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Having been woefully lacking in knowledge regarding Denmark (he said sheepishly), we were pleasantly surprised to learn that not only is it a fascinating and scenic destination, but that there were enough things to do in Copenhagen alone to fill an entire very long sightseeing day, not to mention a lot of fun facts about Copenhagen that made the day more interesting, and even then we had a few things left over for later. What is a “long sightseeing day” in our world, you ask? Well, try 8 hours. Straight.
Copenhagen is full of things to do for kids, is a great destinations for adults and, of course, is very popular with the package tour crowd. And 8 hours may not sound like much to those who routinely gorge on all the world has to offer from group breakfast at 7 am to mandatory lights-out at 9 pm, with a vast array of bus journeys squeezed in between. But for us, 8 hours of sightseeing is usually spread out over 4 to 5 days, minimum.
And considering that Copenhagen (the capital of Denmark, not the rich, refreshing chewing tobacco) has never really been at the top of our travel list – clearly because we simply didn’t know enough about it – the sheer number of interesting spots and great walks was a little astounding. However, even though Copenhagen is a notoriously expensive place and finding the best places to stay in Copenhagen can be a challenge, we were able to do most of these things for free, or at least fairly cheaply, in a very short period of time.
Of course, such low expectations beg the question – why Copenhagen? Well, Jeff and Katie and kids (from now on to be referred to with the more efficient plural, The AikDrews), good friends from Canada, had recently relocated there so, with us already rambling around Europe a touch aimlessly, a visit seemed like the obvious choice.
Plus, another friend from our last Camino, Liz, also lives there (Danish, born and bred). Casper and Aisling, from our first Camino, also live in Denmark, but several hours from the capital and, unfortunately, we weren’t able to coordinate a visit this time around (they’ve been added to the list of things and people to “check out next trip”).
As for the AikDrews, we now boast the proud distinction of being their first non-family guests abroad, which is a great honour, obviously, but also meant we were able to leech onto their parents’ leftover transit cards. Score. Plus, Jeff met us at the airport (just arrived from Barcelona) with a bag full of Carlsberg to drink on the train back to his place, something that almost never happens. Although I bet Raju in Nepal would come through with something similar if we asked nice.
Anyway, we spent a highly enjoyable 3 nights swaddled in the comfort of AikDrew hospitality, once again thankful to have friends around the world willing to put us up and put up with us. However, since they can be notoriously picky about who they displace their youngest son for, you may want to check out one of the many nice places available in Copenhagen on Booking.
We didn’t get a lot of sun, other than for about an hour during Max’s football game our last day but, on the bright side (metaphorically), the intermittent bouts of light rain were never severe enough to shut down our wanderings.
Now, onto business. Here are our two severely subjective lists:
12 Free Things to Do in Copenhagen
1. Big Churches, Big Squares
I’ll start with a basic European default. Yes, pretty much every half-decent European city, let alone capital, features a lot of impressive churches and some big, fancy plazas, usually with a cool fountain in the middle. Just because they are common doesn’t mean you want to miss them, however. Copenhagen has more than its share of these pleasant areas and some of the churches, in particular, are pretty unique and, occasionally, even a bit frightening.
2. Nyhavn (pronounced New-hown, I think)
This is definitely the most popular tourist area in Copenhagen – a sublime canal lined with brightly-coloured buildings, boats of every type and description, and about a dozen places to eat or drink your fill, from Thai to pizza to great vegan options. Throw in some nice bridges where you can pledge your undying love by leaving behind a cheap padlock and you’ve really got something to work with.
3. Serpentine Spire
Found sticking straight up out of the Church of our Saviour, this is one of many interesting spires poking up around the city but, as far as I know, the only one done up to closely resemble a snake.
4. Little Mermaid Statue
Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, this statue is over a century old, quite small and underwhelming, and incredibly popular. In fact, while the actual statue is barely worthy of the small detour required, the chaotic bustle of tourists jockeying for photos, close-ups and group shots is sort of worth your time, too, in a weird sort of way. Although, I guess if you happen to be a huge fan of the story itself you may find it more fascinating and, well, this is a great opportunity to see her totally topless, so there’s that, too.
