think Copenhagen should be famous for.
What Denmark is famous for in the eyes of foreigners
The Little Mermaid and Hans Christian Andersen, writer of children’s fairytales
The Little Mermaid is a small statue that has an effect on a first-time viewer similar to that of the Mona Lisa; it is more likely to disappoint than enthrall. When we arrived at dusk, there was a crowd of tourists there whose attention had been captured by a lone swan. The creator of the story of the little mermaid – unlike the Brothers Grimm, Andersen actually came up with his stories himself rather than just collate and interpret existing folk tales – hated being categorised as a children’s author, and refused to be depicted in the statue in the King’s Garden (Kongens Have) as reading aloud to children, asking for the statue of the boy sitting on his lap to be removed. By the way, the Danes call Hans Christian Andersen by his abbreviated name, H.C. Andersen.
The home of LEGO
There is a LEGO store on Strøget, Copenhagen’s pedestrianised shopping street, but it is not the world’s largest – this title belongs to the store in Leicester Square, London, that I visited shortly after its opening in 2016. The window display of the store in Copenhagen has two life-size royal guards made of lego, but the store at the airport has no models of buildings in Copenhagen for you to build; only models of the most famous buildings in the world, like the Big Ben and Sydney Opera House. In short, lego does not feel Danish.
Being the capital of “the happiest nation” in the world and hygge
It topped the list in the United Nation’s World Happiness Report 2013 & 2014 & 2016, which is justified by the excellent work-life balance of its citizens and the existence of the semi-autonomous inner-city zone of Christiania, but the council has closed the hash stalls that once opened in Christiania and the country has a high suicide rate compared to other developed countries, not helped by the depressing weather and high tax rate, and many other problems.
This is the most ubiquitous of the things that Denmark is known for. Cycle lanes are everywhere, including in between the pavement and the bus so be careful when getting on the bus not to get run over by a cyclist! Cyclists are supposed to dismount at bus stops when there is thoroughfare, but Danish cyclists are very speedy and impatient.
What Denmark, or at least Copenhagen, should be famous for
While Sweden is known for the budget IKEA, Denmark is known for designer furniture, most famously Arne Jacobsen’s ‘shell’, ‘swan’, ‘egg’ and ‘pot’ chairs. Sit on some (non-originals) for free at the Radisson SAS Royal hotel.
Copenhagen’s Round Tower (Rundetårn) is the world’s oldest observatory and is unique for its sloping approach to the top, which has very few steps: people have cycled, rode on horseback, and even driven a car up the tower. Tycho Brahe was one of the last major astronomers who observed the sky with the naked-eye, and Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve’s triangulation survey helped map the exact size and shape of the planet.
The Jens Olsen World Clock (Jens Olsen Verdensur) displayed in a small side room in the Town Hall (Rådhus) might look like a lot of metal discs, but once you read the information boards and find out more about it you will be blown away by the craftsmanship. The main cog of the clock, which is one of the most precise mechanical clocks in the world, takes about 30,000 years to complete a single revolution: to put this in perspective, our species homo sapiens rose to dominance 30,000 years ago.
Copenhagen’s Strøget is the longest pedestrianised street in the world, and attracts shoppers of all budget sizes. However, it is not a ‘destination’ in Copenhagen on the same level as the overcrowded and traffic-heavy Oxford Street in London, which is aspiring to be more like Strøget.
Can you name the Queen and Prince Consort of Denmark? I rest my case. Though the Danish monarchy is not well known, it is the second oldest monarchy in Europe, and Christian IX is known as the ‘father-in-law’ of Europe, on par with Queen Victoria’s status as ‘grandmother’ of Europe. It can be compared to the British monarchy as Cambridge is compared to Oxford by students who have experienced both universities: namely more modern and egalitarian in day to day life, but hyper-traditional on certain occasions.
The monarch and her children live in the four palaces that comprise Amalienborg (Amalienborg Slot), which are large townhouses that flank the four sides of the square, and where the only indication of rank is the number of chimneys each building has. No gate separates the people from the buildings and the royal guard, though it would be unwise to get in the way of the changing of the guard. Groups rotate in two-hour shifts, and it is easier to see the Danish royal guard in Copenhagen than the British royal guard in London. Looking outside the window from Rosenborg (Rosenborg Slot), we saw them assembling in preparation to march to the other royal palaces of Amalienborg and Christiansborg, we saw them at Amalienborg twice, and we saw them march down the road to drum beats on the island of Slotsholmen (where Christiansborg is situated).
