Copenhagen, Denmark, is a city with historical charm and a contemporary style that feels effortless. Copenhagen is an old merchants' town overlooking the entrance to the Baltic Sea; a socially progressive and tolerant city; a metropolis that manages to run efficiently yet feel relaxed; and a city with so many architectural treasures that it's known as the "City of Beautiful Spires." And given the Danes' highly tuned environmental awareness, Copenhagen can be enjoyed on foot or on a bicycle.
Copenhagen is a compact city. The old town is bordered on the west by Radhuspladsen (Town Hall Square), Tivoli Gardens and the Central Railroad Station; on the north by Orsteds Park and the Norreport Train Station; on the east by Kongens Have (Rosenborg Garden) and Kongens Nytorv; and on the south by Christianshavn.
Stroget, the lifeline stretching out from Radhuspladsen to Kongens Nytorv, is the main pedestrian shopping street. To the east of Kongens Nytorv is the old harbor area, called Nyhavn, with picturesque taverns, quaint restaurants and restored warehouses that now function as hotels lining an old canal. Beyond Nyhavn is Amalienborg Palace, home of Denmark's royal family. South of Copenhagen is the large island of Amager, once the kitchen garden of the city, where Dutch farmers taught Danes how to grow flowers and vegetables. It's now the site of Copenhagen Airport and the picturesque town of Dragor.
The old town is surrounded by four colorful residential neighborhoods. Vesterbro stretches southwest from Radhuspladsen along Vesterbrogade. Farther north along Gammel Kongevej is the independent municipality Frederiksberg, which is bordered on the north by the hip, student-filled neighborhood of Norrebro. Finally, Osterbro stretches east of the old town along Osterbrogade. Beyond these neighborhoods are Copenhagen's suburbs and most of its parks and recreational areas.
Founded in the 11th century as a fishing village in what was then a remote corner of Denmark, Copenhagen gradually became the country's uncontested political, economic and cultural center. Bishop Absalon was the first to recognize the importance of its location on the Baltic Sea. In the 12th century, the Viking warrior-cleric built the first fortress to defend the area against pirates and planned a compact city behind its ramparts. By the time of his death, the city was a vital military post and a thriving trade center.
In the 15th century, the city's position as Denmark's powerhouse was solidified when the royal family made its permanent home there and the University of Copenhagen was founded. During Christian IV's 60-year rule in the 17th century, the city began to acquire its current shape, with the construction of many spectacular buildings—some of which still stand, including the Round Tower built in 1642.
After a series of disasters—both natural (fires and the plague) and man-made (wars with Sweden)—Copenhagen emerged in the middle of the 19th century as a modern city. It also became the capital of Denmark, which ratified its first constitution in 1849. The city's busy harbor and rapid industrialization fueled growth outside the old city walls.
About the same time, Copenhagen's artisans began making a name for themselves with silver and porcelain. A distinctly Danish sense of style that fuses aesthetics and function reached its fullest expression in the 20th century. The clean, elegantly modern lines of Danish design have since captured the world's attention and have spread from home furnishings (Fritz Hansen) to electronics (Bang & Olufsen) to toys (Lego building blocks) to architectural and interior design.
This modern style is evident in projects around the city, such as the harbor-area development, the Oresund Fixed Link Bridge between Copenhagen and Malmo (Sweden), the Opera House and the high-tech metro. Yet Copenhagen retains a distinct old-world charm with its combination of attractive buildings, relaxing canals and busy streets.
If it weren't for the unstable weather, Copenhagen would be the perfect European capital. It has beautiful parks, a picturesque harbor area and canals through the old town. We prefer to stroll around town, allowing plenty of time to admire the architecture (both old and ultramodern) and to chat with people in shops and small restaurants.
Start out at the redbrick Radhus, or Town Hall, and its square. The Wonderful Copenhagen tourist office is just a block away, and almost every main sight of the city is within a 20-minute walk. To get oriented, first walk the Stroget (pronounced STROY-et), the pedestrian shopping street around which many restaurants and sights are clustered. Stroget ends on Kongens Nytorv (King's New Square), where the ancient harbor of Nyhavn, directly ahead, is a must-see. This is also where the canal tours begin.
Another way to get a view of the city is to climb the Round Tower (Rundetaarn), a 17th-century structure built by King Christian IV. The tower was the first stage of the Trinitatis complex, which was to include three important facilities for scholars of the 17th century: an astronomical observatory, a student church and a university library. Instead of stairs, a huge spiral walkway winds its way to the top of the tower—it was built that way to accommodate horses.
Tivoli Gardens, the grande dame of amusement parks, is far too much fun to miss. You have to pay to get in even if you are dining at one of its restaurants, but it is truly fascinating and children will love it. There are amusement rides, splendid gardens with flowers and exceptional lights, a feast of restaurants and an international concert series, with classical music in the beautifully renovated concert hall and rock music on the outdoor stage.
One of our favorite stops in the city is the 17th-century Rosenborg Palace, where the Danish crown jewels are kept. The castle is surrounded by a magnificent park that is perfect for strolling through on sunny days. There are plenty of other castles to explore in the surrounding area, the two most interesting being Frederiksborg Castle (near Hillerod) and Kronborg, Hamlet's Castle in Helsingor (Elsinore).
Copenhagen is a late-night city where jazz clubs, nightclubs, dance halls, discos and taverns proliferate. The usual boundaries between bars, cafes and clubs have begun to blur, and many quiet cafes turn into happening bars at night; even traditional taverns and restaurants sometimes double as trendy DJ bars.
There is no single distinct nightlife center. Most of the fashionable places in the old town concentrate around the area just north of Stroget near Kongens Nytorv, but there are also many interesting events and places in Norrebro and Vesterbro. Explore the area around Sankt Hans Torv on Norrebro and along Vesterbrogade and Istedgade on Vesterbro.
Most bars, taverns and pubs stay open at least until 2 am, and most clubs close at 5 or 6 am.
One of Denmark's culinary specialties is the "cold table" (kolde bord
) lunch: hot and cold fish dishes accompanied by ice-cold schnapps or aquavit, and then meat-laden, open-faced sandwiches (smorrebrod
) accompanied by beer and followed by all manner of cheeses and fruit.
A traditional Copenhagen dinner might feature meatballs (frikadeller), hamburger smothered in onions (hakkebof med log) or pork roast with red cabbage. Most dinners end with coffee or tea, sometimes complemented with pastries purveyed by konditori (a combination bakery, confectioner's shop and tearoom).
Danish cuisine as a whole has changed radically over the past 20 years, blending southern European influences with the richness of Denmark's natural produce, such as its excellent dairy products, its high-quality organic fruit and vegetables and, of course, the raw ingredients from its surrounding waters.
In addition, the restaurant culture has expanded since the second half of the 1990s. Dining out has become a usual treat for the average Dane. Several new and interesting restaurants seem to crop up each year, emphasizing either fine cuisine or a special atmosphere (and sometimes both). The city also boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in Scandinavia.
Locals don't often go out for breakfast, except for weekend brunches, usually served 9 am-1 pm. Lunch is usually between noon and 1 pm, and dinner is typically between 6 and 8 pm.
For a truly local dining experience, try one of the programs that arrange dinners in typical local homes with Danish families. This is a great chance to learn about Danish culture around the family dinner table. Contact Meet the Danes (http://www.meetthedanes.dk) and Dine with the Danes (http://www.dinewiththedanes.dk).
Expect to pay within these guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 150 DKK; $$ = 150 DKK-300 DKK; $$$ = 301 DKK-500 DKK; $$$$ = more than 500 DKK.
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