Scandinavia’s largest city, the Danish capital of Copenhagen, was for centuries called the King’s City. And indeed, the kings set their marks on place names and physical structures in “wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen” (as the song goes). Our weekend around the New Year was filled with royalty.
The capital has however for the last forty years been the Queen’s City. Since 1972 the Danes have had a queen, not a king as their sovereign. Curiously the kings before that would alternate between being named Christian and Frederik.
Copenhagen is situated on the island of Zealand close to Øresund, the narrow sound between Denmark and Sweden. The historical city centre has a number of natural and man-made canals, bays, harbours and lakes all adding to the sense of being on the waterfront almost everywhere you go.
My description below is what we experienced during a 3 nights stay in Copenhagen. We got around to see a lot, and also managed to sneak in some sleep and relaxation as well as a daytrip to Helsingør and Kronborg Castle (described in a separate entry). I have grouped what we saw under a set of headings, not necessarily in a chronological order, but more related to geographical district.
- Christianshavn and Christiania
- More castles and parks
- Kongens Nytorv
- Other sights
- Eating and sleeping in Copenhagen
- Further reading
Here is a map showing places mentioned in the article, and some more.
Right in the middle of central Copenhagen we visited Slotsholmen (The Castle Islet) where there have been castles all the way back to the 12th century. This “island of power” as it sometimes is called, is today dominated by the royal palace of Christiansborg Castle.
We visited the State Rooms of the Queen, where foreign dignitaries are received on state visits. They are well worth a visit – the rooms I mean. Christiansborg Castle also houses the Office of the Prime Minister, Folketinget (the Danish parliament) and the Supreme Court.
Elsewhere on Slotsholmen we took notice of the old Stock Exchange but did not visit it. Instead, after the walk inside Christiansborg and the royal stables with real (!) horses, we strolled through the lovely little Royal Library Garden.
Det Kongelige Bibliotek (The Royal Library) with its new highly acclaimed wing called Den Sorte Diamant (The Black Diamond) is a remarkable building to visit, even if books is not your favourite pastime. The library actually houses Europe’s largest collection of books, 4.5 million. The diamond looks great from the outside, on Slotsholmen right by the harbour, but do not miss the opportunity to have a look inside as well.
From near Slotsholmen we walked the bridge of Langebro across the sound to the area called Stadsgraven. This is a canal separating the district of Christianshavn from the rest of Amager Island to the east of Copenhagen. Without getting too detailed let me just state that the Stadsgraven makes for a fine scenic walk along a lake beneath old military bastions. We followed the path for a few hundred metres before climbing over the moat and into the canal streets of Christianshavn. It looked like a pleasant residential area.
The “freetown” of Christiania is found in this part of Copenhagen. It is often labelled a “freetown” in the respect that it proclaimed its independence from the rest of Denmark back in the days of hippies and flower-power. Squatters have occupied the area since 1971 after the military had moved out. They soon started to build a community on their own based on universal ideas of peace and love exercised by way of meditation, yoga and illegal substances. Over the years I would believe Christiania’s reputation has become more closely linked to drugs than to yoga.
Danish authorities have on a number of occasions tried to restrain the use and selling of drugs, but with little success. When we arrived in Pusher Street, as the main street is called, the signs were all over the place: “No photos” with explanations as to why. A few metres on two guys warming themselves over a burning barrel, looked at me and uttered those same words in what I realised to be a polite manner.
A few seconds later we fully acknowledged the cause of this warning. About ten tables had been set up on either side of Pusher Street, under rain-protective covers. Small and big chunks of cannabis were laid nicely out on the tables with price-tags on. Some of the chunks were quite large. Next to one of the tables I noticed a boy of around five years of age looking up on his dad asking a question. His father hushed him to be quiet as he was busy rolling himself a joint.
We walked around in the neighbourhood, as did visiting locals and tourists. Christiania looked quite run-down, even dead, and the Buddha figures outside some of the houses had undoubtedly seen better days. We noticed some people who looked more “local” than others, but even the hashish pushers seemed to be outsiders.
We left Christiania and, like I posted on Facebook a couple of hours later, went somewhere else to eat our Christmas cookies.
Copenhagen’s Latin Quarter is the historical area around the first University, where Latin was the primary language. It is one of the oldest parts of Copenhagen with a number of buildings constructed by the “architect king” Christian IV.