5. Sankt Jorgens So
Google Translate tells me this means “St. George Lake”, so I’m not sure why they don’t just say that. Those crazy Danish. Anyway, this is a nice lake for a stroll and features an observatory at one end.
This “alternative” neighbourhood is a former (Current? I’m really not clear on all the details) hippie commune where otherwise illegal drugs are seemingly tolerated. Apparently, the drug history is long and complicated, but there are still lots of places to buy strange drug paraphernalia and overpriced drinks, and the ramshackle buildings are wildly decorated with a wide variety of graffiti, from obscurely political to cleverly amusing to idiotically vulgar, which I suppose is pretty much just graffiti in a nutshell.
One of the best was a creatively painted public urinal that makes it look like your head is on a cartoon body while you are urinating just behind. This seemed quite confusing for the Japanese couple I locked eyes with (for way too long) while relieving myself, especially since neither Jeff or Laynni accepted my request for a photo to be taken, making it seem as though I was simply standing behind this obvious photo structure by myself waiting for someone to come along and find me intriguing enough to capture digitally, which the intensely relieved look on my face was doing nothing to clarify.
7. Bispegjerg Cemetery
This massive, varied and extraordinarily picturesque cemetery is a pleasant place to while away a warm, fall afternoon and, although I can’t speak from experience, seems like it would be a pretty kickass place to be buried.
8. Palads Teatret
I have no idea what kind of shows or movies you can see here but the building is painted in some crazy art-deco colours, making it one of the most popular Instagram spots in the city (behind just Nyhavn and high-resolution close-ups of the Little Mermaid’s nipples).
9. Superkilen Park
Yes, there are some nice green spaces and a long line of tables for playing chess (or arm-wrestling, depending on where your strengths lie). But the real draw is the set of somewhat inexplicable lines painted on the pavement, sometimes in straight lines, sometimes bafflingly crooked. Get creative and capture some cool photos, or use them as lanes for hamster racing, whichever you prefer.
Visitors to this covered food market can load up on fruit, veggies, actual meals and, presumably, fish, because there are fish everywhere in Copenhagen, so why would the food market be any different?
11. “Winding Street with Cool Colours”
Obviously, this isn’t the official street name, although it’s hard to say for sure since I can no more read or even pronounce most Danish street names than I can interpret directions from a Scottish road worker. But the description tells you all you really need to know, except for maybe the real names so you can find it on your map (Snaregade Gammel Strand between Knabrostraede and Nytorv, trying saying that three times quickly, then asking someone how to find it).
12. Changing of the Palace Guard
Actually, I don’t know if they were really changing or just wandering around lost and aimless, but they just kept popping up everywhere you turned like a restless colony of moles. I think most of it revolved around cigarette breaks, though.
6 Cheap Things to Do in Copenhagen
The scenic public ferry ride across to this slightly off-the-beaten-path neighbourhood is cheap and worth the journey itself, but the sometimes bizarre graffiti and cool and kitschy cluster of food stalls offering everything from Danish hot dogs to Mexican to kebabs or fish and chips also make it a terrific place to recharge for the rest of the day’s exertions. We eventually fought through the paralyzing indecision of excessive choice to choose our lunches and eat them in the sheltered, fireplace-warmth of the popular beer garden. We may have had a beer or two, as well, full disclosure.
2. Rundetarn (Round Tower)
This is, in fact, a very round tower. Well worth 25 kr (roughly 3 euro), I’d say. Other unique features include – but are not limited to – an extremely gradual circular walkway that leads visitors to the top rather than the standard “steep, narrow tower stairs”, a series of stamps to fill out a round tower passport (which I don’t really understand, but it comes with your entrance fee), a fascinatingly eclectic art gallery and a small collection of seemingly random books including what appears to be the Danish version of the popular children’s book, Curious George.
Except, in Denmark, for some reason, his name is Peter Pedal and, apparently, we aren’t completely sure if he’s curious or not (“Are You Curious, Peter Pedal?”).