Not only are the homes of royalty plain compared to those in Britain, but the life of the monarch followed an ordinary course, in the sense that she is distinguished by her academic and professional qualifications as much as she is by her royal blood. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark is intellectual and creative: among other things she is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London and she illustrated the Danish edition of The Lord of the Rings under a pseudonym. She did not wear a crown at her coronation, as it is the modern royal custom for the crown to accompany the monarch only at his or her lying in state (castrum doloris).
However, there are rituals associated with royalty in Denmark which are extravagant in comparison with the Red Arrows flypast in Britain. In addition to opening Parliament (Folketinget) and delivering the New Year Address – comparable to the Christmas Speech in Britain – the Queen hosts an annual New Year’s Ball. There are also two sets of ceremonial dress for the royal guard: we saw the Danish royal guards dressed in dark blue with the Danish white cross, but on important days like the Queen’s birthday they dress in red. Also on the Queen’s birthday, the golden apples in the fountain of Charity in the city’s oldest square (Gammel torv) ‘jump’ atop the jets of water. Finally, at the castrum doloris and in the portait of Queen Margrethe II that hangs in the Hall of Giants in Christiansborg stand three life-size silver lions, guarding the monarch.
Where I Visited/Entered/Wandered
- Tivoli Gardens
- Town Hall
- Radisson SAS Royal Hotel
- The Little Mermaid and Kastellet
- Amalienborg Palace
- Christiansborg Palace
- Rosenborg Castle
- National Museum
- The Round Tower
- Fisketorvet Shopping Mall and the Bicycle Snake
- Black Diamond
- Christianshavn and Christiania
- Nyhavn and the museum in the House of Amber
- Nørrebro and Superkilen Park
Where I Stayed
Hotel Christian IV – though the rooms are small they are space-saving and smart, typical of Danish design, and this hotel is only slightly pricier than the budget Wake Up Copenhagen which one TripAdvisor reviewer said had rooms so small that they were like prison cells. You can relax over juices, hot drinks and complementary butter cookies and pastries 24/7 in the breakfast room and TV room, and on the top floor there is a small reading selection, the contributors of which are guests who have stayed and left their finished reading behind. The hotel is situated in a central but quiet location, next to the King’s Garden and Rosenborg. The breakfast spread is delicious, with fresh bread and pastries, cold cuts, cheese, salad, soft-boiled eggs cooked to perfection, and a bottle of Gammel Dansk (a botanical liquor similar to botanical cola, but tastes strongly alcoholic) for you to try, which helped me tick off an item on my ‘to eat’ list.
Where I Ate
Tivoli Gardens food stalls – overpriced but convenient theme park food, where you have to count the change you are given or be conned. There are cafés, food stores – in particular there’s a flødeboller one where you can see the chocolate-coated marshmallows being made, and an outdoor area where you can roast marshmallows over fires burning in large metal wok-like bowls – and restaurants too.
Peder Oxe – a cozy and higher-priced restaurant where you might bring a date. We ordered löjrom (a type of fish roe), lobster soup, and a platter of carpaccio and cream cheese from Funen. You can also opt into the salad bar, and the light at each table has a button you can press (so that it flickers) to get the attention of a passing waiter.
Café Petersborg – a large tavern-like restaurant on the ground floor of what used to be the Russian consulate, and the two co-existed and fed off each other (the Russians literally fed off the café). Back then it was popular with Russian sailors, and since then many famous figures have eaten here, including Hillary Clinton. We ordered smoked eel, frikadelle (meatballs), and herring, and left with a souvenir pen which contained a scroll telling of the restaurant’s history.
Restaurant Fridas – head here for unpretentious home-cooking, or so the local magazine advised. I ordered a hotpot with pork escalopes, mushrooms and sausages in a paprika sauce, and Mum ordered herring and apple cake (apfelkage). Just to warn you, the apple cake is not a cake: it is more like a trifle, consisting of breadcrumbs soaked in marsala, whipped cream, and apple compote. It was delicious, and I eyed the platters of pork chops and potatoes of the group sitting on the next few tables along with envy.
Heering – here you can order, as we did, a herring platter and try herring done in five ways: marinated, spiced, in a curry sauce, with a split egg yolk, and fried (my favourite). You can also pair it with schapps, which is recommended, and for craft alcohol lovers, this restaurant has a large and varied wine, beer and spirits list.