Here we found the cathedral – Vor Frue Kirke (Church of Our Lady) – rebuilt in 1829 primarily in a neoclassical manner. The altarpiece is a very fine, solemn sculpture by Bertel Thorvaldsen of a standing Christ placed on a golden background. A copy of it has the same position in St Petri Church in our home town of Stavanger, Norway. Admittedly we like “our” blue background better.
Rundetårn (Round Tower) was built by King Christian IV between 1637 and 1642 as amongst others an astronomical observatory. It is Europe’s oldest functioning observatory. From the top of this building in the Latin Quarter we had a great view of Copenhagen. The tower is 34.8 metres high and the view around it is quite unobstructed by other high buildings – Copenhagen does not have many of them. The most remarkable feature is perhaps the way up. There is a wide tunnel with a width and height enough to allow a horse and carriage to go up all the way. The tunnel is 209 metres long and circles its way up 7.5 times.
More castles and parks
The Queen’s residence is at Amalienborg Slot which we skipped this time. Instead we went to Rosenborg Slot, a lovely renaissance castle – at least from the outside. Initiated by Christian IV in 1606 it only functioned as a royal (summer) residence the first hundred years. The interior houses the crown jewels and the crown regalia but it was closed on our visit.
Kongens Have / Rosenborg Slotshave (The King’s Garden / Rosenborg Castle Garden) next to the palace is the oldest royal garden in Denmark. It has a wonderfully structured layout, relaxed atmosphere and large numbers of roses and perennials (not enjoyable around New Year of course) as well as sculptures (including a horse-eating lion with a very humanoid face).
Right outside Kongens Have we found Davids Samling (The David Collection). In the 20th century C.L David worked his way up in Danish businesses maintaining an avid interest in art. He built a collection of modern Danish paintings, continued with 17th to 19th century European furniture, porcelain and silverware; and ended up with a remarkable collection of Islamic art.
Although David’s former residencial building (and included neighbouring buildings as well) have been turned into one large museum for all these objects, it is the Islamic collection that is the best and most interesting. The exhibition area for the latter objects has been expanded and improved over the last few years. Museum exhibitions can be boring, this one was definitely not. It now ranks among the top attractions in Copenhagen – in our view.
Kongens Nytorv (King’s New Market Square) is a large square surrounded by a number of elegant 18th century villas, now housing banks, department stores and hotels. There was unfortunately an ongoing reconstruction of the square on our visit due to the expansion of Copenhagen’s metro system.
The Royal Theatre
Det Kongelige Teater (The Royal Theatre) is situated on this square. We had booked tickets for the New Year’s Eve Concert and had a wonderful time high up on the fifth tier. It is a magnificent building from the outside, and with an interior equally befitting its royal title. The concert was a perfect start of the New Year’s Eve and obviously a popular tradition among tourists and the Copenhagen bourgeousiealike. The concert made a stop after a few introductory numbers to air live on a huge screen the Queen’s New Year speech. Turning Denmark into a republic must be completely out of the question if one was to conduct a poll among the visitors this evening.
Magasin du Nord
Right next to the theatre we also managed to pay a visit to the distinguished Magasin du Nord. This elegant department store is set in a most wonderful building and was previously called the Hôtel du Nord. It used to have apartments – including one belonging to the famous Danish author Hans Cristian Andersen. Our visit was primarily aimed at buying some fine foods in the delicatessen department on the ground floor. I simply love those departments and fished out my camera to get a few shots.
Right then happened what leads me to advice all readers of this blog: Do never shop at that store. Ever. A heavy hand landed on my shoulder and as I turned in the direction of the owner I found myself staring into a face quite literally shouting out loud “No photos!” I was shocked but managed to mutter a “What?” only to receive several more shouts. As the employee continued to yell and talk about deleting the pictures on my camera, I managed to put the camera inside my bag and relieve myself of his hand. I was quite shocked by his rudeness and had a flashback to the hashish pushers of Christiania a few hours earlier that had been a lot more polite uttering the same “no photos” words.
I left the building promising myself never to return. Back home I wrote a letter of complaint to the Magasin du Nord but has not yet received a reply. So I will continue to warn everyone about this place completely devoid of any sense of politeness. Again: Do not shop in the department of fine foods in Magasin du Nord, Copenhagen.