3. The New Metro Line
This probably won’t qualify as a genuine attraction for long, but the city has been working on these 2 new metro lines (literally doubling their metro coverage) for decades now, and they just happened to be going into circulation mere days after our visit. Which meant we missed out on the now passed grand opening, but that didn’t stop Aikman from pointing them out on every futuristic new metro map and walking us through each fairly standard-looking construction site like they were the next coming of the Roman Colosseum, or maybe an elegant new skate park.
Apparently, the entire AikDrew clan has been losing sleep in anticipation – I like to imagine them wildly buzzing around the city as we speak, revelling in the joy of new possibilities and the boundless excitement of travelling in a concentric circle.
4. Street Drinking
Yeah, much like more well-known havens of alcoholism and debauchery – Las Vegas, New Orleans, Nashville, the Vatican – it is legal to imbibe in public in Copenhagen. Something which you would assume loses its lustre eventually when it is on option your entire life, although tell that to the group of shirtless Danish men soaking up the rare sun and pounding Carlsbergs at their kids’ 10 am football game.
As you’d expect, beer in the corner stores are much cheaper than those in bars, and even after almost 6 months in Copenhagen Aikman still finds the public drinking unquestionably thrilling. Of course, he also got no end of amusement from the fact that Denmark was our 69th country, so maybe his sense of humour isn’t the best example.
5. Ride a Bike
Copenhagen bike culture is something to behold, as popular and widespread as anywhere we’ve seen. Everybody bikes – from the youngest child to oldest and grumpiest fisherman – and the city is brimming with clearly-marked bike lanes, which is probably why they don’t seem to suffer from the same traffic congestion and air pollution as many big cities.
I can’t say we ever completely mastered their very specific rules of the road and biking etiquette, although we just mostly followed what appears to be the gist of it. Bikes go wherever they want, whenever they want – cars, pedestrians and inattentive pigeons be damned.
Also, it might not be the best idea to combine #4 and #5, but it’s probably okay as long as you tighten up your helmet as far as it will go. There are many bike rental shops and inexpensive public bike rental stations which allow you to take a bike from anywhere you happen to be once you have an account set up.
6. Meet Liz and David for Dinner and Drinks
This one may be a little bit specific for some, and they are heading off to Sicily soon so it might be hard to coordinate your schedules, but if you can, they are a very nice couple. I’m sure you’ll like them.
While this is a quite famous and, apparently, exhilarating amusement park slash recreation and relaxation area. It has been around since 1843 and was supposedly the inspiration for Disneyland. But we didn’t go there and, as it is relatively expensive, didn’t really fit in with the rest of this list. But, by all means, check it out, if that’s your thing.
How to Get Around Copenhagen
They have a very extensive and efficient public transport system allowing you to purchase a single ticket covering your whole journey, even if it includes multiple modes of transport (train, bus, metro, ferry). The tickets can be purchased in stations, stores, or you can get a refillable card that can be tapped on (check ind) and off (check ud) on every trip.
On the other hand, if you want full freedom to explore the city on your own timeline, renting a car in Copenhagen is easy and relatively inexpensive (as much as anything in Copenhagen is inexpensive).
Eating in Copenhagen
We don’t always eat out in Copenhagen, but when we do, it is generally pretty expensive. The Danish love their hot dogs and you can usually find pretty cheap street dogs around town. The food stalls in Refshaleoen were also fairly reasonable – in the 50-100 kr range (7-15 euro) – and one night we picked up some Thai food from Wannisa Thai Take Away. Besides being both excellent and affordable, it proved its hardiness by surviving a violent tumble all the way down the aisle of the hard-braking bus.
Simplifying things, nearly everything in Denmark proudly includes “Danish” in its name, as in, Danish Cheese, Danish Bread, Danish Fiber (to offset all that Danish Cheese and Bread).
On Aikman’s recommendation, we easily managed to go entirely cashless throughout our stay in Denmark. To this day we have never seen a Danish bill in person (not even the AikDrews had any), although Liz did send us on our way with a single kroner that she found in her pocket, like any good Danish host.