It may be that this butcher (he actually was) had been picked up some years ago in Nyhavn. This one-time notorious harbour complete with prostitutes and drunken sailors is just a stone’s throw away from the Magasin du Nord, but has over the last few decades been polished and now appears as an attractive and extremely popular place to visit. We had been there before and decided not to linger with all the canal boat tourists.
Copenhagen has a lot of attractions well worthy several days of visit. This time we had planned to visit, but did not get enough time, the world-renowned Tivoli, and Glyptoteket.
Across the street from Tivoli’s main entrance we managed to get time for a drink in the iconic SAS Hotel from the 1960s. Arne Jacobsen’s architectural masterpiece continues to intrigue visitors and I would recommend others to have a look in the lobby and not least to try out those fascinating designer chairs called “Swan” and “Egg”.
The City Hall is also next to Tivoli, and is a very central attraction of Copenhagen. It is not much older than a hundred years old and was clearly inspired by the much older city hall in Siena, Italy.
We crossed the square in front of it (Rådhuspladsen) a couple of times and spent time here as the clocks chimed twelve times on New Year’s Eve. The fireworks went diagonally across the square, most of them went high up, a police helicopter was hovering above us even higher, and there were seemingly tens of thousands of spectators scattered around the square and the side streets. We were content with having a hotel within walking distance because the traffic jam was bad.
Eating in Copenhagen
It is always a pleasure to visit Denmark for the sake of good food and good service. This visit was no exception. I would like to mention five restaurants. (My reviews below have also been published on TripAdvisor and the links below are directed to that service.)
Peder Oxe is a traditional Copenhagen favourite amongst visitors and locals alike. It is very popular and in particular on our New Year’s Eve visit. We had done our homework and reserved a table. The atmosphere is very appealing, the waitresses (only young Scandinavian blondes) were attentive (although quite weary after a long day on the job) and the food was delicious. The appetizing lobster came with three different dip sauces and the deer with trufle sauce was incredibly tender and savoury. After a lovely dessert we could very satisfied leave into the night of Copenhagen to the sound and lights of fireworks starting to fill the air.
Kanal cafeen is the place for lunch in Copenhagen. Period. It was extremely popular and we were glad we had made reservations. The menu consists of a series of sandwiches, cold and warm, fish and meat, prepared in the most authentic Danish way you can imagine. From the outside the place looks quite obscure, with the entrance a step down into a basement with numerous rooms set in an almost maze-like structure. This place has something about it that you should not miss out visiting Copenhagen. You are bound to leave completely satisfied with everything.
And three more
Restaurant Les Trois Cochons had received good reviews but was in our opinion overrated. It was hot and damp inside, the waiters were not too attentive and the food was more wannabee exciting than truly gastronomic. There were a few exceptions when it came to the food. The dessert plate had several items including an absolutely delicious cardamom ice-cream, quite a surprise and befitting the season. The main course turbot fish was a disappointment.
We had a couple of meals at Café Obelix, breakfast and dinner. It is a relaxing, pleasant, low-key bar-café with quite tasty food. The service was good and the Christmas decorations were amazing.
Conditori La Glace is a fantastic pâtisserie and must be visited time and again. We only had one opportunity and enjoyed it fully. The tables were all taken but the proprietor gently found room for our weary legs and gave us the difficult task of picking the right cake. You can’t miss! The coffee was good, the service equally good and the cakes very tasty. If you find yourself unable to get hold of a table, do at least enjoy some window shopping. These people are artists. If I was to blame La Glace for something, it must be that they ought to enlarge someday. It is much too popular.
Our hotel in Copenhagen, First Hotel Vesterbro, was an alright, moderately priced hotel in an area with lots of other hotels. I would like to advice future guests against paying extra for their breakfast. It is alright, with all the basics, but completely overpriced. 145 Danish kroner is simply not worth it. In addition they had an organisation around the entrance to the breakfast room forcing guests to wait up to half an hour to get a table. There are plenty of better and cheaper breakfast places in this part of Copenhagen.
Spending three nights in Copenhagen we managed to see a lot, and even relax. In addition we went on a daytrip to Helsingør and the Kronborg Castle. Read about that trip in a separate blog entry.
Planning this trip we used a number of net resources but mostly our own experience. We brought along and used two slim guidebooks, pictured here. The one to the left seemed like the best and was the most recently updated. (We used the pictured Norwegian editions but they are available in English as well.)